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!

Sating one’s thirst in Europe

The other day we had a delightfully friendly Greek electrician working on some lighting issues in our house. He’s been here many times, sent by the Embassy throughout our stay here, and he’s always especially sweet to Liam, who follows him all around the house like a lost puppy, peppering him with questions. So when he had a specific request for water …”not too cold, please,” I was happy to grab that for him. I took that to mean no ice, so I filled a glass from the refrigerator water dispenser. After taking a sip, he sheepishly walked to the sink and filled it with some warmer water. Then he explained, “The water shouldn’t be too cold. You shouldn’t feel it going down your throat.”

Ah-ha! So that’s why I can never get ice water on this continent! I’m not sure how scientific his reasoning is, but I’ve learned that science and societal habits don’t always overlap. Usually at restaurants the water is served relatively cold, in a chilled bottle, but never with ice.

While perusing my local supermarket’s revamped beer aisle, I came across Budweiser Budvar, a name that rang some bells in my addled brain. Was this Budweiser’s European offering? Turns out, I wasn’t exactly right. Czech’s finest apparently predates the American version, and there were some legal trademark disputes that were eventually settled in the 1930s. They are, in fact, two different beers…though that was lost on me. To be fair, light lagers tend to all taste the same to me. At any rate, both go well with hotdogs topped with American condiments.

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On a side note, the closest supermarket to my house went through a MAJOR renovation in the spring…so much so that I didn’t even recognize it when I went in late May. They added a second level, an elevator, and about quadrupled their selection. Grocery shopping without a car has gotten so much better!

A few other European beers caught my eye, so I bought those as well. I recently went on the Boulevard Brewery Tour in Kansas City, and I remembered that the founder had been inspired to try his hand at microbrewing after he’d sampled several beers on a tour of Europe. Back in the early 80s, Americans didn’t enjoy the variety of beer that their neighbors across the pond did. I remember my dad always drank Pabst Blue Ribbon, a Milwaukee swill that allegedly won a blue ribbon about 100 years ago. Selection was paltry and money was tight, so I totally get it. Now, I’m pleased to say, his taste for good beers (Tank 7!!!) has arisen to a respectable status. I can’t say I’m much better — in college we drank an awful lot of Milwaukee’s Best, or the Beast, as we called it. My taste has gotten a lot more respectable, too.

Here’s a rundown of the other three beers I sampled. (FYI, I didn’t do this all in one day…just in case you were worried…)

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This Greek beer intrigued me: “With a cool refreshing taste of the Mediterranean summer.” What, exactly does Mediterranean summer taste like? Budweiser, apparently. Light lager…sigh.

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The Angelo Poretti Bock Rossa from Italy also caught my eye. A red bock, perhaps? I need to brush up on my Italian. I’m not sure what all this other stuff on the label means. Hops masters…ok. A number 6? Not sure about that. Anyway, the beer was a bit too hoppy for my taste, bitter to the very end. Of course I finished it because this stuff ain’t cheap at 2 Euros a bottle.

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Finally, out of Spain, the Estrella something Damm something Barcelona. Seriously, I can’t figure out these beer labels. My iPhone translator says the bottom part of the label says, “Mediterranean beer with malt and rice.” Sounds appetizing. But they’ve been in production since 1876, so they must be doing something right. Of the four beers, this was my favorite. Not as dark as I’d assumed from the brown bottle, but rich for a light lager. Not your average Budweiser.

The embassy is hosting a Greek beer tasting in a couple of weeks. James will be between work trips, so he’s going to sit this one out while I get my beer on. I’ll be sure to report back with my findings.

Fun with Friends in Germany

Our trip to Germany last weekend went wonderfully — no major issues with travel, accommodations, or misbehaving children. Huzzah! That’s not to say the journey wasn’t difficult. We arrived in Hamburg at 9:30 PM, transferred Violet from the baby carrier to the car seat with wheels, then picked up our rental car, installed the car and booster seats, and started our three-hour drive at about 10:30. I brought my own GPS, and the road to Göttingen was pretty straightforward. I kept myself awake by blasting Michael Jackson (at Liam’s request) and slapping myself in the face a couple of times. And by 2 AM we made it! My friends Christie and Michael had our beds all made up, and after a quick change into jammies, we all completely passed out until the morning.

Interesting observation about the traffic lights in Germany: while they are all still placed on the asinine near side of the intersection, the light would flash yellow briefly before it turned green, thus alerting drivers to prepare to step on the gas. Genius!

Saturday morning my children were up bright and early, per usual. Seriously, you went to bed at 2AM and you’re still up at 7? My children have no concept of sleeping in.

At any rate, we had a lovely breakfast of pastries and donuts from the local bakery, and the kids met their new playmates, Maya and Felix. Maya, nearly 10, loved sitting with Violet and showing off her Monster High dolls, while Felix, age 5, loved dancing around the living room with Liam. They all made fast friends.

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The weather was a little colder than we’re accustomed to — we left Greece at 80 degrees, and arrived in Germany to a chilly 45. But we bundled up and headed out to see the little German university town of Göttingen. We took the kids to Thalia, a two-story bookstore with a little castle slide for the boys to play on. Violet snoozed away in the bike trailer/stroller while Michael graciously walked her around in circles outside. Christie and I caught up over hot drinks — mine a bit on the overflowy side.

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After picking up a few fresh fruits at the farmer’s market (called the Wochenmarkt), Christie suggested we try a fabulous German street food, Currywurst and pommes. We stood at a barrel and gobbled down all that sausagy and French fry deliciousness — so good!

Having lived in Germany for five years, Christie had completely immersed herself in the language. It was interesting to hear her conversations and find myself somewhat following along. Amazing how much German I can still understand after all of these years! Granted, I could barely speak a word myself, aside from hello, please, thanks, sorry, and the like. But I have a feeling if we ever ended up in Germany, I’d more easily be able to pick it up than I have with Greek. Course, if I actually put any effort into my Greek studies…

Sunday morning we had another fabulous breakfast, this time homemade pancakes with orange-vanilla syrup, expertly prepared by Christie. I remember she always liked to cook back in our college days. Michael’s not too shabby with a frying pan, either. His scrambled eggs and bacon were deemed amazingly edible by my pickiest progeny.

20170430_130411Then we were off to do the most German thing we could think of: Hike up a hill in the woods to a Beirgarten and have brats and beer. This is apparently how Germans most love to spend their Saturday afternoons, at least in Lower Saxony. Liam did remarkably well, especially once we got him a hiking stick…or two. Resembling a cross-country skier, he hiked up with relatively little complaining (for him…there was definitely some griping about the temperature as we started off through the Schillerwiesen, but he soon warmed up…and shut up). Violet slept on my back most of the way. After an hour or so, we arrived at the top for our much-deserved brats and beer. I ordered a huge Dunkel Hefewiessen, one of my favorites. Liam even ate a brat! After Michael painstakingly peeled off the skin. I owe this guy a beer!

 

When Violet finally roused herself and munched on some bread, we headed over to the nature preserve to see the native “wild” boars. The kids were fascinated…and the boars were loud! Many altercations led to loud squealing. They really do squeal like pigs!

On our way back home, we kept seeing this pretty green plant, and I was told I really must try the ice cream flavor that is made from this plant, Waldmeister. Challenge accepted! It wasn’t hard to talk the kids into stopping for ice cream before dinner. And indeed, Icelust had both vanilla and Waldmeister, so Liam and I were both happy. The flavor was fantastic…and sort of indescribable. It was green like pistachio, but not quite as sweet. Definitely worth trying next time you find yourself in Deutchland! Violet enjoyed her ice cream…and Maya’s. Her adorableness lends itself well to her thievery.

 

Monday afternoon Christie and Michael suggested we drive over to the Gottingen Kiessee, a small lake and park area where you can rent paddle boats and the kids can play on a playground shaped like a pirate ship. “Sounds great!” I said, “But…we can’t all fit in my rental car, right?”

Apparently renting a car for the afternoon is as easy as checking an app, walking to a nearby car, and driving it to your house. It really is an amazing age we live in! Now I can see how easily they can get by without a car in Europe.  Not only can you easily rent a car for a few hours, but the town is incredibly bike-friendly, so most people get around on two wheels when they can. I’m not sure if I would survive as well without a car in Athens. Biking here is hazardous to your health, both because of traffic and pollution. I heart Germany.

The kids loved the paddle boats…though Violet was just a tad hard to handle. Liam did his best to help Michael paddle our boat, but he couldn’t quite reach the pedals. I jumped in there for a bit, until Violet squirmed out of my arms and got a little too close to the edge for my comfort. Seriously, I owe this guy two beers!

 

We had a lovely mid-day meal at the boathouse restaurant overlooking the water (or Bootshaus, as they call it in German). The kids feasted on schnitzel, pommes and garden peas…and I had the most amazing tomato soup and “schokolade kucken” (which is incidentally my favorite German word, meaning “chocolate cake”). Then they were off to the pirate ship. Ahoy, matey!

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Faced with an extremely early rise the next morning to catch our flight, I decided to drive up to Hamburg that evening and stay in a hotel near the airport. I am now an expert at international traveling with young children. No elevator, and our room is on the third floor? No problem! I got this. I can seriously conquer the world now. We arrived home on Tuesday without incident. (And we got to try Turkish ice cream during our layover in Istanbul. Very different from gelato and ice cream I’ve had in Europe — so thick and sticky!)

Thank you to Christie and Michael, and their amazing children Maya and Felix, for being such wonderful hosts and showing us around their lovely German city. Thanks to Michael for taking all of these great photos, ensuring that I’m actually in some for a change! We had a fantastic time.  I hope someday soon we can return the favor in Athens!

The good, the (not really) bad, and the smelly

It’s been hard not to get sucked down the rabbit hole of political news from the US this week. To keep my spirits up, I’m attempting to live in my little overseas bubble. So, here are some silly little things that happened to me in Athens this week.

First, the good. Remember how I have to stand in line at the post office every month to pay my housekeeper’s health insurance? I usually have to take a number, then wait around 45 minutes until they call my number, much like the DMV. Well, last week I found another post office at Avenue, a sleepy shopping mall only a 5-minute drive from my house. And there is never a line. Plus, there’s a huge Carrefour grocery store in the mall, so I can get all my household shopping done while I’m at it. And the mall has free parking. Fabulous! I tried it out on Tuesday, and I was in and out of the post office in less than 10 minutes. The Carrefour had a huge selection of booze…my kinda place…and on a whim I picked up this beer.

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I love how the label says ALEXANDER the GREAT beer. Like you have to believe that this beer is GREAT. All caps. Mmmm…what do you know? It is indeed GREAT.

Now for the bad, which turned out okay in the end. I had a play date at the IKEA on Wednesday morning with my Greek-Irish friend Katy. As I sat in the café, she texted me to tell me she had arrived. But I couldn’t find her anywhere. Finally I called her…and she was at the other IKEA! Yes, Athens has two IKEAs! Such a foreign concept to me. Back in Wichita I had to drive 3 hours to the nearest IKEA, and the next nearest location was several hundred miles in another direction. At any rate, I drove about 30 minutes to the other IKEA, and it turns out I should have been going to this one all along. First of all, the cafeteria actually served mashed potatoes! Swoon! They also had a better play area for the kids, and it wasn’t nearly so crowded. After lunch and some shopping, Katy took me next door to another huge shopping center, where I had THE BEST hot chocolate at Coffeeway. They had a handful of options, and I picked white chocolate. There’s a Coffeeway in Halandri…this might just replace Chai Latte from Starbucks as my favorite wintertime drink. (On a side note, it’s interesting to me to see so many huge shopping centers here. I figured the US had pretty much cornered the market on these types of gigantic malls, but I guess Athens has recently jumped on the box store phenomenon, as well. It’s a welcome respite from the hectic traffic and medieval layout of my neighborhood.)

Finally, the smelly. Earlier in the week, after running errands, Violet and I returned home to a house that absolutely reeked of cat piss. I almost thought a cat got trapped in our house until I was able to narrow down the offending odor to our foyer. More specifically, our front door, which sported a HEE-UGE urine-stain at about medium-dog height. It must have seeped under the door or something. I scrubbed the heck out of the floor, but it still smelled the next day. Thankfully, our super hero housekeeper saved the day with some baking soda, vinegar, and a mop. One of the many nuisances of having a front door that just opens to a busy sidewalk. I sure hope it doesn’t happen again!

More interesting finds at the grocery store

We’re coming up on one year here in Greece (!!!), and no surprise I’m still finding new foods to try here. First up, a paste made from sesame seeds that Evi at Cut My Hair recommended when I told her how much Violet likes peanut butter.

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I couldn’t remember what she called it, but I could tell by the label that this was the stuff. I did a fair job translating the name — I knew that x was really h, but I couldn’t remember what lowercase v was. I had to ask Liam, ha! Tahini. Yes, that sounds right! Georges, my colorist, insisted it was made “from the bees,” but after much chiding from the others, he conceded he must have gotten confused by the picture of the honey on the label. Not all of them come flavored with honey, but that’s how they recommended I try it. After a few bites, I think Violet and I came to the same conclusion. This stuff is damn good! Better than peanut butter, even! I had to google to see if I needed to refrigerate after opening. Turns out it’s like peanut butter — you don’t have to, but some people like to. I don’t, so I won’t.

Next up, a couple of offerings from the chip aisle. I’ve tried all of the strange flavors of Lays, but this import from Germany caught my eye.

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Mostly because it says “Mature Cheddar & Onion.” Mature? Perhaps they meant “aged”? At any rate, they were tasty. Much better than Lays.

I usually get my Cheetos fix at the NEX, but I couldn’t resist giving these, um, Greek Cheetos a try.

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Maize Snack with Cheese and Ham Flavor? Ok, that doesn’t sound all that appealing, but it looks like a Cheeto, so worth a shot. Remember those Planters Cheez Curls we used to eat as kids? They were my very favorite cheesy snack, and it wasn’t until today that I realized they’d been officially discontinued years ago. Well, perhaps they sold the recipe to Tasty Snacks of Athens, Greece, because apparently “ham flavor” is what Cheetos have always been missing. They taste just like Cheez Curls, though they look a tad bit different. Whatever. I’m a fan now.

Finally, in the beer aisle, this bottle caught my eye.

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Blue Island Pear Delight. It says, “Taste of the Mediterranean Summer.” Sold! Wasn’t till I got it home that I realized it said 0.0% alcohol. D’oh! Still, not bad for a fizzy drink.