My SymiWillPassport to Symi 29/05/2009, 06:30

A Passport to Symi

Before I sat down to write this blog, I tried to work out the number of return journeys between Symi and the UK that I made between the start of 2006 and the end of 2008. In that three year period, it seems, I made that journey over 30 times...I can't be more precise than that...but I do know that I've been here at least one day of every month since December 2005. My carbon footprint is no doubt very large.

In November last year, I finally felt ready to be able to take the big step that I knew I would make one day; to give up my UK home and spend most of my time in Greece. It wasn't really that difficult a decision to make but what, though, was I to do with my cats? I'd had them for over 14 years and didn't want to leave them behind. The obvious answer was that they had to come to live in Symi too.

This blog is their story and it will start, after the necessary introductions, as any journey from the UK does, with getting a passport, but first, those introductions...please stand up and put your hands together for the dramatis personae, the would-be ex-pat cats: Jim & Jess!

First up is big handsome Jimbob...the cat with the silkiest fur in the whole World...ever...

...and then there's his twin sister Jess, fluffy, cuddly and squeaky. She purrs louder than any other cat and likes nothing better than walking over the computer keyboard as I type.

Christos and I decided that we wanted them on Symi for Christmas, and in the two months we had to prepare we looked into what we needed to do. Website searches were not as helpful as they could have been and asking Google to search for "taking pets to Greece" came up with all manner of conflicting, and often out of date, information. The UK government's own pages on the subject at DEFRA, weren't too helpful either. At last we found one site that seemed comprehensive and well-written. To take cats to Greece from the UK, it said that we needed a Pet Passport, the correct type of cat basket to go on the plane, and a letter from a vet saying they were fit to fly. For the Pet Passport, the cats needed to be micro-chipped and vaccinated against rabies. When these were done, the website said, the cats would be ready to fly.

I had the cats micro-chipped back in 1994, so the only pressing issue seemed to be the rabies jab. Given that their annual booster jabs were due in the first week of December, we decided we could wait until then.

December arrived and off went Jim and Jess to the vet. There, they had their booster injections and the rabies injection too. The vet then examined both cats and, to our surprise, told us that something was amiss. Both of them had lost weight, both had heart murmurs, and both had a palpable thyroid gland in their necks. Blood samples were taken, but the diagnosis already seemed clear: Hyperthyroidism. Both of them being diagnosed at the same time appears to be no more than a coincidence.

Hyperthyroidism is quite common in older cats, apparently, but the vet said that before they could fly the condition should be brought under control. We had to wait a week before the results of the blood test came through confirming that the vet had been correct, and we were given pills that the cats would need to take every day. After a month, further blood tests would be needed to make sure that the medication was working. Only then would the vet pass them fit to fly.

Jim and Jess's Symi Christmas was not to be. In any case, the vet told us, the cats were not allowed to be given a passport until a month after the rabies vaccination, so we had left it too late anyway.

The cats spent Christmas living with Claudia and her mother and, as 2008 turned into 2009, we received almost daily news that the cats were doing well. They seemed content, ate everything they were given, took their felimazole tablets with their food, and purred constantly. Bringing them to Symi in January seemed assured.

At the same time, we spoke regularly with the vets at the University of Thessaloniki who have been operating FAROS's clinics here on Symi. They told us that if we liked, we could bring the cats to Symi via Thessaloniki and they would operate on them for us free of charge, curing them of the hyperthyroidism. There were risks with the anaesthesia for such old cats, but all things considered, it seemed the best course to take and the operations were booked, the flights from the UK secured, and in mid-January, I flew back to the UK for a week to bring Jim and Jess to Symi.

The Fates Play Their Hand

At the local "pet megastore" on the edge of town, the lady insisted that the two cat baskets I had chosen were definitely to the spec that the airlines insisted on. "Look," she said, "it even says on the label that it's IATA approved for flights." I looked, and sure enough, she was right. I paid my £70 and was content that the only thing left to do was to get the cats their "Fit to Fly" letter from the vet. That evening, after Jim and Jess had squealed out their distress at being taken on one of those car journeys that they hate so much, they sat purring loudly on the vet's examination table.

Jess, he said, had put back on a little of the weight she had lost, but Jim wasn't yet showing signs of improvement. He also had what the vet thought was a blocked tear duct on his right eye. Other than that, the cats were fine and should be able to manage the journey to Greece. When there, I insisted, they would be pampered and over-fed. Jim and Jess had been customers at the vets for over a decade, and as I left that evening, with the "fit to fly" letter from the vet in my hand, I gave my thanks to the staff, thinking it to be the last time I'd see them. There seemed nothing that could prevent the journey the following day from going ahead.

I had reckoned, though, without The Fates. I was due to leave and drive the cats to Gatwick for the flight to Thessaloniki at four in the morning and at nine o-clock in the evening, Christos called me to say there was a problem. The Greek air traffic controllers were going on strike. Easy-Jet had already cancelled all the flights to Greece from the UK, and other airlines were following. As the hours passed, the last BA flight to Greece that night was cancelled though their website showed it as still leaving. Phone calls to BA in the UK just received an automated reply to call in the morning. Christos said he would keep trying and let me know as soon as he could whether the flight was going. Sometime after midnight he called to say that there were some discussions going on in Athens to prevent the strike, and we would have to wait to see how these turned out. At four o'clock, with no time left and no news, we had to make a decision: should I subject the cats to a distressing hundred mile journey to Gatwick with the likely prospect being that I'd have to turn around and bring them back again? We agreed that it wasn't fair to them and so, reluctantly, I let them sleep on. At nine in the morning, Christos rang to tell me that the strike had been called off...and that the flight that we had been due to go on had left on time.

For several reasons, taking the cats to Greece in the next week or so had to be put on hold and I took an evening flight back to Rhodes by myself. I would return to the UK soon to collect them and all would be OK. Once more, though, I had forgotten The Fates.

Within a few days of arriving back in Greece, I received a call to say that Jim was unwell. The soft tissue in the corner of his eye had swollen and the third eyelid was not retracting. He went to the vet who said it could well be an infection and he was given a course of antibiotics for a week. These did nothing to improve his condition, and the vet began to mention more sinister possibilities. I worried that the medication he was on for the hyperthyroidism was the cause as it was known to have many and varied possible side effects, but the vets both in the UK and Greece assured me that these should have shown themselves far sooner. Then one Friday evening, I received a call to say that Jim was seriously ill; hunched up, not responding well to being touched, and seemingly declining fast. He had rallied a little by morning and was taken to the vet who said it appeared he had some internal pain and needed a strong painkiller. Further blood tests revealed nothing and so Jim was taken back home. The next day he seemed a lot happier and was once more meeowing for his food. The eye, however, was getting worse.

I flew back to the UK after being in Greece for four weeks and was shocked when I saw him. He had given up cleaning himself, had lost more weight, and the right side of his face was a mess. We went to the vet again the next day and there we got the bad news we'd been dreading. There was a malignant growth behind Jim's eye and it was inoperable. He was given steroids to try and reduce the inflammation, but it seemed that time was running out. I flew back to Greece not knowing whether I would see him again.

Jim slept most of every day, ate his food eagerly, and purred when stroked. While he seemed to be pain-free, we could all hope that some miracle would happen. The right side of his face continued to swell, and at the end of March, with the swelling now so large that you could no longer determine the right-side of his nose, and with the corner of the eye bleeding, we made the decision that all pet owners fear. While not in any obvious pain, we knew that the only prospect for Jim was a slow decline with his face becoming more unrecognisable and infection in the eye likely. With the FAROS vets on Symi for the fourth surgery, I didn't want to leave to go back to the UK. In any case, it was pointless. I spent Jimmy's last day being busy on Symi, trying not to think what was going to happen that evening. I received a call to say that he had just left the house in the UK to make his final journey to the vets, and Christos and I left the house in Symi to go for a walk. I was promised a call as soon as it was over. When the call came through, we were on the road up by the Helipad and afterwards, I howled at the stars.

Jim had never made it to Symi. Jess, we hoped, would be more lucky.

The Odyssey

At the end of April, Christos and I brought Claudia back to the UK after a pleasant Easter in Greece. This time, when I returned to Symi, I was determined that Jess would return with me. After so much had gone wrong, I knew that everything had to be done correctly as one small problem could ruin my plans yet again. The list of possible spanners that could drop in the works seemed very long indeed.

The first problem was booking the flight. I had my ticket already and I had been told in the past that it would be a simple job to book Jess on the same plane. The only standard way to take a cat to Greece from the UK by plane is with British Airways...nobody else seems to have the facilities, or patience, to handle the bureaucracy that is entailed. If I had been flying from anywhere else in Europe than the UK, I could have had Jess with me for the flight, but the UK has "extra rules" about subjecting passengers to the horrors of cats and dogs on planes. All animals, even your hamster, have to go in the hold. I knew this already, and didn't like the idea of Jess being alone on the flight, but there was no choice. I called BA World Cargo a couple of days before I was due to be told that while there was place in the hold for Jess, all the "slots" were gone...which means that there were no drivers left who could take her out from the cargo terminal to the plane at the necessary time...all of them were already booked up. I would have to change to a different flight. I would also have to pay about £450 for Jess to fly....I had been expecting the cost to be about £50. Apparently, a cat in the hold of a plane is officially "unaccompanied live cargo" and most of the huge cost is insurance...well, that was what I was told. And yes, flying a hamster to Greece from the UK would also cost £450.

After changing my flight to a day earlier than I had planned and making sure there was a driver "slot" free, the next step was to get the "Fit to Fly" certificate. I am pleased to say that in the month since I had seen Jess, her health had improved enormously. I took her to the vet and he had no hesitation in issuing the certificate. That evening, I showed the letter to Christos...who, thank goodness, noticed that the date on it was three months too early. The next day I picked up a new version of the letter and collected a hire car to drive Jess and myself to the BA World Cargo terminal in the early hours of the following morning. Christos had work in London that day and due to the change of my flight time, I would have to fly without him, so when my alarm woke me at 3 a.m. I said my goodbyes and, if everything went well, agreed to meet him at the Plaza Hotel in Rhodes in about 30 hours time. Jess was put into her brand new "IATA approved" cat basket and our journey began.

According to BA's rules, I had to be at the cargo terminal four hours before my flight and had been instructed to arrive no earlier and no later. At 4am sharp, after a 40 mile journey to Heathrow where Jess did nothing but squeal in hatred at all things to do with cars, I arrived at the cargo terminal and was checked through the security barrier. Clutching all the necessary paperwork I went into the building, confident that nothing could now go wrong. After checking the pet passport and the certificate from the vets, the man charged with checking Jess in, whose name was Colin, by the way, then checked the cat basket. "Oh, it's IATA approved, that is" I said " even has the symbol printed on top to prove it". Colin grunted and said something to the effect that manufacturers of cat baskets often say whatever they damn well liked before telling me that my new basket wasn't upto standard. "There have to be air-holes on all four sides and this one has no holes at the back. It needs more holes. You'll have to get some drilled."

Panic set in. "Holes drilled? do you have a drill here?" I asked. "No." said Colin. "Do you sell cat baskets that have the right amount of holes?" I asked next. "No" replied Colin. "Then what can I do?" I asked. Colin thought a bit and then said..."Take the basket to the Quarantine Centre...they have a drill...I'm sure they'll do it for you." Colin then gave me a long list of instructions on how to get to the Quarantine Centre which I tried my best to memorise before grabbing Jess, I ran back out to the car. Passing back through the security barrier, I tried to remember the directions Colin had given me. After 25 minutes of driving in circles with Jess crying her protests the whole time, I finally found the Quarantine Centre....which was closed. After 10 minutes of banging on the glass doors and shouting "hello!! anyone there!!" at the top of my voice, I set off back to the Cargo Terminal to beg Colin to let Jess fly in a cat basket with holes on only three of its four sides. Through the security barrier again, I found Colin waiting for me and he was, of course, having none of it. "Gotta be all four sides, sir. More than my job's worth to check it in with holes on only three sides. Are you sure you shouted loudly enough at the Quarantine Centre? There's someone on duty 24 hours a day there. Let me give them a call." After disappearing into a backroom, Colin returned a couple of minutes later to tell me that indeed there was someone at the Quarantine Centre who was now expecting me, and that there was still time to make the flight if I hurried.

Back through the security barrier, I was at the Quarantine Centre within five minutes to find it lit up and the door open waiting for me. After taking Jess out of the basket and sitting on the cosy chairs with her in reception, the lady on duty took the cat basket away. The sound of drilling...lots of drilling...continued for the next ten minutes, which felt like half an hour as I imagined Colin drumming his fingers and looking at his watch. The Quarantine Lady returned to show me the basket with about thirty neat holes drilled in the back which she handed to me along with a strong suggestion that maybe I'd like to make a donation to the Centre's charity fund. "£10 would be nice...or £20 was a LOT of holes." My pockets now empty of cash, I bundled Jess back into her basket and rushed out. Five minutes later, and through the security barrier for the fifth time, I found Colin still waiting for me, a calm smile on his face. "Well done, Sir...that's perfect now...holes on all sides." Another five minutes more and the cat basket, with Jess's sweet face looking through the mesh door at me, was taken away on a trolley. Back in the car, I burst into tears, overcome with the stress of the past few months and the guilt that Jess's next few hours were likely going to be the most traumatic of her old life. Back through the security barrier for the final time, I was at Terminal Five half an hour later, bags checked in and through security. Finding the boarding gate for my flight, I looked out at the plane on the tarmac below. Shortly before we began boarding, a van approached the plane and the driver got out, collected a cat basket from the back, and climbed with it into the cargo hold at the back of the plane. Shortly after, he went back empty-handed to his van, and I boarded the plane to Athens. After an hour's delay, the plane took off...

...which meant that I now only had two hours in Athens before the internal flight to Rhodes. In this two hours, I would have to collect my bag, get out to the Olympic Airways Cargo Terminal (I had no idea where this was), collect Jess, get back to the airport, check in and get to my plane. Arriving in Athens and eager to get off the plane, I watched out of the window as a group of men began unloading the holds. Down the conveyor belt right below my window, among a series of packages, came a cat basket with Jess's face peering out. Relief flooded through me. She looked fine, not distressed, and she was in Greece! The lady in the seat in front said something to a man next to her about the cat she could see and I, a bit overwhelmed and far too excited, said "That's my cat! She's beautiful!"

Inside the terminal building, I turned on my mobile phone and received a text message from Christos that he had asked our friend Kaiti to come to the airport to help me. Never had I had such welcome news. Aware that time was tight, Kaiti had already found out where we had to go to collect Jess, and how we were to get there and she had also paid the fee (15 euros...a lot less than £450!!) to take Jess on the plane to Rhodes. Forty minutes after the plane had landed, we were at the Olympic Cargo Terminal to collect Jess.

"It takes two hours to do the paperwork to release an animal here" said the woman at the desk. "My flight to Rhodes leaves in 70 minutes," I replied "can you speed things up?" Kaiti reeled off a fast stream of Greek that I couldn't follow and the lady picked up her phone, made a few calls, and then announced that the paperwork would be signed in ten minutes and then we'd be allowed to collect the cat. Twenty minutes later, a grumpy man arrived and handed me the signed form I'd need to show to collect Jess. A minute after that and we were at the desk in the cargo hangar and I thrust the form into the hand of the young woman who stood waiting for us...a cat basket at her feet, and Jess's sweet face looking up at me. No time for all those tears I wanted to shed! My flight to Rhodes was due to leave in forty minutes! We rushed outside missing the bus back to the airport by about ten seconds, to be overjoyed that another one followed it less than a minute later. With thirty minutes left before my flight was due to leave we were at the Aegean Airways desk, suitcase and cat basket in hand and pushing to the front of the queue, Kaiti speaking fast Greek all the time.

The woman checking us in muttered something about the cat basket, shrugged her shoulders, and handed me my boarding pass. "No time for goodbye," said Kaiti, "you must hurry! run!" I didn't even get to give her a kiss or a hug, nothing more than an hurried "Euharisto!" as I picked up Jess and ran off. At the security scanners, I had to remove Jess from her basket and walk through the scanner holding her before placing her back inside the basket again and rushing to the departure gate; most of the passengers were already on the bus to take us to the plane. On the bus, I put Jess's basket on the floor and knelt down next to her, only to notice that my back pack was missing! Up I jumped, cat basket in hand ran off the bus, blurted a "signomi! please wait for me!" to the lady at the gate, and ran back to the security area where a group of uniformed men and women were huddled around my bag, one on a mobile phone talking animatedly. "Signomi!" I said again and added, my Greek deserting me, "it's been a long day!" I grabbed my bag, and ran back to the gate where the bus doors were just shutting. "Let me on!" I cried, and to my great relief, the doors hissed open again. When I got to the plane and to my seat, it was here that I understood what the check-in lady had been muttering about...the cat basket was too big. "I'm afraid it's not allowed" said the flight assistant. The purser came up to ask what the problem was, and after being told that the basket was too big to fit under the seat in front, looked about her, and then asked a man at the back of the plane if he wouldn't mind swapping seats with me, so giving me a double seat to myself. Jess could go on the seat next to me in her basket, so long as the basket was strapped in. I am pleased to say, that the last of the problems of the day was over.

Jess seemed completely happy on the flight to Rhodes, and after our arrival she couldn't have cared less on the taxi drive from the airport to the Plaza Hotel, purring the whole way. I made up a litter tray for her, gave her some dinner and her medicine, and we went to bed. At 7 o'clock in the morning, Christos arrived at the hotel after his overnight flight and we left together for Colonna, where the Dodekanisos Pride was waiting to take us to Symi.

It's after three in the morning as I type this, and I'm sitting on my balcony looking down at the lights twinkling on the sea. The only noise I can hear other than the occasional insect's chirp, is the loudest purr in the World from the cat on my lap. She loves the balcony like she loved her garden back in the UK. After being here a month now, I still find it very strange to see her on doubt I will get used to it in time. I am so glad she is here, and all the fuss Christos and I have given her since she arrived has made the upset of the long journey just a memory. I have had Jess from before Claudia was born...from before I met Christos...and long before I ever came to Symi. If I have my way, I'll have her a good few years yet, looked after by FAROS vets, and enjoying the long Symi summers. Every time I see her, it makes me smile. I just wish her brother could have been here too.


(12) Comments

  1. Alan said on 08/05/2009, 11:20

    Glad all is working out. Any reactions to the increase in temperature?

  2. Will said on 08/05/2009, 15:00

    Ah...there's two more parts to the blog before I can answer that, A. You'll have to judge whether the story has a happy ending after it's finished.

  3. Joanie said on 08/05/2009, 17:06

    I was going to ask about that too Will, wondering if the hot weather would affect them.Do they normaly stay with Claudia when your in Symi?. Hope everything works out for them. Hurry up with the next part

  4. Will said on 08/05/2009, 18:14

    We used to take them to catteries but it was damn expensive and they didn;t like it. My neighbours assured me they'd be well looked after if they stayed in the house, and so it proved. The cats were quite safe with catflaps allowing them access to the garden which has 2-metre high solid walls all other cats could get in, and they couldn't get guaranteed.

    Claudia & her mum looked after them after I moved out of the house, the first time they'd left the place, other than for visits to the vets, in over a decade. They settled in very quickly, though.

    Part 2 should come later today!

  5. Joanie said on 09/05/2009, 22:10

    Aww poor Jim, I'm so sorry Will, what a sad story, he never got to see where you lived.....R.I.P. Jim

  6. Simon said on 09/05/2009, 22:57

    So sorry to read that Will! Heartbreaking. Hope Jess is settling in well.

  7. Will said on 09/05/2009, 23:11

    I'll write about that in the next couple of days, S.

  8. the saint said on 11/05/2009, 01:13

    so sorry i know how you feel at least hes not in pain and hes had a lovely life x

  9. obob said on 05/06/2009, 23:58

    Found your site a few months ago and was in tears reading the 1st blog. So glad u are all together now!

  10. carol said on 09/06/2009, 12:16

    Will,I have only just read your blog and I am so sorry to hear about Jim,I also shed a few tears, it is heartbreaking to lose a beloved pet. I do hope Jess is settling in ok, sounds like she did incredibly well on her long journey,let us know soon how she is getting on.

  11. Will said on 09/06/2009, 12:40

    Thank you Carol, Jess is doing very well and enjoying the balcony and the Symi smells, and has even met a couple of our Symi cats. She's taken to Whiskas Pouches and Supermeat, as we can't find Felix here! and eats it with her pill crushed into it with little problem. (by the way...two months supply of her pill cost less than 2 euros opposed to £30 a month in the UK!!) I will update the blog at some future time with some more pictures of her on Symi.

  12. lizzykitch said on 12/06/2009, 17:36

    Jess is a real beauty Will!! Our Lisa's Scraggy cat died just recently. it was extremely sad. She rescued him as a tiny baby and he went everywhere with her in her coat and sometimes in her bag!! The children were devastated; he would hang around with Shannon every morning before school as she is always first up every morning; then he would have a crazy ten minutes running around with them every day after school. He had a unique personality and we miss him very much xx

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