Monday, July 5, 2010

Istanbul: I am thank for you and you are thank for me

So. I took off a week of school (I know it sounds irresponsible and indulgent [which it was], but I agonized over the decision and calculated that it was more worth my time to be in Turkey than in class because I have barely missed any) and went to Istanbul! One of the better decisions of my young life. Emily and I met Paul at the airport on Tuesday afternoon to catch our uneventful and surprisingly delicious (baklava on the plane) flight into Attaturk Airport in Istanbul. We fought the urge to squirm as we got our single entry visas within our passports stamped with an “exiting Greece” emblem and then figured out how to catch the bus to Taksim Square, a bustling pedestrian street with tons of shops, cafes, hookah bars, restaurants of all types, bakeries filled with Turkish delights, and many eager Turkish men selling irrelevant crap. But anyway, we got to Taksim without any issues. Can’t say the same about our skills locating our hostel. We must have looked ridiculous walking through the crowded streets with our rolling suitcases (Well, Emily and I had suitcases…Paul only brought a backpack because he wore the same pair of pants every day. Lightweight Dad Pants [capitalized because I feel like that should be the name of the brand]. Khaki colored, yet paradoxically not khaki material. Also, fully equipped with a hook on the inside so that one can attach what one can only call a man purse that dangles down in the ball-sac region.) Every time we asked for directions, we had to engage in long, irrelevant conversations that eventually ended in the typical European response, “Go straight and you will see it.” That isn’t true, sir or madam. After an embarrassing amount of time, we flagged down a taxi that told us “we are very close”. Are we? After the first of two terrifying transportation situations riding down very narrow streets that could not have possibly been intended for vehicles, we arrived at the constricted alleyway that would become our home for the next few days.

We had booked three beds in a 10 bed mixed dorm room and we were all slightly terrified of what we would find once we got inside. To our surprise and delight, the inside of the hostel was far less ominous and possibly even delightful with its cozy lobby area and young, friendly crowd. A Turkish girl in her twenties checked us in and then we chatted for a bit with other guests at the hostel including other Americans studying and working in Europe, two girls vacationing from Belgium, and a guy from Germany who was stranded in Istanbul because of the volcanic ash situation. I guess there are worse things than being stranded in Istanbul, but what strange circumstances. They were all very friendly and we found ourselves chatting with the group in the lobby when we came home in the evenings to make our plans for the night and the next day. The first night, we explored that main pedestrian drag, Istaklal street. After about an hour of chaos and harassment in several different languages, we ended up taking comfort in the universal, homey feeling of a Chinese restaurant (something you can’t really get in Greece and something Emily and I have been craving since the closed Thai restaurant fiasco on the island of Naxos over spring break. Very upsetting.) After some cashew chicken (we think) and some famous Turkish tea, we wandered around a bit more and happened upon one of the many streets filled with bars and their insistent owners who attempt to physically pull you into their establishments while offering nonsensical invitations that are one part flirty and two parts undecipherable.

We decided on a somewhat relaxed looking pub-like establishment that was playing the Barcelona v. Inter soccer game and serving up inordinate amounts of beer. We eventually made our way back to the hostel and after what seemed like only a few minutes, Paul was shaking me and Emily awake at 9am. May not seem terribly unreasonable in hindsight, but we were not pleased at the time. I think Emily may have growled. We sat down to a lovely Turkish breakfast at the hostel including bread, Turkish cheese, olives, cucumbers, tomatoes, and some more Turkish tea (I think my blood had been completely replaced by this stuff by the end of the trip). We navigated the public transportation system with its candy land-ish, plastic tokens and ended up in the Sultanahmet district. This is the area that houses many of the historic sites including Agia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, and the Basilica Cistern. As we approached, we could see the impressive enormity of Agia Sofia looming in the forefront. Dad, I know you’re probably still sick of this word, but the inside of this building was truly ineffable. Yet, apparently I’m about to attempt to describe it. In addition to the impressive exterior, the space seems to grow in size and beauty as you enter its doors. Despite the inundation of tourists (remarkably one of my first abroad experiences that has actually felt touristy), the cavernous alcoves absorbed the general noise of crowds and left the church eerily quiet and intensely spiritual. We spent hours just strolling around, taking pictures from a million various views, and standing on the balcony staring down into the intricate abyss of Agia Sofia. Some of the walls are peppered with the remains of beautiful Byzantine era mosaics, many of which were regrettably painted over with some strange, dull yellow base with a flowering vine running along it. Why must everyone always pick on Byzantium?! The remaining frescos are so incredibly emotional and human, so much so that they leap off the walls from across the church. The whole building was magically lit from windows at the peak of the high ceilings. After asking an Australian couple to take our picture (and getting mobbed by large groups of Asian tourists), we eventually left the church for the early afternoon sunlight.

After this experience, the Blue Mosque paled in comparison. But it was still cool to see. We arrived there at the interesting and audibly painful time of the call to Prayer. We could not believe that such a piercing, guttural collection of noises could possibly be what the Turks were going for. Emily took a video to attempt to capture this experience, but as she says, we’ll need subwoofers and surround sound to really do it justice. We sat in the expansive courtyard for a bit watching the men wash their feet in faucets that were set up outside of the entrance to the Mosque. No women were present in this ritual and many of them sat waiting in the courtyard. We entered through the visitors’ door after a lovely woman assisted us in fashioning head coverings out of scarves. They came undone soon after we entered the Mosque. We tried to recreate the way that she had tied it, but I think we ended up looking fairly foolish. Oh well. The supporting columns inside, decorated in red and gold, seemed intrusive within the space (as opposed to Agia Sofia whose hundreds of columns added to its aesthetic). After the Mosque, we wanted to grab a quick lunch before we continued on our historic journey. We thought we had ordered some sort of Turkish equivalent of a hamburger, yet what showed up in front of us was some unrecognizable collection of filo dough, unidentifiable meat product, flavorless yet feta-esque cheese, and what looked and tasted like Chinese egg noodles. All very confusing and hilarious. Slightly dazed after this disorienting lunch, we walked over to the underground Basilica Cistern—possibly one of the coolest sites I have ever seen. After walking down the stairs, we were greeted by the sight of endless rows of columns illuminated with tiny red-orange lights in an otherwise pitch-black space. The lights reflected off of the water which was interrupted only by the slim walkways leading around the cistern. We rubbed the famous “sweating column” (aptly named for its constant dampness—kind of gross) which apparently is an underground extension of one of the columns in Agia Sofia. We followed the signs pointing toward “Medusa” (who knew she was in Istanbul?) and pushed our way through crowds of tourists to witness these two strange, sideways Medusa heads that inexplicably reside in this underground cistern. No one is really sure how they got there. And, may I add, even if they did know, the attempt to convey the myths in broken English on plaques around the cistern were not entirely successful.

Now onto perhaps the most thrilling event of our Turkish adventures: the Bazaar quarter!! (Yes, two exclamation points are absolutely necessary). After asking directions multiple times and almost getting dragged into a huge carpet store, we finally found the entrance to the Grand Bazaar. I have never seen anything like this. The size, the colors, the hugeness, and the bustle put us all in sensory overload. We started to walk around and quickly learned that it is unwise to a) make eye contact with anyone or b) look at—or G-d forbid touch—any piece of merchandise unless you are basically 100% sure that you want to buy it. Dozens of wide-eyed, overly enthused Turkish men broadcasted all sorts of crazy lines to try to get us to come into their eclectic and tiny shops. The bazaar is enormous and widespread; one can find anything from jewelry, scarves, antiques, genie lamps, perfume, machetes, sports gear, the ugliest pajamas known to man, feather shops (exclusively feathers), Mexican wedding dresses (don’t ask questions), queens’ capes/combo bedspread adorned with sparkly, red, puffy strips of ribbon/velour/rhinestones. I picked up one of those for each of you. Every shop owner was on us like Paul on the toilet after drinking Turkish bath water (more on that later) shouting the craziest, funniest lines. “Hallo! Escuse me, eet is my turn now! Jus one moment. You love it. Everything very nice. You know it!” We were basically walking around laughing hysterically. “Hallo, let me help you spend your money!” “Escuse me, can I please hassle you quickly?!” “Escuse me, where are you from? England? America? Spain? …Paradise?” Every Turkish skip (skip is what Emily calls any random person) was chasing after us down the crowded aisles of the Bazaar. “PURSES! PLEASE! YOU LOVE IT!” We enjoyed the insistence of these hilarious one-liners and even spent some time doing some much-expected haggling. “No no!10 liras? I cannot! Oh you leave now? Okay fine. 10 liras. Just for you. Only you.” We tried to get rid of some of the more aggressive vendors by shouting out random countries when asked where we were from. That backfired though because apparently vendors in the Grand Bazaar speak a dozen or more languages.

Exhilarated from our first trip to the Grand Bazaar, we wandered into the Spice Bazaar more prepared for what we would find. Stepping in, the aroma of a thousand spices fills your nostrils in a way I presume only the Spice Bazaar can boast. Between the infinite varieties of spices and teas, we could have easily spent hours in this place. And, to the grave dismay of Paul, we did. After shopping around a little bit for prices and seeing who was haggle friendly, we ended up in this one spice/tea shop talking with the sixteen year old Turkish boy, Ohmer, who was eagerly tending to his spices. The speed and swiftness with which he moved around the tiny shop were impressive to say the least, especially considering that the 10 pounds of grease product in his hair was probably a little bit cumbersome. We lounged around with Ohmer as he fed us tastes of the various spices, teas, and handfuls of pistachios. We bargained with him over several spices and even talked Paul into buying his mother some tea (He did not, forever, purchase the “Turkish Viagra” that had Ohmer giddy with salesmanship). So many flavors: pomegranate, lemon, “love tea” (tourist trap, but it smelled so good I was obligated to purchase a quarter kilo), strawberry, hibiscus, chamomile, etc. all made from died fruits and flowers. Incredible. We made our selections and Ohmer vacuum sealed everything so that it would be fresh when we went to use it back in the States. That took us into the late evening at which point we got a recommendation for dinner out of an “Istanbul” book and actually found the place! We got some very tender lamp (lamb) and socialized with the old man owner who took an immediate and unwelcomed liking to Paul. He kept trying to hug Paul and when Paul looked at him, terror in his eyes, the old man just laughed and kept repeating the phrase, “I am thank for you and you are thank for me!” ….? We trammed it back to Taksim square and fell asleep very easily that night.

The next day—after the obligatory wake up call from Paul in his bright orange Bucknell t-shirt that matched the sheets in our hostel—we set out for the National Archaeological museum. We spent forever wandering around its corridors. This huge museum holds some real treasures including a lot of Greek sculpture. The coolest thing was probably the lion mosaic that ran along the gates of Babylon, but the highlights are too numerous to list. We were starving when we reached the conclusion of the museum, but managed to wander far enough out of the tourist zone surrounding the museum to find a little restaurant with an old Turkish woman sitting on the floor in front of a big, round metal plate. She cooked us what I can only call the Turkish equivalent to crepes. Enjoyable. After some more Turkish tea, we headed back to the Bazaars. I think Paul was ready to kill himself by this point, but he wasn’t really offering any alternate suggestions. The Grand Bazaar was even more thrilling than the first time. Emily and I both bought antique genie lamps. We got to witness a very angry bargaining session between a middle-aged Asian tourist and the antique vendor. Hilarious, truly.

At this point, we were all quite exhausted and dirty. We had put off showering at the hostel because, quite frankly, the shower was disgusting and it just wasn’t worth the agony. We convinced Paul that a trip to the traditional Turkish Baths must be a brilliant idea. Begrudgingly, he followed us like a prisoner that just received the death sentence to one of the famous baths in the historic district. Upon entering, we ran into a few Australian guys that were on their way out of the baths. They warned us that there experience was dominated by men and that we might want to wait a little while and see if some women show up. Well, boys, possibly you are unaware that they separate the women and the men into two different bathing rooms? I’m pretty sure they thought that they were going to see naked women. Not the case. Anyway, we said goodbye to the crushed Australians and checked in with the serene and lovely receptionist (or whatever one calls someone who collects money so that one can be smacked around by overweight Turkish women in the nude) and ordered two “traditional” baths, including a scrub down, washing, and soap massage. We parted ways with a terrified Paul and made our way up to the female dressing room. After reluctantly shedding all of our clothes and belongings, we proudly sported the huge spandexy black bikini bottoms provided to us at the front door and boldly ventured down the staircase that would lead to our impending experience. This bathhouse was built by the wife of a sultan is the 1580’s and showcases historic Ottoman architecture. The actual bathhouse chamber was a huge octagonal room with a central marble slab. We entered said octagon only to be greeted by two extremely obese, extremely sweaty, and extremely naked Turkish women. The next twenty minutes blurred the lines between cleanliness and impropriety. We were lathered up by a billowing, overflowing net of suds (yet remarkably one could still distinguish the scent of naked, fat, foreign body odor), smacked around (a brisk hit to the tush indicated a sweaty Turkish lady’s request that I turn over on my back), massaged, and eventually left to sit in the steaming baths and pour hot water all over our bodies. Other noteworthy details of the Turkish bath include a shockingly cold pool of water in which I had to dunk myself with two ambiguously shaped Spanish women (to use Dane Cook’s explanation, they were not fat but they were “shapes”) and an employee of the bath approaching me to insist that I give her a brief massge with the exfoliation glove she presented. We left reluctantly and rejuvenated to find a visibly impatient Paul waiting for us in the lobby. Apparently he’s not as comfortable with foreign nudity as was needed.

The following day, after much confusion and the expected vague directions of locals, we enjoyed a ferry ride over to the Asian side of Turkey. We walked around to explore the intricately built and heavily populated streets of its neighborhoods, finally settling in an outdoor restaurant overlooking the city and the sea, complete with its swaying, almost choreographed arrangement of boats. Afterwards, we found ourselves meandering down a pedestrian walkway that hugged the sea. We spent some time in a sprawling park compete with a little petting zoo, outdoor exercise equipment (right next to the playground—not a terrible concept), a small café, and a gorgeous marble fountain with water that sparkled in the Asian sunlight.

We headed back to Turkey to spend our last night out at the bars in Taksim Square. We enjoyed an evening of confusing and nonsensical discussion and drinking with a waiter whose only English phrases seemed to center around Michael Jackson. After declining his heartfelt if not all together clear invitation to a far away discotheque, we called it a night.

After a leisurely lunch to end our trip the following afternoon, we realized that we were extremely late to the airport. Don’t ask how this happened. Paul blamed us, naturally. We slowly realized that taking the tram would have us at the airport after our scheduled flight, we grabbed a cab with an insane, babbling Turkish man who chastised our immature tardiness. We happily let him rant as we nervously fidgeted in the backseat insisting, “FASTER, FASTER”. “Oh, the kids. All they want is faster faster faster. This is not life.” What? We just want to make our flight, buddy. “You pay lots of money for new airline ticket! Big money. No small money for ticket. You pay.” OK. “International flight? Everyone goes.” So he overcharged us when we finally arrived, claiming that everyone knows you must pay more to get there faster. No small money. Needless to say, we rush in, run to the Aegean Air counter and find it essentially empty. The guy checked us in at a snail’s pace, more interested in the caloric, doughy mystery on which he snacked. We made the flight with time to spare.

Stupid cabbie took two years off of my life.

Until next time, fair Istanbul.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Thessaloniki and Spring Break: Naxos, and Amorgos

Sorry that this is a little lengthy--Spring Break must have been eventful!

Emily, Maria, and I (Kaite had already gone on a class trip last semester) decided to join Arcadia’s “Alexander the Great” class on a trip to Thessaloniki. Situated in northern Greece, Thessaloniki is second in size only to Athens herself. However, it has quite a different vibe than the crowded, buzzing streets of my Greek hometown. This makes sense, I suppose, considering that half of Greece’s population actually resides in Athens. Crazy! While Athens has carved itself an irreplaceable little nook in my heart, I definitely enjoyed the slower pace and more relaxed atmosphere of the still bustling and productive city of Thessaloniki.

After about a six hour train ride, we arrived at Thessaloniki’s “Hotel Tourist”, only one block from the boardwalk. After gratefully unloading our luggage, we went for a walk along the water to the famous lighthouse at the other end of the boardwalk. Then, deciding that it was getting a little chilly, we retreated to the balcony of one of dozens of café restaurants along the water to get a snack and watch the sunset. On Saturday, we bused around to a bunch of historical sites not too far from Thessaloniki. Among these were the famous “Temple of the Abduction of Helen” mosaic at Pella and the pastoral site of Aristotle’s Academy. We also learned about the political strife over the separation of the northern Macedonian territory from the Greek mainland. After finishing our picnic lunch on the grounds of ancient academia, we made our way to my personal highlight of the trip—King Philip II’s Tomb. The underground museum of the royal tombs, located in village “Vergina” is essentially pitch black except for the dim lights directed at the tombs from above. As you wander around—bumping into every other person along the way (Sig nomee, sig nomee [excuse me, excuse me]), you gaze from above at the tombs in all of their eerie glory. The first thing we saw was a large Macedonian tomb found almost completely destroyed. The next tomb, intended for the cult of the dead kings, earns its fame for its now desecrated wall fresco of Pluto’s rape of the struggling Persephone. The most striking tomb, however, was Phillip II’s, framed by the façade of a Doric temple complete with a painted depiction of a hunt. Inside the tomb, we can see the weapons, shield, and crown displayed in front of the tomb. Anthropologists conjecture that another similar tomb might belong ot Alexander IV (son of Alexander the Great), but who knows. Unfortunately, pictures are strictly forbidden (there was talk of snapping a photo and running, but it just didn’t pan out), but the royal tombs proved themselves as one of the most impressive visual stories I have experienced since I’ve been here. Very uncanny.

That night, we went out to a café bar in the square by the water to relax, people watch, and eat deliciously fresh almonds with sea salt. I think the waitress may have thought we were a little nuts ourselves based on how excited we were by these particular almonds. Oh well. Later that night I went out to another bar with two other girls on the program to observe “gender relations” through dancing for our “Contemporary Greek Society” class. We have been reading articles about the traditional male danced called μπουζούκι or bouzouki. Whether dancing this famous dance or simply filling the role of spectator, bouzouki has much to say about Greek masculinity, social rules, and gender roles in more general terms. You have probably seen this kind of dancing in movies; the man move slowly and low to the ground, often snapping their fingers and doing crazy drunken things like picking up a shot glass with their teeth from the ground then knocking it back. Anyway, that is what my next observation paper will be about for class.

The next morning, we woke up early to hit another archaeological museum, scale the lighthouse at the end of the boardwalk, and consume possibly the largest gyros known to men through out history. I guess it should have been a tip off that every other person in the gyro place was forty and thought that the greasy ponytail, fake leather pants combo was an attractive idea. Paul ate his whole gyro while the three of us girls got about half way done and thought we might die.

So, that was our weekend in Thessaloniki! I returned the warm weather in Athens for the better part of the week to take my Greek midterm and to join Apostolos on a field trip to a few art galleries situated in between Athens’ China Town and red light district. I’m pretty sure he almost took us into a brothel instead of an art gallery. He probably should have straightened out the ambiguous address of the gallery before ringing the doorbell. Everyone involved was confused. My brief stint in Athens culminated in a 5:30am wake-up call last Thursday morning to make our 7am ferry leaving out of Piraeus (the Athenian port).

We arrived at the port on the scenic Cycladic island of Naxos around 1pm at which point we found an elderly man (with a strong resemblance to the father in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) holding a “Pension Sofi” sign. This man, who would become a dear friend and provider over the duration of our stay, introduced himself as “Papa” and helped us load our luggage into the back Pension Sofi’s little red van. After only a few moments, we pulled up in front of the homey pension (pictured below in all its glory). Papa invited us into the reception area (a tiny room opening to a garden in the back with a desk concealing many treasures, a bookcase, and two tables) for the first of our homemade treats—tiropita (cheese pies) and Greek coffee. After exploring the area a bit—including the nearby temple of Apollo—and grabbing an early dinner, we made arrangements to rent a car for the next two days and spent the evening plotting out our routes. Eftihidou on wheels turned out to be quite the humorous experience; like many of the Greek islands, Naxos consists of one long road and everyone’s directions are simply to “go straight and you will see it”. Not always true. Also, the roads wind up the picturesque mountains that don’t allow you to see the uncharacteristic amounts of semi-trucks speeding toward you until they are terrifyingly close. Luckily, Maria is a fantastic driver and was able to anticipate the large vehicles filled with various animal body parts.

The Pension advised us to split our two days into two separate loops that would allow us to hit all of the major sites. In these two days we were able to explore some stunning and spiritual places. Our off-season traveling only enhanced our tour by making it feel private and more peaceful. The first morning we visited the first of two ancient kouros, attempted to find the cave at Mt. Zeus (still unclear whether we found it or not, but inconceivable amounts of sheep and their droppings eradicated our desires to search further), stopped by the Church of Drosiani, and wandered luckily into a nearby café for delectable Greek salads that were “made with love” by the woman working the place. In the afternoon, we made our way to the secluded area of the Temple of Dimitras (Demeter). The temple sits in a giant grassy area resembling the set from “The Sound of Music” and we therefore found it necessary to take a multitude of field-frolicking pictures. Probably not what Demeter had in mind, but we gave her floral offerings afterwards in hopes of neutralizing any previous offense to the Greek g-ds. After some pictures and citrus fruit on the beach, we made our way back to the Pension area only to find fate dangling a “4 euro cocktails—Happy Hour from 2pm-2am!” sign staring us colorfully in the face (yes, our one collective face). We found it appropriate to sit and watch the waves from this happy hour venue while sipping our festive tropical beverages. As the sun set over Naxos, we remarked on what an incredible situation we had created. We ate that night at a restaurant recommended by one of the professors from Arcadia. We were told once more to “go down the road and we will see it”. After driving the length of this road back and forth three times, we finally found the place and had one of the most amazing meals ever surrounded by, once again, stray cats.

On Saturday, we drove the other direction on the road to see the remaining of the two Kouroi. We ran into it by accident while driving toward a nice looking beach and ended up stopping in an empty hole in the wall restaurant. The woman behind the counter explained that they aren’t actually open for business yet (too early in the season. But then again, why was the door unlocked?), but that she would be happy to call her mother out from the back room to cook us lunch. Well okay ma’am; that would be just lovely. Before we knew what was happening (and while Maria stood in the bathroom with her pants under the hand-dryer because she got wrecked by a wave on the beach while trying to take an ocean action shot), a stout Greek woman emerged from the kitchen carrying Greek salad, something called “stuffed burger” and some pasta dish that made me want to hug her. Not an overreaction. After refueling, we thanked the Greek mother and headed down to the area of the Kitron distillery. Even though we had called ahead and told the lady that we were coming, we couldn’t find a soul in the place (again, door unlocked). After several awkward moments of alternating eye contact with the painter outside, a woman appeared from the back door. Again, “we are not open, but since you came in anyway I guess I can show you around.” What? Also, her tour was only etsy-ketsy (so-so) because apparently the guy who speaks English (and French, and Spanish, and Italian, and German…) does not arrive for work until May. We got the gist of the operations of the distillery and then she force-fed us samples of many different colored alcoholic liquids that we proceeded to purchase as souvenirs. Then, we made our way back to the Pension at which point Papa Sofi offered (word choice might be an understatement) olives and wine that he had made himself. So good.

We saved the museums near the boardwalk for Sunday, thinking that this would be a good activity for one of the days we didn’t pay to have the car. After visiting a tiny museum devoted to the Mitropoleos civilization of the 13th century B.C.E., we decided to check out Naxos’ archaeological museum. Pretty incredible, especially considering that I had studied so much of its contents in my Greek Art and Archaeology class back at Brandeis in the fall. Seeing the Cycladic folded arm figures—small marble icons found in gravesites, presumably representations of g-ds or depictions of everyday Cycladic women—and the giant, ornate amphora and other pieces of pottery with mythical undertones was downright memorizing. Although the museum staff watched us (its only visitors at the time) like one giant hawk with six eyes, we took our time getting lost in ancient history. As an aside, they kept the staircase down to the bathroom chained up and somebody’s job is to stand next to said chain and unchain it whenever somebody needs to answer nature’s call. What kind of skills would one put as required for such a job? But anyway. The small museum offered some great treasures that helped me to connect not only what I have learned about Greek tradition and modernity, but also civilizations in a more general sense. It’s weird to really consider how little people have actually changed over time. While the ways we deal with the issues of everyday life have certainly evolved, the issues themselves remain remarkably unchanged. Human nature transcends!

This leads me to the second of my two striking revelations about our knowledge of history. It’s incredible the things that we only know today solely because of historical accidents. Without the error or fluke of human beings and even nature, the way that we experience history today and the details we possess would be altered completely. The Kouroi we viewed were most likely destined to adorn a temple roof, yet today they reside on the island in the middle of Naxos nature. We could not view the Kouroi today had it not been for the ancient sculptors that decidedly abandoned them (probably as a result of faults in the marble or some unsatisfactory construction flaws). Crazy stuff. We contemplated our access to history as we shamelessly headed back for the obligatory 4 euro happy hour.

Monday was a relaxing day of brunch, wandering the shops, lying on the beach, and eating crepes. After a final round of Raki, Papa gave us a ride to the port so that we could board the ferry to our second of two island destinations: Amorgos! Being a much smaller and less touristy island, our schedule ended up being a bit more relaxed. We stayed at “Pension Poseidon” near the port the first night because we got in around 1am. They seemed to think that an abundance of stairs, no elevator, and the inevitable luggage of tourists made for a sensible combination. C’mon, Pension Poseidon man. Nonetheless, we collapsed into our questionably clean beds and woke up to a fantastic (not sarcastic) view out of our windows. We packed up our things in hopes of finding a bus that would take us to Katapoula, the picturesque town in which we wanted to spend our two day stay in Amorgos. After several confusing and irrelevant conversations about the bus schedule, we determined that it was not running and hopped in a cab with a very smelly (body odor/cologne combo=the Greek special) overly hair-gelled twenty-something who made half of us (Kaite and I apparently have the strong stomachs) sick from his speedy maneuvers around the windy roads to Katapoula. He did not speak except to answer his cell phone and say, “Yes, I am taking the foreigners to Katapoula.” Maria, owner of “Pension Amorgos”, greeted us warmly and showed us to our lovely rooms. She then asked why we were only spending one night with her. When we explained that we had to get back to the port very early to catch our ferry back to Athens, she insisted that we stay the two nights with her in magical Katapoula and promised us a 6am ride back to port. Lovely woman. Well, not physically lovely. And not great at noticing when the toilet paper in the room has run out, but nobody is perfect.

We spent our first day on Amorgos enjoying a much desired day at the beach. Before finding the perfect spot, we stopped off at the local bakery and corner store to pick up fresh baked bread, local cheese, jam, olives, and a bottle of wine. With our cherished goods in hand, we scoped out a perfect and private spot on the beach to spend the day lounging and snacking. The biggest dilemma of the day turned out to be how to chill the white wine. Obviously, the only logical solution was to dig a shallow hole in the sand and bury the bottle so that the chilly, early April water could act as a wine chilling mechanism. Who says you don’t have to use your brain on spring break? We topped off our perfect day with dinner at a local fish restaurant owned by an obese, ponytailed man wearing Crocs. Emily and I split the Captain’s special, a pasta dish served with shrimp and mussels, and we all enjoyed a special homemade brew of Raki with a floral/honey taste (made by the captain himself). We all fell asleep very happy that night, except some of us spent half the night reliving the Captain’s special in a whole new way while hovering over the toilet. Not great. We saw the Captain probably forty times riding around on his scooter the next day. I gave him a dirty look, but the Greeks don’t really smile when you make eye contact on the street anyway, so I’ll never really know if I got my point across (my point being: “screw you, fat Captain!”) Oh, and one more message I would have liked to relay to the Captain: it is spelled “Lamb Chops”, not “Lamp Chops”. I can’t really blame the Captain for this (although he has already incriminated himself enough) because all Greeks seem to think that a lamp is an animal. When we tried to ask another Greek about why the Greeks write “lamp” instead of “lamb”, he replied emphatically: “Lamp. It is like a Goat or a Sheep.” No, that’s not true. Lamp is like a light fixture; it’s nothing like a goat OR a sheep.

With that fiasco behind me, the next day proved to be a real cultural treat. Despite the insane wind (I’m telling you—think Santorini winds to the fourth power), we decided to hike from our hotel up to what we thought was the remains of a nearby ancient Minoan civilization. All of our assumptions turned out to be accurate with the exception of the nearby part. Already exhausted and wind-blown by the time we got halfway up the mountain, we could not have been more thrilled when we noticed a large white van coming toward us down the road. A middle-aged man’s face appeared through the shaded car window, and as he starting speaking we were shocked to hear an American accent. He explained that he is originally from LA and now lives in Amorgos painting and tending to household repairs in the wealthy areas on the island. He offered to rearrange his tools and such in the backseat and give us a ride up to Minoa! Now I know you’re thinking this was probably a questionable decision, but apparently hitchhiking in the islands is totally legit (and walking in these levels of winds might have been more dangerous—my contacts were literally being blown around on the surface of my eyes.) The painter told us that he, his wife, and his two kids made up the only American family on the island and that his 3rd grade son has only 2 other children in his class at school. Tiny place. After thanking him profusely, we jumped out of the truck and explored the empty dirt paths of ancient Minoa that overlook the rest of the island. I’m pretty sure we entered some gates that were not necessarily intended for tourists, but we got to see a pretty cool layout of the ancient city and get a sense of what it looked like way back in the day. As we wandered around the ancient grounds, Kaite suddenly realized that she had forgotten her camera in the LA Painter’s van! We had all been mocking her because the string from her camera was hanging out of her back pocket the entire trip and looked like a mouse-tail. No tail, no camera! As it turns out, it was actually a lucky twist of fate because we saw that comforting white van come around the bend on our way down the mountain and got Kaite’s camera back AND a ride out of windy city. That night, we stayed far away from the captain and his sickening seafood and had dinner at a traditional Greek taverna. Stray cats roamed the place while made casual conversation with a German couple sitting next to us. We went back to the hotel to relax and pack up our things in preparation for our early departure the next morning. After flooding the bathroom four times (4 girls, 4 showers, 2 shower curtains that only go halfway to the floor) and reminiscing about our trip, we fell asleep. A few hours later we were in a strange van in the dark back on the gusty trail to the port. We arrived home to Athens just in time to celebrate Easter weekend, which is a bigger deal here than Christmas! If I had to sum it up in a few words I would probably use: lamb, candles, and parades. In conclusion, I had a wonderful spring break that left me with more focused impressions of Greece and its vast history, tons of pictures and souvenirs, and horrible memories of seafood.

Also, I have zero clue about how I’m going to transport everything back to “Ameriki”. Maybe I should stop buying bottles of wine? Time to start working out now so that I survive the walk through the airport with all of my old and acquired belongings!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Trips, trips, and more trips: Santorini, Sparta, Mystras, and Monemvasia

Well, I’ve finally returned to my Athenian apartment after a whirlwind couple of weeks touring around Greece. The following post will attempt to give a pleasantly detailed yet not exhaustive (or exhausting) account of my diverse Grecian travels. Last Wednesday ended with a showing of the intriguing film “Never On Sunday” intended for my lit class. I plan on watching it again soon given that I missed the last half hour devising a plan to switch presentation days with another girl in my class for the next day so that I could actually meet my family on time at the airport to jet off to…Santorini! With that minor drama behind me, I hopped a bus to Syntagma Square and then another to the Athens airport. A large, snorting, and strangely clothed Greek women chose to keep me company by sitting directly next to me in an essentially empty gate waiting area. Two strategic seat relocations and half a delicious citrus fruit later, I was joined by Richie and girlfriend Michal who had arrived from Israel earlier that morning and Mom, Dad, and Steve who had left from the U.S. of A. the previous night. The whole jetlagged gang plus me boarded our tiny plane, ate some biscuits (this is what the Greeks call “cookies”) and arrived in Santorini on schedule. The hotel, seemingly run solely by one quiet yet charming Russian lad—“Murat”—who came to the Greek islands to relax nine years ago and never left, was equally charming and quiet with the exception of the howling wind. Oh right, and the creepy black stray cat with electric green eyes that my mother decided to befriend. The scenery, the eclectic characters, and the island experience in general lived up to our fantastic visions, although I don’t think any of us were expecting the “I’m not in Kansas anymore” type of winds that we encountered.

Days on the island commenced with a lovely and slightly mysterious breakfast tray delivered individually to each of our three rooms (or sometimes, in the case of extreme wind, all three trays came to our room). The six of us lounging in white robes in an almost entirely white room eating chocolate croissants, scrambled eggs, and various other unidentifiable baked goods must have made for quite the ridiculous scene. But, in a Russia’s funniest home videos clip, I do believe that one of Murat’s early morning stunts topped the image of our chocolate covered white robes. As he walked around the bend from reception to our room with a food tray that teetered with a small child’s weight worth of breakfast delights, poor Murat and his strange sweater were met with an intense gust of wind that sent one of our orange juices flying into the air. As it shattered on the pavement, sending cascades of broken glass bits and citrus beverage all about the picturesque pool (empty—off season) area, Murat guided the tray swiftly into our common room and exclaimed, “I made it!”. Eh, kind of, Murat.

Besides mercilessly mocking people, we explored the area of ancient Thira, chatted at length with winery man “Stavros” (apparently his garrulous nature can be attributed to our arrival during the off season—guess he hadn’t experienced any human contact for a while), ate delicious yet questionably unsanitary meats at a taverna owned by a great personality “Nectarios”, and had fresh fish and traditional Santorini fava beans at a sea side café. Other humorous tidbits include ordering pizza to be delivered to our hotel, cramming six people into a diminutive rental car (sitting in the trunk was not particularly luxurious for any of us) while touring the island, and seeing both Murat and the other couple (possibly Turkish) staying at our hotel in multiple other restaurants and shops around town. Overall, it was a great and unusual trip. Seemed like a festive and appropriate way to celebrate our family reunion. So, after the unnecessary 2 minute trolley ride from the actual airplane to the gate itself (I’m sorry if this is somehow obvious, but why can’t they pull the plane right up to the gate?) and a ride back to Pangrati, the group (minus Murat and the Turkish couple) accompanied me back to Athens to take me and my friends out for dinner (thanks Dad and Mom!), get a quick tour of the apartment, and walk up the path at the original Olympic Stadium down the street. While I am of course soaking up my time here gratefully, I also can’t wait to see everyone at home. Any interest in moving to Greece, Lopatins? It’s actually sunny here now, I promise!

After parting with the family, I went home and started to pack for our program organized trip around the Greek mainland, or the Peloponnese. Arcadia based the trip off of a medieval theme through Ancient Corinth, Sparta, Mystras, and Monemvasia (my personal favorite). We got up early the next day to meet the bus that would cart us around for the next few days.

My Byzantine History Professor, Stavros, joined us as one of the chaperones on the trip. We were thus blessed with gushing lectures about the relevance of several of the sites with regard to the life of the Byzantine empire. Don’t get me wrong, Byzantium and its lengthy history both entertain and delight me; I just don’t want to hear about them when I’m standing on top of a beautiful, lush mountain top at Mystras with my camera itching for use or out in the rain in front of a strange looking church that was apparently built in the 1970’s. Stavros seemed extremely amused by its modernity. Or that might be because everyone was a bit loopy after our visit to the Spiropoulos vineyard and winery at which we enjoyed many cured meats and cheeses in accompaniment to our wine (Stavros of the Santorini winery [not Stavros, professor of Byzantine History] would not have been pleased). Oh, and just as an aside, everyone in this country has one of four names. Yelling Nikos on the street here would be akin to yelling Rachel in the Brandeis dining hall. But back to Stavros’ lectures. My admitted boredom was instantly gratified by the invasion of about a dozen noisy stray cats. He just had to chuckle at the fact that each time he has attempted to be “fun” and lecture outside, he gets derailed by Greece’s many wandering cats.

To drop the sarcasm for a brief moment, I will offer kudos to Guy Sanders, Jan Sanders’ (director of the Arcadia Greece program and Pangrati resident) husband who organizes digs at Ancient Corinth. I have never been exposed to a lecturer who is both so dynamically connected to his subject matter and equally skilled in conveying his enthusiasm and knowledge through speech. He joined us on parts of the trip, offering touchingly human accounts of ancient societies that occupied the very sites on which we stood. His lectures were intensely archaeological (as they should be for someone who owns more than three pairs of khaki cargo pants), noting amazing discoveries from ancient cemeteries that provide great insight into the ways that people lived, died, and interacted. His ability to reconcile social science with humanity itself made for a striking and educated connection to the places we visited. Besides the cemetery, visits to an ancient battleground, “The Museum of the Olive” (surprisingly mundane), the Spartan archaeological museum (and the accompanying pictures of us with the statue of Leonidus screaming “THIS. IS. SPARTA!” obnoxiously loud), and great souvenir shopping rounded off another great trip.

Stavros and Guy competing for lecture rights

The last place we visited might be the (get ready, Mom) quaintest little town I have ever visited. Monemvasia is a tiny fortress with an adjacent town that sits on a little peninsula. The peninsula’s streets are narrow and lined with small shops and tavernas only intended for pedestrian traffic. To get there from the mainland, one must travel down a long straight road until you reach a pitch-black cave-like area. After walking through the cave, you are greeted by the candlelight of this tiny town. The actual town houses ruins of defense structures dating back to the 6th century and a LOT of Byzantine churches—settle down, Stavros.

Other highlights from the trip in its entirety include the following:

--Eating delicious fish (and fish eyeballs—not joking!) by the sea in Monemvasia

--Hiking various picturesque hills

--Attempting to wake up to see the sunrise. We snapped a few pictures from the balcony and then went back to sleep

--Paul’s friend accompanying us on the trip. He wore a lot of button downs with the last two buttons on the bottom unbuttoned. I asked him why he did this to which he replied that it makes him look fat if he buttons them. Ah yes, because letting your stomach hang out is a far better solution.

--Getting locked out of my hotel room and having the maintenance man break in through the balcony door.

--Watching “Greek Idol” on TV. We turned it off when someone wearing an Elvis inspired outfit came on for an enthusiastic rendition of some song that I believe was supposed to be English, but it was definitely unclear.

Accounts of Thessaloniki and our spring break trip to the Cycladic Greek islands of Naxos and Amorgos coming VERY soon!