Cinematic indulgence

giphy

As we approach our two-year mark here in Athens, certain activities start to become old hat. For instance, we’ve been out to the movies several times, and I’m well aware of the assigned seating, the relatively small size of their beverages (Last time James bought two Cokes just for himself. Sheesh.), and the location of the VIP lot at The Mall that embassy employees can use for free. But last week I met some girl friends for a Sunday night screening of It, and I discovered something new.

Though, before I get to that, let me first note how incredibly CROWDED the movie theater has suddenly gotten. All summer long James and I could breeze into a movie five minutes before showtime, but now that the weather has gotten colder, all the Greeks are going to the cinema. So when we arrived at 8:00 for the 8:20 movie, it was completely sold out. We had to opt for the 9:00 show, which was in the special Dolby Atmos theater, and cost four Euros more. (Still, only 11 Euros, so I didn’t complain.) I figured the sound might be slightly better or something.

Turns out we were in for a treat! The theater was easily twice as large as any of the other theaters, and the cushy leather seats were way more comfortable. The sound came from all sides of the theater, even from the screen. With all the “gotchas” in the thriller we were seeing, I’d say I was about 80% more likely to pee myself. I mean that in a good way.

This 2017 movie was a fantastic adaptation of one of my favorite Stephen King novels. They focused solely on the kids instead of switching timelines, which I think really helped immerse you in the story. And they moved the setting from the 1950s to the 1980s, which I’m sure resonates with my generation especially. I’m a huge Tim Curry fan (he played the clown in the original TV movie), but this new clown took the fear factor to a whole new level. I love, love, love the young actress they got to play Beverly — she’s my favorite character in the book. I also loved the kid from Stranger Things playing potty-mouth Richie, another of my favorite characters. (Seeing him on the big screen prompted a Stranger Things season one binge that I just finished up. Now I have to wait two long weeks for the season two premiere. The agony!) It’s clear from the ending that there will be a part two set in modern-day Derry with the kids as adults, just as in the novel. The movie is slated to release in 2019. Knowing my husband, we’ll be in some other locale by then, and I’ll have to figure out the whole going-to-the-movies thing in another country. Or we may still be in Greece. Either way, I’ll be there.

 

Mountain biking on Hymettus

Mount Hymettus (pronounced “imi-tos”) is one of the imposing mountains I can see from my rooftop. It runs along the eastern edge of Athens, with the airport on the other side of it. Not long ago I took a scenic road that ran right through it. This week the girls and I decided to ride our bikes on it. Thankfully Nikki scoped it out the weekend before, and she wisely suggested we park one car at the top and one car at the bottom so we could ride down the mountain and drive ourselves back up.

I’m new to this whole mountain biking thing. The roughest trail I’ve been on is the chat-laden Katy Trail that traverses my lovely home state of Missouri. Rose hadn’t, either, so I didn’t feel like a complete newbie. For some reason I didn’t think we’d be getting much exercise on this ride because we’d be going downhill.

Ha. Ha.

Turns out “downhill” is just a relative term. The trail actually undulates along the mountainside for quite awhile before it starts going down. Negotiating around large rocks and rough terrain was definitely challenging. Years ago I’d replaced my mountain bike tires with smoother street tires, so I wasn’t as well-equipped as I could have been. But as with every ride I’ve been on, my friends are a wealth of biking knowledge. Nikki showed me the correct stance for my feet and seat as we went down steep hills. I learned that I need to deflate my tires to a lower PSI for mountain biking vs. road biking. And I have to lower my seat if I’m going downhill. (That one was a bit intuitive, actually.) I had to walk the bike in quite a few places, especially around tree roots and slippery, loose-dirt slopes. I really, really, really didn’t want to fall. But we still had a great time making our way along the trail, stopping to take photos when we came across ruins or beautiful vistas.

20171011_070103742_iOS20171011_073010764_iOS20171011_073518967_iOS

At one point we found ourselves at a cave-like shrine. Inside the walls were completely covered with religious artwork, and in the middle was an alter with lit candles.

20171011_075830496_iOS

After roughing it on the trail for awhile, we eventually found ourselves on the switch-back road that we had driven up. And doooooowwwwwnnnn we went. Wheeeeeee! We loaded the bikes onto the hitch on Rose’s Jeep, then headed back up to my car. Along the way we stopped at a little coffee and snack shop for some warm drinks and spinach and cheese pies. I’m loving these little post-bike lunches.

Next week the fam and I are off to Pompeii, but I look forward to more biking adventures with these two when I return.

Outdoors and indoors with the kids

I recently discovered two great outings for the kids, one outdoors and one indoors. Perfect for fall when one can never be sure what the weather will bring. Until fairly recently the thermometer was still topping 90 in the afternoon, but last week we got a healthy dose of fall, so Violet and I decided to meet some friends for a stroll around National Garden.

20171006_090049809_iOS

The National Garden, located in the city center near the Temple of Zeus, is a relatively recent addition to the Athenian landscape. Built in 1840, it originally contained 500 species of plants, but due to the dry climate, many of those original species died off. Though it’s a nice oasis from the hustle and bustle of the city, like many things in the city, it was a bit down-trodden in places. The kids delighted in the little caged animals — birds, ducks, chickens, turtles and the like.

20171006_090019438_iOS

But while I can assume that the bridge overlooking the pond was once picturesque, the shallow, scummy water was hardly inviting for any ducks…or humans. (Though I was told in the summer that Greek mothers will sometimes encourage their children to swim there. Ick.) Perhaps there was another larger, more well-kept pond somewhere in the garden. We let the children lead the way, so we missed a lot of the garden’s features. What we did stumble on was a very well-maintained and spacious playground, and the girls had a fantastic time there.

20171006_100846560_iOS

National Garden may not hold a candle to Central Park, but if you’re looking for a safe spot in the city to let your toddlers roam free, this is the ticket.

Today, Columbus Day, James and I decided to take Violet out for a day at the Playmobil FunPark in Kifissia, about 20 minutes north of our house. What a delightful little play space for youngsters! Admission for the three of us was 8 Euros — perhaps a little steep, but there were so many toys set up all around, we thought it was worth it. Violet was entertained all the way to nap time.

20171009_085231751_iOS

There were zoo animals, farms, castles, Roman gallies, Egyptian pyramids, tree houses, princess castles, swimming pools, and even the Ecto 1 and firehouse from Ghostbusters. There were space shuttles, planes, trains, little doll houses, and so much more. We grabbed a sandwich in the cafe at lunch, and Violet had her own little toddler-sized table to eat on. We practically had the place to ourselves, and we wished we could have brought Liam with us.

And, of course, there was a huge gift shop. Violet picked out a little fairy action figure and a doll house set with a bathtub, and we got little figure playing electric guitar and a hot dog cart with Slimer from Ghostbusters for Liam. Needless to say we’ll be going back there with Liam on his next day off from school. (I imagine the place is mobbed on the weekend, and that is definitely NOT Liam’s scene. Maybe over Thanksgiving, when the American school is off, but the Greek schools are not.)

Bike riding in Greece

Since my last bike ride around the coast of Sounio, I’ve really tried to get out there on my bike at least once a week. Riding through Athens is a bit daunting. A year ago I wouldn’t have dreamed of it. My hairdresser called Athenian bike riders “crazy people.” But through trial and error I’ve managed to work out a system.

Last week I took Violet for another spin through Filothei. I left around 11 AM when traffic starts to lighten up. We took our little “secret passage” and after some huffing and puffing up some hills (and walking the bike up an impossible one), we made it to my friend Sue’s house for a play date. At around 2:30 I loaded Violet back in the seat for the return trip. Some Greek movers who were there to load up boxes for Sue’s neighbor helped me out…mostly by saying that this was not such a great idea. Point taken. Traffic definitely picks up again around 2, so much so that I mostly walked Violet on the sidewalk on the busier areas around our “secret passage.” I’m thinking next time we’ll either skip the play date and just ride around for an hour before 2, or I’ll take her out on weekend mornings instead.

Weekends are definitely the best time to bike, but not always the most convenient when you have family outings planned. Plus, mornings are starting to get a bit chilly. For the weekdays when I have a sitter and want to go solo, I always take a partner or two along with me. Rose, who accompanied me and Joanna on our last big bike ride, has been a wonderful bike buddy. She and her husband have been exploring all the nooks and crannies around her neighborhood, which is just a short distance from mine. Last week I biked to her house (through another “secret passage”), and she showed me some areas with bike paths running in middle of the streets. It reminded me a lot of when I used to bike through Brooklyn — there was a Hasidic Jewish part of town that had this fantastic, shady path in the middle of a busy avenue. But the traffic in Brooklyn was a bit less chaotic than in Athens, and even though we were in the more leafy suburbs, crossing the street was quite nerve-wracking. Even in DC cars would give me a wide berth, but here they pass by you with inches to spare.

So…

This week we elected to drive up to a hiking/biking path on Mount Parnitha, about a 30 minute drive north of Athens. I’d been here before on a picnic with Violet and friends last spring, but I never thought to bring my bike. This time we brought another friend along, Nikki, and the three of us had a lovely time riding through the picturesque mountains. Rose said it reminded her a lot of Colorado. With the pine and floral smells in the air and no traffic in sight, you could almost forget you were so near Athens.

Along the way we saw the ruins of the Tatoi Palace, a 19th century summer palace of the Royal Greek family. Many of the surrounding buildings were also boarded up and fenced in. Amid the overgrown trees and caved in roofs, you could picture its grandeur.

Around the back of one set of buildings we found an old car, perhaps one of the cars designated as a cultural monument and left to rot in a garage. And near the security building we saw this crazy fallen tree that looked like it had sheared another one on its way down.

20171004_075419640_iOS

Oh, and I met a cow.

20171004_121530707_iOS

Hello, cow.

The uphill trek just about did me in, but once it leveled off, I could actually enjoy the ride. The way down was a bit thrilling…and bumpy. After loading the bikes back in the car, we stopped at a nearby taverna for lunch and coffee. That’s a thing I’m doing now…drinking coffee. With about four sugars and half a cup of milk. I figured if I’m not going to put any real effort into learning the language, the least I can do is partake in the coffee culture. All they had on the menu was Nescafe and Espresso. (Sidenote: What is the deal with Greeks and Nescafe? They seem to revere the stuff, and as near as I can tell, it’s just instant coffee. Gross.) Espresso comes in an itty-bitty-tiny little cup. It wouldn’t fit four sugars. Believe me, I tried. But it packs quite a punch. We also enjoyed Greek salad with toasted bread and a plate of fried zucchini balls. Oh, and something translated as “walnut pie,” although it was more like a walnut and honey cake. All fantastic.

The girls and I have decided to make this a regular weekly thing, trying a different paved mountain trail or area of town each time, until it gets too cold to bike…around late November, give or take. If anyone else would care to join us, just let me know.

The embassy book club

This is by far the busiest fall on record for us. Liam joined just about every club at his school, plus he’s learning guitar, so I’m racing to pick him up every night at 5 o’clock and squeezing in dinner before homework and bedtime. Violet started back at Gymboree and I’m hosting play dates for her once a week. I started back up volunteering to teach English to refugees once a week. I’m trying to get in shape with a regular Pilates and aerial yoga classes, and I’m meeting friends once a week for a lengthy bike ride. And then, just for grins, I decided to join the embassy book club.

20171003_184912000_iOS

It might have been too much to bear. But what a book club! This month they were reading A Gentleman in Moscow and meeting for dinner and cocktails at the Hotel Grand Bretagne. Admittedly, I hadn’t heard of the book (says the mother of two who still can’t get through the stack of National Geographics that have been piling up on her nightstand) but it sounded like a lot of fun. I haven’t been in a book club in years…since before kids, actually. And I love, love, love reading. So with the meetup a week away, I borrowed the book from a fellow member and read feverishly for seven days straight. Actually, before kids I could have easily finished the 462 pages in a weekend, but squeezing it in at nap times and after the kids’ 9 PM bedtime, it was a little more challenging.

So, yeah, I finished the last 20 pages on the train on the way to the dinner. But, hey, it was all fresh in my mind. I could actually remember the character names and most of the plot. Especially the last 100 pages or so.

And this book club rocks. They looked up information on the author to share, we had intelligent conversations about different themes and plot points, and we killed a few (or more, ahem) bottles of wine. What a perfect setting for this novel about a Russian aristocrat under decades of house arrest at a fancy hotel in Moscow during the Cold War.

Plus, there was the view.

20171003_160715643_iOS

One of our members who showed up on time (which was pretty much everyone else but me) took this lovely photo at sunset. Nice shot, Renee!

This hotel meet up was a special treat — most of the book club meetings are hosted by the members at their homes either in the morning or in the evening. But I suspect this lovely group of ladies will come up with some fun, thematic venues again at some point.

Next month we’re reading The Confusion of Languages by Siobon Fallon, who is incidentally the spouse of an embassy employee living abroad just like us! How inspiring! Who knows…maybe I’ll get around to writing that comedy/motherhood novel about living overseas that I’ve got knocking around in my head. Right after I get through these National Geographics.

Yamas! Good friends part ways…for now.

Funny enough, one of the closest friends I have here in Greece is neither Greek nor American. We had a chance encounter at OAKA, and for the past year Katy and I have become besties. Her daughter is just a smidge younger and a smidge bigger than Violet. Last week we took the girls to see Peppa Pig at Golden Hall and they just about LOST THEIR MINDS. Katy and Dmitrius took us out for the most fabulous and immersive Greek Sunday supper. And they’ve been an endless source of all things Greek — language, customs, great things to see and when to see them, advice on local products to buy and shops to go to, you name it.

So when Dmitrius accepted a job in Chicago, I was at once disappointed that my friend would be leaving me, but also elated that she would be moving to the US. I mean, eventually my adventure will be ending, and then we’ll be on the same side of the Atlantic again!

20170923_192401565_iOS

With a few more weeks until their departure, we’re trying to squeeze in as many get-togethers as we can manage. Last night we had a double date at a lovely new restaurant in Halandri called Red Pepper. The cuisine was northern Greek, and the owner is from the same village that Dmitrius hails from, Florina, which is known for its awesome spicy red peppers (hence the name). The food was fantastic. I kept asking Katy to tell me what each dish was called as I typed it in my phone. Eventually I gave up and just handed her my phone to type it in for me.

First, of course, we started with drinks. Dmitrius asked if we’d ever tried Tsipouro. Turns out, I had. But I wasn’t sure at the time, so I figured let’s give it a go. Whoa. I was warned it was like Grappa…and it was. Yamas! I learned that’s Greek for “cheers!” Two minutes later and we were all a bit merrier. Katy and I decided to switch to white wine after that. (“Lefko krasi, parakalo” — I got to use it again!) Let the feast begin!

The menu was all in Greek, and while the waiter graciously offered to translate it all for us, we decided to let the experts order for us. Besides, we planned to order a bunch of dishes and share them, and we are adventurous eaters.

Along with salad, we started with Bougiourdi — a hot clay dish of melted Feta cheese, tomato, spicy peppers, olive oil, and oregano. I couldn’t resist teasing Katy for how she pronounced oregano. Or-a-GON-oh. If she’s going to move to the US, she’s got to learn how to pronounce it like a Yank. Or-AYE-gan-oh. There ya go. We all gobbled this one up, as Dmitrius advised it is best consumed while it is warm. James said this was his favorite dish of the night.

Next up, Melintzana Sxaras, oven roasted aubergine (eggplant) with feta and tomato. And we had a fantastic Pork Tigania, a stir-fry with sausage, peppers, mushrooms, and a rich, dark sauce. This one was my favorite of the night. We also had traditional Florinian sausages with mustard and a plate of kebabs with pita and tzatziki sauce. Greeks love their meat! And so do we.

20170923_193144162_iOS

We finished with complimentary dessert: Halvas with kormos, sort of a creamy paste paired with a chocolate “tree log.” Sooooo good! And perhaps because Dmitrius was talking up the owner (apparently they know some of the same people back home in Florina), we got another round of tsipouro and white wine on the house.

While enjoying this fantastic food, Katy and Dmitrius insisted that we really MUST make it to the northern part of Greece. It’s very different from the south, cooler and mountainous. Apparently there’s a huge festival at Christmas in Florina in which each little neighborhood tries to build the biggest bonfire. It’s quite a sight to behold, especially in the snow. There’s a whole chain of villages worth stopping to see: Ioannina, Kastoria, Pella, Vergina. There’s a great ski resort in Kaimaktsalan and a wonderful spa with thermal springs called Pozar Salt Cave. (I found such a great deal with free cancellation on Booking.com that I went ahead and made a reservation over Christmas break.)

And we were able to return the favor by extolling the virtues of Chick-fil-A and Trader Joe’s. (Just as Katy had to type all of these Greek village names in my phone, I had to type in Chick-fil-A for her. Ha!) All month long Katy has peppered me with questions about the US, and I’m happy to tell her everything I know. I suspect we’ll be keeping up the conversation over What’sApp long after she moves. And we’ve already made plans for a trip up to Chicago on our next US visit.

Yamas! To great friends, great food, and great times to come!

Time to get this girl a bike helmet

Last Sunday I got up early and biked through the “secret” passage to neighboring Filothei…and it was glorious. Hardly a car in sight, and the maze of hilly streets proved both interesting and challenging. Best of all, I came across a lovely little playground that had a structure perfect for a two-year-old.

Until now I never would have considered taking Violet in the baby bike seat that has been gathering dust in our basement. But I had to remind myself that when I bought this seat, way back when Liam was 18 months old, I used to cross six lanes of traffic on Georgia Avenue, then share the road on some back streets to get to the trail head in Silver Spring. And there was that time I got REALLY ambitious and took him on the Metro for a bike ride on The Mall. Compared to that, this was gonna be cake.

First, Violet would need a bike helmet. She’s been begging for a pink Peppa Pig one, but Hello Kitty was the best I could do. She didn’t mind one bit.

20170922_082513584_iOS

Next, I had to get used to the balance. It’s been a little while since I had a kiddo on the back of my bike…though maybe not as long as you’d think. I was still seating Liam back there to ride the trails in Wichita when he was almost six. One of the advantages to having such small children is they almost never exceed the weight limit no matter their age. Even though it’s been a few years, my body remembered…just like riding a bike, as they say!

And then we were off! There was considerably more traffic at 11:30 AM on a Friday, but nothing I couldn’t handle. There were just a couple of dicey spots where I had to share the road, but drivers always slowed way down, and most of the time I could find a little nook to duck into while they went around. I actually felt a bit better riding against traffic on the one-way roads. I know that’s a big no-no, but it gave me more time to find a nook if I could see the cars coming toward me. And once I got into Filothei, the streets got wider and less busy.

I wish I had a video of Violet’s reaction. She LOOOOOVED it. She had her own little bell to ring, which she did…often. And I had a near constant commentary about the trees and the cars and the people we passed. “I like the bike very much, mom,” she said after a long, “Wheeee!” down the hill.

We met another mom and her son at the park, and they told us there are several other lovely parks in Filothei that we could probably bike to. I’m so tickled we’re finally getting back on the bike. Some of my fondest memories of Liam at this age were our little bike outings and picnics in DC and Orlando. I’m looking forward to many fun fall outings with Violet this year.