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


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.

Greek life

Aristotle’s Lyceum

Heard of the stoic philosophers?  Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus are a few of the most famous ones. The stoics got their name because their schools/sessions took place under the Stoa. Totally understandable; shade is a welcome gift in the Athenian (or Roman) heat.   The stoic school was founded in Athens in 300 BC, about 35 years after Aristotle returned to Athens from Macedonia and founded his peripatetic school of philosophy in Athens. Peripatetic comes from the Greek word for ‘walk,’  and if you visualize Raphael’s School of Athens, with Plato and Aristotle strolling along and debating, you’ve got it.  Aristotle liked to walk and teach.

The Lyceum, the site of Aristotle’s school, was discovered in 1996 in downtown Athens during excavation for what is now Athens’ Museum of Modern Art.  It was found thanks to descriptions from the writings of ancient philosophers — so it wasn’t a total surprise — which described Aristotle’s school as just outside the eastern boundary for ancient Athens.  Archaeologists first uncovered the gymnasium and a wrestling area and then buildings shortly after.  Visitors can see teaching rooms, the remains of a heating system, a reading room, and two rooms for the athletes to oil and powder their bodies.  Naturally, museum construction plans were altered so that the art museum could be built with the outdoor Lyceum museum right next to it, and it opened in 2009. They both sit right next to the Byzantine Museum, which has one of the prettiest outdoor coffee shops in all of Athens.

Aristotle modeled his structure after those of Plato’s Academy, the remains of which lie on the opposite-ish side of the ancient Athens border. Lessons for the ‘advanced’ students would take place during the early morning walk, while more beginner lessons happened during an evening walk.  Philosophy happened in the morning; rhetoric in the afternoon.  Aristotle taught here until 323 BC.

The Lyceum is beautiful, especially in the Spring.  The grounds that surround it are so well landscaped that it really is one of the most lovely spaces in the city of Athens. Demetri and I first visited at the end of May when the Spring flowers were in full bloom.  The photo above is from that day.  Then the Fisackerlys visited it last week on their Athens trip and in our quest to find them we walked in quickly too.  We returned yesterday with Ms. Scala, the head of Aspen Academy, and her son. It was considerably hotter than that April day, but the planting beds, filled with rosemary, lavender, oregano, thyme, and olive and pomegranate trees,  were thriving in spite of the heat.  The space itself is some 12,000 square meters and there’s a lovely little section with benches where you can sit and view the entire Lyceum.  In the late afternoon, there’s even a little corner of the benches that have some shade.

Demetri often wonders aloud about what things haven’t been discovered yet in this vast city of antiquities.  The Lyceum is a perfect example: if it wasn’t found until 20 years ago, what other astonishing treasures lie beneath the streets?





Lots of famous Greeks hail from the Mediterranean’s 5th largest island: writer/philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek, painter Domenico Theotokopoulos (El Greco), Greece’s premier statesman Eleftherios Venizelos, King Minos, and of course Zorba himself.

Crete is a beautiful, fascinating place.  We first visited in 2011, spending a week on the beach with a 20 month old Michael. It was the ten year anniversary of 9/11, which ended up being insignificant.  However, Tripoli had just fallen to rebel fighters and Gadaffi was in hiding.  The large NATO base on Crete had several fighter jets a day taking off and heading to Libya, a short 600 miles away.  Little Michael was thrilled to have so much plane action while he played in the sand.

Crete separates the Aegean from the Sea of Libya.  It was once the center of the Minoans, the earliest known civilization in Europe, who inhabited the island from about 2700 – 1400 BC.  King Minos was its ancient king, who ruled from his palace at Knossos, the (amazingly preserved) ruins of which lie in the central northern coast of the island. Minos is most infamous for demanding Athenian youths to feed to the Minotaur in the Labyrinth.  The Minotaur was half bull and half man, who met his end at the hands of Theseus.  It has been questioned if Minos was a real person instead of a mythological character, but there’s no real conclusive evidence.  “Minos” may have been a title like Caesar or Pharoah.

The Minoan civilization was discovered very recently — early 20th century.  They had a large navy and established a great deal of trade throughout the Aegean into the Cyclades islands, Egypt, Cyprus and Anatolia.  The civilization’s best art is preserved on Santorini before the volcano destroyed the island.  The Minoan civilization declined between 1400 and 1100 BC when the Myceneans came into power and took over the Minoans sea-based empire.

What makes Crete so nifty, in our opinion, is that it has its own culture.  It’s definitely Greek, but with an intensified spirit evidenced in its history and its food and drink. Just looking at the lists of famous Cretans tells you so.  The Cretan resistance in World War II performed an astounding number of feats, including the capture of a German general from right in the center of the Nazi occupation.  The famous Churchill quote, which goes something like, “we used to say Greeks fought like heroes, now let it be known that heroes fight like Greeks,” came from the Cretan warrior spirit known for generations, but shown to the modern world in the Second World War.

As an aside, if you’d like to learn more about the Cretan strength, endurance and nutrition, pick up a copy of Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall.

In addition to its razor-sharp mountains and numerous gorges, Crete boasts some of the best beaches in the Mediterranean.  In January, we planned a trip there with our dear friends and Denver neighbors, the Lundstroms.  They arrived just as school ended in Athens and that night, we loaded 8 people and our car (packed with paddle boards and other beach equipment) onto the overnight ferry, arriving in Chania at 6 am on Saturday.

img_9756The owners of the house we rented were incredibly gracious and allowed us to check in (very) early: 7:30 am.  They met us there with warm bougatsa, fresh fruit and a shot of raki. Raki is tough any time, but 7 am sends you to the moon. I don’t remember why we didn’t nap that day … but instead we picked up Russell’s rental car, shopped for groceries, played ping pong, swam in the pool and headed to the Chania harbor that evening.  Chania is Crete’s second largest city.  It’s a lovely town with old Venetian walls and a beautiful lighthouse in the harbor.

img_7239We looked forward to their visit for months. Michael and Peter were thrilled to have friends from home and it was fun to see them pair off in different combinations for the week. Peter has always adored Max, the elder statesman of the kid group, and Sam and Michael are in the same grade and have an easy friendship.  This time, Michael and Max spent time together talking about & watching the World Cup, and one day Sam and Peter hunted for all kinds of sea creatures.  We had dog paddle races, surfed on the paddleboards on a windy afternoon, snorkled, boogie boarded, flossed, swam a lot and tried to make goats faint. Sam kept a list of all the different animals & creatures we saw.  One day, Lundstroms went to Knossos to see the palace and Fefeses hiked in a small gorge.  We got rained out; they didn’t … and were happy for the cloud cover.  That night we enjoyed homemade spaghetti thanks to Russell and a bottle of red wine thanks to our sweet hosts.

The palace of Knossos was the largest of its time and was the seat of power for the Minoan civilization. The main building covered three acres and when you include the out-buildings, it totals five acres. The palace had bathrooms, a drainage system, an enormous center staircase, a cult ritual room, 16 storage rooms and a theater for 400. 

img_9781Sam had a great idea to try different beaches and then on our last day go back to our favorite one.  In all, I think we did four different beaches in 6 days.  Midweek, we caravaned over the mountains to Elafonisi beach, ranked in the top ten worldwide.  Elafonisi has pink sand, black rocks, and bright blue shallow water.  Demetri and Max nicknamed it “Gucci Beach” because it was so … fancy. We swam and boarded and snorkeled for hours.  The beach we went back to was Stavros, famed for being the location shoot for Zorba the Greek, starring Anthony Quinn. We also swam at Marathi Beach and Loutraki Beach.  We ate lots of souvlaki and watermelon and consumed our fair share of apricots, cherries, coffee, raki, Pringles and cold Greek beer.  Demetri, Russell and Max had two sessions of “Death by Pushups” and “Death by Squats.”  Apparently neither was as fun as it sounds.

Our week together went too fast but it was so awesome. We ferried back to Athens Groundhog-Day style, arriving again at 6 am. The kids played with the castles and knights on the patio until it was time for them to depart.  I’m sure they arrived back in Germany with a lot of extra sand in their bag.



Greek life, Travels

May-hem, in the best way

The past 6 weeks have flown by frighteningly fast.  My friend Julie told me a new word to describe the end of the school year: May-hem.  We have a little June-hem in Athens as schools don’t let out until around mid-month.

We’ve had a fun, if fast, month and a half though.  At the end of Race2Adventure,  Carter and Mike joined Demetri for the Formula 1 race in Barcelona.  Later in May, Demetri headed to Nice for one of his top three bucket list items: a Formula 1 race in Monte Carlo.  He snuck onto a yacht and met a cornerback for the Chiefs.  Then he headed to Italy, toured 2 ferrari factories, bought some fantastic balsamic vinegar in Modena and watched wheels of parmigianno-reggiano get shined in Parma, where they play classical music so the cows don’t get stressed. The following weekend, Thodoris and Vassilis joined him in Mugello, Italy — hometown track for Valentino Rossi – for the MotoGP race.  They won a ride in the safety car and got to see the track.  While the dads and uncles were enjoying Bologna and Florence and a massive bistecca fiorentino, Anna and the kids and I spent the weekend together, first at Zappeio and the National Garden in downtown Athens, and then at a playground in Faliro right next to a burger place.  We had lots of ice cream that weekend … and met Captain America.

And, best of all, our friends who promised to visit have started to arrive. Mark and Christina came for a few days before their Mediterranean cruise, bringing a Costco double-pack of Cholula sauce for Demetri.  Then, Mike, Lori and Josh came to Athens for a few days pre-island tour.  We flossed at the Acropolis and SUPed along the Athens Riveria, and I had a run/walk partner for 4 mornings.  Then Jane, Kim, Nikki and Lucas also spent time in Athens before their week-long catamaran cruise in the islands. Today, Russell, Christine, Max and Sam come in by way of Germany, and we’ll all head to Crete for a week of paddleboarding and beach time.  And at the end of the month, Allison, Haley, Reeves and Ryan are coming for 4 days before their Italian holiday.

In between all that, Peter played a sheep in the year end school play, Michael performed a traditional Greek dance in the end of year school play and he was elected MVP for the basketball team yesterday. We had fun birthday parties for our classmates, a lovely fish lunch with Michael’s friend Tasos and his family: Katerina, Makis and brother Ares; lunch was a gorgeous halibut that Tasos’ Makis caught the previous afternoon.  There were two Naxos cheese and wine parties and a park play date with our fun, awesome neighbors Panayoti, Irini and little Anna, and Lionel Messi appeared on a bag of potato chips.

Last ride on the school bus tomorrow. Bring on summer.  Bittersweet for sure.

Photo collage of the May-June whirlwind below.


Greek life

Give me a word … any word …

Demetri says every Greek American family can pick one specific part from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and say, ‘yep, that’s us.’  My title today is a line from it … when Kostas, the dad, is driving carpool and impressing the other children with how any word has its root in Greek. If you remember the movie, the kids think they’ve got him when they ask him for the roots of ‘kimono’ and he tells them it’s a robe that people wear in the winter because, hello,  it’s based on the Greek word for winter: χειμωνασ.  Toula, the daughter, was dying of embarrassment in the backseat.

Several months ago, Papou told me about an economist or professor who gave a speech in the 1950s in English but using only Greek words.  A month or so later at a 2nd grade Laser Tag party, a dad told me the same thing … but he did one better by googling it and pulling it up for me.

The economist who gave this (and another) speech was Xenophon Zolotas. The prefix xeno- means foreign, so I’d like to think he was destined to bring the Greek language to the mainstream modern word.  Zolotas is one of the best jewelry stores in all of Greece, but that probably has nothing to do with what I’m writing about.  Anyway, Zolotas was the head of the bank of Greece right after World War II and then again for 12 years before the junta took power.  In 1989, Zolotas was appointed a non-party prime minister, as the elections that year failed to give majority to either of the prominent political parties.  He died at 100 years old and swam every day of his life.

Zolotas gave two speeches demonstrating the contributions of the Greek language to the English vocabulary.  At the time of his address, Greece had just emerged from an awful civil war. Zolotas’ intention was to use these speeches to enlighten the spirit, substance and grandeur of Greek Culture. Have a look:

September 1957

I always wished to address this Assembly in Greek, but realized that it would have been indeed “Greek” to all present in this room. I found out, however, that I could make my address in Greek which would still be English to everybody. With your permission, Mr. Chairman, l shall do it now, using with the exception of articles and prepositions, only Greek words.


I eulogize the archons of the Panethnic Numismatic Thesaurus and the Ecumenical Trapeza for the orthodoxy of their axioms, methods and policies, although there is an episode of cacophony of the Trapeza with Hellas. With enthusiasm we dialogue and synagonize at the synods of our didymous organizations in which polymorphous economic ideas and dogmas are analyzed and synthesized. Our critical problems such as the numismatic plethora generate some agony and melancholy. This phenomenon is characteristic of our epoch.

But, to my thesis, we have the dynamism to program therapeutic practices as a prophylaxis from chaos and catastrophe. In parallel, a Panethnic unhypocritical economic synergy and harmonization in a democratic climate is basic. I apologize for my eccentric monologue. I emphasize my euharistia to you, Kyrie to the eugenic arid generous American Ethnos and to the organizes and protagonists of his Amphictyony and the gastronomic symposia.


It is Zeus’ anathema on our epoch (for the dynamism of our economies) and the heresy of our economic method and policies that we should agonize the Skylla of nomismatic plethora and the Charybdis of economic anaemia. It is not my idiosyncracy to be ironic or sarcastic but my diagnosis would be that politicians are rather cryptoplethorists. Although they emphatically stigmatize nomismatic plethora, they energize it through their tactics and practices. Our policies should be based more on economic and less on political criteria. Our gnomon has to be a metron between economic,strategic and philanthropic scopes. Political magic has always been anti-economic.

In an epoch characterized by monopolies, oligopolies, monopolistic antagonism and polymorphous inelasticities, our policies have to be more orthological, but this should not be metamorphosed into plethorophobia, which is endemic among academic economists. Nomi smatic symmetry should not antagonize economic acme. A greater harmonization between the practices of the economic and nomismatic archons is basic. Parallel to this,we have to synchronize and harmonize more and more our economic and nomismatic policies panethnically. These scopes are more practicable now, when the prognostics of the political and economic barometer are halcyonic. The history of our didimus organization on this sphere has been didactic and their gnostic practices will always be a tonic to the polyonymous and idiomorphous ethnical economies. The genesis of the programmed organization will dynamize these policies.

Therefore, i sympathize, although not without criticism one or two themes with the apostles and the hierarchy of our organs in their zeal to program orthodox economic and nomismatic policies, although I have some logomachy with them.I apologize for having tyranized you with my Hellenic phraseology. In my epilogue, i emphasize my eulogy to the philoxenous aytoc htons of this cosmopolitan metropolis and my encomium to you, Kyrie stenographers.

Maybe good ole Kostas was onto something.

The word “ΓΛΩΣΣΑ” in the photo above, means ‘languages.’  Schools also use it to describe language arts activities, i.e., reading, writing, spelling.


I thought we were dog people

Cuddles the Tiger, Orange Julius, Panther, Mickey Mouse, Cuddles Junior (CJ), Clementine, Mama, Shadow, Lloyd. Just a few of the cats we’ve befriended and renamed. For example, Shadow’s real name is Apostoles. But he followed Michael and Peter so much… well you get it.

Anyone who has been to Greece has seen the cats in the streets and alleys, in the tavernas and hotels. In fact, the tourist shops have postcards, posters and t-shirts with “the cats of Greece.” They are everywhere.

What’s really interesting is that they are strays, except not really. There’s a family – or maybe they’re all just housemates – of cats that live, from what we can tell, under the building next door. Most of them are skittish, but they are well fed. Walking by the gates of that building you see all kinds of bowls. I’ve seen at least three different people feed them. One day in the supermarket, I looked down into my cart and saw five cans of cat food. I reminded Demetri that we do not in fact have a cat … and he looked at me like I was nuts.

The Plateia has even more. Tons of cats hang out near the dumpsters of the tavernas and some are brave enough to saunter around the tables. One of the servers we’ve become friendly with feeds them all before he leaves. And by “feeds them,” I mean pork, and chicken. None of this cat food nonsense. They follow him to the bench and they sit together for 30 mins or more.

Our favorite is a brownish gray female tabby whom Peter calls Cuddles. She jumps up on the planter next to the door, loves to be pet and meows loudly the entire time. She loves the affection and the food (Papou feeds her too), but it stops there. She is not interested labels – especially that of “traditional pet.” Once Demetri tried to sneak her upstairs and it sounded as if a murder was being committed in the elevator.

So … we meet her on her terms. Though lately she’s keeping her distance — Demetri went down to feed her one evening and she jumped up and clocked herself when her head hit the plate Demetri was holding. So now, Peter hops the fence after school to go find her. And she lets him love and feed her.

We don’t think she’ll want to leave her plush life in Voula, but we make up stories about her moving to Colorado. I think she’d give the foxes a run for their money. Especially when it comes to chickens.

Pictured above: Peter and Clementine, real name Karolos (Charles) in Nafplio, March 2018. Clementine climbed up peoples’ legs.