A postcard from Athens

Athens March 2018

It’s been less than 48 hours since we left the UK and already it feels like entering another world. That’s not just the weather. But walking off a plane to face wind that felt balmy instead of arctic certainly helped soothe the soul! Athens is always a city of contradictions and chaos, staying Koukaki is a bit of both. It means we can walk to the Plaka pretending to be tourists or wander this neighbourhood pretending to be locals. I guess right now we are a bit of both.

Waking up in a new place always holds a kind of magic. Yesterday was no exception. First peering our heads out to a balcony in the actual SUNSHINE, followed by figuring out how to use the fancy coffee machine and then wandering out onto unfamiliar streets. Squinting upwards and stumbling onwards was the order of the first new day in Greece.

Later, after lunch I decided it was time for our long overdue visit to the Benaki Museum. This place is quite possibly the best treasure trove of a collection I have seen in a long time – its magnificently crafted displays have an eclectic range of objects from Ancient Greece ceramics and jewellry, to Byzantine orthodox art, folk costumes, paintings and even the interiors of 18th century mansions, including full wood panelled ceilings and rugs. Its like a potted history of Greece over 4 floors with around 6000 items in the collection!

 

I especially enjoyed the special exhibition ‘Travels in Greece 16th-19th Century’ which displays the collection of rare maps and travel material donated by Efstathios Finopoulos. Here is all the work of essentially the first tourists in narrated diaries and journals, promotional articles from the 18thC in English, German and French; rare posters detailing beautiful peasants and wide green horizons to promote the world to Greece for the ‘Grand Tour’. Books and notes by the most renowned Hellenophile Lord Byron are also on display.  It is well timed collection as Greece prepares to entice even more tourists this year. Although the methods may have changed a little these days.  Even the rare maps are wonderful with their inaccuracies and confusion between Delos and Delphi, mismatching the islands and mainland. Its at the Benaki Museum until 29 April 2018 (entrance to the museum is 9E, but free on Thursdays and the exhibition is an extra 5E)

Afterwards we climbed the steep slope to Mount Lycabuttus but clouds stood in the way of the sunset. Despite the warmer temperatures and the scent of orange blossom filling the air, it still has a chill in the air and eating indoors on an evening is still recommended. With this in mind we found hearty food and a warm welcome at To Kato Allo; a small place hidden behind the Acropolis. In a world of white tablecloths and hip food, it still offers wine from the barrel and homecooked specials on a chalkboard. We opted for moussakas and beef stew with horta. Perfect.

A few more days of feeling out of place and I’ll feel right at home.

 

September: a time of new beginnings

When people ask what I have been up to in Greece, I will refuse to be embarrassed. Despite busying myself with real work, writing and gardening, figuring out hiking trails and petting sweet, but sad cats, I’m happy to admit I spent a lot of time staring into the middle distance, relishing wonder and musing over ideas in a state of under-employment. I take nothing for granted and appreciated how it all worked out, after all time is one of the luxury items in modern life.

One of the things I have used this time for is to consider how life in London worked, and didn’t work.  Last week while we were packing up I went through some notebooks I kept last year and earlier this year – I can’t work out if they are the musings of a mad person (likely) or just someone very stuck in a depressive way of thinking (highly likely). It broke my heart to read it and wonder, just how I didn’t address a lot of those things earlier and let them slide?  Some of this stuff is just my own ‘over-thinking’. I know I am lucky to have created this breathing space, I have a shit ton of friends who just get on with it and have a far more complex life, juggling illness, complicated families and tiny tots. I also have friends they have so much outside of work that fulfill them on a deeper level that renders the 9-5 into pale insignificance. I am proud to say every woman I call a friend just lives by the GSD motto (gets shit done) without fuss or humble-brag.  We are constantly told that being still is an idleness, that you must be in perpetual motion, ‘busyness’ is an aspiration status of being in-demand and working all the hours makes you an ‘important person’. It will make you, not break you.  

Yet, a small simple truth I discovered in the act of making life very small and very simple, that time can allow you to refocus and remind yourself what matters – how you want to live.  

Our last 10 days on Syros were spent in a way that blurred the lines between a holiday and just enjoying the simple way of life we have relished there for months. Admittedly we went out a bit more and ate out a little more lavishly than before – but still the nagging idea about how we would feel back in the UK sat heavy on the horizon.

There were hikes to Gramatta and Lia beaches, Kambos and Sa Michalis  – despite the keenness that Autumn was calling, the temperatures stayed hot and the sun fierce.

2017-09-22_02-53-26

There was a calmness to those days, as the traffic reduced and children went back to school, things being put back into places and the fun of summer, not being finished, but certainly winding down. As Syros is mostly visited by Greeks, mid-September is quieter but sees another trickle of tourists arrive from Northern Europe to enjoying the less crowded beaches and off-peak prices. But in the main it was all back to work and school for most people.

2017-09-22_02-53-47

2017-09-22_02-52-48

We packed up our little Greek house and I tidied the garden – plenty still in flower and the aubergine is still producing fruit. I did a final audit of ‘stuff’, carefully keeping the important things and recycling a lot we didn’t need. I spent a little time coaching the cat about fending for herself, the hypocritically feeding her tuna and other treats the needed using up from the store cupboard…bad kitty parent.

2017-09-22_02-51-00

The day we left was abysmally hot – 33c and humid, like the kind that makes your face sweat, even indoors! We swam early that day – I went out on my favourite bay loop to the two buoys tied together in such a way that they bob together in the waves. I call them the ‘kissing buoys’. In such times there is this horrible adjudicative of naming things ‘the last swim’, ‘the last espresso freddo at KiniTro’, ‘the last sunset’ behind the mermaid statue. It annoyed me by its bell-ringing finality everytime one of us mentioned it as an off-hand comment! By the time we had hugs and well wishes of ‘Kalo himonia’ (good winter), we were in the taxi, the road climbing uphill, the last glance down to the bay, the taxi radio playing ‘Dust in the wind‘ by Kansas (listen to it!) – it was all, just..so, you know…

2017-09-22_02-52-02

The reality is no one knows what will be our last anything, that’s why everything should be cherished. If there’s one lesson the past 6 months, or even year, has taught me, and often is so obviously overlooked as a cliché. But cherish and be present in everything. As I write this I’m sitting here in my garden in the UK – the sun is shining, an almost impossibly perfect late September day which marks the Autumn Equinox. The sun feels warm, hot even, there is dampness and freshness in the air from last night’s rain – I walked barefoot on the lawn this morning, enjoying its bouncy dampness and bright green freshness, colours that are so scarce on the dry and rocky Greek islands, that I forgot how beautiful they were. The colours of leaves are just starting to turn on the cherry tree – they hold fast – the sunlight bounces off the kitchen windows and reflects from the white patio walls. Days like these are to be cherished and luxuriated in every moment.

Like most of us, I find that questions that weigh one’s mind mostly are the ones that reflect an ideal state rather than the present we inhabit. Women (and men) my age spend an awful lot of time considering; is this the right job for me? Am I challenged enough? What will my next career move be? Where will I be in 10 years time? Am I happy with the next promotion/payrise? Would I like to be a parent? Can I ever afford a house? Will i ever be able to retire? These sorts of internal questions and ways of thinking betray a sense of ‘becoming’ all the time – like you are constantly on your way somewhere and waiting to arrive. Steps to a new role or state of being hangs in the distance like a destination to arrive at, rather than just occupying the space you inhabit right now. This journey-mentality might be the one that causes stasis rather than frees you. I can dig out a load of labels I have arrived at, that I am both happy and unhappy with – my job title, my rank in the pecking order of power and decision making, my income, my education, my marital status, my child-free status, my weight, my height, my class, my accent. It makes me wonder, is this who I am? It is, and yet, in so many ways it isn’t. Life is just made up of small grounded moments that take you out to sea, to the shore, to the path, to get lost and feel small because the world is vast. Life should not be lived using time up waiting for something to happen.  

With this in mind, we used two days in Athens to break the journey up and relax.  It meant we weren’t bothered at all by the late arriving SuperFerry, which although a more comfortable and newer boat than the usual Blue Star that does the daily Syros-Pireaus slog, it takes 45 minutes longer and had difficulties docking in the port which added to the delay. Avoiding any unnecessary baggage pain or stress, G had pre-booked a taxi which greeted us and we then had two nights to ease back into city life. Athens was a small shock to the system and not just because of the heat. The first morning there I awoke and sat with a coffee on the apartment’s small balcony overlooking a cross-street; it was like being immersed in noise and chaos, cars honked and mopeds sped by – police sirens blared and the whole neighbourhood stopped to observe the scene after 2 cars collided in the slow bumper to bumper rush hour traffic. It was certainly an event; builders stopped to shout down what they’d seen, traffic police turned up to cordon off the road and every person stopping at the bakery rubber-necked to see what was going on.  I shuddered at the noise of it all. Only 24 hours later I had been listening to nothing more than the rustle in the pine trees and the cicadas’ chirping – cities are a sensory overload.

2017-09-22_02-55-32

We arrived back yesterday under clouded grey skies of late afternoon. Watching the houses fall into focus as the plane descended into Gatwick; England looks mostly grey and green from the air, but has a bizarre imposition of order over chaos – everything here has a place and role, streets that are designed in symmetrical forms, even villages look like miniature worlds. Not at all like the ad-hoc buildings across rural Greece that look like they were built without plans, dotting the hills like wild seeds laying root wherever they landed.

Arriving at our house was strange. It was intact but felt empty, it seems (and smells) different, but it is the same. Like waking up and the past six-months were a dream. G just finished unpacking the kitchen stuff and declared, “it’s the same but different”. I suggested it’s the same space but maybe now he inhabits it differently – maybe nothing stands still. Unpacking the bags and getting out our things will take time. But the act of it all makes me feel un-grounded and all out at sea; going from basics and simplicity, back to luxury items like washing machines and toasters and TV’s and everything we have plenty of. Yet living without has proved to me that we don’t really need them. 

I have just pegged the washing out to dry in this sunny weather, it won’t be instantly dry like in Greece, but I can be thankful we can dry them outside still without having to put the central heating on. I feel once that starts, its such a big use of energy and really marks out the seasonal transition. 

On the whole, G and I have both found different benefits to being in Greece. For him, and I hope he won’t mind me saying this; it has been an affirmation of his focus and drive. But more importantly it has been the time he needed to climb out from under the shadow of grief after his father’s death. In many ways we learnt to love and respect each other’s space more – when you live in close quarters without the immediate support network that family and friends take up, you learn to talk more and share more with each other. Don’t worry I certainly won’t be dishing out relationship advice anytime soon.

Somehow in this time away I realised I need to give myself more credit… Yes, you heard that right, the eternal pessimist, always second guessing herself, and listening to the nay-sayers, and if there isn’t any actual nay-sayers, I’ll create them like shadows under the bed. Yep, like some self-aggrandizing t*t, I actually am starting arrive at a place where I get it; be nice to yourself. The whole jumbling tumble mystery of life, is just that. A massive mystery – no silver bullet, just evolving and ever changing, challenges to confront, acceptance of the good and being thankful the positive things that comes your way, hiding away good and kind things in your soul for when things won’t be as rosy – but most of all slowing down and being appreciative of everything you have; My family, my husband, my friends, fighting injustice and caring for the natural environment matter to me, as do words that make sense of this chaos. Perhaps one day I will leave the earth a more beautiful place with something I can create.  

This isn’t some bold epiphany, I am just ready to make it real – there isn’t any ‘nothing is impossible’ rallying cry or positive affirmation. It’s gentler than that. It marks out a way to live.

In the next few weeks I am making a promise to myself to keep the summer alive by writing out more Syros adventures and editing my 1000s of photos.  A small act to stave off the dark days of winter.

Watch this space.

2017-09-22_02-54-35

Athens – a lost city of found treasures

12669552_10153721854501273_7608906993746409624_n
Street art in the city


It’s been weeks since I came home and I am still struggling to place Athens neatly into that ‘cities I’ve been to’ filing cabinet of the mind; it is unlike any European city I have ever travelled to, part decadent grandeur, part industrial sprawl, part serene village, part modern chaos. Perhaps that’s why it struck a deep chord with me.

It feels like a city, much like its population, that refuses to be defined by expectations, nor willing to make any comprise. Athens invites you into its presence, it has a unique energy and passion, in its population and history. I expected to find a city in turmoil, political upheaval and rebellion on the streets, the way the media has reported the city’s banking crisis and influx of refugees, I was surprised to not see this impact more vividly. Athens wants to be seen and heard, but it also wants you to stay a while scratch the surface and let it slowly surprise you at every turn. It is a melting pot of old Greece and new – and I genuinely loved it.

We touched down after experiencing some awe-inspiring views of
Halkidiki, Thessaloniki and the Sporades on a clear day as the sea glimmered translucent blue. From the windows of a budget plane the view below could have been easily mistaken a hot summer day. The city sprawls out over hills spilling down, all milky white and grey blocks to the port at Piraeus, it give the impression from above of having no discernible centre or midpoint. Very few high rises by most city standards and no real glimmering skyscrapers or towering monuments to capitalism and commerce. Yet hidden in the the green pine trees are the historic monuments of democracy and trade, political foundations of the modern world. For such an old city, Athens feels like it really only got going with major suburban expansion in the late 50s and much of the development has a mid century feel to it. It surprised me how much felt so new.  And I still haven’t found the answer to my long running question – why are Greek pavements so shiny?12688230_10153721855551273_2583019339302197435_n

 

We booked a place with airbnb, as it seemed really logical, pick an area of the city that looks central and narrow it down. Our wish list winner was this in Plaka. It was close to bars,  main sights, museums and restaurants, somewhere with a view,  somewhere with space for both of us to potter around and a nice kitchen, heating, as it was winter I wasn’t quite prepared for being in Greece in a season that wasn’t summer. Greeks had warned me their winters were horrible, tutting, shrugging their shoulders, “it rains, it snows”. Fair point, but I guess few of them have experienced the North East in June. It was Christmas so our travel idea was “let’s escape to see what Greece is like out of season”. The truth is Athens is never truly out of season, and we were lucky to arrive into a balmy 19 degrees and sunshine, I was wearing a Christmas jumper!

705368_10153651664991273_9001517269656397311_o
The amazing view from our apartment

If you do visit Athens in any season I’ve got quite a few recommendations. First up on my list is Brettos, a slightly hidden ‘Hole in the Wall’ kind of place in the Plaka. But once you step over the sleepy dog in the doorway, you are greeted to a plethora of colour and light from rows upon rows of bottles, the small bar is flanked by big wooden communal tables, edged with aged Greek barrels of wine and a friendly bar man who will tell you about the 120 plus different types of wine that have on offer. They offer tasting sessions every day. The special thing here is that it’s not just any wine but Greece’s finest wine, Brettos have a long history and have been distilling their own ouzo since the 1900s – of course I sampled the blue, the gold and the red label varieties. Go there to try the ouzo and the 20 something other liqueurs they make in house, try the wine from the  Cyclades like the Assyrtiko and I challenge you to not to fall in love with Greek wine. If I have one lifetime challenge it is try to slowly dispel the Greek myths about crap wine. Take everything you ever thought about that nasty cheap tasting wine you want had on a teenage holiday in Corfu in the early 90s!  It is really not anything like Greek wine these days! Brettos is intimate and the music is probably too loud,, but that’s half its charm friendly its fun it’s wine what more can you need in life! Maybe that is Kefi*!

Brettos

I could probably dedicate pages of the blog to Greek food – and probably will with time – but there’s a few shining stars in Athens that do get a mention. I want to be upfront firstly about how much I love good Greek food – good being the key – fresh, thoughtful, rustic and traditional recipes done well, but also I like ambition too. It’s not all moussaka and feta! We stumbled upon Tzitzikas & Mermingas (the ant and the grasshopper, like the fable!) which takes a modern and fresh approach to the traditional mezedhoplieo (house of meze, small dishes) – appreciating a little complimentary glass of Tsipouro and kourambeides (christmas biscuits covered in sugar!) whilst we waited for a table. The dishes are all seasonal and well put together, trying the chef’s special sharing plates which included pomegranate salad,  baby goat in lemon sauce, manouri cheese wrapped in parma ham and drizzled with Cretan honey. Yum!

12592477_10153721855406273_7836864577562226260_n (1) To Kafeneio is a great place to eat in a fantastic 400 year old building in the Plaka on Epicharmou Street. We snuck in late one evening (late by english standards – normal for greeks). Positioned right next to a roaring fire, we shared a generous dishes meatballs, courgettes, and a favourite was the ‘bekri meze’ – meat for drunks – a saucy beef dish not dissimilar to stifado but lovingly sprinkled with cheese and served with bread, to mop up all that booze I assume! The meal was finished with a glass of morello cherry liqueur wine – sweet, and syrupy, with a fig-like aftertaste. A perfect winter warmer.

As it was Christmas we reserved a table at the impeccably swish Strofi – all white table cloths, moonlit acropolis views and a tuneful greek songstress. Despite its touristy appeal, there were plenty of locals celebrating their Christmases, up dancing and showing off their accomplished knowledge of dance steps from the more traditional bouzouki songs. Opa!  The atmosphere was divine and the service was impeccable, we started with ouzo, followed by a delectable wine from Samos and after a divine chocolate and chestnut dessert, we rounded off the meal with Greek coffee’s before stumbling off into the night.

If you fancy lunch with a view the taverna on the square Argyropoulos was perfect for a light lunch. We enjoyed a Greek salad, meatballs, tzatziki (and the company of some friendly Athenian cats) whilst overlooking the Tower of the Winds.

12647266_10153721855666273_5474978892218596056_n
Lunch with a view in Athens

One of my favourites was Estiatopio on Nikos street, near Syntagma Square – a real family run place – the whole family were in there catching up after the holidays. There were the proud grandparents being shown the girls school report and chattering loudly in the corner.  Amidst this lovely atmosphere this tavern had two highlights for me – one it was the only place in Athens we found Horta on the menu. Countryside greens – served with a generous glug of olive oil and lemon juice, similar in taste to spring greens and spinach but slightly peppery, traditionally horta is picked by the ladies of the village and includes whatever is in season, dandelion leaves, kale, nettle, fennel. Secondly, the ‘waiter’ was possibly the only person I impressed in the city with my language skills,  I eloquently ordered our dishes, ordered water (signomi, efharisto, the loumena boukari nero parakelo) and even the bill (par logarithmo parakelo)  He was the owner’s son – we bonded and at 11 years old he spoke better english than I can ever aspire my Greek to reach!

If you don’t want to linger over a taverna and need good food quickly, Athens is your perfect city. But even if you have time, its well spend waiting for a gyros at Kostas. We waited in line for 30 minutes in the very fashionable Agias Irinis Square foot honestly the best gyros pitta ever…and i have tasted quite a few.  Tangy tzatziki chicken meat, hot and fresh from the grill, layered in a wrap with melt in your mouth tomatoes and tangy sauce sprinkled with the sweetest red onions.  Kostas has been serving and slaving over the same grill since 1946, passed down through a few generations I imagine we were served by Kosta’s Jr.  I of course couldn’t resist a wander round the hardware shop over the square selling seeds and gardening tools…

12631371_10153721855701273_6007560435846813990_n

Although there seems to be limitless streets of history to wander through in Athens; it really pays to plan out your days. Walking up to the Acropolis and seeing the Partheanon is a must – re-enacting the Athena and Posiedon battle at the site of the olive tree is optional of course! Take in the view after climbing 15 minutes to the peak of Mount Lykavittus, spend time wandering round the ancient agora, visit the Greek Parliament to see the changing of the guard. The precision movements of the soldiers in this dance of military honour is admirable (and can you imagine they do the same routine in every season including August, when it must be at least 40c!) Wander through to the Monastiraki Flea Market and people watch amongst the antiques. Some of the world’s best museums and preserved monuments are in the city, including the Acropolis Museum which is a beautiful architectural feast of well curated pieces.

You will find a real-life best discovered by walking, getting lost and just wandering. Nowhere felt particularly unsafe or salubrious  – just take your time and see the city, it’s chic, smart and full of graffiti and tiny orthodox churches – political slogans carving out the human side of the euro crisis – showing a city alive and ready to shout out its politics. Although the metro system is great too – only  a bargain 8 euro ticket for the 40 minute journey from the airport to Syntagma Square. Its clean, air conditioned and not particularly crowded, one of the legacies of hosting the Olympics in 2004.

Take the locals approach and spend a few hours lingering over a coffee – we sat in a cafe in the Plaka, the old quarter overlooking the choragic monument of Lysicrates – listening to the familiar click/clack of the  kolymbari watching the locals debate and greet one another. The ever familiar tourist shops we passed to get there made me feel as if we had stepped right from the heart of a city into the slow pace of Greek island life in a matter of minutes.

If you do get to explore the Plaka make sure you wander around the area of Anafiotika. A sleepy, almost uninhabited area on the steepest slope up to the Acropolis, It was built by the workers who came to Athens from the Island of Anafi in the cyclades during the Ottoman empire. In just a small expanse of streets you can be transported – the tumbling houses retain their white-washed cycladic charm, cats bathe in the sunshine and geraniums grow in feta cans. Some house looks empty – the graffiti even sets a contracts, others done up but a nice bridge between the old and new, island nation and city states.

Athens I think you have Kefi* (the ill-defined Greek word for reckless happiness and spirit) – You certainly have left me wanting more…