Final Impressions

There’s something about Greece that speaks to the very core of my being, calling me back every time I board a flight back home. There is always that uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, as if I’m abandoning a dear friend, or betraying a part of myself. As the plane leaves the ground, I silently promise that I will be back soon.

It is hard to imagine a world where cheerful sunlight isn’t everywhere you look, where every beach isn’t perfect, or where every sunset isn’t completely breathtaking. Greece is the land where Europe’s mountains dive into her bluest seas, where sandy seasides meander aimlessly, where East meets West, where ancient meets modern. You know that you are walking the streets of Aeschylus, Socrates, Pericles, and Thucydides, constantly encountering their theaters, temples, and marketplaces. You know that you are crossing the mountains where great armies fought, as they created the stories that poets would write about. You know that you are crossing a land that was occupied for centuries and passing the crevices where guerrilla fighters would lay in wait. With a history so rich and a culture so rooted, Greece yields an energy, power, and spirit that makes her magnetic and inescapable. Even today, with all her problems, she captivates all who reach her shores.

Practically speaking, there is so much to Greece that is easy to get used to and then difficult to imagine life without. Take the periptero, for example, Greece’s equivalent to the kiosk, welcoming you at every corner and offering anything and everything you might have forgotten at home. The periptera of Athens are like personal assistants that are only a step away no matter where you go. As you walk to work, you realize you’re in desperate need of a pack of gum. Here you go! Out of calling units on your sim card? Don’t worry! Need a quick sandwich? Got one ready for you! As you run to catch the train, you realize you’re all out of tickets. Here you go! Did you forget your newspaper for the train? Got you covered!

The longer you stay in Greece, the more you realize that what you thought was so inconvenient is actually really convenient. In the fall, the concept of planting trees in the middle of the sidewalks had seemed completely nonsensical, but when summer arrived, it became clear that these leafy trees provide Athens with the most perfect awning, continuously shading the city’s maze of sidewalks.

When I first arrived, social etiquette in Greece had seemed tainted with brashness and impropriety. I think the most glaring example of this is the way in which the Greeks pick up their cell phones in the middle of conversations, in the middle of office meetings, and in the middle of class. In the States, I have seen professors confiscate phones when a student is caught texting under his desk. In Greece, I have seen students engaging in full conservations on their phones in the middle of lectures. There is no stopping them. Once, I was standing behind a friend in church, silently waiting in line about to receive communion, when his mother spotted him from the balcony up above. She called him on his cell phone, which blared its ridiculous ringtone for all to hear, and instead of guiltily switching it off and whispering apologies to all in his vicinity, he answered it. Glaring at him from up above, she reminded him that he had not fasted properly and therefore could not receive communion. He agreed, got out of line, and waited for me off to the side. No one flinched.

Up until recently, I was appalled by Greek cellphone etiquette, but it has since dawned upon me that the Greeks play by different rules. It is incredibly insulting to ignore a person’s phone call. How can you just stiff a person who is trying to get in touch with you? What if it’s something urgent? In Greece, it is commonly understood that you cannot just silence the call. After all, they’re probably just going to call you again. At least pick up and tell them you’re busy. Of course, this understanding is sometimes abused. One time, for example, a student picked up his cell phone in class and everyone in his proximity listened to him apologize to his mother for forgetting to fill up the ice tray. But still, she could have been calling with an emergency.

When I first arrived in Greece, trahana, that paste-like dish made of cracked wheat, fermented milk, and feta, seemed like astronaut food. But now, as I come to the end of my year in Greece, I cannot imagine a world without it. Like so much of Greece, it offers an addicting combination of comforting and calming. There is no American counterpart for trahana. Perhaps it is similar to oatmeal, at least in appearance, but the overload of whole grains and protein has the unique ability to keep you fortified for hours on end.

It’s a dish that the Greek historian Apicius wrote about in the 1st century AD and a dish that kids across Greece still scarf down in the mornings before school. Though the local supermarket always sells packages of the dried fermented mixture, most Greeks obtain their yearly supply from the aunt or grandmother that makes it in the village. The combination of flour, whole grains, and milk is left outside on sheets to dry in the sun for several days before it is grated and sifted. Thus, “Aploneis trahana,” a common expression which roughly translates to “You’ve spread out the trahana,” is used to describe tedious activities. From Iran to Egypt to Bulgaria, you’ll find that the dish has morphed and evolved. Turkey’s trahana, for example, involves mixing yoghurt and vegetables into the flour.

Peinirli, on the other hand, seems to be a recipe unique to Greece with no counterpart anywhere else in the region. Peinirli consists of kasseri cheese, sometimes with the addition of manouri cheese, nestled into a hunk of dough that’s shaped like a canoe. You might find vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, or eggplant squeezed into there as well, and probably pastourma, a Greek cold cut similar to bacon and pastrami. Peinirli is quite similar to pizza, except that you will never find it with tomato sauce and you will always find that it resembles a cute little canoe. Boy, will I miss those little canoes.

But perhaps what I will miss most of all are the pites, those savory pastries wrapped in phyllo dough with a variety of different fillings. There is nothing like a warm fresh tyropita, oozing with its feta cheese inside, first thing in the morning. I can eat spanakopites, that delicious combination of spinach, feta, and scallions, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Aside from those staples, patatopites, pastries filled with potatoes, milk, and onion, are also common, as well as kotopites, which contain chicken. My personal favorite would probably be kolokithopites, which are filled with either zucchini or squash. But then, of course, there are the rare and coveted ones that sell out immediately, like galaktopites, which are filled with a sweet custard made from sugar, eggs, milk, and semolina. And lastly, there is a whole array of odd ones like macaronopites, which are filled with pasta, or kreatopites, which contain a mixture of minced meats.

And then there’s the gyro. It’s hard to imagine life without the gyro. Vendors across America try to duplicate the perfection of the Greek gyro, but somehow always fall short. In the States, vendors usually feel the need to exaggerate the Greekness of the gyro, making it with sliced roast lamb and tzatiki, that cucumber-yoghurt condiment so typical of Greek food. In Greece, however, gyro vendors usually offer a choice of chicken or pork, either of which they will shave fresh off the rotating spit that’s actually known as the gyro, a term which comes from the Greek expression for “round and around.” Then, they will fill the pita with tomatoes, lettuce, and a handful of french fries, along with the meat shavings. But most importantly, they will ask you if you’d like “sos,” that heavenly combination of mustard and mayonnaise, pumped all over the steaming hot commodity that they’re handing you over the counter.

I will miss the way that the gyro joints of Athens stay open until 7:00 AM. Whereas most components of American nightlife– the bars, clubs, and late-night food joints– close around 2:00 AM, Athens never sleeps. The first customers salivating over the tyropites and bougatses coming straight out of the oven are the kids returning from the café-clubs; the first customers at those very same cafés are the bakers. Almost all cafés stay open from noon until sunrise, morphing from coffee places, into bars, and finally into nightclubs as the lights grow progressively dimmer.

One of the well-kept secrets of the city is that you can find the best Chinese food you’ve ever tasted within the city’s red light district. For whatever reason, Athens is known to be a city where ethnic food restaurants just flop. The Greeks are proud of their cuisine, mildly xenophobic, and currently experiencing economic conditions that do not allow for dining out. As a result, restaurants other than traditional tavernas are few and far between, and if you do happen to find an ethnic restaurant, you’ll be disappointed by the sub-par food and outrageous prices. But in Metaxourgeio, an area notorious for its brothels, you will find a variety of Chinese restaurants with exceptional food and astonishingly low prices. If you go in the middle of the day, you will feel silly for having brought along your pepper spray, as nothing will be open except for these restaurants.

In Greece, there is a unusual air of authenticity to ethnic diversity. In Metaxourgeio, the waitresses resort to broken English, as they do not speak a word of Greek. Every TV you’ll pass will be blaring some Chinese soap opera, and every convenience store will be overflowing with Chinese products. But while Greece is a fascinating crossroads between civilizations, it is not a melting pot. It does not have America’s unique ability to accept all races, but is instead becoming increasingly intolerant of immigrants. Yet consequently, this resistance to homogenization creates pockets of people that hold tight to their cultural heritage and stick together. In the neighborhood of Panormou, for example, you find giggling Filipino kids playing hide-n-seek in the bushes, Filipino mothers gossiping on the benches in Tagalog, and Filipino grandmothers feeding the pigeons together.

There is so much to Athens that doesn’t meet the eye. The Art Foundation, more commonly known as TAF, is a garden café situated in the chaotic downtown area. Within the labyrinth of the Monastiraki flea market, halfway down a winding alley, you’ll find that the crowds of vendors part so as to leave access to a wooden door falling off its hinges. You will hesitate to pull it open, worrying that a few homeless men might be camping out in there. But when you do eventually walk in, you will be astounded by the scene of picnic tables amongst the orange and lemon trees, while waiters scurry around with overloaded trays. The first two floors of the tall buildings enclosing the courtyard feature alternative art exhibitions, with bizarre names like “H2O: 7 drops are enough,” “The Tattoo Project,” and “Little Gardens of Happiness.” Nestled in one of Athens’s most historic areas, this innovative, non-traditional (and, of course, delicious) café is juxtaposed strangely with monuments like the library of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and the area’s little monastery.

Side note. Greece isn’t just about eating, as my blogs often make it seem. Athens offers an impressive spectrum of cultural and entertainment options. Have you heard of the Numismatic Museum? It’s one of the city’s lesser known museums, usually overshadowed by giants like the Archaeological Museum, the Acropolis Museum, and the two Benaki Museums. The Numismatic Museum is an incredible collection of coins across the ages protected so fittingly in the neoclassical mansion of Heinrich Schliemann, a man who devoted his life to validating and preserving ancient Greek history. Located in the heart of the city, in the bustling area of Syntagma, the mansion features one of the city’s most elegant cafés in its unexpectedly peaceful backyard.

In fact, the chaotic city of Athens has a surprising number of peaceful areas. For example, there are literally hundreds of charming churches all around the city. Each neighborhood has a major cathedral, but each neighborhood also has dozens of little churches down side streets, in the smaller squares, and behind the parks. Every church is so well-kept and endearing that it renders a calming effect on the tavernas and stores in its direct vicinity. As I traversed Athens, it was difficult to resist poking my head into each and every one of these beautiful churches. During the week, it is enchanting to light a candle in a silent church with the soft smell of incense. On the weekends however, it is complete mayhem. People stand outside the entrance to listen to the service, as there is no room to stand in the aisles, let alone the pews.

I will miss how the Greeks automatically do their cross every time they pass a church. As I rode the bus to work every morning, I would watch the greater portion of the passengers cross themselves as we’d pass a church– not just the pious old ladies, but the toddlers holding their mothers’ hands and the boys with their headphones plugged into their ears. I will miss the little old ladies in black, who carry more bags home from the supermarkets than would fit in a shopping cart. I will miss the old men that sit in the kafeneia, playing backgammon and cards. I will miss the little kids playing soccer at the field where I’d go for my runs. They would have been able to beat my varsity soccer team, even though their foreheads would barely be up to our waists.

And I will miss the seasonal stores that are so common in Athens. They make me smile. One minute they have beach chairs and umbrellas on their sidewalks, the next, they have tinsel and lights draped along their storefront windows. Aside from carrying all the usual holiday paraphernalia, they also reflect interesting Greek traditions, selling flower wreaths for May Day and hilarious costumes for Apokries, the Greek version of Mardis Gras. In the interlude between Christmas and summer, these stores usually decide to become nurseries, overflowing with potted flower plants and baby trees.

But what I will miss most of all are the city’s incredible vantage points. Of course, there is the famous Galaxy Bar on the top of the Hilton Hotel which offers one of the most picturesque views of the downtown area. There’s the Lykavittos, where tourists flock to see the sun setting over the city. But then there are also so many less cliché viewing points, like Philopappos Hill, where you can stand goggling for hours at the Acropolis hovering on its precipice directly across from you. You can sit in the shade at Kaisariani Monastery, looking out over the forestland and feeling like you’re hours outside of Athens, when you’re actually only five minutes away. You can walk along the continuous harbors of Piraeus, inspecting the yachts and gazing out at the endless blue sea. Or climb Mt Hymettus behind Aghia Paraskevi to watch the sprawling city below, from Piraeus to the airport. Better yet, take the tram down to the shore, just to Alimos or Glyfada, and walk along the endless coastline of beaches. Yes, what I will miss most about Greece are the spectacular sites to be seen– the amazing views that you’d think only exist as photoshopped images.

As the crisis unfolds, all the world is looking at Greece’s dirty laundry. She has lost much of her magic and allure. She is wrinkled with stories of corruption and tax evasion, and frail in the face of anti-immigration sentiment, pollution, and endless graffiti. She is thin from the strain of political immobility and constant protesting, and bent over under the weight of her broken healthcare and public education systems. But she is still beautiful. Her mountains, her sea, and her beaches will forever overwhelm all who look her way. She has a history and a culture so rich and rooted that they could never fade. Her cuisine, and of course her produce, will never cease to amaze. She is bathed in a breathtaking, otherworldly sunlight and, despite it all, she remains radiant and exquisite.

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Filed under Melanie Graf, Student Blogs

Springtime and Easter in Greece

Athens in the springtime is the city at its best. Before the oppressive summer heat sets in, the sun makes a dramatic return, bathing the country in that blinding picture-perfect light. During the winter, you feel that the earth has hit a glitch in the track circuit and is frozen in its orbit. Time seems to stand still as Athens frosts over. But now, with the onset of spring, someone has hit the fast-forward button. Bare branches transform into flowering bushy enormities in a mere matter of days. Exquisite wildflowers have set up campsites everywhere I look. I put an onion in a bowl of dirt, watered it, and returned two days later wondering who had replaced my onion with this beautiful bouquet of scallions.

The neighborhood farmers’ markets have also experienced startling transformations. Gone are the grim winter melons, the beets, cauliflowers, and cabbages. The stalls now overflow with strawberries and other cheerful fruits like figs and apricots. The vendors slice open watermelons and honeydews, using the bright pinks and juicy greens as advertisement. Tomatoes make their grand debut and the horiatiki salata, the traditional tomato-cucumber salad, is restored to all its glory.

With the return of the tomato, Greek cuisine sheds the confines of winter recipes and bursts into full bloom. Fresh produce elbows the jarred, artificially-sweetened varieties off the stage. As the summer vegetables reclaim their territory, meat and potatoes (a combination which has temporary ascendancy over the entirety of Europe) are forced out of Greece. Boiled greens, batter-fried zucchini, green bean and tomato casseroles, sweet peppers stuffed with spicy cheeses, are among the many timeless classics that return to the scene. Year-round dishes like moussaka, that famous eggplant, potato, and minced meat combination, and spanakopita, aka spinach pie, experience substantial upgrades with the arrival of fresh produce. The slimy cabbage coatings that are used to hold meat and rice, are replaced by hollowed-out tomatoes and peppers. And then there are some summer dishes that the winter months wouldn’t dare try to reproduce, like briam, a dish comprised of roasted and seasoned summer vegetables.

As warmer weather sets in, taverna doors swing open and tables spill out onto the sidewalks and into the streets. Eateries remain open much later, as customers bask in the warm air. With the arrival of springtime, typical after-dinner sweets, like preserved fruits and nuts, are replaced by fresh watermelon. As the evening progresses and waiters fold up the outdoor tables, the volta, the Greek tradition of following dinner with a peaceful stroll around the neighborhood, comes to dominate the streets. With the onslaught of summer, customers will begin opting for inside seating and air-conditioned car rides, but right now, in the spring, mild temperatures beckon any and all to come outside.

It is perfect beach weather. The breezes have not yet receded and the sun is not yet blistering. Spring in Greece allows for suntanning without painful burns and pleasant seashore walks without perspiration. Preceding the wave of tourists, the beaches of Athens are clean and empty. In July and August, you will lose the ability to lay out your towel on the sand and will most likely find far too many unidentifiable objects floating in the water. The spring is also the ideal time to hike Greece’s mountain trails. While there are myriad hiking opportunities in the countryside, Athens offers spectacular trails around the Lykavittos, Philopappos Hill, and Mt. Hymettus in the northeast suburbs, along with walking paths in parks like Zappeion Park, the National Gardens, and Veikou Park.

The parks of Athens come alive on May 1st, a public holiday known as May Day or International Workers Day. Though the holiday was labeled and popularized by the Soviet Union (and thus often serves as an excuse for labor unions to protest), it has its roots in the ancient “Festival of the Flowers,” a pagan holiday associated with Persephone’s return from the underworld to her mother Demeter and the consequent arrival of spring. Across Athens, families set out sheets and picnic in the parks. Kids pick at the Tupperware containers filled with homemade goodies, while the adults laugh over a bottle of wine. The parks are inundated with kids throwing pine cones, kicking soccer balls, and playing monkey-in-the-middle. Teenagers set off fire crackers, while the younger children plug their ears and scream with a mix of fright and delight. The parents sit in the shade oblivious to it all, playing tavli (backgammon) and sipping their coffees. Vendors set up stalls with traditional ice cream or different varieties of nuts, while farmers park their pickup trucks to sell peaches, strawberries, and oranges on the side of the road.

Enveloped by wildflowers, the parks are quilted in patches of yellows and reds and speckled with elegant pinks, and purples, like a drawing in a Dr. Seuss book. Every now and again you’ll see people emerging from the bushes with bundles of flowers, which they will sit with in the shade and meld into the traditional wreaths. The wreaths are much more complicated than they look, involving lots of twisting, turning, and threading so that they maintain their shapes. People often intertwine the flowers with colorful ribbons, taking care to allow the flower heads to peek out in between the branches. When they return home from the parks, they tie these wreaths to their balconies, hang them on their doors, and leave them at the local church as offerings for a promising new beginning.

Springtime has been regarded as a time of new beginnings throughout human history, with the ancient Minoans’ celebration of New Year’s in the spring for example and, of course, the Christian world’s celebration of Easter. Easter in Greece lacks the commercialism of American Easter, devoid of Easter bunnies, chocolate eggs, and marshmallow peeps, and is instead much more religious. The last leg of the journey towards Easter begins with Palm Sunday, a day which is commemorated in Greece with daphne and bay leaves instead of the palm crosses you receive in Orthodox churches in the States.

As a country that is almost homogeneously Orthodox, Greece makes Holy Week, the week preceding Easter, a truly sacred week. Traditionally, the Orthodox prepare for Easter first with the 40-day Lenten fast, followed by the seven-day fast of Holy Week. During this last week, the meat options on the menus of almost all eateries across Athens are replaced by vegetarian options, most of which have vegan alternatives as well. Everest, one of Greece’s largest food chains, sells different kinds of veggie burgers and seafood burgers instead of the usual meat varieties. Most souvlaki places do the same thing, offering skewered mushrooms instead of skewered meat, and vegetable gyros instead of the usual shaved meat in the pita. And whatever you order, whether it be a spanakopita or a sandwich, the cashier will ask you if you would prefer the dairy-free option.

Almost everything is closed on Holy Thursday, and the entire country shuts down on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, recognizing the two days to be days of mourning. At my church in the States, like most other Orthodox churches in the States, the Good Friday evening service commemorates Jesus’s death with a solemn walk around the outside of the church. Parishioners hold candles, while the altar boys carry the Epitaphion, a term which actually refers to the cloth depicting a lifeless Jesus but is more commonly used to refer to the wooden structure resembling His tomb in which the cloth rests. The parishioners follow the Epitaphion around the church, softly singing hymns, and then pass under the Epitaphion to return to the church.

But in the remote mountain village of Sariada, the tiny town outside of Agrinio where I spent my Easter, the evening played out entirely differently. Parishioners left the church to process with the Epitaphion to the local cemetery where they spent some time mourning at the graves of lost loved ones. I walked with my friend and his sobbing family from the church down to the graves, where we left our flowers at the gravestone of a 17-year-old cousin who had died in a motorcycle accident over the summer. We covered her grave with our flowers from Christ’s Epitaphion and stood their silently, reliving the tragedy of the summer. The Epitaphion procession was heartrending, with the harrowing twist of each villager’s personal pain. A few of us followed the Epitaphion back to the church to finish the service, but most remained at the cemetery late into the night before finally returning home.

The Saturday evening service, on the other hand, was much more similar to the service I have grown up with. People arrive early to stake out seats; there is a long, painful wait for the “Christos Anesti!” (a hymn with a title that translates to mean “Christ is risen!”) and then people rush out, eager to begin the Easter celebrations. The few that stick around after the initial round of Christos Anesti hymns are the ones that are waiting to receive communion– the ones that are salivating for the tsoureki, or traditional sweet bread, and the magiritsa, or the lamb stew, awaiting them in the social hall. Rather than bolting to the social hall, we bolted to the village kafeneio, or coffee shop, where two lambs were spinning on the spit. People were swarming the barbeque within seconds, carving out huge hunks to take back to their houses. We went from house to house sampling what each family had produced. At the first house, we sat down for a bowl of magiritsa, a much more potent brew than I am used to, as I suspect that a much larger variety of the lamb innards were incorporated into the stew than I am comfortable with. Then, we moved on to homemade tsoureki, plenty of homemade wine and tsipouro, and a variety of different sweets. As the food coma set in, we fell asleep clutching our bellies.

We awoke in the morning for our second feeding and reconvened at the kafeneio. There, we were greeted with a strange assortment of local dishes like galaktopita, a pie involving a filling of milk and eggs, macaronopita, spaghetti wrapped in phyllo, and piperopita, a phyllo pie made with colorful peppers. Of course, there were two more lambs on the spit and virtually a loaf of tsoureki per person. My highlight of the meal was tigano psomo, a bread fried with various cheeses. The desserts were also odd amalgamations of things, like a thin cheesecake enveloped in sweet jam, chocolate puddings, and a lemon flavored cake made with pieces of oreo cookies. I am still not sure whether the dishes of the day were very traditional or very experimental.

Everywhere we went, people offered us red hard-boiled eggs to crack, a symbolic gesture that reminds us of how life can emerge from what is seemingly lifeless. While one person holds his egg out, with its tip facing up, the other crashes his into it, announcing “Christos Anesti!” Then, both participants turn their eggs over, and the second person crashes his egg into the first’s, responding with “Alithos Anesti!” or “Truly he is risen!” The egg that breaks is eaten, while the one that survives moves on to challenge other contestants. The game sometimes becomes very competitive, with participants half-jokingly accusing other participants of using fraudulent eggs. While in the States you can find eggs of all colors, complete with stenciled designs and stickers, in Greece, all the eggs are dyed red, symbolizing the blood and sacrifice of Christ.

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Just as the egg breaking reminds us that there is always hope for new life, Easter marks the end of a period of dormancy. Over the Lenten fast, the faithful are forbidden from having weddings, baptisms, and other church celebrations, but once Easter arrives, families delightedly rush to plan their special events. The first week after Easter is known as Bright Week and is a week in which the faithful do not fast, but instead appreciate life and enjoy food shamelessly. We are reminded of the religious belief that Jesus died to save us from our sins and resurrected to give us a second chance.

In fact, the theme of spring is new beginnings- both spiritually and literally. Athens has had a stunning makeover and is now blossoming overwhelmingly with flowers and foliage. Almost unrecognizable from its cold winter state, the city seems to be alive with this fresh start. Let us hope that this bodes well for the upcoming elections this weekend.


Filed under Melanie Graf, Student Blogs, Uncategorized

Impressions of Cyprus

Cyprus is Greece on steroids. Like Greece, the island is at the crossroads of East and West, but this intersection is much more acute. The bitterness and sadness still hover in the air above the diverging cultures, threatening to disrupt the delicate balance. Beginning at the eastern end of the island, you will find anything and everything that reminds you of Greece: white-washed churches, sweeping beaches with over-priced beach chairs, octopus hanging from the roof rafters, and monasteries with 14th-century frescos. But as you approach the border of the island’s Turkish side, the Greek signs with their Turkish translations in small font become Turkish signs with translated Greek underneath. You see a gradual increase in dishes involving yoghurt or pistachios or cumin, among other characterizing features of Turkish cuisine. Tzatziki, the traditional Greek yoghurt dip, becomes cacik, its much more watery, much more seasoned counterpart.

Before entering the Turkish part of the island, I had assumed that the “occupied region” was an over-dramatic way of referring to it. But that’s exactly what it is. You’ll find Greek Orthodox churches boarded up, stores and restaurants with Greek signage abandoned and left to rot. The controversy is still so real and raw. There are entire residential areas surrounded by barbed wire, with signs that read “FORBIDDEN ZONE” and “NO TRESPASSING!” nailed to the walls. There are beautiful beaches lined with abandoned luxury hotels from the 70’s that stand looking out to sea with haunted eyes.

Famagusta is a Turkish city close to the border. From afar, the crumbling skeletons of 15th-century Venetian cathedrals in the Old Town seem to mock the city’s modest skyline, cruelly reminding it of its glorious past. But as you meander the endless maze of ramshackle shops, eateries, and stalls, you begin to see what these beautiful cathedrals have been reduced to. Their soaring walls have been spray painted with obscenities and their boarded-up insides are rotting away. Their only inhabitants are shattered beer bottles and empty soda cans.

Scoffing arrogantly at its rich legacy, Famagusta seems like modernity at its worst. Formerly the richest city in the world, it is now comprised of run-down restaurants, deserted houses, and dusty shops. Pirated DVDs, fake handbags, and knock-off jewelry abound. You cannot escape the billboards and mural advertisements. Any tourist attraction worth seeing, like the legendary tower that Shakespeare’s Othello would climb to look out to sea, has fallen into disrepair and has thus been closed to the public. The entrance to the Cathedral of St. George is blocked by an inoperative bus missing most of its windows and tires.

But cross the border to the Greek side and you are in a different world (granted I didn’t see the entirety of northern Cyprus). While the Turkish part of the island was chaotic, lacking street signs, traffic signals, and lines on the pavement for the most part, the Greek side offered orderly traffic patterns, in addition to new roads with clear signage and an emphasis on traffic safety (ie: “ATTENTION! Drive on the left!”). In the Greek side, you will find an abundance of three-story houses with well-tended gardens. Cyprus seems to be an exaggerated, enhanced, more intense, and more alive version of Greece. While Greece has spent the past four years in a crisis-induced coma, Cyprus has proven immune to the ailments of the global economy. With a per capita income well above the EU average, the Cypriot economy has diversified and flourished. As Cyprus’s tourism, financial services, and shipping sectors take off, there is a noticeable surge in the flow of economic migrants from Greece to Cyprus.

The people are more upbeat and cheerful, without a decade of austerity measures hanging over their heads. They reminded me a little of the Greek-American version of Greece that I had grown up in– classy and dignified, while still lighthearted. While the Athenians often grow irritated with me and my grammatically-horrific Greek, the Cypriots were eager to converse. Their dialect was sometimes difficult to understand, but they were more than happy to repeat themselves again and again. In Athens, when I explain that I have come from New York to learn Greek and work at a few different institutions, I am often regarded as if I have suddenly sprouted multiple heads (who in their right minds would choose to live in Greece during an economic crisis?). But in Cyprus, the people were thrilled to hear that I am attempting to reconnect with my Greek roots and were so eager to ask questions.

The cuisine in Cyprus is almost identical to that of Greece, but here and there you will find some interesting twists. For example, dried coriander and wine act as a marinade for most meats, giving this food group a uniquely Cypriot taste. Though the Cypriot cheese known as halloumi would never dare to replace feta, it will often substitute for the Greek staple in dishes like salads and phyllo pies. Ingredients such as carob, the edible legume component of the carob tree, intermingle with traditional Greek dishes to create strange new flavors. There are also a variety of Cypriot delicacies, like lountza, smoked pork loin, and sheftalia, which is minced meat in sausage form.

But perhaps the most noticeable difference between the Greek and the Cypriot culinary scene is Cyprus’s warm embrace of multiculturalism and diversity. In Athens, due most probably to the city’s escalating illegal immigration and its subsequent xenophobia, ethnic eateries are few and far between. But in Cyprus, the ethnic restaurants quantifiably match the traditional Greek. There are Mexican restaurants, complete with waiters in cowboy hats and cactus centerpieces on each table. There are Japanese steakhouses, sushi bars, noodle bars, and Chinese buffets, in addition to Irish pubs, French crêperies, Indian delicatessens, and Italian pizzerias.

Even so, the staple dishes of Cypriot cuisine are unarguably Greek. There is an abundance of cucumber-tomato salads, oil-based dishes involving eggplant, beans, peas, chickpeas, and lentils, and simple souvlaki dishes, involving grilled chicken or pork. Spanakopites (spinach pies), tiropites (cheese pies), bougatses (cream-filled pies), and baklava are still everywhere to be found. But Cypriot cuisine is an enhanced version of Greek cuisine in that there are so many underlying surprises.

While souzoukakia in Greece denotes spicy sausage-shaped meatballs, souzoukakia in Cyprus signifies the sausage-shaped desserts that can be found throughout the Caucasus, but are referred to in those regions as churchkhela. These candies involve stringing almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, and raisins together, dipping the string into flour-thickened grape juice or fruit juice, and then hanging the dessert out to harden and dry. Similarly, the influence of the Middle East can be seen in Cypriot dishes like koubes, fried balls of rice and chopped meat, which resemble the Arab kibbeh. While the loukoumi, the jelly-like dessert more commonly known as the Turkish delight, can be found throughout most of Greece, it is ubiquitous in Cyprus.

Cyprus squeezes the entirety of the Greek landscape into a much smaller geographical area. As an over-sized island, it merges the feel of an island with the feel of the mainland. Its shores incorporate Greece’s soft sand, with her rocky shores, her jagged cliffsides, and her sea caves, one right after the other. Cyprus’s inland region features the Troodos mountain range, including steep roads with hairpin turns, hidden monasteries, and an assortment of picturesque little villages. The island comprises several major cities, including Larnaca, Limassol, and Nicosia. It encompasses both industrial factories and herds of goats, state of the art highways and tiny dirt roads, fields of wild flowers and teems of well-preserved ancient mosaics.

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It was with a heavy heart that I stepped my nicely tanned legs into my jeans and pulled on my boots. I boarded the plane at Cyprus’s international airport wishing I could have stayed in Cyprus forever. But when I returned to Athens, I stepped off the plane to find a transformed city. In my absence, spring had shyly made its way onto the stage. The skies are now clear and the sunlight is overwhelmingly bright. The grass has lost its brownish tinge and is shooting up in a light and cheerful shade of green. Endearing little yellow flowers poke out their heads, and the birds have returned to turn the volume up to full blast. The trees are blossoming with white and pink, tenderly ushering in the Easter weekend. In the face of crushing austerity, Greece needs a sweet spring this year more than ever before. Let’s hope that Easter brings in renewed hope and the fresh breeze of optimism.


Filed under Melanie Graf, Student Blogs

Interning at DEREE’s Study Abroad Office…

As a Hellenic Legacy Fellow in Athens for the year, I have come to see and experience more of Greece than I could have imagined. I’ve used my blog to express my impressions regarding Greek culture and traditions, and to articulate my thoughts on the country’s current situation. Fascinated by the crisis and the domestic efforts to restore the country’s credibility, I have also written about my involvement with RepowerGreece and my internship with Foresight; however, I have neglected to write about my work at DEREE, the American College of Greece.

As an intern in the study abroad (SA) office for the past two semesters, I have organized a variety of events and excursions for the international and SA students. Having been a SA student myself two years ago, I now provide the office staff with a different perspective on life as a SA student. Together, we have planned a variety of new events this year, including the Scavenger Hunt across Athens, the Craft Brewery Tour and Beer Tasting, a couple of BBQs and movie screenings, as well as a Christmas Extravaganza, which involved a day of decorating the residence hall, followed by a day of cooking and a pot luck dinner. At the same time, I have helped arrange and run a variety of other events, like the Greek cooking classes and dance classes, and excursions to Nafplion, Delphi, Arachova, and Aegina.

These events are set up for SA students– the students spending a semester at DEREE– but are almost always open to the four-year Greek and International students as well. The SA office also runs the Philoxenia Program, a program that pairs SA students with four-year students in an effort to facilitate the full-immersion experience. For example, the office is now organizing an event called “Spend a Night with Your Philoxenia Buddy!” Though the enticing title is somewhat misleading, we are arranging to have SA students stay with Greek families for a night in the hopes of giving them new insight on the Greek way of life.

Rather than continue to bore you with my babbling, I figure the most effective way to portray what my internship with the study abroad office has entailed thus far would be via this slideshow of highlights from our events and excursions, along with links to a few videos produced by the study abroad office and students.

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Apokries Traditions: The Age-Old Festivities Before Lent

Spending the year as a fly on the wall in Athens, I conclude time and time again that the difference between American and Greek cultural behavior is vast. Americans love tailgating, amusement parks, parades, and cross-country road trips. We grow up writing letters to the tooth fairy and making cookies for Santa, while Greek kids are sipping wine at the dinner table with their parents. In college, we teach each other a broad spectrum of drinking games and plan elaborate theme parties, like 60’s nights, disco nights, and Latin dances. We look for any excuse to dress up in costume, whether that means painting our faces for football games or organizing a classy wine and cheese party. Walk into any bar or nightclub in Athens, and you can pick out the Americans instantly: they’re the group dancing the macarena to the Greek tsifteteli, or belly dancing beat. While the Greeks sit and casually bob their heads as they sip their drinks, the Americans will hoot and holler, trying to convince one another to get up and dance on the table top.

But this weekend, the Greeks proved all of my conclusions to be completely off the mark. Apokries, the three weeks of celebration in Greece prior to the onset of Great Lent (Sarakosti), a period similar to Mardis Gras, culminates in a weekend of drinking, carousing, and hilarious costumes. The Carnival in Patras is the focal point of the weekend, hosting the country’s largest festival, with hordes of people gathering from near and far to celebrate. Rethymnon in Crete and Xanthi in the north are also known for their elaborate Apokries festivals. In Athens, the weekend is much less organized. There is no city-wide fiesta and no parade, but a large portion of the city will still don their glad rags.

With children dressing up for school and refusing to take their costumes off afterward, you will find the city filled with miniature princesses and superheroes. Disparate night venues host their own Apokries events and find themselves teeming with Elvis and Marilyn Monroe look-a-likes. The celebration is similar to Halloween, but lacks the element of creepiness. No one will be wearing maggot-ridden fake teeth, nor axes protruding from their foreheads. There are no vampire fangs, gaping bloody wounds, or stitched-up gashes. Instead, you’ll find an overabundance of fairy wings, colorful wigs, and bushy pasted-on facial hair. As the young and the old dress up in costume, a fresh breath of humor and good cheer makes its way across the economically devastated city.

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Athens needs this celebration more than ever before. Laughter and fun reign once again, albeit temporaraliy. The weekend is complete with silly string, crazy foam, confetti, and blow horns. The streets, restaurants, and town squares are decorated with lights, streamers, and large colorful displays of carnival figures. Although the festival has its roots in the ancient worship of Dionysus, the god of wine, this week technically ushers in the fasting period, marking the traditional end of meat and dairy consumption for the next 40 days, 47 with holy week. The final day of Apokries also marks the last day that church weddings may take place until after Easter; however, tradition has it that the final day is an unlucky day for a wedding.

In the villages and smaller cities, there are many Apokries traditions that are actually very similar to Halloween. For starters, it is the time of year for friendly pranks. In fact, there is a custom quite similar to trick-or-treating, in that cakes and traditional treats are offered to the masquerading children that ring your doorbells. The adults in costume accompanying the kids are presented with shots of local tsipouro or raki.

Tsiknopempti is the date that marks the beginning of the festivities. The second week of Apokries, Kreatini or “Meatfare Week,” is traditionally the last week during which the faithful can enjoy meat. While pempti means Thursday, the term tsikna refers to the smells of smoke and burning fat that fill the air, as the people cook their meat and indulge. In Athens, the fully inundated tavernas do their best business of the year. Decorated with colorful streamers, lanterns, and balloons, most eateries will feature live music performances. Tsiknopempti also marks the beginning of the costumes, with most customers transitioning into the festivities gingerly by donning bunny ears or feather boas.

The next notable dates within the three-week period are the Saturday of Souls, two of the several Soul Saturdays mapped out within the Eastern Orthodox liturgical calendar. Given that it was on a Saturday that Christ lay dead in the tomb, these Saturdays are traditionally set aside for honoring the dead. Scholars believe this observance (like Apokries as a whole) to have its roots in pagan ritual, as evidence shows that the ancient Greeks would celebrate their deceased loved ones’ ascension into the “upper world” around March 1st. These festivities connected the soul’s ascension with the arrival of springtime and the celebration of “new life,” as trees, vineyards, and flowers began to bud.

With parishioners giving their priests lists containing the names of their departed relatives to read during the church service, the two Soul Saturdays (the second and third Saturdays of Apokries to be exact) commemorate those who have passed away. Last Saturday, a friend’s aunt returned from church to report that the priest had read off names like “Tomatoes,” “Lettuce,” and “Milk,” as an older woman had accidentally slipped him her grocery list. People prepare koliva, boiled wheat with dried fruits, spices, and nuts, especially almonds, to bring to church and divide among the congregation afterward in memory of their loved ones. This dish is a tradition that scholars also believe can be traced back to ancient ritual.

The period’s last Saturday of Souls falls during Tyrini, or “Cheesefare Week,” also the final week of Apokries. According to Orthodox custom, the faithful begin abstaining from meat during Cheesefare Week, but are free to enjoy all the dairy products they’d like. This week is also referred to as “White Week,” as many dairy delicacies will make their brief appearances on the culinary scene. Probably because of this misleading term, village superstition maintains that women should avoid washing their hair during this week, so as to keep it from turning white.

Although the liturgical week begins on Sunday, the fast does not begin until Kathara Deftera or Clean Monday because Sunday is a feast day, given that it was the day that Christ rose from the dead, as well as the day on which you celebrate the Divine Liturgy. The last Sunday of Cheesefare week is called Tyrofagis and families gather to make merry and overindulge. This is the day that Patras, Rethymon, and Xanthi host their parades and the day that the festivals reach their pinnacles. This is the high-water mark of Apokries.

There are many folk songs containing the theme of bidding farewell to cheese and welcoming in the onion and leek, and a number of folk traditions to go with them. In the villages of the Peloponnese, the family sits down to enjoy the first course only after raising the table with their hands three times. The main course will consist simply of macaroni sprinkled with lots of cheese and, over the course of the evening, the young people who have yet to marry are supposed to “steal” a piece of macaroni and sleep with it under their pillows. In doing so, they will dream of the person they are to marry.

On the island of Karpathos, the entire town is traditionally invited to the home of the mayor, where guests will be offered an impressive buffet of local seafood and dairy specialties. Special sweets made with traditional mizithra cheese will also be served, as well as rice pudding and sitaka, a local alcohol spiced with butter and honey. The Vlach communities that reside in the mountains of central Greece make traditional galatopites, or milk pies, along with cheese pies, and pies filled with trahana, a homemade meal of wheat flour or cracked wheat wrapped in phyllo leaves.

In the region of Arcadia, in the mountain towns surrounding the city of Tripoli, villagers eat tyrozoumi, a stew of wild greens heavily garnished with chunks of mizithra cheese. On the islands of Kea and Milos, legend has it that the leftovers from Sunday’s feast must be left on the table until the following morning, just in case “the ghost of the house” gets hungry during the night.

In Athens, I attended a friend’s evening get-together at which most of the guests had roots near Agrinio, on the western coast of the country. After everyone had eaten, our hostess came out with a carton of hard boiled eggs and a roll of string. She tied the string around an egg and left enough extra string, so that the egg could dangle about two feet. Then, she proceeded to go around to each guest, swinging the egg into his face as he attempted to grab hold of it with his teeth. It is quite a difficult undertaking, involving coordination and timing that I lack. Once a guest manages to sink his teeth into the egg, you switch the string to a new egg and continue the endeavor. It is hilarious to watch. Often the egg will miss its mark, instead bouncing off the person’s forehead or hitting him in the chin. Everyone heckles both the thrower and the receiver, hoping for failure as they impatiently wait their turn. Like a pit bull, the receiver viciously snaps his chompers at the oncoming egg, as all the onlookers try and capture an action shot with their camera.

On Monday morning, Kathara Deftera, Apokries officially ends and the fasting begins. The day is a public holiday in Greece and almost everything stays closed. Families hold koulouma, making excursions to the countryside or the beach shores, or at least the closest park, to enjoy a Lenten picnic. While most of Athens will not abstain from meat and dairy over the course of Lent, the city does recognize the significance of this Monday. Though supermarkets do not open on Sundays and will stay closed for Clean Monday, most will offer drastic deals and discounts on Lenten products throughout the last week of Apokries. Shopping carts overflow with octopus, lobster, shrimp, squid, mussels, and clams.

The picnics across Greece will involve traditional staples like taramosalata, the thick paste made from salted fish roe, onion, and lemon juice, pureed with bread or potato, and halva, a sweet dish made from a combination of ground roasted sesame seeds and honey, which sometimes incorporates fruits or nuts as well. Many Clean Monday meals will also include the traditional flat bread known as lagana, salads, and different pickled vegetables, like artichokes, peppers, and tomatoes.

Perhaps the most striking Clean Monday custom is the fact that the city will be enveloped by colorful kites. While many traditions have been diluted with the onset of globalization and modernization, and in the midst of the current crisis, kite flying on Clean Monday is one that seems to have only intensified. The young and the old will go to the many parks across the city, launching their kites into the air and hoping for the best.

The kites playfully hovering above the city with their bells and streamers is perhaps the most cheerful scene I have yet to witness in this financially crippled city. Symbolizing the country’s ardent hope for a more promising future, these kites remind us that we must remain forever youthful, forever lighthearted, and forever optimistic. They remind us that we must be able to adapt and regain our flight, regardless of how the winds of fortune might choose to toss us about. But perhaps most importantly, they remind us that we must stay true to ourselves, to tradition, to our cultural heritage, and endure despite it all.



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RepowerGreece: The New Game Plan

My laptop always freezes when I need it most. When Firefox has easily ten tabs open, when Facebook chat has four heated conversations going, when there are six Word documents minimized, and when the one I am furiously working on has yet to be saved, my laptop flashes me the virtual equivalent to the middle finger. It decides that it has simply had enough, and is not going to take my abuse any longer. The frozen screen is technology’s way of saying “Leave me alone. Get lost.”

Today’s Athens bears a strong resemblance to a frozen computer screen. After that exhausting period of three-week garbage strikes, constant public transportation strikes, and those persistent demonstrations that occasionally escalated into violence, the muddle and disarray is still everywhere you look. The credit binge, over-spending, tax evasion, and rampant corruption have buried Greece beneath a mammoth unforgiving deficit. The EU and IMF have forced the screen to conk out, screaming “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! CEASE AND DESIST IMMEDIATELY!” and forcing the entire mechanism to shut down.

When the screen goes blank, the computer is faced with a crucial decision: to be or not to be. If you’re lucky, a new blue screen smiles back at you, as you hit the repower button and the sweet start-up melody floats from your speakers. Your desktop gears up, and then there it is: a bright-eyed and cheerful screen waiting for you with open arms. The memory of your lost work evanesces at the promise of a better future. A fresh start is exactly what you had needed. But sometimes the computer simply goes bust. “Nope,” it says, “just nope.” It sinks into a defective state, refusing to display anything but that dark abyss of nothingness.

Greece now stands at these very crossroads. Will it repower with a new sense of fiscal responsibility, or will it fade into the Third World? The crisis is providing the country with the perfect opportunity to reinvent itself, to repower with new values, and to reposition itself within the international sphere. It is with these such lofty hopes in mind that I joined the RepowerGreece social awareness initiative. The campaign’s underlying goal is to create a springboard for change and progress by showcasing opinion editorials, success stories, and snap-thoughts that reflect innovative, out-of-the box ways of thinking. Through this platform of interesting texts, the campaign seeks to narrate a story of Greece that is often ignored, but still worth listening to, inspiring onlookers from both inside and outside its borders.

Put otherwise, the RepowerGreece campaign endeavors first and foremost to encourage positive change within the domestic realm by highlighting particular examples of successful, upstanding, and hardworking Greeks. If RepowerGreece does this successfully, the initiative will alter the way that the country is perceived in the eyes of the international community. In doing so, the campaign intends to jump-start both social and economic growth from within, thereby revitalizing the country’s strategic industries and encouraging investment.

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There are several success stories that were “no brainers,” like Korres, COCO-MAT, and Plaisio. Korres is a Greek skin care brand comprised of over 400 natural and certified organic products, with brand presence in thirty markets worldwide. Korres approaches skin biochemistry from an unusual angle by using Greek herbs, traditional remedies, and premium active extracts to create new products. Similarly, COCO-MAT is a brand with tremendous global presence. With a growing network of stores in ten countries, COCO-MAT harnesses Greek traditions to produce the world’s finest natural sleep products such as mattresses and linens. Its factories are committed to using only renewable sources in the most sustainable way possible, championing a 96 percent recycling rate. Perhaps even more impressively, Plaisio Computers has ranked amongst the 500 fastest growing companies in Europe for eight consecutive years. Assembling and trading personal computers, telecommunication, office equipment, and household appliances at competitive prices, Plaisio seeks to reduce the supply chain. It is unique in its abridged management structure and its resulting ability to adapt to rapidly changing economic conditions and consumer habits.

But along with profiling these established companies, we also profile the start-up companies, recognizing their extraordinary ability to wriggle their way through Greece’s crushing economic climate. In the face of skyrocketing taxes on everything and anything, there are a surprising number of businesses that have managed to carve out their own niches in the marketplace and, not just remain afloat, but actually thrive. While the international media fuels the stereotype of the Lazy Greek, focusing on the strikes, protests, and demonstrations, RepowerGreece seeks to confront this image of Greece. Within most media outlets, the portrayal of Greece has yet to shift from the country that nearly toppled the eurozone to the country that is trying to regain its footing. While the focus of the global community lingers on the appalling stories of tax evasion and corruption, RepowerGreece spotlights and elevates the stories that illustrate new values and ideals. The campaign seeks to convey a new message both to the Greeks and to the world: the Greeks are industrious, resourceful, and persevering. We’re changing and we’re changing fast. Moreover, the goal is to create a viral effect– to make these new ways of thinking contagious.

Green Grow is the perfect example of this “better” Greece. So as to ensure product quality, this company espouses the cutting-edge agricultural approaches that allow fresh products to be grown in a controlled environment. It is one of the only companies in Greece to adopt techniques like hydroponics, aquaponics, and permaculture, and the first to introduce the products required for these practices to the Greek marketplace. Green Grow surveys, counsels, and installs hydroponic and aquaponic equipment on an individual basis, in addition to carrying out studies for closed aquaculture and permaculture construction products. For those of you who, like I, have trouble making sense out of sentences like that, let me try and explain.

Hydroponics is the process of growing plants without soil, instead using water and mineral nutrient solutions. When you combine hydroponics with a traditional aquaculture (picture a fish tank) in a symbiotic environment, you create a sustainable food production system known as aquaponics. Similarly, permaculture creates productive, sustainable systems that provide for human needs by incorporating the land (instead of the plants and the fish tank) with its inhabitants (yes, instead of the fish). Permaculture systems aim to restore environments- whether it may be a dense urban settlement or a farm– by correlating climatic factors and weather cycles with ecological processes and nutrient cycles. The outputs of one element become the inputs of another, in an effort to maximize effect and minimize work. In other words, as “wastes” become resources, productivity and yields increase. Grounded in a wide range of scientific fields, permaculture seeks to create sustainability by perfectly incorporating the inhabitants into their environment.

Recognizing that technical stories like this appeal to some, but bewilder others, RepowerGreece offers a broad spectrum of success stories. SKEP (a Greek acronym that translates to “Association of Social Responsibility for Children and Youth”) is one of my personal favorites. This recently established nonprofit organization seeks to create a society in which all members feel useful, accepted, and valued. Through a series of art workshops, festivals, and presentations, the organization encourages children with physical and mental disabilities to interact and collaborate both with each other and with children who are not impaired. Striving to overcome a national education system that prevents inclusion, SKEP aims to alter the way people perceive diversity by uniting the Greek youth of today. Over the past three years, the Athens-based organization has provided more than 8,000 young people from 148 special schools across Greece with the opportunity to work together and identify with each other.

Likewise, Boroume (a Greek term that translates to “We Can”) is a nonprofit initiative that fights food waste by coordinating daily donations of surplus food to orphanages, soup kitchens, and other welfare institutions. Boroume seeks to confront the fact that, before the crisis set in, one in every 11 citizens in the Attica region was struggling to secure food on a daily basis. Today, as the brutal austerity causes this ratio to escalate uncontrollably, initiatives like this are needed more than ever.

Boroume recognizes that staggering quantities of consumable food are thrown away everyday by hotels, restaurants, bakeries, and other eateries across Athens. The nonprofit organization endeavors to resolve this paradox by connecting the institutions that look to feed starving people with those that constantly produce surplus food. Boroume neither stocks nor transports the food, but rather makes the arrangements and puts the right people in touch, so as to create lasting relationships. Seeking to strengthen ties between groups of people living within the same neighborhood, the organization arranges for food to be donated and received within the same general area- sometimes just a few blocks apart. Aside from coordinating the exchanges, Boroume holds food drives in schools across Attica and obtains the necessary tools and appliances for welfare institutions by appealing to institutions like hotels for their secondary equipment.

Other Repower stories are much more profit-oriented, describing lucrative initiatives that capitalize upon Greece’s unique competitive advantages. For example, T& T Executive, the country’s leading firm in corporate travel, has just recently launched a medical tourism division by expertly combining Greece’s supurb geographical location and world-class accommodations with its high quality medical services and facilities. This new division is firmly rooted in the company’s fifteen-year record of professionalism, consistency, and responsible service. In addition to coordinating transportation and accommodation, T&T Executive can make any and all arrangements for surgery, treatment, and recovery. From initially collating a patient’s medical file to following up upon his return back home, the firm seems to do it all.

For starters, medical tourism enables patients to keep their vacations intact, instead of sacrificing their travel plans in favor of the medical attention that they require. But more importantly, such travel allows for the most relaxing and enjoyable recovery period possible, fully devoid of day-to-day stress. Breathtaking at any time of the year, Greece offers everything from cozy mountain resorts to sweeping beaches with spectacular blue seas. T&T Executive incorporates exemplary individualized service into this ideal environment, thus allowing patients to fulfill their healthcare needs in the best way possible- while vacationing!

Some of these stories sound too good to be true. As I help with the campaign, I find myself forwarding profiles like these around to friends and family– not because I’m looking to publicize, but because I’m actually just downright impressed. These stories paint a picture of Greece that is incompatible with the unfavorable image that is widely accepted these days. They portray an admirable, invigorating element that underlies the country. They help Greece regain her footing (or her dignity, as some might say) within this volatile context, reminding her that she is most beautiful when she turns to face the consequences and then rebuild. They champion a new mentality– one that espouses innovation, entrepreneurship, and hard honest work.

Like T&T Executive, Ergon is a company that capitalizes upon a variety of Greece’s unique facets. Seeking to preserve and promote regional dishes and ingredients, Ergon began by selling its products online and has since expanded to boast a deli and a “Mezepolion” restaurant in Thessaloniki, soon to open in London as well. Ergon endeavors to promote traditional recipes within the ever-changing culinary scene, while maintaining the high-quality of Greek products. One of the most interesting aspects of the Ergon website is the feature that allows the viewer to trace the origin of Greek olive oil– to determine the origin of the olives, and then to trace oil through its testing, bottling, and packaging– by simply typing in the product’s bar code information. Another nonprofit aspect of the Ergon website is its expansive repertoire of regional recipes– recipes that are, of course, featured at the restaurant as well.

The company seeks to preserve Greece’s finest flavors, ingredients, and regional recipes through a modern approach, namely singling them out and then making them available online. One of Ergon’s most notable products is “Melissas Ergon,” a honey made from a combination of Greece’s best honeys: blends from the pinewoods of Thassos, the flower fields of Macedonia, and the thyme slopes of the islands. The site also promotes nonperishable spreads and mezedes, or “appetizers,” made with seafood from the Aegean, according to traditional island recipes. Particular crowd pleasers include the salmon spread, the cod roe spread, the garlic cod spread, and the tuna from Alonissos that’s preserved in olive oil. Of course, this particular olive oil (from Chania, Crete) is yet another one of the products that Ergon isolates and promotes, deeming it to be amongst the finest varieties that Greece has to offer. The site, deli, and restaurant also feature a wide range of other delicacies, like  mushrooms, roasted peppers, roasted eggplant, legumes, and different rices, to name a few. Each one of these products has been hand-picked from the small independent farms all around Greece.

Ergon’s success story was RepowerGreece’s most recent addition but will certainly not be its last. As we continue to search out inspiring stories, we continue to be amazed by what we find. Though Greece is wading through merciless austerity and humiliating media coverage, she is still keeping her head proudly above the water. Stories of honest, innovative, and hard-working Greeks abound. The country is battling an upstream current, but she knows where she is going. She stands at a crucial crossroads, but she will not collapse. Buttressed by a history of perseverance, she knows her way. Her people are resilient and strong, especially with the diaspora community standing fixedly by her side. Though her blue skies have grown dark and her seas surge violently, we know that her next magnificent sunrise cannot be far away.


Filed under Melanie Graf, Student Blogs

Winter in Greece This Year

When home for the holidays, I initially welcome the onset of New York’s holiday season, but as it progresses, I find myself packing my bags for Timbuktu. Christmas lights, goofy-looking Santa Clauses, and jeering reindeer envelop our neighborhood all too quickly. The family at the end of the block positions a blow-up snowman in their front yard, with a top hat that surpasses their house’s second story. As you near the city, it only gets worse. Any pine tree you see, even the small potted pine plants on doorsteps, has been suffocated with lights, tinsel, and bows. Meanwhile, the bare-branched trees find themselves susceptible to onslaughts by ornaments and lanterns of all kinds. While every radio station blasts the same holiday songs on repeat, proud menorahs, berry-ridden wreathes, and trumpeting angels beckon to shoppers from store windows. The season’s materialistic overtones ooze from all that you see, tainting the buildings with a new claustrophobia.

As the economic crisis infects the city of Athens, it erodes commercialism from the holidays, leaving behind the season’s raw spirit. The usual glamor and glitz of this time of year has dissipated in the face of severe salary cuts and skyrocketing taxes. Shopping streets have become eerie, given the widespread closings, and decorated store fronts are far and few between. But within this sorry state of affairs, the lone Christmas wreath coveys beauty and charm unlike any wreath in Rockefeller Center. The bells that jingle overhead as you push open the store door produce a sweeter tune than any Broadway musical.

With the ever-escalating cost of electricity, holiday lights have become scarce. In years past, it was not uncommon for building residents to join forces and fashion a Christmas tree made of green lights, or a massive star, that would span the entirety of the building facade. This year, even balconies decorated individually were in short supply. But then, the families that did manage to drape lights and tinsel from their balcony banisters made an impression unlike ever before. With the Greeks refusing to allow the austerity measures to stifle the season’s true beauty, Christmas decorations conveyed an unprecedented elegance and beauty.

In addition to the cost of electricity, the cost of heating has gone through the roof. As a result, many families have decided to stoke up their fireplaces, rather than grapple with the mounting gas bills. They spent the holidays around the fire, recovering a Christmas spirit that had evaporated from much of the modern world. Customs from bygone days were brushed off and reinstated. The traditional Christmas sailboat, for example, made a reappearance this year. The Greeks used paper and wood to assemble boats, just like they had done for centuries in the island villages, decorating them with simple ornaments and colorful lanterns. Placing this timeless symbol of Greece in windows across Athens, the people reminded each other of their culture’s resourcefulness and resilience.

Despite crushing economic hardship, Athens overflowed with traditional Christmas treats, a tribute to the prevailing value of hospitality. Whether in a nail salon or a taverna, I found myself constantly being offered complimentary melomakarona, the honey-brandy cookies, and kourabiethes, the almond sugar cookies. In addition to the sweets, a variety of other delicacies turn up during the holiday season. The Christmas table is characterized by the Christopsomo, a sweet Christmas bread containing raisins, nuts, and spices, while the Vasilopita, a sweet bread harboring a good-luck coin, is the staple of the New Year’s table. There are endless regional delicacies as well, like the kalitsounia kritis, sweet cheese pastries from Crete, the sesame baklava from Evros, and the walnut cake of the Ionian Islands known as karithopita.

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Prior to spending this winter in Greece, my mind could not comprehend a Greek dinner table without staples like the horiatiki salata, or “village salad” comprised mostly of tomatoes and cucumbers. How could a meal end without the summertime’s juicy watermelon? Aside from the traditional Christmas sweets, Greece’s winter cuisine is comprised of much more meat and much less fresh produce than that of the summer. In the summer, most dishes involve fresh vegetables, especially eggplant. In the winter, Greek cuisine is dominated by variations of stews and keftedes, or meatballs. The only vegetable that now abounds is cabbage, with a cabbage-carrot salad completing every meal. In fact, lahanodolmades, a dish involving meat wrapped in cabbage, is particularly common. Whereas in the summer much of the produce is served straight from the earth, winter produce –like greens and potatoes– must be boiled and prepared. Perhaps the lemon, salt, and olive oil trio is what unites summer with winter cuisine in Greece. Almost any dish, whether prepared in the sunlight or the shadows of the snow, can be seasoned with this simple, but magical, trifecta.

Another characterizing feature of Greek winter cuisine is the boiled fruit that produces glyko tou koutaliou (“spoon sweets”) and various marmalades. Though glyko tou koutaliou can be made with almost any fruit or nut, the most common varieties are probably cherry and grape. Generally, the process involves boiling the fruit, before adding sugar and lemon juice, to create a syrup-like substance that can be preserved and kept through the winter. Traditionally, this substance will be consumed by itself as a “sweet in a spoon” (as the term itself roughly translates to), but can also serve as the perfect topping for yoghurt or ice cream, or even a ice-cream-covered waffle.

As an American traversing a Greek laiki in the winter, much of the products seem  make-believe. There are the especially durable fruits that can be found at almost any time of the year, like oranges and mandarins, but there are also strange, unfamiliar varieties that don’t have equivalents in the States. There are fruits that appear to be cherry-sized nectarines and yellow-orange plums. There are vegetables that I have heard of before, like leeks, chard, and rutabaga, but had never seen in their fresh, unprocessed forms. There is an over-sized lumpy variety of pears that I recently discovered was kithoni, or quince. Though I once owned quince-scented lotion, I was not aware that quince was a fruit. Like much of the winter produce, you cannot eat quince raw. Instead, the Greeks serve it as glyko tou koutaliou, combined deliciously with vanilla ice cream.

Tavernas in the winter remind me more of ski lodges than what I had thought to be a traditional Greek eatery. There is no octopus hanging from the rafters, no outdoor seating, no beach in the background. Instead, there will probably be a cozy fire burning, and complimentary rakomelo (the Greek liquor tsipouro boiled with honey and spices) served at the end of the meal.

It is during the winter, in fact, that Athens comes alive. Once the cold weather sets in, the islands empty out and people congregate in the major cities, namely Athens and Thessaloniki. The winter season is arguably the best season for nightlife in Athens. The posh bars and clubs in the center flood with people, and the late-night souvlaki joints do their best business of the year. As the beaches and nightclubs along Paraliaki, the coastline just outside of Athens, board up, Athens’ shops and cafés become the new haven for entertainment seekers.

Americans find it somewhat confusing, but mostly just downright odd, that the Greeks wish each other Kalo Himona!, or “Have a nice winter!” as they leave the beaches at the end of August. For the American study abroad student, short sleeves and flip flops remain part of the wardrobe until well into the fall. We have a way of clinging onto the summer for all that we are worth. The Greeks, on the other hand, welcome the end of the crushing airless heat, ushering in the winter season relievedly. They happily don their scarfs, hats, and down jackets and leave the coasts without looking back.

With the onset of colder weather, there is so much more that you can now do. Greece’s mountainside allows for breathtaking hikes, along with trekking, biking, and mountain-climbing. You can find vantage points unlike anywhere else in the world. Greece’s island getaways have historically overshadowed her beautiful ski resorts. Arachova, Kalavrita, Pelion, Delphi, and Epirus boast spectacular mountain refuges.

Still, there are the people that argue that the islands are the ideal place to spend the winter. Kea, the capital of the Cyclades, offers what many claim to be the world’s best system of walking trails. The island climate remains temperate and tavernas feature outdoor seating throughout the winter months; however, without the influx of tourists, most shops, hotels, and eateries will drop their prices considerably. Moreover, it is the places frequented by the locals- the truly authentic stores and restaurants- that remain open through the winter.

Whether in the islands or on the mainland, January 6th, the Eastern Orthodox holiday of Epiphany, a holiday known in Greece as Phota, is one of the most fundamental components of the country’s winter season. The holiday commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ and marks the beginning of the house blessings. House blessing, one of the oldest practices of the Christian church, is a ritual intended to protect the inhabitants from misfortune, ridding the residence of evil. Accompanied by those who live in the house, the local parish priest will walk through every room, sprinkling holy water and praying for the occupants.

While the religious practice of house blessings is prevalent within Greek Orthodox communities across the globe, the custom of diving for the cross is unique to Greece. On January 6th, parishes in the islands, on the mainland, and across Athens will finish the church service on the shores of the nearest body of water. Traditionally, this Great Blessing of the Waters signified the end of the ban on sailing, cleansing the oceans of the kalikantzaroi– the goblins that would bring sailors to their ruins during the winter holidays. Standing on the shore, the leading priest will throw the cross into the cold waters and all the young men will dive in after it, striving to be the one who retrieves it.

The one who retrieves it is believed to have been granted good luck for the new year. In fact, much of the holiday traditions are centered around the idea of obtaining good fortune. The individual who receives the Vasilopita with a coin embedded in his slice is ushered into the new year with the promise of new-found luck. The first person to cross the threshold into the house on New Year’s Day with the right foot is believed to bring good luck to the family. This year, the promise of good fortune carries more import than ever before.

All of Greece is fervently hoping for a fortunate year this year and a spring with temperate sweet weather.


Filed under Melanie Graf, Student Blogs