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!

A rare solo night out

The embassy hosted a beer-tasting event Friday night at a beer cellar in the city center called Barley Cargo. James was just getting back from Rome the day before and leaving for Nairobi on Sunday morning, so it was a hard pass for him. But he graciously offered to watch the kids while I went. (By “graciously offered” I really mean “graciously accepted” after I whined that I never get to go anywhere fun anymore.) For 22 Euros we got a pretty generous pour of six beers, plus two bonus beers, and several courses of hors d’oeurves.

After each sample went by, the bar owner would give a short presentation about the beer we were tasting, sometimes inviting the actual beer-makers on stage to talk. At one point, while tasting a lager, he said, “We know how fond you Americans are of lagers,” which elicited a hearty boo from my table. You know how I feel about light lagers. (I should have been born in Germany.)

I was fashionably late — having been here almost two years, I’m on Greek time — so I missed the first couple of food courses. But I managed to snag some delicious mushrooms that appeared to be cut, squashed flat with a hammer, seasoned and grilled to perfection. As for beers, they were all tasty — predictably, the last better than the first — but my favorites were the Xarma Dunkel Lager (from Chania-Crete Island) and Septem 8th Day IPA (from Evia Island). I recently discovered the Septem Sunday’s Honey Golden Ale, and it’s quickly becoming my favorite.

Summer is a time of upheaval for the US Embassy — some families take their home leave, some families leave for good, and some families are just arriving — so this event was a great opportunity to connect with friends I hadn’t seen all summer, and to make some new ones, as well.

I’m not a fan of parking in the city center, so I took the bus and train there and back. I rarely have the opportunity to stay out late on my own in Athens, so this was quite a treat. At Syntagma Square, I noticed some guys throwing floating glow sticks up in the air, just as they did at San Marcos in Venice. I guess those guys are everywhere!

While waiting (and waiting!) for the 421 bus, I saw a car just brimming with passengers pull up on the other side of the street. The driver hopped out, walked around to the back, opened the hatchback, and a lanky young man crawled right on out of the trunk! No one at the bus stop flinched as I practically guffawed. Business as usual here in Athens!

My house is about a 25-minute walk from the Metro, and after waiting for the bus for half an hour, I decided to hoof it back. Maybe I could stop by this wine bar by my house that I’ve been meaning to try. Of course, about 15 minutes into my journey, the 421 blew right past me. Oh well. It was a nice night for a stroll. Outdoor restaurant seats were still packed at 11. Shops were closed, but the pedestrian mall was still heavily criss-crossed with foot traffic. On a quiet little side street I passed by Wine Not?, but it appeared to be closed. I couldn’t tell if it was closed for good, or just closed for August…hard to suss out sometimes. There wasn’t a sign, which you’ll usually find on businesses closed for August. Looking online, there’s no mention of them closing for good or for August. I didn’t actually try the door, so perhaps they were open after all! Curses! I guess I’ll have to appeal to some girl friends to come try this place with me. Winos unite!

Little Kook Cake Shop

With all of my travelling, I’ve had little time to write about some of the local things I’ve been doing with my time. Between my trips to Venice and Germany, I popped over to the Athens Flea Market to pick up some fun souvenirs for my friends in Gottingen, and I finally got a chance to try this funny little tea and cake shop I’ve been dying to try since before Christmas. We had arranged an embassy meetup back in December, but they were unexpectedly closed so they could decorate for Christmas. Fast forward four months and I was finally coming back!

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Little Kook lives up to its name: the décor is definitely kooky! The waitresses are dressed up in elaborate costumes, and there isn’t an inch of wall or ceiling space that isn’t covered with some interesting decoration. There was an entire room just devoted to Christmas.

Looking over the menu, I decided I was more in the mood for savory than sweet, but they had several cakes, crepes and ice creams that I would love to come back and try. I got a savory tuna crepe and a glass of their homemade lemonade. Food and drink were outstanding!

Liam and Violet would totally love this place, and I’m sure many of my friends and their kids would enjoy it, as well. Though with all of the stairs, it is not a good place for strollers and young wandering toddlers. But we will definitely be coming back here after school is out!

Monemvasia

Four hours south of Athens along the southeast coast of the Peloponnese, you’ll find the Byzantine island of Monemvasia, a name meaning “single entrance.” The walled city and fortress were built in the 6th century AD, and aside from some tourist shops, restaurants and hotels that are built into the existing structures, not much has changed since then. One can easily get lost along the narrow cobblestone walkways, although the fortress isn’t very big, so you won’t be lost for long. If you stay within the city walls, you have to park your car along the roadway that leads from the mainland to the front entrance. Fortunately we got a pretty good spot — the advantage of arriving on a Friday afternoon.

But I wouldn’t say our trip down was particularly fortunate. We had this fantastic idea to flip Violet’s car seat to face the front so she could watch a DVD with Liam. Four hours in the car is the longest she’s ever endured, and I doubted she would sleep the whole way. The first half of the trip went well — she loved watching Curious George, her new favorite, and a perennial favorite of Liam’s. But then we left the turnpike and headed into the mountains. She started crying, and we figured she was getting tired again…until Mt. Vesuvius erupted. Oh, God, what a mess! We managed to change her clothes and wash up at a gas station. A short nap later and still 45 minutes from our destination, the vomit comet struck again. More cleaning up at the side of the road.

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Photo courtesy amusingplanet.com

Finally, the magnificent island came into view. With a stop for lunch and “Vomigeddon” we added almost 2 hours to our drive. But we made it!

We had to park along a road that leads up the entrance to the walled city, then carry our things to our hotel. We were sure to pack light (and made notes to economize even further for our upcoming trip to Venice). The staff at the Likinia were very friendly, though I think we exhausted their knowledge of English when we inquired about a washing machine. No bother — we aren’t new to the concept of hosing off a puky car seat cover in a hotel shower. (Thanks to two-year-old Liam during our move to Florida.) The shower at this hotel was a bit tiny, but serviceable. Our room was nicely furnished, and the view from our windows was lovely.

Because I’m the expert in car seat disassembly, I volunteered to hike back to the car to collect the car seat cover and other victims of Violet’s unfortunate eruption. And while my task was less than stellar (having to do this on the side of the road IN THE DARK was especially trying), I did have a chance to wander the streets at night. So few people were out, it almost felt like we had the place to ourselves. While James had the unenviable task of clean-up duty using a bottle of baby shampoo I picked up on the way back, I ordered take out from a promising restaurant nearby called To Kanoni. As I waited for our food, the friendly proprietor chatted with me, provided me with brochures and maps, and told me all about this lovely city. I couldn’t wait to explore the next morning!

The children woke up bright and (alarmingly) early. Breakfast wouldn’t be served until 8:30, so we had a couple of hours to kill. A few episodes of Care Bears on the best invention ever (AKA the Amazon Fire stick, plugged right into the hotel TV), and then it was time to get dressed and run around the courtyard in the sunshine. What a lovely morning! No surprise, we were the first guests to arrive for breakfast at 8:30 sharp. They provided a very nice spread: omelets, ham and cheese cold cuts, little sausages, cereal, greek yogurt and honey. All things we enjoy. It took a little explaining, but they were also happy to make Liam a plain-Jane omelet to his liking.

We decided it best to spend the day wandering the streets at our leisure. Liam enjoyed leading the way, turning around at dead ends, looking through holes in the wall at the sea below, and discovering narrow passageways and staircases. Liam had studied the map, and he was intent on finding a path that led down to the water. But it eluded us. At the front gate we saw kids dressed in marching band uniforms ready in for a parade. Saturday was Greek Independence Day, so we expected to see a little parade.

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Slowly, we made our way up and up and up. Finally, we made it to the entrance to the upper town…and the door was locked! Closed for Independence Day. Do’h! We briefly contemplated making a day trip to Simos Beach on Elafonisos island, but we were understandably not anxious to get back in the car to drive through the mountains again. So after a brief siesta in our room (and more Care Bears…all the kids want to do while we’re on vacation is watch TV!), we explored the old lighthouse. Built in 1896, it wasn’t nearly as old as everything else on the island. We couldn’t go up into the tower, and as lighthouses go, it wasn’t terribly impressive. But the views of the sea and the mainland were.

Time for lunch! We enjoyed our meal from To Kanoni so much, we decided to eat lunch on their rooftop terrace. I ordered the traditional Independence/Feast of Annunciation day meal, fried cod with a garlic sauce. A hungry cat kept pestering us. Violet was hollering “kitty!” as I was trying to shoo it away. Back off my fish, feline! I called the waitress over, and she brought up a water gun and chased him off. Hilarious! She left me the gun just in case. He eventually came back, eyeing me from a corner and biding his time until I got up to leave. But he kept his distance when the water gun was in view.

While the kids took another little siesta, I hiked back to the car to get the car seat cover back on and reinstall it. At least half a dozen people stopped to ask me if they could take my parking spot. So glad we came Friday! On my way back I wandered up a path from the road to a small cemetery that appeared to be the final resting place for the town’s priests. An interesting juxtaposition of modern photos with old-style tombs, and with a lovely view of the sea.

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In the late afternoon we wandered around the upper reaches of the lower town, finding many dead ends and crumbling houses. Prime real-estate! We also came across some lovely private homes. Can you imagine actually living here? Paradise! Except for the parking situation…

As our intrepid (ahem…bossy) leader took us down another path, I discovered we’d lost James with a sleeping Violet on his back. Liam and I decided to wait for them on the porch of our hotel…James had the keys, of course! We waited and waited…and just as I was seriously starting to wonder where he went off to, James and a still-snoozing Violet showed up. He had found another path to the eastern reaches of the town, and it had a lovely view. He was happy to take us back…and he was right.

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Not quite so bright and early Sunday (a technicality…it was daylight savings in Greece that weekend), James loaded up our car while I took the kids to breakfast. On his way back, he found that path down to the sea, the one we couldn’t find Saturday. I’m so glad he did. What a gem.

Then it was back up and up and up and…the door to the upper town was open! Yes! And totally worth the climb. The views were spectacular, and the old church was in remarkable shape. There were other ruins of residences and administration buildings of the byzantine nobility. Apparently this was the part of the island that rich people lived, back in the day.

The kids stopped for a snack outside the church, and it’s one of the few times they stay still enough for a photo together.

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For the trip home, turning Violet’s car seat back to rear-facing helped tremendously. No more eruptions from her. But then Liam had us pull over every 10 minutes because he was feeling sick! Clearly, we cannot win. After the fourth time we pulled over, I insisted he eat a cookie. That helped. Thank God — at the rate we were going, we would have been lucky to make it home for bedtime.

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.

A lovely weekend in Nafplio and Epidavros

With warm weather finally returning, we decided to spend a weekend at the seaside Peloponnese town of Nafplio. It’s about a two hour drive southwest of Athens, and we couldn’t have picked a lovelier weekend in February to make the journey. Sunny and 63 degrees (or, rather, 17 degrees…still getting used to Celsius). I booked us a family studio apartment at the Bonne Nuit Pension, a decent little place in an excellent location, right in the old town.

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We started the day at Palamidi Castle, an 18-century Venetian fortress set up on the highest point in Nafplio. I was told there were two ways to get to the castle. You can either kill yourself climbing 999 stairs…

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Or drive your lazy ass to the top. Let’s see…carrying a 20-pound toddler on my back while listening to an 8-year-old’s constant whining all the way to the top, or parking 30 feet from the entrance. Honestly, which would you choose?

Once inside, we traipsed all over the various bastions. The views of the city and the bay were amazing. In this photo, you can see the ridge above the old town, and the small island in the bay is the Bourtzi, a water castle used as a fortification in the 1400s.

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The kids absolutely loved climbing around, playing peek-a-boo through some of the architectural elements…

…and carefully looking down at the sea.

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Some openings had safety bars and some didn’t. Thankfully my boy is very cautious, and my girl can’t climb all that fast. Yet. For the most part the paths were clearly marked, though at one point we walked ourselves along a narrow path right to a staircase leading nowhere, and we had to turn back. After walking every inch of the castle (at one little 8-year-old’s insistence), we had a little picnic lunch in the courtyard near the entrance.

Then it was naptime. For the grown-ups, not the kids, as it turned out. They jumped on one bed while the tired adults slept in the other. Actually, James did all the sleeping. I’m a mother. A nap in the middle of the day…as if! Feeling relatively well-rested, we hiked down to Arvanitia Beach along a gorgeous path right along the sea. It wasn’t quite sunset, but the views were still spectacular.

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Not a railing in sight, which made for good photos, but I was scared to death my baby girl was going to try and walk right off the edge and plummet into the sea. Thankfully the trail meandered back away from the water so she could walk on her own. The beach itself wasn’t much to look at, but we did get to see the back entrance to the castle with all of those stairs we decided not to take.

Instead, we climbed a nearly equivalent amount of stairs as we wandered around the old town back to our hotel. Well, maybe not 999…but our feet were aching all the same. Thankfully, one of the restaurants a friend had recommended was a short distance from our hotel, so we had ourselves an early dinner (6:30, so early by Greek standards) at Alaloum. I finally got some of this Greek lamb everyone keeps telling me about. More skin, fat and bone than I typically enjoy, but the meaty parts were excellent. The restaurant was small, but not too crowded or smoky, and we were treated to some complimentary gelato for dessert.

As we walked home, we came across a festival in the main town square. The Greeks celebrate Carnival all month long, and with Clean Monday just a week away, the festivities were really ramping up. Kids in costumes and their parents danced in a circle as musicians played traditional Greek music. Weary from our day of driving and climbing, we made our way back to our hotel and all of us conked out before 9:30.

The next day we drove about an hour East to the theater and archeological site of Epidaurus…or maybe Epidavros…it’s spelled both ways, but the Greeks seem to prefer the latter pronunciation and spelling. They play it fast and loose with their U’s and V’s.

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The theater is the best preserved from this era, the 4th century BC, and it is renowned for its excellent acoustics. You could stand in the center of a little circle on the stage and hear your own voice bounce back to you like you were talking through a microphone. Clapping also sounded wicked cool. You can see the kids really enjoyed that.

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The theater was remarkably well-preserved, but the rest of the site was not. No bother, though, because the kids just wanted to climb on everything.

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Monkey see, monkey do!

On our way back home we made a brief stop at the Corinth Canal, built in 1893.

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Apparently it doesn’t serve much of a purpose anymore, but it sure looks cool! We stopped for lunch at the Goodies right next to the canal, and inside hung several photos showing how it was built. Liam got a real kick out of that. And Violet was happy to have her “fry fries!”

Now that James’ refugee travel has been put on hold, we’re planning more of these little weekend getaways for the spring and early summer. Next stop in March, Monemvasia!

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.