Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Back in Dublin...

I'm back in Dublin...and it already feels a little like coming home.  It is so refreshing to be in a place where everyone speaks English!  All the signs in the airport are in English, all the TV stations at the hotel are in English, and everyone around me in the restaurant where I had dinner were speaking English.  I don't think I realized how much I'd missed that until I had it again.  Not understanding anything said around you does tend to make one feel a little isolated after a while. 

Although I rarely turned the television on anywhere that I stayed, the few times that I did provided quite funny entertainment.  I'm not sure what was the most surreal; seeing SpongeBob Squarepants speaking Polish, or hearing the Fonz, in a Happy Days rerun, speaking Italian.  Actually, the funniest may have been something I heard in Prague.  I walked by a shop and heard the song La Bamba being sung in Czechoslovakian.  That's a bizarre cultural shift to try and wrap one's mind around!

It also feels a little like coming home because I love the Irish people.  They are warm and friendly, and when I said in an earlier blog that they have the gift of gab, I meant it.  My flight out of Athens was about 40 minutes delayed taking off.  That left only 10 minutes to make the connecting flight from Copenhagen to Dublin.  About 30 minutes before we landed in Copenhagen, the pilot on our Scandinavian Airlines flight came over the speaker and said if you were connecting to Dublin, please let the flight attendant know.  They moved the 6 of us trying to make the quick connection to the front of the plane so we could get off first and make the mad dash across the Copenhagen airport to our next gate.  I was re-seated with two girls from Ireland: Sinead, from Dublin, and Kathleen, from Cork.  Before I even sat down, they were talking my head off.  I loved it!  By the time we landed I felt like I had known them all my life.  The three of us stayed together right through Copenhagen (where it turned out all our running was for naught since our second flight was also delayed) and were happy to find that we were seated across the aisle from each other on the flight to Dublin.  Even this late in my trip, I'm adding new friends to the list of wonderful people I've met in the last 5 weeks.

This morning I left the hotel in Athens at 11:30am (Athens time) and arrived at my hotel in Dublin at 8:00pm (Dublin time).  There is a 2 hour time difference, so that's 10.5 hours traveling.  For some reason, all that time spent just sitting is more tiring than the days I spent walking around all day.  Tomorrow will be worse.  I'm leaving my Dublin hotel on the airport shuttle at 9:30am (Dublin time) and will arrive in Charlotte around 7:30pm (local time).  There is a 5 hour time difference, so that will be about 15 hours traveling.  And although it will be 7:30pm in Charlotte, after over a week in Greece my body is still on their time, which will be 2:30am.  In another weird twist, I have a layover in Chicago, which is an hour behind Charlotte.  So, in less than 40 hours, I will have gone from being 7 hours ahead of east coast time (Athens), to 5 hours ahead (Dublin), to 1 hour behind (Chicago), and then finally back to eastern standard time (Charlotte).  It gets very confusing!  I'm going to be beat when I get back.  Although I'm anxious to see everyone, I may need a couple of days to recuperate and acclimate first.                
Now that I have English TV, I've been able to watch some news about the Boston bombings.  It's just awful.  Such a senseless tragedy.  At the Athens airport, they were announcing that all flights to the US had been delayed.  I wondered if they had beefed up security and delayed flights because it was taking longer.  I flew through Boston coming to the UK, but I'm flying back through O'Hare in Chicago.  Even so, I bet security measures will be at their highest.  And, frankly, as an airline passenger flying into a major US city, I'm happy about that!

This may be my last post for a little while.  The big adventure is coming to an end.  But, stay tuned because I do still have some thoughts and observations that I will post after I return home and have a chance to rest a bit.  I also plan to write a post about the traveling itself...how I did it, where to book different things, pics of my bags, ways to stay safe, tips for easier traveling, etc.

Many thanks to all of you who have been reading and traveling along with me.  I hope it's been fun for you, too!     

Boston Marathon....

I wrote that last post before I heard the news about the Boston Marathon.  It's terrible.  I can't imagine what makes anyone do such a thing.  My heart goes out to the victims and their families, and to the people of Boston.  When will such madness ever end? 

Coming home....

Today I will leave Athens and begin my 2-day journey home.  Yes, it's a little earlier than I had originally planned.  I had intended to stay another week, visiting Istanbul and then flying to London for a few days before heading back to Dublin for my return flight home.  But, I have heard nothing but horror stories from people over here about women traveling alone in Istanbul.  To a person, everyone I've talked to about my trip has warned me against it.  I've heard stories of women being drugged with something in their drinks at cafes.  I've heard second-hand accounts of women traveling alone being pulled into dark alleyways, the backs of stores, and even cars going down the street.  One woman told me her daughter, who lives in Budapest and has traveled all over Europe alone, was so terrified in Istanbul that after going out one afternoon she stayed locked in her hotel eating room service for the rest of her trip.  She went into a store to browse in the middle of the afternoon and the man who worked there kept trying to get her to come into the back room of the shop to show her some "discounts."  When she tried to leave, he grabbed her and tried to pull her into the back of the store.  So, although it was a place I really wanted to visit, Istanbul was crossed off my list...at least until I can return with a travel companion.  I then began trying to figure out where to go between Athens and London.   Nothing really presented itself as being either easy or affordable, so I made the decision to scratch London and head home early. 

To tell the truth, as much fun as this trip has been, I'm ready to come home.  I am road weary!  One of the reasons I booked a 6-night stay in Athens was that I was tired of moving around every 2-3 days.  I don't regret doing it that way, as I got to see a lot of different places.  I would have liked to have stayed longer in a few places...Amsterdam, Krakow, Venice (because of Vera and Antoanella), Ravenna, Rome.  But what places would I have given up to stay in those locations longer?  No, I don't regret the crazy, exhausting schedule...it's been a blast.  That said, I'm happy to be winding it down.  I'm looking forward to getting back home and being in one place for a while.  I'm excited about seeing all my friends and family.  I've missed you guys!  There will be lots of get-togethers with everyone when I return. 

I sat last night thinking about my trip and compiling some statistics in my head.  I used an online distance calculator to figure out how many miles I've traveled.  By the time my plane lands back in Charlotte, I will have been gone 37 days and traveled 14,136 miles.  That doesn't count the number of miles I've walked in each city.  I wish I had worn one of those pedometers so I could have measured it.  A LOT is the only calculation I have for that!  I will have visited 12 cities in 8 different countries, not counting cities in which I just had a plane layover or change of trains.  I should probably count Bologna since I stayed overnight there and then several days later had to go back for a train transfer, but I'm not because all I really saw of it was the airport, one hotel, and a few blocks around the train station.  I will have slept in 17 different beds in a variety of apartments, hotels, and hostels.  I will have been on 12 different airplanes and 9 different trains (not counting airport transfer or local trains).  I can't even count the number of buses, trams, and subway cars I've ridden in.  In fact, I think I have used every type of transportation known to modern man on this trip: planes, trains, automobiles, buses, trams, boats, and subways.  If only I had taken a hot air balloon or horse & buggy ride, I could have covered them all.

This morning, I have to walk 1/2 mile to the closest metro station, take it to the city center, and transfer to another metro line that will take me to the airport.  Then I will fly to Copenhagen, have a short layover and then on to Dublin.  I will spent one night there and then tomorrow I will fly from Dublin to Chicago (I'm dreading that one...8.5 hours cramped in a small space) and then my final flight from Chicago to Charlotte.  I'll stay at Tanya's in Charlotte Wednesday night and drive back to Spartanburg sometime on Thursday.  And I will be home, sweet home!  Where I plan to stay for a while. 

I have had a spectacular time on this trip.  I've learned so much and seen more incredible things than you can imagine.  I've eaten delicious foods, some of which I had never even heard of before.  I've had experiences that I'll remember for a lifetime.  I've met some amazingly wonderful people.  People who became my friends.  People who through their kindness helped me navigate in so many places where I couldn't speak the language.  People who wanted to know my story and tell me theirs.  People who made me feel welcome in the most foreign of lands.  Of everything I've seen, done, and experienced, it is the people I will treasure most and never forget.  We may come from different places, we may look and speak differently, but we humans are more alike than not.  We should never let our differences divide us.  We should never forget the common humanity we all share.

During my travels, I have often thought of Maya Angelou's poem, The Human Family...so I will end this post with her words, because they capture perfectly how I feel:

The Human Family by Maya Angelou

I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.

Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.

The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.

I've sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land.
I've seen the wonders of the world,
not yet one common man.

I know ten thousand women
called Jane and Mary Jane,
but I've not seen any two
who really were the same.

Mirror twins are different
although their features jibe,
and lovers think quite different thoughts
while lying side by side.

We love and lose in China,
we weep on England's moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.

We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we're the same.

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike

Monday, April 15, 2013

Two agoras...one ancient, one modern

Γεια σας, σε όλους τους αναγνώστες μου.
That says "Hello, to all my readers" in Greek.  It's completely incomprehensible to me, and probably most of you, but it's a beautiful language in both its written and spoken forms.  I just wanted to give you a little example of how lovely it is to see, even if it's not understandable.

Today I visited two of Athens' agoras.  Agora literally translates as "gathering place" and is the foundation of the word agoraphobia...fear of public places.  I went to the Central Market Agora first and then the ancient Athenian Agora, now ruins but once the heart of Greek life and culture.

The Central Market of Athens is the main food market of the city.  It's where the general public can buy their food and where chefs go to pick up the ingredients for today's specials.  It sprawls for what seems like blocks and contains every kind of edible item imaginable.  The Central Market stalls, at least in the meat and fish sections, are not for the faint of heart...or those with weak stomachs or an aversion to strong smells.  Here's another tip..if you ever visit the Central Market, wear good shoes.  The floors are wet and slimy, and I felt sorry for the tourists I saw wearing flip-flops.  One poor girl in sandals had stepped into something bloody in the meat section, and in her hurry to get out had taken a wrong turn and was mortified to find herself in the slime of the fish section.  Her face looked absolutely green as she searched around frantically for an opening to the street.  I'm guessing that, once she found her way out of the labyrinth of stalls, she was headed directly to purchase new shoes.  I have to admit, even being as much of a foodie as I am, it was overwhelming for me, too.  I had planned to eat lunch at one of the 4 restaurants located within the market, as I had heard these had some of the freshest and most authentic meals in Athens...but the sights and smells were too much for me.  It was a good hour or so after leaving before my appetite returned. 

In the meat section, whole animals hang from hooks, being butchered apart on the spot.  Intestines and organs hang from other hooks along the way. Whole chickens and turkeys, some still in the process of being de-feathered, hang alongside.  Large and small cuts of select meats and organs sit ready for sale on blocks of ice.  In the fish section, every imaginable kind of seafood can be purchased.  From the tiniest sardines to whole octopus, it's all there.  Big beautiful salmon and tuna are on display.  You can buy them whole or have them filleted before taking them home wrapped in a cone of white butcher paper and stuffed into a blue plastic sack.

For those with less carnivorous tastes, the fruit and produce market is just across the street from the meat and fish stalls.  Here you can purchase fruits, veggies, grains, nuts, dried beans, marinated and fresh olives, dozens of varieties of cheese, herbs, and spices.  The selection is incredible and the prices are low.  There must be hundreds of vendors, so competition is fierce.  Just like in the souvenir shops of the Plaka, every butcher, fishmonger, and vendor is pushing their product as the very best at the lowest price.   

I strolled around for while, eventually had lunch, and then headed for the ancient agora.  It dates back to the 6th century BC, and during the time of Classical Greece it was the center of the world.  It's where the government operated and vendors sold their wares.  It was once filled with theatres, markets, fountains, statues, and temples to the Gods.  Most of it is rubble now, but the Temple of Hephaestus is still in remarkably good shape considering it is over 2400 years old.  The Athenian Agora remained the central square of Greece, even throughout the rein of the Roman Emperors.  

As you walk along the main street of the Agora, the Panathenaic Way, you realize you are walking the same path taken by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Solon.  You are standing in the birthplace of democracy.  It's an amazing feeling.  I reached down, picked up a stone from the ground, and put it in my pocket...the only material souvenir I will keep from my journeys. 

Today's activities in pictures...

Looking down through the meat section of the Central Market.  I have close-ups, but I'll spare you.  Just be glad these pictures don't come with the smell.

All kinds of fish for sale.
This guy is telling me that his produce is the freshest in the market. 

Beans and grains.  This first bag has what the Greeks call "giant beans."  It's like a large butter bean and they cook them with tomatoes and herbs.  I had some with my dinner a few nights ago and they were delicious.

The variety of olives is amazing.  And, they let you sample for free!
A cheese shop.

A dried spice vendor...unlike the meat and fish stalls, this place smelled so good!

My lunch...a sampling of moussaka (a Greek lasagna), a zucchini fritter, a cheese croquet, tomatoes, and a piece of fried halloumi cheese.
Statues of giants and titans that once lined the Odeon of Agrippa in the Ancient Agora of Athens.

The Temple of Hephaestus.  It's the most well-preserved temple I've seen, and it was completed in 415BC.  Amazing that it still stands!  Hephaestus was the god of craftsmen, so maybe it really has been blessed. 

This a bust of Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius (emperor 138AD-161AD) at the Ancient Agora Museum.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sunday in Athens...

Sunday in Athens is a little like Sunday back home...most of the local shops are closed and everyone seems to be taking a break from the hustle and bustle of the work week.  I headed into Syntagma Square at the very center of Athens to wander through the Plaka, the central shopping district.  Here the shops were open and it was bustling with tourists, although more people were eating and relaxing at tavernas rather than doing serious shopping.  That was good for me as I did intend to do some shopping (I still need to pick up a few things to take back home to friends and family) and the stores were less busy. 

I should take a moment to say that, as a general rule, I'm not a very good shopper.  It's just not something that I enjoy, and when I do go shopping it's because there is something specific I need to buy.  I'm not one to wander and browse, and I get frustrated if I don't find what I'm looking for pretty quickly.  The only exceptions to this rule are bookstores and food markets, which feed my particular obsessions and are therefore exempt from the browsing rule.  I've now been to 8 different countries and the only things I've bought, aside from the books described in yesterday's post, are a gift for my sister, Susan, and some papal souvenirs for my friend Trez at the Vatican.  I haven't bought a single trinket or souvenir for myself.  I'll bring home memories of interesting people I've met, delicious food I've tasted, and all the amazing things I've seen...plus over 1000 photographs that I've taken.  That's all I need or want.  But there are a few other people in my life with whom I'd like to share something from this big adventure of mine, so off shopping I went.      

The shopkeepers in the Plaka are eager to sell, and if you even slow down to look at something, it's hard to get away from the salespeople who are standing out front just waiting to tell you all the good deals they have for you.  There are also a gazillion street vendors in the area, hawking everything from tweezers and nail clippers to toys to rip-offs of designer handbags.  You are not immune to them even while dining.  Sitting outside at a cafe yesterday afternoon, guys came by trying to sell me sunglasses (even though I was clearly wearing a pair), watches (until I pulled mine out of my bag and showed him I was already set for time...no pun intended), helium balloons, and even some sort of stitching device that looks like a stapler but creates a stitch in fabric...which the guy continually demonstrated until I convinced him I don't sew and have no intention of starting while on holiday. 

With a distaste for shopping to begin with, I really dislike the hard sales tactics.  Even if I'm a little interested in something, I'm just stubborn enough that I'll walk away if I feel I'm being pushed into it.  And nothing seems to have a set price.  Everything is marked with a price, but if you pick something up and then put it back down, the salespeople automatically begin bargaining..."it's marked 5 euro, but for you I can do 4.  No?  How about 3 euro, or two for 5 euro?"  I'm not good in such situations.  I don't like dickering over prices, but I realize it's very customary here.  I see people all the time haggling with sales staff until an agreed upon price is reached.  I did manage to come away with a few nice souvenirs to share, but I gave up before finding everything I needed.  Unfortunately, that means more shopping tomorrow. 

Just like in other cities I've visited, there are all manner of performers working for tips on the streets of Athens.  Accordion and balalaika players are the most common here.  One thing I've seen only here, however, are children performing on the streets for tips.  Some of them are quite good, but it's sad to see them out on the streets at such a tender age working for tips.  Is that legal here?  I guess it must be because I see them all over the place. 

Which brings up something I don't see a lot of here: police.  In most cities I've visited, there are police in practically every metro station and you see them out in force in touristy areas.  In Italy, they were literally everywhere!  You couldn't turn a corner without running into both of the two kinds of security forces in Italy.  They have local police in each jurisdiction and the Carabinieri.  I had become very curious about the difference, so while in Rome I asked Franka, who sold me the Vatican tour, about it.  After much thought about how to explain it, she told me that the Carabinieri are like our CIA in America.  They are a federal force, rather than a local one.  She said the local police are a bit useless...they will walk right by someone spraying graffiti, for example...but the Carabinieri are very serious.  "If they look at you more than once, you are in trouble," she told me.  People do seem to fear them a bit.  I had become aware of this while in Ravenna.  One afternoon, a Carabinieri car came to a screeching halt in the middle of a street I was walking down, and two officers got out and went into a café.  Every single person on the street froze right where they were standing.  And I don't mean they stopped what they were doing to go over and gawk at the action as we would in the US.  They all froze in place and stood still as a statue until it appeared that nothing was happening except that the Carabinieri were just getting coffees, and then they slowly and cautiously began to move about again.  It was very strange, and that's when I began to notice the differences between the two kinds of police and get curious about it.  The regular local forces always looked a bit more relaxed, often hanging around in groups talking and laughing.  Most did not seem to be carrying any weapons except a nightstick attached to their belts.  The Carabinieri were much more stiff, very well groomed, and dressed in starched blue suits with red stripes, and a wide white belt that went not just around their waist but also over the shoulder and held all manner of weapons, including a gun.  Franka did tell me, however, that if I had a problem I should report it to the Carabinieri and not the local police if I wanted any resolution.  "They're ok with tourists," she said.  Admittedly, I was still a little wary of them. 

I've rarely seen any type of police presence here in Athens.  They aren't stationed in the metros, even at large, busy stations.  I have only seen them in a couple of the large public squares.  When I was in Monastiraki Square yesterday, there was a protest rally of some sort going on.  There was a large group of young people with signs and banners, and various people giving speeches on what looked to be a soapbox type set-up with a crude microphone and speaker system.  They moved off the square and into the streets marching and blocking traffic, but the two officers in the square just watched them.  There was no large police presence as you would see at a similar rally in the US.  It made me wonder if the police had gone the way of the dog-catchers.  Even so, I haven't seen any crime or felt unsafe since moving out of the original apartment I rented.  The metro stations are busy and well lit...even very pretty in some areas. And the streets are filled with all kinds of people; women and men, young and old, single people and families.  Despite the lack of police presence, it feels safe. 

Here are some pictures from today...

You can buy fresh slices of coconut from the street vendors...and they find all kinds of ways to keep them moist.

My lunch of dolmades and Greek yogurt.  Mmmm...they were delicious!

Almost every square has an old, small Greek Orthodox Church.

This is at a spa that offers fish therapy.  I had seen several places offering it and wondered what it could be.  There was a girl outside this shop handing out brochures, so I took one.  Fish therapy is putting your feet down in a vat of water with little fish that suck off the dead skin.  According to the brochure, they secrete an enzyme that rejuvenates your skin.  It also says that it doesn't hurt, feels like a "jacuzzi sensation" and is the "ultimate in luxurious relaxation."  Ummm....no thanks!

Children performing for tips on the street.  This little guy could really sing!  Still, very sad.

Here's a street vendor trying to sell watches to people dining in a café. 

Another child performing on the street for tips.  I gave him all the change in my pocket.  A child and a dog...how could I not?

These are statues from the Acropolis.  This is not in a museum, but rather at the Akropoli metro station.  Athens has some of the nicest subway stations I've been in on this trip.

This is from the little bakery just down from my hotel.  I've gotten into a bad habit of stopping in there on my way back to the room in the evenings. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

A literary post for a literary day...

I think calling today a literary day is quite appropriate.  My planned itinerary for the day included going to an English language bookstore to pick up another novel for the road and seeking out Stavros Melissinos, the poet/sandal-maker of Athens.  In my wanderings, I just happened upon the ruins of Hadrian's Library, capping off a day of literary-themed excursions.

Everyone who knows me knows that I am an avid reader.  I have had a lifelong love affair with the written word.  That doesn't ever cease, not even during an adventure as big and exciting as the one I'm on now.  I've been on the road for 33 days now and have read 5 novels (one of them a 700-page epic) and part of a 6th.  I use the Internet to search out English language bookstores, preferably with a used-books section, everywhere I go.  I can't carry anything extra with me, so I pass off the novel I've just finished to a used bookseller and grab a new one.  I have a lot of time for reading in trains, planes, buses, etc...and in stations waiting for trains, planes, buses, etc.  Since I am alone, I always carry my book and read in cafes and restaurants while I'm having meals.  And, just as I do at home, I read almost every night before falling asleep.

On this trip I have been reading mostly non-American authors and, in some cases, novels that take place in locations to which I am traveling.  I started by reading Alexander McCall Smith's The World According to Bertie, which takes place in Edinburgh.  It's part of his 44 Scotland Street series and while in Edinburgh, Tanya and I visited the locales predominant in every book of the series...like The Cumberland Bar and Dundas Street.  We even tried to find #44 on Scotland Street, but the buildings end at #43.  One kind of funny thing to note: the series takes place in Edinburgh's new town...which we were surprised to find looks just like, and I mean exactly, Edinburgh's old town. 

Here are the books I've read on the trip, in order of reading:
  • The World According to Bertie by Alexander McCall Smith
  • Suffer the Little Children by Donna Leon - one of her detective Guido Brunetti novels that takes place in Venice and is a very popular series in Italy.
  • The Snowman by Jo Nesbo - this one takes place in Norway, not a place I'm traveling to, but it came highly recommended by a bookseller in Amsterdam.  I had never heard of Nesbo and thought the main character's name, Harry Hole, was a bit laughable.  But, I liked that it was 438 pages long (thus keeping me busy for a while) so I bought it...and, boy, am I glad I did.  Nesbo is being hailed as the next Stieg Larsson (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and, indeed, the novel was a page-turning thriller.  I could hardly put it down and will be reading more Nesbo when I return home.  
  • House by Tracy Kidder - I picked this up at the same Amsterdam used bookstore because I had loved Kidder's book Mountains Beyond Mountains.  But, I just couldn't get into this one.  It's literally about the building of a house...the architect's story, the builder's story, the owners' story.  I read about 100 pages and then donated it to a street vendor in Krakow.
  • The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid - this one takes place in America and Pakistan (another country to which I am not traveling).  I was interested in it, however, because it's recently been made into a film directed by Mira Nair.  I really like Nair's work...her film Monsoon Wedding is one of my all time favorite movies.  The book was really interesting, and I'm now anxious to see how she's adapted the first-person narrative into film.
  • Empire by Steven Saylor - this is the 700-page epic I mentioned earlier.  It's historical fiction that follows 5 generations of the Pinarius family in ancient Rome from 14AD to 141AD.  It was a fascinating novel, made all the more interesting for me because I was reading it while in Rome visiting ruins of the very places mentioned in the novel.  Although it's a work of fiction, Saylor has tried to stay true to history and includes lots of interesting notes in the back of the novel.  If you enjoy reading about the crazy escapades of Roman Emperors, this one is for you!
I just finished Empire, and today I bought The Athenian Murders by Jose Carlos Samoza, which takes place right here in Athens.  It's a Gold Dagger award winner, so I'm hoping it will be a good read.   

After leaving the Compendium bookstore, I hopped on the metro and began my quest to search out Melissinos Sandal Shop near Monastiraki Square.  It's owned by Stavros Melissinos, a world renowned poet...and sandal-maker.  His works of poetry have been translated into many languages and his most famous poem, Athenian Rubaiyat, is part of the curriculum at universities such as Oxford and Harvard.  Yet, he still works in his little shop, inherited from his father, as a sandal-maker.  When asked why in an interview, he said "A writer who does nothing but write is like the moon, which gives off some light, but borrowed from the sun. A writer needs first-hand experience, which only working in another field can give him. Otherwise he is rewriting what he has read in other books."  He is as famous for his hand-made sandals as he is for his poetry.  His former clientele includes the Beatles, Jackie Onassis, and Barbra Streisand, just to name a few.  On the day the Beatles visited his shop, his children asked him that evening why he didn't ask for their autographs.  He replied "Why did they not ask for mine?  I will be around long after the Beatles."  He sure was right about that one! 
I did find the shop, but Stavros wasn't there today.  His son, who is now running the shop and also an artist and sandal-maker, told me that at the age of 85, his father rarely comes to the shop anymore.  He said his father does still write everyday, however, and still has a very sharp mind.  So that you can get an idea of the beauty of his poetry, here is a short passage from the Rubaiyat:

Take away the Glories and the Honours
The granite palaces of this vain world
And only give me the smile of Pain the tear of Joy
And I will erect a thousand palaces in me in which to live.

I love that.  I sure wish I had gotten to meet him.

And now, a few pictures from today...

This flea market near Monastiraki Square was hopping.  I wandered in for a bit, but it got too claustrophobic for me and I had to bail out down a side street.

This is the sandal shop of Stavros Melissinos.  Since this is the literary post, I should also mention that this street is where Lord Byron lived during his time in Athens.  Try to ignore the graffiti...sadly, it's everywhere.  Trying to get photos without it is almost impossible.

The whole area was packed with people and activity, as you can see from this picture I took from my table at lunch.

These drummers were awesome!  You could hear their rhythms from blocks away.  The dog lying there must not be a stray, but rather a pet, because he had a collar and tags. 

The ruins of Hadrian's Library.  This picture is a little off-center, but again, I was trying to avoid including the graffiti on the building right behind it.

Strawberries are definitely in season, both here and in Italy.  All the fruit and produce vendors have big displays of huge, succulent berries.  You can smell the sweet strawberry scent in the air before you even get to them.
See what I mean?  This is an otherwise lovely building with wooden shutters, archways, and a Spanish-tiled roof in a nice neighborhood just below the Acropolis.  It is such a shame that everything here has been vandalized by graffiti.  



Friday, April 12, 2013

Athens...ancient ruins and modern strays

Today I actually had a chance to go out and visit Athens.  I began with a trip to see the one thing you can't miss in Athens; the Acropolis.  When I say you can't miss it, I mean it.  You can see it from most parts of the city, rising high above skyline with the ruins of the Parthenon visible at its rear edge.  I took the metro to the Akropoli stop, and upon exiting the station and seeing it up close from the base, I realized it was going to be a daunting climb.  I hadn't yet had lunch and decided that such a task should come after getting sustenance.  Since I wasn't quite ready to eat, I headed to see the ground-level Temple of Olympian Zeus first. 

In the park near the temple, there must have been a dozen or more dogs snoozing in the shade.  All of them are strays.  Athens (all of Greece, really) has a huge stray animal problem.  If I lived here I would probably have a hundred dogs and cats!  They are everywhere you look.  In every square, in every park, in the streets...everywhere.  The dogs are friendly; the cats are cautious.  Neither species seems terribly interested in human interaction unless it involves food.  They don't beg or follow you, but they'll take something if you're willing to give it.  The dogs will let you pet them, but don't really seem to care one way or the other about attention.  The cats will stare back at you as you stare at them, but they won't let you get close enough to touch them.  Neither the dogs nor the cats seem to be starving or in distress.  Some of the dogs look a little dirty and ragged and could use a good grooming, but they seem fairly healthy overall.  I wondered how, or what, they ate until last night.  I went out late to grab a bite to eat and passed the local fishmonger's shop in the neighborhood where my hotel is located.  It was closed, but all the day's scraps had been set out in tin containers beside the building and about 2 dozen cats were having a feast.  I imagine the dogs are eating the same way...on the generosity of people who leave something out for them. 

I'm glad the animals in the city are getting fed by people, because I saw 2 dogs on the train trip to Athens that broke my heart.  Our train stopped for about 20 minutes some place that appeared to be a train yard...it wasn't a regular stop with a station.  I have no idea where we were, but it seemed like the middle of nowhere.  People got off to stretch their legs and walk a bit.  I was sitting in the dining car at the time having a turkey wrap for lunch.  I looked out the window and saw 2 pathetically skinny dogs come out of some bushes and begin approaching people cautiously.  They were pathetic...you could see every one of their ribs.  A girl on the train who had her dog with her started feeding them some leftover crackers.  I immediately got out with the half a wrap I had left and fed that to them.  They gobbled everything up like they hadn't seen food in quite a while.  Another girl came out and started feeding them too.  The girl with the dog got back on the train and emerged a moment later with her bag of dog food.  She poured almost the entire bag on the ground and they ate it up in seconds.  It was so sad.           

I wondered why there aren't shelters or pounds or some sort of government agency to address the stray problem so I looked it up online.  According to what I read, most municipalities did, at one time, have shelters and dog catchers.  But the conditions in local animal shelters were abysmal.  An animal rights group made some photos and videos in one of them, and the mayor of the town was brought up on charges of animal cruelty.  It's a serious charge here and he was imprisoned.  To avoid having the same thing happen to them, local officials all over Greece closed their shelters and fired all the catchers.  So now there is a terrible stray problem.  I realize Greece is in the midst of an economic crisis, but they really need to address this problem.  There must be a way to at least curb the population growth.  I read that there were such programs - they would catch the animals, spay and neuter them, and then return them to wherever they had been caught - but because of economics the programs have all but been abandoned.  It makes me wonder what the population of strays will look like 5 years from now.

After leaving the temple area, I was walking back around the park when an old man on a bench looked up, pointed directly at me, and said "South Carolina."  It sounded more like suth-car-o-linia, but clearly I knew what he meant.  I was stunned!  I laughed and said "how do you know that?" and he pointed to my shirt.  I had forgotten that I was wearing a Clemson Tigers t-shirt.  He patted the bench beside him and I sat down.  His name was George and he's a retired engineer who worked for 10 months on a project at the Oconee River Nuclear Plant near Clemson.  He said he liked SC...that the mountains and rolling foothills reminded him of the countryside in Greece where he had grown up.  It really is a small world!     

After a delicious lunch of spanakopita, I did make the big climb to the top of the Acropolis.  The ruins are fascinating, but the views of Athens from way up there are possibly the best part.  Here are some pics of my first day sightseeing in Athens....

This is the Arch of Hadrian.  At one time a road that lead from the city center to the Temple of Olympian Zeus ran through the arch.  The people of Athens erected it to show appreciation to the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who finally completed the temple in 132AD, 638 years after construction on it had begun.  During most of that 638 years, it sat unfinished and forgotten.  Hadrian had been well educated by his uncle, the Emperor Trajan, and had a strong interest in Greek history.  When he became Emperor, he began renovation and completion of the temple. 

This is a stray taking a nap in the shade of the ticket office to the temple.

The ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus.  The full structure was once as big as a football field.  Only this corner and a few random columns remain.  You can see the Acropolis in the background.

The Acropolis.

About halfway up the south slope of the Acropolis is the Theatre of Dionysus.  It's one of the oldest amphitheaters in Greece.

This is the Odeon of Herodes Atticus...the newer, larger, and better preserved amphitheater on the southwest slope.  It is still occasionally used for concerts.

This is the Temple of Athena at the top of the Acropolis.  I'm not posting pics of the Parthenon because, frankly, they aren't very pretty due to lots of scaffolding around the structure. 

Looking out at the city from the top.  The view is spectacular in every direction.

A little residential street a few blocks from the base of the Acropolis.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

A rough 24 hours in Athens...

For the first time on this trip, I have had a bad experience... 

I arrived in Athens by train around 5:30pm yesterday afternoon.  I had instructions to call Marinos, my host in Athens, on arrival so he could tell me how to get to the apartment and meet me there to let me in.  This is pretty much the standard procedure when renting an apartment.  The only person who met me at the station was the kind and lovable Vera.  Unfortunately, there is only one payphone at the Athens train station that takes coins, and it wasn't working,  So, I had to buy a phone card (most of the public phones here take only cards) in order to make this one short call.  Marinos informed me that he would not be able to meet me, but was sending someone named Gabriela, whom he referred to as the "chamber maid."  Hmmm...maybe that's a translation thing.  He also told me the easiest way to get to the apartment was to take a cab...which seemed strange since the description of the apartment says the public bus #22 stops right in front of the building.  But, after 5 1/2 hours on the train I was ready to get settled in, so I got a cab at the station, showed the driver the address (he spoke no English, but seemed to understand), and hopped in the taxi to head to my apartment. 

Let me just take a moment here to describe riding in a taxi in Athens: it is like an amusement park ride, given the speed and jerking around, but without the fun or the security of knowing you are safe despite the death-defying thrills.  Lanes seem to be considered as just vague suggestions of where you might want to consider driving.  At least 3 times we went between 2 other cars creating our own third lane on a two lane road...usually at what I think was around 60mph.  This was in the city center, not an interstate.  We jerked around pedestrians and other cars, we came to screeching halts (during which my driver would lay on the horn and scream out the window), followed immediately by a take-off so fast it would throw me backwards against the seat.  We careened at high speeds down narrow, winding, one-way streets with cars parked on both sides so close that an ant wouldn't have fit between the side mirrors of the cab and any of the parked cars (which, thankfully, had their side mirrors folded in). Apparently people driving motorcycles don't follow road signs because twice we met one coming the wrong way up a one-way street and had to slam on brakes, my driver screaming and honking the whole time, to avoid a head-on collision.    

Miraculously, I arrived at the apartment in one piece and Gabriela, the chamber maid (?), was waiting for me.  Unfortunately, she speaks no English other than "hello."  Problematic!  More problematic: she couldn't get the apartment door to unlock.  She tried and tried and tried, but couldn't get it open...all the while telling me "hello" with a pained expression on her face.  Finally, she called Marinos on her cell.  She handed me the phone and he apologized and assured me I would be inside in 10 minutes.  I thought he was coming over, but he didn't.  About 15 minutes later a man with a toolbox showed up instead.  I thought maybe he was a locksmith, but this turned out to be an optimistic assumption.  He tried shaking the key around in the lock several times, but no luck.  So, he opened his toolbox and took out a file.  This is when I began to doubt that he was a genuine locksmith.  He filed the key down and tried again, but nothing happened.  So he filed some more, tried again, filed, tried again, filed...this went on for a good 30 minutes.  Based on the pile of shavings accumulating on the floor, he must have filed 1/4 inch off the key on both sides, but it still didn't work.  Then he put the key in the lock, took out a big hammer, and banged the key in as far as it would go.  It was at this point that I became absolutely sure he was not a locksmith.  The key was now stuck, so he got a pair of pliers, wedged his foot against the door, and pulled with all his might until it came back out.  Then he filed it some more.  Gabriela paced nearby, giving me a nervous "hello" every so often.  

At this point, I was seriously considering grabbing my luggage and leaving...this is what the voice in my head was telling me to do.  But my cab was long gone and I didn't really have any idea where I was or how to get anywhere else.  Miraculously, after this last filing of the key, it worked.  But then the "locksmith" guy and Gabriela got into an argument in Greek over something to do with the door.  I have no idea what they were saying, but he finally pulled some WD-40 out of his toolbox and sprayed the lock.  Gabriela escorted me inside and called Marinos back.  They talked for a minute, and then she handed me the phone.  He assured me everything was now fine.  I was still feeling unsure about the whole thing and made him wait while I tried locking and unlocking the door several times.  It worked, although it was a bit tedious from either side of the door.  You had to get the key in just right...but I thought it was workable.

I still had him on the phone so I asked how to access the wifi since Gabriela would have just answered "hello" to my question.  He said he would email me the code.  I explained that this was no good, since have to have the wifi to access my email.  So he explained where the modem was and said the code was on the manufacturer sticker on the modem.  I found it and the manufacturer sticker did indicate a password.  Good!  He then informed where to find the switch for the hot water and said that I would need to turn it on 15 minutes ahead of needing it.  No problem...my apartment in Rome also had a hot water switch, although it produced hot water right away.  Glad to finally be in the apartment and ready to make contact online, I hung up with him feeling a little better about the place.  Gabriela gave me a final "hello" and left. 

I dropped all my stuff, got out the tablet, and began trying to get online.  There were 14 available networks and I realized I had failed to ask for the network name.  I tried the code from the modem on all of them, but nothing worked.  I tried the number for the network key on the modem with all 14 networks, and still nothing.  I was not happy.  It was already dark, I hadn't eaten dinner, I didn't have a map or know where anything was, I don't speak the language, and I couldn't get online.  I was regretting not listening to my inner voice earlier.  I would come to regret it even more later.

I loaded my tablet into my bag, got the door unlocked and stepped outside the apartment to re-lock it.  The hallway was completely dark.  I tried the switch on the wall in the hallway and nothing happened.  Earlier, Gabriela had pointed to a small light mounted above the keyhole and showed me how to turn it on and off, but because it was light outside at the time I hadn't realized this was necessary because none of the lights in the entryway, hallway, or stairwells were functioning.  Not good.  I also realized that the main door to the building had no lock.  Again, because Gabriela met me standing in the doorway to the building, I hadn't noticed before.  And I was so happy to finally be in the apartment when she gave me the key, it didn't dawn on me that she was giving me only 1 key.  This is the 7th country in which I have stayed in an apartment, and the only one in which I wasn't given a key or code to enter the building, which always stays locked, in addition to my apartment key.  This building had a hole in the door where the lock had once been.  Doubly not good! 

I left the apartment on foot hoping to find a public phone or restaurant with wifi nearby so I could call Marinos.  I didn't see a bus stop until I had gone about 3 blocks down a steep hill.  I continued on foot, but had no luck finding a cafe.  I did, however, find an internet/billiards/gambling bar down the street.  They didn't have wifi, but they did have a bank of computers I could pay to use.  I asked if I could Skype and the guy said yes.  I paid the fee, got on a computer, and used Skype to try and call Marinos.  I got his voice mail, which continually cut me off while trying to leave a message.  I called Tanya in the US, and I could hear her, but she couldn't hear me.  This probably explains why Marinos' phone kept cutting me off...it didn't know I was leaving a message because there was no sound from my end.  I tried to get the guy running the place to help me, but he put on the earphones and then just shrugged his shoulders and walked away.  I did manage to navigate to gmail (no easy feat when everything on the screen is in Greek) to send a message to both Marinos and Tanya explaining my plight.  I left and finally found another bar (much nicer, no gambling) with wifi, but no food.  I was able to talk to Tanya and had a reply from Marinos with the code (which was not any of the codes on the modem, by the way), but still not the network name although I had asked for it in my email.  He also said not to feel unsafe because there was no "criminality" in the area.  I found that a little hard to believe since the entire neighborhood was covered in graffiti, but I've learned to somewhat overlook graffiti and not judge, as it seems most of Europe is graffiti-laden. 

I returned to my apartment, stopping to get fast food take-out on the way, navigated from the unlocked front door to my door in the dark corridor, and began trying to get in.  It took a few minutes, which are uncomfortable in a strange, dark corridor, but the key did finally work.  I again tried to connect to every available wifi network, but still couldn't get online.  I finally gave up sometime after midnight and went to bed, vowing that if the wifi wasn't fixed the next day I was moving out and finding other accommodations.  I'm staying in Athens for 6 nights, and while unlit corridors aren't pleasant, having no wifi for a week is a deal breaker for me. 

By this point, I was exhausted and went to sleep pretty quickly.  At around 2:00 in the morning, I was startled awake by someone banging on my door.  It was a man, yelling something in Greek that I couldn't understand.  He was banging and pushing on the door and then tried putting something in the keyhole to open it.  I was terrified!  I grabbed a chair, but the door didn't have an inside handle to shove a chair under to prevent it from opening.  Instead I grabbed a coat rack nearby and wedged it between the door and a piece of furniture.  The man never got the lock undone and finally gave up and went away, but I didn't sleep a wink the rest of the night.  I stayed up reading and listening for every noise.  Around 4am, a couple of drunk guys were yelling on the street underneath my window, but at least they weren't in the building or trying to get in my door.  Around sunrise I finally fell asleep and slept fitfully until about 11:30am. 

That was the final straw!  I should have listened to my intuition from the beginning.  From the minute the guy extracted the file from his toolbox to fix the lock, it was telling me to get out.  Needless to say, the first thing I did when I got up was go back to the bar with wifi and book a hotel.  I am now at the Novotel Athens and feel much, much safer.  When I emailed Marinos to telling him I was leaving and why (and to ask for a refund), he said the guy trying to get in was probably just the drunk guy from upstairs who sometimes can't find his own apartment.  He again assured me it was safe.  Right!  With no lock on the exterior door, no lighting, a questionable lock on the apartment door, and a guy upstairs who gets so sloshed he can't find his way home, I don't know how he can continue to make that claim. 

I will say that I have stayed in many apartments during this trip and this was my first problem.  In part, I feel a bit to blame.  I usually read all reviews on Airbnb and am careful about the places I book.  That apartment was a new listing, had only 1 short review (although it was positive, it didn't mention safety), and was almost too good a bargain.  Now I know why.  The pictures were cute, and in fact, once inside, the apartment wasn't bad at all.  It was newly renovated and had everything I needed...but the neighborhood, wifi, and safety issues were just too much.

So, I have now been in Athens for over 24 hours and have seen nothing (and have no pictures to share) because I've spent all my time so far dealing with the bad apartment and moving to a new hotel.  I have nothing to report other than my harrowing night.  Actually, I do have one photo.  This morning, I took a picture of the coat rack blocking my door before I removed it. 

If you have to do this at 2:00 in the morning, you're in the wrong apartment.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A quick note...

If you're just tuning in, I've done 5 posts tonight to catch up on pictures and experiences in Rome (where I had no wifi) and Thessalonika, Greece (where I am currently).  You'll have to go back a little bit to see it all.

Again, sorry about the lack of posts over the weekend.  Thanks for reading!

Moving on to Greece...first stop, Saloniki

I left Rome yesterday and am now in Greece!  I will go to Athens tomorrow, but because I wanted to see the northern part of the country as well as the south,  I decided to spend a couple of nights in Thessalonica.  It's the second largest city in Greece, and is also known as Thessaloniki, Salonica, and Saloniki.  Very confusing!  For the purposes of this blog, I'm going to use one of the shorter forms of the name: Saloniki. 

Saloniki was founded in 315BC and later became one of the largest cities in the Byzantine Empire.  It is still a large and vibrant city, with a mix of big modern buildings and old Byzantine structures.  And when I say a mix, I really mean it!  My pictures below will show ancient excavation sites right in the middle of town sandwiched between modern shops and apartment buildings.  The city sits on the edge of the Aegean Sea and has always been a major port for products coming from all over the world into eastern and central Europe.  The docks are still very busy and as you walk along the city's boardwalk you see ships lined up waiting to get into port and be unloaded.

So far, I really love Greece.  For one thing, Greek food is among my favorite cuisines.  While the food in Italy was absolutely delicious, it's also very heavy.  I love pizza and pasta, but you can only eat it so many times in a row before you begin to crave something a bit lighter.  Of course, every time I said that to Tanya, I could see her rolling her eyes on my Skype screen no matter how poor the connection.  She could exist on pasta alone and can't imagine how I could possibly tire of it.  In Italy, when you order dinner, pasta is always your first course no matter what else you get.  Try ordering just the "secondo" (entrée) without the "primo" (first course of pasta) and they look at you as if you're a little weird.  And the primo isn't just a small plate of pasta.  It's a large portion that in the US we would consider enough for an entire meal.  Also, if you order a salad with your meal, it doesn't come first. It either comes with your secondo or after it as a light course before dessert.  I had lost weight on this trip from doing so much walking, but I think I put in all back on in Italy.  Of course, the daily gelato didn't help, but it sure was good.  I never got tired of that!

The food in Greece has been equally spectacular.  And, way less expensive!  I ate lunch and dinner yesterday for less than what I typically paid in Rome for dinner alone.  I went to a little restaurant last night for dinner and decided to start with a plate that offered a variety of appetizers.  It had a basketful of bread, tzatziki (a yogurt dip made with garlic and cucumbers...it's the creamy sauce you get on gyros in the US), a sampling of cured meats, dolmades (a rice mixture wrapped in grape leaves), a variety of pickled veggies, a tomato and cucumber salad with egg, an anchovy, olives, and some pepperoncini.  I wish I had taken my camera with me to get some pics, but I had left it at the hotel.  The whole thing cost only 2 euros (about $2.60).  My entrée of 2 large pieces of cod (caught fresh that day) with a rice and herb pilaf cost only 6 euros. Greece is suffering through some terrible economic woes, but it is currently a foreign traveler's paradise in terms of prices.

Today I went out to see the sights, including a visit to the Museum of Byzantine Culture.  I had read online that it has won several awards for its collections, which include not only artifacts of the religious and noble classes, but also those of regular working folks.  It was a really great museum.  Not only is the collection interesting with lots of information, but the layout of the galleries is very well done.  It takes you through different time periods from the 2nd and 3rd centuries right up to the post-Byzantine periods of the 15th-18th centuries.  The displays are well organized and include everything from tombs to religious iconography to daily implements like tools, dishes, cooking vessels, combs, coins, jewelry, and much more.  The first few galleries I went into had signs indicating no photography was allowed, but as I got near the end of the museum I saw some people taking photos so I asked an attendant if it was ok.  Turns out it was only the first few galleries (of the oldest stuff) where cameras weren't allowed.  Unfortunately, I was almost at the end already, but I did get a few pics.

So, here is Saloniki in pictures....

As you can see from this pic (taken from my hotel balcony last night), Saloniki is a large, vibrant, modern city.
This is an old Byzantine church that sits in a park 2 blocks from my hotel.

On the other side of the park sits an old Roman bathhouse called the Paradiso Baths.  I wanted to look inside, but it's closed on Tuesdays.

I like the architecture here.  This modern building is a very pretty example, but fairly typical of the style...clean lines, symmetry, and light exterior colors. 

This is the White Tower, which sits right along the coastline.  It was a lookout tower to guard against attacks from the sea, but it has also been used as a prison and a museum.

This is a painting on wood from around the middle of the 14th century.  I was amazed at how vivid the colors remain after 650 years.  I asked one of the gallery attendants if it had been touched up and she said no.  She said the Byzantines developed a type of laminate that would seal the wood so the colors wouldn't absorb and then another that went on top to protect them from chipping and fading. 

This was a cabinet front from around the 15th century. 

I thought this display in a toy story window was amusing.  Get your child a toy car...attached to a tapered candle!

Old and new mix together all throughout Saloniki.

This is an excavation site right near the center of town.

The original city gate.

Some closer detail of carvings on the gate.

Looks like Greek to me.  Oh wait...it is Greek!  I now understand why, of all the languages in the world, this one was chosen for a cliché meaning incomprehensible.  Luckily, most restaurant menus include an English translation.

There are dogs and cats all over this town...and most don't seem to belong to anyone.  I saw small groups of dogs like these lying around sleeping all over the place.  The cats seemed to favor the ruins.  I saw several lying atop the warm bricks of an excavation site taking in the sun. 

This was the side salad that came with my lunch.  It was enough for a meal in itself...and absolutely delicious!