Santorini avec George

As if the free wine all day wasn’t trouble enough, I found a little jazz club in Fira on Wednesday evening. There were no live bands (since the season here is wrapping up), but they did play some good older jazz ballads and the bar was full of locals celebrating the recent rioting in Athens.  I joined a few of them in their jovial spirit with a few libations of my own.  During the course of the evening, while downing martinis, I was educated about what the locals are truly upset about when it comes to their struggles with the current government as well as with the European Union as a whole.  The couple who seemed the most impassioned about the topic was George and his girlfriend, Aphrodite (really and her beauty is definitely deserving of the name – she was stunning).  With all of the fervor and fire floating around the bar that evening it sparked in me a moment of creative expression to work on my book – so I grabbed several napkins and a pen from the bartender and began writing furiously a new intro that may not be total shit – like all of the others I have tested thus far.  It was my writing that prompted Aphrodite to introduce her and George to me.

Three martinis and 3am later (yes, three….), they saw me back to my hotel and also invited me to take a tour of the island the next day.  I slept until Noon and then I called George.  Aphrodite was unable to join us because she is still working for the season, so he picked me up and drove me all over the whole island of Thira on his motorcycle (I am getting closer and closer to having used every mode of transportation possible on this continent – just two more to go, I think).  If you have never seen “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”, then this analogy will be lost on you, but George is the absolute personification of Toula’s Dad.  George has worked as a tour guide in Santorini for 17 years so he was able to give me all kinds of information about the island, plus he is also native to Northern Greece.  Throughout the afternoon he told me everything Greece has done to help the world (to which I do not deny their contributions to our society), but there was a moment that it struck me as quite funny to hear many Greeks talk this way, not just in the movie.

For example, while sitting at the Sea Side Café enjoying excellent Saganaki and some Souvlaki, George relayed the story to me about how the Greeks came up with the saying “OK”.  He explained when many of them first immigrated to America, they struggled with learning the English language (cuz Greek is so easy…) while working in factories.  They needed a way to tell the supervisors that everything packed in boxes was ready to ship, deliver, etc.  To solve the problem, they started writing big “Os” and “Ks” on the boxes.  Why?  Because in Greek O.K. means Ola Kala.  Ola Kala translates to “Everything is alright”.  So there you go.

After being schooled over lunch on the black sand beach, we headed to the North end of the island, to Oia (where Mama Mia and the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants were filmed).  George worked on both of those movies, so he showed me the house that Alexis stayed in.  As we were discussing the history of Oia, a woman standing next to us lost her footing, fell and broke her leg. She and her husband were visiting for the day from the cruise ships, so were just on a walking tour of the city.  George frantically called for an ambulance while I tried to keep her from going into shock, because she broke her femur bone and I didn’t want her to notice that her upper thigh was rapidly swelling and bending in a direction the Universe did not intend.  For the next fifteen minutes, I sat with Cora, checked her pulse and continually reminded her to breathe, while her husband Rick freaked out and George gave directions to the tour guide that once the ambulance came they were to pay the drivers 20-euros in cash to take her to a private doctor, and gave him his name.  George has seen a few accidents in his days as a tour guide and he was steadfast about Cora receiving proper care – which would not be provided at the public hospital – I would take his word on that.

Once Ms. Cora was situated on the gurney, George and I settled our nerves for a bit, and then watched the sunset at Kastro Café – where a good friend of mine fell in love with a man who works there a few years before (so romantic, isn’t it?! eeeeekkk!).  I had the honor of meeting him and he was beaming when I spoke her name in a way that I would always hope someone I cared for thought of me years later.  It was a full day, full of emotion personally and nationally (as drastic austerity measures were voted into place today as well).

I spent my last day in Fira doing laundry, homework, eating waffles and ice cream, and recovering from the extremes of the day before.  I can officially say I am done with Greece, cross your fingers and toes my flights are running tomorrow and I can actually get the eff out of this country and back to Italia.


War and Waffles, what more can you ask for on vacation?

Nea Kameni

Yesterday I took a boat tour to the youngest volcanic landforms in the eastern Mediterranean, Nea Kameni.  It is an active volcanic center, with rock features that date back about 400+ years, the most recent eruption happened in 1950.  It is a rarity in the world because it is uninhabited, which makes it ideal for studying geological phenomenon. The island group of Santorini, Thira, Thirasia and Aspornisi, are what remains of what is known as the “Blue Volcano”.  The last large eruption occurred in approximately 1700 BC destroying much of the then singular island, which was also the largest, most prosperous port in the Aegean Sea.  Once the debris settled, the valley filled with water, creating the caldera that tourists flock to today.  The mountains and cliffs that the buildings cling to were made from the crater of the volcano.  Nea Kameni is the result of a slow formation of submarine effusions from an underwater volcano that eventually formed the two islets.

The boat left from the “Old Port” of Fira at 2pm and only held approximately 20 people.  I expected a typical ocean tour type vessel complete with cheesy music and crappy booze.  However, after I ran down the 600+ stairs from the city center to the actual port attempting to leap over donkey dung along the way), I was pleasantly surprised to see the vessel was an old sailboat.  I grew up on boats, and it had been quite some time since I rode on a “real” one.  (The boat in Cinque Terre was a tourist trap water taxi, thus does not count).  I quickly climbed aboard and slid into the seat just off to the starboard side of the bow.  (If you don’t know boat lingo, Google it and learn something new today and then you can kick the port side of my stern when you figure it out).

As we docked in the harbor, I was awe-struck by the simplicity of the exceptional natural beauty of the lunar like terrain.  I knew that I would want some uninterrupted time to enjoy the unique preserve, so I hauled ass off the boat and up the mountain to beat everyone else on the boat to the top.  While it wasn’t a competition, I know that tourists seem to have an issue with keeping their big mouths shut, even when asked to, so I wanted to understand what the guide meant when he said, “Just stand at the top of the volcano, and you will understand everything the island has to tell you.”  He was absolutely correct.  To stand at the top of the crater in silence, while listening to the rumble of life churning in the magma beneath the layers of rock and ocean, there was an ethereal quality in the connection I felt to the Earth that I have long been missing.  To feel the soil and rocks under my feet, the smell of the ocean as the breeze blew under my nose, and sense my heart beat synchronize with the thunder of lava that resembles the angst of rage brought an overwhelming sensation of tranquility.

I was grateful to have those few moments, before the rest of the herd stumbled in, to this connection of acceptance that I am all of those things and I am allowed to be still like the earth, to vacillate with the ocean of change and to erupt with anger and fury, because soon the tides will recede, the anger will dissipate and my soul will be steady.  But to bury it down deep in the layers of fake smiles and pleasantries creates larger disturbances than just being with what is.  So…..there you go….I cried again…..and then I found some rocks of different colors to place amongst the other obscure gravesites on top of the crater and said prayers for Missy and Jack – and my heart is happy to know that their souls sing every day and that they are part of my soul (just as I carry all of you as part of me too).

It may be time to leave Europe soon – I am just getting way too damn sentimental and oober cheezy.  In the meantime, I enjoyed every damn minute of that barren little island, and then got back in the boat to cruise of to the hot springs on the “old volcano island” that formed 400 years before the new one.  I did not partake in the swimming in sulfur, because I think it is disgusting – but I did partake in a lovely afternoon nap on the bow of the old boat (ah how wonderful to be lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the waves).

I awoke as we arrived back at the Old Port, feeling energized enough to run up the 600+ steps to the top of the mountain.  Let me just go on record and state that was a really DUMB idea.  The steps are about 3-feet deep and I am guessing by the height of the mountain that I ran up and down the equivalent of an 18-story building today.  My legs are now officially on strike, along with the rest of Greece.  But, I did celebrate my victory at a little restaurant overlooking the cliffs.  I even remembered to take pictures because I know some of you have asked (and I am obliging the request, even though I’m going on record to state I hate pictures of food).  I had fried feta swimming in a tomato soup, domaldes and red wine.

After dinner, I joined the damn Albanian waiter named Beni from the restaurant at a local bar, had three beers (ew), and listened to bad 80s and 90s music (God bless the Greeks, too, for loving bad 80s music and Michael Jackson).  I finished my day at 1am as I muddled my way back to my hotel and fell fast asleep.

Geia sas apó ti̱n Santoríni̱

After a peaceful evening of listening to bad French music and karaoke, at the hotel outside of Athens, I awoke with renewed excitement to continue my travels through Greece.  In the midst of the cold rain, I jumped into a taxi back to the Athens airport.  Thankfully, there were no delays or strikes, so I arrived in Santorini about an hour later (if you go by ferry it takes 7-8 hours.  I am sure it is lovely, but I am too impatient for that).  I found a nice couple from Ohio to con into splitting a taxi with me from Thira airport to Fira (how original), so the cost was only 5-euros and well worth it instead of standing in the December-like winds for another hour-and-a-half waiting to catch the bus.

The longest part of the day was not the flight or the taxi ride – it was having to walk all over Fira Center to find my frickin’ hotel.  You see, in Santorini (like Costa Rica), they don’t believe in having addresses for locations.  For small towns, there really is no point anyway, everyone knows everyone and they know if you are new are or if you grew up in the same small town your whole life and decided to stay and raise your family – to which your oldest child now tries desperately to leave and curses you for remaining stuck in the past.

Santorini is not small enough for that and there are way too many tourists to keep track of which hotel is where.  I had to ask five people where the Hotel Antonia was until finally someone pointed me in the correct direction (I will point out here that the Greeks suck as at giving directions, let alone knowing which is the correct direction to point someone towards – “up there on the left” is not giving someone directions when there are 52 hotels “up there”, “on the left” and you have to take three rights, then go straight, take another left, then go up there, on the left to find your hotel).  Oy.  Anyway, after an hour of hauling my bag around Fira like a pack mule, I made it to the hotel.

Mario, the innkeeper, greeted me with some warm coffee while we got paperwork situated for check-in, and then he gave me the layout of the island, along with several recommendations for things to do, places to go and restaurants to eat at.  He showed me the apartment I am staying at through Saturday, which is CLEAN, doesn’t smell of smoke and is super cute!  And theeeeen, he told me the best news…..they serve coffee, tea, and wine all day long, no charge…….I am gonna be in trouble……

Photo Credit, (C) 2011 Laura Riggs

Acropolis or bust!

The adventure of finding my way into Athens yesterday wore me out and I did not wake up until almost 10am.  I stumbled down to get breakfast and lots of coffee before venturing out to view the Acropolis today.  The citizens are calling for more strikes on Wednesday and Thursday of this week, thus I figured I better go see what I came here to see before the shit gets shut down again, regardless of the fact that it is miserably cold and rainy. After finishing breakfast, I went back to my room to add more layers to my skinny ass, grabbed my raincoat and camera and headed out of the hotel, dodging protesters and garbage, to view the ruins.  Of course, I got lost – because I don’t understand Greek – I can’t read it, I can’t speak it and it doesn’t make any sense.  The lettering is different, the vowel and consonant combination they have adopted are better spoken if you have a side lisp and everything ends in “enos”, which is awfully close to “asinos” or jackass (I will come back to that).  To make things worse, the city planned the street layouts in triangular form.  So, while I thought I was heading towards the Acropolis for five minutes, I actually ended up on the opposite side of the city in the industrial area of town.  I quickly located a policeman to ask him where I was and how to get back on track – and again got yelled at for being by myself.  (I am sure you are wondering HTF did you not see the Acropolis, dude, it is on top of a mountain?!  DUH!  Well – you can’t really see the mountain when you are swimming in garbage, sorry).<

Now the officer was H-O-T, Hotty Hot, so, I was hoping he would have just walked me to the Acropolis since he was so worried about me being alone, but I guess he had a job to do – standing there minding the riff-raff and pickpockets.  I would have to settle for his yelling at me, then giving me a swaggerly smile with a flirty wink as the content of our brief encounter.  I followed his instructions to “just go straight that way” back towards the Acropolis (through 14 winding streets mind you, the Greeks have got to work on how you give directions to people, because their idea of straight and other people’s idea of straight are VASTLY different).  Finally I arrived at Montastraki Square, and then hiked up the damn mountain to get to the ruins, and guess what?!  THEY WERE CLOSED – due to the personnel strike.  I think I have done pretty well up until now with unexpected hiccups, travel snafus, museum closures, or other weird crap that has happened along my journey, but I am not going to lie – I completely lost all sense of rational composure at this point and pitched afull-blown, 2-1/2 year-old style temper tantrum, complete with Asian couple staring mouths open at my rampage for no less than 10 minutes.  When I finished stomping around, screaming “f**k the Greeks!” at least 20 times, I sat down and cried with my head in my hands, and I cried.  After I finally pulled it together, I spent some time walking the grounds, took a few pictures and bought a ciambella (because sugar makes everything better).  Then, I took some deep breaths, cried again, cursed the Greeks and their stupidity for shutting down a revenue stream in the midst of trying to recovering from  overwhelming debit three more times, and then I stomped back down the hillside.

At the bottom of the hill rests the Agora ruins (which were also closed), where I sat down to breathe and reconnect with my more rational side.  Across the street I watched a man desperately trying to sell umbrellas to passing tourists, along with two African men playing beautifully depressing music from their homeland.  Without understanding the words, the timbre of the music spoke of the struggles in their own country.  By the way they postured themselves, and the expressions of angst displayed on their faces, while they sung the lyrics, you could sense the anger, mixed with deep respect, regret, fondles and love.   I sat and listened for some time, then I realized I was behaving like a complete jerk about the whole mess and I really don’t mean it when I say “f**k the Greeks”.  At that moment, another man entered the scene as he walked up to the umbrella guy and handed him a sandwich.  I turned into a total puddle of regret for having thought such awful things, and my heart broke with the feeling of suffering and poverty these people have been living in for too long (unnoticed by most of us in the world).  I looked over to find the African men starting at me with perplexity, and one of them asked why I was crying.  I told him it saddened me to see what has become of a great city full of ancient wonder and mythology.  Of course, he was all too familiar with how a corrupt government can quickly erode the entire foundation of a civilized society.  We spoke for some time about life and his family back home.  I asked him if he had any recordings of their music to take with me as a memento.  He was overjoyed that someone appreciated their music and I am now the honored owner of a Molisimo CD (which means “soul” in his native language).  As soon as I can find somewhere to upload the music, you will understand why this music touched my soul deeply, too.

The irony, as I see it, is that much of our legal system of today was founded on what the Greek people established thousands of years ago and the city is now in complete disrepair.  Everywhere are signs of discontent, struggle and hardship.  From the trash piled in the streets (which has caused the government to declare a state of emergency due to the imposing public health hazard), to the buildings that are crumbling because there is no money to maintain them, to the graffiti sprayed on almost every structure in the city verbalizing the anger of the people, and the banners strung on many of the buildings show the signs of support for the people’s fight.  I understand part of their discontent, because they trusted the government to manage their tax dollars and investments better than they have.  And part of it I don’t agree with…..if the country is broke, and you have tourists willing to pay to see shit – why shoot yourself in the foot and shut it down?  From an economic standpoint, this is inefficient (and we know if there is one thing I can’t stand it is inefficiency).

The next day when the demonstrators took up more crazy protests (and began burning trash) in front of my hotel, I decided it was time to get the hell out of dodge.  I didn’t take pictures, because I didn’t want to have my camera stolen, nor did I want to get thrown into the pile of burning garbage, so I put my head down and hauled ass to the subway while it was still working (consequently it was the cleanest place in all of Athens).

I don’t want to see Greece fail, I really hope that they can come to a compromise and find economic footing soon, however – I don’t need to be caught in the middle of this shit (literally)……so peace out, asinos, I am checking into a hotel by the airport so that I can catch a quick flight to Santorini in the morning.


Having determined that the order of Germany is just far too anal-retentive for a proper vacation, I decided to get back to the chaotic ways I had grown accustomed to in my travels.  Since I had originally planned to meet an acquaintance in Istanbul, but plans changed when he was unable to make it and I chose to see my brother instead, I split the difference and chose to fly to Athens.  Here again I have to credit the Germans for having their poop in a group.  Having flown a couple of German owned airlines now, I can tell you that you definitely fly with style.  None of this surcharge for this, gouge you for that.  No, no!  The pleasant experience begins when you discover that the fare includes your checked luggage, and gets even better when you don’t have to take off your shoes through security.  Nor do any of the airports here the “3-3-1” rule – why?  Because it is a stupid rule meant to give you a false sense of security that doesn’t actually do shit.  The Europeans know this and they also know that they don’t need to have pull something out of your bag to scan separately, that they can see perfectly fine as your bags goes through the screening process.  (And if you saw how nasty the floor was at the airport in Rome, you would be singing Hallelujah right along with me about keeping your shoes ON).

Let me take a step back here for a moment to admit to you that I had mixed feelings about going to Istanbul.  I know many of you have had mixed feelings about the fact that I am off travelling the world alone with no real plan to speak of anyway, but I did have some concern about going to a Muslim country as an American woman by myself.  Istanbul is a bit more progressive than other places in the Middle East, and my anxiety was also eased by the knowledge that I would be joining someone who has done quite a bit of travel to Turkey and knows many of the locals quite well.  But, I feel that the Universe had other plans when he had to cancel his trip the exact same day that my brother had informed me he would be in Munich for work.  I don’t always see the big red truck, but this week I got to ride on it!  Unfortunately, I got off a stop early when I made the choice to visit  Greece.  Several times I had expressed concern about whether I would actually be able to travel into or out of Greece given the ongoing personnel strikes, the volatile political environment and the sinking faster than quicksand economy.   But, that bitch Athena kept whispering that I would always regret it if I didn’t come visit at least for a short time.  (If you don’t know the story of Athena, she is the goddess of wisdom and war. This to me is an oxymoron, which explains a lot about the city of Athens actually……)

On a whim, I booked a ticket to Athens, planned a 3-day stay to see all of the historical crap, then another flight to Santorini for 5-days to relax and enjoy the crisp blue ocean. This is one of those times that I needed an intervention on my trip – I needed my brother, Mr. Google, to advise me to check the news before getting caught up in my romantic thoughts.  The first clue I was headed for was an announcement from Luftansa that the flight from Munich to Athens would be delayed at least 3 hours because air traffic control in Greece was running with minimal staff. They were coordinating landings as quickly and as safely as was possible, but with only three men responsible for hundreds of flights, they could not land as many planes as normal.  Having traveled quite a bit in my life, I understand flight delays happen, so I continued to work on my homework, drank café lattes (which Luftasana generously provides to all of the passengers in their waiting areas – can you say awesome?), without giving myself cause to worry.  About two-and-a-half hours later, the announcement was made that they were going to allow the plane into the country, so we all needed to get our asses in our seats pronto!  And boy do Germans know how to do pronto.  As a matter of fact, none of the flights in Europe have required the retarded boarding process that we are subjected to in the States.  You are not assigned a group number to which you must stand in waiting to board, or the whole boarding by rows process that no one seems to ever understand – they just tell you “get on the plane, we leave in 15 minutes.”  And everyone gets on the plane, puts their crap away, sits down, and they’re ready to go in 15 minutes.  (Why do we continue to allow companies and our government to dumb down its citizens, I ask?)  Germans, however, can complete the boarding process in 10 minutes (they get the gold star of super efficiency yet again).

In addition, European Airlines serve their passengers food AND wine regardless of whether you are seated first, business or you’re a schlep class – in fact, most airlines have one class and that is the class that is on the plane.  Plus, the food is good, the wine is plentiful AND these airlines are thriving.  I say all of the airlines in America have got to stop this business of milking their customers out of every dollar and instead make their corporate executives take a substantial pay cut (I am pretty sure they can make do on a measly $1,000,000/year salary) and bring back the perks of air travel – damn it already!  Onto other economic woes, seated next to me was a man from Holland who was visiting Athens with his family and we got into a discussion about the current crisis in Greece and how concerned most of the EU citizens are about Greece falling out of the Union – this was not what the citizens wanted, for the realize the economic impact of such a consequence (far be it from the governments to listen to what the people are demanding, however – guess they have the same shitty politicians, different country).

My rants must come to an end now because I am sure I have offended several of you with my views, but more importantly we have landed in Athens, in the midst of a two day strike on all public transportation.  Without subways, busses, or taxis in service, I now have to cleverly resolve how to get from the airport to the city center – which is 40km away – at 9pm at night. Either that or I am sleeping at the airport until 5am when public transportation hopefully comes back online.

I chose the former – which may have proved to be a bad decision, but we’ll get back to that. Even though the taxis were on strike, the limos were not.  Thus, I haggled with a driver on the price, and then I corralled three other people to join me in order to split the fare.  I found the most fabulous of the gay men from Bangkok, who was wearing stunning lip gloss, a man from Berlin wearing a cravat (not something you see every day) and another man from Berlin – a lawyer actually – who was in Athens to consult on a case involving copyright infringement (sounds intriguing doesn’t it?). The driver agreed to drop us as close as he could to Syntagma Square in the center of city, but he said he was not allowed to go any farther than that or the protesters would tear his car apart. He was going against the request of the citizens for a country wide no-work day.  I understood his predicament (a man’s gotta feed his family ya know?) and agreed, as long as he could direct me to Omonoia Square from the drop-off point, to which he obliged and said it was no more than a 10-minute walk.

Twenty minutes later, we ran into an incredible amount of traffic going every which direction with horns wailing, fingers extending and profanities flying.  I thanked the driver, gave him my money and hopped out of the limo heading in the direction of the route he described.  I walked as quickly as I could, not stopping to talk to anyone, nor stopping to gaze too long at the rapidly increasing number of homeless people sleeping on each street I passed, all the while trying to avoid the piles of garbage accumulating on the sidewalks and spilling over into the streets (the strike has affected trash collection as well and it effing smells like a DUMP here, a DUMP).

Once I reached Omonoia square, I followed the directions I had written down to my hotel, but had to decipher the street signs as best I could while walking (and not stopping, as the limo driver was explicit that I follow these instructions – I know, I know – WTF did I get myself into?  The beginning of a revolution that is what I got myself into).  Two blocks later, I knew I was on the wrong street, so I walked into the lobby of another hotel, where I met a security guard to ask for directions.  He was kind and gave me a map and another lecture about walking alone at night – he was adamant when he said I must not walk alone at night. “People are no good here”, he said……greeeeeaaaaat, a lot of good that does me now, dude).  He drew my route on the map, repeated the directions three times, yelled at me again for being alone, and then sent me on my way. Five minutes later, I arrived at the correct hotel where I received ANOTHER lecture from the man at the front desk about being alone.  (Okay, okay, I get it already, do not go anywhere alone in Athens, the city is FUBAR’d, and I won’t do it again….until tomorrow …..Can I just have the keys to my room…..correction jail cell, please?)

I hobbled up the three flights of stairs with all of my crap, since the elevator was broken, and went straight to bed.  BTW – there is no such thing as a “non-smoking” room in Greece.  “Non-Smoking” simply means YOU don’t plan to smoke while you are staying in the room, but that doesn’t stop the person (or 800 people before you) from smoking in the same room.  Regardless of the fact that “non-smoking” was clearly posted on the front door and inside the room, there was an ashtray on the desk in my jail  cell…peculiar…yet, I am too tired to care…