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.

An Arabian Night

We’re so fortunate to live in such a vibrant area of Athens, in Halandri. We can simply walk a few blocks to some of the city’s best restaurants. One that caught our eye when we first moved here was Pars Persian Restaurant. I can’t believe it took us a year to finally try it! Actually, I can…it’s hard to get out to a romantic dinner when you’ve got to find and pay for a sitter in a foreign country. But I’ve decided this is no time to cheap out. We live in Greece, dammit! Let’s have some fun!

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So, with that attitude, we got our butts out of the house for a much needed date night. No excuses! And I have no regrets. The restaurant was FANTASTIC. The décor was ornate and interesting. The food was ethnic, but still familiar enough to be satisfying. In addition to Greek, the menu had an English section and what I can only assume was a Persian section. Many of dishes had lamb, beef or chicken served with tomato or yogurt-based sauces and rice. Definitely some Mediterranean influences.

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We picked two appetizers that paired perfectly — yogurt with dill and the kofte berenji. We also ordered Persian bread, and a pot of Persian tea to share. Perfect for a chilly February date night.

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As we waited for the rest of our meal, we gazed around the ornately decorated dining room. The ceiling was draped with cloth, making the room feel intimate and cozy. Heating lamps provided extra warmth. The walls were covered with interesting elements from the Middle East. Outside the dining room there was more décor as you walked in from outside. Landscapes hung on the walls, and these little dolls greeted you on your way to the restroom.

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Our food arrived without too much wait, and we dug in. I ordered the Chelo kabab, a lamb dish similar to the Greek cuisine we usually find. It was tasty, but James and I both preferred what he ordered more: the Khoreshte fesenjari.

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Mine made a prettier picture. Yum! James’ dish came in a bowl with sauce, which you spooned out over rice. The sauce was rich and sweet, made with pomegranates. He got it with beef meatballs, but it can also come with chicken.

After our meal we walked back to our house, dropped off the leftovers, and took the car to The Mall. Normally we would have elected to stroll around our neighborhood, but the wind and the cold made us think otherwise. I recently discovered The Mall’s VIP parking lot, which foreign embassy employees can use for free. At 8:45 it was almost completely empty. Score!

We soon realized why. Nearly all of the shops were closed! And it was still 10 to 9 when we got there. I guess closing time operates on “Greek Time” as well. Or maybe all the shops close at…8:30? On a busy Saturday night? I don’t get it. This mall has a huge movie theater. The place was teeming with people, presumably eating at the restaurants and waiting for movies to start. Seems like a good time to open up shop. Oh well. Still too full for dessert, we grabbed a hot chocolate and took a stroll. We talked. It was nice. This is why date night is imperative. Seems like we never have a chance to just talk at home. It may be pricy, but it’s worth it.

I bought pants at the Laiki!

Ever since we got our car back in March, I’ve been mostly navigating the city from the driver’s seat. With much infuriation and aggravation. Today’s unseasonably warm weather inspired me to ditch the car and walk over to my Pilates class, which according to Google Maps, would only take me about 35 minutes.

How refreshing to explore new neighborhoods again! My path took me through Filiothei, then trailed north to the OAKA (Olympic Stadium). I passed some amusing graffiti in Halandri.

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Eventually I found myself on a wooded path between two streets. As I walked along, I came to some random train tracks.

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Inspecting the ground at my feet, I could see two rails overgrown by grass and debris. Interesting. Athens is home to ancient and not-so-ancient ruins.

Further along, I spied a Laiki. I hadn’t planned to buy anything, but as I passed the clothing market, a pair of yoga pants caught my eye. My work-out wardrobe is almost embarrassingly shabby, and with my renewed interest in exercising (I’ve been looking at resorts in Belize all week for my girlfriends summer getaway this summer), I decided to give them a try. I usually like to try clothes on before I buy them. Of course you can’t do that at the Laiki. But for 10 Euros, I figured it was worth the gamble. Turns out they fit perfectly! Not too shabby, either!

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I may just have to pass by there again next week to pick up another pair.

After class I decided to stop in my favorite second-hand shop, The Mix and Match, which probably has a proper Greek name, but I haven’t figured it out. Anyhow, I got a fantastic deal: four tops and 2 hoodies for 15 Euros. Sweet. Now time to get in shape!

Graffiti and Feral Cats

Liam and I spied a graffiti artist on our way home from the park today. He had a bag full of spray paint and a huge swath of wall on a pedestrian bridge as his canvas. He didn’t seem particularly nervous about being caught — pretty brazen painting in broad daylight — though I still thought better of whipping out my phone to take a photo. We watched for awhile as his vision took shape — a seemingly random smattering of colorful boxes. He chatted on the phone. He smoked. He didn’t notice us at all.

Graffiti is one of the first things you’ll see as you enter this city. It is EVERYWHERE. I just kind of figured, like with the traffic laws, the authorities adopted a laissez-faire style of policing, but it seems there is some historical significance to the graffiti here. This New York Times article shed some light on the subject.

It’s interesting to see this from my seven-year-old’s perspective. He doesn’t see defacement of public property. He just sees cool artwork. The green line train is his favorite partly because it is covered in street art. And I’m starting to see the beauty in it, as well. Most of the graffiti I’ve seen is your run-of-the-mill bubble written words scrawled in neon colors. But some of them are quite beautiful. In fact, there are some pretty famous ones around the city (see 15 of them here), but I haven’t ever come across these.

Now that the weather is getting cooler, I’m spending more evenings with the windows open. We hear traffic, church bells, random loud conversations in Greek…and cats. Cats screeching, cats fighting, cats in heat. The other day Liam called me over to our back window. He and his sister were enthralled by a mother and her kitten just hanging around in our backyard. (Back garden, I should say.) Great. Another cat to add to the cacophony.

Dinner and a movie in Greece

Happy 12th wedding anniversary to us! We decided to try dinner and a movie, our first real date night since we arrived back in January. We wanted to keep it simple — a restaurant near our house followed by a movie at The Mall. Casa Del Toro was only a 15 minute walk, so we wouldn’t have to attempt driving or parking in Halandri on a Saturday night. We opted for a late dinner — late by our standards, at least — so we could put Violet to bed before we left. Turns out 8:30 is “Early Bird Special” time in Greece. We had made a reservation, but that probably wasn’t necessary. The restaurant didn’t start filling up until 9 or 9:30. Still, we had a nice, quiet table by the window, and the food was fantastic. We started with two appetizers, the crab cakes and the beef rolls, which were both outstanding. I haven’t had a steak since we got here, so when this arrived at the table, I just about fainted.

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Eight glorious ounces of fillet petit, cooked to medium rare perfection. The first bite: pure ecstasy. Get in mah belly, steak!

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The server also brought this interesting array of salts. From left to right they are Himalayan salt, smoked salt, and sea salt. I tried a smattering of them all, but I think my favorite was the first.

We shared a carafe of scrumptious Sangria, and at the end of our meal we were offered a honey cinnamon aperitif free of charge. James didn’t care for that last one, but I thought it was pretty good. Strong, but good.

I wasn’t sure what to expect as far as service. In our experience, the Greeks tend to operate on their own, shall we say, more relaxed schedule. The food arrived promptly, but it took us a little bit to track our server down for the check. We had just enough time to walk home, grab the car, and head over to The Mall for the 10:30 showing of The Magnificent Seven remake. It was the only movie we could agree on because James loves the original and I loves Chris Pratt. Swoon.

Some interesting observations about our Greek movie theater-going experience:

  • You couldn’t buy tickets at a machine like in most US theaters, so we got stuck in a long line. I presume one could order tickets online ahead of time, but I’ll have to figure that one out next time.
  • Seating is assigned. Which turned out to work in our favor. We thought the show was sold out when we finally made it to the ticket counter. Turns out there were just a few seats left in the front row. Sold! And while the front row was less than ideal, it beat having to fruitlessly find two seats together in a sold-out theater in the US. Many times ushers have to not-so-kindly ask that people move over to fill empty seats back home…we Americans and our insistence on personal space! In this instance, I like the Greek way better.
  • The prices were less than I expected, only 7.50 Euros a ticket, and the seats were modern, stadium-style.
  • The concession stand was very much the same, though with fewer candy options and the pricing wasn’t as outrageous. They had your standard M&Ms and Malted Milk balls, but they also had one of my favorites, Twix. James complained that the soda sizes were too small. I think he prefers the cups you can barely get your hand around. Sheesh.
  • I had been told that movies are typically subtitled in Greek. So as long as you could ignore the words scrolling at the bottom, the movie was essentially the same as it is in the US. What I didn’t anticipate was that any English subtitles would instead be subtitled in Greek. There was one subplot with a Native American dude speaking…some Native Americanese…to Denzel Washington, and I have no idea what was going on there.

By the time our 2+ hour movie was over, I was completely beat. We had a nice night, but it’s hard for us to stay up that late with children who know no mercy in the early morning. Or a toddler who still wakes in the night — when we made it home at 1 AM, our baby sitter was consoling a crying Violet, who had just woken up about 20 minutes before we got home. So I got to end our “romantic” evening by hastily changing into a nursing top and getting the baby back to sleep. Happy anniversary, ha!

 

Four months in…

“Tell your friends, your lady friends, that Greek men are the greatest in the world. And Greece is the most beautiful country in the world.” This from the gregarious (Is there any other kind?) Greek man at Loukumami in Halandri. The kids and I stopped by so Liam could try the loukoumades, and after a lively conversation about America and Greece, our new friend insisted on paying for our treats himself. He was with a couple of other people, one female, so it wasn’t completely weird. Liam and I thanked him in both English and Greek, then impressed them with an enthusiastic “Yasas!”

Today marks four months we’ve been living in Greece. The driving, the shopping, the speaking, the cultural differences…I’ve grown accustomed to what seemed so foreign such a short time ago. I’ve learned the correct response to “Where are you from?” is “America” because you’ll just get a quizzical look if you reply, “The United States.” When the ladies go bananas for Violet and start asking me questions in Greek, I reply with her name and her age in English, which both answers their questions and indicates that I only speak English. Euro coins come in 2, 1, 50 cents, 20 cents, 5 cents, 2 cents, and 1 cent, which constantly overflow my wallet, but come in handy for tolls and the laiki. The ridiculously high sales tax (23%) does not apply to food, thankfully, but it does apply to just about everything else. For large purchases we can get a tax exemption, but it’s such a pain in the ass, we’ve only done it one time. We order almost everything online.

This summer many of my embassy friends will be scattering to the wind, and a new crop of families will be moving in. I’d like to think I can pay forward all of this useful advice I’ve received. I’ll get to impart my nuggets wisdom, as it were. Though I still have a lot to see and learn here…four months in and 44 to go!

 

Sidewalks of Halandri

I did a fair amount of complaining about the state of the sidewalks when I first got here. But now that I’ve grown accustomed to their general decrepitude, I noticed something a bit peculiar. This is what the sidewalk looks like in front of my house.

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And this is the sidewalk in front of my neighbor’s house.

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In fact, as I circle the block, I notice the sidewalks vary from location to location.

In the business districts they stay pretty uniform, but in the residential areas, it almost seems like the original builders of the homes paved the sidewalks in front of their residences. The sidewalks seem to match the home. And the transition can be rather stark.

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Some people added an endearing personal touch.

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The sidewalks are littered with utility access points, these little squares that Liam refuses to walk on. Some are rather wobbly, so his fears aren’t completely unfounded.

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Oh, and they’re also littered with oranges.