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.