Date: June 6, 2015
Current location: Greece, specifically en route to Santorini from the mainland Current tunes: 1975, “Settle Down”
Touchdown, Greece! I’ve actually been here a few days but have finally found a moment to write (currently on a seven hour ferry ride to Santorini) so it’s quite a lengthy post. Honestly, I really didn’t sightsee much in Athens. I should be embarrassed to say I didn’t even make it to the Acropolis or Parthenon. Instead I spent my time with locals and feeding my Greek food baby (who I have named Niko). Food and new friends are really what I crave! But let’s rewind to my initial entry into the country before expanding on that.
My adventure in Greece started a little more of a spontaneous note than normal. In general, my travel style tends to be a bit more planned but with all the madness that was going on before I left, I ended up booking a place to stay like a few hours before I arrived in Athens. So unlike me. But that’s the beauty of travel. It really has been like therapy for me over the last few years and is slowly transforming this Type A, anal nurse into a spontaneous adventurer.
Getting off the plane I was greeted with sunshine and a cool breeze. I was also weirded out by the fact they never checked my passport or sent me through customs when I entered the country. Maybe because I flew in from a E.U. country? In the U.S. it’s like, “Hold on a second there, missy! Who are you? What did you buy?” Blah, blah, blah. Just let me in already, I’m not a smuggler (except for that one time when I was 15 and brought a coconut from Hawaii in my bag. My dad was NOT happy). Anyways, that initial moment of entering a new country is always exciting but also a little stressful. Did my bag make it? Where is the public transport? How much does it cost? Is this my stop? But for some reason it was pretty simple. When in doubt, my rule is to do as the locals do. After some people watching and eavesdropping I figured out where to get Euros, where to buy a bus ticket, how to get it validated, and where to get off. I had a 45 minute bus ride into city center (specifically Syntagma Square) and then grabbed a taxi. My cab driver, George, was a gray haired older gentleman from Crete. Such a jokester. His English was limited but it was enough to laugh our way through a conversation and he kept saying, “Maybe you no understand me because your English is not so good!” As he drove, he pointed out areas to avoid at night (those where you might find “street ladies”) and he also gave me his daughter’s phone number because she lives on one of the islands I am visiting. Stellar guy all around and even tried to reject my tip.
I decided to get an AirBnB (if you have never AirBnB’d before, you should!) over a hostel because I wanted the opportunity to hopefully meet and chat with locals. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: the best thing about travel is learning how other people do life. To see God’s creativity. To be reminded that my life is not the only way there is to live. This AirBnB was inhabited by small Greek family in an apartment outside the center of Athens. It was a little unnerving when I arrived because I knocked and knocked and knocked with no answer. It really sucks having no phone data. So I started kind of half shouting- “Helllllllo?! Anyone hooome?” Then I finally noticed an intercom panel for all the apartments. Duh, Miriam. But of course, all the names were in Greek writing. In result, I pretty much annoyed half of the complex with random button pressing and questioning until I found the right one.
Irene, the 18 year old daughter of the family (and the English speaker I might add), welcomed me into their homey flat. Irene and her mother were incredibly warm and I was instantly glad I chose this place over the more expensive and a little more luxurious looking option that I was considering. We chatted about my travels a bit and her mother Vasso brought out drinks and some sort of jellied lemon dessert on a single spoon. I learned this isa common treat that is often brought out for unexpected company. It is made with fruit that is cooked down with the sole addition of sugar and lemon juice until it is very thick in texture and is referred to as a “spoon sweet.” There are many varieties of this dessert depending on what type of fruit or vegetable they use.
When I mentioned I was really hoping to learn about Greek cuisine, Vasso said she was more than happy to cook for me. Wonderful lady, that Vasso. She reminded me a lot of my Theta (‘theta’ means grandma in Arabic) and I was stoked to get a free cooking lesson and free food on my first night! Major winning. Vasso sent Irene and me to the local market to grab ingredients for a traditional Greek dish that I was actually familiar with- Moussaka! I grew up eating the Syrian version of this dish and was curious to compare the recipes. The dish itself is layers of eggplant and a meat tomato mixture. It’s very flavorful and generally heavy on the olive oil (my grandmother’s version is delish but greasier than I’d like). The major difference with the Greek version is the use of what they call bechamel which I can only describe as being similar to an Alfredo cream sauce. It’s a mixture of milk, eggs, yogurt, butter and cheese which is the very last layer and then sprinkled with a parmesan like cheese. It browns very nicely when it’s finished too. Their version also incorporated potatoes and zucchini which I have had before but my family doesn’t typically have these ingredients. The flavors were completely new to me because of the spices. Different but still delicious. They even gave me the recipe and Irene translated for Vasso while I recorded it down. After dinner, Irene had to study and even though Vasso has limited English we chatted for awhile, mainly just teaching each other words from our own native languages. Solid first night in Greece for sure.
The second morning I decided to do a walking tour with a new small start up company created by a few locals called Athens Insiders. The reviews were killer so I decided it would be worth the extra euros and I am really glad I did. The only one they had available yesterday was called Flavors of Athens and is basically a mini tour of downtown Athens with a heavy emphasis on Greek gastronomy and how it has been influenced by history. The tour guide, George (I am starting to think every male here is named George), also works as a private chef and arguably has the best job ever because he gets to spend time talking to people about his passion and eating while doing it. I pretty much had a private tour because there was only one other person (an older Swiss lady) on the tour. We basically walked to all the best food shops/cafes/restaurants trying all the major foods of a typical Athenian diet. This included traditional Greek coffee, dried fruit/nuts, souvlaki, sugar spoon, greek style donuts, cured meats/cheeses, and even some alcohol. George also took us to his favorite places to buy ingredients when he cooks. The fish and meat markets were smelly, loud, and wet but still interesting because George showed us how to look for good quality meat and pointed out the different varieties of seafood (seafood is his specialty). I also think it’s rare for a young woman to walk through the the meat/seafood market because I literally felt like a piece of meat. That male Grecian eye contact is some intense stuff. But George insisted they were all good guys and not to worry about it. We had to move semi quickly through the meat market anyway because it turned out that the Swiss lady was going to toss her cookies if we stayed for too long. I jokingly told her that it’s better up the attic than down the basement and either she didn’t understand my reference or was just really unamused…or maybe both. Note to self: nurse humor isn’t for everyone. Especially Eastern Europeans.
Here is a quick overview of some of the food I tried and where to find it: –Greek Coffee: The cafe we ventured to is the oldest coffee joint in Athens and has really interesting wall decor. But I’ll be honest, I am a coffee addict and while it was good, I don’t think I am that fond of Greek coffee. It is pretty unique in that it essentially self filters itself and you need to let it settle by letting the grounds fall to the bottom of the cup before drinking it. If you have ever had Turkish coffee before it is very similar minus the cardamom. We drank ours with a side of Turkish delights, pretzels, and a spoon sweet.
–Souvlaki: Had the pork version. Really good. I also learned that Greek pita bread is different from the pita bread I grew up with to because it’s made with yeast. That’s what makes Greek pita so fluffly anf thick. But it also means there is no “pocket” formed (pita pocket bread) meaning you can’t open it like the Middle Eastern variety of pita. –Variety of Mezzes: Mezzes is basically the Greek version of Spanish tapas. In our spread, we had dolmas (grape leaves), egg rolls, and a variety of cured meats, goat cheese, and bread.
–Loukoumades: I guess June 5th was National Donut Day in America so I was glad I still got to celebrate but Greek style. But these guys kick American donut holes out of the water. Loukoumades are fried balls of dough that are eaten warm and are soaked in a generous pour of honey and cinnamon. So good. –Tsipouru: Greek moonshine. It’s sharp yet smooth. Reminded me a lot of grappe, an Italian liquor that I tried in Tuscany years ago.
After the tour I asked George for directions to a neighborhood called Plaka. Jasmine had mentioned that she really liked this area and it was full of cobblestone streets, cool street art, and little shops. George insisted on taking me there so I got an hour extension on my tour, although now that it was one on one, it was a little more personal and we chatted about our own lives more than Greece itself. I think he was a bit worried I wouldn’t figure out how to get home so he walked me to my bus stop. Really nice guy and he wouldn’t accept my tip even though he had earlier explained that Greece’s current economic crisis had a lot of people relying on tourism and those extra tips. If you ever find yourself in Athens, I definitely recommend supporting this local company.
I don’t think I mentioned it before but my island hopping tour is through a local company called Med Experience and after my walking tour with George I headed to our first meeting point, the Athens International Youth Hostel. But more on that tomorrow. Five hours of this ferry ride down and two to go. Jet lag has been my personal demon on this trip and I literally have been sleeping 2-5 hours a night. Yesterday I even got a little crazy and…well I am embarrassed to even type it because I am afraid my bunkmates will read this…oh whatever. In my defense, I didn’t know she’d be on my tour with me until after I met her. I checked all the mattresses in our six bed dorm upon arrival to the hostel and the comfiest one was the one bunk that was already taken…so I locked the door and switched the mattress with my top bunk mattress. Which was not easy by myself in a small room, let me tell you. I know, I know, I’m crazy! But this lack of sleep is making me a little mad. In fact, I currently am sitting in a leather recliner in the Business Class Floor of the ferry (which I think you’re supposed to pay for) but ya girl is getting desperate for shut eye! I’m going to attempt a nap in these final two hours. Hopefully the ferry stewards don’t check my ticket and make me move. Wish me luck.
Cheers and keep on wishin’, Miriam