Yamas! Good friends part ways…for now.

Funny enough, one of the closest friends I have here in Greece is neither Greek nor American. We had a chance encounter at OAKA, and for the past year Katy and I have become besties. Her daughter is just a smidge younger and a smidge bigger than Violet. Last week we took the girls to see Peppa Pig at Golden Hall and they just about LOST THEIR MINDS. Katy and Dmitrius took us out for the most fabulous and immersive Greek Sunday supper. And they’ve been an endless source of all things Greek — language, customs, great things to see and when to see them, advice on local products to buy and shops to go to, you name it.

So when Dmitrius accepted a job in Chicago, I was at once disappointed that my friend would be leaving me, but also elated that she would be moving to the US. I mean, eventually my adventure will be ending, and then we’ll be on the same side of the Atlantic again!

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With a few more weeks until their departure, we’re trying to squeeze in as many get-togethers as we can manage. Last night we had a double date at a lovely new restaurant in Halandri called Red Pepper. The cuisine was northern Greek, and the owner is from the same village that Dmitrius hails from, Florina, which is known for its awesome spicy red peppers (hence the name). The food was fantastic. I kept asking Katy to tell me what each dish was called as I typed it in my phone. Eventually I gave up and just handed her my phone to type it in for me.

First, of course, we started with drinks. Dmitrius asked if we’d ever tried Tsipouro. Turns out, I had. But I wasn’t sure at the time, so I figured let’s give it a go. Whoa. I was warned it was like Grappa…and it was. Yamas! I learned that’s Greek for “cheers!” Two minutes later and we were all a bit merrier. Katy and I decided to switch to white wine after that. (“Lefko krasi, parakalo” — I got to use it again!) Let the feast begin!

The menu was all in Greek, and while the waiter graciously offered to translate it all for us, we decided to let the experts order for us. Besides, we planned to order a bunch of dishes and share them, and we are adventurous eaters.

Along with salad, we started with Bougiourdi — a hot clay dish of melted Feta cheese, tomato, spicy peppers, olive oil, and oregano. I couldn’t resist teasing Katy for how she pronounced oregano. Or-a-GON-oh. If she’s going to move to the US, she’s got to learn how to pronounce it like a Yank. Or-AYE-gan-oh. There ya go. We all gobbled this one up, as Dmitrius advised it is best consumed while it is warm. James said this was his favorite dish of the night.

Next up, Melintzana Sxaras, oven roasted aubergine (eggplant) with feta and tomato. And we had a fantastic Pork Tigania, a stir-fry with sausage, peppers, mushrooms, and a rich, dark sauce. This one was my favorite of the night. We also had traditional Florinian sausages with mustard and a plate of kebabs with pita and tzatziki sauce. Greeks love their meat! And so do we.

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We finished with complimentary dessert: Halvas with kormos, sort of a creamy paste paired with a chocolate “tree log.” Sooooo good! And perhaps because Dmitrius was talking up the owner (apparently they know some of the same people back home in Florina), we got another round of tsipouro and white wine on the house.

While enjoying this fantastic food, Katy and Dmitrius insisted that we really MUST make it to the northern part of Greece. It’s very different from the south, cooler and mountainous. Apparently there’s a huge festival at Christmas in Florina in which each little neighborhood tries to build the biggest bonfire. It’s quite a sight to behold, especially in the snow. There’s a whole chain of villages worth stopping to see: Ioannina, Kastoria, Pella, Vergina. There’s a great ski resort in Kaimaktsalan and a wonderful spa with thermal springs called Pozar Salt Cave. (I found such a great deal with free cancellation on Booking.com that I went ahead and made a reservation over Christmas break.)

And we were able to return the favor by extolling the virtues of Chick-fil-A and Trader Joe’s. (Just as Katy had to type all of these Greek village names in my phone, I had to type in Chick-fil-A for her. Ha!) All month long Katy has peppered me with questions about the US, and I’m happy to tell her everything I know. I suspect we’ll be keeping up the conversation over What’sApp long after she moves. And we’ve already made plans for a trip up to Chicago on our next US visit.

Yamas! To great friends, great food, and great times to come!

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…

 

 

No romance at the Laiki

It’s Valentine’s Day here in Greece! For me that means decorating a shoebox with my son and cutting out 18 colored squares for him to decorate. Back in the States I would have picked up a box of Valentines at the Dollar Store with his favorite Marvel character on them, but I’m not entirely sure where one gets Valentine’s Day cards here. I get the impression it’s not really a “thing” here. But it is at the American School! Liam scrawled “You are a good friend” and “You are a nice person” in different colored markers while I stapled KitKats to the corners. Not the prettiest valentines, but serviceable. And, hey, KitKats!

Tuesdays are my Laiki day, or at least they were until it got so damn cold here. I haven’t been back since December. But after getting such shoddy produce at the store last week, I decided to brave the cold, grab my hobo cart and all the change in my purse, and head on over.

It’s not even that cold…Greece has made me soft. It was in the upper 30s this morning and I’m dressing like a Sherpa. But it was worth it to get fresh oranges with the leaves still attached, and fresh dates that weren’t vacuum sealed. And the sights and sounds of the Laiki always put a smile on my face. Here, I made a video. Listen to the vendors shouting in Greek.

My children and husband are such picky eaters, oftentimes I’m just purchasing one small bunch of grapes, or one lone pepper. Many times the vendor will give me a sideways look, then insist I take it for free. And whenever I bring Liam, he always gets free samples…that he usually bites and then spits out. But still.

One thing I buy a ton of at the Laiki is eggs. I’ve gone full-native about eggs here. I used to dutifully wash them off and stick them in a container in the fridge. But I read that they actually keep longer if you leave them untouched and unrefrigerated. Plus, it’s so much easier to grab an egg from the counter than to fish one out of the fridge every morning. If one is particularly…um…chicken poopy…I’ll give it a quick rinse. Plus, I find that room temperature, older eggs hard boil best.

After dropping off the hobo cart with Evelyn, I drove up to the AB (pronounced Alpha Vita in Greece) for the rest of my groceries. I couldn’t resist documenting some interesting finds. For instance:

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Ok, this cracks me up. In high school we always called something…else…banana juice. If you get my drift.

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I spied this next to the milk. I guess people eat it? Apparently it has some health benefits, if you believe this product’s website. I’m sure the hippies have been eating it for years. What do I know?

Oh, and remember that time I saw the ad for these chips?

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I couldn’t resist picking some up. I tried them at lunch. Not bad, actually. Mayo flavor, for sure, but not overpowering. Course the bag is so small, I practically ate the whole thing in one sitting. Maybe I shouldn’t make a habit of buying these.

New food and the New Normal


What is this, this “olive oil biscuit”? It’s crumbly, sweet, and covered in sesame seeds. According to the picture, it appears to be infused with cinnamon and oranges. Good by themselves, or especially as a vehicle for tahini, another of our new favorites. Violet and I are gobbling them up. Liam gets home in about 10 minutes. Perhaps we’ve found a snack that (gasp!) BOTH my children enjoy? We shall see…

While we wait for his bus to pull up, let’s talk about that the heck is going on in America right now. I don’t usually like to discuss politics here. I’m a little unclear what the ramifications would be as the wife of an embassy employee. So I’ll keep it tame. But I will say that I’m highly disturbed by the news pouring through my online newsfeeds. Fox News is not one I frequent, so perhaps the doom and gloom element would be less pronounced there, but as each of these unsavory cabinet appointments get confirmed, I can’t help but picture Dr. Horrible joining the Evil League of Evil.

Maybe it’s just because Liam is listening to the soundtrack every. single. morning. But when I picture Dr. Horrible walking into that room with all those random evil henchmen, I can see Betsy DaVos or Rex Tillerson under all those ridiculous costumes. And I genuinely fear the direction our country is headed.

Ok, so speaking of Liam, he tried the biscuits, and he actually liked them. Woohoo! He also informed me of the new game he and his friends now play at recess. He’s Donald Trump, and they have to chase him around until he locks himself in the White House. The White House is base. I asked if he wears a bathrobe and wanders around for awhile when he’s in there. (heh heh). Then he loudly proclaimed that he had a golden toilet! And a golden sink! And a golden shower!

Out of the mouths of babes…

Sunday Supper

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When I first arrived, I remember thinking I wouldn’t have much opportunity to make friends outside of the embassy community. And while most of my friends here work or have spouses working for the US government, I’m pleasantly surprised at how many Greeks and Europeans I’ve gotten to know. People are so incredibly friendly here…I really shouldn’t be surprised at all.

Case in point: I had the amazing opportunity to enjoy a traditional Sunday Greek supper with a local family I’ve gotten to know. Now, I’ve been to tavernas before, but we usually just order what we know, and we honestly have no idea what is good. Or if it’s even good — usually we end up in a very touristy place. So I was delighted to try a taverna in a small neighborhood in Athens recommended by folks who know good cooking.

We arrived at 3, hoping to avoid the rush at 2. I’m still getting used to the mealtimes here: lunch/supper at 2, dinner at 8 or 9. The restaurant was still packed…lots of families linger. We managed to squeeze our party at a table really only meant for four. We had four adults and three children. Yikes! But we managed. The place was loud, but I was relieved it wasn’t smoky.

Katy and her husband, Dmitrius, greeted us warmly and happily translated the menu. Near the entrance to the taverna was a large metal cask with spigots for red and white wine, which the wait staff would pour into little metal cups and distribute to the tables. We must have our wine! I overheard D ordering the wine, and I pointed out that it was the one thing I could actually order in Greek. Ha!

After hearing the translated options and recommendations, we settled on a Greek sausage accompanied by Gigantes (giant white beans), a beef ragu with pasta, shaved pork and fries for the kids, and Dolmadakia with yogurt (rice wrapped in grapevine leaves). And we started with a not-so-traditionally-Greek spinach and cranberry salad. It took us a bit to flag down a waiter, but once we ordered, the food arrived promptly. We all tried a little from each other’s plates, in typical Greek fashion, so we got to try some roast goat and potatoes as well. Unfortunately, by 3 they were out of lamb. The food was absolutely fantastic, the best Greek cuisine we’ve had since we got here. The kids loved it, too. The Dolma was probably my favorite. I remember trying them years and years ago, but I’m sure they were not this good.

We drank, we ate, we all got to know each other. Liam charmed the adults, as usual. And Violet and little Aimilia played peek-a-boo with each other. Violet couldn’t get enough of the goat. I caught her gnawing on a gnarly piece of skin and fat and just LOVING it. As we finished our main course, the staff brought out a complementary dessert: yogurt covered in berries and syrup. So yummy!

Our friends promised to take us to their favorite seafood restaurant next time. I had to admit that I’m not a fan of the whole-fish-on-the-plate thing, but I’d be happy to try squid and prawns, so long as there’s a minimal amount of dissecting required. I come from the Midwest, where seafood is a bit of a mystery. But I’m excited to try it!

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.