Time to let go, clear, cleanse, and greet the new.
Blessings to you all in the New Year!
Full Moon, Blue Moon, Eclipse...What a perfect ending to 2009 and perfect beginning to 2010!
Time to let go, clear, cleanse, and greet the new.
Blessings to you all in the New Year!
As a twenty year Greek traveler with a two year residency in this extraordinary country, I’ve received a lot of questions from future Greek travelers: What’s the weather like? Which island(s) should I visit? When’s the best time to go?But I’m always struck by the things they don’t ask. So, I’d like to help you out. Here’s my gift to you—answers to those questions that you don’t know to ask--The Top Ten Not So Obvious Grecian Travel Tips:
1. Allow enough time. Everything from weather changes to long meals, leisurely taverna service, and extended coffee breaks, will affect your travel plans. Unless you’re with a tour group, allow for at least one or two extra days per week of flex-time, just in case. Have a Plan Alpha, a Plan Beta and a Plan Omega! Weather fluctuations can delay travel to most islands (unless you’re traveling by plane). This is especially true off-season when there are fewer connections. But don’t assume that you’ll avoid this problem by traveling during the summer. One year, one of the major ferry connections to the Sporades (islands in the Northern Aegean) had broken down and was out of commission indefinitely. Another year, I was stranded on the Cycladic island of Naxos, because “the captain decided to go fishing.” At least, that’s the reason I was given.
Instead, while there, why not enjoy the Greek way of life, and slow down! …if you can. I dare you!
2. Be flexible. If you aren’t flexible, Greek travel will be hazardous to your health. Honestly, you’ll end up with a stroke or a heart attack. Nothing may work out the way you planned, but this is part of the fun. Once, I was on the island of Paros with my cousin, on a small beach a few miles outside the town of Naoussa. We had arrived by a tiny caique. After several leisurely swims, we treated ourselves to an equally leisurely meal—a huge plate of mezedes (appetizers) and, of course, ouzo. It was a lovely day…lovely that is, until we found ourselves stranded — on the rocks lit by the pink-purple sunset— waiting for the little boat to return. We went back to the taverna, which had less than a half-dozen occupants, and asked the owner to call for a taxi. No answer. I sat down on a rock, enjoying the peaceful night…waiting. My cousin became more and more tense and was ready to walk the several miles back to town. I attempted to dissuade her, knowing full-well the disadvantages of sharing a small unlit road with crazy Greek drivers. I assumed it would all work out without a night walkabout. It did, when the last of the taverna occupants finally rose from their chairs and offered us transport. My cousin now remembers that crazy crammed ride as one of the most eventful of her trip.
3. Have access to cash. You will need Euros, cash, in Greece. You cannot use credit cards at most tavernas or when renting rooms from the locals. The vast majority of purchases I make in Greece require cash. If you have an ATM card, this is your best bet, but make sure, in advance, that it will work. Contact your bank, ask about extra fees, and have a backup in case your card falls through.
4. If traveling alone, try to blend in. This is always good travel advice and not particular to Greece. This is best accomplished by observing what the natives are wearing and adjusting your attire accordingly. Don’t forget Greek shoes and sunglasses. (Yes, remember the sunglasses--essential protection from that blazing Greek sun and dazzling light!) Greece is a fairly safe country for single women travelers, but exercise caution. You will, most likely, be approached by Greek men, so you need to know how to handle them. (See blog post, “Single Women Travelers and Greek Gods.)
5. Expect the unexpected. Follow the wise advice offered by my friend from Skopelos “Don’t be a tourist; be a traveler. He further explains that a tourist tries to change his surroundings to match his native country, whereas a traveler seeks to experience new surroundings. Most of my greatest Grecian adventures have been unplanned. A corollary to this--take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves. I have an entire Greek community of friends that I consider family, all of whom I’ve met because I took advantage of these opportunities.
6. Don’t be alarmed by passionate exchanges in the middle of the street—and I’m not talking the romantic kind that you’d see in, say, Paris! Greeks are extremely passionate about everything. They express their opinions, usually quite openly. Even the quiet ones are passionate. Don’t let them fool you. If two people appear to be screaming at each other on the street, they may, in fact, be ready to murder one another, but more likely are discussing their preference of cigarettes.
7. Do travel off-season, but not so far off season that everything has shut down. Spring and Fall are best—May-June or September-October. Off-season ferry or hydrofoil service may be limited, and even if you’ve managed to catch the only one that services your destination this week, you may arrive to find a ghost-island. This happened to my mom and me on the island of Hydra in early November. I had to locate the Port Police to find a room; they considerately set us up with a place in their relative’s hotel. By the time I returned, my mom had accepted a better hotel room from another local. Needless to say, for the remainder of our stay, I was on my best behavior, not wanting to anger the Port Police any further.
8. Do interact with the natives, but, obviously, show discretion. The Greeks are very social. Community and family are extremely important to them. This means that they will be confused if you sit by yourself—and will be tempted to join you—or ,at least, to sit as close to you as possible. They are also extremely curious and always open for a discussion. They capitalize on any opportunity to learn something new, usually as it relates to you.
9. If you’re American, and the Greeks discover this, be prepared for long political debates. At least yours will have a chance now that Obama is in office (in other words, you won’t be spending your entire vacation trying, unsuccessfully, to explain the actions of George Bush); and since we manage to be at war continuously, you will most likely not escape these discussions, nor the Greeks’ strong opinions either.
10. If you want to avoid cigarette smoke, then sit inside. You non-smokers are extremely fortunate. In the not-so-distant-past, Greeks smoked everywhere. Now law bans smoking indoors, including transportation vehicles—so you’re finally exempt from asthma attacks and smoky clothes. But this also means that you won’t be interacting with the Greeks as much, because Greece is a smoking nation.
So, now that you’re a little better prepared, Happy Grecian Travels!
*This post also appears on feisty foodie slash lit-chickie slash globe trotting wannabe Frenchie friend Andi's blog: Misadventures with Andi.
Thank you, Andi!
Athenian Garbage Can (ΚΑΛΠΗ, btw, is the sign for the ballot box)
Okay, this post comes with a warning. It’s not going to be filled with the usual lovely intoxicating smells, because, let’s face it, many Grecian smells are repugnant! Just thought I’d give you an opt-out before reading.
Still there? Okay, read away:
1. The rich smell of the sienna-colored earth: This one actually smells good. I almost understand why some pregnant women get cravings to eat dirt. It must be Grecian dirt.
2. The intoxicating perfume of night-blooming jasmine mixed with donkey dung: This combination is near and dear to my heart, being one of my strongest olfactory memories of Skopelos. Now, of course, donkeys are hard to find, which makes my nose even happier, as you can imagine. Jasmine will find you everywhere…even in the most unlikely places.
3. Diesel: This shouldn’t come as any surprise, since so many Greek vehicles run on diesel. The part that is surprising, to the extent of being disturbing, is that I actually miss this smell in sanitized California.
4. Cigarette smoke: This includes pungent freshly-lit to stale, and everything in-between.
5. Heavily-cologned men: Good or bad, depending on the cologne…and the man, of course.
6. Garbage and sewers: Especially common prior to elections (garbage strikes) and after big storms (No, I won’t elaborate.).
7. Garlic and oregano: Not only popular in Italy, these twins make an appearance in Greece as well. Garlic shows up in everything from mageritsa to tzatziki and skordalia (see previous blog posts here and here). At least garlic is good for your health. And oregano is not only a part of the traditional Greek salad, but dresses up fries and potato chips.
8. The wet salty sea: Close your eyes, take a deep breath…no! don’t do this at the harbor.
Dare I ask? What is your most memorable Greek Smell?
I think of Greece as a multi-sensual experience. Certain tastes, smells, sounds, sights and “feels” come to mind. After all the recent conversations about holiday foods on Twitter, it’s no surprise that I’ll start with the sense of taste today.
The following tastes remind me of Greece:
1. Cinnamon: The Greeks put cinnamon on many different dishes, including meat dishes. My fav, thus far has to be rabbit stifado (a stew with pearl onions) served with cinnamon (sorry, vegetarians!).
2. Lemon: Again, lemon appears in many dishes. It may be substituted for vinegar in a traditional Greek salad or appear as an accompaniment for not just fish, but chicken, lamb, or pork.
3. Salty everything: First thing Greeks reach for when those raw tomatoes or Greek salads hit the table is the salt shaker. Folks with high blood pressure or kidney problems should grab their portion before it gets generously sprinkled.
4. Anise: We must include the anise-flavored ouzo or tsipouro. I mean, we must!
5. Sharp Feta: True sheep’s-milk feta appears in many dishes, not just as a generous slab on Greek salads.
6. Mastic and Rose water: These flavors appear in everything from baked goods to confections such as Turkish Delight.
7. Thick pine-flavored Skopelos Honey, crunchy walnuts, and heavy rich Greek yogurt: You haven’t experienced the flavors of Greece until you’ve combined these three wonderful ingredients together!
8. Sweet peach and tart sour cherry: These difficult to find fruit juices in the U.S. are available throughout Greece.
What is your favorite Taste of Greece?
National Archaeological Museum, Athens
Warning: This blog post, brought to you by popular demand, is intended for mature adult audiences only. If there are any teens or tweens out there—I don’t want to anger your parents, so you best skip this post.
You’re a go-to-it kind of Gal. If something needs doing, you’re the one to do it. You’re self-sufficient, organized, intelligent, and in great shape. You’ve worked hard to create the life you desire, and are in control of just about everything that can be controlled. You’ve put in long hours for your time off and earned the vacation of your dreams.
Because you are independent and enjoy a change of scenery, you’ve decided to head to Greece.
You’ve heard that it’s a safe place for single women travelers.
Well, you may want to rethink a few details. Although you may head off to Greece alone, unless you’re Billie Jean’s twin sister, you aren’t going to be alone for long. (I’m talking the tennis star, folks, not Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean) Even the Billie Jean situation can be remedied with your first trip to a topless beach. No disrespect to Billie Jean, by the way. She has accomplished oodles for us women, and I thank her for this. But, that’s my point. All of her amazing accomplishments will go unnoticed. In Greece, appearances are everything. And women, no matter how accomplished or brilliant, are seen as women first.
Take my first trip. I had just finished twenty-five years of education, completed my residency in obstetrics and gynecology and was literally dying to get my body (and soul) over to Greece. I had planned two lovely, serene, brainless, anonymous months. Well, I guess two out of four isn’t bad. I’m sure you, by now, can guess which two Greece delivered. Out of my two months there, I spent only five days alone.
There’s the feminine thing, but there’s also the social thing. Greeks see a single woman traveling alone and, once they’re convinced you’re not a putana (the same word in Greek and Italian), they all take pity on you. Forget anonymity. Forget autonomy. Greeks, if you are unaware of this fact, are highly social beings. If you’re hoping for anonymity, stay in the U.S. Forget about Greece. Heck, people still bump into me, acting like my long-lost relatives, recognizing me from previous trips. Who are these people?
So let’s tackle the single female thing first. When you are alone, you are available. You are, literally, free, the Greek word for unmarried. And I’m talking both meanings. Every woman is the same to every (older than you) Greek man. Age discrepancies do not compute, as long as the man is the older one. As for me, within the first hour of my arrival on my Greek island destination a certain Greek God blocked my way, his perfectly sculpted body perched precariously atop a tiny motorbike--hard to ignore, even if he hadn’t been screaming at me in Greek. Lord knows I tried, unsuccessfully. He finally asked in English, “Why are you not speaking to me?” And I answered, “Because I don’t understand what you are saying.”
Enter my first Greek boyfriend—which brings me to my next point. If you truly want to be protected from Greek men, you have two options:
#1. Do not leave your room. This, however, is not a fail-safe method, since there are an awful lot of Greek men who already know where you are…the taxi driver who dropped you off, the owner of your hotel, the guy down the street at the kiosk, the men on the main street who stared at you as you got out of the taxi, the guy waiting on the side-street below your balcony--just hoping to get a glimpse of you, preferably naked…
#2. Get a (temporary) Greek boyfriend. (They are too high-maintenance to keep long-term. Believe me, I should know.) No one else will touch you, literally and figuratively, because you are his property now, and he will protect you. It’s as if you have an invisible diamond layer of skin, one you are clueless about—clueless, that is, until he dumps you (but that’s another story). The code is clear. Greek men don’t mess with other Greek men’s women (doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, but it definitely takes two). You’re thinking, but then I won’t be alone. Women, forget the “alone” thing; it’s not going to happen. Were you listening?
I recommend #2, after years of rigorous personal testing. If you aren’t yet convinced, I have an exercise for you. When you first arrive in Greece, walk into any empty cafe or taverna (a task in itself), and sit down. Bet you that the next group of Greeks—and it will be a group—to walk in will sit down right next to you.
So, I’m wishing you a lovely brainless trip to Greece. Please remember to send pics of your personal Greek Gods. Kalo Taksidi!
Oh, and because there are always a few in every reading crowd—please please don’t take me so seriously! Don’t need anyone blaming me for STIs or heartbreak! (and no, of course all Greek men are not like this. Honestly!)
Athens is a paradox. A big bustling modern city exists a few meters above ancient land. No matter how hard you try, you can’t ignore evidence of civilizations past. It awes me still, walking on Athenian streets, wondering which next obscure view of the Parthenon will suddenly be revealed between the 1950’s maze of concrete buildings. I feel the same thrill in the evenings when the moon somehow manages to appear every single cloudless night, in the most unlikely positions. And even when the Acropolis isn’t visible, there is something quite unsettling when I’m reminded that I’m walking directly on top of an ancient city. Strange feat, to decide to build an underground metro that stumbled through ancient ruins, every few meters.
And yet most modern Greeks appear oblivious to this unusual juxtaposition of old and new. They go about their everyday business--running red lights, shouting at the person crossing the street, narrowly avoiding the motorbike that just whizzed in front of them, carrying on heated political debates with their new Amerikanaiki acquaintance, stopping for a casual five-hour frappe (iced coffee) and their third carton of cigarettes.
I was reminded of this paradox when I visited the new Acropolis Museum. I was unaware that it had been built with clear floors so that when standing on the top floor one can look all the way down to the ancient ruins underneath. Hype for the new museum was centered on the modern physical structure, not so much the ancient ground…so its structure took me by surprise. In fact, there was a debate going on. Several purists feel that the building is too modern, that it is in conflict with the treasures that it showcases. They also argue that more attention is being paid to the beautiful modern structure than its beautiful ancient contents.
What do you think? Should the new museum’s architecture have been more consistent with its internal treasures? I, for one, love this paradox, but it is difficult not to pick sides. It is so much easier to choose new over old or old over new. To live embracing both is an unusual challenge—one that most Americans have never had to face. Ours, let’s face it, is a very young nation.
See blog post Are You Artemis or Athena? to find out.
Gifts from the Greeks
I especially love the dwarf pencil sharpener, given to me by a
4 1/2-year-old Greek girl
There are so many endearing Greek traits, but if I had to pick my two favorites, they would be blessings and generosity.
Greeks have blessings for every occasion imaginable. Every holiday, every birthday, every name day…these are to be expected. But what about each new week, new month, weekend, even the three-day weekends? All are preceded by the word “good,” as in “Good week,” “Good month,” “Good weekend (Saturday-Sunday),” “Good three-day weekend.” The time of day determines the greeting, another blessing: “Good day (morning),” “Good mid-day,” “Good afternoon,” “Good evening,” and “Goodnight.” But it doesn’t end there. “Good appetite,” “Good time,” “Good rest,” “Good sleep,” “Good trip,” “Good vacation,” and “May you pass your time well (good).”
Did you recently purchase a new article of clothing? Then you will hear, “Meh yah!” (“With health!”) from the sales clerk. If you’re at a wedding and related to the groom or the bride, you will hear a blessing that means, roughly, “May they live!” (said in the same vein as Spock’s “Live long and prosper.”) The same at a baptism. The usual blessing for New Years, name days and birthdays is “Many years!” At birthdays, you may also hear, “May you live to one hundred years!” Basically, there is a blessing for every occasion imaginable.
The lovely part is that it is said with meaning and kefi (passion). You really do feel blessed.
Add to this that Greeks are generous to a fault. From the moment I landed on my first Greek island, I had all of my needs provided. My first Greek boyfriend provided me with a place to stay, transportation, clothes to wear, and food to eat. He also protected me from all of the other Greek men and introduced me to some of my closest Greek friends. And he wasn’t the only one. It was years before I paid for a single drink. Even today, twenty years later, I was not allowed to pay for my hot chocolate. The owner of the café also disappeared before I could pay him for my breakfast. When I approached him the next day, he said “tomorrow.” Did I ever pay him? We have both, long-since, forgotten.
I will never forget one meal on the touristy Sporades Island of Skiathos. Greece was in the middle of a two-month strike. Nothing was functioning. Even the electricity was on strike and would turn off, predictably, right around dinner time. The restaurants were scrambling to keep the food warm. A group of European tourists at the table next to ours was complaining loudly that their food was lukewarm, not hot. They continued to give the waiter a bad time. My girlfriend and I were cringing. The waiter was so relieved that we, too, didn’t yell at him that he kept bringing us little treats…first some fruit, then some yogurt with honey, then some ouzo, then Metaxa, then more ouzo. We had to finally decline his overwhelming generosity.
I remember some of my earlier days on the island of Skopelos. I have always stayed in the same neighborhood, which used to be home to several elderly women. It would take me hours to traverse the last twenty feet back, because each little grandmother would offer me coffee, then sweets, then nuts, then more sweets. Just today, a dear friend who functions as my mother-away-from-home, invited me to dinner. I apologized because I felt that my joining her was an imposition—I wanted to have dinner with her family, but I felt guilty that they couldn’t have a meal without me. She thought that I was apologizing because I could not join them—and told me not to worry, that she would invite me again soon when they were having something nice. I was too surprised to clarify.
In just three days of this current trip, I received two bowls of fresh grapes (from two different people), two plates of fresh figs, three meals, several free drinks, a large painted water jug, fresh eggs, nuts and two vases of fresh flowers. I turned down additional offers of several meals and drinks. I also received discounts on five different purchases. I remember my mother commenting that Greek generosity stems from their mythology of Gods traveling as visitors. “But,” I retorted, “These Greeks know that I’m not a God!
Each year when I prepare for my return trip I must purchase an additional bag in which to carry all the gifts that I have been given.—gifts which are usually heavy, large and breakable, if not perishable. (See: Greek Duffle Bag Contents-or-What the Heck is in This Thing?) And each year when I return home, I am struck by the generosity of the Greeks and, in comparison, our almost sterile American encounters. I am, frankly, shocked when an American stranger offers a blessing. The most we can hope for in California is, “Have a good day.” And I recall a handful of occasions that I was given the gift of a free cappuccino or pastry at my local coffee shop; each time was such an unexpected surprise that I remember each occasion in detail!
We can learn a lot from the practice of Greek blessings and generosity. How different our day and our world would be if we remembered to extend both to mere strangers! Because, you never know—they could be visiting Gods, disguised!
Where am I, and what, on earth, is that man screaming?
I rolled over and almost fell onto the floor. Two red cats slinked by. Couch…red cats…must be Thessaloniki.
I thought that I had closed the door out to the balcony, so where was all the noise coming from? The door was closed, but another door in the kitchen was open…for the cats. The noise was coming from outside. It almost sounded like the laiki (pronounced “lie-ee-kee”), the Greek street market that occurs once a week—except for that man’s voice. Weird. It was like a combination of podosforo (European football) and the laiki. Take away that irritating male voice that sounded like a broken clock tower bell, and it would be a laiki. The bustling noise of the neighborhood crowd was discernable. Even his irritating voice was familiar, but instead of yelling “ANGANARES!! (ARTICHOKES!!)” or “FRESKA PSARIA!! (FRESH FISH!!)” or “OLA ENA EVROOOO!! (ALL ONE EUROOOO!!)” he was yelling something else, something that my sleep-deprived brain couldn’t quite make out.
I remembered back to my first laiki experience in Athens. I thought it was the best, even better than the Acropolis! Apparently, my shopping addiction extended to fruits and vegetables, but to say that the laiki is composed only of fruits and vegetables would be misleading. The laiki is to a Greek home what a periptero (kiosk) is to all of Greek life. Beyond fruits and vegetables are plants, little trees, flowers, olives, fresh fish, olive oil, nuts, grains, household items for the bath and kitchen, bedding, pillows, rugs, clothes (from bras to jeans) and Bunsen burners. Between the peritero and the laiki, you’ve got just about everything covered.
I remember spending hours wandering up and down the four packed street blocks, squished between vegetable stands and mad Greek women pushing upright shopping carts. (A word of advice: Wear strong protective shoes, such as those for hiking, and “steer” clear of those shopping carts on wheels. Part of me wonders how many laiki customers have lost toes…) I was mesmerized by the assortment, the quantity, and the prices. More words of advice: If you buy less than a kilo of anything, the sellers will take pity on you and refuse to charge you—since anyone who buys so little must be devastatingly poor. The longer you wait, the lower the prices. After my first trip, my thoughts were filled with just what could I do with two kilos of lemons? (other than make lemonade, of course).
But even the vast display of fruits, vegetables and wares was eclipsed by the bizarre cacophony of voices screaming just about everything one could imagine. One of our first assignments in Greek class was to attend the neighborhood laiki and write down what we heard.
Cigarette smoke pierced my nose, and brought me out of my daydream. My friend was up. I appeared in the kitchen as he asked me if he had woken me. I answered “no.” He said, “It must have been the laiki, then?” I answered that it was that man yelling God knows what. He said, “Oh, the one yelling “OLYMPIAKOS!!”?
That’s why it sounded like podosphero! Olympiakos is one of the Greek teams; they had evidently won the night before. Why he was yelling it at the laiki the next day is still a mystery.
Thank you, @greekfood, for this link.
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