Greek life

And just like that, they speak Greek

We’re proud to announce the kids have learned the language.

The weather has turned.  It’s summer all of the sudden – high 80s, ready-to-swim. The picture above is from a few days ago.  Last weekend, Demetri’s cousin Andreas (brother to Katerina) and his wife Zara were in town, so we all met for an afternoon coffee at Notos, a lovely restaurant on the water just a few blocks from us.  Michael and Georgios joined a soccer game with some big kids; Peter and Little Katerina played family and ran around, cracking each other up.  They invited me to play because they were baby kittens and they needed a mommy cat.  I was speaking in as much Greek as I can and saying things like “Let’s go for a walk.’ ‘Let’s go see the sea.”  Little K asked me a question and I turned to Peter and asked what she said.  He replied, “she wants to know if we’re going to get hurt.”  Po Po! as the Greeks say.  (Wow!)  I had him translate more just for grins.

Later, they were playing bulls, and Katerina said she was a bull too.  In Greek, Peter said, “you can’t be a bull, you’re a girl.  You have to be a cow.”  Big Katerina was there to hear that one.  He and Little K talk exclusively in Greek. It is utterly amazing. Anna spoke to him in Greek and he responded to her.  I mean, I know this is what was supposed to happen, but to see it is so fantastic.

Michael too.  He understands what he reads for school and what the teachers say.  He doesn’t have the vocabulary of a Greek 8 year old, but his language arts teacher tells me that’s ok. He can join a soccer game and talk to kids in the square.  One night last week, there was a third-grade girl in the square who rides our bus.  Michael wanted to eat quickly and go back to her because she was playing alone.  I asked him if she spoke English and he said, “Um… I’m not sure.”  And he ran off. This was big.  Huge. Michael has been so shy to speak Greek, even though he knew what people were saying. There was a sad day in late February when he overheard a classmate say something unkind about him to another classmate.  He had tears when he told me about it, saying “I know more Greek than people think I do.”  I agreed with him and we encouraged him to speak more so that he doesn’t feel so isolated.  He recited part of a poem at the school’s independence day program and returned from Spring Break a new man.  He would have never joined a soccer game a couple of months ago, even though he really wanted to.  I think having his cousin with him Saturday made him a little braver (it made George braver too), but more than anything, Michael understood them.  Even better was that the soccer boys were all really nice.  They patted each other on the hip when someone scored and they helped each other off the ground. When Michael slid and fell, one of them walked Michael over to me and said to me in English, “he’s a great defender.”  That’s something coming from Greek kids who have had soccer balls since the minute they could stand.  Michael’s eyes lit up and he had a huge grin and suddenly his shoulder didn’t hurt.  (He did have a little road rash later, but he was pretty proud of it.). And he’s been practicing his ball skills ever since.  Never know when a game might pop up.

Going to a Greek school was really hard in September.  It’s hard to get along with people you don’t understand.  How they play is different, how they express themselves is different … what seems like mean or rude behavior to one culture is nothing of the sort in another.  Last summer, Demetri made up a story about two little boys who moved to a new place and didn’t know the language but after a while these little boys learned so much of the language that they helped their parents talk to people in the grocery store and at school and in restaurants or on the subway.  (Yes, really, this is total fiction, despite any similarities to our family.) Anyway, the story has come true.  Greek is a hard language to learn.  Not only are we not exposed to it like we are Spanish, the alphabet is completely different and that’s incredibly intimidating.  Learning Greek has been so empowering for both of them.  Now they can laugh at funny things that happen in the classroom.  And get a joke on a show. And recognize the Greek words for butt and fart.  And understand when adults rub the boys’ heads and say something to them. Or trash talk with a kid on the playground who insults you.  Case in point: one day before Spring Break we were at a park with Anna and the kids.  Peter and Georgios were riding scooters and some big kids were on skateboards.  One of those guys was coming down the hill right where Peter was coming up, and the kid waved his hand and said “Fige, moraki.” (Move, baby.  But in this case move is more like ‘scram.’)  Peter was incensed, dropped the scooter, clenched his fists, and yelled “I am NOT a BABY! YOU move!” I was really happy I knew enough Greek to understand that because I laughed for hours.

Happy birthday to me.  This has been the best gift … ever.

Greek life

48 Greek foods everyone should try

Everyone knows the gyro.   And the scene from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” where Aunt Voula tells Ian, the non-Greek vegetarian fiancé, that lamb is not meat.  It’s like, beyond meat. Vegetarians can totally eat it.

Roberta’s visit last week — and our search for different foods as we tooled around — inspired me to make a list of our faves; the ones we think everyone ought to try.  Why 48?  The number is staring me down. My birthday is this week.

These are not ranked.  Trying to assign a position … a number … a grade … to these was pure agony.  So instead they’re sort of grouped together as you’d see on a menu: appetizers and salads, main dishes, sides/veggies, desserts.

  1.  Pies:  tyropita (cheese), spanikopita (spinach), loukaniko (sausage), kotopoulo (chicken), kolokythopita (zucchini), prasopita (leek) … the list goes on forever.  It’s phyllo wrapped around some sort of savory goodness with cheese and herbs.  It might be a triangle. Or round. Maybe square. Perhaps D-shaped. Or long and skinny.  You find them everywhere, thank heavens. Katerina taught me how to make a big batch of them in 2011.  Hers are better than mine.
  2. Pastourmadopitakia – Phyllo dough with cheese and pastourma (like pastrami).  Fried before serving for extra love.
  3. Koulouri: A round bread product covered in sesame seeds.  Looks like a lanky bagel. Michael in particular loves them.
  4. Kalamarakia: Lightly fried kalamari.  It’s so fresh and soft.
  5. Horiatiki salata: A salad of tomatoes, cucumber, onion, green pepper and olives with rectangular hunk of feta on top, dressed with olive oil, oregano and red wine vinegar.  Sometimes a few capers might be tossed in too.
  6. Horta: Boiled greens, e.g., chard, dandelions, purslane, fennel leaves, beetroot, etc.,  served with olive oil and lemon.  Horta literally means ‘weeds,’ though it’s nicer to say ‘wild mountain greens.’
  7. Fava: Not fava at all, but rather yellow split peas, pureed and topped with capers, scallions or red onions and olive oil.  It can be served cold; we like it warm.
  8. Fazolia: bean salad (black eyed peas are Demetri’s fave) with fresh dill and finely chopped red onion and dressed with olive oil.
  9. Spring salad:  Lettuce, scallions, and tons of dill with a lemon-olive oil dressing.  Bright spring flavors that are traditional for Easter.
  10. Dakos:  A Cretan salad with a crunchy rusk about the size of a hamburger bun, topped with a mixture of chopped tomato, olive oil and onion. A chunk of feta goes on top.  The tomato softens the rusk.
  11. Xtopodi: Octopus.  Often grilled and made into a salad with herbs and olive oil; also cooked with pasta in a red wine sauce. It’s better than you think it will be.
  12. Tzatziki:  yogurt with garlic and cucumber and sometimes dill.  It’s served on gyros, but my favorite application is french fries.  Demetri’s brilliant kitchen hack: use the juicer to grate the cucumber.  Saves hours of straining.
  13. Taramosalata:  a salty spread made from fish roe.  Usually served with grilled pita bread; also good with cut up veggies.
  14. Gigantes: Giant white beans in tomato sauce with a lot of dill.  Our man Manoulis makes them in an olive oil sauce with tons of different herbs.
  15. Panzaria with skordalia:  Boiled or roasted sliced beets and served as a salad with a garlic sauce made from potatoes or bread crumbs.  ‘Skorda’ is garlic in Greek.
  16. Spanakorizo: Spinach, rice, onions, dill and tomato paste cooked on the stove. Vegan comfort food.
  17. Fakes (say fahk-ess): Lentils.  Usually a stew, sometimes a salad.   They can be red, black or the traditional greenish-brown.
  18. Revithia:  Garbanzo beans in a savory broth.  It has lemon juice to brighten.
  19. Fazolakia: Green beans in tomato sauce.  I feel like I’m insulting this dish by describing it so simply.  It’s the BEST.  I love it every time I eat or make it, but nobody can hold a candle to Manoulis.
  20. Artichokes with peas: Lots of dill in this one, plus usually a potato.  Cooked and served at room temperature.
  21. Patates lemonates: Roasted potatoes covered in olive oil, oregano and lemon.  I haven’t yet cracked the secret of crisping them up.
  22. Tiganetes patates: French fries. Greece does them well.
  23. Soutzouki with avga:  Soutzouki is a super spicy sausage; our favorite way to eat is with fried eggs and potatoes (french fries) served in a tiny little skillet fresh from the oven.
  24. Souvlaki: Pork, chicken or lamb grilled on a ‘little’ skewer.  Fun fact: bamboo skewers and drinking straws are both called ‘kalamaki’. If you order a chicken skewer, you ask for a ‘kotopoulo kalamaki.’  We had a funny confusion one night where one of our waitress pals offered Peter a straw (saying ‘kalamaki’) and he said, “no I don’t want kalamaki tonight, I want a gyro.”
  25. Kotosouvli: larger pieces of pork or chicken cooked on the souvla – the large metal skewer.
  26. Paidakia – grilled lamb chops.  Peter’s fave.
  27. Arni: Lamb in general; from the spit.  Little pieces of lamb are called ‘arnaki.’
  28. Kleftiko: Also called ‘lamb in the oven.’  Slow cooked in parchment; sometimes with vegetables.  Fantastic.
  29. Kebab:  Beef and spices rolled into a log and cooked on the grill.  My kids would eat them every night.  Sometimes they do eat them every night.
  30. Gyro (say ‘yee-roh’):  Shaved pork or chicken placed in a pita bread with tzatziki, tomatoes, onions and french fries (yep, inside).  Can be served deconstructed on a plate too; called a ‘portion.’  The gyros in Greece are so good. We like the gyros in the US with their beef/lamb meatloaf mixture, but the real thing is so much better.
  31. Moussaka: Layered casserole with eggplant, ground beef and tomato sauce and topped with bechamel.
  32. Giouvetsi: Oven baked dish with pasta and meat.  While it could be chicken, beef or pork, and the noodle can be any short one, the most traditional is beef and orzo.
  33. Pastitsio:  Hollow, thick spaghetti with ground beef and tomato sauce (that contains a hint of cinnamon), also topped with bechamel.  This was Demetri’s favorite food as a kid; his grandmother gave it to him as an after school snack.
  34. Gemista: Means ‘stuffed.’ Usually this is tomatoes and peppers stuffed with rice and then roasted in the oven until the vegetable is soft. Could be zucchini or eggplant too.
  35. Laxanadolmades: Cabbage leaves stuffed with ground beef and served in avgolemono (egg-lemon) sauce.  Zucchini can be served like this too.  This might be my favorite dinner.
  36. Papoutsakia:  Ground beef and cheese stuffed eggplants with either potato puree or bechamel on top. ‘Papoutsia’ is the word for shoes … and these kinda look like ’em.
  37. Soutzoukakia: log-shaped meatballs with hints of cumin and mint and sometimes ouzo in tomato sauce. Usually served over rice.  Once I grabbed what I thought was leftover spaghetti sauce from the freezer for dinner.  When it defrosted, I was beside myself with delight to discover it was Papou’s soutzoukakia made during his last visit.  I also think this is the only Greek meal my dad ever had.
  38. Keftedes: Lamb or beef or chicken or maybe pork meatballs.  Tiny ones are ‘keftedakia.’
  39. Giovarlakia: Meatballs with rice and herbs in avgolemono sauce.  Lovely.
  40. Psarosoupa: A hearty fish soup that’s filling but light at the same time.  Eat this for lunch in November when the weather turns.
  41. Greek yogurt:  10% fat.  It’s just that much better.  Best topped with honey and walnuts, not stirred around.
  42. Mezithropitakia: Pictured above.  Pastry stuffed with a sweetened mezithra cheese mixture and topped with a little cinnamon. Perfect with coffee.  Go for a run and bank some calories first.
  43. Portokalopita:  Yogurt cake with orange syrup.
  44. Spoon sweets: Fruit preserved in syrup … and there are hundreds of these. Eat solo on a spoon (duh) or over yogurt.  Papou’s favorite is quince, followed by sour cherry.  Katerina makes a mean one with grapes and almonds.
  45. Baklava: Layers of phyllo with walnuts and honey tucked inside. Kataifi is phyllo that looks like string with the same stuffing; just rolled up instead of layered.
  46. Bougatsa:  Phyllo with sweet cream inside, topped with powdered sugar.  If you come from Thessaloniki, ‘bougatsa’ means anything wrapped in phyllo; savory or sweet.  In Athens, bougatsa is only this sweet pie.
  47. Galaktoboureko: Sweet custard in phyllo in syrup. The Athens pastry shop, Kosmikon, makes theirs in kataifi dough.  Tyler loves this one so much that Papou bought a whole cake for only Tyler last year, and left a note saying so.
  48. Loukoumades:  In a word, donut.  Fried dough with sugar or powdered sugar.

Honorable mention: cheese

Cheese has ancient roots. Strainers have been found all over the country starting in the Neolithic period.  Carvings in the Minoan palace of Knossos on the island of Crete depict men making cheese from goat milk.  Most Greek cheese is made from goat or sheep milk. These animals are native to Greece; the rugged landscape isn’t very conducive for cow pastures.

Each island boasts its own special cheese, e.g., San Mixalis only comes from Syros; Graviera is ubiquitous but Naxos has its own.  Kefalograviera is different than just Graviera.  And there are tons of feta varieties — be decisive when at the cheese counter. Halloumi is grilled and placed atop salads. It squeaks on your teeth. Cheeses are are salty, creamy or nutty. They can be grilled, flambe, mixed together in a pie or eaten as an appetizer with olives. Some are sweetened up for desserts. It’s fun to travel and sample cheeses special to that region.

Extra credit: drinks

  1. Ouzo: Aperitif liquor made from grapes with anise added, giving it a liquorice flavor. Try it on a really hot day in a glass of ice water.
  2. Masticha: Digestif liquor made from the ‘tears’ of masticha trees, found only on the island of Chios.
  3. Tsipouro:  Digestif liquor made from grapes. I like this one with lots of ice.
  4. Raki, from Crete, is similar to tsipouro.  Also a digestif.
  5. CoffeeGreek coffee (ellinikos kafes) is specially made in a briki – a little pot with a long handle.  The coffee is boiled with sugar and served thick and dark. These days, the coffee shops always make greek coffee, but more popular are the espresso drinks, especially the cold ones.  Baristas mix the sugar (most Greeks put sugar in their coffee) into the espresso and give it a healthy stir so it all dissolves. Drink it plain over ice and you have a freddo espresso.  Add whipped milk or whipped krema (cream) and you’ve got a freddo cappucino. Nurse it for more than an hour and you are a true Greek.

I’d love to hear your favorites.  Did I miss anything you love?

photo from

Greek life, Travels


My friend Roberta – we met in junior high soccer – came for a visit last week.  All by herself, which disappointed Michael and Peter since she and her husband have three fabulous daughters who both my boys adore.  Since Roberta had been to Athens before, we decided on a few ‘second visit’ things to do, like the Elias Lalaounis jewelry museum (a fave), and the Benizelos (Μπενιζελωσ — not to be confused with Venizelos) mansion, a quick trip to Nafplio, Epidaurus and Mycenae.

The Benizelos mansion is really neat.  Nestled in between shops and tavernas on Adrianou Street, it sits just in front of the Roman Agora.  Built in the 16th century, it’s the oldest surviving house in Athens.  It’s a typical urban nobility house from the Ottoman period. The upper floor is sort of a labyrinth made of timber.  The home’s most famous inhabitant was Revoula Benizelos, later martyred as St. Philothei, a woman who after being widowed very young, started a monastery that gave shelter, food and care to the poor and also provided refuge to slaves and Muslim women who had converted to Christianity. The Turks killed her for that in the late 1500s; she is one of the only saints to have been martyred during Ottoman rule.

Our next stop was Mycenae, home to the ancient civilization renowned for its technical advancements as well as artistic wealth — which played an important role in the development of classical Greece and its culture.  The ruins of this fortified citadel date back to 1600 BC and the most impressive element of Mycenae are its tombs, in which archaeologists found jewelry, weapons and tools, plus things that came from other parts of the world: ivory, tin, even lapis. The Myceneans were among the first to use bronze and it was here that the first pieces of the Greek language, preserved on Linear B tables, were discovered.  Mythology says Mycenae was founded by Perseus who employed the Cyclopes to build the city walls from rocks that no human could lift.  It’s also said to be the inspiration for Homer’s epic poem. Its most famous king was Agamemnon, who helped his brother Menelaus rescue Menelaus’ wife Helen, during the Trojan War (yes, that Helen).  Agamemnon and his wife Clytemnestra had two children, Orestes and Electra.  After Clytemnestra and her lover murdered Agamemnon in the bathtub, Electra and Orestes spent years working to avenge their father’s death.  I think I have this right.

Now, I knew this story from high school English class and the great play by Euripides.  In the 19th century, archaeologists found the bronze burial mask of King Agamemnon … and they excavated the bathtub he died in.  Turns out Agamemnon may not have been a fictional character at all.  You can find this mask in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.



Mosques, fortresses and cathedrals

For the last 5 nights of our trip, we based ourselves in Madrid, wandering through the grand El Retiro Park, eating tapas and exploring the old part of the city. On our way from Seville, we hopped off the train in Cordoba in the pouring rain. We made our way to the Mezquita, Cordoba’s huge mosque-cathedral, which was built as a Visigoth Christian temple in the 6th century. With the arrival of the Moors in the 8th century, it was divided and used by both communities. By this time, Cordoba was the western Islamic capital. UNESCO calls the Mezquita “a testimony to the ancient alliance of art and faith.” Beautiful words that summarize it perfectly. The roof of this dazzling, enormous building is supported by 800+ columns, many of which were recycled from Roman and Visigoth buildings. In the 1500s, the mosque was destroyed to build a cathedral. We splurged on audio guides for the Mezquita mostly because they had a special kids’ tour. I listened to one kid segment about the mihrab and it was so well done. The adult version assumed the listener knows the Muslim faith — and I really don’t. I think the kids listened to almost all of the chapters before turning their audio guides into light sabers and walkie talkies.

Our next half-day trip was a 27 minute train ride to Segovia. In Roman times, it was a military base in need of water, so Trajan’s engineers pulled water 9 miles into town from a nearby river. This massive 2-level structure (2500 feet long; 118 arches) is dry-laid, which was as impressive then as now. Spaniards claim it could still work today. We walked from the aqueduct to the Plaza Mayor, the town center, which used to be the local bullfighting venue. Today it has a big market with the usual produce and the biggest olive and pickled vegetable stand I’ve ever seen.

From there we walked into the Segovia cathedral which stands high up from the plaza. It’s a beautiful building in the “flamboyant gothic” style and is Spain’s last major gothic building. The Alcázar (fortress) stands at the far end of town and looks like a fairy tale. In fact, it’s rumored to be the inspiration for the Disney castle.

And our final trip was 30 miles south of Madrid to Toledo, a medieval city that’s still inhabited, busy, communal – even though nothing modern has been built. In the 80s, the whole town was declared a UNESCO site. For several hundred years, Toledo was an important Roman transportation hub; the Visigoths took over when Rome fell, and then the Moors came in the 700s, and ruled until the Christians took over and made Toledo Spain’s political and religious capital until Charles V (or maybe Philip II?) moved the capital to Madrid in the 1600s. Spain was neutral during World War II, so didn’t get bombed out like the rest of Europe. Churches, castles, fortresses by and large are terrifically preserved.

Toledo has a gorgeous cathedral (the 4th largest in Europe), a very pretty, old synagogue, a beautiful monastery and a great Museum with beautiful grounds dedicated to El Greco.

It’s fascinating to learn how tolerant the Moors were of the people they ruled – and we found this in all three of these cities. Jews, Muslims and Christians lived together harmoniously in one community – eating the same food, dressing the same – the only difference was their religious traditions. That is until 1492 when Spain unified as a Catholic country and demanded the Moors and Jews convert or leave.

We have learned enough Greek to recognize it and know what people are saying. We saw a few Greek tourists in Spain – Peter was delighted with himself when he’d greet them with a “Γεια σας!” The Greeks were pleasantly surprised to get a nice, unexpected hello. And a Spanish woman today called him Guapo. He knew what it meant as the boys have been watching “Ferdinand” on every train ride.

Michael climbs everything in site. He did 100 laps around a the roots of a huge 300-year old magnolia and today scaled a wall and slid down a no parking sign pole. He’s also styling his hair. How did he get to 8 so fast?

Two weeks gone in the blink of an eye. Kinda like the last 10 months.



After the Americas were discovered, Seville was the economic center of the Spanish empire, because its protected up-river port had the monopoly on trade. These new riches helped Spanish culture flourish in the 17th century.

Most of the major sites are within walking distance of the city center. The enormous cathedral, originally a mosque built by the Almohads (Moors from Morocco) in the 12th century, is best viewed from a rooftop somewhere — while you get a sense of the size as you walk past it, seeing its top outline takes your breath away. It’s the third largest cathedral by footprint (1- St.Peter’s in Rome; 2-St. Paul’s in London) in Europe and the largest by volume. Its bell tower was originally a minaret; in the 1400s the Muslim ornaments were changed to Christian symbols.

We toured the Real Alcazar, the royal Palace, commissioned by Pedro I to be built within the palaces that were originally constructed by the Almohads. Pedro’s palace was completed in two years; later monarchs e.g., Ferdinand and Isabella, Charles V, Philip II, added their own grand touches. It’s still used today when the Spanish royal family visits Seville. Water — fountains, ponds — is everywhere, symbolizing the greatest Muslim gift you can give. The bright tile work, carved ceilings and grand marble wall carvings are astounding. You don’t see this moorish influence anywhere else in Europe and it’s gorgeous. The grounds are also spectacular; some 5 acres of plants including a labyrinth, and several walking paths. We ran across two new packs of ducklings on our walk.

Seville’s main green area is the Parque Maria Luisa, formed by former palace grounds. We hung here for a lot of Sunday – along with thousands of joggers, bikers, scooters and a bunch of people who just finished some sort of race. We also caught some terrific flamenco in Plaza de Espana, a pretty tile-laden square in front of the old palace. Sunday night we went to a Corrida de Toros (a bullfight) — no doubt the most controversial tradition in Spain, but one very ingrained in Sevilla culture.

People go to Sevilla for the city vibe. Bizet’s Carmen was from here. Sevillans know how to have fun, as evidenced by the gazillions of girls’ weekends and bachelorette parties touring all the sites. Tapas are the only food game: eat one or two, have a beer and move on to the next spot. It’s simple food designed for quick stops. Lots of beef and pork, fried fish galore, and the tastiest spinach and garbanzo dish ever. We left Seville in the rain in search of the next mosque-cathedral just an hour north.