Sunday at the Athens airport

James had to leave town today — to Rome, the lucky duck — and rather than have him take a taxi as usual, I offered to drive him so the kids could give him goodbye hugs and see him off. He won’t be gone long, but he rarely leaves on a day or time that is convenient for us to drive him, so I thought it would be fun.

I forgot, though, that this is Greece.

The airport in Athens isn’t especially big, and in my experience it’s been pretty easy to navigate. The taxi usually pulls right up to the curb and drops you off at your airline, lickity split. But I guess there’s a separate lane for taxis, and cars dropping off passengers have to pull over to a median. Which would be fine except…this is Greece. Every five meters there’s a huge blue and red sign that clearly says, “NO PARKING,” and right next to it is an entire line of cars parked along the median. Some people had the presence of mind to put on their flashers before abandoning their cars, but most of them flagrantly ignored the signs and simple parked there. Next to the “no parking” lane were two other lanes, which now became one lane as cars dropping off passengers had to double park to let people out. The whole thing became a complicated logjam, and at some point I gave up on trying to find James’ airline and just let him out. No hugs, just a quick bye bye.

Because…Greece. Next time we’ll just hug our goodbyes at our front door when the cab pulls up.

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.

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.

No pain, no gain

branch1This past month I got serious about aerial yoga, purchasing an 8-class pass and attempting to work in all of them in one month. With my schedule, it was understandably impossible (oh, how I long for the days before kiddos sometimes…), but I did manage to get in six, with a couple that trickled into May. And while I still execute many poses with an embarrassing lack of grace, I’m a lot more confident while dangling upside down, and there are a handful of maneuvers that I’ve gotten much better at doing. Because I’ve been practicing so much, the hammock barely hurts my hips anymore, which gives me even more latitude to sink into the poses. Depending on the instructor and level of the class, it can be a deceptively rigorous workout. My whole body is always sore the next day. And best of all, it is so much FUN. I’m the kind of person who has to be tricked into exercise. If it’s at all rote, I get bored and stop trying.

The one challenge (besides gravity) has been deciphering the Greek. All of my instructors know English, and they’re happy to translate if I need it, but I mostly have to look around me to figure out what pose we’re doing next. However, my studio just hired a new American instructor, and if I bring a friend or two, she’ll offer to teach the class in English. I didn’t realize how much better this is for me until we tried it for the first time. There’s so much explanation I was missing in Greek, and it was nice to finally be able to understand what was being said during relaxation.

With the onset of summer in Greece (it was a whopping 94 degrees on Saturday!), I thought it would be fun to get a pedicure. There was a place I’d been to before with friends, and while they were a little more…let’s say, thorough…than I’m accustomed to, overall I was satisfied by the experience.

But this time, I’m not sure what went wrong. The pedicurist laid out her tools, the same she used as last time, but this time around I started to think of them as implements of torture. There was your usual filing and trimming, but the under-nail care…God, I’m breaking out into a cold sweat just thinking about it. Granted, I’ve kind of got a “thing” about toes. You know those foot fungus ads that ran a few years back, the one with the animated germ lifting a toe nail to dive right in? Yeah, that kind of makes me want to vomit when I see it.

Anyway, I managed to survive the ordeal, and I figured I’d ask them to take it easy next time. But the aftermath over the past few days left me cringing in the shower as the hot water hit my sore toes, and I had to turn my socks inside-out so the seam wouldn’t irritate them. I got nervous I’d contracted an infection, so a friend recommended I pick up some Bactroban at the pharmacy. It seemed to do the trick…or at least put my mind at ease.

I asked around about this…are Greek pedicures always this painful? I got mixed answers. Some friends said they don’t even like to go to get their nails done in Greece because they are so rough. Others had no complaints at all. It may depend on who you see…and your threshold for pain.

At any rate, I think I’ll be painting my own toes for awhile, thankyouverymuch.

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!

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…