Ceramics and desserts

Sunday is a slow start by the sea. The rain has dampened our spirits and we decide that we will forgo the trip up the hill to see the fortress. It’s far too windy and the dark clouds too ominous for our liking. This ends up being a sound decision because it rains the entire day.

After breakfast at the hotel and a late morning coffee at a small cafe, we spend the next few hours wandering from shop to shop. The rain and cold don’t do us any favors and before long we are tired and ready for lunch. A taverna is pointed out to us by the shopkeeper of the olive wood store, and we trudge toward a place called Vassilis (sp).

Lunch is warm and hearty, featuring the kind of comfort food that encourages a lengthy siesta afterwards. We have stuffed vine leaves which are so very different from their American counterparts (these are drenched in sauce and not cylindrical). Thao finally gets to have stuffed tomatoes after several restaurants have denied their existence; they are almost sweet and the orzo is bursting out the sides. The piece de resistance is the moussaka, made with meat, eggplant, pasta and bechamel sauce. Thao’s eyelids are at half mast before we get the check, and we struggle to press on through the afternoon. We are operating on the assumption that most shops will close early on Sundays, but in the end this is not the case. After a hot chocolate and some time to thaw out, we crash for a late nap.

Our nap runs long and we debate the merits of heading back outside in the dreary weather. After joking about pizza delivery we bundle up and head out in search of dinner. Nafplio is built on a series of streets that run parallel to the sea and many a set of stairs that connect the streets. Choosing one of these that leads to a cute shop with bright blue shutters, we climb the stairs to peek in the windows.

What results is a surprise and a joy. A middle aged couple is in the main room of the store, and the man booms a loud response to Thao’s question: are you open? Yes, yes with a sweeping gesture to welcome us into the warm shop. The interior is an absolute riot of color: fiery reds, eye popping yellows and deepest blues. The woman sits at a table in the corner, working on small ceramic disks while a small television set plays the Greek version of Dancing with the Stars. Within several minutes of wandering through this ceramic wonderland, the man asks us if we’ve ever seen a kiln. He invites us back into his workshop and spends a great deal of time explaining his pieces in different stages of the firing process. He answers our questions with patience and good humor, providing us with bits of history and information about the origins of the clay he uses.

He fascinates us both and we talk about everything from American geography to the color of his next pitcher. His name is Panagiotis, and his wife is Maria. There in his workshop surrounded by plastic buckets of glaze and with the sound of Frank Sinatra crooning in the background, he is the vision of a humble shop owner. I ask if I can take photographs and he obliges me, saying that if someone asks he will never say no. He wraps our purchases within an inch of their lives and sends us on our way with a smile. It is easily the highlight of our day.

Our evening tops our rainy day by a long shot and we find ourselves indulging in a kebab dinner for a mere €3.80. If I must be truthful the Spanish kebab is no competition for it’s Greek cousin, which arrives with spiced French fries and tzatziki. I would sell my soul for this yogurt sauce.

Because we are devout dessert eaters, our walk home accidentally detours past a brightly lit cafe advertising loukamades on their chalkboard easel. Once again we are charmed by the shopkeeper and he delivers our treat with a flourish. These are fried balls of dough that resemble profiteroles – cooked in oil and then dressed with whatever you like. We go whole hog and traditional adding honey, cinnamon and thick ice cream. The shopkeeper went so far as to hand us a laminated copy of an award they won for homemade gelato and then offers us a spoonful of nearly every flavor. Overwhelmed and high on sugar, we stumble home to dream of sunshine, ceramics and pastry.

The great heart of the world

Henry Miller – “At Epidavros, in the stillness, in the great peace that came over me, I heard the heart of the world beat. I know what the cure is: it is to give up, to relinquish, to surrender, so that our little hearts may beat in unison with the great heart of the world.”

I wake up with hair like the demon Medusa after a night of tossing and turning. Church bells enthusiastically chime the hour and I decide at this time of day they are not quite as charming. A shadow moving outside our window on the terrace is not a peeping tom but a middle aged man doing tai chi. I lose track of time watching his movements from behind the curtain. We grab breakfast on the move and buy a map of the Peloponnese Islands. After balancing our caffiene levels with gorgeous drinks at a cafe, we pick up our bags and head for Avis car rental.

The Avis office in Athens enjoys a scenic location across a main road from Hadrian’s Arch. We haggled here the day before for a suitable pick up time, and Thao selects a tiny silver Clio for our drive. As a lazy American, I haven’t driven a manual car in over a decade so I will assume the role of navigator and Thao will drive.

Maps in hand we make our way to Nafplio via Epidaurus. Leaving Athens is easier than expected and we are soon cruising west along E94. We speed through the industrial side of Athens and get our windshield cleaned against our wishes. Afterward the boy looks at us and Thao shakes her head and when she mouths the words No Money he simply shrugs and walks away. I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding and am both surprised and grateful for the non incident.

Exiting the major highway, the coastal road is long and windy, with few cars. Our fellow motorists zoom by at top speed and we cruise along past dozens of roadside shrines, screeching to a halt in front of the most spectacular. We are rewarded with stunning views along the water and into the mountains and stop several times for photos and fresh air. I hear sheeps bells clanging in the distance and very little else. Mother earth demands your attention in this place.

Epidaurus is dotted along the landscape with houses, churches and signs for the ancient theater. Pulling into the archeological site we devour our sandwiches and enter the site behind a vocal group of French students, scowling at them for their mere presence. We prepare ourselves for the trek up what we assume will be the typical set of innumerable stairs and after just a few steps, our eyes are filled with ancient stone. It is a sight to behold: a sandy circle with a small marble disk at the center, and hundreds of steps rising stadium style around the arena in a semi circle. People of every age eye the center circle and entertain ideas of performance: oration, theater, music, dance. A brief smile as I imagine an orchestra conductor and a full house – thoughts that echo from the Odeon of Heracles in Athens.

We climb to the top and perch on the cold marble watching people below experiment with the acoustics. A tour guide speaks quietly but her voice carries to us way at the top. I am shocked when she drops a coin onto the marble disc and it sounds like she is sitting beside me.

When requesting directions on to Nafplio three Greek men point in three different directions while I stand with our roadmap stretched between my hands. We motor on through increasingly serpentine roads and a town sprawled across the hills. We encounter the sheep and their shepherd, darting across the road. They head for greener pastures and so do we.

We arrive to Nafplio in drizzling rain, txirimiri as the Spanish say. Baby-faced sailors eat ice cream in pairs or threes and I wonder how old you have to be to join the navy in Greece.

The Palamidi Fortress towers in the distance and a beautiful small town stretches to all points in front of us. Blue shutters, hand-lettered greek signs and tiny shops call out from the small streets of the old town. Hotel Agamemnon at the end of the seafront promenade will be our home for two nights. Pocket doors to the terrace do not push or pull, but slide open along a track. My jaw drops as the doors slide and I find myself looking at the small castle (Bourtzi) on the water. We settle in for a siesta and a cruise ship rolls by on it’s way out to sea and I wonder if it has taken half of this small town with it.

We have dinner at souvasomething on the waterfront, recommended by our adorable hotelier. The shrimp saganaki is delicious, the house wine cheap. Fish roe salad too salty, but the eggplant salad is good. The ouzo is of course complimentary, and upon seeing our facial expressions (a not so subtle cringe) the waiter instructs us to add water to our glasses.

We walk home at 1:30am and an ice cream store is open. An Italian man and his Greek wife offer us myriad flavors of gelato in thei colorful shop. Thao holds my ice cream cone and hers, posing for a photo op. Then she leans over and says to me “I don’t know if you know this but the waffle cone is still warm.” There is no better way to win our favor, we love this town.

it’s all Greek to me

This past Thursday I embarked on an eight day trip to Greece with my dear friend Thao. It started with a long travel day which is never my preference but when the price is right, that’s what you have to do. Starting at 5:30am in Sevilla I went on to Barcelona, Rome and finally Athens. There was a moment of panic in Barcelona when I looked on the departure board for my connecting Alitalia flight and it was nowhere to be found. I had to haul it over to Terminal 2 which involved a five minute bus ride and several kilometers, so be advised if you’re flying into or out of El Prat! In Rome Fiomucino I was relieved to escape the cacophony of my flight full of Spanish teenagers on an excursion. While waiting for the third flight I listened to a young couple speak several languages to fellow passengers and eyed a serious looking man with a Yosemite Sam mustache.

Arriving in Athens I took the metro into the center, the car fit to bursting by the time we arrived at Syntagma Square. I made my way to Hotel Kimon where I met Thao and we immediately got down to business: where to eat? A local recommended one of his favorites: Oineas, down a tiny street, brightly decorated and bold. Nestled under a heat lamp we dined on a Cretan salad that was out of this world – creamy feta, fresh tomatoes and crunchy whole wheat croutons. Although disappointed with scrawny lamb ribs, we finished with a bang: phenomenal meille fieulle with white chocolate and fresh strawberries. We splurge on a bottle of ouzo and both decide it is far more bearable when watered down. The waiter gets a chuckle when we stop into the gelato shop next door for an additional dessert. Don’t judge!

Friday morning finds us rising to church bells in the distance. Under a cloudy sky we head toward caffiene and sustenance. At a nearby bakery called Bretons (?) we turn circles between display cases full of treats, finally settling on one savory & one sweet: spinach pie and apple pie. I have my first cappuccino freddo and almost die of heart palpatations brought on by the strength of the espresso. It is here I decide that the Greeks must be preparing their foods with habit forming drugs.

With a pep in our step we careen through touristy streets aiming for the Acropolis. We settle onto the stone in the Dionysos theater and let the sun warm our bones here in a structure that dates back to fifth century bc. The Odeion theatre is stunning in size, built by Tiberius Claudius Herodes Atticus in second century ad. In the summertime they still hold concerts here, and I hope to return one day for a performance.

Crossing into the Propylaia our thoughts of gods and goddesses are peppered with .. tourists. They clamber over the marble and stone like ants on an anthill and I wonder when respect for old things evaporated.

The crowds thin out at the Parthenon and the view is simply awesome. Stormy clouds provide a dramatic backdrop and motivate us up the steps under the threat of rain. A huge crane hangs over the Parthenon, operated by a man who looks like a toy in comparison, holding a giant remote control. Inside the Temple of Athena, a woman sits plugged into her ipod, paintbrush in hand, executing painstaking restoration work. Her punk haircut and Arian features stand out in stark contrast to the ancient surroundings and I watch her work for awhile, fascinated.

We break for lunch after a walk behind the site, and the neighborhood reminds us of the whitewashed Albaicin in Granada, Spain. Our taverna lunch is delicious, starring grilled vegetables and various dips.

The Acropolis museum is two years old at this point, and looks curious from the top of the Acropolis – what is that modern building of glass and metal? Explained – the museum was built to mimic the shape, size and layout of Parthenon so that when you view the excavated pieces, their original place is noted. This is not apparent until you watch the video on the third floor, or read the pamphlet from the desk. The museum is working on restoring the ladies from Athena’s temple and there is a live action video of their progress. The six Karyatides were removed in the 1970s and are being repaired and cleaned. Their smaller sisters are the korai, 75 of them were brought down from the Parthenon and now reside in the museum.

Athena is everywhere and so are her owls, symbols of wisdom. Greek mythology lessons are coming back to me with the descriptions of the pieces. I also finished Rick Riordan’s series “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” in March and his descriptions of the deities make me smile when I see their sculptures. Where is Poseidon’s Hawaiian shirt?

We have dinner at Thannaius dinner – our first attempt at soulvaki. I think I’m partial to it’s cousin the kebab, but damn the tzatzigi (sp) is to die for. Baklava to go from some other place close to the hotel and we compare the texture to that of the Americanized version before drifting off to sleep.

Saturday, on to Epidauros and Nafplion.

advanced countdown syndrome

I’ve talked before about the fact I am hooked on countdowns. Whether this is a result of my life as a Northeastern American or a traveler or a perpetual student or a planner – it’s just me. Now that I’ve crested into March, there are a lot of different countdowns in my head – as well as a long glance to the last few months and all the things that I’ve previously counted down to. I’ve enjoyed visits from five American friends (parents included!) and one couch surfer. I’ve traveled to four countries since my arrival (Portugal, Scotland, Italy, Netherlands) and have made countless weekend trips in Spain.

I’ve lived here for six months. Is there an invisible line that one crosses while living abroad? The divide where the most exciting things become the most lamented things and incredible feats of nature and architecture blend into the montage of daily life. When I traveled with Hillary in December, she was so taken by the orange trees and I remember thinking – well, yes. I scolded myself and tried to see those orange trees in the same way, because I can assure you they aren’t growing in Pennsylvania. When I traveled with Holly just a few weeks ago, we went to the monstrous cathedral in Jerez and I thought, “hmm, another one.” Yes, I’ve seen a few (ok, a hundred) – but they’re still pretty amazing. When do we pass from awe to nonchalance?

Here in Spain my friends and I have marched into the lamentation territory with full force. “I’m never going to get a coffee this cheap at home” or “I will never taste a tomato like this again” or “These three baguettes cost me 90 cents, this would never happen in the US.” Making comparisons like this is perilous, because in most cases there is always a winner and a loser. I try to stick to the mantra, it’s not better or worse just different. But try to get me to say that after I’ve devoured a kebab, and .. well.

Right now the main countdown concerns Greece, where I will go for one week in Semana Santa to meet a friend from home. Already our emails are flying back and forth with all sorts of hotels, foods and ideas. (If you’ve been there before, we welcome your recommendations!)

I am equally excited to go home. That’s right, I said it: home! I plan to travel briefly after the program ends, and hope to circle back to my dear state in mid June. What am I most excited about? This time its not peanut butter, because my friends have kept me well equipped in that department. I am ready for hot water on demand, the microwave, the dryer, the toaster oven, Panera, Barnes & Noble and White Orchid. Oh and my family and friends, of course :) I must note that high on this list is celebrating my new role as honorary auntie to several beautiful babies (Liana, I’m looking at you little one).

Yes, Spain is awesome. But you know what? There is nothing quite like home.