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!