Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Service: The Magic Bus

 

Sometimes just surviving customer service is sufficient . . .

It was September 1978 and my then-girlfriend (and now wife of 39 years) and I were trying to find the cheapest way back to Paris from Athens.

In 1976 my girlfriend moved to Paris to work as an au pair and learn French, attending the Institute Catholique. I was able to take some time from working and visit her in 1977 and then, in May 1978, quit my job and went to Europe to join her in a tiny garrett room with a communal (and primitive) toilet down the hall. While she was working I’d wander around Paris (loving the city and getting annoyed at its inhabitants). Her employer gave her several weeks off and we traveled round Europe making our way eventually to Italy (often camping, sometimes staying in hostels, and occasionally finding a cheap hotel). From Florence we caught a train down the Adriatic coast to Brindisi where, upon disembarking, we were welcomed by heavily armed Italian soldiers who escorted us as we walked the mile or so to the city’s port to catch the ferry to Patras in Greece (this was at the height of the Red Brigades terror campaign which probably explains our escort – I don’t think we were suspects).

Not being able to afford a cabin we slept on the deck during the overnight trip, waking up early in the morning to see Corfu gliding by. Taking a train from Patras to Athens we stayed for about ten days (most of it with an old high school classmate of mine who was teaching at the American School), though before we found him we spent one night sleeping on a mattress on a fire escape at a crowded hostel. We hiked up the Acropolis at dawn where my girlfriend took this picture; back then there were no barriers and access was easy.

By late September, she needed to get back to her job in Paris and I needed to get back to the States and get a job as we were both almost out of funds. That’s when we selected our cheapest option – the Magic Bus (for the historic origin of the name, see this), which offered a 40-hour ride to Paris for about $48 in US currency. You can see below a flyer for the bus which I rediscovered when we were moving two years ago. This gives the route from London to Athens while we were taking it the other way but it gives you a flavor of the comforts of our journey.

It took a bit of effort to find the offices of the Magic Bus. I came across this recollection from someone who rode the bus in 1975 and it matches up well with our memory:

You had to find a certain doorway in a side street off Syntagma Square, climb four flights of rickety stairs to a scruffy office where 1,700 drachmas changed hands. Your name was laboriously and inaccurately added to a passenger list and you were handed a scrap of paper which purported to be a ticket.

These were older non-air conditioned buses without restrooms. We would stop about every eight hours for a quick food (though most of us brought food since we couldn’t afford the highway cafeterias) and bathroom break (many of the male riders brought empty bottles and cans aboard to serve as relief containers, if you know what I mean). To save time, the two Greek bus drivers would switch off while the bus was moving. Most of the other riders were even scruffier than we but fortunately the bus was only about half full.

Leaving Athens, we drove north through the mountains reaching the Yugoslav border in the darkness where, since these were the Cold War days, we had a lengthy stop. Jackbooted border guards bordered the bus and went down the aisles demanding passports be shown, taking ours and those of the other couple of Americans on board. We sat for quite a while before they came back, returned the passports, and cleared the bus to continue.

(Magic Bus with typical passengers (not us!))

Image result for Magic Bus from athens to london

Most of the rest of our journey passed in an increasingly foggy blur as we became exhausted and enervated from hours of sitting. Initially, our seats were in the middle of the bus but the two obnoxious guys behind us who never stopped talking prompted us to get seats closer to the front, which allowed us a close view of the most memorable moment of the journey.

It was on a highway in France, somewhere between Lyon and Paris. A loud argument erupted between the two drivers – did I already mention they always switched while the bus was moving to save time? – what it was about we didn’t know since it was all in Greek. Things got more heated and finally the driver stood up to argue with the other guy – leaving no one at the wheel as we careened down the highway We all started frantically yelling prompting the driver to return to his seat so we survived to write this in 2019. The entire incident must have lasted only a few seconds but it seemed like minutes to us and we can still remember the moment we realized no one was in the driver’s seat.

But we can’t complain. We got back to Paris on time, on budget, and well served. As Pete Townshend wrote, “thank you driver[s] for getting us here.”

Published in History
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There are 10 comments.

  1. The Reticulator Member

    “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor animated argument stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

    • #1
    • November 16, 2019, at 7:04 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  2. Randy Webster Member

    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo…: the Magic Bus (for historic origin of name see this)

    I was going to link that if you hadn’t.

    • #2
    • November 16, 2019, at 8:07 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  3. Arahant Member

    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo…: A loud argument erupted between the two drivers – did I already mention they always switched while the bus was moving to save time? – what it was about we didn’t know since it was all in Greek. Things got more heated and finally the driver stood up to argue with the other guy – leaving no one at the wheel as we careened down the highway!

    I can picture it.

    • #3
    • November 16, 2019, at 8:58 AM PST
    • 1 like
  4. Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo…: A loud argument erupted between the two drivers – did I already mention they always switched while the bus was moving to save time? – what it was about we didn’t know since it was all in Greek. Things got more heated and finally the driver stood up to argue with the other guy – leaving no one at the wheel as we careened down the highway!

    I can picture it.

    A Peace Corps guy I knew told a similar story about an Uganda Airlines flight. The pilot left the cockpit, the co-pilot followed him out, and the door closed and locked behind Him. They had to use a fire ax to breakdown the cockpit door. 

    • #4
    • November 16, 2019, at 9:54 AM PST
    • 9 likes
  5. The Reticulator Member

    Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler (View Comment):
    A Peace Corps guy I knew told a similar story about an Uganda Airlines flight. The pilot left the cockpit, the co-pilot followed him out, and the door closed and locked behind Him. They had to use a fire ax to breakdown the cockpit door. 

    Airline motto: “Kampala or Bust!”

    • #5
    • November 16, 2019, at 9:57 AM PST
    • 1 like
  6. Jon1979 Lincoln

    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo…: Things got more heated and finally the driver stood up to argue with the other guy – leaving no one at the wheel as we careened down the highway We all started frantically yelling prompting the driver to return to his seat so we survived to write this in 2019. The entire incident must have lasted only a few seconds but it seemed like minutes to us and we can still remember the moment we realized no one was in the driver’s seat.

    Hopefully they found two different buses for the drivers on the trip back to Athens (or in contrast, this could have been a normal occurrence by them on their trips back and forth between London and Athens).

    • #6
    • November 16, 2019, at 5:35 PM PST
    • Like
  7. Susan Quinn Contributor

    Ah yes, bus rides. When we were in Nepal, we had a few terrifying moments of passing a bus coming toward us on a ONE-LANE road. We could almost reach out to the passengers on the other bus. And of course, we tried not to look through the windows on the other side, since we would have looked down the mountain side. But the Nepalese all took it in stride. And we did make it home to talk about it!

    • #7
    • November 17, 2019, at 8:52 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  8. CarolJoy, Above Top Secret Coolidge

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Ah yes, bus rides. When we were in Nepal, we had a few terrifying moments of passing a bus coming toward us on a ONE-LANE road. We could almost reach out to the passengers on the other bus. And of course, we tried not to look through the windows on the other side, since we would have looked down the mountain side. But the Nepalese all took it in stride. And we did make it home to talk about it!

    Surviving that trip is no small miracle. I glad you did!

    I bet that locals in Nepal call that route something like “Highway of Death.” While tourists might be told about how it’s the scenic route.

    • #8
    • November 17, 2019, at 1:52 PM PST
    • 1 like
  9. Clifford A. Brown Contributor

    Groovy!

    This is part of our November series on the theme: “Service.” Thanks to all who signed up, filling all the days without excessive nagging.

    Not on the roster? Feel free to roll out a bonus post!

    • #9
    • November 17, 2019, at 3:21 PM PST
    • Like
  10. Franco Member

    Well, you and I have something of a similar experience.
    In 1979, I flew from Cairo to Athens and took a bus ( not magic) to Milan. Up through then Yugoslavia (depressing place) .I was on my way to Switzerland to audition for a small theatre school. On the way back to Cairo I took the train from Milan to Brindisi, then the ferry to Greece and ( I forget) a train or bus to Athens to fly back to my temporary home in Cairo.

    So we did both legs of that journey around the same time. I bet we would have been buddies. Thanks for the story!

    • #10
    • November 18, 2019, at 5:42 AM PST
    • 6 likes