Thanksgiving in Athens

Thanksgiving and my birthday sort of go hand-in-hand. Every seven years it falls on Thanksgiving. That wasn’t the case this year, but I figured this would be a good day to finally update my wardrobe as a little gift to myself. The kids stayed with the sitter while I walked to some shops in my neighborhood. I knew I’d find something lovely at the H&M, a store I was already familiar with from the States. And I discovered Zara back in February when I had to buy a new dress while my clothes were still in transit to Athens. But this little gem, just a couple of blocks from my house, turned out to have the best and most affordable clothes of all.

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Clothes by the kilo! Genius! Turns out it’s a second-hand store, but the clothes were all top quality. I bought three tops, a super cute skirt and a scarf for under 35 Euros. A steal for Greece, where many shops in my neighborhood charge double that price or more. And much less sketchy than rooting through the tables at the Laiki. They had kids clothes, too.

It was interesting to see clothing trends this year, as I’m so out of touch these days. Ponchos are in again. Lucky my I’ve got some from the last time they were in style. And I’ve got one from my mother’s 1970s wardrobe. I keep everything. Well, almost everything. I was a bit horrified to see these were back in fashion.

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I’ll admit, there was a time in the mid-90s when I wore these. When I was 16 and had the body for it. Wouldn’t be caught dead in one now.

After a productive day of shopping, it was time for some eating! We loaded up in a taxi with a couple of pies and headed to our friends’ house in Agia Paraskevi. They had a lovely spread, lots of wine, and wonderful company for adults and kids alike.

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Sadly James had a last minute trip to Morocco, so he missed this little gathering. It’s so nice to have a group of friends from the embassy who we can get together with when our family isn’t around. Most of us stick around for Thanksgiving, so hopefully we can do this again next year.

Modeling my outfit bought by the kilo.

And the sweet potato pie was amazing! I have to say, I liked it even better with the white sweet potatoes that I ended up using. I don’t recall ever seeing them in the States, but I’ll have to look.

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Adorable little Violet just sat herself at the head of the table like a little lady, spooning her own mashed potatoes without even wearing a bib. She ate turkey, potatoes, stuffing, and even some carrots. Liam had a slice of turkey and a banana. No interest in anything else except dessert. They both scarfed the sweet potato pie. We all did.

You say potato, I say potato

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, a decidedly NOT Greek holiday. Nonetheless, Liam has the rest of the week off, and the American embassy will be closed. I’m not much of a cook, so thankfully a family we’re close with invited us over for a traditional Thanksgiving feast. I offered to bake my two favorite pies: Pecan and Sweet Potato.

Securing the ingredients was a bit of a challenge. When I asked about vanilla extract, the store clerk said, “Vanillia, like for cakes?” and then put a bag full of small vials in my hand. The vials had some sort of powder in them…not really what I was after. Then in the produce section I had to ask someone if these unusually-shaped potatoes were sweet potatoes. They looked to be the right shape, but the skins were browner. He shouted something in Greek to another clerk, then nodded that yes, these were sweet potatoes. I didn’t even bother looking for pecans. Luckily, the NEX at the embassy had gotten in a huge shipment of Thanksgiving-related food items, and I was able to get everything else on my list. Even eggnog! (Incidentally, I hate the stuff, but it’s a key ingredient in the sweet potato pie. And James will drink it. Blech!)

Once I had Violet down for her afternoon nap, I rolled up my sleeves, pulled over a stool for my little helper, and got to work on my pies.

Except…

One swipe with the potato peeler revealed that my sweet potatoes were snowy white on the inside. These must not have been sweet potatoes after all! Liam, ever the helper, offered to stay home by himself for the very first time while I ran down to the fruit stand to get the right potatoes. He’s nearly 8, I didn’t want to wake Violet, and the stand is just a few blocks away, so I decided to go for it. Again I asked the clerk, which of these are the sweet potatoes? He pointed to the oddly-shaped ones, the same ones I had in my kitchen.

“These potatoes, they are sweet,” he said.

“But, are they sweet potatoes,” I asked, pronouncing it “puh-tay-tas.”

“Yes. They are potatoes that are sweet.”

We went round and round on this a couple of times before I decided I didn’t have much choice either way, so I might as well just give this a whirl.

Back at home I chopped and boiled my sweet (period) potatoes (period).

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They actually seemed to have the consistency of the yams I’m used to, and they did taste a little sweet, so I was hopeful this would all work out. Still, the color was a bit disconcerting. And they didn’t mash very well, either.

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But once I got all the sugar and cream and eggnog and spices all mixed in, you could hardly tell the difference. And once it finished baking, it pretty much looked like it was supposed to.

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We’ll find out tomorrow how it tastes.

 

Adventures in Baking

Now that Violet can entertain herself a little more easily, I thought I’d try my hand at baking some banana bread. I had two very ripe bananas, one favorite recipe in my cookbook, but no brown sugar or baking powder. First step, go to the store!

After quizzically scanning the pictures on the packages for awhile, I decided to ask someone. Two employees and one random English-speaking customer later, I found the brown sugar. Or rather, the “black sugar” as they call it here. My recipe calls for light brown sugar, but this would have to do.

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Baking soda was an easy find, but I knew that baking powder was not the same thing. Right next to it was a package of something called “Ammonium bicarbonate.” Ok, let’s give that a whirl.

Back at home, “Siri, is ammonium bicarbonate baking powder?” Apparently it’s what cooks used to use before modern day baking powder was invented. It truly is the stone age here in Athens.

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More questions for Siri. “What is 325 degrees F in Celsius?” “How many milliliters are in a teaspoon?” My measuring spoons purchased from IKEA included a 5 ML spoon, which roughly equates to a teaspoon. Seriously, how did people ever do this without smart phones? If I had to look all this stuff up myself, I probably wouldn’t have bothered.

Time to check on Violet.

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This is what I meant by entertaining herself. Sigh. Back to the task at hand.

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That looks like about 2/3 of a cup of butter, right? Okay…cream butter with sugar, add eggs, add mashed bananas…this butter isn’t mixing very well.

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Is this even butter? It could be margarine. It came in a stick like butter, but the package was entirely in Greek. Oh well, too late now. Into the pan you go!

Now where is Violet?

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Too hungry to wait for banana bread, it seems. Forty-five minutes later, and Viola!

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Predictably, the children didn’t want any tonight. But I took a little bite and I’d say it’s passable as banana bread. Success!

A Rainy Museum Day

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Fountain in Syntagma Square

We’ve had a week of rain in this ordinarily sunny locale — I believe they call this the rainy season — so I did a little research and found a cute little museum all about the history of schools in Greece, called the School Life and Education Museum. Liam has little patience for museums, but this one is small, cheap, and caters to both kids and adults with hands-on artifacts from school classrooms.

But first we had to get there. Liam has practically memorized the Metro map, so he knew precisely the bus and train to take, and which stop to disembark on. He’s a little chatterbox on the train (actually, he’s a chatterbox anywhere), constantly talking about the look of the different stations we pass, how many more stations we have until we get off, and where the connections to other lines are. And we always go over the subway rules, which I lifted from this episode of Louie. (Watching this still gives me a heart attack, and if one of my kids ever did this, I would probably react the same or much worse. Ack!) Thankfully Liam is my little rule follower, and he delights in going over precisely what he should do if we get separated. In fact, he’s usually the one who asks me to go over the subway rules with him every time now. He’s turning into quite the little city kid.

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Nothin’ but trouble.

The museum is located in the heart of the Plaka, a squirrely neighborhood of restaurants and shops at the foot of the Acropolis. Thanks to AT&T finally unlocking my phone, I could handily use my map app to navigate my way through the maze. Feeling a bit peckish, we stopped at Lulu’s Bakery for some treats. Little miss grabby hands had to eat on the floor lest she knock everything off our table…and she nearly upended the table from the floor. Something tells me this is the kid who’s going to need the toddler leash.

Bellies full, we took a few detours before arriving at the museum. Apparently even Google has trouble navigating the Plaka. It was a cute little place, 3 Euros to enter, and the kids were free. Each room had school books and artifacts dating back to the 1800s, and in the basement was a replica of an old school classroom. My favorite, though, was Liam’s reaction to the typewriter.

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“Is it a computer?”

“Is it a printing press?”

So I had to explain to him what this mysterious object was, and he took a turn jamming on the keys. I remember my parents having an old electric typewriter, and my sister and I just LOVED playing with it. These days kids can easily type something up on the computer and print it out, but there’s something kind of fabulous about the noise the key makes as it pounds the paper. I’m sure the concept of White Out will also be a complete mystery to my children.

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Most of the signs were written in Greek, but it was just as well — my child has no patience for anyone who wants to bother reading the signs. We were in and out in about 15 minutes. Then it was back to the train, which was the real highlight of his day. He requested we take the red line to the green line connection, then take the green line to the blue line, which is the subway we take home. He just wanted a chance to get to ride all three lines in one day, I think. I swear, we could make a day of riding the subway to the end of the line and back and he’d be over the moon about it.

Back at home I prepared dinner from IKEA the proper way…with mashed potatoes. It still floors me that they don’t serve these at the IKEA in Greece, yet they sell them frozen to take home. I guess I’ll just have to take what I can get. Interesting fact: you won’t find English instructions on any of the packaging. Just Greek, Italian, and other southern European languages. Thankfully I’ve got an app for that!

Workers Unite! And I start cooking.

So apparently transit strikes are a semi-regular thing around here. So regular that it barely deserved a mention to Embassy employees. But without having a car here yet, it was a bit of a Big Deal this morning. James tried to get a cab to no avail. The buses wouldn’t be running until 9 and the Metro wouldn’t run until 10. So we got the pleasure of daddy’s company this morning…he even walked us to the bus stop. Liam’s bus was unaffected, thankfully. But James had to find the bus that goes all the way to the Embassy, and hope it didn’t take too long or get too crowded to board. I can’t wait to hear all about his transit adventures when he gets home!

I had my own challenges at home today. I labelled all of the foreign appliances so I can stop referring to the manuals (or just hitting buttons and guessing). Thanks, Kelly, for the excellent suggestion! My new translating app came in handy with the dishwasher, which didn’t have a manual.

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The translation of the dial on the left was pretty accurate except for the last one, which translated as “Pale.” Hmmmm…pale as it pertains to dishwashing…I’m going to go with “gentle.” I’m just realizing here I misspelled it, “gentile”… Not Jewish will also work, heh.

I examined the oven manual, and I think I’ve got that down enough to make tonight’s dinner. I’m marinating some chicken I bought at the butcher yesterday, and I’m going to attempt to make these black eyed peas that I happened to see in a bag on a shelf at said butchers. My dad always makes these for New Year’s dinner, so I had to google how to cook them. Crap, you have to soak them for 8 hours?

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Into the bowl they go. It won’t be quite 8 hours at this rate, but hopefully close enough. The Embassy provided us cooking bowls in our welcome kit…two stupidly small ones, and one GARGANTUAN one. I’m really appreciative of all this stuff they gave us (which we have to give back when our stuff gets here, including the toaster and the crib), but I’m also kind of starting to hate it now, too. Weird bowls, ineffectual pot holders, one bath mat, no dish soap or trash bags. But I digress…

When Violet awoke from her nap, we headed to the “super” market by our house to pick up a few provisions. The produce seemed much better this time, which was reassuring. I got what one can reasonably assume is chicken bouillon.

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The directions are all in greek, but I’m sure my iPhone and I can make heads or tails of it. I also picked up some frozen…rolls?

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Inspection of the back revealed descriptions and directions in about 20 different languages, including English. “Traditional puffed pastry with Feta cheese.” Shhh…I’m not gonna tell Liam there’s cheese in this. He won’t even know the difference. I hope.

And, of course, I had to pick up something to drink.

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Lefko krasi, parakalo! I have yet to need that phrase, but I’ve got it in my back pocket just in case.

I’m sort of winging the black eyed peas recipe. My dad’s has bacon and mushrooms in it, and most of the recipes call for simmering it in chicken stock for an hour or so. I’ll get to try out the whole double oven thing, broiling marinated chicken in one and baking frozen bread in the other. An ambitious first meal, ambitious for me, at any rate. Check back later (probably late afternoon for most of you) and I’ll post a little update below.

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I made some damn fine black eyed peas if I do say so m’self. Not bad for a recipe I pretty much made up. I put in bacon and mushrooms like my dad does, boiling them with chicken bouillon. Soaking them for about 5 hours turned out to be plenty, and I cooked them for about an hour and a half. Liam liked them…that was the only thing he liked. Oh, this kid! He decided he didn’t want the chicken (which is the same chicken recipe we make at home and he’s loved eating it like a thousand times!!!), and there was no getting cheese in the pastry past him. I tried to tell him it was like a cream-filled donut, except the cream was salty instead of sweet. Didn’t even say the ch-word. But he wasn’t having it. I thought they were delicious, so I ate his and mine.

Oh, and the wine is delicious, too. Made in Greece, it says. But not from pine nuts.