On a Hammam Experience and Taking the Long Way Home

Leaving Loutro, and with it the calming swim-eat-sleep-repeat experience was bittersweet, as the endings of most wonderful long-awaited trips are. We start to turn our heads toward home, even though our feet are still on foreign soil. It’s not all bad, knowing you are returning to the familiar, to the loved ones. Yet the lingering thought remains; will I ever be in this place again?

I can only say, I hope I do.

After a quick ferry ride, three of my friends and I took a hired car back to Chania. I had planned a Cretan cooking experience, but just as I was leaving to meet up with the driver, it was cancelled. Ah well. I was not unhappy at the prospect of a couple of days on my own back in Chania.

Here is the stunning room in the old town of Chania that I got to stay in. The Boutique Hotel de Doge is housed in a 15th century restored Venetian villa. Yeah. Here is the street it is on. No, really. There were a lot of stairs to get to this room too, and one more time, I didn’t mind a bit. I grabbed some street food for dinner at a place near the bus station, where they cook your food right there in front of you on the grill. This chicken sandwich was absolutely delicious.

I mentioned last week that I swam in the Aegean as well as in the Mediterranean on this trip. I accomplished that early the next morning, having sussed out the journey (maybe fifteen minutes of walking) from the hotel. The way carved its way past narrow streets, even more ruins, and some cool graffiti then onto sandy Nea Chora beach. There were only a few other early swimmers. I felt pretty comfortable just leaving my things on the shore and popping in for a mile or so. The water was a bit cooler than the other side, and there was more chop, but checking off a thing I’d wanted to do for a long time made it all a delight.

Afterwards, I treated myself to a fancy breakfast at the Venetian harbor. I ordered in Greek and for the first and only time I didn’t get corrected, and I got everything I’d asked for. Score! I did my shopping for gifts in the busy old section and explored a few more ruins. As always, there were cats everywhere. They own the place. In one store, I got into a lovely conversation in half-Greek, half-English, and got directions to the new Archaeological Museum of Crete. She said it was a beautiful walk, maybe a mile or so, and gave me the directions. In Greek. I know I’ve been harping on being able to speak a little bit… and read most of the signs. I am going to put a plug in for Duolingo, the free version for giving me this bit of courage. It took me nearly two years, and turns out my accent was atrocious, but it made a big difference to me, especially when I was on my own, that I could communicate and find my way. And that I got my 61-year-old brain to learn a few new things.

Then it was time for my Hammam experience, which is a Turkish steam/bath/massage. I had booked it on a bit of a whim, lured by the fact I’d never experienced one, and this particular place was located in the same bathhouse that’s been there since the town has been there, so you know 600 or so years. They gave me a big cotton towel and non-skid slippers, and throwaway undies to change into. I spent a half hour in the marble-encased steam room (they had cold water to drink). Then my person came and got me. The bathing/massage part took place on a marble slab. There were two of these slabs in the room. It was connected to the steam room as well, so everything happened in a sort of dream-like water vapor arena of swirling white and heat. The process made me feel like a queen, which I didn’t see coming. I’m not one to go for “pampering,” ever, but this felt different from merely being indulgent. I’d frankly expected having someone bathe me as awkward, and perhaps slightly icky. Instead, it gave me a sense of power. The environment made me feel connected through the ages to all of those who’d stepped foot in this ancient place. One olive oil soap-warm, silky water lathed over me-olive oil massage-hair wash later, I emerged as clean as I’ve ever been, and utterly relaxed. I’d do it again and recommend it to anyone.

My friends from the trip were staying at the same hotel as I was but leaving early the next day. We had a final delicious meal together, which sported the best stuffed spinach leaves I’ve ever eaten, as well as stuffed artichoke flowers. There are no pictures. I ate them all before I remembered to take any. We wandered a bit and found this store that was built over the top of a church. Those are the (empty!) burial chambers from the catacombs beneath the store. We took a bit of a stroll at night. One of my pals took the pic of Chania at night that heads up today’s blog. Those buildings on the left have stood there for over 800 years.

The next day, I woke early, packed, and left my bag at the hotel with a note that I’d be back for it. Then stepped out in faith for the museum. I loved the walk that took me to a whole new section of Chania, and eventually to the museum, which I had to myself, as I got there right when it opened. So many brand new, thoughtful exhibits. Do you remember I told you the enterprising Minoans repurposed their bathtubs to be their sarcophagus? Here is an example of that. And here is a bowl with one of the earliest examples of Linear A writing — so cool! I had a perfect museum brunch on the patio that overlooked the Aegean. Then I stepped over the museum cat who had been laying in the entrance when I walked in. She was still there in the same spot when I came back out three hours later. I walked back to the old town, had a lemon gelato, and decided 18,000 steps in one morning and afternoon were enough, and that as much as I loved it, it was time to say goodbye to Chania and Crete.

I collected my bag and caught the bus to the airport. I was way too early, but I had just… had enough, you know that feeling? I’d seen everything I wanted to see, and anything else seemed too much. So I killed 6 hours in Chania airport. Lucky for me I struck up a conversation with the woman running the ticket counter, as there was a bit of an issue with my ticket as I tried to board – I was flying into Helsinki for a connection, but it was technically on the next day, so didn’t have the connecting boarding pass.

That meant the screen flashed RED when I scanned my pass, and (since I can read Greek) I could see the screen said DO NOT ALLOW THIS PERSON TO BOARD THE AIRCRAFT. Behind me, the other people in line shifted and grumbled. The men guarding the gate put their hands on their guns and SCRUTINIZED me.

Here is where some travelling mercy kicked in. While my stress level at that moment shot up to 110%, I called on every ounce of self-possession I had. Instead of pouting, yelling, or posturing, I smiled nicely at the woman who’d I’d been in conversation with, and trusted she’d fix it.

She said “Och ochi,” and started typing furiously. That means “Oh no.” I continued to smile, stepping to the side so the grumbly passengers behind me could go around. Yes, part of me wanted to just push past her, dash onto the tarmac and up the stairs of the waiting plane. Instead, I trusted.

She fixed it. The screen went from red to its normal grey. “You’ll need to talk to a person before you get to the gate in Helsinki,” she told me. I thanked her profusely, and moved on, just as if my heart rate wasn’t the highest it had been in years.

The plane was full of very tall people, who all had puffy jackets with them. I had my window seat, per usual. The sun had gone down, so we flew over pitch black for the most part. Every once in a while there were cities, the golden and white lights looking like the lit veins and arteries of a living thing. Finally, we landed in Helsinki at 12.30 at night. It was just over freezing, and I understood why they all had those puffy jackets.

I only had my sweater and a scarf. That airport was cold, compared to the temps I’d gotten used to on Crete. I’d known this part was coming though. My twelve-hour layover in the Helsinki airport. I did my best to get comfortable. The whole place is like Ikea, all blonde wood and chrome, just with planes outside. Yes, they had Christmas trees up. Maybe it is Christmas there all the time. Finally, at 4am the coffee shops opened. At eight, I talked to a very stern gate agent about my ticket issue. She also typed for a very long time before she could hand me a boarding pass. I smiled nicely at her too. I got through the passport check with no issues, then it was time to go to the lounge I’d paid an upgrade to get.

It was a great decision. As nice as Helsinki airport is, it was nicer in the private lounge, where it’s quiet and there’s free food and coffee and a place to put your feet up. I dozed here until it was time for me to make the next long-haul, 14 hours to DFW.

I got lucky and had an empty seat in the middle, and a very nice flight companion. I had opted for the dairy-free meal, and it was delicious. I’d travel Finnair again anytime. Two movies, a lot of pages of a book read, and a short nap later, I landed. It took a long time to get through customs at DFW, as about five planes came in at the same time, but finally I got through. My wonderful husband was there to meet me. I think I finally got to bed about 38 hours after I’d last slept, but my heart and soul were full, my skin tan, my muscles exercised, and my mind brimming with more new stories to tell. I truly am a #luckygal.

On George Mason and Traveling Mercies

In my last entry I made a grave error. In talking about visiting the monument to the “forgotten patriot” George Mason I forgot what his name was mangled his name, and called him James Madison. Madison was of course the 4th President of the USA. Yes, I had to look that up.

In penance for my transgression, here is a brief overview: Mason was a Virginia landowner of vast estates who had a hot temper and loved wine. He was the father of nine living children, and one of the oldest politicians at the Continental Congress. The main reason he was “forgotten” is because he’s one of three men at the Continental Congress to refuse to sign the Constitution. He felt it didn’t go far enough, and wanted an end to slavery right away. His work on amending the constitution eventually became the basis of our current Bill of Rights. He completely pissed off his once good friend and neighbor George Washington because of his refusal to sign, and both men were pig-headed enough to never reconcile. His writing on individual human rights also greatly influenced Lafayette’s “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” early in the French Revolution – in fact, the resemblance is so close, you could call plagiarism and not be off the mark. There’s a bas-relief of Mason in the chamber of the US House of Representatives. It’s located above and to the right of the speaker’s chair; he and Jefferson are the only Americans recognized there, in company with great lawmakers across the ages.

So, mea culpa, Mr. George Mason. You do have one of those names though… just saying.

Now as promised in my last blog, on to our misadventures with VRBO and Airbnb. Disclaimer: Prior to this trip, I’ve never had issues with either.

Here’s what happened:

Our first DC rental through VRBO was a gorgeous brownstone off Logan Circle. Great location, three stories, built in 1879, renovated with style. Plenty of room for the six of us, and a claw-foot bathtub. I’d booked it as soon as we found out the cancelled 2020 GWU graduation might happen in May of 2021. So I reserved it 10 months ahead of time. Paid the deposit. All good.

Then came May of 2021, 15 days out from our arrival. We paid the balance due. All good. I communicated with the host via email to check and see if there was a blender on the property. Got a nice reply of “well if there isn’t one, we’ll get you one.” Wonderful!

Then.

SIX DAYS before we were to arrive, (and all six of us had our plane tickets of course), BING my phone indicates an email has arrived. I look at it, look at it again, and burst into hysterics. Why? Because the HOST HAD PULLED THE UNIT FROM THE RENTAL PROGRAM.

Yep. I didn’t know they could do that either if all your money was paid. I checked. Oh, yes they can. VRBO returned our money, and even suggested (bad suggestions) two places we could squeeze the six of us into. But we were in trouble. Even though at this point GWU had postponed their in-person graduation again, lots of other colleges with thousands of kids graduating in the DC area hadn’t. And the Smithsonian museums picked that weekend to start reopening. There weren’t a lot of places for six people to stay on such short notice.

Our son found one, however, which leads me to my next horror story, this one about Airbnb, specifically a company who uses the platform, called Namastay.  I recommend you Namastay away. They own lots of apartments. Don’t use them.

Here’s why: They don’t care about you.

Granted, we had to book quickly, or we would’ve seen the 1-star reviews buried in the comments.

This particular Airbnb was in an apartment building in a changing area, quite close to Union Station in DC. It had a handy Walmart at the base of the building. I know that sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it actually was handy having the Walmart downstairs.

This recently renovated apartment building had a fob to get in the door and make the elevator work. Room keys were electronic. We’d noticed in the comments that Namastay only provided one key and one fob to their unit, no matter that it accommodated six people, who might presumably have different schedules. We were kind of hoping this might’ve changed. No. Oh no. It was worse.

My husband and I arrived in the lobby at 4pm. We said hello to the very lovely front desk receptionist, and let her know we were checking into room 102.

“Oh, that’s Namastay,” she said. “We have so much trouble with them.” If our lives had a handy soundtrack, the music would have gotten scary and dark at this point.

She goes and checks the key/fob situation, as Namastay told us those would be located at the front desk. The receptionist comes back and tells us, “There’s no keys here for that unit.”

Two hours later, pacing the lobby, on the phone with Namastay, who first claim ‘there are a keys, the receptionist hasn’t looked hard enough.’ Then the story changes to ‘the cleaners must have taken it with them,’ and no, they can’t get a hold of them, it’s after 5pm now, and they’re shutting their office. Then the story changes that ‘maybe the cleaners left them in the apartment.’ So the receptionist has to go upstairs and look. No keys.

At this point I’ve pulled up “hotels near me” to see if we can squeeze in somewhere. Not having a lot of luck, as it’s graduation weekend in DC, which of course I KNOW, and why I’d booked our original lodging TEN MONTHS AHEAD OF TIME.

Namastay stops communicating altogether, since you know, they don’t care if we can get into the unit or not. Namastay’s offices are in Memphis, and its drinks time there. The receptionist is about to go off duty. Now there are four of us loitering in the lobby with our suitcases, unsure of what we will do next.

Here’s the good part of this story. The receptionist says, “You know what, DC is my town, and we don’t treat people like this. Hold on.”

She goes in back, has a conversation with the owner of the apartment building, who agrees with her that it’s just rotten that Namastay is doing nothing to help. She comes back with two brown-paper wrapped key cards. “These are what our maintenance men use. We’re going to trust you with them until the Airbnb people can straighten this out.”

So there it is. We ended up having a great time in DC on this trip. We experienced travelling mercies in the form of a kind, thoughtful, vacation-saving receptionist. But now you know why we will be hard pressed to ever chance VRBO or Airbnb again. I bet if George Mason had been around, he would’ve given them each a sound tongue-thrashing and a thump of his cane.