Greek life

The magic of the Mageireia

Mageirevo is the greek verb for “I cook.”  Mageireia, according to my Greek teacher, is a very old word they don’t use anymore.  It’s a place where the food is cooked in the oven or on the stove, as opposed to on the grill.  Now Greeks just call this place a taverna.  It’s kind of like the prepared food counter at Whole Foods … but everything is hot and ready to serve immediately.  And the dishes are less varied; he’s got 5ish things a day and that’s it.

Papou introduced me to our local mageireia here in Voula.  His name is Manoulis.  He likes American music from the 60s, like Nancy Sinatra, and he keeps albums behind the counter. He often shows me this or that, and I don’t know any of the female singers.  He says I look like Jane Fonda. (I don’t.)  He has a great staff — a younger fella I think might be his son who speaks a lot of English, and a really friendly delivery guy.  He has maybe 4 tables, and when I stop in there’s usually one or two people having lunch, but it’s his takeout business that is fantastically busy.  After cooking all morning, he opens at noon.  But if you go at noon, it’s not a sure thing that everything will be ready.  The magic time is 12:30 until about 1:15. After that, he pretty much sells out. I think he closes at 3.

I love going there.  I tend to go on a Tuesday or a Thursday when the boys come home starving at 5:00 and I can fill plates immediately. In my very broken greek, I tell Manoulis that I could work for him or live in the shop, whichever he prefers. He doesn’t speak much English, but he understands when I say “the best.” He almost always has roasted eggplant with olive oil and tomato sauce.  He also almost has yemista, stuffed tomatoes and peppers with rice and ground beef.  (They know I’m American because instead of mincemeat, I say ‘ground beef.’)  He often has pastisio, a pasta with meat sauce dish which the boys love. You can get roasted chicken or rooster in tomato sauce with spaghetti or rice.  You can get soutzoukakia (meatballs) with spaghetti or rice.  Sometimes he has more traditional, old school dishes like tripe.  I can’t bring myself to try it, but Papou sure loves it.

In the winter, he makes a few soups and stews. Greeks don’t really consider soup to be a food, but heartier stews appear acceptable.  Revithia is a good one – chickpeas in broth.  So are his lentils.  His gigantes, giant white beans, are different than the traditional dish with tomato sauce and dill; he uses a bunch of herbs and olive oil.  Last week he brought me around the counter to have some gigantes that were cooking in a giant caldron behind the counter.   My favorite, though, is laxanadolmades with avgolemono, stuffed cabbage with ground beef or pork, rice and herbs in an egg lemon sauce.  We also love giouvalakia, meatballs with rice and mint in egg lemon sauce.   Spring is coming and the artichokes are starting to appear … I can’t wait to see what he does with those.

His tomato sauce, though, is pure magic. I tell him this in English.  He chalks it up to really good ingredients, which I of course believe, but I’ve never had tomato sauce like this.  And lucky for me, he uses it in everything.  I think lentil soup is fine.  His lentil soup has this tomato sauce as the base and we buy 3 portions and eat it for days.  He makes fazoulakia, a summer dish of green beans in this sauce.  In the winter he roasts okra in it.  I don’t know his secret. I wish I did. I have a pretty great fazoulakia recipe that I make often and everyone loves, but it just doesn’t compare.  Papou told me to prepare myself to never make fazoulakia again after having the ones from Manoulis.

Sometimes I think about having my own mageireia in Denver.  But where will I get the tomato sauce?

Travels

Madrid

I could totally live here.

Which is clearly the opinion of 4 million others, since that’s about the current population. Madrid has many cool neighborhoods, beautiful architecture, gorgeous museums, parks, and is extremely pedestrian friendly. Cars actually come to a complete stop if you are near a crosswalk — a welcome change from the Athens madness. I rode the subway once at night, but really walking the city is better and it’s very safe. The sun doesn’t set until after 6 which is great, but it’s not light in the morning until 8:30 this time of year. Madrid is also the highest (elevation) European capital at 2200 feet, so the overnight temperature swings are closer to Colorado than Athens … so I wasn’t psyched to run in the dark or at 35 degrees.

Our dear friend and former babysitter and nanny Sydney, lived here for a year and gave me the Madrid insider’s guide. I visited the Prado Museum (300+ years of the King’s art collection – it’s huge and varied and so impressive), the Thyssen (with a great special exhibit of Picasso and Lautrec in its last 2 days) and the Reina Sofia (20th century art). Velasquez, Goya, El Greco, Picasso, Dali, Miro … and many more I hadn’t heard of. I also toured the cathedral and Royal Palace and — coolest — the royal kitchen, which takes up half of the enormous palace basement and has most of its original 18th century items in tact. It was amazing.

I walked around and through the El Retiro Park, which was transformed from the royal garden to a public park by Charles III in the 1700s. I walked to and around lots of neighborhoods – Lavapies, Salamanca, Malasana, La Latina and spent most of a day between Puerta del Sol and the Palace. We were here for a day in 2011 on a layover on our way to Greece. Michael was not yet 2 and didn’t sleep much on the red eye. We were so tired I remember being dizzy. But as I walked through the Plaza de Oriente, I recognized it as the park where we played and saw the cafe where we sucked down a coffee (two?) in 2011 while Michael passed out in the backpack carrier. He had a lot of ill-located naps on that trip.

I went to Madrid solo. I obsessively tracked my steps and mileage: 35 miles/82,000 steps in 72 hours. I missed Demetri and the kids – I haven’t been separated from the little guys for more than an evening since we left Denver. I’m not sure they missed me, though. They were doing nightly gyro comparisons in the square (K.Grill has crispier, grilled pita and serves more tzaziki, Gnision’s meat is more flavorful and the pita is warm and soft, Masati has crispy meat.  Winner: Gnision.) And when I called home and asked Michael what they were doing, he said “whatever we WANT! It’s boys’ time!”

 

 

 

Greek life

O Seismos!

It’s only Wednesday and what an exciting week. All public transportation workers were on strike Monday in protest of legislation about austerity measures and reforms that was being voted on that day.  There were no services on the Athens metro, the tram, the city buses and one of the commuter railroads.  Some schools were also affected as teachers staged walkouts in some places.  Flights were cancelled from noon until 3 as air traffic controllers walked out during that time as well.

We don’t watch the news much … so Demetri and I were astounded at the amount of traffic on our way to Greek school on Monday.  It normally takes us 50 minutes or so; Monday was 1:20. Even though I noticed a completely empty metro station we pass along the Attiki Odos (the highway on the outer loop of the Athens metro area), I thought nothing of it. We got to school and learned the reason.  It was a banner day for taxis.

Strikes are fairly common here.  Demetri, who has been caught mid-strike trying to leave Athens for the US at least once, has a longstanding theory that most people strike on Friday or Monday to facilitate a three-day weekend.  What’s lucky is that the strikes are announced ahead of time, so you can sort of plan around it … if you watch the news, that is.  We’re glad we weren’t flying on Monday.

The legislation in question — and under significant protest downtown on Monday — has to do with the EU bailout from the ongoing economic crisis. Greece is slated to end its bailout program later this summer in August but is promising its creditors more austerity measures because it wants more favorable repayment terms on the loans from the EU and IMF.  There’s a meeting next week of EU finance ministers to determine whether Greece has done enough to curb its frothy spending habits.

There does seem to be a bit of blue sky lately, though: a few weeks ago Greece did its first open market bond in 10 years and it was completely oversold.  This year saw a budget surplus.  And, there’s been an increase in GDP.  All significant and good signs of recovery.

Monday’s legislation wasn’t without drama though.  Protesters sprayed police with red paint, there were cries of ‘heresy’ and ‘dark ages’ from Members of Parliament opposed to the measures, rocks were thrown and pepper spray was used.  The bill passed.

Monday night there was an earthquake – “o seismos” in Greek. It was a 4.3 magnitude recorded right outside Marathonas, which is, of course, 26.2 miles from Athens.  I asked Demetri why the building was shaking as I watched the crystals on the chandelier bounce and felt my chair vibrate.  No injuries.  Everyone probably knows this – I didn’t – the USGS monitors all earthquakes and there are several around the world each day.  Kansas also had one Monday; it was a 1.8 on the Richter scale.

Demetri had a PRP injection in his ankle, so today he wasn’t in shape to go to Greek school.  I drove myself all the way to Marousi (it’s like driving from Parker to Westminster) which was quite a feat if I do say so myself.  Athens traffic is beyond insane.  People don’t want to wait in line to turn left (or for anything else) so they pass the turn lanes and swing in front of them to wait in the intersection so they can turn left first.  No joke. I want to tell everyone that anarchy is not a free for all, it’s being mature enough to care about yourself, others and the things around you to be mindful and act appropriately.

The genitive case in Greek is going to be the death of me.  Oops, the death of mou.

Travels

Winter holiday numbers

  • 6 cities
  • 2 countries
  • 40-ish cappuccinos (too jittery to count upwards of 10)
  • 13 churches
  • 1 ancient city covered in volcanic ash
  • 5 trains
  • 2 funiculars
  • A few subways
  • 3 trams
  • 5 buses
  • 10 scoops of gelato
  • Countless noodles
  • 3 articles of lost clothing
  • One elf on the shelf
  • 12 exploratory morning runs
  • 3 bottles of cough syrup
  • 2 packages of ibuprofen
  • One puke
  • 236,500 steps
  • 111 miles walked/run/chased/raced
Travels

Rome

A million people lived in ancient Rome. That’s the same number of people living in San Jose, California today.  The famous Roman myth establishes the city in 753 BC, when Romulus killed his brother Remus and gave the city his name.  In 509 BC, the city eliminated the monarchy and established a Republic. Fast forward through the second century and the triumvirate, to 27 BC when Augustus Caesar becomes the first Roman Emperor. Until it began to disintegrate in the 5th Century AD, the Roman Empire was the most sophisticated society in the western world. It’s (Constantine the Great’s) creation of Constantinople had a profound effect on Europe, as it was the defense against invasion and conquest from the East for close to 1000 years.

We took a taxi from the train station to our apartment, and our driver took us through Piazza Venetia and past the Italian Parliament building and the spindly Christmas tree that has become a national embarrassment – Romans were outraged in December over its droopy branches and general dowdy appearance, and have nicknamed it “the Mangy one.”  They got even madder when it came out that the city council paid 48,000 euros ($60K) to have it brought to Rome from the northern mountains. But maybe it grew on them a little — earlier in the week, there was to be a decision on the next life of the tree: put it in a museum, make pencils for all the school children or make a shelter for women to feed and change their babies.  A press conference is to announce the decision.

We stayed in a beautiful, sunny, modern apartment right near the Colosseum, where we had views of parts of the ancient forum and the arch of Constantine, one of my favorite structures from a college Roman art & architecture class.

We had a couple of hours of daylight left when we arrived, so we dropped our bags and hopped the city bus to the Pantheon before it closed.  From there we walked to Campo dei Fiore and had dinner at a terrific Osteria, sampling amatriciana (tomato sauce with fried pork cheek; tastes like bacon), cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper), fiori de zucca (zucchini flowers stuffed with cheese and fried), and bruschetta.  The traditional noodle in Rome is spaghetti.  From there we walked to Piazza Navonna, which was surprisingly uncrowded and still had some of its Christmas market set up.  We played games and won prizes and took lots of photos in the Piazza before grabbing some gelato, hopping back on the bus and crashing in our apartment.

Demetri went for a very cool run the next morning through the forum, under the arch of Constantine, and over to Circus Maximus.  Tyler and I have nasty colds and tuberculosis-like coughs so we stayed home with the little guys and we all slept until almost 9.

Day 2 we toured the Colosseum. Originally known as the Flavian Amphitheater, the Colosseum held 50,000 – 80,000 people.  It was commissioned by Vespasian in AD 72, then completed by Titus and later improved by Diocletian.  Vespasian ordered the Colosseum to be built on the site of Nero’s palace, the Domus Aurea, to try to erase the memory of Rome’s most feared tyrant.  The name likely came from the Colossus of Nero (a statue based on the Colossus of Rhodes where Nero was depicted as the Sun God) found nearby.  Vespasian’s goal was to gain popularity by staging fights of gladiators and wild animals for public entertainment.  At the first games, some 9,000 animals were killed. Animals from Africa were often brought in for the games: lions, giraffes, hippos, rhinos, ostriches and there was a very complex caging and entry system for the animals.  Roman gladiators were usually slaves, war prisoners or criminals. Most were men.

There were different sections for the various demographics — the senators, rich men, poor men, and poor women (rich women were allowed to sit with their husbands in the good seats).  We learned that ‘arena’ is the Latin word for sand, which they needed a lot of during the games because blood is so very slippery, of course.  When the floor got too bloody, they would cover it with another thick layer of sand and continue on.  The boys’ eyes got very wide when our guide explained this.

We left the Colosseum and picked up some sandwiches, then hopped the bus again to the gardens (a huge park, really) at Villa Borghese.  We had a picnic there, and then walked and played in this park, which was turned from a vineyard to an extensive garden by Cardinal Borghese in 1605.  Borghese was nephew to the pope and the patron of Bernini. In the 19th century, the gardens were renovated in the English style. The Spanish steps lead up to this park. The weather was the best in Rome — Sunny and 60 degrees for our entire visit.  It was great to enjoy some sunshine.

That night we had dinner in a little restaurant near our hotel with a one man chef and waiter who kept bringing us little gifts — like bruschetta and meatballs.  His food was great.  We walked a bit, found some gelato and came home.

Saturday was our last day and we had about 4 hours to sightsee. We went over to the Trastevere neighborhood and walked through the streets there, along the Tiber River, on the backside of the Vatican, past Castel Sant’ Angelo and into Piazza Cavour, one of the nicest, greenest European squares we’ve seen.  It’s name for the Count of Cavour, a statesman who helped lead the movement for Italian unification.  Romans don’t like the palace of justice (supreme court building) that flanks one side of it –they say too gaudy — but it’s a grand, magnificent building.

Saturday was January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, a big holiday in Italy. The piazzas were packed; buses even more so.  We hopped a bus back to our apartment where we were wedged between people and had to hold our breath.  The bus came around a corner and hit a car that was double parked.  While the bus driver and the car’s owner yelled at each other for a while, we got off the bus and high tailed it to the next bus stop, got back on, got our bags and to the airport with a little time to spare.

Demetri did all the logistics for this trip and he nailed it with every place we stayed.  He chose apartments that were typical (or classic) to the city we were in and they were all special and beautiful in very different ways.  We really love train travel, it’s so easy and so reliable and so darn comfortable.

We’re back in Athens, back in school (all 4 of us) and almost have the laundry caught up. And we have Tyler until Friday.

Travels

Naples

Naples: home of Elena Ferrante and her Neapolitan novel series, limoncello, bufala mozzarella, and sfogliatelle, which is as fun to eat as it is to say. Well, actually it’s kind of messy but it’s delicious nonetheless.

We stayed in an 18th century apartment in a 4 story building that was originally a family home in the historic center of Naples.  It is decorated in 18th century style and the ceilings must be 20 feet tall.  Our street, via dei Tribunali, was the main east west street of the ancient, thriving Greek and Roman city of Neapolis. We were blocks from the best Neapolitan pizzerias in town and just down from the Duomo di Napoli.  Naples had great wealth from the ancient times until Italian unification, but after it joined the united Italy in the late 1800s, its wealth was used to fund industrial expansion in the north, so the city lost its glamour. It was also the most bombed Italian city in World War II, as Naples was the first Italian city to rise up against German occupation.

The city has a scrappy feel (my man Rick Steves calls it a ‘tangled mess’) compared to other Italian cities, maybe thanks to influence from the Camorra, Naples’ mafia, which is the oldest crime organization in the country, dating back to the 17th century. It has lots of pretty areas and charm once you get used to the noise, the brazen scooters and the alley-like streets.

Our first day we walked the city, starting at the top rated sfogliatelle bakery, then taking funiculars from the old center to various points around town, ending the day along the water and through the Piazza del Plebiscito where the lights on the church reminded us of Denver’s civic center building. We stopped for dinner at an antique pizzeria where a popular, famous pizza was invented and named for Queen Margherita di Savoia. (The margherita pizza, of course.)

We spent our second day in Pompeii, the ancient Roman town that was destroyed in 79 AD when Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the area under 15-20 feet of volcanic ash.  The site was unknown for some 1500 years until the mid 1750s.  The town and the objects found in it have been perfectly preserved because of the lack of air and moisture – and the artifacts gave historians detailed information and insight into life in an ancient Roman city. Walking through the ruins, you immediately notice how organized and efficient the city was planned out: market in the center, villas on one side, smaller houses on the other.  Public areas close to the center, an amphitheater, roads for chariots and sewer waste.  During excavation, plaster was used to fill in the spaces of the ash layers that once held human bodies, so archaeologists could see the exact position the people were in when they died. It was fascinating.

It was dark when we left Pompeii.  From there we continued on the train to Sorrento, home of the famous lemons that make limoncello. It’s a beautiful area of Italy, with the Amalfi coast just to the east and the island of Capri right offshore.  The buildings that stack from the top of the city down to the water gives it a cool dramatic look from the bottom. The holiday decorations were beautiful and the main square is really pretty. We had a quick dinner in Sorrento before boarding the train back to Naples that night.  And from here, naturally, all roads lead to Rome.

Oh, and the cover picture on this page is a nativity scene made entirely of pizza.

Travels

Florence

Forget the many museums and galleries and churches with art, Florence is an open-air museum all on its own.  You don’t have to step into any of these famous collections to see the beauty of the Italian Renaissance (except you really must).  This was Demetri’s third visit, and Tyler’s and my second.  Michael was thrilled that his beloved statue of Perseus and Medusa was basically right outside of our apartment in Piazza della Signoria, so it was the first thing we went to see when we arrived, and we got to pass by it pretty much every time we went anywhere.  Bonus.

Piazza della Signoria is the square right in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, perhaps the most famous meeting point in the city.  It’s home to the gorgeous statue of Neptune and several other statues; in the middle ages, this is where people were burned at the stake.

Florence, of course, was home to the Medici, perhaps the most famed noble family in Europe.  They ‘ruled’ from 1569 until 1737.  Lorenzo de’ Medici was a political and cultural mastermind, controlling things from behind the scenes. The Medici were bankers to the Vatican, so they essentially controlled the papacy, and they were great backers of the arts, commissioning hundreds of painters, sculptors and musicians. A few times, Florentines would drive the Medici out, but they were soon back in power.

We had an excellent guided tour of the Uffizi Gallery. Uffizi means ‘offices’ in Italian, and this building was exactly that – the Medici family used this building as offices, and very important guests were invited to the top floors to view the family’s collection of art and sculpture. In 1769, the building was opened as a museum. The gallery has an outstanding collection of ancient sculptures and paintings from the Middle Ages to the modern period and is home to masterpieces by Giotto, Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, Leonardo, Rapahel, Michelangelo and Caravaggio.

The boys were completely enthralled by our guide and the way she explained what we were seeing. They were silent and thoughtful through the entire 90 minute tour and Peter even raised his hand and asked a question.  They also loved wearing the radios and headsets, so the couple of times they got bored I heard them pretending to talk to each other through the radios. Our guide was terrific – she was an art student from Russia who had such enthusiasm for what we were seeing that it was impossible not to get as excited about it as she was.  Her mom called a couple of times during our tour which was pretty hilarious and she may have been wearing pajamas, but none of it mattered because she was fantastic.  We will always opt for a guided tour from now on.  After the Uffizi, we had a long lunch on the other side of the river and then walked into the Basilica di Santo Spirito, designed by Brunelleschi. There was a cool, almost interactive nativity scene in there.  We walked home from there, stopping quickly into the Michelin rated restaurant where Demetri’s cousin Andreas is a chef just to say hello. He showed us around the kitchen and the restaurant, where every nightly reservation is filled no matter the day. From there, we walked to the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo), also designed by Brunelleschi and the bell tower by Giotto.

Tuscan food is really great. Ribollita, a winter soup made from vegetables and bread, was our favorite.  The Bolognese is made with wild boar, there is a lovely tortellini in broth (brodo), and of course the famous bistecca alla Florentine, an enormous T-bone steak that comes only from the Chianina cow found in Tuscany. Sweets? Tiramisu, coronettos filled with traditional apricot and untraditional but still yummy blackberry and cherry, a pine nut cake and of course gelato, which was invented in Florence.

One of Demetri’s best friends from high school was also in Florence, so New Year’s Eve day we spent with Dan and Camilla over a fun, long lunch of traditional Tuscan dishes (see above). Camilla is from Prato, a city just outside of Florence and it was really fun to talk with her about Italy and Tuscany. Dan drew electric guitars and skulls in both the boys’ books and later I found tons of photos of those illustrations on my phone.  They think Dan is the coolest ever.  We walked a bit, stopped in some cashmere shops and spent a little time in Piazza Republica together.

New Year’s Eve night we walked to the Basilica di Santa Croce, where the who’s who of the Italian Renaissance are buried – Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Gallileo.  Then we trekked back up the hill on the other side of the river for a celebration in Piazza Michelangelo, where there were cover bands, food, drinks, and sky lanterns galore.  We rang in the New Year in Piazza della Signoria, watching an orchestra for a bit before the clock struck 12.  The thousand or so other people in the square all had bottles of champagne and to our delight it was not for shaking and drenching the crowd, it was for drinking!  Fireworks were lit all night – some shook the windows in our apartment – and there was lots of puke all over the place the next day.

Demetri got up after only three hours of sleep to run back up the hill and see the sunrise on the first day of the year from Piazza Michelangelo.  It was raining, but still a beautiful view of Florence.  We spent the first day of the New Year on the train heading south to Naples.