Greek life

The end is near

Fourteen and a half months went faster than a toupee in a hurricane. I feel sort of like the radio stations and magazine articles at the end of every year summing up the best whatevers of the year and the top this-n-thats of the year.

img_0226Our last days were spent doing a lot of logistical things, such as selling the car, the air conditioners, packing, and returning the many things Papou has loaned us over these last months.  The car, naturally, was not without  paperwork/appointments/more paperwork chafe (“oh yes Mr. Fefes, I can see that they are paid but you have to go to the other office downtown to get the paper, I cannot give you that paper at this office…” “Oh no Mr. Fefes, you have to have your signature notarized by the police department so go there and then drive all the way back here…”).  Through this process, Demetri was told that he was in the country illegally because our visas have expired and that he should be arrested right then, and at the airport when we leave, we can expect to be detained, heavily fined and/or banned from coming back to the EU for 2 years.  That prompted an immediate email from us to the Greek consulate officer in LA requesting the statute that says we have 90 days on our US passport after the visa expires, per what she told us last May.  We got a response from her saying that we are not in violation, but we don’t have the statute yet.  We’ll see what happens at the airport.  Greece is nothing without drama and friction.

Aside from that potential wrinkle, our last days were ALSO spent ignoring our pending arrest and enjoying the beach, the sea, the square and Athens.  We had a couple of evenings together with Thodoris and Mina, who generous as always, brought the boys some new Fall duds.   Katerina made her famous spaghetti and an amazing leek pie for the whole family one night last week, and the kids got to play one more time.

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Happy gang of first and third graders

We also had a surprise visit from our school friends, Natallia, Arthur and Edward this week from Denver by way of Russia and Italy.  We got to celebrate Arthur’s 8th birthday poolside at their lovely house with a day full of swimming, soccer, great food and wine.  In the taxi going home, a sleepy Peter proclaimed, “I had a blast today.” Michael concurred as enthusiastically as one can with half closed eyes.

img_7708And, we spent one last evening around the Acropolis, walking from Thiseio to Plaka. Demetri and the boys scampered up the rocks on the hill itself while Papou and I walked the boring way, past the Ancient Agora and up the hill.  It was a beautiful evening to be out; the humidity was low and the temperature was perfect. We had dinner at το Καφενειο, a traditional-with-a-twist taverna we really love. Oh, and it’s right next to Papou’s high school, another of our favorite Athens monuments.

Family, neighbors and friends are asking if we want to go home or if we want to stay.  What do we like better, the US or Greece? We’re not leaving because we don’t like it here.  Quite the opposite in fact: we’ve come to love much about Greece, Greeks and European life.  Leaving our beloved Papou is terribly difficult.  At the same time, Denver is home.  And home, is well, home.  This experience made us appreciate the things we take for granted.

A friend of Demetri’s sent him this note that ended like this: “I want to reiterate to you that you did the smartest thing you could do for your family: teaching values, lifetime memories and perspectives outside the rat race.  I hope you don’t feel you missed any business opportunities – you can always make millions. I’ve had older friends die recently and their millions meant nothing but their family and friends everything.  Unfortunately, they don’t get that until they hear their doctor say, “Sorry but you have a year to live.”

That first part — values, memories, perspectives outside home — sums it up. Thanks, Jack, for saying it better than we did.

 

Greek life

Reflections 2: Learning Greek

Of all the goals we had when we came to Greece, the biggest was to learn the language. I’ve written a lot about the kids and their command of Greek. Demetri and I held our own too, and that is all thanks to Omilo, an Athens-based language and culture school.  For almost six months, two days a week, Demetri and I commuted to Omilo’s office in Maroussi, a north suburb. Demetri found them in 2016 and took two summertime week-long intensive classes in 2016 and 2017.  That’s Omilo’s secret sauce: they attract students with a course on one of the beautiful Greek islands or in lovely Nafplio at Easter time.  How can you not love it?

I loved going to school and I loved learning Greek. My little beginner group and our lessons were the highlight for me from October to April. Demetri was in a different class, as he was more advanced than I was. He’s been hearing Greek his whole life and had taken 40 hours of classes already, but I had to start with letter sounds. My class was five: Xion from South Korea, Barbara from Germany, Lucy from China, Diane from London and me.

Demetri, witty in both English and Greek,  jokes that we speak two languages: English and American. Ha. I was humbled by my classmates who were all learning their fourth or fifth language IN a foreign language.   Sometimes I found myself listening to them ask a question in English and wondering how their minds could so easily think and switch between their native language and these other languages. They made it look so easy.

Our teacher was the immensely talented, ever patient Konstantinos, who had a great sense of humor, fantastic sound effects and spot-on sign language. He taught in a way that made it fun, even when it was difficult.  The Omilo ‘method’ is terrific: lots of interactive talking where we learned, and repeated and built from the base, reading and learning from the textbook chapters, homework that was fun, and flash cards to give us the visuals of what we were talking about.  Everything Omilo teaches from start to finish is incredibly useful for everyday life, whether clothes, food, transportation, shopping, travel, and directions.  We also read short stories about different parts of Greece and studied the map. It was in class that I learned about Meteora.

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Our beloved Kyria Soula and Kyrie Aleko on the last day of school.

I can say with some confidence that my Greek is now good enough to be ‘transactional,’ though the more I learned the more difficult it was and the more I realized how much there is still to go.  After 6-8 weeks in school, I felt comfortable talking to someone supermarket, the bakery and asking a basic question of Kyria Soula or Kyrie Aleko (school bus; see photo) about something for the next day.  I didn’t always understand the answer. One  morning over breakfast, Peter made me practice and repeat what he wanted me to say to Kyria Soula. One day in March, the girls from class (Xion left in December) met near Syntagma for coffee and language practice when some Indian tourists asked if we knew where the tourist police was. We had just had the lesson about directions that week, so I was able to ask the staff of the nearby deli … and to my delight I understood what they said and helped the folks outside.

One March day, though, was the icing on the cake for my studies. Shortly after we started the lessons for future tense, I went to school to pay the remainder of the boys’ basketball bill.  I walked in, greeted the very kind Kyria Vagia at the front desk and said, «Θα ηθηλα να πληρωσω το λογαριασμο για τον μπασκετ, παρακαλο.»  The school staff had always been gracious and patient with my English, but on this day, Kyria Xenia, the Δημοτικο secretary hugged me and said I spoke Greek so well and how last summer I knew NOTHING. NOTHING! NOTHING! (Yep, three times. It was so funny). And then she took me into the accounting office and told Kyria Chrysanthi, the accountant, the same thing and asked me to repeat my payment request.  I felt ten feet tall and it was all because of Konstantinos. They wanted to know where I had studied the language and learned so fast and I was only happy to sing the praises of Omilo.

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Barbara, Lucy, Diane and me practicing Greek over coffee

I am already plotting my next Greek lessons, because I’m just dying to learn the past tense of verbs. As Diane so aptly put it:  we (humans) really spent more time talking about what we have done rather than what we’re going to do.  Past tense enables conversation.  But until we can be Omilo students again, Demetri and I will avidly read the Omilo newsletter and blog, published in Greek and English.

Greek life

Reflections, part 1

The wind is in from Africa; last night I couldn’t sleep.  It sure is hard to leave you, but it’s really not my home.

Usually song lyrics getting stuck in my head are for random reasons. This week, though, this Joni Mitchell line is, like totally us: the winds ARE in from Africa, sleep eludes me, and as our time in Greece comes to an end, we’re all feeling excited to go home, but also sad to leave here.

We’ve been reflecting a lot on the last 14 months.  A year ago now, we were on the island of Rhodes and getting ready to embark on our fantastic central European tour, though I don’t think we had it totally planned out.  We had registered for school, but I had put that out of my head with six more weeks of summer and on account of being terrified of a local upon receiving my first email not recognizing a single word. Gulp.

And now, I watch the kids talk to other kids on the beach, playing waboba ball with them or showing off a live sea star that my snorkeling champ Michael has pulled from 8 feet down.  I see them swim so (too) far out in the sea … all the way to the buoys that mark the boat lines. I see how close they have gotten to each other and how their imaginary games work in things they’ve learned from our travels in Europe to 8 different countries: bull fights, free build F1 lego cars, playing knights or Roman soldiers, choosing their outfits for the day based national team soccer players (“Does Harry Kane ever wear all red?” “I HAVE to wear this. Ronaldo wears long sleeves!”  “I’m in all blue so I’m Griezmann today.”)

There’s a lot we’ll miss here.  We’ve met such wonderful families at school.  Our school and they way they ‘handled’ us was just excellent.  Our neighbors are so great.  Greeks are such good-natured people.  For all their emotion and passion and risky driving habits, they are kind, patient, understanding and fun. Learning the language and the expressions and a lot of Greek history really explains them as a culture.  And they all — ALL — love kids.  Nowhere else have I seen so many complete strangers (I’m talking adults) rub the boys’ heads, ask them a question, insert themselves into their mini-soccer game, or high five them for wearing the ‘right’ soccer jersey. One day in the Supermarket, a man saw Peter’s jersey, asked his name, and congratulated him on rooting for Olympiacos.  On the flip side, last week in Monasteraki, a waiter snatched Peter’s red and white komboloi, saying ‘this taverna only allows Panithainiakos’ paraphernalia.  Of course he was kidding and Peter knew it — both giggled.  In our plateia, the taverna staff will kick the ball with the kids, or go fetch them when the food arrives, carry them to me and bring ice when they fall, and one server even gifted them a basketball.

img_0092We watch Peter, who has changed and grown so much, with his big English vocabulary and his perfect Greek accent.  He’s learned the language so well and so fast, he doesn’t even have to think in Greek anymore.  It just comes straight out.  His English teacher told me that when kids didn’t understand things in English class, he explained it to them in Greek.  He’s always singing or humming a Greek song.  This summer I saw only Peter’s feet sticking out of the water.  He must do 50 water hand stands a day.  And Michael, whose quiet confidence and leadership skills have increased tenfold.  He did his schoolwork faithfully and without complaint, and he’s got Greek grammar rules down cold. He brought soccer cards to school every day to play with anyone who wanted to and his classmates all drew him goodbye pictures. And when we go to the beach he grabs his mask, snorkel and fins at a speed like he’s in the transition area in a triathlon and is in the water faster than I can chase him with the sunscreen.  He emerges 20 minutes later with some treasure in his hand — a clam, the aforementioned sea stars, a hermit crab.  Yesterday, Demetri saw a sea turtle on his swim. Total thrill. img_0189

At this moment, what everyone says they’ll miss is the obvious things: Papou of course.  Greek food.  Our cousins and how close we’ve gotten to them.  Living a block from the sea and watching the marine traffic pass all day — sailboats, yachts, ferries, cargo boats.  The plateia.  The laiki, especially in summer with peaches priced at €1.50/kilo and figs for even less.  Watermelon. But these are the things in our immediate reach; in our everyday lives.  It will be interesting to see in a month or six what we miss that will be more significant to our souls.

I wasn’t familiar with the acronym FOMO until recently. Inversely, over the last year we enjoyed JOMO — the joy of missing out.  Part of it was because we were fairly insulated — we didn’t watch the news because we couldn’t understand it; we didn’t hang around school to learn much insider information, and again, not sure we would have understood it. We didn’t have jobs so didn’t get enmeshed in office or local politics.  We also didn’t feel like we missed much at home; we didn’t wish to have been there more than we wanted to be here.  And what this experience did for our family is something that we (the parents) wouldn’t change for the world. We are closer to each other as a foursome, our marriage is stronger, we understand each other better, we admire the bravery in each other for different things we took on this year and we learned that we don’t need stuff to be happy.  We just need each other.

Will we do it again? Θα δουμε. Quite possibly.

 

 

Greek life

Visitor collage!

Other people give us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.

This post speaks for itself.  Our hearts are full with gratitude to our friends and family who made time to visit Greece … and us.

Sadly, not pictured are Kristina and Canyon Scala.  Not sure how we let them get away without a photo.

quote from greatergood.berkeley.edu
Greek life

The WALL

We’ve spent a good amount of time at this Athens fun center. A few of Michael’s classmates had their birthday parties here, and it’s a great rainy day destination. And because it’s summer, The WALL has minimal staff and customers, which meant Michael and Peter got what was essentially a private climbing lesson from Kostantinos. The boys took photos and videos of each other and snacked on grapes between climbs. Michael is a good little climber and liked it when Kostantinos would use a laser pointer to guide him through the tough spots. Peter, still 5, has great strength and got up almost 40 feet. After an hour, they were smoked. Rainy day success!

Travels

Evia

The island of Evia, or Euboea as it’s transliterated, has been on Demetri’s exploration list for some time.  It’s Greece’s second largest island, full of mountains, trees and even a few hot springs.  It’s easy to get to from Athens, too — a bridge connects the Attica peninsula to the island, and there are smaller ferries that you can take (with car) if you’re coming from elsewhere on the mainland. That’s what we did.

img_0097We left Meteora and drove to the little town of Glyfa for a 19 euro (4 people plus car!), 20-minute shuttle ride to the small port of Agiokambos on Evia’s northwest side where we docked, watched some little boys fish with a spool of fishing line and a hook (no poles needed thank you very much!) and headed east to the village of Agia Anna. Demetri found a small, beautiful hotel right on the 7 km long Agkali Beach.  Agkali looks to be of the best-known beaches on the island, but it felt private and secluded and may be the most relaxing place I’ve been to in Greece.  The beach itself is known as a ‘pebble’ beach. They were more like rocks: the coolest, most beautiful mix of colors.  Peter and I spent time two afternoons inspecting and collecting a bunch of different ones. The next day, Demetri found one that looked just like a human ear!  Cue several “I-can’t-hear-you” jokes.img_0101

Demetri invited Papou and Sandy to join us there and one morning at breakfast, Papou strolled in at an amazingly early hour. The boys loved having him with us.  Together, they shuttled from beach to pool, where Papou taught Peter to dive — really dive instead of belly flop. I think the kids had the best vacation of all: the hotel had a fantastic kids program with activities in their ‘magic forest’ all day long, games at the pool, soccer on the beach and movies at night.  They would leave breakfast, we’d drag them away for lunch and some swimming mid-afternoon, and they’d come back so we could head into the village for dinner.  Unless of course they were having dinner at the all-you-can-eat-souvlaki-or-pasta-with-fazolakia kids buffet.  While the boys were playing soccer and capture the flag in the magic forest, Demetri and I sat on in shady chairs on the beautiful, isolated beach and watched the lone ferry that travels from Evia to the island of Skopelos across the water.  Skopelos is in the Sporadic island group and is famous for being the film site of “Mamma Mia.”

You can’t really see it, but the photo above on the beach is a horse in the water.  Across from the hotel is a little farm with roosters and horses. Kyria Nancy offered a little field trip to magic forest kids to feed and brush the horses, which Peter took full advantage of, and she also took groups riding on the beach.  One day a group came by and the next thing we knew, one of the horses was swimming.  It was astounding.  The rider stayed on as the horse frolicked in the water.  It was absolutely beautiful to watch.

img_0076In terms of Greek history, Evia was the site of a famous battle with the Persians in 480 BC, at the exact same time that Leonidas and his 300 Spartans were fighting at Thermopylae.  The battle on Evia is said to be a draw: a severe storm caused both the Greeks and Persians to cut their losses and skedaddle.  Evia is also where the huge, famous statue of Poseidon was found by fishermen in the 1920s. The statue is a central piece today in the National Archaeological Museum.

We liked Evia so much that our three-days turned to six.  There was a great breeze so it didn’t feel too hot. We watched the World Cup finals in our pretty little room facing the sea, and we came home with good tans, magic forest crowns and fun paintings.

We’re back in Athens with the air conditioners getting quite a workout.  We swam here one afternoon and the water was so warm it felt like a jacuzziOur last set of visitors arrive today and we’re starting to separate things to pack, purge, and give away.  My mom sent photos of our yard this week and both kids are dreaming of barefoot soccer in the cool, soft grass.

Travels

Meteora

This fantastic rock formation in central Greece is evidenced to have been inhabited since the ice age. In the 9th century AD, some hermit monks dwelled in the caves and fissures; in the 14th century some 24 monasteries were built — some for monks and some for nuns. Six remain today and are open for visitation.

Seven hundred years ago, the only way to get up was via a series of ropes and ladders. This was both ideal and deliberate. The monks and nuns could control their ‘village’ completely, plus when threats of Turkish invaders increased as Byzantium began to wane, they could pull up the ladders to keep anyone (everyone) out.

Today there are stairs that lead up to each remaining building. Important art and artifacts were rumored to be housed here, including a finger of St. John and the scapula of St. Andrew. World War 2 saw quite a bit of destruction from Nazi bombs and much of the art was stolen, just like in many other places in Europe.

We visited two of the monasteries, on a day with a good bit of cloud cover. The views from the tops of the rocks was, of course, terrific. In one place we had a silence contest so we could all imagine what it was like to live there in utter quiet. I lost.

We have seen photos of Meteora and though the photos really do show what it looks like, it was really cool to see them in person.

We arrived at Meteora on Sunday, after spending the weekend just outside of Kamena Vourla with Thodoris and Mina and Mina’s lovely parents in her mother’s village. We had two great days at the beach and in the beautiful water, paddle boarding and swimming and resting. Back in the villlage, Mina’s mom cooked up a storm for every meal all weekend! Soufflé for breakfast, spinach pies, homemade pizza, kontosouvli, chicken and potatoes in the oven, roasted lamb, fazolakia, sautéed eggplant, sautéed zucchini, Horta and lovely desserts. All of her produce and herbs were local and from the village. She sent us on our way with some freshly dried oregano and a black cherry spoon (Greeks call it ‘sour cherry’) sweet to enjoy with yogurt.

Central and Northern Greece is quite pretty. At a few spots, the big mountains and vast valleys looked like Colorado. In fact at one spot, if we didn’t know better, it seemed as if we were rounding the corner on 285 into South Park. We listened to another installment of Magic Tree House and lots of Rolling Stones.

Where our road trip takes us next, we’re not sure. Ioannina maybe. Or Evia. We’ll see.