Saturday, February 27, 2016

Athenian Anecdotes

The neighbor's housekeeper saw me coming in with Bella this morning and said, "Oh, you're still walking?!" I said, "Yeah, I am," really smugly, but now, six hours later, I am hobbling. I have to stop setting myself up like that.

Before my walking career ended, I went outside with my camera and took photographic evidence of the blossoms. These are from four different places on our walk today. Aren't you just sick with envy?

I have three stories I've been wanting to tell you. I've been saving one for a couple months. I don't know if it would be fair to call these Greek-isms, though in some ways they do seem really classically Greek (and the third one is totally Greek). I'll feel really badly if it sounds like I'm ragging on Greek people. I like them a lot. They're some of the nicest people I've ever met. I think I'll just call these stories "Athenian Anecdotes," and then I won't feel like such a jerk for laughing at them.

Athenian Anecdote #1: 
The Bag with Bad Aim

Walt Disney figured out that when people need a trash can, they want it to be within about 30 steps of where they are. The Attica region adheres fairly well to Disney's policy. Rather than assigning a specific can to a particular house, there are just a bunch of trash bins at intervals along the city streets. You can use whichever you'd like, and they're emptied every night. The one minor hassle is that sometimes you have to take more than 30 steps to get to the closest container. I'm sure that's what happened to the woman I saw on our drive a few months ago. It was a cold night, and pretty dark. Phil and I were stopped at a red light on the way back from the grocery store. I glanced down a side street, and saw an older woman walking toward a trash bin with a garbage bag. She stopped two feet from the bin, and hurled her bag toward the open top. The bag flew over the backside of the bin, landing directly behind it on the sidewalk. Now three feet from her goal of getting the garbage into the bin, the woman paused and stared for a moment. With a shrugging gesture that clearly conveyed both her apathy for the situation, and insinuated that the bag itself was at fault for not making it into the bin, she turned away haughtily and marched off into the night. 

Athenian Anecdote #2: 
A Conscientious Citizen

Downtown Athens has classic big city charm. It's grimy, graffitied, and there's a bunch of trash everywhere. Maybe the open-acces garbage bins aren't so effective. At any rate, I had to run an errand this morning in an area where parking is a battle. I ditched my car early, and went in on foot. Shortly into my walk, I noticed a woman coming toward me on the opposite side of the street. Someone had discarded a Twix wrapper on the sidewalk, and she was obviously unhappy to see the trash. I watched this woman for the next thirty seconds as she made a very concerted effort to take care of the Twix wrapper by pushing it with her foot all the way to the edge of the sidewalk, past a garbage bin, and into the rain gutter. She continued on her journey with a pleased determination.

Athenian Anecdote #3: 
The Cleansing Power of the Iron

While chatting with my midwife, another non-native, I learned something new about the Greeks. We were discussing how to clean baby clothes, when she asked whether I ironed a lot. I immediately saw how wrinkled my clothes were, and very reluctantly revealed that I almost never iron. Then she asked if Phil likes to iron things. "Yes...?" I responded hesitantly. "Well you don't need to iron the baby's clothes. The hot water will sterilize them enough." "I'm sorry, what?! People iron for non-aesthetic reasons? People iron baby clothes?!" They do. It turns out that Greeks are deep believers in the cleansing power of the iron. My midwife told me that normally the laundry conversation takes an hour because she has to convince people that ironing is not an essential component of ensuring your infant's clothes are clean enough. The really wild thing is that this practice isn't limited to baby clothes. "My mother-in-law, who is Greek, irons everything. Underwear, certainly. She'll turn it inside out and just [gestures furiously] iron...out...the...bad...stuff. Sometimes socks, too." 

This place is cool, man. It's just cool. 

Friday, February 26, 2016

A Fine Dog

Dog's lab results are fine, and her eye is improving. Stand down, crisis management team. Stand down.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Dog and People Doctors, Strawberries, Other Things

I feel like I've lived ten lives already this morning. It's been a long week, hasn't it? Maybe it's because I've had so many morning appointments. I'd forgotten what it's like to make plans with someone, and be ripped from a dead sleep by an alarm so you can meet them on time. Re-entering the working world, whenever that happens, is going to be a real trip.

Most of my appointments this week have been medical. I've been on a fairly-involuntary tour of the medical infrastructure in Athens since we moved here. The care has been really excellent, though I realize that I'm extremely fortunate to be able to access the private system. The public system is not bad, it just tends to be outdated, and takes longer to provide complete treatment to patients. Sometime, I want to go into more depth about the system I've experienced...but not today.

Anyway, most of this week's medical crap has been gestationally-related, or tangentially-gestationally-related. I don't think the dog has any clue of what's coming, but I do think she started to feel left out of the medical appointments. Yesterday, I noticed she was having problems with one of her eyes. It wasn't much better this morning, so we went to the vet. Our veterinarian here is completely fabulous, and so, so cheap. For $30, she examined Bella, applied some antibiotic eye goo, drew blood for testing, and sent us home with a prescription.

We're still not sure what the issue is. Bella, bless her, is such a neurotic, anxious creature, that by the time she was sitting (read: being restrained) on the exam table, both of her eyes were bulging out of her head, and her heartbeat was impossible for the vet to track. Have you ever pulled a hamster out of its wheel in the middle of the night and seen what those suckers look like when they're wired? They look like they're on uppers. That's what happens to Bella at the vet. So, I think her bulgy-eyed weirdo heartbeat prompted the vet to run some heart/liver/kidney tests with Bella's blood to rule out all the expensive, fatal disorders. I sound pretty cavalier about this, but believe me, if this turns out to be something horrible, you will all be put into a support network to pull me through my crisis, even if you're a complete stranger who just stumbled onto this page by accident. It's probably just an eye infection, though.

Now that I've whined, it's time for me to brag. Man, this blog is like a good, solid therapy session, and you're just stuck there with whatever I make you read. I guess you could stop and click on something else, but I'm sure I'm too captivating for you to do that. Here are a few photos from our early spring. I don't know if this is typical for this time of year, but everything is starting to bloom. This has been the shortest winter I've ever experienced in my life. I saw a million blossoms on my way to and from laiki this morning. I wish I'd had my camera then, but now I know for the next time I'm out. I took these photos an hour ago on our balconies.

The balcony plants are blooming! I've missed the flowers. 

The trees and bushes are started to leaf out again. Also, the afternoon mommy groups have returned. I'd forgotten all about that until I started seeing them last week. From about 5-7pm, the park is packed with screaming, playing children. They are very energetic. I'm tired just thinking about them.

Bella sunning herself. Ten points if you can guess which eye is the messed up one. She's squinting both because of the glorious sunlight. But, one of these eyes is not like the other. One of these eyes doesn't belong. Can you tell which eye is not like the other, by the time I finish my song? 

Between the time I wrote the caption for that last photo, and the time I wrote this sentence, I watched ten different "One of These Things" Sesame Street clips on YouTube. 

The weather today is so nice, I decided to set up the patio furniture again. I took it down when we went home in November, and didn't feel compelled to pull it out again until today. I want you to note two things about this photo. The first is that I'm wearing shorts. Greek people don't wear shorts. They don't wear shorts in the dead of summer, and they especially don't wear shorts in the dead of winter, regardless of how warm it is. I walked past several people with vests and heavy layered jackets today. Wearing shorts is a great way to identify yourself as an insane foreigner. The second thing I want you to notice is that the bowl on the table is filled with strawberries. Winter is strawberry season in Greece. I don't know how long it will last, but I do know from experience that it is painfully difficult to find strawberries between the months of June-late Novemberish. Even now that it's strawberry season, you really have to go to the laiki agora to find them. The major grocery store chains don't seem to stock them. If they do, they're expensive and not very good. Keep that in mind if you have a passionate love for strawberries, as I do.  Cheers to strawberry season.

There is something going on at the elementary school near us today. I don't know what it is. I saw a bunch of kids marching down the street chanting things. I can hear music from a distance, and every once in a while, the kids scream excitedly in unison. Maybe they're just teaching the kids how to demonstrate. I never went to a demonstration, or participated in a "hey, hey, ho, ho" chant until I moved to D.C. as an adult, but it's such a large part of Greek culture that maybe they teach it here from infancy. Nah, it's probably something more fun than that. I want to go.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Cleaning Up Appearances

I know I'm not the only one who does this, so I'm sharing my story in solidarity with the rest of you.

I've already told you that we have a gardener who comes once a week to take care of the plants around our balconies. He's an incredibly nice guy, and I forget almost every single week that he's coming until about half an hour before the fact. Last week, I forgot him entirely. I didn't tell him we were going to be out of town, so I can imagine when he stood at our door in the early morning, ringing the bell, he was wondering if we were all dead inside.

The stakes were high this morning. I woke up a full hour before he was supposed to arrive, which is a pretty impressive feat. I looked around our apartment and saw it was in bad shape. Phil had mentioned this a few days ago; "Every surface in this house is being used for something. I have nowhere to put anything," but he's my spouse, so he's stuck with it. I couldn't bear to look like an inept housekeeper in front of this gardener, though. This is irrational for several reasons:

1) He doesn't give a crap.
2) Even if he did give a crap, he only spends about fifteen seconds in the house, walking from the door to the balconies.
3) He saw the place during my first trimester.

And still I felt compelled to clean. I do not understand this instinct. A similar thing happened when we lived in temporary housing for a few months, with the services of a weekly housekeeper. Without fail, an hour before she'd arrive, I'd be running through the kitchen with a rag, trying to wipe everything down so it wouldn't be dirty. This makes no sense, but I know that at least a quarter of you do the same thing.

By the time I actually got around to cleaning, I had very little time before he was going to come. I had to triage.

He always goes to the living room balcony, so I started there.
"Look how orderly I keep my house all the time," she lied.

I got the living room squared away in record time, and was beginning to tackle the kitchen when he arrived. He was hauling in new dirt today for the gardens, so he was pretty occupied, and I was able to furiously clean the kitchen for a half hour.

This is what I encountered this morning.

I don't really know what to say about it.

I have no secrets from you; this was not a thorough cleaning job. It's like the kind of cleaning job where you throw the stuff in a laundry basket and shove it in a closet. I still worked really hard, and even postponed eating just to try to get it done before he saw.

This is how it always looks.

I left a little clutter for realism.

After all of that effort and starvation, he didn't even go to the kitchen.

The best part happened right before he left. He told me he wanted to show me something, and walked me over to the window he'd used to access one of the weirder gardens around our living room. Pointing to a dirty shoe print on the windowsill, he told me, "I wanted you to know, that's not mine. I didn't leave that dirt there. I cleaned off my shoes, so that was there before I came." I very solemnly said, "I'm glad you told me," and showed him out.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Mystras, Guesthouse Mazaraki, and Sparta

On the final day of Presintine's weekend, which doesn't actually count as the weekend because Phil had to take PTO, we reluctantly dragged ourselves from our hotel in Mystras, and drove home to Athens.

Guesthouse Mazaraki:
Are you emotionally prepared to hear about our Mystras hotel? Guesthouse Mazaraki is the #1 Inn in Mystras on Trip Advisor. The hotel sits on the mountainside, with balcony views of the archaeological site, and the Sparta valley. There are several small buildings, some with small rooms, and some that are meant to be rented as a cabin. There's also a pool, and a convincing little beggar of a cat who comes around breakfast time to cry for food. Our room was equipped with a small stovetop  and minibar/refrigerator. There was a nice t.v., and the WiFi was fast. I kept referring to our room as "The Pinterest Cabin in the Woods," because the decor was unreal. It was like Real Simple meets Instagram meets Home & Design. You'll see. I took some videos for you.

The hotel is within walking distance of several tavernas. but the food highlight of our stay came from the woman who manages the place. When we checked in, we were given a list of food we could request for breakfast the next morning. We were fighting the urge to request all of it, because we figured that wouldn't be cool, but when we talked through all the options with the manager, we ended up ordering almost all of it with her encouragement. We told her what time we wanted to eat, and the next morning, she brought it up to our room in a big basket. It was fantastic. We sat on the balcony and enjoyed our meal while watching the sheep on the mountainside below. It's sounds pretty unbelievable as I'm typing it all out, but it really was that idyllic. It was quiet, too. We were the only guests again. I cannot overemphasize how nice it is to see the sights in Greece during the off-season, if you're willing to risk the weather. We've lucked out with a very mild winter this year.

Breakfast on the balcony. It was a good mix of Greek-ish breakfast (if a Greek were to decide to eat breakfast), and some more traditional egg options. The valley below looks a little bit smoky, because this is the time of year when farmers prune their olive trees and burn the branches. 

While we were staying at Guesthouse Mazaraki, the manager made two different batches of Greek cookies for us to try, and they were friggin' delicious. I wish I had asked for her contact information. I want to ask her for her recipes, and also find out if she'll be my best friend. She really was an extremely kind woman, and she made our stay so pleasant. It was hard to leave. I should have eaten more cookies.

Sad Phil leaving Guesthouse Mazaraki after a great stay. 

We drove through Sparta on our way back to Athens. In the greatest disappointment since my failed attempt at bagels the other day, Sparta is not that impressive. The main part of town looks like any other moderately-sized city in Greece. Ancient Sparta is a bit further out of town. There is a cool statue of Leonidas I. He was the guy portrayed by Gerard Butler in that mega-dude movie, 300. 

Leonidas was the Spartan leader during the Second Persian War. The Spartans were exceptionally fierce fighters. Combined with several other groups of Greeks, the Spartans managed to hold off the Persians for seven days at the Battle of Thermopylae despite being hugely outnumbered. Eventually, some local turd tattled and showed the Persians how to get around the Greeks. Leonidas dismissed most of the Greek force, and stayed behind to guard their retreat with 300 Spartans, and several hundred other men. He ended up dead, along with most of the people who stayed with him.

Although Ancient Sparta is famous for its military training, the women had a pretty sweet gig. They were encouraged to exercise from a young age, and were in good physical shape. They didn't have to wear bulky clothes, didn't have to get married until they were in their late teens at least, and didn't have to isolate themselves from men. They were literate, outspoken, and controlled their own property. These women were boss.

There are some archaeological sites in Ancient Sparta, including an old theater. Phil and I briefly saw these from the car, but they're actually digging out the site at the moment. I don't know if they're uncovering more old stuff, or redoing the old stuff they've already uncovered, but it's basically a construction site at the moment. I'll bet you'd still be able to wander up to it and see what's going on. I don't think Phil and I were supposed to be driving on the road where we were driving, but no one yelled at us. 

If you are planning a trip to the Peloponnese, Sparta's a drive-by, rather than a destination. Go for your Leonidas photo, and then move along to Mystras.

He looks better than Gerard Butler.

That's all I have to show you from our trip. You might be feeling sad that there's nothing more to see. Good. I hope you feel sad. That's how I've felt since coming home. I guess we (Phil) will have to start planning our next adventure. 

Until then, here are the hotel websites for Elies, in Mani, and Mazaraki, in Mystras. 

Thursday, February 18, 2016


On the third day of Presintine's weekend (I'm going to turn this into a song like the Twelve Days of Christmas), Phil and I absconded from our hideaway hotel in Kardamyli, and trekked over the mountains, past Kalamata, to Mystras. In addition to the following pictures, I also came home with "The Bear Went Over the Mountain" stuck in my head, after singing it repeatedly while we were driving through the canyon.

Goodbye to Mani:

Here's one final glamour shot of Elies hotel. This is a real place. You can really stay here. 

Phil's sad to leave the beach cottage. 

He's not too sad, though, because before we left for good, we went walking on the beach to look in the tidepools.

Phil took a few self-timed photos of us facing the camera, so I thought it would be funny to take one of us facing away from the camera. Instead, it looks like a "candid" shot from one of those hip travel blogs where couples give up their jobs and plan to travel around the world in relative poverty until their blog goes viral, and they start getting endorsement deals from companies. That being said, I will gladly take more photographs like this if it means I can get free stuff from businesses. Seriously, I will sell out in a heartbeat. Call me. 

On Canyon Roads:

I feel terrible for not being able to tell you where I took this photo. I think it was on the road between Kardamyli and Kalamata. If you're thinking "Kalamata...that sounds familiar," you're right! Kalamata is famous for its olives. Along the coast of the beautiful Peloponnese, the city of Kalamata is bustling, crowded, ugly, filthy little hub of tourism. There are a lot of cruise ship-y things around, because cruise ships come there, and there's also an airport, which you could use if you want easier access to Elies hotel, but please don't overrun the place and turn it into Kalamata. The outskirts of the city are really lovely.

This is at the summit between Kalamata and Mystras, or about twenty non-consecutive repetitions into "The Bear Went Over the Mountain," if that's how you measure.

Phil took a better picture of this rock tunnel we had to drive through, but he doesn't usually share his photos on this blog. You're stuck with my photo, which has a car antenna running through it. Do you ever look at things like this and wonder whose job it is to build roads through solid mountain? I'd only want that job if I got to blow stuff up with explosives. Slow digging wouldn't be fulfilling.


We made it to Mystras on Monday afternoon. It was a beautiful day. The temperature was something-degrees celsius. Outside of America, people tell you the temperature in celsius and expect you to react appropriately to it. I have a vague idea that temperatures in the 20s in winter is really exceptional, but I have no expertise in the nuances of specific numbers within that range. What I'm trying to say is that the science core failed me. So it was about 70 degrees fahrenheit.

Mystras is a city overlooking Sparta. It's mainly known for its archaeological site, also called Mystras, an old, fortified Byzantine city on a mountain. Mystras the archaeological site is another place to check off your UNESCO World Heritage bucket list. It's a massive site, with stunning views, surviving Byzantine art, and more stairs than I was capable of climbing.

This was our first view of the UNESCO site. It's all that rock junk on the mountain over there.

Entering the ruins.

Here's an old church. A sign at the entrance to the site warns visitors to only enter churches if you're wearing appropriate clothing. It wasn't clear to me what that entailed, but probably not shorts and a tank top. I read a story online once of a woman who packed a sarong when she traveled around Greece, so she could enter churches without offending anyone. I wore tight spandex pants and a tight long-sleeved shirt, and that seemed to go down okay.

Byzantine artwork, man. 

Here's a look down the mountain at the city of Sparta. Mystras used to be part of the Laconia municipality, which is famous for its oranges, but it was very recently moved into the municipality of Sparti. People used to think Mystras was ancient Sparta, until somebody came along and said, "No, dummies, it's not old enough and it's Byzantine." 

The site is so large, they recommend that you drive from the top gate, which is where the photos above were taken, to the main gate, which is further down the mountain. Either way, you have to do a lot of hiking. We weren't able to see the whole site when we went, because it closes at 3:00pm during the winter. At the very top of the mountain is an old castle. The lady at the ticket office told us it wasn't worth the 30 minute round-trip hike to see the building itself, which is mostly just walls, but she said most people like to go for the views. Because we were crunched for time, we took her advice and quickly browsed the upper part of the site without hiking to the castle, before we jumped in our car and drove down to the main gate. The rest of these pictures are from the lower part of the site.

I can't remember what this building was used for, but I think it was some combination of religion, commerce, and government.

An old Byzantine street.

More Byzantine art.

Phil testing out the fountain at the church/government/shopping place. It worked. They've put modern hookups on almost all of the old water fountains at the site. 

Inside a Byzantine church.

More Byzantine church art.

This is a Byzantine eagle tile that was roped off on the floor of the church. Constantine XI Palaiologos, the last reigning Byzantine emperor, was supposedly crowned on this spot. 

Phil and I thought this looked like a hobbit hole, which is the only reason I took this picture. 

This is probably an old Monastery, but I can't remember for certain. There were a lot of old buildings, and a lot of stairs. So many stairs.

This is pretty cool. Phil's standing in front of a convent that is possibly still in active use. Mystras is a really interesting site. According to UNESCO, the city was abandoned in the 1800s, which is a long time for people to be living in an old Byzantine fortress anyway.  In reality, there were people living in some of the old buildings until the 1950s! And, like I said, this convent is maybe, possibly still active today. We didn't see anyone when we were there, but it was clear that this building had some serious modern upgrades to it. There was also a sign near the gate, asking visitors to put on the clothes given to them while visiting the convent. We didn't get to see what the clothes were, but Phil looked it up later and, if I can remember what he told me, I think it's a covering for your legs if you're wearing shorts. I have to admit that I didn't actually go into the convent. My legs were giving out at this point, so I sat on a rock wall, enjoyed the breeze, and listened to the bells jangling on sheep necks in the valley below. There were some serious Sound of Music vibes.

The Artist at Work.
This is the last photo I took, and the one Phil is taking is the last photo he took, of our tour of Mystras. All told, we were only at the site for an hour and a half. We could have easily spent more time looking around, but we had to get out and use the potties before the site shut down for the day. For 5 euros, it was entirely worth the visit.

Skreka Restaurant:

Before I end this post, I need to tell you about the place where we ate dinner on Monday night. Skreka restaurant has been in business since 1935. It was a two minute walk from our hotel, tucked away on a quiet street on the hillside. We were the only customers for the first thirty minutes of our meal, but they still welcomed us and turned on the Greek music for the dining room. Phil ordered a chicken souvlaki meal, and I ordered battered cod. They had a wide variety of food, including some traditional Greek taverna staples, like tzatziki and Greek salad. Our food was delicious. For dessert, we tried a portokalopita, which the guy described as a Greek orange pie. It sort of has a similar texture to tres leches cake. It's made from oranges, shredded filo dough, and Greek yogurt, plus sugar and fat and stuff. It was very tasty. We stuffed our faces, forgetting that Greek restaurants usually bring an extra little dessert at the end of the meal, free of charge. Often, it's Greek yogurt with some sort of jam. This time, it was a little Greek cookie, similar to a Mexican wedding cake or Russian teacake, or whatever you call them at your house. 

Phil and I really liked this place, and we want you to spend a lot of your money there.

Just look how happy and full Phil is. 

In the final Presintine's post, I'm going to tell you about our hotel in Mystras, and show you another crappy video tour of our room. Hooray for that. I also took a lone photo in Sparta. It will be quite a post.

Mail Call

We briefly interrupt the grotesquely ostentatious display of our vacation to bring you a grotesquely ostentatious display of the mail we received yesterday.

Phil's mom sent us a Valentine's Day box with a gigantic bag of Swedish Fish, beef jerky, decorations, crafts, and even more delicious food. Feast your eyes upon this. It is glorious. We love ewe, too!

My younger sister sent me this horrible plush fetus with a glowing red heart and heartbeat sound. It's from the same company that makes the plush microbes of STDs, and stuff. If we're being fair, it's probably cuter and softer than the real thing is at 8 weeks. At the very least, the plushy won't send you running to the bathroom every five minutes to puke. Thank you, sort of!

No, really, thank you for the mail. It was so exciting to open it yesterday. We miss our families.