Travels

Venice

The Dolomites sure are pretty as you fly over them. Snow-capped and rugged, they look like perfect peaks of meringue from the sky.

This is my first time in Venice; Demetri’s second. For others who have been here, you know that getting to the main city is a planes/trains/automobiles combo since there are no cars in the city.  We took a bus to the vaporetto (the public transportation boats), through the Grand Canal and arrived at Piazza San Marco. As we entered the square, someone put food in Peter’s hand and three pigeons landed on his arm to eat. The man did it again and three more pigeons came and this time one of them was flapping its wings in Peter’s face. (Eeuuw.) Later he reported his surprise at how heavy they were.   We crossed through the Piazza, past the Doges Palace and Basilica of San Marco – beautiful with its mosaic floors, gold on the ceiling and lots of treasures pillaged from other cities around Europe and Turkey during the Crusades – and boarded the boat to our hotel on Giudecca island, opposite the Rialto/San Marco neighborhoods.

We arrived Christmas Eve and at check-in were given one heck of an upgrade to a beautiful suite with its own Jacuzzi and roof access. The living room had windows on two sides overlooking the water and the San Marco neighborhood on the main island.  We had a lovely dinner that night at the hotel – traditional fish for Christmas Eve, pasta for the kids and a lovely glass of wine, plus all the panettone we wanted.

We found some chocolates to leave for Santa and poured him a glass of San Pellegrino. The boys went to sleep confident that because Frankie, our elf, had found us in both Athens AND Budapest, Santa would make it.

And he did, leaving gifts for the kids in front of the fireplace.

Christmas Day was a quiet day in our lovely room.  The hotel served cookies at breakfast, plus hot chocolate with blue marshmallows and popcorn handed out by a thin Santa hailing from Morocco.  Must be a summer place?  Demetri and I both went for a run, through the deserted streets and over bridges.  There were a couple of trattorias open and some laundry hanging here and there, but otherwise the island felt completely desolate.

The 26th was St. Stephen’s Day, so pretty much all the same stuff was closed.  It was our day to see everything … so we started on Murano island to see a glassblowing demonstration.  We got tickets weeks ago but when we got there it was all locked up.  We went to the Murano museum instead, and that was excellent.  We had a snack and boarded the vaporetto back to San Marco, where we walked to the Rialto Bridge and wound our way through the streets, into La Fenice (opera house) and back to San Marco and into the Basilica, then went for dinner. It was cloudy and rainy most of our time there, but the fog and clouds give Venice an even more magical appearance.  Though a sunny, springtime gondola cruise would be pretty awesome.

Today on my run, it was cool to see the butcher, post office, fish market and produce stands all open.  (Demetri ran early – in the dark – so he saw them start to open as he looped back). Then we toured the Grand Canal one last time – destination train station.  Next stop, Milano.

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Travels

Budapest reunion tour: Christmas markets

Hot mulled wine. Goulash in bread bowls.  Warm apple cider. Stuffed cabbage.  Potato pancakes.  Sausage for miles.  Hot, grilled, sugary chimney cake.  Roasted goose thighs.  Salmon roasting/smoking on vertical planks.  Rooster testicles in tomato sauce.  Budapest’s Christmas market sells all this — something like 20 food stalls just in the main market in Vorosmarty Square.   And all of  this food is surrounded by 30ish craft stalls where artisans sell their crafts: childrens’ toys, scarves, jewelry, music boxes, nifty casseroles for, say, winter cassoulet, and beautiful, colorful marzipan candies stacked on top of each other.

We really loved Budapest when we visited in August.  Damaged extensively in World War II, it’s been rebuilt into a beautiful city that is easy to navigate, has good parks, playgrounds, coffee and beer … and its Christmas markets are ranked 4th best in all of Europe.  We really wanted to see a proper Christmas market in full swing, so Budapest was our first stop on our Christmas holiday trip. It was beautiful.

We stayed quite near the main market in Vorosmarty Square so we walked in and around it several times in our day and a half trip.  And funny enough, everywhere we turned, there were Greeks! And lots of Americans.  We sat next to a nice couple at lunch on Saturday from Athens in this tiny little restaurant (10 tables) where you go get your coffee at the sister stand across the alley and bring it back to your table.  We took a ferris wheel ride and played at a park.  Saturday night we walked between Vorosmarty Square and the ‘smaller’ market in front of St. Stephen’s Cathedral (site of Peter’s epic nap in August) to watch the light show being displayed on the cathedral’s facade.  A rock band played lots of American music on the main stage – and their favorite song to play is Steely Dan’s “Do It Again.”

Andrassy Avenue – Budapest’s equivalent to 5th Avenue – was beautifully lit up from City Center to City Park, with the Opera House as the crown jewel right in the middle.  Peter lost one of his gloves and was so distraught during our walk back to the market, and there it was, right by the B in the Budapest statue.  (I knew that’s where it had to be!) He’s sure the Christmas angels found it for him.

We didn’t try the rooster.

And now, over the Dolomites and through the canals to Venice we go.

Merry Christmas from our family to yours.

 

 

Greek life

Kales Giortes!

This past Sunday we hosted a December birthday (Demetri and Papou) and name day (Anna and me) party with our whole family — 15 of us.  We did a traditional “American” Christmas meal: a rib roast, Gma’s patrician potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, salad and veggies. Desserts were traditional Greek cookies: kourabiedes (tea cookies covered in powdered sugar) and melomakarona (honey cookies with cinnamon, cloves and walnuts) … plus a lemon souffle from Papou, a galaktoboureko (custard wrapped in layers of kataifi dough) thanks to Katerina, and a Revani (cake with walnuts) compliments of Mina’s mom.  Greece is a dessert lover’s dream come true.

We had the same sort of party in November for birthdays (Thodoris and Michael) and name days (Katerina and Katerina). For that one, I made a tacos carnitas spread, which was Michael’s idea.  Much to my my delight I was able to find all the Mexican ingredients I needed except for fresh jalapenos.

School for the kids and Greek school for us is winding down this week for a nice, long, two-week break. The homework has been a little lighter this week for Michael which has allowed us to go do holiday stuff. Last night we went to Glyfada (the next town over) with Papou to its Christmas fair.  The boys and I ice skated for an hour, then they jumped and flipped on these big trampolines and played a little air hockey.  Peter was a total trooper skating, he fell the entire time but giggled and got back up.  There was a guy on duty there who must have picked him up 20 times.  We had dinner at an awesome place with all kinds of games and activities for the kids and lots of tables for eating. It was chic and modern but also warm and cozy and a place like this would kill it in the US.   Greece is wonderful for letting kids be kids.

Demetri’s homework is still pretty tough; this week he’s moved into present perfect continuous and past perfect continuous verb conjugations. His comprehension leaves me in the dust. I still only know verbs in present tense, which is probably some sort of cosmic advice about living for right now instead of worrying about the past or micromanaging the future … so I’m embracing it.

We found a super botanical garden on the west side of Athens thanks to our friends the Staals. It’s the largest arboretum in all of Europe and has a rare selection of plants from around the world.  Demetri was excited to see a deciduous cedar tree. There are great trails for hiking and walking and lots of really neat gardens and ponds.  And of course there’s a playground near the entrance for the kids.  The back of the gardens leads into some huge open space and we hiked as high as we could to get a view of the city — and we could see the Acropolis way out in the distance.  Michael said he thinks Greece is perfect … you can hike in December and not be cold.  The only other thing he says he needs are his friends from home.

Tomorrow night we are heading to Budapest for a proper Christmas market (we missed them by a few days in Belgium) and then onto Italy.  We are determined to find the statue of Perseus holding Medusa’s head and to our surprise, it’s housed in Florence instead of Athens.

Kales giortes  = happy holidays. 

Greek life

Christouyenna stin Ellada/Christmas in Greece

Christmas has arrived.  The pageantry is by far our most favorite part of the holiday season and Athens is more decorated than we expected in light of the financial problems.  We’ve watched the crews hang lights all over Voula and Vouliagmeni during our morning runs by the sea.  It does seem kind of odd to have Christmas lights on palm trees, but that’s likely just a lack of exposure (mine). They still look festive.

Last Friday (8 Dec), there was a celebration in the Voula square  — games and bubble tricks for the kids, a local choir singing carols in Greek and then the lighting of the square’s Christmas tree followed by … fireworks right over our heads! The square is very festive looking and lots of fun.  The boys found a friend from basketball and ran around with him for an hour or more.

In downtown Athens, the Attica department store has its windows decorated for the holidays, lights are strung across the streets and the tree in Syntagma square was lit this week.  We took the metro into Athens last weekend to get our city holiday on, and ended with a hot chocolate in the gorgeous lobby of the Grand Bretagne hotel.

It is full-on Christmas here — not ‘holidays’.  98% of the Greek population is Christian Orthodox, and even though the Greek State and the Orthodox Church are technically separated, the separation is not regulated and the Church has a lot of power in Greek society.  Greece spent hundreds of years occupied and controlled by Turks or Venetians or others and during those times, orthodoxy was something that defined Greek nationality. The church made great efforts to preserve Greek language, culture, traditions and the Orthodox faith. By preserving the faith, they also preserved the religious conscience and the feeling of affiliation.  So while it’s odd for Americans to see religious symbols in public buildings, schools, subway signs, the history behind it makes it more understandable.

The remaining 2%? More than half are Muslim and the rest are Catholics, Jews and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Catholics are largely populated on Syros (it was the only Cycladic island never inhabited by the Turks — the Venetians had it), and there is a significant Jewish population in Thessaloniki, Greece’s 2nd largest city.

Greek orthodoxy celebrates Christmas a bit differently. Midnight mass on Christmas Eve and then Christmas Day is usually a family dinner of some sort.  The Greek version of Santa, Agios Vasilis/St. Basil the Great, brings gifts on New Year’s Eve.  This makes the boys’ heads spin.  Will Santa find them on Christmas or will Ag. Vasilis come instead a week later?  Frankie, our elf, managed to find us. Complicating the matter is that we will not be in Greece for Christmas or St. Vasilis Day, so what does THAT mean?  We’ll just have to see what happens….

Our school held their Christmas Bazaar last night, 15 December.  There was an entire classroom for cookies and sweets, and the upper school was walking around auctioning off dozens of full cakes and loaves of tsoureki.  Each class was in the gym selling their Christmas crafts. We came home with little goodies which is terrific as we don’t have many decorations.

The Nipiagogeio (kindergarten) held a play titled “Who Kidnapped Agios Vasillis?” about, you guessed it, the kidnapping of Santa.  Over the years, Agios Vasillis has morphed into “the Greek Santa,” likely out of commercialization.  In reality, Agios Vasillis is a tallish, skinnyish fellow with a long beard who comes from the east.  His story is similar to that of St. Nicholas, who helped the poor and needy.  He died on January 1, 379 AD and the orthodox church celebrates his name day then.

The play was hilarious. The kidnappers, the head elf, and Santa were all played by teachers. Peter had two roles, one as a kid affected by the kidnapping, and one as an evil scientist who was on a team of interrogators with Santa in captivity.  He had 4-5 speaking parts, all but one in Greek.  We all cracked up when he asked Santa just exactly how he gets down the chimney.  (“πωσ περνασ μεσα απο ‘κι καμιναδεσ?”) Sounded like a native speaker. And he winked at us a few times from the stage.

In other Peter news, we went to the doctor one evening this week for coughs and pink eye.  The next day, Demetri got a call from Peter’s teacher asking if Peter indeed went to the doctor because he swallowed a fly and it laid eggs in his throat.  Demetri assured her that only the first part of the story was true and explained how we are really working on our imaginations in our nighttime storytelling.

We absolutely love all the cards we’re getting from our friends and family. Thank you all so much for thinking of us and sending them all the way to Greece.

Kala Christouyenna! Kales Giortes!

 

Travels

Lisbon

We had a hiatus from Greek school last week so Demetri spent 4 days in Lisbon. He fell in love with it.  It’s a vibrant city where the tapas are better than Spain, the seafood is better than Greece and the coffee and pastries are better than Italy.  Food and drinks were super cheap and super fabulous.

It rained cats and dogs his first full day there, but the rest of the week was sunny and warmer than Athens was.  He planned to walk and run through the (very) hilly city and he logged something like 10 miles a day.  He loved the Time Out Market, which is a combination of a traditional market and a food hall.

He took a day trip Day trip to Sintra, a great town in the mountains with five or six castles and palaces.  He toured Pena Palace – by far the ugliest palace in all of Europe. The park behind it, however, was fantastic and had some of the largest Cypress trees he’s ever seen and plant varieties brought in from all over the world. The town was a very neat & medieval looking, with a weird mix of Moorish and Hapsburg design.

Lisbon is a great city with amazing food, design, music and people who are all out to mingle. The bonus was how affordable everything is, and compared to Greece that’s really saying something.

 

Greek life

TGIP

Friday – Paraskevi –  is the kids’ favorite day of the week. Isn’t it everyone’s?  As I sit watching the two-tone sea on this windy, cloudy but warm afternoon, I’m glad it’s Friday too.  The Christmas tree in the Plateia is being lit tonight, Demetri’s coming home tomorrow after a week in Portugal (his FB pics are great – go look), we’ll see Anna, Vasillis and the kids this weekend, and both Michael and Peter have a laser tag birthday party on Sunday.  Quick aside: birthday parties are basically the same here as in the US, except the venue has a professional photographer to take photos of each child and then of course you can buy the photo or some swag that goes with it.  I thought it was brilliant …  and the moms laughed at me saying just wait until you have 15 key chains. By Sunday I’ll have 4.

We’re two and a half months into school and both boys are doing so well.  Their school takes great advantage of the culture in and around Athens.  Peter’s class went to the Wizard of Oz this week and last week they went to an olive orchard to harvest olives from the trees and began curing them. He’s also been to two theater performances.  Michael has been to the ceramics museum in Athens and 2 theater performances, and both boys got to skip out of school at 12:30 on Halloween to go with the school basketball team to the SEF basketball stadium where the Olympiacos team plays.  There are two more field trips each before school breaks for Christmas.

Plus, they’re having fun.  Peter’s class is small and he has special things to say about each child.  Sometimes he compares them one for one to his buddies from PreK,  and his most consistent bubble up each day is when he gets to play with his friend Demetri in school.  But he also loves to play with Ermes, Fillipos, Chrysanthi, Anastasia, Gianni, Massimo, Dorothea, Kacey, Ais, Sylvia … he loves them all and Kyria Anna too, his wonderful teacher.  She’s pretty amazing. He is learning Greek well, he understands a ton, knows a lot of words, all the parts of the body in Greek, and is always singing or humming a Greek song.  Having never met a stranger, Peter recognizes kids in the square from school or from the bus and yells “Gia sou Giorgos!” (or Panos or whomever) across the way.  He has a little man crush on Spiros, a 5th grader who lives around the block.  Spiros is quite cool.  And very kind.  Kindergarten here is not as rigorous as Aspen, but going to school in a foreign country where you don’t know the language is more than enough rigor for one little person.

Michael is mildly obsessed with basketball and loves going to practice.  Sweet Papou got him a hoop for his birthday and he shoots almost every morning as we wait for the bus.  He loves drama and computers and he has fun in English class where he’s got his buddy Max (Max speaks 4 languages) and 3 other second graders who are bilingual.  Max has been his pal since day one, along with two sisters from Australia who are in our same boat with the language.  One of the girls works with Michael and Ms. Elena every day.  And just in the last week, he’s been starting to play with his classmates more and more, which has my mommy heart exploding.

Of all of us, Michael’s had the biggest challenge with the language.  For Peter, it’s fine that he’s not fluent.  For Demetri and me, it’s fine too.  Most everything (signs, subway announcements) is translated and everyone speaks some English.  Peter can be in class without having to know how to read or write at this point. But in second grade, you are listening and learning in Greek only.  That part was addressed by school early on and the solution is working great.  The social piece has been more difficult.  He would come home with stories of boys getting in his face, not letting him have turns, knocking his ball out of his hands, pulling the door shut when Michael was coming in, and Michael was frustrated to not understand what they said and not to be able to tell them to stop. Then one day one of these boys pinned him between one of the desks and the window.  Demetri, who went to 4 new schools between kinder and 5th grade, had excellent counsel for Michael. He constantly reminds him that what he’s doing is hard, that it is okay to say stop in English, and that part of what makes it difficult is that we don’t understand how other kids play.  (School said that the desk incident was just playing, but that also they believed Michael that he didn’t think so.)  Demetri never told Michael to push back or get back in their faces, but to engage and be fun about it, disarm the behavior.  So, one day Michael got off the bus thrilled to tell us that when one of the two boys got in Michael’s face and growled at him, Michael growled back and then smiled at him.  Then Michael went back to what he was doing.  The next morning, this boy was waiting for Michael when he got off the bus and that day he and Max played with lots of other second grade boys at recess … and have been ever since.  Major breakthrough.

I didn’t write all this for anyone to feel sorry or sad. Many of my friends have been through this or worse and I know it’s part of being a kid and being a parent.  This blog was intended to be part travelogue and part family journal and today is a journal entry.  But more than that, I wrote it for Michael’s (or Peter’s) future self. Seek first to understand, right?

A few photos from the last couple of weeks are below.