Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Uncle Leigh comes to Greece (Ο θείος από την Αμερική)

My friend Uncle Leigh came to Greece for a short vacation last month, all the way from Arizona in Australia - or did he say he came from Australia in Arizona? It doesn't matter at any rate; what matters is he was in the neighbourhood, he stopped by for some lunch, and he bought me some golden syrup. This is his story (and his photos), not mine

I love travelling on my own. I admit it does get lonely at times, but I am always among crowds of people, even though I may not know anyone, and I always find lots of things to do wherever I go. Travelling solo beats travelling with companions, who always want to see places that I don't want to see, or do things I don't want to do. And don't get me started on their vacation planning - it's non-existent. They don't even know where they'll be sleeping each night. Been there, done that, long long ago. I prefer to be a bit more organised in my older age. So I prefer to travel alone, because I end up doing so much more.

Even so, I wasn't sure about this holiday to Greece. I felt quite insecure for some reason, maybe it's all that stuff we hear on the news, that Greece is a broke country, that everyone's fleeing, that people are jobless, homeless, hungry. I suddenly started having doubts about my trip. I would have really felt better if I could call into a Greek neighbourhood and meet up with a friend for coffee or maybe go somewhere to eat, and I mean eat some of that really good Greek food they have there, or at least the Greek markets where I live seem to sell really good Greek food. I was looking forward to tasting it in its original setting once again. It's not my first time travelling in Greece. I felt like I needed a friend to tell me where to go and see these things, but I don't know anyone in Greece, and it's too late to cancel the trip anyway. I'm getting old now, and I always have a fear of falling and breaking something...
... but I needn't have worried about feeling alone. Here I am on my first day in Greece, wandering around the roads of Thessaloniki in the early evening, and all of a sudden a large group of people run past me. I'm thinking, this is some kind of political protest, but most of them seem to be wearing joggers' outfits, and they have some kind of tag on their t-shirts. Maybe it's a marathon; I never expected to see one so late at night, in all places like Greece.

Actually I enjoyed Thessaloniki a lot. It was very windy when I arrived, but the next day the sun was out. My suitcase was left in San Francisco and wasn't delivered until 36 hours later, so I was wearing the same clothes for 30 hours. I fell in love with Thessaloniki when I took a walk along the waterfront, where I eventually encountered the White Tower. Things have changed since I was last here, about five years ago - there seem to have opened up a lot more food places, and pastry shops: yum. Thessaloniki really wasn't too bad after all.

My next Greek destination: Crete. The weather remained quite good - not too much wind, and plenty of sun. The water was a bit choppy here. My first meal in Crete was at a taverna: rabbit stifado downed with some Mythos beer. I love rabbit; I practically grew up on it in Australia. We called it 'underground mutton' when I was a kid. When I paid my bill, the guy gave me a small ice cream desert on the house with some raki. I had two shots - it had very little taste (because it was chilled), with a subtle kick on top of the beer. I'm not a very good Aussie, as I don't drink very much now. Not that I was a big drinker before, I just drink less now. I was a little unsteady on my feet as I walked back to the hotel. But I suppose I did have a good first night in Hania.
Uncle Leigh was fascinated by the ease with which the locals solved their parking problems.

The next day I went to the Archaeology Museum. It's fascinating to see so many items unearthed that tell us something about how people lived and died in times long gone. As a white Aussie, I don't have much evidence of my past in this way, and any of those items and the things pertaining to indigenous Australians are very few. Most of my Australian history is made up for the tourists. I always feel like I'm missing out on something. I know my mother's family is from Ireland & Wales from the 1830s-50s and my father is from Belgium, but I have no connection with any of them. Back in the day of my forebears, a trip to Australia was usually one way, especially for my great granny; I think she's my five-greats granny.

Koum Kapi
I was walking along the seafront where the wall is, behind an old guy that was fishing. I passed by a taverna that looked like just a tiny place, on the corner of Akti Enoseos & Glafkou. Sitting inside was a group of five older blokes (I personally can relate to the term 'older') eating, drinking and talking until this other guy turned up with an accordion. I sat down at a table just inside the building. After a while the guy with the accordion started playing, and one of the guys started singing. I finished my meal and the owner brought me a dessert and a little bottle of raki, so I had a drink and then another and then another, until I finished the bottle (having also had a Mythos with my meal).

Manousos, the singing fisherman

The other men would accompany this guy (I was told his name was Manousos) when he sang (and drank). The expressions on his face and the gestures were amazing - he could be happy, sad, funny, quizzical, nearly anything. It was such a pleasure to be there. I asked the owner if they would mind my taking some photos and he said to go ahead. Some of the time he would then sing to me, and the other guys would join in on some of the songs, and this other older couple who arrived sometime after this all started would also join in with them. This guy seemed to be having the time of his life. Apparently he is a fisherman and goes in there quite often.

I stayed a long time because he was so funny, and at the same time so serious, enjoying himself so expressively. It was a delight being there. He sang to different members of the group, even blowing kisses to one, even to me. My lunch lasted about one-and-a-half hours there. I asked the owner if the songs were Cretan or Greek (they were Greek). Eventually, I staggered away. I didn't have to be anywhere, but I couldn't justify staying there, I certainly couldn't eat any more as I was completely stuffed, and I got quite tipsy. But I still had a bit of a walk to get back to the hotel and to get through the maze of Greek drivers. But I regret leaving so soon. After all, I could have stayed. What stopped me from staying on was guilt, I suppose, that I shouldn't have really been there. Now, I really wish I had stayed longer.

It's also been getting a little chilly now. I went for a drive to Phalasarna, where I stopped and had lunch at a taverna that hangs off the side of the mountain overlooking the water, with lots of olive trees and houses. I had chicken fillet (that came with chips), a small horiatiki (salad), bread of course and a Mythos, all for just €10.30, together with a magnificent view thrown in for free. It was windy but not cold. I got back to the hotel during siesta time, so the shops were closed. I thought I might as well just keep on walking, around the Agora, still digesting my lunch. When I got back to the hotel, I took a little nap. I woke up one-and-a-half hours later, feeling very relaxed. I think it's the just-right weather. We've been craving this weather in Arizona for some time now; it only cooled down about three weeks before I left for my trip. We had some rain, and my backyard would be under water, but within an hour of it finishing, you wouldn't know it had rained, except for the increase in humidity. I hope it rains here in Crete only after I'm gone...
The Agora of Hania (central market)
I decided not to stick around for the public holiday celebrations in Hania. I've been in Greece before for the 28th of October. It felt like a good day to go and see Knossos (the web site said it was open on holidays), so I drove out to Iraklio. I can't stand the thought of taking the bus; I have a big problem with public transport. I've got my own time schedule, and I can't always work with theirs. I was up at 5:30 and left at 6:30. It took me one hour and forty-five minutes to get there. There are a lot of signs about speed cameras on the road - I don't think I broke only the speed laws but probably a couple of air regulations as well (I was practically flying). I was a bit worried, but there were times when a car came out of the blue and sped past me and I would be doing 100-110kph, so I didn't really worry about it too much.

I got to Knossos quite early, at about 8:15. The car park was empty. I then went over to the Knossos site - today was a holiday so it was free entry. Then this lady comes over to me and does her spiel. She tells me a private guide would cost €80, I said no and she dropped it to €60, but I said no again, so the other option would be to wait for a group of 8+ adults for €10. Going solo wasn't such a good idea, she said, as I could get lost in the labyrinth. I waited a bit over an hour before the group formed. It was enjoyable and informative, but she was a bit adamant about certain things (which I think are actually only assumptions). I was waiting for her to tell us what the king and queen's last words were when the tsunami hit. She didn't say anything.

It can feel a little daunting driving in these kinds of conditions if it's your first time.

After all that ancient history, I yearned for a bit more, so I left Knossos at about midday. I wanted to visit the archaeology museum in Iraklio. Well, that was a bit of a mess. I missed the turn and ended up down near the port. Then I saw a sign directing me to the city center and museum. I knew there were a couple of museums in the same area so I turned there. It was HELL - there were Greek drivers everywhere and I mean everywhere! The place was jammed with cars parked all over the place. People were stopped wherever, there seemed to be something going on close by, and some streets were blocked off. I followed a couple of other cars that looked as though their drivers were trying to get somewhere. I went through a few streets trying to get out of that mess, where I was practically praying to drive the car between the parked vehicles without doing any damage to them or me. I ended up at the waterfront again and headed for the port where I saw a sign for Hania, so I just took off.

As I fled down the highway, I'm thinking I need to sit and relax. I felt hungry, so eventually about a quarter of an hour before reaching Rethymno, I stopped and had some roast goat and another Mythos for lunch. There was nothing left for me to do when I got back to the hotel apart from having a siesta. In the evening, I took a walk to the old town, had some more to eat (this time it was beef stifado), and was hoping to top off the evening with some pastries on the way back, but by the time I left the restaurant  the pastry shops were all closed. Oh well, I can still fit into my pants, I thought, and there's always tomorrow.

The next evening, I found a place near the cathedral in Hania which looked like  a nice place to have a meal and people-watch. When I got there I saw something on the menu that I wanted: soutzoukakia. There was only one lady sitting there eating at this time (it turned out that she was part of the restaurant). I asked the waiter if the soutzoukakia contained pork. He sounded really offended! They turned out to be only beef, so I had them. Anyway, I'm halfway through my meal and they started closing up the place. So here I was, sitting outside on my own, having a meal. They didn't rush me or anything, even bringing me grapes and raki when I had finished. But most of the places around that area were also closed, or in the process of doing so at this time, so I didn't stretch it out.

I don't think the waiter was impolite as such when I asked him about the contents of the soutzoukakia. Maybe it was more like he was astonished that I would think they could be anything else but beef. I ask the question routinely of all sausage or mince dishes where meats could be mixed. I know that pork is substituted or added a lot these days to what were traditionally lamb and beef dishes everywhere, so unless a place is kosher or halal, you are for sure most likely to find pork there, even if it's not labelled as such. I had wanted to try soutzoukakia at other tavernas, but the menu mentioned beef and pork. I'm in a foreign country and culture, so I think it's perfectly normal to ask a question about a traditional dish. His amazement that I could even ask such a question makes me wonder what he was thinking. I could not take offence, but then again, I am not Greek. I don't know what he was trying to say, I guess.

When I get back to Arizona, I think my doctor is going to kill me when he finds out how much cheese, eggs, fried foods, meat and yoghurt I ate while I have been in Greece. I won't have to worry about my heart blockages. I should just watch that salt. I forget sometimes, now that I don't use it so much. I used to eat it as a meal on its own. I think next time I will have a grilled chicken breast with a small portion of vegetables. I am too much of a carnivore to miss out on my meat most of the time.

All in all, Greek people always seem friendly and relaxed. The hotel staff are such a minefield of information! They don't mind trying to help you in any way. It's just not like that where I grew up and where I live now. I was talking with one of the people working in the hotel, discussing things I read in customer reviews and the huge difference in views from one person to the next. If I could respond to some of these people, it's you get what you pay for in terms of accommodation. If you don't like the Greek or Chinese or whoever's food is being served in the place where you are staying, then STAY HOME and you won't have any complaints. And another major complaint you read about in those reviews is that people don't speak English where you are travelling! For God's sake people, I want to say to them, shut up, stay home or pay €100+/night and don't venture outside into the real world. You are in somebody else's backyard, but no one is obliged to go out of their way for you, so go along with the experience.

I went back to the taverna where I heard Manousos singing a few days later, and to my delight, Manousos was still there, sober this time. But... he left within minutes of my arrival. I was so unhappy. I asked the owner about him. Apparently, he comes in every time he finishes with his fishing. I hope he's still there when I am next to visit Hania. He makes me want to come back here.

The time came for my final Greek destination - Athens. I was staying in the centre, close to the central market. I wanted to go out for dinner, looking for something different. Turning to the west when I came out the door, then up and around and back down through the market area, I felt it looked very seedy. But I walk confidently, so I feel relatively safe, and I ended up back at the Plaka, where I had some dinner. Walking back to the hotel, the streets were relatively empty away from the Plaka and the major roads. I don't think there are many people staying at the hotel. A large group of young people left yesterday morning (they seemed like first year university students). I went up to the bar on the top floor of the hotel to see the city at night. To my delight, there were still plenty of tourists walking around, and a fair number of people including locals at the Plaka. Athens looked like it was buzzing.

I'd been having a great time in Athens, but after almost two weeks on the road most days, I needed a rest, so the next day, I just went to see the Evzones in their white uniform. I tried to get a few more pictures of them, and I managed to get two more in Syntagma Square, before a cop shooed us out. There was some kind of barricade set up. As we were leaving, I asked a cop if there was a ceremony or something about to take place. No, he said, there was a protest happening, so I took a couple more pics from the sidewalk and left. By the time I walked down to the other end of Syntagma Square, I heard an amplified noise and looked to the next street south of Ermou (Mitropoleos), and here come the protestors. There must have been a hundred at the most, and they kicked all the tourists away from the area in front of the parliament where the Evzones are. I couldn't for the life me understand what the fuss was all about. And only a hundred of them or so. Time for more food and some sleep, I thought.

I understand there are quite a few problems here in Greece with regards to working conditions. I was talking with the hotel manager who was saying the same thing. It turned out that the protest was against Sunday trading. I remember when I was younger that we had trouble about Sunday trading in Australia from the government and the churches. For years, when trying to find some beer or wine - just forget it, everything was closed. Anyway, my thought at the time with the low turnout was maybe everyone was working and so couldn't make it to the protest, not realizing that it was about that very problem.

I think I came to Athens at the right time, just when everything has been spiced up a bit. Last night, before I went to dinner, I could hear this murmuring noise, so I opened the door and hung over the balcony (feeling shades of Juliette), and along comes a group of Pakistanis or Bangladeshis, at least that's what I thought. They were half jogging down the street, chanting and rhythmically clapping, led by a policeman who was doing something that seemed like traffic control. There were more people in this group than at Syntagma Square, and I wondered what they were protesting about. They went up and down and across the streets in the area. I didn't have a clue what was going on, but this time, I didn't feel affected in any way. I just closed the door & drapes, turned off the lights, left the hotel and went to dinner in the opposite direction.

Well, it's a good thing today is my last day here. According to the weather forecast, there was supposed to be light rain, which turned out really wrong. It rained off and on during the night. I needed to get to an ATM, so I left the hotel to find one, but I found that the ATMs were closed, with metal shutters covering them. There were more demonstrators all over the place. There was one group I passed on Stadiou St and I could hear more on Leoforos Venizelou near the Academy of Athens. I continued on to Syntagma Square where I saw the last couple of groups leaving. I wandered some more to go and see the Museum of Greek Music Instruments, but on the way the heavens opened up and dumped themselves onto me. I had a brolly with me, which was about as useful as a tissue in a swimming pool. I got to the museum and the thing was shut! What a totally wet waste of time. So I just went back to the hotel, stopping at an ATM a couple of streets from the hotel which was, thankfully, open.

I think I've been lucky. It's my last day here, and it's the first time in all my trips to Europe that it has rained. I can't really complain about the museum being closed. It's just another excuse to come back, apart from everything else that keeps me coming back to Greece. I wonder if it's rained in Hania. And if Manousos is still fishing. Or singing. Or both.

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