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.

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.

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!

Time is relative

In our early days of living in Athens, I got a sense that punctuality is a very loose concept here. Upon arriving at a destination at the proscribed time, we’re usually left waiting around for our Greek counterparts. “Your punctuality is very…British,” we’ve been told. Indeed.

Yesterday I tried calling a business around 2PM to make an appointment. No answer. I was later told by a local that I should have tried calling in the afternoon.

“Ummm…wait, it was afternoon.”

Ha ha, silly American. We mean Greek afternoon! Here in Greece, our morning goes past noon, lunch is at two, and afternoon starts at four. Or, as the Greeks would write it, 10:00, 14:00 and 16:00, respectively. Perhaps the very literal English word “afternoon” doesn’t translate exactly as kalispera, Greek for afternoon.

In fact, this is suddenly jogging a memory. Back when I was first learning to say “Good morning” and “Good afternoon” in Greek, I tried it out on Violet’s Gymboree teacher. Class started at 12:30, so I greeted her with a hearty, “Kalispera!” And she looked at me puzzled.

“No, it is still Kalimera,” she replied. If you say so, I thought.

Okay, I’m getting this now!

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.

White Wine, Please

Last night my friend and I had an impromptu mom’s night out at Piu Verde in Papagou. As the waiter was taking our drink order, he turned to me and asked what type of wine I’d like.

Wait! I totally know this!

“Lefko krasi, parakalo!” I was so excited to finally use the one Greek phrase I memorized, I more or less shouted at him. I sounded like one desperate mama in need of a drink. At this rate I should be ready for a full-blown Greek conversation in…ok, probably never. But, hey, I can order the wine at least! And I know “kokkino” means red.

The restaurant, beautifully nestled in a large park, was quite a sight all lit up at night, and the food was fantastic. It was so nice to get out after dark, sans children, on a school night, even.

On the way out we stopped by the restroom, and it was there I witnessed what I’m coming to see as a very typical Greek paradox. As I entered the stall, a little machine attached to the toilet meticulously steam-cleaned the toilet seat before I sat down. I was like, “What is this, Tokyo?!” But then next to the toilet was a HEE-UGE trashcan for the disposal of toilet paper. Ah, yes. They can install a machine to clean the seat, but you still can’t flush your toilet paper.

 

Back to the bus

There was a transit strike this morning, so James took the car into work. Which left me figuring out how best to get Violet to her Gymboree class. Thankfully the strike only lasted until 10, so I could take the bus. I’m quite familiar with the bus from our two months of car-lessness, but I remembered the last time I took the bus to Gymboree, the walk there was a high-traffic nightmare. But now that my girl is napping in her crib again (Good girl, Violet!), I could do a little pre-planning and find a better route. Turns out another bus will take me to a much better stop, away from the busy road. Thank you, Google Maps!

Then I remembered…Crap, James has the car. And with it the stroller and the baby Bjorn. Faced with either having to carry her or wrangle my much larger stroller onto the bus, I remembered we kept our 1st Gen baby Bjorn as a back up. In fact, I gave James grief over it, wanting to just sell the thing in our garage sale. It has no back support, and it’s not very comfortable. But now I’ve got to eat my words. It certain came in handy today!

Since the last time we rode the bus, the city has installed a sign that tells you how many minutes each bus is from the stop. What a relief! That’s one of the worst things about waiting for mass transit — you never know when your bus/train will arrive. Back in the mid-aughts, none of the New York trains had this feature. Now most every place has it, even Greece! Way to go, Greece! Except…hmmm..the bus I wanted to take didn’t seem to be listed. A young woman sitting on the bench was able to tell me that in fact the bus I wanted did stop at this stop — she was waiting for the same bus — and the sign didn’t actually work. Well, balls! Thankfully, her app told her our bus was only five minutes away. Yay!

Twenty minutes later, our bus arrived. Oh, Greece…

I snagged a seat and simultaneously fed a fussy toddler animal crackers while tracking our progress on Google so I knew when to get off. I’m becoming such a city mom!

And we made it with enough time to spare for lunch! Actually, I had no reason to worry — our class never seems to actually start “on time” by American standards.  I practiced some of my new Greek phrases on Violet’s enthusiastically cheerful instructor, Giotta. She is truly a delight. (Incidentally, I remembered her name because it sounds a lot like “Yoda”. I know. I’m such a nerd.)

Another aside — I wasn’t sure how to spell her name, so I googled it. I remembered she told me her full name means “Madonna” and I managed to find this website on my first try. I think I’m getting the hang of Greek spelling!