Archive for the ‘Greece’ Category

The Halpert Rodises Take Over Greece

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

My two and a half week spring break began on Wednesday afternoon, March 24. Most people left the weekend before, so the building was very quiet by the time I took the express train to Athens on Thursday morning. I saw Mom, Dad, Sam and Aaron for the first time in 2 months in the lobby of the Niki Hotel (just a few blocks away from Syntagma Square) once they got back from watching the Independence Day Parade.  It was really wonderful to see all of them, and after loads of hugs and kisses, we and headed upstairs to the room to prepare for the day.

This was my first time in Athens, so I became a tourist once again.  We went to Syntagma Square where there was a protest going on (surprise surprise), walked through the nearby National Gardens and saw the Zappeion, an old but beautiful fencing hall for the first summer Olympics. We then explored the area around the Acropolis which had an old city feel where there was an endless amount whitewashed houses covered in artistic graffiti and stray cats sitting atop motorcycles and hiding behind potted flowers. We didn’t go to the actual Acropolis because it was closed: it was independence day!

After lunch we walked around Monastiraki where Sam tried haggling with African street vendors for a crappy watch (which he did not buy, thanks to Mom’s warnings), we found the Jewish synagogue in Athens, and watched “Peruvians” perform street music while dressed as Native Americans in huge headdresses. It was quite a busy day and none of us had trouble going to sleep that night.

The next day, Friday March 26, we went through the same old village to get to the Acropolis. Sam was happy to do so because he accidentally deleted all of his pictures the night before, so he was able to capture the graffiti once again. It was 12:30 and we were all hungry, so before we went to the Acropolis, we decided to get lunch. We got a lot of appetizers and shared, happily eating the tasty feta, Greek salad, and meatballs on our plates. Our moods soon turned sour though when we walked back to the Acropolis. The gates were closed and we were not allowed inside, even though it was only 2pm. The reason? We weren’t there during the peak season! They closed at 1pm that day.

Xoriatiki (Greek Salad)

We were disheartened and walked along the path that went around those ancient ruins. On our walk, we found the Acropolis Museum. It had just been renovated less than a year before we were there. The main reason for this is because other countries like England, France, and Germany were keeping ancient Greek art and ruins in their museums after they had been stolen from Greece hundreds of years ago. Their excuse for why they still had these artifacts was because Greece did not have a place to properly care for these items. Greece has now proved them wrong. Their new Acropolis Museum is beautiful and the art in it is astounding. There was also a great view of the Acropolis from their outdoor patio where Aaron did some sketches of the ruins. Those other countries had better get their acts together and give them their stuff back!

After the museum, we walked up steep streets to make it to the fenicular railway, which took us up to the top of Mount Lycabettus. Mount Lycabettus is a small mountain that is the highest point in Athens. In mythology, it was said that the goddess Athena accidentally dropped the mountain there while carrying  it to the Acropolis. A beautiful mistake. We were there at night and could see the whole city, its lights glowing at us while the city’s noise was on mute.

After being on the mountain, we went to dinner in the Plaka at a great restaurant. Mom asked the owner if we could have baklava for dessert, and he said no, “baklava is tourist food” and they mostly got locals. After not eating tourist food, we raced over to Syntagma Square and watched the changing of the guards. Quite an entertaining dance with army men in traditional skirts. We went to take a picture with one of the guards and he got mad at me for standing on his right side. Because he wasn’t allowed to speak, he instead banged his rifle on the marble beneath his feet, indicating that I was doing something wrong. I got the picture, scooted over to his left, and stood there solemnly, though the camera got me with a terrified look on my face. It was great blackmail material.

The next day, we finally made it to the Acropolis. We got up early, bought super classy sunscreen (“coppertone? do you want to fry?” – Pharmacist) and hiked up to the top. It was very very crowded with student tour groups and people speaking hundreds of languages all around us. It was an intense experience but we made the best of it. Mom played tour guide and read to us from the Lonely Planet tour book about the ruins that surrounded us. The view of the city was phenomenal, and we even thought we could spot our hotel from there.

Sounio - The Temple of Poseidon

Mom and Dad heard from Uncle Pano that they should go to Sounio, the area of the Temple of Poseidon, at sunset. The bus comes every hour, and by the time we found the the bus stop, we had just missed it. So we waited for a long time and finally boarded it at 5pm, along with a large group of Spaniards. The trip was long and took about an hour and a half, but it was beautiful. Blue waters surrounded us as dusk set in and we passed through many small towns.  By the time we got there, it was almost sunset. As we all walked to the temple, a woman closed the gates. We spoke at her in anger, asking how she could close up shop after we had taken such a long ride and had all paid to get there? She remained firm and repeated that the site closed at sunset. One Greek woman tried reasoning with her and she screamed back at her. Oh well. We walked on the island that surrounded the temple and looked at the ground that almost looked red, and the incredibly blue sea that was surrounding us. The temple looked beautiful behind the sun, with colors exploding behind it.

The next morning, we said goodbye to Athens and left for Delphi. Mom and Dad decided to rent a large white Fiat van which would become the family car for a week. The trip took around 4 hours and was gorgeous yet again. Before we got to our destination, we went through a town called Arachova that was clearly a ski town. There were woolen sweaters and caps hanging from store windows and the place was not very populated because of the season.

We checked into the Sun View Pension, a family run hotel with a beautiful view of the Corinthian Gulf. We went for a walk around the small town and went into the small church to see the art. There were more people than usual because it was the middle of holy week. We then went down to the main street where we found a light dinner and then went to bed. The next day, we went to the site of the Oracle where there were numerous ruins and gorgeous views. Mom played tour guide again, though none of us were quite sure what ruin was what. I did come to the conclusion that Delphi is definitely one of the most beautiful places that I have ever encountered. Well worth the visit.

Delphi

Later that day, we took another 4 hour trip and drove to the town of Kastraki, the small town closest to Meteora and right next to the larger town of Kalambaka. On the way, we stopped on the water to skip rocks and enjoy the view. The Greek country side really is beautiful. We got to Kastraki at dusk and walked down to the central part of town which includes 2 small markets and a few restaurants. We went to a small taverna and then went to bed at the Doupiani House where there were some views of pretty spectacular geological enigmas.

The next morning we checked out and drove up to Meteora, home of monasteries atop huge jutting cliffs. I don’t need to describe it because I already did in a previous post when I went there with my school some weeks before, but I can tell you that it was a different experience. Because of holy week, some of the monasteries were closed which meant there were a lot less people. It was bright and sunny this time, and the last time it was hazy and gray. And I can’t say I enjoyed one experience more than the other – they were just different and I had a blast each time. When I was in one monastery, I lit a candle for Papou. He would have loved it there.

A Candle for Papou at Meteora

We then drove to Thessaloniki. I neglected to mention this before, but throughout the entire trip, I was sick. I got worse and worse as time progressed, so by the time I got to Thessaloniki, all I wanted to do was curl up in bed and sleep forever. So the next day, I went to a pharmacy with my parents where we met Nana, a very kind pharmacist in her late 60s who, to my surprise, spoke very good English. She immediately called her personal doctor and made an appointment for me on the spot. We thanked her and walked downtown and found the doctor’s apartment where he worked. As we walked in, a woman was leaving and stared at me for a second. After noticing my chai necklace, she said “Eisai Evraika?” Are you Jewish? Nai, I responded, I was. She gave me a bright smile and left.

We waited in his old waiting room for about 10 minutes. Mozart’s “Requiem” played in the background and all I could think was that, for some reason,  it was totally appropriate. When he called us in, it because clear that he did not speak English and I did not speak Greek. I would pantomime my problems and dad would translate back. The doctor took me into his examination room, looked me over, and figured out that I had bronchitis. His prescription? 4 different medications including antibiotics, 5 oranges a day, 2 glasses of tea, and 1 bowl of soup. Awesome. By the next day, I felt lightyears better but the family had to go. It was a lot of fun and I missed them instantly, but I was excited for my next trip: Paris!

Istanbul… or whatever you call it

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

Istanbul. A city with many names and vibrant with color. The Greeks call it Constantinople; named after the Emperor Constantine of the 3rd century BCE and also call it εἰς τὴν πόλι (eis tin poli), meaning “to the city.” This is where the name “Istanbul” got its origin.

When speaking with Olga and Kostas and other Greeks, it was often a struggle for me to say “I went to Constantinople this weekend!” Instead, it would be something more like “I went to Istan… ::cough cough:: uhh Constantinople this weekend!” Of course, everyone knows that Istanbul is the official name and the name that most people use, but most Greeks that I’ve encountered believe that Constantinople is their city. As Olga said to me, “isn’t it just a tragedy that the Turks stole our land right out from under us?” After experiencing the wonders of Istanbul first-hand, all I could do was nod and sip my coffee in response.

On Thursday, March 11th, my friends Jacob, Aidan and I took a 10 hour bus from Thessaloniki to Istanbul. We contemplated the comfy sleeper train option but decided to save the 50 euros and just deal with sleeping on bus seats. During our ride, we met some students who go to the local huge university, Aristotle University (Αριστοτέλειο Πανεπιστήμιο). There were some from Spain, one from Italy, a few from Athens and Thessaloniki, and one from Cyprus. The Cypriot named Christos looked a bit like a dirty pirate but was the friendliest and most outgoing of them all. We encountered this group again on the way home and we all exchanged numbers, knowing that we had to hang out with this fun crowd again.

Breakfast in Istanbul

We arrived in Istanbul at 8am, ready to conquer the city. The first thing we did was find a map of Istanbul and grab breakfast near the heart of the city. As we entered the restaurant, I noticed that all of the tables were pretty short and the chairs small. This would be a common theme in restaurants we would visit throughout the weekend. We went up to the counter and asked the man what he had to offer for breakfast and pointed out multiple options, including “meat soup.” While Jake and Aidan thought that sounded like a great idea, “meat soup” did not sound so appetizing to me so I opted for hard boiled eggs, bread, and a coffee. As he rang up my total, I asked “Πόσο κάνει” or “how much?” in Greek. After he gave me a confused look, I realized that I truly was not in Greece anymore, turned beet red and handed him a 5 lira note. Fortunately, breakfast was worth the embarrassment and we all felt content and ready to explore!

We walked for about 15 minutes and found our first historical monument – the hippodrome. Within the hippodrome are two impressive structures being the Egyptian obelisk and the Serpentine column. The Egyptian obelisk is especially beautiful because of the many reliefs of royal families, musicians and chariot races that were around 1400 BCE. The Walled Obelisk from the 10th is also beautiful because of its height and shows a major contrast between its material and that of the pink granite that was used for the Egyptian obelisk. They were both very cool to see and Jake being the book worm (or would it now be Wikiworm?) that he is was excited to share all he knew about these obelisks.

Our next stop was the Blue Mosque (AKA Sultan Ahmed Mosque), a huge mosque from the early 1600s famous for the blue tiles that surround the mosque’s exterior walls. Everyone was required to take off their shoes before going inside and had their bags checked – a process that was difficult for us weary travelers who still had on our massive backpacks. We made it into the mosque which was simply a massive carpeted space with large chandeliers hanging down from the ceiling. It was incredibly crowded and noisy inside and was impressed with the very few men who were praying in an area blocked off from tourists. After the Blue Mosque, we walked across a small park and into Hagia Sophia – the massive Orthodox church that was converted into a mosque in the early 1400s. The church was unlike anything I had ever seen. It is a non-functioning religious building whose purpose is simply that of a museum but still has large Arabic inscriptions all throughout its interior. All of the mosaics and icons were painted/plastered over or destroyed during the reign of the Ottoman Empire but luckily, a few have been dug up and saved. It was incredible to see such a clash of culture throughout history being displayed in one area. I felt very lucky to be there. Before we left the church, we all took turns putting our fingers in the “wishing column” and turning our hands as many degrees as possible to make our wishes come true.

Once we left Hagia Sophia, we sat in the park and used the free WiFi to e-mail our couchsurfing host about a time to meet up at his apartment. As we were leaving, our ears were flooded with the sound of the call to prayer. Men stopped in their tracks and lined up in rows behind and inside mosques, praying with their eyes closed. It was a beautiful display of unanimity and focus amidst a city full of chaos.

We met up with Aidan’s friend Jenny who is studying abroad in Istanbul and she took us to a restaurant for a “traditional” Turkish lunch. I had chicken and rice (put simply) for 12 Turkish Lira… or 6 euros. The quality of the meat wasn’t that great but the spices were what made the dish special. After we all chatted for a while, we walked a few steps further and into the Turkish Grand Bazaar. It was a massive colorful space dedicated to shopping and the art of bargaining. The vendors would catch mine or Jenny’s eye and say sweetly “hello beautiful lady, can I interest you in this carpet/ring/purse/bowl?” At one point, a vendor yelled out to me, “hey woman – come spend your money here!” I couldn’t contain myself and burst out laughing as I walked away.  A second later, the vendor yelled “hey! You dropped something!” When I turned around to look and found nothing on the ground, the shopkeeper yelled “you dropped… MY HEART!”

After we all took turns bargaining over souvenirs, we headed out into the rain and then ducked into a coffee shop for some nice chai tea. Chai and apple teas are very popular in Istanbul, so its moderately cheap to buy. I developed an addiction for chai tea by the end of the weekend because it was so good. After that, we walked over the Galata Bridge to get over to Taksim Square, the ever popular Westernized shopping district of Istanbul. As we were walking, we looked out over the water and saw a bright rich orange sunset with the blue mosque in the background. It was incredible and we all knew that this was one of those sunsets that a person sees only a very few times in his or her lifetime.

We parted with Jenny and took the 70KE bus to Kurtulus, the neighborhood where our couchsurfing host Kemal lives. The streets are extremely narrow and even though the area is quieter than downtown Istanbul, the drivers surrounding us were just as crazy. After we walked through twisty, narrow roads, we finally found Kemal’s apartment. We got let inside the building by another tenant, ran upstairs to the top floor, and rang the doorbell, ready to rid ourselves of our backpacks and anxious to meet our Couchsurfing host (to find out more about the Couchsurfing project, go to www.couchsurfing.org/). We waited there for 5 minutes and realized that Kemal really wasn’t there. We found a cafe around the corner called Merve and sat there for an hour and a half, eating our desserts, drinking our coffees and definitely overstaying our welcome.

We finally worked up the courage to try getting into the apartment one more time. As I rang the doorbell, I was filled with dread, thinking that our host simply forgot about us. However, seconds after the doorbell rang , the buzzer went off allowing us into the apartment building. When we got upstairs, the door was open and we were greeted by a Turkish man in his late 30s/ early 40s who looked nothing like the pictures that Kemal had up on his Couchsurfing profile. He must have seen the confused look on our faces because he immediately told that his name was Metin and that he is Kemal’s best friend since childhood. Kemal was apparently called to do last minute work in the city (he’s a very well known Turkish photographer) so Metin would be our host in Kemal’s stead. Metin turned out to be a very nice person and a supremely gracious host, doing anything and everything for us. I feel so grateful to have met him!

The next person that we met in the apartment was Jurgen, a tenant renting a room from Kemal upstairs. Jurgen is from Munich, Germany and I think it’s sufficient to say that he’s the epitome of a crazy racist German skinhead. Don’t believe me? Just send me a message and I’ll send back some incredible quotes that no one could make up themselves. On the plus side, he made us some good meals. Thanks Jurgen.

On the Bosphorous

We passed out at 10pm and woke up at 8am, refreshed and ready to take on Istanbul. After taking a cab we made it to the port at 9:30am to take a boat tour of the Bosphorous. We all grabbed chai teas and munched on crackers while we looked out to the sea. It was very cool to be on top of the tangible border that divides Europe from Asia. While we were in the midst of two continents, I couldn’t stop thinking of how similar the entire sight was to the Hudson dividing New York and New Jersey. The boat stopped at one point to pick up passengers from the Asiatic side so Jake, Aidan and I jumped off for a few seconds before someone yelled at us to get back on the boat. I still reserve the right to say that I went to Asia during that boat ride. The boat tour only lasted around an hour and a half but it was definitely worth the ride!

The three of us with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He's a really chill dude.

We were hungry by the time we got off the boat, so we stopped at a sandwich stand and ate at the short tables outside. We got pita sandwiches that the shop owner could only describe as “lamb bit sandwich.” I’m not sure which part of the lamb was used but whatever was in it made the sandwich spicy and delicious! After that, we visited the gardens that surrounded Topkapi Palace. We didn’t go into the palace because the entrance fee was pricey, so the gardens were beautiful enough for us. Flowers were in bloom and fountains and statues surrounded us. It couldn’t have been better! On our walk back to the center of Istanbul, we passed a travel agency and since we had been planning on traveling to Romania at some point, I said “Oh, I wonder if they have information on Romania?” As soon as I said this, a woman sitting at a table near us said “What did you say about Romania?!” Her tone was a little frightening but I responded by saying that we wanted to go to Romania. She said she was Romanian and she absolutely insisted that we sit down with her so she could tell us all about her homeland. Her name was Oana Christina and she was definitely an intense personality with her colt blue eyes, deliberate speech and her cigarette smoke blowing in our faces. She wouldn’t let us leave without giving her our contact information first, so I gave her an old e-mail address.

Lamb-bit Sandwich

We found the old cistern that has been around since the 6th century and marveled at the mutated fish in the water, the old heads of Medusa, and the neat orange lighting that made the space look so eerie. After that we met up with Jenny at a really cool hookah bar, aka nargileh in Turkish. We sat in comfy beanbag chairs and played gin rummy while the three of them smoked hookah. I had at least 6 cups of chai and apple tea and I couldn’t have been happier. When they were done smoking, we went back to Kemal’s place to change and went to Ishtikar to experience the nightlife. I had a lot of fun dancing and meeting people from Istanbul. When we left to go home, we saw vendors all over the streets selling mussels. I decided to get over my seafood phobia and eat a mussel. I tried it and… loved it! It was stuffed with rice and had all sorts of spices and lemon drizzled over it. You should be proud, mom and dad :)

The next day (Sunday) was really sad because we had to say our goodbyes to both Metin and to Istanbul, a city that I grew to love over such a short period of time. I took pictures of the apartment, of Metin by himself and with us, and we headed out. We grabbed instructions from Metin on one of the best Turkish bathhouses in the area, so we hopped in a cab armed with the name and address of the Buyuk Hamam. We drove for at least 20 minutes and the taxi driver stopped 3 times to ask various people if they knew where the hamam was. We finally found it and parted ways because the bathhouse was split up by gender.

Because we were pretty far outside central Istanbul, there were few to zero tourists in the area and I was definitely the only tourist at the Büyük Hamam. The woman at the front desk was very helpful and was able to tell me that for a scrub down and a massage, I would be charged 24 liras. I paid upfront and was then led to a changing room where I was told to take everything off and was given just a towel. When I finished getting undressed, a kind older woman who spoke no English at all brought me through 2 rooms and into a large, very warm room that was filled with marble sinks that contained incredibly hot water. I sat next to one of the sinks and awkwardly splashed water on myself, seeing others do the same but with shampoo and soap that they had brought from home. This was obviously a bonding experience for women because it seemed as though this communal washing was a normal ritual. There were women as old as 70 years old and there were young mothers with their daughters in diapers, washing themselves and chatting away. I felt really uncomfortable because it was obvious that I was there for different reasons – I was the only white person who couldn’t speak Turkish, I wasn’t there with a friend to bond with, and I was being washed by a woman who worked there as opposed to washing myself. Naturally, I got a lot of stares. At the end of the entire experience, I felt a lot more clean but a lot more tense. I’m very glad that I did it though! There isn’t anything like a really authentic Turkish bath.

Mosaic in the Chora Church

Jake, a devout orthodox Christian had one goal while he was in Istanbul and that was to see the Chora Church. We took a cab to the old byzantine church and stepped inside. This church does not exist as a working church but as a museum to house the incredible mosaics devoted to saints and scenes from the New Testament that cover every inch of wall and ceiling in the building. It was incredible. After we got our fill of Chora, we got to the bus station, ate some Chinese food (yes, Chinese in Turkey!) and drove home. We arrived in Thessaloniki on Monday morning at 8:00 and went to school 3 hours later.

To see more photos of my trip to Istanbul, go to these links:

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2040046&id=1332240186&l=f056a2224a

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2040082&id=1332240186&l=490f8ae3ca

ΠΑΟΚ!

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

Outside of the Stadium

Flares at ΠΑΟΚ Stadium

Wednesday, March 10
6:00pm

In America, our most popular sporting events tend to be football, baseball and basketball. In Greece (and the majority of Europe I’m sure), the sport of choice is always soccer. One of the first experiences that I had while I was here was when I was at a taverna with a group of friends. The restaurant’s television showed a soccer game that was being played in Athens. About a quarter of the way through the game, the tv crew stopped covering the game itself but instead began to focus on the audience. Why you may ask? What is more entertaining than watching men wander across a large field and go after a ball for 2 hours? First of all, in my opinion, everything. But for the tv crew, the factor that drove attention away from the riveting soccer game was the fact that a riot had started in the stands. On the right side of the tv screen was policemen with their shields up, looking more frightened than authoritative. On the left side of the screen was angry men with adrenaline rushing to their heads, throwing flares at the police and shouting obscenities at the tops of their lungs.

So, when I was invited to go with a group of ACTers to watch a soccer game this weekend, I weighed my options. I could either have a wild and crazy time at the soccer game and have a risk of getting seriously injured OR I could stay home and write my Anthropology paper. Obviously the first option won out… and to those who are worried about my academics, I’ll have you know that I ended up acing that paper!

Six of us Americans decided to go on our maiden voyage via bus over to our first soccer games ever about half an hour before the game started. The game was between ΠΑΟΚ (PAOK), the best or second best soccer team in Thessaloniki and Panthrakikos, a minor team from Thrace. When we arrived at ΠΑΟΚ stadium, we passed kiosks full of ΠΑΟΚ paraphernalia such as black and white hats and scarves and friends and families gathered around card tables who were finishing off their retzinas and coke. Their form of tailgating at games is much more sophisticated than how us beer-crazed Americans go about it. We had to hunt down the admissions office for Gate 6 and paid 25 euros to get into the game. One of the biggest differences between ΠΑΟΚ stadium and the American stadiums that I’ve been to is that all of the sales for food and souveniers is done outside the stadium. Inside the stadium is all about the game with no material distractions. Another difference is the fact that the food being sold consisted of skewers of meat (σουβλάκι), roasted seeds and walnuts. People were also selling large squares of styrofoam. It took us a while to figure out what they were for but one of the people I was with recognized that the salesmen were yelling the Greek word μαξιλάρι which means pillow. My friends Aidan and Niko bought some for 50 lepta each.

We had to walk through censors and had to be checked and patted down. When we got into the massive stadium, there was a sea of people wearing black and white in the stands and two teams dueling on the field with all eyes on the ball. We found our section and sat down on our cold hard bucket seats. I found myself envying Aidan and Niko’s styrofoam pillows. Up in the stands in the most infamous area known as Gate 4, there was a mass of people jumping up and down to the beat of a massive drum that could be heard throughout the stadium. They were chanting words known by heart that could only be about pride for ΠΑΟΚ. At various times, people could be seen shoving each other in the excitement and then some would fall like dominoes down the decline of the stands.

I learned that whistling is the same thing as “boo” – a distracting sound made when the opposing team has the ball. I also learned that when a goal is made, it is perfectly acceptable to shout as loudly as possible, shove anyone around you and light flares. That’s right. Flares. It is also acceptable to throw the flares toward the very same field that your favorite soccer stars are playing on. After the second goal that ΠΑΟΚ scored, the smoke was so thick that it was hard to see the other side of the stadium.

We all decided to leave 10 minutes before the game ended. We were very cold and very tired and a little apprehensive of what the crowd would be like at the game’s end. We waited for the bus home but soon found out that because of the game, the bus was cancelled. So, we walked along the busy roads for 20 minutes to find a cab. Aidan used his Bostonian cab-hailing skills and finally got us a taxi.

At the end of the day I was very cold and tired but the entire experience was totally worth it. And ΠΑΟΚ won 3-0. Go ΠΑΟΚ!

To see pictures from the game, go here: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2039325&id=1332240186&l=4a872988e9

Meteora

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

Monday, March 1
6:45pm

After a complimentary breakfast that consisted of lemon pound cake, Greek yogurt, and a hardboiled egg with coffee, I boarded the bus along with the rest of the group. Our destination: Meteora, the land of monasteries atop huge drop-off cliffs. In Greek, the word Μετέωρα (Meteora) literally translates into “suspended rocks,” and because these cliffs are so huge and high up, it really looks as though they are floating in the sky.

Our drive to the town of Kalavaka (the area that Meteora is in) from Ioannina was quite the experience. The day was very cloudy and rainy so there wasn’t much to see except for what was right in front of us. That being said, I could mostly see huge drops that all of us could have fallen through because the windy road was so incredibly narrow and the bus driver seemed to be confident that his speed at around 110 kmph would be fine to get us through without a scratch. Surrounding us was nothing but farmland and mountains off in the distance and here we were on this crazy stretch of road… it really felt like being in a scene from a movie.

Once we got to the first monastery, our guide came out of the bus and told us to simply have a look around. What I saw was insane. There were these incredible monasteries practically hanging on cliffs that are so high that you cannot see the bottom of them. In the background were other large mountains and skies that stretched as far as the eye could see. I could not believe I was here. It was a dream. The first monastery we went into was dedicated to St. Stephen, a monastery that endured capture and damage by the nazis during WWII and was later taken over and restored by nuns. It is one of the smaller monasteries out of the 6 that remain (there used to be over 20 monasteries) but is very beautiful.

We were greeted by sweet nuns who directed us women to the section where we had to put on either elastic waist or wrap around skirts that went past our ankles. Our guide from school told us about the ways monasteries function, their histories, and about the roles of monks within these monasteries.  The only reason why tourists are allowed within the monasteries is because they cannot exist without the proceeds from tourism. Before we entered the sanctuary, we were all allowed to light candles as long as we donated some form of money. I dropped two coins in and lit two candles – one for the memory of Papou and one to honor Yiayia. We then entered a room filled with gorgeous murals depicting heaven and hell, the creation story, martyrs, and more. It was absolutely beautiful and awe-inspiring. The interesting thing about the mural rooms of both the monastery of St. Stephen and the Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron was the fact that the old paintings from hundreds of years ago had the faces of martyrs, mother Mary and Jesus scratched out. This is because when the Ottoman Empire was in power, they scratched the faces out of the murals to take away from the beauty and power of the religious paintings.

After the monastery dedicated to St. Stephen, we went to the Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron. This is the largest monastery out of the six that remained over time. It is very high up and only can be reached through crossing a bridge and climbing numerous stairs. Apparently in earlier days, the best way to reach the monastery was via a cable and a basket large enough to carry one normal sized person. The monastery was so well isolated that it was used as a safe-haven for many Greeks during WWII and actually became the site of a battle or two because the monks fought back. While it may seem strange that peace loving monks would be so involved in war, its because they were fighting to preserve the Greek people – an ethnicity that is so entwined with Greek Orthodoxy. If the ethnicity ceased to exist, the future of the religion would become dim.

To check out my pictures from Ioannina and Meteora, go here: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2038856&id=1332240186&l=1f1d7c1d5e

Ioannina

Monday, March 8th, 2010

Ioannina's Coast

Sunday, February 28
9:00pm

Yesterday, 47 of us ACTers got on the bus to Ioannina and Meteora (pronounced Yanina and Mehtayora) for the weekend. The first place we were going to was Ioannina; a beautiful old city in the North Western corner of Greece. To be honest, I found that the destination wasn’t the real attraction – bus ride could have been enough. We drove through the most spectacular mountains I have ever seen in my life. We went into tunnel after tunnel because the land was so dense with mountains that it was hard to avoid them. But coming out of those tunnels was glorious. There were mountains surrounding higher snow-capped mountains with the sun glistening off their huge slopes. Seeing the clouds and the sun mesh together and create shadows on the mountains was actually enough to make me tear up. I swear I saw that thing that is G-d as we were driving; that ever encompassing, beautiful feeling, sight, and action. I don’t think I could ever forget it.

Once we arrived in Ioannina, we left our things at the Alexandros Hotel and went for a walk through the city to get to the Perama Cave. It was huge and brought me back to the few times when I went with Kathy (and maybe Poppie when I was younger) to the Lost River Caverns in Pennsylvania and then to the Luray Caverns with Mom, Dad, Sam, and Aaron on our Virginia vacation two years ago. It was fun to see the reactions of people who hadn’t ever been in a cave before and to relearn how stalactites and stalacmites are formed. And I always love smelling that sweet fresh-water smell that goes along with delving deeper and deeper into the cave.

After our cave adventure, our tour guide (an art history professor at ACT) brought us along the water of Ioannina and into the fortress… it seems as though every Grecian city has one of these. Our guide told us that the Emperor Justinian built the fortress in the 4th century in order to keep the city safe from various intruders. You can still see ruins and canons (and canon balls!) today. Along with the ruins, all of us were able to see the water and the mountains, coming together to create a picture-perfect scene. As we walked back through the fortress, we took the long way so we could go through the old city. The streets were lined with cobblestones and the houses were small and colorful. A group of us tried to fit inside a hidden-away cafe inside the fortress but it was so popular that there wasn’t enough room for all of us! After the fortress we were allowed to go explore the city and grab dinner. Megan, Natalie and I went to a taverna and got a Greek-style meal and all together we paid 5 euros each. Not bad at all. After dinner we went back to the hotel, had a dance party, and went to sleep in great anticipation for the next day’s trip to Meteora!

Hamantaschen and Tzatziki Sauce

Sunday, March 7th, 2010

Homemade Hamantaschen

Saturday, February 27
5:20pm

The coming weekend was Purim, a holiday that, as I tell my friends here, is the Jewish version of the Greek celebration of Carnaval: Halloween and Fat Tuesday rolled up into one. Every year as a way to celebrate Purim, I have always made the traditional three-sided hamantaschen cookie in honor of Purim. However, because I was going on a trip over the weekend, I decided to make the cookies on the Friday before. I invited the one other Jewish person at ACT to come over to my apartment to make hamantaschen and she readily agreed to my proposal.

Jenesse, Alicia and I all started the baking process as my roommate Laura slept, not ever waking up to the banging of a pot or the spray of the water. We used grandma’s famous hamantaschen recipe (thanks grandma!) and rolled the dough out on top of the mini-fridge with my roommate’s Smirnoff bottle because it was the object closest to the shape of a rolling pin. We used strawberry and raspberry jams in place of prune, apple, or apricot butter for the filling and stuck the cookies into the toaster-oven, waiting for it to bake with our fingers crossed. When we took out the cookies, they were a little burnt on the bottom but were so fluffy, warm, and delicious that the burnt part hardly mattered. I invited a bunch of friends from the apartment complex to come down and try the ever scrumptious cookies (and it was a hit!).

After Jenesse and I ate a few cookies, we grabbed our jackets and left to find Yad Lezicaron, a local synagogue that I heard  about from my Anthropology professor earlier that day. I was told that the services were at 6:00 but we got to the building at 8:00. By that time, the services were over and the synagogue doors were locked. Fortunately, the security guard was in the lobby and told us that we could go to the 8th floor where the rabbi and the community center is. Yes… there is an 8th floor because the synagogue and the community center are located in what seems to be an office complex. So, Jenesse and I got into the Shabbat-friendly elevator (it automatically takes you up to the 8th floor without pushing a button) and walked through glass doors with large stars of David engraved on them.

We entered into a place with little children running in and out of their large play room, adults chatting in another room, and a few younger men sitting with their feet resting on the desk of the lobby, eyeing us with bored yet slightly ornery looks. It was obvious that they weren’t going to ask us any questions – we had to explain ourselves. I introduced myself and Jenesse and explained that we were Jewish students from America who were looking for a Jewish community to be apart of while we were here in Thessaloniki for a few months. They called a young woman over who looked to be very busy, pushing a cart full of things around and writing on her clipboard. After they explained why we were there in Greek the woman looked at us, rolled her eyes and sighed and told us to follow her.

The woman took us into another very large room equipped with foosball, a stage with a baby grand piano, couches, flat screens, and long tables that were in a horse-shape that were in the process of being set for Shabbat dinner (remember: in Greece, dinner is eaten after 9pm). The woman introduced herself as Julie and brought us over to another woman named Daniella. Daniella looked to be in her low to mid-twenties and was very kind. We talked to a little while and found out that they were having dinner at around 9:30. At this point it was 8:30, so she invited us to come back for “Kabbalat Shabbat” (a term that, in the states, is essentially a Shabbat service right before the sun sets) and eat with them for dinner. So, we left to get some coffee and came back in an hour.

We met the rabbi named Aaron, another guy named Isaac, a man named Shlomo, and more incredibly nice women. It turned out that the room we were in was for the adolescents and these adults were running the show. The rest of the adults were having their own celebration in another room. The rabbi started the service off with a prayer that had the exact same melody as the prayer both Jenesse and I grew up with in the states. He then blessed the wine (a slightly different melody than the one I’m familiar with) and blessed the challah bread. After that, there was a huge feast. There were numerous salads, pizzas, breads, tzatziki sauce, spanikopita, tiropita, souvlakis, pastries, and more. This to me was so beautiful, not because the food was great (and believe me, it was!) but because it truly blended together the two parts of my life that are so important.

I asked someone if there was some way for us to pay for the wonderful meal that we took part in and she said no. The community already paid for it. I still want to find some way to pay them back for the wonderful hospitality that we encountered when we were there. We were invited back to the Purim party on Saturday night and I had to regretfully decline the invite because we were going on a school trip over the weekend. So, they said it was fine and that we should show up any time. They gave us their phone numbers and told us to call if we needed anything at all.

One of the things that really stood out to me while I was at the synagogue was that all of the kids were so happy to be there. They all seemed relaxed and in joyful moods. This is not something you see at my synagogue (or any synagogue) at home! Sure, there’ll be a few kids who really want to go to services or go to Hebrew school, but the majority would rather be somewhere else. The reason why these kids were so content just being at synagogue is because they have all grown up together. Generations upon generations of Sephardic Jews have been going to this synagogue and have lived as a family, close-knit as can be. There are 1,000 known Jews in Thessaloniki and they all belong to Yad Lezicaron. This place is astounding.

Finding the Synagogi

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

The Synagogue Monasteriotone

Wednesday, February 24
10:50pm

Yesterday, I found that I was out of cash. That’s when I remembered that I hadn’t exchanged all of my US bills into Euros when I was at the airport; a time that seems like a lifetime ago. So, I brought my passport along with me to exchange money at one of the many banks like I was told to do by my RA. I absolutely hate carrying my passport around with me, so I clung to it (as it was hidden from others) for dear life as I walked through the streets and stood in lines.

When I got to the bank near my apartment, it was absolutely packed. I had to stand in “line” (what was more of a clump) for over half an hour. When I finally reached the front, the teller said that they didn’t exchange money and that I’d have to go to another bank a couple of blocks away. So, I walked to the other bank, waited in line, and got a similar response with its teller explaining that I needed to go to another bank that’s just a few blocks away. This happened twice more and, with no more luck, I decided to walk toward Plateia Aristotelous.

As I walked, I chanced upon the synagogue on Syngrou street that Olga and Kostas had so kindly shown me on Sunday. It is a large building with a big star toward the top and had Hebrew over the doorway. It had a quiet but beautiful presence about it and I could not shy away. I wanted to explore so I attempted to open a side door, but it was locked. The front doors were gated off – a sign that this synagogue is not in regular use. Just outside of the synagogue is a very small metal rectangular building with one-way glass where a security guard is stationed. I knocked on the door and asked the security guard if he knew anything about when the synagogue may be open. His response was that it was his first day, so he knew nothing, but I should talk to the owner of the cafe next door. I went to the cafe and asked the owner about the synagogue. He knew very little English but was able to tell me that the synagogue is only open on Sunday mornings at 10:00am. Of course, this does not make any sense because the sabbath is from Friday night to Saturday night. I need to do some more investigative research.

As I walked away from the synagogue and toward Plateius Aristotelus, I happened to come across an exchange center! After all that work, I found it and was finally able to get my money. And they didn’t even check for a passport. Figures.

Hong Kong in Ελλάδα

Monday, March 1st, 2010

Tuesday, February 23
6:30pm

After school yesterday, I got on the bus with 4 other people including ACT’s volunteer coordinator to get to Arsis, Thessaloniki’s refugee center. We got to the meeting place a little early, so some students stopped to get gyros at Aristotle Square before we headed over to Arsis. The building was extremely understated in a way that looked almost abandoned and hidden away from the rest of the world. The door was dark with paint chipping off and there was graffiti on the side of the building. The inside, however, was a different story. As I walked up the stairs through the colorful tiled hallways and toward the stained glass doors of the refugee center, some young teens ran past me, laughing and racing their way down the stairs. Others passed with somber looks on their faces.

As the 7 of us volunteers entered the main area of the center, we encountered the smiles of strangers, all adult coordinators and volunteers ready to receive us and show us the ropes. The man who spoke the most is the director of Arsis. He explained that the kids who come to the center are refugees from all over the world (most are from Afghanistan). These teenagers are all here on their own and left their countries so they could either find a better life for themselves or to work and send their money back home to their families. Greece is generally a pit-stop for a few months before they find their way to another country with a better economy.

The director also added that a lot of these kids were never “socialized” because they didn’t have a family to teach them manners and/or because they never got a formal education. Arsis’s job is to socialize the refugees and our jobs as volunteers would be to teach them English; a skill that would enable the refugees to be more successful in their financial endeavors. As he spoke, refugees walked in and out of the room we were sitting in, banging doors, yelling at one another, and looking at us with both confusion and interest. I’d say us ACT students were looking at them in about the same way. I am so excited to start volunteering on Monday. I’m not sure what exactly to expect but I know that whatever comes my way should be intense and hopefully rewarding.

After our meeting at Arsis, I walked downtown and met up with a large group of friends to have dinner at the Hong Kong restaurant… a Chinese buffet in Thessaloniki! When I first heard about this restaurant, I knew I had to go. Besides craving Chinese food, I thought it would be fun to see what Chinese cuisine is really like here in Greece. All in all, the food was a lot like American Chinese but had a little less flavor. I don’t see another trip to Hong Kong in the near future.

Angels of Thessaloniki

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

Monday, February 22
11:45pm

When my dad was an early adolescent,  Yiayia and Papou essentially took in a Greek student while she was studying at Baldwin Wallace for four years. They were the people she called on when she needed help and they were ready and willing to be there as her family as she went through school. After she graduated, she moved back to her hometown of Thessaloniki, Greece and still lives here today with her husband Kostas. Her name is Olga.

Olga had seen Yiayia and Papou a couple of times since her time in the states, so they had kept in touch. Once Yiayia found out that I was planning to study in Thessaloniki, she immediately thought of her friend Olga and let her know that I would be coming. Olga expressed much interest in seeing me, so when I called a few days ago, we made plans to meet up on Sunday (yesterday).

When I walked outside to meet Olga yesterday, I found myself hopping into a Mercedes-Benz and being whisked off to Thessaloniki’s famous archaeological museum. The museum was beautiful and the displays were very well-done and informative. I found out that Dice were around in the 4th century BCE and that royalty were buried with beautiful gold objects. It was a beautiful museum and I’m glad that Olga and Kostas were so willing to show me around.

After the museum, they took me to a restaurant right off of Aristotle square. Olga said that 1. the restaurant is mostly called Aristotelus because it is just off of Aristotle square and 2. a lot of the people who like to go in and eat at this particular restaurant are writers, musicians, poets, celebrities, etc. She said this so nonchalantly that I decided not to make a big deal out of it at the time. But seriously, WHAT? I never would have known about this place if it weren’t for Kostas and Olga. They ordered a massive amount of food – mostly meat – and kept shoving food onto my plate without another word from me. After the desert compliments of the restaurant, they asked me if I wanted to go out for ice cream. Ice cream. After all of that food. I politely declined. As Olga and I walked through Aristotle square, we bumped into some of her friends who all seemed to be very nice. We then walked to her apartment which is less than two blocks from Aristotle square and is on the top floor which makes it the penthouse apartment. From their wrap-around balcony, you can see the Aegean Sea, the mountains of the old city, and Aristotle square. AND her home is beautifully decorated and sparkling clean. It was like a dream.

The Athanasiadis’s are such nice and generous people. I cannot wait to get together with them again sometime soon!

Clay Plates and Folk Bands

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

Folk Band in the Old City

Sunday, February 21
4:20pm

During Club Carnival at school a couple of weeks ago, I signed up to take a couple pottery classes. Yesterday was the first day, so Tina, Natalie, Eve and I took two city buses to the site of the American Farm School in Thessaloniki where the class was taking place. Unfortunately, we got really poor directions as to how to get to the school so a bunch of us wandered around on the side of the very busy road. Luckily, the teacher’s daughter came to find us and directed us to the school. There were around 15-20 of us there, ready to learn the craft of pottery.

The first task was to make a plate out of a flat slab of clay. I got to the wheel and smoothed the clay out on with with a sponge. So far so good. The next step was to trace the outskirts of the clay with your finger and to then use a small knife to cut along that new line. The directions were to “hold the knife like you would a pen.” I absolutely could not figure out how to do it. The teacher and her daughter came over to help me hold the knife the correct way. It was ridiculous and embarrassing but I eventually got it figured out! I guess my safety instincts got a hold of my hand. After the clay was cut, I used a small flat wooden board to curve the side up, making it look like an actual plate. Boy was I proud :)

After the plate was made, I had a lot of excess clay. The directions were to shape the excess clay into a solid ball and then to cut it and half and hollow the halves out. Once this was done, we were to stick the halves together, making a hollow ball. We were then supposed to make something out of this hollow ball. It took me forever to think of something to make, as I watched everyone else start immediately, instantaneously knowing what they wanted to make. I felt like the creative dolt of the group. I ended up deciding that I wanted to make a vase, but it looks like a flower glued onto a small pot. Whatever! No matter what it turns out to be, I had a great time working with clay. I’ve learned that Aunt Estelle is certainly a genius when it comes to clay!

Later on, I went out to a taverna for a small shared dinner with Mckenzie, Alex, Megan, and Natalie in the downtown area. The food was good and the waiter was really nice – and spoke excellent English! Woot! The great thing about a lot of these tavernas is that they come with free dessert at the end of the meal – some great and others not so great. This particular one gave us all vanilla ice cream in little sugar cones. So cute and so delish!

Once I got home, I went to find Aidan because I promised we’d go out that night to find a cafe or something. I found him in Carly’s room along with Teal and Molly who were all planning their spring break. After hearing about their plans, I asked about the last week and they said I could definitely join them. So, looks like I’ll be going to Amsterdam and Berlin for the end of spring break! I’m so, so excited. I have a friend living in Amsterdam and she said she’d love to show me around, so I’m really happy about all of this.

Aidan and I tried hard to get them to come with us, but they insisted that they had to finish planning everything. So, We grabbed Megan and headed up to the beautiful fortress area. We took a “short-cut” that ended up being really hard to climb because the slope was so steep, along with large dogs barking at us behind flimsy fences. As we neared the fortress walls, we found ruins in the park that we were going through. It looked really cool so we decided it would be fun to go through the doorway that led to a tunnel. That’s right. In the dark. We all held hands and moved slowly through the darkness, flashing our cell phone lights over the walls and screaming anytime we tripped over a dead branch – or what felt like a hand. We’re definitely going back during the day!

Aidan really wanted to go to this place we’d seen before that advertised itself as a piano bar, so we all went in expecting a cool atmosphere with someone actually playing a piano. Nope. There was electronica playing, everyone was over 50 years old and dressed very nicely (we were wearing jeans) and it was obvious that the host really had no patience for our attire and our American accents. He sent us to the crowded bar in an area that had no seats. The drinks were expensive so we decided to leave. We walked farther past the fortress’s walls and found a small taverna filled with regulars, nice servers, and an incredible folk band – two men playing the mandolin and a woman singing vocals. Most of the customers were singing along with the band as we walked in, and we knew this was the perfect place to go. We all shared psomi and tzatziki sauce along with red krasi and ouzo. It was so much fun! And relaxed. Couldn’t have asked for a better night.