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Saturday, 18 October 2008

Double identity (Διπλή ταυτότητα)

Recently, I had the odd task of having to prepare my children's school meals 160 nautical miles away from home. Really weird, but that was the agreement between me and my husband if I wanted to go to the big smoke and meet up with a friend. The food had to be able to remain relatively fresh; all I'd have to do when I came back home would be to put it into my children's schoolbags within the same hour that I arrived back home. What kind of healthy prepared street-cafe food can you buy for your children's Monday lunchboxes on a Sunday, when you're flying back home 160 nautical miles away at 5.30 the next morning?

sintagma athens
(Sintagma Square in the distance)

I had arranged to meet up with my friend in the middle of Athens. Σύνταγμα - Sintagma (Constitution Square) - was teeming with people that day, even though it was a Sunday and all the commercial shops on Ermou St were closed. Despite the recent economic crisis, Athens looked like a city in love. The day was sunny, warm and breezy, perfect for a Sunday βόλτα (volta - stroll), which most of the town's residents were doing. Even the pigeons looked happy. People were taking photos of the parliamentary guards in their sentry boxes, the McDonalds on the corner was full of youthful faces enjoying their happy meals and a whole range of foreign languages could be heard all over the place, interrupted occasionally by the Greek language. I had some time to spare before the appointed meeting to search for what I could buy from around the area that could travel safely, not go off or become stale, stay intact without getting mushy in my backpack, and more importantly, resemble a nutritiously rich meal that could constitute a child's school meal.

plaka athens
(laidback atmosphere in Plaka)

The side streets of Sintagma Square leading to the Acropolis abound with mini-markets, cafes and παντοπολεία - pantopolia - literally a 'sell-everything' shop. In terms of edibles, the one I chanced on sold croissants, potato chips, sweets, sodas, fragile φρυγανιές (crumbly rusks that look like miniature toasts) as well as tinned goods. About the only healthy item in it was fruit, which was out of the question: bananas will go black with the merest touch, while the other all-time classic morning-break fruit, the apple, bruises easily, and may need peeling if you don't know what its pesticide content is.

CIMG5026
(the bagel stand at Sintagma)

I was beginning to feel I had lost the battle for a healthy mid-morning school snack when I spotted a lady selling the classic Greek bagel - κουλούρι, koulouri - at a stand on the corner of the road on Μητροπόλεως (mitropoleos - Cathedral) and Φιλελλήνων (filelinon - Philhellenic) Streets. Bagels are quite durable; in any case, they don't lose their taste, nor do they become stale in 24 hours. A perfect choice; I bought two plain soft bagels, two hand-shaped hard ones and a tomato-and-feta filled soft bagel, ditching plans to buy the full range, which also included chocolate-filled ones. Koulouria are usually eaten on their own, but if you manage to avoid the temptation of munching into them on the street, they go great with a piece of cheese, a few olives and a glass of wine, which I didn't have handy on me at the time, the reason why I didn't deal with my own bagel choice (the filled one, naturally) till I got back to Hania.

Monday's school lunch wasn't tricky at all. The cafes in the area served luscious looking sandwiches and πίτες (pites - pies) of all types: cheese, sausage, sweet cream, spinach, hotdog, mince, you name it. My only caveat was that they would be subjected to all sorts of bruising, temperatures and humidity levels in my bag, so I decided not to buy anything from the road, except for my own lunch (before I was treated to a sumptuous dinner by my friend. I could easily buy my children something similar for their lunch from the airport cafeterias, which served this kind of food.

I had almost forgotten to have lunch that day (such a rare occurrence in my life), I was so excited, not just about meeting my friend, but because I had managed to achieve so much in one day. I had seen a few relatives in Aspropirgos (a dingy Western suburb in the Greater Athens area), walked through the neighbourhood I had lived in for two years before settling in Hania permanently (Egaleo, another neighbourhood of Western Athens), and enjoyed the luxury of the organised Athenian mass transportation system, via the suburban blue buses and the Athenian underground.

athens underground athens underground
(pottery shards and the ground layers found when the underground was being constructed)

It is a fact that Athens has not improved its dreary image since I was last living there, but that is simply not true about the means of transport: the underground in Athens is clean, modern, awesome, even beautiful. Walking into the underground world of Athens is like entering a museum full of ancient antiquities: in some parts of it, when the lighting is set in such a way that it highlights a particular monument on display in the foyers, you might even get the feeling that Hades is lurking somewhere in the twilight, ready to turn you into a pillar of salt if you dare to turn around and look, like he did to Eurydice when Orpheus wanted to check that Hades had kept his word about his lover's return. Most of the treasures found in the foundations of the underground during its construction were eventually turned into a museum display piece.

athens underground
(some of the Parthenon marbles Elgin didn't manage to steal, on display at the Acropolis metro station)

A long time had passed since I last went to see the Acropolis. Of course, the whole area has changed since I was last there, but my instinct led me in the right direction during my short interlude in the area. I got out of the metro at the Acropolis stop, located right next to the brand new Acropolis Museum, a strategic environmentally-friendly station, enabling people to have more efficient access to an important landmark, without the need to bring their own car to an already over-congested area (top marks to the town planners). The hot autumn sun made up my mind for me: the Acropolis also looks good at lower ground level, and I don't need to work up a sweat by walking up the hill to get to see it close up. (Believe me, I've been much closer to it than anyone can get to it in modern times.) It was at this point that I remembered I was feeling hungry and thirsty. Right across the Acropolis metro station were a few strategically positioned cafes and snack bars. Everest was located on a highly visible corner near a row of crafts and souvenir shops.

acropolis athens
(above - the Acropolis of Athens; below - the foundations of the Acropolis museum among excavated ruins; a view of the apartment blocks facing the Acropolis - dingy as they look, they enjoy one of the most amazing views in the world )
acropolis museum acropolis museum

Everest is a chain store selling snack food and refreshments right throughout the country. Its food is prepared in the way most chain stores run; it is very centralised. At one of a few places in some industrial areas of the country (like Aspropirgos in Athens, where I overnighted with relatives before my Sunday adventure in the centre of Athens), people are busy preparing food in different ways for different businesses, most likely using processed ingredients: a fast-food chain may sell profiterole desserts in octagonal plastic tubs (like Everest), while another fast food chain might want chocolate mousse served in smooth round plastic bowls (like Goody's). Another chain may order spinach pie made with thick pastry (like Everest), while another chain may prefer to serve a spiral spinach pie made with thin filo pastry (like Gregory's). The food is prepared according to each customer's specifications, after which it is stored appropriately, and flown, trucked or shipped to the branches of these fast food outlets, be they close to the production plant or a remote island.

The advertising of each company may claim that their food is 'fresh', but this is all relative. A product that is stored under artificially controlled conditions to keep its appearance, shape and smell 'fresh' cannot be compared to the same product that was made and eaten on the same day in someone's kitchen, which will not be subjected to any kind of unnatural treatment in order to prevent it from spoilage. My Everest spanakopita cost me 1.95 euro and it was very satisfying; having said that, I must admit that I am a spanakopita fanatic, and it is usually the only thing I buy from a snack food outlet when I need to have a meal on the run. I ignore the ringing bells in my head sounding out warnings against fast food; we do this irregularly, and only when we need to. I even went into a McDonalds while I was at Sintagma; the coffee was OK, the toilets excellent.

Spanakopita was the kind of thing I had in mind for my children's school lunch. I decided to buy them each a piece of Everest spanakopita at the airport, another place where you can find 24/7 fast food chains en masse, each one claiming to serve you the healthiest food made with the freshest ingredients possible, served warm after a short zap in a microwave oven.

CIMG5060

When I arrived at Athens airport, I checked out each food outlet and wondered what kind of money people make in Athens in order to be able to afford to eat here: hot drinks cost well over 2 euro a cup, while sandwiches and pastry-encased cheese, spinach, sausage, chocolate or cream cost at least 3 euro a piece. A family of four with a delay between flights would need to spend at least 20 euro to eat here. In Hania, we spend about 40 euro for a modest but well-cooked fresh taverna family meal. I was in shock, and it was not just the cost of living that knocked me out: the Everest airport outlet was selling exactly the same spanakopita that I ate in central Athens for 3 euro and 30 cents at the airport; that's 1 euro and 35 cents more than in the other branch.

I was in two minds about what to do. In any case, there is an Everest outlet at Hania airport (which I was hoping would be open), so I decided to buy my children's meals when I arrived there instead, hoping also that I may find lower prices there. That way they would also be 'fresher'. I hopped off the aeroplane at 6.30am and walked through to the arrivals foyer. Everest was open there too: same spanakopita, same price as at Athens airport. It was too early in the morning to argue, but I've kept the receipts: one price at one outlet, a different one at another. Where I was born, we would call this a bloody rip-off. I bought two pieces of Everest spanakopita ("individually wrapped, thank you"), and took a cab, which, coincidentally, cost me twice as much as what it cost me in Athens to be driven the same number of kilometres. Where is the country heading to? I ask myself.

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