Shopping in the Springtime

I took Violet up to IKEA to get her a little table set and myself a new ceramic frying pan. No dice on the pan–I had to settle for Teflon–plus about five additional things I didn’t know I absolutely needed. IKEA is the Target of Greece.

One of my friends and her 2-year-old daughter joined us for our little shopping spree. As we both perused the tiny tables in the kids section, our little rascals wandered around amongst the toys. Violet is going through that wonderful stage where she thinks it’s hilarious to run off, giggling like mad. She nearly made it to the café with a push cart before I caught her! Thankfully, some Greek grannies came to the rescue. They fawned over the little ones while we continued our comparison shopping.

The kids were getting restless in the checkout, so I loaded them in the cart and took them to get ice cream. Which seemed like such a good idea at the time.

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We moms had to quickly sneak in licks to keep the mess under control. I’m astonished my latest acquisitions didn’t end up covered in soft serve.

In other news…Spring is here! The lovely weather enticed me to get out and about today, where I was met with these little buggers:

They’re fuzzy little caterpillars, and they are EVERYWHERE this time of year. They form creepy little lines across any available surface, and if they are careless enough to march across a busy sidewalk…CARNAGE! I shot this video in a hurry because two ladies with hobo carts laden with recent Laiki purchases were just about to run them over. We were informed by the embassy not to touch these guys because they often cause an allergic reaction. Liam has no desire to touch a bug, but I’ve got to keep a close eye on his curious counter-part.

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bakaliaros

Happy Independence Day, Greece! The holiday is actually on Saturday, but today I spotted several stands of huge Greek flags waving in the breeze. I read in the embassy newsletter that many small towns have parades, and it is customary to eat bakaliaros skordalia, a crispy, fried cod fish with garlic sauce. Now here’s a seafood dish that could satisfy our Midwestern palates! We’ll be visiting the Byzantine, walled city of Monemvasia on Saturday, so I’m sure we’ll see a parade or two while we’re there. And we’ll have to try the fish!

I passed through the Laiki where I had bought these awesome pants, and I thought I would try to find another pair. As I searched for the clothing vendor, I suddenly laid eyes on a set of ceramic frying pans. And they were purple! And only 16 Euros each! Perfect! But not a clothing vendor in sight. I guess that’s the ethereal nature of the Greek Laiki. Better luck next time.

Beauty and the Greek

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Over the weekend I got together with a group from the embassy for dinner and margaritas at El Taco Bueno (not to be confused with Taco Bueno in The States), then we took in the new Disney offering, a live-action remake of Beauty and The Beast. Typically children’s movies are only dubbed in Greek, but in some cases they’ll offer it in both Greek and English. I thought it wise to order the tickets ahead of time — it was opening weekend for our movie– but we were foiled at every turn. Even if you can decipher the website, apparently if your credit card doesn’t have a Greek billing address, they won’t accept the payment. Because we’re all Americans working for the embassy, we are required to use the American DPO address for our bills. We even tried calling the theater to reserve the tickets, but they had the same issue about the credit card. And they wouldn’t just hold the seats for us to pay for when we arrived. Out of bright ideas, we ended up going to the ticket counter 45 minutes before the show. Thankfully the theater was huge, and our assigned seats were far enough back to be comfortable. Perhaps because we were seeing the English version at 9PM. Now I’m wondering, do they dub the songs in Greek, too?

I love these little group outings, not only for the food and entertainment, but for the swapping of useful and/or amusing information. For instance, did you know that there’s a law in Greece that your license plate number dictates when you can drive into the Athens city center? Apparently, even numbers are allowed on even days, and odd numbers on odd days. Someone in our group actually witnessed the police pulling people over and ticketing them for it. I had no idea! I mentioned it to James when I got home, and he assured me we’d be exempt — though we don’t have diplomatic plates, we have an official letter from the embassy we carry in the glove box that we are supposed to hand to the police if we ever get pulled over. Let’s hope that does the trick!

I also learned that at most overseas posts, embassy employees use diplomatic plates, but since 9-11, in some countries, including Greece, they decided it best not to draw undue attention to our Americanness. While I’m behind the wheel, anyway — my secret is out the moment I open my mouth. Or at least for people with a good ear for English. I still get asked if I’m British sometimes.

And that anything-goes parking attitude I’ve observed in Athens? It seems that if you pick the wrong spot at the wrong time of day, the cops will not only give you a ticket…they will physically remove your plates! The fine isn’t much…20 Euros, I believe. But it’s a real hassle to get those plates back. I don’t even want to think about what would happen if my car got towed. From now on, no more parking downtown!

I heard about an amusing story that was reported on the local TV news here in Athens. Apparently there’s a resort that just opened on the island of Rhodes, and they’re looking to hire a staff. Their one stipulation? Prospective employees must PROMISE not to sleep with the guests! This was on the news, people! Ah, Greece!

And finally, though I have yet to witness it myself, topless sunbathing is quite common here, especially on the islands. When I mentioned that I wanted to get myself in shape to have a decent “swimsuit body”, the girls laughed and said every body type is considered “bikini appropriate” or “bikini-top optional” in Greece. I haven’t worn a bikini in at least a decade. I’m not sure I’ve crossed over the Greek threshold enough to start. But we are here for three more summers…

 

 

Around the World in 80 minutes

On Saturday we got a sitter for Violet and took Liam to see Around the World in Eighty Days at the Megaron Music Hall. I was told it was an entertaining, visually-stunning extravaganza, and while all the dialogue and singing would be in Greek, we would still be able to follow along.

We gave it our best shot.

Honestly, if it hadn’t been so loooong, we probably could have made it through. We had good seats, Liam in the front and James and I on bleachers right behind him. We already knew the gist of the story, and with video screens to add atmosphere, it was mostly apparent where in the world the characters were traveling to. Liam got a kick out of the set — there were doors on either side of the stage with large pieces on wheels that the actors would ride on to enter and exit stage left and right. The songs were catchy, and you could tell the actors were having a lot of fun with it. But, there was an awful lot of dialogue and less singing than I expected, and while everyone else was laughing every five minutes or so, we couldn’t get any of the jokes. There were a few physical jokes we could enjoy, but the rest went right over our heads. At one point the video screens started showing scenes from the Serengeti, and I thought they’d made a long, out-of-the-way detour to Africa. But, no, they just stayed in India for a very. long. time.

Eighty or so minutes later we hit intermission, and our intrepid travelers were just starting to move on from India. Facing a long line for snacks and another hour and a half of the show, we decided it best to leave early. Liam probably could have made it through another act, but I’m sure his attention would have waned after another 30 minutes, and our backs were not too happy about us sitting on those bleachers for so long.

Luckily, tickets were relatively cheap, and we parked at the embassy next door for free. We spent the rest of our afternoon at Golden Hall, one of the more upscale shopping malls in Athens. Ah, commerce…so refreshingly American! And then, as if to negate all of the foreign-ness we had experienced that day, we had dinner at McDonalds. Liam loved eating at a restaurant without his little sister…I think we all did! Not a bad little Saturday outing after all.

Monday morning, I decided I’d let the grass (ahem…weeds) in the back garden grow long enough. First mow of the year!

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Last year I would have waited until naptime, but with one nap a day that happens during quiet hours, this was my best shot. Violet did a fantastic job of steering clear of the weed whacker. In fact, she mostly stayed inside as I made my way closer to the house. She may be a little more devil-may-care than her brother, but it’s nice to see she exercises a bit of caution.

Last August most of the grass died, and in October I tried spraying it with weed killer. It seems to have just killed the grass and fertilized the weeds. Whatever. We hardly use the back yard anyway — it’s muddy in the spring, mosquito-infested in the summer and fall, and too cold in the winter. My kids would much rather just go to the playground down the street anyway.

Chillaxing like the Greeks

As I embark on year two of this little adventure of ours, I find myself assimilating to my new home country. I picked up the words for right (dexiá) and left (aristerá) from my Pilates instructor. I learned another way to ask, “How are you?” from my hairdressers (Ti káneis?). But the phrase I learned recently that I like the best is sigá-sigá. People here say it all the time, and its literal meaning — “slowly, slowly” — pertains to both speed and attitude. I like that. As I’m rushing around trying to get Liam ready for school or driving Violet to a Gymboree class we’re late for, now I’ll take a deep breath and say, “Sigá-sigá.”

The other day I felt like a true Greek. I was driving through an intersection I pass all the time, one with a clearly marked “no left turn” sign. I always see cars pull into this little space to make the left turn anyway, and I, the law-abiding American, always drive blocks out of my way to get going the right direction. But yesterday, as I was the first in line at the red light (that I was craning to see right ABOVE my passenger window), I decided to give this little maneuver a try. I expertly pulled my car into the spot, and three cars lined up next to me. When the light changed, simple as could be, I was on my way. Now I’m wondering why I didn’t try this sooner!

I had some time to kill yesterday before my hair appointment, so I popped into this café my friend Katy recommended called…um…Kokkine Svoura, if my translation of Greek letters is correct. Ah, here’s the website. I was close. Kokkini Svoura. I’m getting better at this!

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At any rate, it was a charming little café with couches and a bar — presumably one gets cocktails here at night. Katy said the brunch on the weekend is fabulous, and the cookies and hot chocolate are stellar. Feeling a bit peckish (This is a word I say now. Because…Europe.) I proceeded to order way too much food.

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Holy cow, that’s a huge hot chocolate! The flavor was salted caramel, and although it wasn’t as good as Ghirardelli at Downtown Disney in Orlando (hands down the best I’ve ever had), or Coffeeway’s white hot chocolate, it was definitely in the top five. I also couldn’t resist trying a cookie, soft and warm right out of the oven. Oh. My. God. So good. This was dark and white chocolate chip.

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And then the sandwich I ordered came! A chicken salad wrap with homemade chips. The wrap was quite good, but the chips and dip were outstanding. I could have definitely eaten more of those! Or maybe not…I was about to burst when I hurried out to my hair appointment.

I had a lovely time at Cut My Hair, as always. We’ve all become pals. Here’s where I could put my new phrase into practice. Sigá-sigá. It’s so nice to have some kid-free time in my day to relax a bit. And have a little fun. I told Harris, my colorist, I wanted to try purple this time, and he mixed this up special for me.

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I think this is my favorite one yet.

Volunteering to help refugees

It’s easy to “like” articles on Facebook bemoaning the numerous policies enacted by an administration I cannot abide. A wave of nationalism that has arisen in countries on both sides of the Atlantic has left the most vulnerable population — refugees fleeing famine, war, and persecution — in a state of perpetual homelessness. While some lucky few get resettled, many others spend months or years living in camps. Many of them are living here in Athens. So I asked myself, what can I do to help? I’ve been regularly putting the kids’ old clothes in the donation bins at the Embassy and Liam’s school. But it didn’t feel like I was doing enough. So when an email from the Embassy went by asking for volunteers, I decided to act.

Once a month, volunteers from the US Embassy work at the Caritas Soup Kitchen, a Catholic charity that supports refugees all over Greece. They provide a hot meal for about 150 refugees in Athens every day. The embassy provided us transportation there and back, and each volunteer worked at a station in the kitchen for a couple of hours. I was on dish duty with a couple of others from the Embassy. As the dining room filled, we washed, rinsed, and dried dishes to be stacked and reused. We had a great time chatting, and we kept very busy at our tasks. People of all ages came to eat, and we had a steady stream of diners for two straight hours. I came home exhausted, but also satisfied that perhaps I’d done a small part to offset the (hopefully temporary) refugee ban from my own country.

Eager to do more, I’m also arranging to volunteer once a week to do activities with refugee children. This program is also run by Caritas, and arranged by the Embassy. It’s brand new, so I’m not exactly sure what to expect. Once I fill out some paperwork, they should be able to get me more information on what age children I’ll be working with, and what sorts of activities they’re looking for me to do. If anyone has any low-budget kids crafting ideas and games for groups, please send them my way! I will surely be scouring Pinterest in the coming weeks.

I’m also trying to get Liam in on the charitable giving. We talk a lot about the refugee crisis, and I suggested perhaps he should set aside some of his allowance every month to contribute. One of my friends volunteers at a medical clinic at one of the camps, and she said they’re always looking for diapers and formula. If all goes to plan, I’ll be taking Liam to Jumbo with the money from his “charity” bin to pick out diapers for little refugee babies. He seemed to like the idea…though he only agreed to part with 50 cents this week. But every little bit counts!

 

 

Let’s go fly a kite…

Today is Clean Monday, a national holiday in Greece that kicks off Lent for the Greek Orthodox Church. Traditionally they have a big seafood feast, and in the weeks leading up to it, during Carnival, adults and children alike dress up in costumes. After their big meal, all the families go out to fly kites. This year we skipped the feast and went right to the kite flying.

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Kites, kites everywhere! Many stands had these hexagon-shaped wooden kites that I assume adhered to the more traditional designs, but on this almost windless Monday, they looked impossible to fly. We saw many grown men struggling to keep them in the air.

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Most of the other kites looked pretty flimsy, no better than the plastic Lightning McQueen kite I managed to find in a drawer in our house. It was a little worse for wear — been stuck in a tree or two — but I figured it would do the job. We went out to the OAKA, where we usually ride bikes, because we knew the space was huge and there are few trees. So, of course, Liam managed to get our kite stuck in a tree within the first five minutes. Twice.

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After some careful coaxing, I managed to get it free. We walked to a better spot, several meters from the nearest tree, and spent the better part of an hour running up and down the promenade trying to keep our kite aloft. It wasn’t the best day for kite flying, but we still had a blast.

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As the afternoon wore on, more and more families joined us with their kites. But it wasn’t wall-to-wall kites like I’d envisioned, perhaps because of the weather. I’m sure Violet would have loved to have come, but this was prime nap time. Plus, there was a chance of rain and almost no wind. Next year maybe the weather will be better and we’ll bring her along.

Because…Greek Zoo

Violet and I have started meeting some other moms and kids at the Attica Zoo for play dates — got to get some use out of this season pass I bought last April! Now that Violet is almost two, she totally loves going to the zoo.

You may be wondering what the differences are between zoos in Greece and zoos in the US. Many things are the same. For instance, the Greek zoo has an entertaining dolphin show.

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Violet hadn’t been since last year, when she mostly wanted to climb on the bleachers. But this time she was totally captivated. It helped that she had a little cohort to sit next to.

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This Greek zoo also has all of the typical animals you’ll see in America: bears, lions, tigers, elephants, giraffes, hippos, and the like. They’ve also got statues the kids can pet or climb on. Violet loved this one the best.

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We did notice a few differences. Violet has taken to climbing on the railings and fences, which wasn’t a problem until we got to the ostrich enclosure.

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I stepped away to get the stroller when I noticed one of the ostriches making a beeline for my baby. Thankfully I ran back over and snatched her up before that little bugger nipped at her fingers! Violet was completely unfazed, but I’m sure she would have been wailing if the “big bird” bit her. I probably would have been, too! (By the way, I didn’t take this lovely ostrich photo — one of the moms with a much nicer camera and a much better eye for nature photography snapped this one.)

I also noticed that the fences in some areas stopped about a foot from the ground. Did they run out of money for fencing or something? I wasn’t so concerned that the giraffes or the zebras would escape — there was a sizeable ditch and a line of rocks on the other side of the fence — but an enterprising toddler could totally squeeze under it. Above the fence I saw a sign in Greek and English that said something to the effect of “Be sure to keep an eye on your children.” Indeed.

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Later on, as we rounded a corner at the monkey enclosures, we saw this lil’ guy just hanging out on the railing. Ummm…is he supposed to be on THIS side of the cage? Of course, the kids all wanted to pet him, but we moms clutched their hands and gave him a wide berth. We watched as he walked around a bit, then climbed up to the top of the cage and popped himself back inside. We mentioned it to the next zookeeper we found, a man on a bike who I think said he was the owner of the zoo. We told him, “We saw a monkey loose in the zoo!” and he was like, “Oh, yeah, he gets out from time to time. Been doing it for months now, since he was very small. He’s the only one who does it.” He was not concerned. AT ALL.

Oh. Ok then. Ah, yes. Because…Greece.