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!

Greek life

Ancient Agora of Athens

With our time abroad ending in about 6 weeks, it seems important to write about some of our favorite Athens spots (see Aristotle’s Lyceum, the Benaki, and the National Historical Museum). The Ancient Agora ranks high on our list, not just because it’s a great outdoor museum where kids can run around and be loud or because of the many turtles roaming the grounds, but because the Greek government has preserved this space so well, you really get a feel for life in ancient Athens.  It also has one of the best preserved temples in all the city.

“Agora” is market.  The verb “αγοραζω” means to buy.  There’s a whole group of nouns in Greek that are based on verbs — it makes things very tidy.  Now, the most common ‘agora’ in Greece is the laiki, but there are other ones (gold for example) advertised here and there.

The Agora has been occupied without interruption since around 3000 BC; first as a residential and burial area and by 600 it became a public area. Its current shape is rectangular, and it’s been this way since the 2nd century BC.  It’s been rebuilt many times after damage by the Persians and then the Romans.  It was gradually abandoned after 580 AD until the 1800s when it again became a residential area.

The Agora was the center of ancient Athens: political, cultural, religious, commercial and social.  It even had a mint.  The most important buildings and temples were built between the 6th and 2nd centuries BC.  The entire area is basically a flat space that sits in front of the Acropolis between the Theiseion and Monasteraki areas (and subway stations). The Panathenaic Way crossed the Agora on its way to the Acropolis from the main gate of the city and the Altar of the Twelve Gods sanctuary marked the heart of Athens: distances to outside places were measured from here.

Representative government was alive and well: there was a circular building that served as the senate headquarters, where bills were drafted for discussion by a larger general Assembly.  If you look up the hill to the northwest, you can see the jail where Socrates was imprisoned and executed.

img_9070The Temple of Hephaestus stands on the west side and is one of the best preserved monuments in the entire city. Hephaestus was the god of fire, but also the god and patron of metalworking, stone masonry and sculpture. He was the son of Zeus and Hera and was married to Aphrodite, though Aphrodite cheated on him with Ares.  Hephaestus was the official blacksmith for the gods and made all the weapons for Olympus. Inside the temple were two bronze statues of Hephaestus and Athina. In the 7th century AD, the temple was converted to a church and in the 18th century, many prominent Athenians and statesmen were interred here.

The east side houses the official Agora museum in the Stoa of Attalos, originally built around 150 BC.  It was fully restored thanks to funds from the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1950s.  It’s a perfect building that shows what the stoas looked like and it’s adorned with statues and other artifacts found in the Agora.  The museum is small but quite interesting.  Stoic philosophers were named as such as they held their discussions under the stoa; as opposed to Aristotle’s walking school.

We love this monument so much that we pretty much insist that all of our visitors see it.  It’s right in the heart of the oldest Athens neighborhoods … but it’s also the best example of the ancient Agora in all of Greece and we think just standing there helps you visualize life in those classical times.

Greek life

Sounio

My dear friend Allison and her family had plans to travel to Italy this summer, and bless, them, they stopped in Athens first.  It was so not on their way. Our visit was way fun and too short, but one of the sightseeing highlights was Cape Sounio and the temple of Poseidon, the god of the Sea.

This glorious temple was the last thing that the ancient Athenians would see as they sailed off into the Aegean. It’s perched on the cliffs of the southernmost point of the Attica peninsula. It was constructed in late 400s BC, around the same time the Parthenon was constructed and likely by the same architect who designed the Temple of Hephaestus.  Pericles ruled the city and it was the golden age of Athens.  King Menelaus of Sparta is rumored to have stopped here on his way back from Troy.  His sailing companion died en route and Menelaus landed at Sounio to give him a proper funeral.  Archaeological finds date back to the 6th century BC; in fact Herotodus mentions a festival that Athenians used to hold at this Cape.

Sounio is most beautiful at sunset; we went mid-day in between heavy rains. The dark grey clouds hovering over the water and surrounding the cape were almost as beautiful and dramatic as a calm sunset. The temple was constructed on the site of the remains of an even older temple, and there’s also a second temple to Athina just around the corner.  During the Peloponnesian War against the Spartans, the site was fortified with towers and walls to keep it from being overtaken by the Spartans.  The fortress was later seized from the Athenians by rebel slaves from nearby Lavrio.

img_9921What is super interesting is to learn is that there is a perfect isosceles triangle between the temple at Sounio, the Parthenon and the Temple of Aphaia Athena on Aegina Island, which is visible from Cape Sounio.  Mathematics were a very important part of ancient Athenian life — and geometry ruled the construction of the Parthenon — but this triangle proves that the location of various monuments was based on geometric shapes.  How they figured out these points and distances is hard to imagine, but it sure is fascinating.

img_9945We left Sounio for a ‘proper’ lunch in a traditional taverna in Vouliagmeni — lunch is always a good reason to wait out the rain.  It was our last day together, after two full days in Athens and late nights for food.  We spent the afternoon at the pool at their hotel, though the clouds and rain made it a little too cold to swim. Michael brought a deck of cards so there were a few rounds of go fish and crazy eights.  I kidnapped Allison her final morning for a walk reminiscent of our single girl days when we’d trek from TC Williams high school down to Old Town Alexandria and back.  They went onto Rome that afternoon.