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!

No comments:

Post a Comment