Our First Greek Island

It’s been a long time coming, but we finally made it to one of these famed Greek islands. Actually, the one we went to, Agistri, isn’t one of the more famous ones, but this Saronic island is a short ferry trip away from Piraeus, and with two kids in tow, I need easy. My friend from Gymboree, Karen, set the whole thing up. Bless her! She even sent me detailed instructions on where to park. They were so hilariously, typically “Greek”, I have to share them:

Once you turn, you will be on a street that dead-ends at the sea. This same street is a little chaotic, especially because the bus lane is seemingly in the middle of it with traffic on both sides of this bus lane. You will want to be behind it (so all the way to the right) or keep in mind that you will have to turn right on to the coastal road so be prepared to maneuver accordingly. Now here is the tricky part, once you turn right on to the coastal road, you have to move quickly left because you need to turn left at the first light for Gate E8. (Try not to miss this turn!) While you are waiting at this light to turn left, you will see the PPA parking garage on your left (this is the photo that I took). So immediately after this left turn light, turn left for the garage entrance. I know that this sounds complicated but I wanted to give you a visual (without street names, I know…but this is Greece!)

She even had to send a photo, sheesh! And, after dragging my kids out of bed at 6:30 AM on a hot summer morning, rushing out the door without packing any snacks (d’oh!), and negotiating heavy traffic down to the port, I managed to miss the turn into the garage! Somehow there was a disconnect between reading it and doing it. Thankfully I could call her and she helpfully stood on the corner and pointed me in the right direction on my next go around. Whew! Made it!

On the tickets it says they recommend you arrive 30 minutes before the ferry departs. But this is Greece, so our boat wasn’t even there yet. Karen said in the not-so-distant past, Greeks who knew the captain would call them and have them hold the boat for five minutes or so if they were running late. But they are cracking down on things like that. Now the ferries run almost on time!

We bought tickets on the high speed Flying Dolphin — not the fastest boat in the fleet, but at 32 knots, it felt like we were going at a pretty good clip. The ride took less than an hour, even with a stop. The price was fairly reasonable, as well – about 40 Euros for an adult, a child, and a free infant. I worried that the kids would get seasick. In addition to forgetting snacks, I also forgot an extra change of clothes for Violet. But everyone fared well. In all we had four adults and six kids, and we managed to find seats on the boat together. The advantage of going on a weekday before most of the schools are out.

After a short stop at Aegina, we headed south toward Agistri. Liam was glued to the window while Violet was glued to the snacks. Thankfully a more cognizant mother brought lots of food. Perhaps my jumbo bag of sand toys would help make up for my lack of sustenance.

We made it to port without any major meltdowns, and a short bus ride later we came to our hotel. We rented it just for the day so we’d have a place to change and shower. Definitely the way to go for an island day trip. We were able to pay a discounted day rate, which apparently wasn’t terribly discounted, but I thought 40 Euros per room sounded pretty reasonable. But what do I know? At any rate, the accommodations were nice, the staff very friendly, and I was definitely thankful for them both.

We trucked our stuff down the lane to the beach. I was really starting to regret how much crap I brought. But I think the kids appreciated all of the toys and big beach towel I brought. My shoulders didn’t, though! The beach was…ok. Living in Florida kind of turned me into a beach snob. Of course it looked beautiful, but there was a lot of churned up kelp in the water, and there were some uncomfortable rocks you had to wade across. The surf was gentle, and the sand perfect for digging, so our pickiest beach-goers were satisfied. There was a concrete dock on one end that the oldest kids could jump from, and the little ones could play together in the shallows. Liam did a fare amount of complaining, as is his wont, but I tried not to let it get me down. He really hit it off with the other eight-year-old boy in our group, so that helped tremendously.

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Later in the afternoon we decided to head to another beach closer to our hotel. We ordered some dinner and laid around in the superior beach loungers. The kids, on the other hand, were planning a mutiny. One cannot deny the view at this beach was spectacular.

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But the rocky sand wasn’t conducive to digging, and there was no sand in the water — just cumbersome rocks that the kids couldn’t wade on without hurting themselves. I didn’t care much for the rocks, either, but I was ready to sit in my lounger, so I didn’t mind. But the older kids were definitely unhappy. Guess which kid was complaining the loudest? I got a burger for Liam, and while he waited for the food, another mom offered to take the three oldest back to the other beach to play. I owe her big time! The peace and quiet of one toddler happy to dig in the rocks with her Gymboree pals was priceless. I ordered a sangria and enjoyed it immensely. They served it with buttered popcorn. Yum!

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Around 5 we headed back to the hotel to clean up. Our ferry was scheduled to leave at 6, and we had to catch the 5:30 bus back. My kids were a little punch drunk — there was much rambunctious, naked playing in our room. But we managed to get everyone ready in time. The kids were great on the ferry home, but once we drove home and walked in the door, the long day in the sun with no naps caught up with us. Both kids begged for dinner, but then barely ate anything, and I started to lose it. Instead I sent them both to bed, and they were asleep within minutes. In hindsight, I wish I’d stayed the night on the island. Hotel stays come with their own set of challenges for my children, but I think a day trip to an island, even a close one, is just a tad bit ambitious for us.

I’m hoping we can make it to Hydra in the fall. I hear September is the best time of year for that. And we plan to take an island cruise at some point in our stay. This may be the first island we have visited, but it won’t be the last!

A Fruitful Friday

So…I hit a motorcycle. Calm down, everyone is fine. He didn’t even lose his balance. It was more like a grazing. I stopped to see if he was ok — not actually getting out of the car, because what could I possibly do to help with two kids in the back? But he checked himself over briefly, gave me a wave, and went on his way. I was making a left into the Embassy on a one-way street, blinker on at least 50 feet before I turned, so I don’t feel like I was in the wrong here. These motorcyclists zip around cars without abandon. Traffic anarchy.

So, let’s see…I’ve hit a parked car, been rear-ended, hit a pedestrian, and now hit a motorcycle.

Wait…is that…do I have a Bingo?

So, after my near brush with, um, Bingo, I made it to the Embassy for a little play date at the pool. Except as I was walking to the pool gate, I heard a clap of thunder. Fantastic. Undeterred, we took shelter under an awning, hoping this would be a quick summer gale. It was not. We had to quickly usher the kids back inside the building as the rain came down in buckets. Not your typical Athenian June weather, for sure. We killed a little time in daddy’s office, then tried again later in the afternoon. The clouds cleared, the sun came out, and the kids had a lovely time. Violet didn’t get to nap, but we planned to have a sitter that evening, so I figured I’d let her deal with the aftermath.

A friend recommended we buy our movie tickets at Germanos…the Radio-Shack-if Radio-Shack-was-still-a-thing of Athens. Apparently you can pay cash, so no need to have a Greek credit card billing address. Huzzah! James almost didn’t make it home in time — seems the luck I had that day was rubbing off on him. His bus randomly rerouted miles out of the way, with little or no explanation that he could decipher. Even the native Greek speakers were perplexed. I had just enough time to run to Germanos to buy our tickets after he got home, and I discovered the problem…a broken down trolley bus was blocking the road. Several Greek guys were standing around in the rain as steam and noises came out of the engine block. Who knows how long it sat there until they managed to tow it.

At any rate, I managed to get our tickets, and we rushed to the theater. We had to scan our receipt at the kiosk to get our tickets, then walk to the other side of the mall to the Gold Class theater. It wasn’t cheap — 22 Euros per ticket — but we got free champagne at the front door and plush recliners so we could put our feet up while we enjoyed Wonder Woman. Of course, we were the first ones there…because, Greece. Seriously, why do I bother rushing to get places on time here?

The food we ordered wasn’t that great, but also not terribly overpriced, at least by our standards. We got two appetizers, two entrees, and two beers for under 45 Euros. Next time I think we’ll just stick to appetizers and drinks.

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I am Wonder Woman, hear me ROAR!

As I’ve previously mentioned, the movie is shown in English with Greek subtitles. We had a little issue when we saw The Magnificent Seven — all of the native American dialogue was subtitled in Greek, so we never figured out what they were saying. I thought surely we wouldn’t have that problem with a super hero flick. Except, turns out Wonder Woman speaks, like, 100 different languages, and she proceeds to do that in a few scenes. Guess we’ll just have to catch that on the Blu-ray, lol.

I enjoyed seeing ladies kicking butt on screen — the scenes in the Amazon were simply amazing, making me kind of tear up a little. I couldn’t really explain why. I wouldn’t have mentioned it, except later I read this was a common reaction. I doubt James was crying into his mozzarella sticks… in fact, I’m sure his reaction was more, “Look, boobies!” than, “Look at how far feminism has come!” But aside from what I call CGI video game fighting fatigue, and a bit of a ridiculous ending fight scene, we both totally dug the movie.

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!

Oh, mein Gott in Himmel!

I have so much to say about our trip to Italy, I really do. I have a ton of pictures to share and amusing anecdotes, but I’ve been consumed with something else right now.

Back in March I had the brilliant idea to book tickets to Germany for me and the kids to visit my college friends who I haven’t seen for the better part of a decade. Can you believe I took three years of German in school and never once went to Germany? I’ve been wanting to visit for years now.

I wanted to book them before Violet turned two so she could still ride on my lap, and Liam has a long weekend for the May 1 holiday, so it worked out perfectly. I caught a fare sale to Hamburg, and while the times and layovers weren’t exactly ideal (It’s as if no one from Athens would ever consider going to Germany…), I figured I could handle it. I’m becoming an accomplished solo parent traveler.

But then…

With the whirlwind of planning and executing our elaborate spring break plans, I didn’t start to figure out the details of our trip to Germany until we got back from Venice. I hadn’t really considered how I was going to get from Hamburg to my friends in the Saxony countryside, my friends who don’t have a car, but surely there’d be a train, yes?

I opened up Google Maps and plugged in my friends’ address, which turned out to be a 2.5 hour train ride from Hamburg. Whoops. Well, that was something I should have figured out before I booked us a ticket that got in so late at night. Sheesh!

And, it turns out, the last train of the night to their town departs before I would even have time to catch it because my stupid flight gets in so late. So, ok, after some back and forth with my friends, we found a nice hotel by the airport, and a morning train that would get us there before noon the next day. All set.

But then…

I started to figure out my return trip. The airline decided to cancel the flight I had intentionally booked for the early-afternoon, and instead put me on a flight that left three hours earlier, in the very inconvenient mid-morning. The train times back either got us there super early or a little too close for comfort, and the return ticket was about three times the price, too.

Between the hotel and expensive train tickets, I figured for same price I could simply rent a car for the long weekend. I don’t relish having to check the car seat and booster seat while traveling alone with two children, but renting two seats from the car rental place was stupidly expensive.

And as much as I love mass transit, our recent ride from Rome to Venice wasn’t so fun with a squirmy, hard-to-entertain toddler. At least when she’s confined to a car seat with a few books and toys, I don’t have to sit and entertain her. And the kids will likely sleep the whole way down.

The way back will be even less enjoyable. We’ll have to leave by 5AM to catch our early flight, then sit around for four hours to wait for the second leg. And, of course, changing flights costs almost as much as I paid for the stupid tickets.

But, I refuse to let the journey diminish my excitement. I get to drink German beer in Germany! I get to drive on the Autobahn! (Not at the same time, of course.) And my friends have kids the same age as Liam, so I’m sure we’ll have a great time catching up while the kids play. I love these guys, and I can’t wait to see their kiddos. I haven’t seen their oldest daughter since she was 11 months old. She’s almost 10! A restful weekend in a small German town will be wonderful.

Wish us luck. We’re gonna need it. Next up, Italy photos, I promise!

 

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…

 

 

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.

My Bad…

So…ummm…I sort of hit a pedestrian yesterday.

Ok, calm down. She’s fine. I’m fine. Everyone’s fine. Really, it was more like a grazing.

It happened as I was turning right on a one-way street with no traffic signal. And, yes, I know I should have looked to my right before making that turn. Normally I do. Most of the time. Probably.

So I’m making the turn, and whack…slide…thunk. Quickly I pulled over to see if she was ok. She was carrying a large bag, and I think it sustained most of the damage. She didn’t even look at me to curse obscenities in Greek! Just walked on her merry way. I would have gotten out to apologize, but I had Violet in the car, and traffic was starting to get heavier behind me. Besides, it wouldn’t surprise me if this was a fairly regular occurrence. As a pedestrian, I’m always sure to make eye contact with the driver whenever I’m crossing at intersection, especially when I’ve got kiddos with me. I wish others were as fastidious. But, as I’ve noted before, crossing the street here is a full-contact sport, and it takes some hutzpah just to make it safely to the other side.

So, I made it four months until I hit a parked car, and ten months until I hit a person. Yeeeah, I’d say I’ve acclimated to the driving climate here.