Outdoor cinema, The Mart, and where the heck is my Laiki?

I finally had the opportunity to enjoy an outdoor cinema in Athens last weekend. I’d heard this was a quintessential summer pastime in Greece, and I’ve always wanted to go. A group from the embassy met at Cine Chloe in Kifissia to see Victoria & Abdul. I was pretty exhausted from taking the kids on a very hot afternoon outing to Voltaki, an indoor/outdoor playground at Avenue Mall. But I am all about life experiences, so after getting my overtaxed toddler to bed, off to the movies I went!

By some miracle I found a parking spot in downtown Kifissia, and I arrived just as the movie was starting. I spied some familiar faces in the snack bar, so after nabbing some drinks and popcorn, we made our way down to some seats near the front with the rest of our group. We sat in a neat row of director’s chairs. As the movie played, we could hear the leaves rustle in the wind and a steady din from the nearby bars and restaurants. Dark theaters are cold and sterile, but this felt intimate and welcoming. You really got a sense you were watching something with an audience, much like seeing an outdoor stage production. And the temperature that night was perfect — warm enough for light summer clothing, but not so hot we were sweating. If you find yourself in Athens or one of the Greek islands from May-September, this is definitely worth your while.

This week I also finally had the chance to shop at The Mart, Greece’s very own version of Costco. I walked inside, and it was like I’d suddenly been transported to a warehouse store in the US. Wide aisles! Huge shopping carts! Floor to ceiling stacks of bulk items! Except here at The Mart you can get a 5-gallon tub of olives. Actually, I’m pretty sure you can get that at Costco, too.

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I mean, look at that! Like manna from heaven. I almost cried when they told me I couldn’t get a membership. Apparently these deep discounts are for GREEKS ONLY. But thankfully they gave me a free day pass, and later I found out I can borrow a membership card from Philippia in the GSO at the embassy. One of the many perks of being a diplomat, along with VIP parking.

With this unrelenting summertime heat lasting well into September, I haven’t been to the Laiki in awhile. So when I headed down the street with my hobocart ready to pick up some fresh fruit, imagine my surprise to find the street completely empty. Where is my laiki?! I walked a little further and spied some ladies laden with heavy bags of produce, so I knew it wasn’t far off. Sure enough, a few blocks up and couple over, I found it. Huzzah! I guess it does make sense to move it every other year or so. I’m sure blocking the street every week wreaks havoc on the businesses there. I managed to find some of my favorite vendors, and most of them greeted me with a familiar, “Kalimera, ti kanis?” Good morning, how are you? And I would dutifully reply, “Poly kalla. Ef charisto.” Very well, thank you. That’s about all the conversation I can muster in Greek. Sad, I know, after almost two years.

As I left the hustle and bustle of the produce market, I found myself in the more peaceful clothing, hardware, and odds & ends market. Cleaning products, textiles, yoga pants, bras and panties — and apparently a random assortment of wheels. Down on the ground amid the bric-a-brac, I saw a small cardboard box full of wheels from lawn mowers, strollers, and Radio Flyer wagons. You truly can find just about anything at the Laiki.

Bike ride and a bath

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It was a week for meeting new friends and saying goodbye to old ones…at least for a time. My biking and yoga partner in crime Joanna is off to the States for a few months, so we made a point of squeezing in one last bike ride on our favorite route through Sounio. This time we invited my new friend Rose along. Rose graciously loaned me her old road bike…and a bike shirt and some padded shorts. And she drove us down there with three bikes attached to her Jeep. She is seriously My Hero.

Last time we rode this route, I lagged behind because of my bike (Not that I was completely out of shape…ahem.) and we only went about 12 miles round trip before I cried uncle. But this time we went twice as far. I’d love to say I easily kept pace…but, no. Their superior bikes with clip pedals, and let’s face it, superior fitness levels left me struggling to keep up. So we decided it would be better if I set the pace in front.

And just like before, the views were breathtaking.

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On the way back we stopped yet again at what has become our favorite taverna by the sea for greek salad and tzatziki. We wore our swim suits under our biking gear, so after a quick bite we went out for a little swim. The beach was very rocky, hard on my feet, but once we got in the water, it was gorgeous. I wish I’d brought my snorkel. Soon enough it was time to drip dry, put dry socks on wet feet (which was actually easier than putting on the bike shorts again!), and head back. We barely made it in time for the big kids to let out of school. Poor Rose got a lot of practice driving in congested Athens traffic that day!

I’m sad that Joanna will be leaving for the rest of the fall, but glad I found a new friend to bike with. I’ve even gotten inspired to try a new route by my house — apparently there’s a “secret” passageway under frenetic Kiffisias Avenue that opens up to a verdant, quiet, hilly neighborhood next to mine called Filothei. I spent Saturday morning hunting for a new bike helmet (which are a bit difficult to find for adults here…you rarely see anyone under the age of 12 wearing one), and I ordered some fancy padded biker shorts online. I may just have to ask Santa for a fancy new bike this year, as well.

The day after our bike ride I went to my regular Pilates class, which was a little more challenging with the sore muscles. I was delighted to meet another newcomer from the Embassy there, and I’m hoping to entice her to come out and bike with me as well as take Pilates at my favorite yoga place. I am determined to shed all of this weight I’ve put on since I quit nursing!

That evening I had a girl’s spa night unlike any other. Joanna made us a reservation for four at Al Hammam Baths, a traditional Turkish bath down near the Plaka. She told us to bring our swim suits and not eat anything two hours prior. Other than that, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d been to the Intercontinental’s Turkish Bath in Istanbul years and years ago, but all I remembered was sitting in a hot room with James in our swim suits for about half an hour. This experience was way better. The four of us sat in the hammam for about 30 minutes, drenching ourselves with water from the taps if we got too hot, and lying on a stone pillar to relax. They had to shush us a few times — we are a chatty bunch — but soon we were relaxed and content. Then, in groups of two, they led us into another room of the hammam with two stone benches for us to lie on. As we lay first on our backs, then on our tummies, two rather buff and attractive dudes scrubbed us with exfoliating gloves, massaged our backs and limbs with bubbly olive oil soap, and even washed our hair. It. was. stupendous.

We finished the evening in the tea room with some refreshing Hibiscus tea and a bowl of Turkish Delights. A wonderful send off to Joanna, who I won’t see again until January. I will definitely be returning to the hammam, maybe for a date night — I saw they offered a couple’s package. But next time I’ll need to bring a bikini that unhooks in the back. My modest tankini was a bit awkward for the massage.

Note to self: buy a bikini. Second note to self: lose 10 pounds. Although, judging from the body types I’ve seen in bikinis this summer in Greece, that last one is optional. But with all of this biking, Pilates and Aerial Yoga, it’s a goal I hope to attain soon.

Best Beach in Athens Yet!

Last week I complained that the beaches in Greece have been a constant disappointment. Turns out I’ve just been going to the wrong beaches! Last weekend we met a couple of friends at a beach I’d never tried before: Avlaki Beach. And it was a perfect antidote to the previous weekend’s disappointment. The sand was excellent — fine grain, no pebbles — and the surf was gentle and shallow. My only gripe was the crowd. The lot was already filling up with tour buses at 10AM, and the place was packed with seniors. Old lady hair-dos bobbed by the dozens in the water as far as the eye could see, and just about every umbrella for the first four rows was already taken.

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Admission was 5 Euros for adults, 3 Euros for children, and under 3 was free. Older kids could get a 10 Euro day pass to the inflatable, floating fun park on one side of the beach. (You could save a little money and get a one-hour pass for 6 Euros. It didn’t appear that anyone was checking to see who had paid for the day and who had paid by the hour.) The loungers weren’t in the best shape, but we didn’t spend much time sitting in them. There were also some cliffs on one side of the beach that older kids could jump from. A great beach for all ages!

We ordered a nice lunch for a decent price, and it was served promptly. The girls had a fabulous time digging in the sand, and the older boys raved about the fun park. Liam isn’t much for daring-do when it comes to water, so he stuck close to the shore. But he couldn’t get enough of this sand. Not quite as good as Siesta Key in Florida, but certainly getting there. I’m hoping during the week the parking and crowds will be less of a problem, which will make this beach hands down my favorite so far.

While we were there, another friend recommended another beach close to Glyfada that she claimed had even better sand and was even closer to our house. Where have these beaches been all my life?! September is my favorite month for Greek beaches, especially during the week while the older kids are in school.

A rare solo night out

The embassy hosted a beer-tasting event Friday night at a beer cellar in the city center called Barley Cargo. James was just getting back from Rome the day before and leaving for Nairobi on Sunday morning, so it was a hard pass for him. But he graciously offered to watch the kids while I went. (By “graciously offered” I really mean “graciously accepted” after I whined that I never get to go anywhere fun anymore.) For 22 Euros we got a pretty generous pour of six beers, plus two bonus beers, and several courses of hors d’oeurves.

After each sample went by, the bar owner would give a short presentation about the beer we were tasting, sometimes inviting the actual beer-makers on stage to talk. At one point, while tasting a lager, he said, “We know how fond you Americans are of lagers,” which elicited a hearty boo from my table. You know how I feel about light lagers. (I should have been born in Germany.)

I was fashionably late — having been here almost two years, I’m on Greek time — so I missed the first couple of food courses. But I managed to snag some delicious mushrooms that appeared to be cut, squashed flat with a hammer, seasoned and grilled to perfection. As for beers, they were all tasty — predictably, the last better than the first — but my favorites were the Xarma Dunkel Lager (from Chania-Crete Island) and Septem 8th Day IPA (from Evia Island). I recently discovered the Septem Sunday’s Honey Golden Ale, and it’s quickly becoming my favorite.

Summer is a time of upheaval for the US Embassy — some families take their home leave, some families leave for good, and some families are just arriving — so this event was a great opportunity to connect with friends I hadn’t seen all summer, and to make some new ones, as well.

I’m not a fan of parking in the city center, so I took the bus and train there and back. I rarely have the opportunity to stay out late on my own in Athens, so this was quite a treat. At Syntagma Square, I noticed some guys throwing floating glow sticks up in the air, just as they did at San Marcos in Venice. I guess those guys are everywhere!

While waiting (and waiting!) for the 421 bus, I saw a car just brimming with passengers pull up on the other side of the street. The driver hopped out, walked around to the back, opened the hatchback, and a lanky young man crawled right on out of the trunk! No one at the bus stop flinched as I practically guffawed. Business as usual here in Athens!

My house is about a 25-minute walk from the Metro, and after waiting for the bus for half an hour, I decided to hoof it back. Maybe I could stop by this wine bar by my house that I’ve been meaning to try. Of course, about 15 minutes into my journey, the 421 blew right past me. Oh well. It was a nice night for a stroll. Outdoor restaurant seats were still packed at 11. Shops were closed, but the pedestrian mall was still heavily criss-crossed with foot traffic. On a quiet little side street I passed by Wine Not?, but it appeared to be closed. I couldn’t tell if it was closed for good, or just closed for August…hard to suss out sometimes. There wasn’t a sign, which you’ll usually find on businesses closed for August. Looking online, there’s no mention of them closing for good or for August. I didn’t actually try the door, so perhaps they were open after all! Curses! I guess I’ll have to appeal to some girl friends to come try this place with me. Winos unite!

Full Moon Monday

The kids have been staying up until 11 PM and getting up around 10 AM all week long — what I call jet lag, the Greeks call summer. And I can’t seem to get drowsy much before 3 AM. I figured we should take advantage of this momentary noctunalness and do something with the kids at night. Monday the Athenians celebrated the full moon with various concerts and activities with free admission to the famed museums after 8 PM. We met up with my friend Ismenia and her family for dinner and revelry. Or about as much as we could handle on a hot and humid August night in a crowded city. We rode the train from the Embassy to the Plaka for an incredible dinner at Thanasis. We took a table outside, wisely sitting the four older kids together on one end, the two youngest on the other, and we adults in the middle. Khloe and Violet had so much fun sharing snacks and little toys, making them talk to each other and doing a fare job of leaving the adults to visit in peace.

Full of awesome kabobs and greek salad, we trundled our large group toward the Acropolis, stopping for gelato along the way. As we neared the museum, it became apparent that every other tourist in Athens had the same idea we did. Admission to the Acropolis museum is pretty damn cheap, so the long line for a free ticket wasn’t really worth it, especially with two little ones in strollers. So we pushed on up to Mars Hill for some night time views of the Acropolis and just maybe this full moon everyone had come out to see. As we walked along with the ever increasing darkness, we scanned the cloudless sky for the aforementioned white orb. No dice.

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Unsurprisingly, Mars Hill was also jam-packed with tourists. I’d climbed up there about a year ago sans kids during the day, but I thought better of attempting the climb with two kids and a stroller while wearing flip flops. Plus, James had to work in the morning. Ismenia and her adventurous crew folded up the stroller and clamored up the steep staircase while we bid her farewell. As we walked back down to the Metro we spied the full moon rising low and heavy past a mountaintop…and suddenly I remembered there was a partial eclipse! How cool! I stopped to snap some ineffectual photos with my iphone.

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An hour later or so later back at home, Liam and I traipsed up to the rooftop to see the moon, but the eclipse was over by then. So we just laid in the hammock and looked at the sky.

“Look! A shooting star,” he shouted. Sure enough, as I looked over I saw a tell-tale streak in the sky. We talked about meteors, craters on the moon and on earth, the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs, how far away the stars are, and how light years work. After the kids finally went to bed, I texted Ismenia. She was bummed that she didn’t get to see the moon rising over the Acropolis from her vantage point on Mars Hill. It made me glad we’d skipped the hassle and come home early. Our night out with friends was great, but our little rooftop lie-about in the hammock was my favorite part of the evening.

Little Kook Cake Shop

With all of my travelling, I’ve had little time to write about some of the local things I’ve been doing with my time. Between my trips to Venice and Germany, I popped over to the Athens Flea Market to pick up some fun souvenirs for my friends in Gottingen, and I finally got a chance to try this funny little tea and cake shop I’ve been dying to try since before Christmas. We had arranged an embassy meetup back in December, but they were unexpectedly closed so they could decorate for Christmas. Fast forward four months and I was finally coming back!

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Little Kook lives up to its name: the décor is definitely kooky! The waitresses are dressed up in elaborate costumes, and there isn’t an inch of wall or ceiling space that isn’t covered with some interesting decoration. There was an entire room just devoted to Christmas.

Looking over the menu, I decided I was more in the mood for savory than sweet, but they had several cakes, crepes and ice creams that I would love to come back and try. I got a savory tuna crepe and a glass of their homemade lemonade. Food and drink were outstanding!

Liam and Violet would totally love this place, and I’m sure many of my friends and their kids would enjoy it, as well. Though with all of the stairs, it is not a good place for strollers and young wandering toddlers. But we will definitely be coming back here after school is out!

Learning to say, “I’m sorry.”

It’s amazing how much Greek I’m starting to pick up with minimal effort on my part. I have my Pilates instructor to thank. It turns out Greek Pilates is a perfect immersion learning class. I know the words for up and down, I know that “Daxi” means ok (as in, do you understand what I just told you to do?), and I can count to about seven before I run into problems. Oh, and I know the word for butt. Ha! My wonderfully agreeable and chatty teacher tells stories in class, and I can follow them about 0% of the time. But I was delighted that I understood “big ball” and “all fours” all on my own.

After every class I have a little chat with her, asking her how to say certain words, or asking what certain words that I heard her say in class mean. I know most of the pleasantries– please, thank you — but what should I say if I accidentally bump into a stranger?

Sygnomi. That means “sorry.” SIG-NO-MEE. Got it.

On Thursday, I asked her again because I didn’t quite have it right. My teacher smiled. “Amanda, what do you need to say ‘sorry’ for?”

“TRUMP!” I replied. Everyone in the room laughed.

Thursday was November 17, a day in which protesters march from Polytechnic University to the American Embassy every year to commemorate a violent uprising against the oppressive Junta regime in 1973. Many protesters were injured and killed that day, and while American involvement is a bit sketchy, anti-American sentiment runs high on this day every year. Liam’s school closed early, and the US Embassy closed and sent everyone home by 2 PM. Streets around the embassy were barricaded off, and police stood by to intervene if things got out of hand, which has happened in the past. As an added twist, this year Obama’s visit just days before the event apparently kicked off the riots early. We were advised by the Embassy to stay home for the rest of the afternoon on the 17th.

I guess I’ll have to add this to my list of signomis.

I asked my Pilates instructor if she thought all this political business with Trump would exacerbate the riots this year. She said from her perspective, the real issue for Greeks is their dissatisfaction with their own prime minister, and the embarrassment he’s brought with his handling of the economy. This article seemed to support her view. Here I am, lamenting the whole Trump phenomenon on Facebook, but here it’s barely a blip on the radar. And for good reason. The Greeks have enough of their own problems to worry about.

I found myself at the Embassy that day at two o’clock, and as we departed, I could see the police setting up their barricades. Motorcyclists argued with police at one intersection, choosing to drive on the sidewalk to get around. Business as usual! James received updates on the riot via text message. Nothing out of the ordinary, apparently. Another day, another protest in Athens.