Monday, October 13, 2008

Greek Odyssey

Sensual. How else to describe the taste, touch, and sounds of Greece? From the first bite of slowly roasted lamb to the last spoonful of freshly churned yogurt and honey…the worn flagstones of the Acropolis to the grainy black sand of Santorini…the tangy scent of ouzo to the mountain breezes blowing across a windswept island in the Cyclades…the inscrutable chatter of Greek and the laughter of my friends-all was my Greek odyssey, one of those vacations that, although not perfect in the conventional sense, was nonetheless amazing.

Greece is so close to Amman, it is almost sinful. After a 2.5 hour flight, I arrived on the outskirts of Athens, one duffel bag, two purses, and two strangers in tow. A random J I met on the plane, Andrew, and his sister, Veronicka, who had arrived earlier, all took the efficient and wholly pleasant Metro to the Pergamos hotel, my base for exploring Athens. Perhaps I should amend that. We took the Metro to Omonia Square, where we ascended from the bowels of the Metro, glanced around, and saw nothing resembling either the street name or address of the hotel. After a few wrong turns, and many miscommunications, we found the hotel, a pleasant, although somewhat obtuse, 10 minute walk from the Metro. At first glance, Athens is like any other teeming metropolis-blocks of apartment buildings, honk-filled streets, aimless tourists and harried natives. However, it does have one distinct advantage over every other city in the world-history, and not just any history, but Greek history. I don’t remember dates, but Athens was first settled in the 6th or so B.C. It is difficult to fathom how many thousands of years ago that was, and even more difficult to understand many of the monuments still stand, time-worn but majestic, across Greece.

I was bloody determined to see the Acropolis, so, after a night out on the town, where I could dress decidedly un-Ramadanish, and sample the curious, licorice-flavored ouzo, the three of us ventured through the streets of Athens towards the large hill rising at the center. While Veronicka and I awoke languorously, Drew brought us breakfast- all I could eat was the cheese and eggs, but it was thoughtful nonetheless J The hotel, which I had chosen quite capriciously on the internet, was ideally situated to most of the major sites. We spent most of the day wandering up and down the many paths wending around the Acropolis, pausing to clamber into 6th century caves dedicated to Poseidon and sweeping theatres where drama was first, well, dramatized. Eventually, we made it to the top, passed the scaffolding (not exactly picturesque) and encountered the Parthenon, perhaps the world’s most famous monument, a testament to how low construction standards have fallen in the modern era. Still graceful, the Parthenon enjoys a seat of honor above the city, its marble columns harbouring the secrets of millennia and enduring the constant stream of tourists traipsing across hallowed ground.

Actually, the tourist volume was quite manageable-fall is definitely the perfect time to visit Greece- spectacular weather and few tourists to bump into while photographing statues of naked Greek youths. Awkward. Although I met plenty of Americans, the USA was definitely in the minority in terms of representation-Europeans dominated the scene, with large crops of Asians to fill out the crowd. Though most of our fellow tourists spoke English (which made for interesting conversation while sliding and tripping over the smooth stones on the top of Acropolis. I suppose they have seen a lot of traffic…) lots of Greek demonstrated a distinct dearth of the English language. Which, to try to be culturally sensitive and not the obnoxious American, is fine, except when you’re directing a cab, ordering in a restaurant, or asking for directions. Then, communication devolves into hand gestures, pantomimes, and other equally embarrassing charades

Ok, well, after a late lunch overlooking the ancient marketplace and well-preserved Temple of Hermes, we hurried home (well, in a desultory sort of fashion. You see, I found the main shopping street of Athens, which contained my favorite clothing store, Promod. So, a brief detour was had) in order to meet my two friends, Sarah and Sherina, who were arriving from Cairo that afternoon. If you’ll recall, Sarah was the impetus for the entire Greek odyssey; as an author of a scintillating paper on Egyptian porn, she was invited to attend a conference in Athens on, you guessed it, porn. So, Veronika, Andrew, and I joked that it was porn that brought us together J

By the time I strolled into the Pergamos, Sarah had left for evening porn festivities, but Sherina admitted me into the room. I stayed for one night in a single, but then switched over to a triple to save money and time for late night gossip sessions. One thing about the hotel-wonderful staff, clean rooms, but tiny showers! I had never met Sherina before, I should add, but Sarah surmised that we might mesh. And indeed, by the end of the vacation, I felt like I had known her for years, not mere days. Sherina is a student at CASA, the ultra-intensive Arabic program at AUC, and likes to shop more than I do! Seriously, we are perfect for each other. While Sarah completed festivities for the conference, the 4 of us ventured to the sea, where we inhaled the brine, ate at Mr. Grill and drank generous portions of Greek wine, which was in cheap, and plentiful, supply. Accustomed to the austere Middle East, I was delightfully surprised to find that Everywhere sold liquor (not that I bought it Everywhere)-grocery stores, little neighborhood markets, candy stores…Sigh. Earlier that evening, Sarah had come home from her activities; it has been over a year since we last met, and it was so wonderful to talk in person! Thank you, again, porn, for this opportunity.

The next day Sarah presented her paper at the conference, Andrew and Veronika slept till 3, and Sherina and I toured Delphi. Delphi…do you recall the Oracle of Delphi, once the most powerful soothsayer in the world, visited by kings and leaders ranging from Alexander the Great to Xerxes? This was the only tour of the vacation I took, but worth the 100 Euros (ouch), because Delphi lies 3 hours north of Athens, and I was not in the mood to be stranded there for a night. We were definitely the youngest pair on the tour-our fellow tour mates were generally older and a bit more sedate. Sedate, meaning they didn’t sprint through the 400 century B.C. gymnasium to see the Temple of Athena. As a group, we toured the fairly spectacular museum of Delphi, which housed relics found in the ruins. Then, we had a group tour and free time to explore the Sacred Way and Temple of Apollo, where the Oracle actually foretold, slightly high on fumes from a ‘sacred’ fire. The Sacred Way is lined with crumbling treasuries, temples, and other ancient relics, but, across the road and into a valley, is the Temple of Athena, an utterly photogenic forest of pillars that the group wasn’t going to visit. Well, the group wasn’t. I sprinted across the road, leapt down the steps, dodged tourists and startled guides alike, raced through the ancient gymnasium, and arrived, breathless, at the temple, where I snapped a few photos and began the less pleasant journey uphill, pausing briefly to wash myself in the sacred (everything’s sacred in Delphi, it seemed) spring, and rushing back to the bus, where the guide reprimanded me for my tardiness. According to my watch, I was 3 minutes late!! That’s early, for me.

The tour stopped in a little village, Arachova, famous for its textiles, where I bought a cheap rug for my room, and then we returned to Athens, where all five of us-Andrew, me, Veronika, Sarah, and Sherina-spent a memorable night in Athens, consuming gelato, Greek salad, and grappa, a potent grape liquor.

So, the next morning…Sarah had actually been invited back to her conference to attend a special panel discussion, so the other three girls decided to go shopping near Syntagma square. After a late start, we wound our way down the now familiar streets toward the Acropolis, buying ferry tickets for the next morning to Santorini and passing our favorite brasserie. Perusing Zara (very lovely clothing store, for the uninitiated), I paused to make an ATM withdrawal and became separated from my friends. I figured we would meet back at the hotel in an hour, so I continued shopping on my own, bopping in and out of several stores before deciding to buy a few things in Promod. As I reached into my purse, I dug around for my wallet, and noticed the inside pocket, generally secured my a drawstring, somewhat open. Oh, well, I thought, and dug around a bit deeper. Ohhhhh noooo. Noooooo. At the checkout counter, I had to back away, dig frantically through my purse, and mutter angry curses. No wallet. No passport. No credit cards. No ids.

Noooooo. I retraced my steps, slightly timorous at the situation, as panic seeped slowly into my veins, as if dripped in by an IV. Finally, unsuccessful, I returned to Promod, searched the fitting rooms, and left, penniless, to return to the hotel. As I walked, blindly, through the streets of Athens, I talked to myself, despite the peculiar looks from the passerby. I knew I first needed to cancel the two credit cards, apply for a new passport, and somehow get money for the rest of the vacation. My friends back at the hotel exclaimed at my absence, and I tersely explained my problem. Sherina, who had brought her computer, let me call home on Skype, where I explained the problem to less than pleased parents. The American Embassy did not open until the next morning, so I did all that I could do that afternoon, and then Sarah, Sherina offered to return with me, to the scene of the crime, and ask if anyone had found the wallet. Of course, no one had, but after our indagation, we enjoyed a pleasant meal by the Acropolis, browsed in a few stores, and then I spent some memorable time in the local police station. Voluntarily, at least J I first attempted to report the stolen wallet at the Syntagma square police station, but, after they told me they were unable to assist until 10 pm, I changed my mind. Alright, so I fibbed a bit. As the three of us were navigating the streets around Onomia square, Sarah espied that police station and suggested I report it there. Hmmmm…So, I asked the impressive gun-toting officer (who also spoke English) at the door where to go, and he directed me up three flights of stairs. At the top, I entered a large room lit with garish fluorescent bulbs. I heard noise through another door, belonging to the head officer, and poked my head in. Through the swirls of smoke I observed several handcuffed individuals, empty cups of coffee, and clusters of Greek police officers huddled around computers. I, however, was directed to wait outside, while Cute Officer brought me some paperwork and copied the report. With police report # 2 of my life in hand, I exited the station and headed home, only to be met by a concerned Drew who had missed much of the day’s drama. Hugs, I learned, are some of the best remedies for a traumatic day J

After a night of gelato and good company, I arose early and paid a visit to the small patch of American soil in Athens-the Embassy. Again, I found the Embassy filled with Greeks attempting to enter the US and a few scattered Americans needing various forms of assistance. The officer called me to the window, looked at my strangely, and asked my to explain my passport situation. I elucidated the fact that I live in the Middle East, I need two for travel between Israel and the rest of the Arab world, and that passport # 2 was probably awaiting my at the Embassy in Jordan. Rather than issue me an emergency passport, he said he would get me a new, fully valid one by the 8th. Which was, for those of you still with me, 6 days away. I thanked him profusely and left, running into Sherina and Sarah, returning from the Acropolis. We re-purchased the ferry tickets for later that evening, and I spent the rest of the afternoon communicating with home about Western Union money transfers.

We took the Metro to the port, Piraeus. One thing about the Metro-unlike most countries, one doesn’t need a ticket to board; of course, it is strongly encouraged by the threat of fines, but most people ride the rails free. Knowing my luck, I bought a ticket for .80 Euro. At the port, we boarded the Blue Star ferry, wound our way up to the top deck, and settled down around a table to endure the 10 hours of ferry travel. The boat was quite nice, with modern restrooms, cafes, and cabins and reserved seating for those who wished to pay extra. We didn’t, so we enjoyed steerage, along with a curious mix of hippies, Greeks, and backpackers.

Chugging into Thira, on Santorini, at 3 am, we stumbled off the ferry, hoping to be met by a transfer to our hotel. Alas, we waited for half and hour, and then decided to rent a car and drive up the cliff face to our hotel, The Birds Villa. Seconds after Sarah signed the paperwork for the 1 day rental of the car, Sebastian pulled up in the van, holding a sign for Jenny. Thoroughly confused, he finally accepted that we were ‘Jenny’, as no other tourists awaited pick-up. Unfortunately, the sleezy man at the rental agency refused to annul the contract, so Sarah and I drove in our car up the cliff, following the other two.

I say unfortunately, because our hotel room included a small car in the price. By moonlight, Santorini was esoteric, silent, and amorphous, filled with soaring cliffs whose high peaks were obscured by the dance of moonlight and shadow. By brilliant morning sunshine, however, Santorini was gorgeous-black sand beaches, sweeping cliffs, palm trees, white Cycladic houses clinging to the cliff face, blue domed churches in every village. Our 2.5 days on the island were well spent driving our little car (the hotel-provided one) up and down the wending roads of Santorini, stopping to photograph the breathtaking scenery of the dramatic cliffs and village life. Our apartment provided a kitchen, and we cooked omlettes and pork and other ‘delicacies’, supplied by the two Carrefours on the island. Seriously, though, why does Santorini get two, while the entirety of Amman must suffer with only one? Sigh. We watched the sun set over the picturesque town of Oia on the northern coast, painting the white-washed walls of the cliff-side village a rosy hue before dipping into the molten Mediterranean. For dinner, we ate copious amounts of Greek salad (feta cheese!), chicken, lamb, pork, and honey and yogurt. We browsed the art galleries of Fira, strolled along the beachside stores in Perissa, and toured a local winery. Lounging on the beach, we splashed in the crystalline waters of the Aegean Sea and collected the black sand of Santorini. With the car, and Sarah as our driver (I don’t do manual; I don’t think blondes really shouldn’t…), we appalled the local tourist population with obnoxious, Middle Eastern-style honking and blaring the speakers to the mellifluous voice of Celine Dion. Lovely indeed…

Alright, lovely except for the fact that, upon arrival, I still had no money, and I hated borrowing from my friends. My mother managed to transfer through Western Union (thank you!), so, our first morning, I located the local branch and brought Sarah along to collect it, as I had no i.d. Greek men suck. Seriously, I hate to stereotype, but, as a whole gender, they were rude, appallingly so, with a leering aspect that reminded me sadly of the Middle East. For example, Western Union man. He refused to give me my money on the first attempt because Sarah’s passport read Sarah Michelle Leonard, and my mother had only given her first and last name. Fine. However, he was distinctly uncourteous about it, sighing, rolling his eyes, and barking at us. When I returned, the 2nd time, he was marginally more polite, but still obnoxious. Eventually, though, I received my money and, en lieu of a money belt, stuffed all of the cash into my bra. For the rest of the vacation, I had very valuable boobs J After a short while, I transferred some of the money to the safe, and the rest of it into a plastic bag, which went back into my bra, but I figured most people would not relish sweaty-bosom money.

Ok, so, Sarah, Sherina, and I were to head back to Athens together, and then they would fly out on the 6th, while I would putz around until the 8th, as Royal Jordanian only flies three days a week. Alas for high winds on the Aegean. Our slow ferry was cancelled, and they had to rebook on another ferry later that night. I, however, wanted my refund, so I bid them adieu at the port (with promises to see each other soon!) booked a cheap hotel in Perissa that offered a free transfer (see, I’m getting smart), took the local bus into Fira, received my refund and a ticket to Paros the next day, and spent a lovely evening with tipsy British newlyweds in Bob’s Bar. Don’t ask.

So, the next day, I awoke to calm seas, took the free transfer back down to the port (otherwise, a cab would cost about 15 Euro. Ouch), and reached Paros by 2. At the dock, a cacophonous crowd of men were shouting offers for local lodging, and I negotiated one for 20 Euro. Not too bad, considering I had a bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen all to myself. Paros is labeled as one of the friendliest islands in Greece, and I found little to contradict this assertion, despite the occasional rudeness of the local male population. Although Santorini, thanks to the season, had relatively few tourists, Paros had even less-fishermen still hauled in their catches from the dock in the evening, and goat herders still ushered their charges across the mountainside roads. I lazed on the beach 3 minutes from my hotel for a few hours, absorbing the sun and quiescence of the quiet town. I hiked around the area, exploring the seacoast and narrow village streets, encountering crumbling Byzantine castles and even more ancient churches. At night, I dined on chips, pop, and chocolate (in order to conserve money), and watched a James Bond movie.

Before my ferry departed the next day, I took a bus to the mountainous village of Lefkes, the oldest on the island, where I encountered an American couple with whom I hiked the Byzantine trail through the hills and dined in local restaurant overlooking the valley and sea. As vegetarians, my new friends offered me all sorts of unique dishes-stuffed eggplant, fava beans, and many other unique tastes that I much enjoyed after previous day’s reliance on, well, potato chips.

Returning to the village by 4, I strolled down the beach one last time, buried my toes in the sand, and found the only open store on the island (most shops were already closed for the season), where I purchased a warm blanket for my bed, relegating me to a diet of potato chips for the rest of the trip. But, as I sit here and admire its blue Grecian-ness, it was all worth it J The ferry was long, though uneventful, and filled with old Greek women who tackled anyone who attempted to board before them. I huddled on the top deck (too cheap to buy a seat), blearily disembarked at 1:30, noted the Metro was closed, and shared a cab with others heading to Onomia. Welcomed back to the Pergamos like family, I was attempting to check my e-mail when the desk man asked me when I was leaving. “Tomorrow.” “You shouldn’t go tomorrow,” he said. “All of the public transportation will be down. The workers are striking.” “All?” I asked. “Yes, and some flights are cancelled, too.”

Why does life hate me? I awoke very early the next day, wolfed down eggs and cheese for breakfast, and attempted to take a bus (not the convenient, efficient, and pleasant Metro) to the Embassy. Alas, I waited, and waited some more. The buses, I had been told, were running for a few hours in the morning, then stopping, then running for a few hours in the evening. Crazy Europeans. A few buses rolled past, stuffed full of people, as all of Athens was attempting to ride them. I waited a bit more, than finally surrendered, returned to the hotel, and asked him to call me a cab. But wait, there are no cabs available. Grrr…I asked him to reserve one for the airport for later, and returned to the streets, where, after innumerable rejections, I found a driver to bring me to the Embassy. I arrived, finally, and wanted to camp out inside the Embassy, surrounded by American order. My new passport was promptly produced, much to my delight (thank you, thank you, State!), and I shoved it in my pants (weird, but at least not my underwear) and walked back to the hotel, passing, by total coincidence, Promod, where I bought a new book bag for school J The Embassy was perhaps an hour away, without the shopping detour, and I returned with plenty of time to munch on some, you guessed it, potato chips, catch my cab, pay the exorbitant fare, and fly back to Jordan. And so concludes my Greek Odyssey.

Photos below!

1 comment:

Mary said...

You do have an angel, and find your way even in a difficult situation. Sounds wonderful, your writing makes me feel like I was there with you, from joy to fear and back again. Glad your trip ended up safe.Love you-