Sunday, July 06, 2008

My Big Fat Greek Vacation

Since I can’t afford a real vacation this year, I thought I’d reminisce about last year’s instead. The trip was two weeks long, as is this blog, so I encourage you to grab a coffee, sit back, and read the sections over multiple visits.

My yia-yia (grandmother) Sophie was from the Greek island of Naxos (pronounced like the cheese Doritos® made famous, but with an x). The village is Apiranthos (pictured above). Although I am of Greek heritage, and a litany of other European countries, I won’t pretend that I am completely immersed in Greek culture or could have written anything close to the incredibly funny screenplay Nia Vardalos did for My Big Fat Greek Wedding ( But I could definitely identify with it.

One of my sisters moved to Athens many years ago to do all sorts of noble work I couldn’t begin to approach. My parents decided a few years ago instead of exchanging birthday and Christmas gifts, they would take us to Greece every two years for a mini-family reunion. Pretty sweet deal! Here are some of the more memorable and quirky experiences on our most recent trip last May.

American tourists
No travel log is complete without sharing the annoying habits of other travelers. Mine starts before we even got out to our departure gate with a lovely retired couple. Baltimore-Washington International airport has one evening non-stop flight to London. In fact, on this particular Friday, it’s the only flight out of the international wing. So there was only one security lane open for the 200 or so passengers on the flight. And the couple in front of me couldn’t stop bitching. “Why is only one lane open?” “Why aren’t more people working?” It took us 15 minutes to get through security and they wondered why the airport didn’t call two more people in to work a 10-minute shift. But I’m on vacation and nothing is going to break my stride. Time for my iPod set to random shuffle. Hmm… Matthew Wilder. Imagine that.

Dynamic cab fare
Plenty of Greeks speak English, which makes travel easy for me, and my sister can speak Greek for us when they don’t. I’ll just cling to her whenever I need to communicate with anyone (I’m sure she won’t mind). Luckily, most cabbies speak excellent English, but there are a few you should watch out for that are apparently technophobic because they can’t seem to master those strange contraptions mounted to the dashboard that automatically apply a regulated monetary rate to the time and distance of the ride, so they’ll just leave them off. But they’ll act like they’re doing you a favor when they retrieve your bags at your destination and quote you a fare three times the standard rate. Not kidding. Don’t be shy: ask them to turn on their meters or get out.

The Greek frown
Greeks are a wonderful people, and I’m not just saying that because I happen to be one. They are full of life and love. An evening of food, drink and conversation is a night of warmth and hospitality you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. But on the street….well, that’s a different story. It appears that New York isn’t the only place in the world where smiling in public is against local ordinances. Everyone on the streets of Athens wears an expression like Al Pacino in desperate need of Prozac and definitely without a “hoo-wahh!” on its way.

It’s also fun to watch Greeks in conversation. At first I thought everyone was arguing but they’re just passionate. They could be talking about the weather but they’re so expressive it looks like they’re engaged in a furious debate, moments from fisticuffs, that would make Socrates blush.

“Looks like rain.” [eyes glance toward the heavens]

“RAIN?! RAIN, YIORGOS?!” [fist pounding an open hand] “OH MY GOD! HOW CAN YOU TELL?! IT HASN’T RAINED IN…three days” [shrug]


Ferry to Naxos
We took an early morning ferry ride from Athens to Naxos. When I first heard ferry, I thought of a barge-like flat boat where you share the ride with all the cars, or step into a seating area with a ton of commuters and cellophane windows protecting you from the rain.

These ferries are nice. There are even some plush seats inside, with a great view of the sea through windows or a movie on a large video screen. But our cousin explains that’s first class. So we sit in some plastic deck chairs. Not too bad but I’m not a morning person and all I want to do is sleep. I finally doze sitting up with my head on the table, like I used to do at kindergarten naptime.

Our ferry ride is 5 ½ hours long. By the time we arrive, I have the pattern of my backpack waffled in my face and a swollen right eye like Rocky Balboa. We could have taken the high-speed ferry for an extra €30 but that would have only saved about 90 minutes. Besides, a ferry across the Aegean is smooth and absolutely breath-taking, so it’s worth the extra time! There really are great views from all over the ferry, with coffee, sandwiches, sodas, wine and beer available as well. And if you like people watching, you're in for a real treat. I havent seen so much gold, hair product or tan skin (and this is the men) since my last trip to Jersey.

Customer service
There’s a lot to be said about the decline of American customer service these days. But even outsourced technical support, phone-tree labyrinths and cranky teenage cashiers (if you can still find a teenager in fast food or retail who isn’t above entry-level work) doesn’t compare to my experience.

When I arrive on Naxos, I need some cash and hit the first ATM I can find. My card worked back on the mainland at the same bank, so I didn’t anticipate any trouble. (Too much foreshadowing?) It doesn’t work. I try over and over and then say "F it" and walk into the bank.

There's a bright red “Now serving 101” electronic sign greeting me as I come in. There is one customer in line, and six employees, all at their desks. All smoking. After five minutes, I am called to one of the six desks. I go with my cousin, who does speak Greek, and hand the error slip and my ATM card to the bank employee. He looks at the slip, looks at the card, looks at the slip, looks at the card, makes his Pacino face, mutters an inaudible “hoo-wahh” and then mumbles something audibly in Greek. My cousin argues with him. Not the “looks like rain” discussion but a real argument. We are escorted two desks down to Pacino’s co-worker, Robert DeNiro. However, Bobby is working with the first customer and doesn’t feel it necessary to acknowledge us. So we stand for 10 minutes until he finishes with the other customer and another two cigarettes. He didn’t help him, he just finished with him. I don’t speak a lot of Greek but I know the customer does not leave happy.

Bobby looks at the slip, looks at the card, looks at the slip, looks at the card, looks at me, looks at the slip, looks up a page in a book and then hands everything back to us. He doesn’t say a word and walks us out to the ATM. We repeat the entire process. He shrugs and tells my cousin it’s not working. Really?

We go back inside. He takes us to another desk. From there we’re taken to a fourth desk. She in turn takes us back to the first desk we visited. Al and Bobby converse, make a phone call, look something up, and finally tell my cousin they can have my bank wire me cash that will be available in three days for a $17 service charge.

After 25 minutes of smoking, frowning and shuttling us to every bank employee’s desk (it’s not like this was a large bank - they could have just spoken to each other from where they stood), this is the best they can do. We decline. Then I realize it’s still only 5 AM in the states. I try my ATM card four hours later at a different bank and I’m golden. After an experience like that, I have come to a new tolerance level for snarky teenagers and overseas tech support.

Journey to Apiranthos: Roller coasters courtesy of Greyhound
OK, they’re not really courtesy of Greyhound but they are buses and the inclines remind me of “amusement” rides. My sister and I want to visit my grandmother’s village, Apiranthos while on Naxos. We could go by donkey or bus. Stupid Americans, we take the bus.

We buy our bus tickets at a stand in the port and head to the bus stop. A very friendly English-speaking driver greets us, takes our tickets and lets us board early. Five minutes before we take off, she disembarks and Al Pacino’s nephew Yiorgos gets on. I should tell you now there are only three male names I heard on my entire two-week visit: Yiorgos (George), Yianni (Johnny) and Stefanos (Stephen). And they all know each other, especially on the island, because they all greet each other everywhere. Anyway, Yiorgos gets on and immediately asks my sister and me for our tickets. In Greek. He speaks no English and isn’t pleasant. I almost cry, he decides we’re not worth his time, shrugs and goes back to his seat.

The bus heads for the village. Apiranthos sits on the highest point of Naxos, and the bus ride is notoriously scary. It’s straight up the mountain. There are guardrails, they’re just not… a constant.

The bus makes a few stops around town, loading and unloading passengers. It’s only a 30-minute trip and I’m starting to think, this is cake. What are they talking about? Then the bus driver pulls over and gets off. He runs across the street and comes back with a few baskets of strawberries. OK… I guess he’s hungry. He probably has a busy schedule and has no choice but to run personal errands during his shift. The road starts to get windy, our bus begins to ascend the mountain and I notice the drop-off begins to get a bit sheerer. Occasionally I see a guardrail, and I wonder how effective a device less than four feet high can be in preventing a vehicle nearly 10 feet high from plummeting. Hey, who doesn’t wonder why bridges don’t snap when there’s lots of traffic as you’re crossing deep water?

Another five minutes into the trip and he pulls over again. This time it’s for a six-pack of Amstel. Holy crap! We’re still on the upswing of Space Mountain and he needs beer?! Thank God he doesn’t crack one open.

After a few Hail Mary’s and 20 more minutes of thrills, chills and excitement, we arrive in Apiranthos.

Getting off the bus, I almost weep. I’m setting foot in the village where my grandmother was born and raised. It’s beautiful, it’s classic, it’s exciting. We head to a local tavern where someone inside is expecting us and can connect us with another relative.

We enter the tavern. There’s lovely art work and old pictures on the wall. Two older Greek gentlemen straight out of Zorba are sitting at a table playing backgammon. They sip their Greek coffees and are clearly engaged in something interesting going on behind the bar. I’m on a rustic, ancient Greek island soaking in my heritage. The air is clean, crisp and I am near tears that my ancestors breathed the same air and hailed from this beautiful village that is nearly untouched after decades of…wait a minute. They’re watching the Fashion Network! On a high-def widescreen plasma TV mounted above the bar, that’s hooked up to satellite. I don’t understand a word they say, but you hear the models names as they cross the runway. [Greek Greek Greek Greek Heidi Klum. Greek Greek Greek Greek Gisele. Greek Greek Greek Greek Frederique.] These old farts are giving a Greek play-by-play for a fashion show, and giggle when the model’s top is a little transparent. Needless to say, my eyes are now quite dry.

My cousin’s brother-in-law finds us at the tavern and takes us through a maze of sidewalks, past the homes that are literally built into the hills like the Shire in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Again, I’m beginning to get emotional as I walk through the streets that my grandmother walked as a child. She lived to be nearly 100, bless her heart, before she passed away a few years ago. We get to my cousin-in-law’s home and step down and in. It’s lovely, like a stone townhouse. Before I fall for the rustic charm of Apiranthos a second time, I see my cousin-in-law’s son playing soccer, on his Playstation 2.

OK, what have I learned about my grandmother’s ancient village and island? It’s beautiful, charming, full of history, and people still work a very difficult terrain to herd goats, grow food, and still export olive oil, oranges, potatoes, marble and emery. And the ferry I came in on brings anything you could need – it just takes a little longer than FedEx.

We put the fun in funeral
The day before we landed in Athens, my cousin’s husband Yianni unexpectedly passed away. Attending a funeral wasn’t on my original itinerary, but things often happen for a reason. For those of you who haven’t experienced a Greek Orthodox funeral, let’s just say it’s a bit…emotional (truly an understatement). But if we can be of comfort to my cousin during this time, especially when our other relatives cannot book a last-minute transcontinental trip to Greece, we’ll make the best of it. And I’m truly delighted we were there. Plus I had firsthand cultural experiences I won’t forget.

The burial and funeral itself actually occurred before we got to Naxos, but there are other memorial services, including the third day, ninth day and fortieth day services, so we are able to join my cousin for one of the graveside services. The priest brought boiled wheat and placed it on the grave, meant to represent resurrection. It was quite moving, standing on the mountainside with a view of our village, the rest of the island, the sky and the ocean. Later the next morning (when we were in the coastal town of Klido), one of Yianni’s brothers had taken some of the water used to boil the wheat, walks to the end of the beach and pours it into the sea, like one would scatter ashes. I felt quite privileged to share these private moments with my cousin and family I just met.

So we visit with cousins, cousins of cousins, neighbors of cousins, and friends of the family during our whirlwind tour of Naxos. Everywhere we visit, coffee, water and homemade cookies are brought out each time. (Greek homemade cookies are worth the trip alone.) And it’s obvious some of these incredibly gracious people have very, very little means. It is touching and humbling. The generosity is universal and everyone is welcoming.

And here’s another Greek tradition I learned on this trip: raki. Raki is Greek moonshine – potent, home-brewed and able to kick your ass a lot quicker than Ouzo. In this time of mourning, it is offered at every house we stop by during our village tour. I pace myself and am able to politely decline at many of the homes. My cousin’s brother-in-law (and our driver), is much more gracious and can not refuse. That would just be rude. And the drive not nearly as heart-pounding.

When we’re ready to leave Apiranthos, he drives us down the other side of the mountain to see my cousin’s home in the tiny (and I mean tiny) town of Klido. By this time he has had at least 10 shots of raki. But he’s much bigger than me and he’s a native. I’m sure he can handle it. [gulp] He points out a burned-out car at the bottom of a ravine. His son had crashed that one – as the panic spreads across my face he laughs out loud. His son was amazingly not hurt.

And just for fun, as we meander down the mountain with our raki-soaked driver, and sporadic guardrails, I see this roadside sign:

I believe it’s the universal sign for “Oh Shit!”

We make it down the mountain without giving into the vertigo I am sure will pull us over the edge. By the end of the drive, I’ve dropped enough bricks to build my own home in Klido. I’ve also aged a good five years.

Ferry back to Athens
Remember the 5½-hour ferry ride over? I learn for an additional €2 (that’s like $5) we could have upgraded to First Class, which we do immediately for our return trip. Plush, reclining assigned seats with a window view, air conditioning, tray tables and eight rows from a big TV. Which brings me to the highlight of my ferry ride: the safety video.

The entire video is in Greek (of course) but I can still follow this fascinating instructional film telling me what to do in case of an emergency. Essentially if I hear a series of seven horn blasts, it’s time to panic because it basically means “man overboard, we’re going down”. The video shows a woman in her cabin who hears the seven blasts and is obviously contemplating what to take with her as she casually learns life may be over as she knows it and the ferry is sinking. She grabs the suitcase, then thinks twice and just opens a front zipped pocket, grabbing the contents. She leaves the suitcase and calmly walks to the nearest exit, which I guess is really anywhere along the railing.

So what do you think she grabbed? Pictures of her children? Rosary beads? An iPod? Nope. Cigarettes.

That’s right. Why grab something irreplaceable or meaningful if this could truly be the end? You’re going to be floating (hopefully) for hours in the ocean and may need to swim. Who doesn’t love a good smoke, even if it means depleting the most critical physical trait you need in this situation: lung capacity? And you do realize you’re plunging into water, which kind of kills any chances to light up, right?

Tell me, doctor. What was she clutching so close to her heart that gave her such comfort before she perished? Was it her ring? Her father’s pocket watch? A picture of the boys? A pack of Newports?! Are you freaking kidding me?

Travel Tip: Ferry hop
If you want to see the Greek islands, my advice is skip the expensive cruise lines and ferry hop from island to island. In May, you can get from one island to the next comfortably, inexpensively and without reservations. It’s pre-high-season and the weather is absolutely lovely. When you get to the island, you can find a room with a view for well under €100/night nearly anywhere (except maybe Santorini, where it isn’t much more). If you like a particular island, stay as long as you want. Ferries run every day, often more than once per day. If you’re bored, book your next ferry and check out the local sites, do some shopping or have a nice portside meal, coffee or cocktail while you wait.

Greek news
I love watching television in other countries, even if I don’t speak the language. In Lisbon, I once watched a low-budget version of The Price is Right. I couldn’t follow any of the Portuguese dialogue, but they would send someone down (who would flail their arms wildly and cheer, just like they do at home), and then the four players would bid on an item. When a contestant repeated the bid of the player to their left (I may not know the language but I know an echo when I hear one), they were quickly corrected by the host (and me).

In Athens, I loved watching the news. The reporters speak in that same journalistic monotone vocal delivery we’re all used to, but in Greece they add their own editorial flair. At the end of half of the stories, the anchor shrugs and then smirks with a Deniro-“I heard tings”-like facial expression. I can’t translate the particular story I heard but I think it ended something like this “…and traffic was tied up for hours. A total of four people died in the accident.” [Pause a beat] Then a single-shoulder shrug with a half-smirk, as if to silently say: “Eh. Could have been five”.

David Sedaris
Another highlight of the trip was passing around Naked, a wonderful collection of essays by humorist David Sedaris, a fantastic humorist who shares our Greek heritage and love for sarcasm.

We read “Get Your Ya-Ya's Out!” together one night on my sister’s balcony. My mom could really identify with David’s retelling of his mother’s dealings with a Greek mother-in-law. We were rolling with laughter as we read it out loud and then recounted our own stories. I recommend both group reading and anything he’s written.

When you hit the marketplace in downtown Athens, it’s going to be crowded and quite festive. It’s also a haven for solicitation. Not the escort-based, but loads of cheap crap that no one wants (sunglasses, toys, disposable cameras). Sometimes someone will try to sell you a tablecloth or blanket that appear to be handmade – they’re actually very nice and not crap, but who wants to carry around blankets while you’re shopping?

Poverty is everywhere on this planet and it pains me every time I see it. So you’ll have to deal with beggars and watch your pockets in the busy tourist areas. It’s quite hard to pass by another human being without at least an acknowledgement, but eye contact, a nod or an apology brings more beggars and I just prefer not to hand out coins on every encounter. One thing which should trouble me, because I’m often superstitious, but oddly doesn’t are all the curses that have been spat at me when I have chosen not to drop a coin into the gnarled hand of an elderly woman beggar clad in all black. Does it count if you’re cursed in a language you don’t speak? I’m going with no.

Closing time
It’s bad enough my internal clock is in turmoil and I don’t know when I’m actually hungry or tired. Bars in Greece don’t close at a given time, so don’t wait for your friendly neighborhood bouncer to check the fake clock on the wall and hustle you out at the end of an evening. They close when you leave. This is awesome! And totally not awesome! Take it from your ole buddy Mike: pace yourself.

Cell phone service
I don’t care what the marketers want us to believe, cell phone service in the states is sub-par, especially compared to Europe. I live in a populated area on the northeast with cell towers and repeaters everywhere, and I get no voice signal and a single text bar at my place. While in that little town of Klido on Naxos, population 42 (and I’m fairly certain 28 of those are sheep), my cousin had two bars or more and full conversations all the livelong day. A-ma-zing.

The Olive Tree
The olive tree is a sign of peace, strength and perseverance. Olive trees can live for thousands of years in a brutal climate. Yianni hand-built a lovely stone sitting area around a twin olive tree, pictured below. It's a one-of-a-kind spot to relax and reflect, soaking in God's beauty. And answer your cell phone if you're European, and stew in envy if you're American.

Well, I really hope you enjoyed my tales and get a chance to visit Greece one day (or again). Obviously, I loved the trip.

Efharisto, Mom & Dad!!!


No comments: