Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Cokehead Express to Meteora

OK. Let me begin this entry with the assuring (while slightly uneasy) assertion that the four ladies of Eftihidou 16 are home safe and sound—and slightly more worldly.

Kaite, Maria, Emily, and I packed up during the day on Thursday for our weekend excursion to the breathtaking Μετέωρα (Meteora)—home to the famous, mountainous monasteries of northern Greece. After spending around an hour at a strange and forgettable Carnivale party at school, complete with costumes, Greek music, and an awkward mix of Arcadia students, staff, and the pre-teen Greek hooligans that decorate the neighborhood square, we hopped on the bus in Vernava Square to Syntagma. From there, we caught the metro to Larissa train station. A man on the metro with the tightest pleather (yes, pleather) pants I have ever seen and rusty spikes on the tips of his boots should have been recognized as a mild precursor of things to come. Hooked, aren’t you?

Practical realization: taking the midnight train—even if it is infinitely cheaper and adventurous—is a blatantly horrible idea. After several conversations in broken English and even more broken Greek (with distracted people we are pretty sure worked at the station, but just had zero interest in dealing with us), we nearly missed our first train even though we had been sitting in front of it for thirty-five minutes. So, we found our seats on this god-forsaken vehicle and examined our fellow travelers. If I had to divide them into three all encompassing groups, I would probably go with cokeheads, sex fiends, and the ambiguously unconscious. Before anyone yells at me for irresponsible travel plans, I will have you know that the entire Arcadia staff was aware of our travel plans and we were not adequately warned.

Scared yet? Me too.

We stayed huddled in our American circle of fear and the ride remained essentially uneventful until Maria came back from her epic trip to the bathroom. I woke up from a twenty minute nap during which I dreamed that I won Jeopardy because I was able to identify a very obscure piece of Greek pottery (the subconscious is a strange thing) and innocently asked Maria which way to the bathroom. “Just don’t go,” she replied in a fervent whisper. “Hold it. Seriously.” After looking at the time—3:12 A.M., three hours into our five hour ride—and accessing the urgency of my bladder situation, I realize that the untold wonders of the midnight train’s bathroom were about to become increasingly real to me. Taking Kaite along with me (don’t worry (Grand)Mom, buddy system), we began what would turn into a twenty minute journey through the sea of passed out Greeks in the aisle (the fact that having your face on the floor of a public train is completely foul paled in comparison to the remainder of the experience) to reach the first of six bathroom location attempts. The door is unlocked. Good sign (I was still naïve at this point). As I walk in, I am instantly startled by the scowling face of what I can only describe as a half man half Tazmanian devil. In the split second between that moment and my hurried and clumsy swim back against the crowd of middle aged men who stood smoking in a giant circle on the floor, I noticed the contents of at least three pharmacies strewn out in the sink of the bathroom. Again, I realize that this could not be further from the point, but who is taking those after they have touched a train bathroom??! Without unnecessarily detailing our horror, I can only offer you a brief list of the remaining highlights, including but certainly not limited to a toilet completely clogged with cigarettes that were still smoking (I briefly considered using that one—I blame the lack of sleep), a sink ornately decorated with various drug paraphernalia that I had never seen before and plan never to see again, and a Greek woman who seemed very confused at the prospect that I wanted to get passed her so that I could use the bathroom to empty my bladder as opposing to using it to smoke. Yes, I am certainly the weird one in this situation. Jesus H. We eventually found an acceptable (standards were understandably low) toilet and returned back to our seats more worldly individuals. With the exception of bloody nose guy and incoherent, ranting mumbler, the rest of the train ride passed peacefully. We arrived into Kalambaka station as the sun peaked over the horizon—a beacon of light to four weary travelers. We called a taxi (not an easy feat—people speak a lot less English outside of the big cities), checked into our beautiful hotel, and collapsed in the truest sense of the word onto the cleanest, most glorious beds. After a 5-hour nap, we awoke refreshed and only slightly traumatized. We made it into the center of the small town to walk around and grab lunch at a local taverna. As off-season travelers, I think we got a pretty rare view of the town and the sites; the owner of the taverna fawned over us and gave us free sweats, an act of sharing/offering that the Greeks call kerasma. We went back to the hotel to shower and figure out what would become of our evening. After four ice cold showers (I am beginning to understand a bit more about the non-routine nature of European shower habits) and a look out of our window at what had become a veritable monsoon, we decided that getting into the four hotel-provided robes, ordering pizza, and getting into bed to watch strange Greek TV was probably necessary. The most noteworthy aspect of our night in was a strange weather show called “Sexy Weather” which features an obese woman and her stick-skinny counter-part who use inaccurate weather related vocabulary and flounce around.

We jumped out of bed, ditched the ropes, and got to the hotel’s breakfast buffet around 7:30 (yes, apparently there is one of those in the morning.) Homemade jam and tiropita (a Greek staple, cheese pie) do wonders. As we lounged and enjoyed our breakfast (in Greece every meal has to last at least two hours) the large glass window offering a grand view of the monasteries in the background also offered us a close-up of the beginnings of a huge torrential storm. To the front desk’s utter confusion, we eventually procured four turquoise-green trash bags with giant letters in Greek decorating the front (they could have said “stupid Americans” and we would have had no idea). Into these bags we ripped armholes and head holes (and yes, we did take a picture to mimic the scene from “Garden State” for those of you who were thinking about that), grabbed some money, and waddled shamelessly into a taxi, already soaking wet from the 10 foot gap between the hotel door and the big yellow taxi. We must have been quite a sight.

Our taxi driver introduced himself as Timo and offered to escort us around to the his favorite monasteries for a very reasonable fee. Unsure of whether this offer was out of pity or pride, we gladly accepted his offer. The next three hours were a beautiful, cultural blur of some of the most beautiful natural scenes I have ever witnessed. Timo stopped by the side of the road a multitude of times so that we could crowd under our umbrellas and snap the most picturesque photographs, some of which I have included here. We visited Megalo, Agias Triados, and Agiou Stefanou. As we hiked up the mountains, we stopped periodically to visit the tiny churches, peruse the museum-like historical displays, and marvel at the naturally spectacular views. As we trotted up the mountain-side at Agiou Stefanou—the monastery which boasts a nunnery at its peak—we experienced an intense sleet storm that gave way to a completely blue sky full of sunshine as we reached the top.

After basking in our sunlight, we stopped into the gift shop—half gift shop half display cases filled with more ancient, historical paraphernalia—to look around. We had an extremely elementary and confusing conversation with the nun working the cashier as she continued to refuse the money we offered to pay for some post cards. We figured that this was because we didn’t have correct change (although the ATM only dispenses 50 euro bills, one is apparently always expected to have exact change—another instance of “welcome to Europe where nothing makes sense. Ever.), but eventually realized that she was trying to give us the postcards as a gift. “Ahh Ameriki Ameriki, poli kala” (Ah, America America, very good). She instructed us to wait “half a second” and came back to hand us a bag full of sweet treats and weird Greek juice boxes for our trip back to the city of Athens. Thanks, nun Maria! Not much else to add about the monasteries themselves except just to emphasis how incredibly beautiful and unique they are. The intricate, manmade monasteries situated grandly atop natural sandstone pillars proved to be an inspiring combination. And the insides of the churches, carved in unbelievably detailed woodwork, added yet another layer on to an already aesthetically overwhelming experience. It pains me thoroughly that I wasn't allowed to take pictures inside. The monasteries were originally inhabited in the 9th century by a group of reclusive monks who lived in the cutouts and caves of the cliffs. The monks used ropes and baskets, kind of like a pulley system, in order to transport goods up and down the sides of the cliffs. Hearing the ancient history of these places and walking along the same paths as others have done for years and years before me provides an uncanny sense of connection to the landscape.

We spent Sunday walking around town and sitting in a café for many hours talking and watching the parade and scavenger hunt taking place on the streets, presumably part of the Carnivale celebration which has dominated public behavior for the past couple of weeks. The Greeks really know how to prolong their holidays! Taking our last sips of hot chocolate, we made our way over to the train back to Athens.

It turns out, thankfully, that the 5:30 train passengers are far less…colorful than those of the midnight train to hell. And as I relaxed on the family-friendly ride home reflecting on the weekend’s events listening most appropriately to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound”, I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of our trip (but only, of course, after I looked up and memorized how to say “Get away from me, please!” in emphatic Greek).

Lastly, the man across the aisle from us on the train looked like Gerard Butler.

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