Greece update #3 – Rome

Rome

A few weeks after we’d booked our tickets to Greece, it occurred to me that we could maybe take advantage of cheap flights to other parts of Europe. I was idly checking out the prices on Easyjet, and suddenly I’d booked us 2 tickets to Rome in May for a mere 60 euros each. I can’t fly anywhere from Montreal for that price, let alone to Rome. I started looking at hotels, and freaked out by the prices (note: Rome is expensive), opted for the apartment route. It always surprises me that renting apartments is cheaper than hotels.  In general you get something nicer, with a kitchen, and in our case, with a terrace too. I found a tiny studio near Trastevere, the old part of Rome, at the base of the Gianicolo Hill for the cost of an even tinier hotel room without a terrace in a similar area. And then I forgot about Rome for awhile.

The trip snuck up on us. We were just starting to feel settled in Athens and it seemed strange to leave it so soon. The night before our flight I did a little bit of Internet research, mostly of the food variety. I managed to snag a few recommendations, but when you search “Best pizza/gelato in Rome”, you’ll exhaust yourself going through the thousands of hits that appear. We also had Lonely Planet’s Iphone app for Rome. Armed with this little information and a print out with directions to our apartment, we flew to Italy.

Centro Historico

And can I tell you how much I loved Rome? I loved Rome in an unexpectedly visceral way. I mean, obviously it’s Rome, but when I told people we were going, their first reaction was usually more along the lines of “be careful not to get pickpocketed”. I was bracing myself for hordes of tourists and overpriced pizza and hoped that because our apartment was in a less touristy part of town, we would be lucky. And we were. On our first day, we stayed on our side of the Tiber river and walked around Trastevere’s cobblestoned streets, and we bought prosciutto and cheese from the sweetest little shop, and a bottle of wine from another, and found a bakery that sold amazing looking bread and some nice looking pizza too. We ate the pizza sitting on the steps of a nearby square that looked onto the water. This was the Rome I was wary of?

A little bit of Colosseum

The next day we crossed the bridge and walked to the Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Piazza Navona and other notable points in between. We were occasionally annoyed by the masses and the fact that a bottle of water cost 2 euro, but there are ways around this. First you come to terms with the fact that as much as “tourists” are annoying, you’re also one so suck it up and stop being judgemental. Next, simply admire the thing you’re looking at. The lineups to get into the Coliseum or the Vatican museums are long and exhausting, and we didn’t want to wait in them, but you see so much of the Coliseum and its ruins anyway outside, and just being in St. Peters with the Vatican in the background is inspiring (the vendors hawking rosaries, postcards of the pope and wilted looking pizza slices are awesome too).  Then you take the back streets, which are usually nicer anyway. You buy a 60 cent bottle of water from the grocery store that you then refill at the dozens of fountains around the city (The Romans did water well; these fountains are constantly running cool, clear water.) Ta da. It’s not so hard.

Cutest little heirloom tomatoes at the market

So, mostly we walked a lot and ate good food. (If this is the epitaph on my eventual tombstone, I wouldn’t have lived a bad life, I think.) In the morning we’d wake up, and get an espresso and a pastry from a nearby cafe. You drink your little cup of coffee standing at the bar and feel very chic and Italian doing so. And then we’d set off in whatever direction we’d chosen for the day.  The best food we got was the kind gathered from the market at the square near our apartment or little shops.  Most of the places we liked best didn’t come from recommendations online or the guidebook – they just happened to look good. I have a feeling that as long as you avoid the places obviously targeted towards tourists, you won’t have a problem finding good food. But in case you do go, here are places I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend:

  • Forno la Renella (Via del Moro, 15 in Trastevere): We ended up buying all our bread from here. You can tell them how much of the loaf you want and they’ll cut it for you – you pay according to weight. They also have pizza al taglio, the rectangular kind with the thicker crust, which was amazing (also paid for by weight).
  • Gelateria Giolitti (near Colonna): It’s  funny the way you match up your experience at a place with reviews online. When we went to Giolitti, we didn’t go because it was a gelato institution. We had no idea. We went because we saw so many different types of people holding cones from the place: business men in suits, construction workers splattered in paint, tourists. And when we ate our gelato we didn’t realize that the place had apparently seen “better days”. Instead we got excellent gelato in a very touristy hub, which we ate on the steps of a quiet church, before jumping back into the crowd.
  • Sant’Eustachio Il Caffè: I’d read about this cafe many times before leaving and hoped to have coffee here, but the map on the Iphone app was lacking. It was fine for getting to general areas, but unreliable for exact addresses. I was happy, then, when we turned a corner and found the cafe. I’m not a coffee expert, but Andrew said it was perfect.
  • Almost Corner Bookstore (Via del Moro, 45 in Trastevere): Not food related, but there’s something comforting about finding a good bookstore when you’re abroad, especially a small cozy one with friendly owners and an incredible selection of English books for decent prices.

So, in one of my less original statements: Rome is amazing. But being back in Athens isn’t so bad either.

A facelift

A&E Bookstore

My website has been in dire need of a face lift for the past few months (years?) and with Andrew‘s help, here it is: still fairly simple, but prettier. It’s also a lot easier to navigate – you can read posts by categories (listed in the drop down menu on the side bar) or you can get to the most important sections by following the links at the top. (Andrew also took the photo of me on the About page. I’m on the balcony in Kipseli, looking happy, wearing a dress I bought for 7 euro this afternoon at H&M. Thanks, Andrew. And H&M, I guess, but mostly Andrew!)

From now on the site will be located at http://bibliographic.net, so update your links accordingly or resubscribe to the RSS feed on the sidebar. When I initially registered bibliographic.net years ago, a bunch of my girlfriends and I shared the domain. Over the years they’ve moved on to their own blogs (i.e. see Caroline, Lesley or Samantha’s sites), so I figured it would be easier to go back to the root of it all. Bibliographic.  Welcome, again.

Recent reading

I read Tao Lin’s novella, Stealing from American Apparel, and at first I couldn’t tell if I liked it or not, but I was fascinated by it, how of the moment and specific it was to a particular group of young people who live in New York. Aimless hipsters, I guess, but not like the kind that live in Montreal or Toronto. The New York kind that forget how hard it is to maintain raw vegan diets because there are so many restaurants that cater to that stuff over there. The writing style was particular and deliberately naive and it worked, even if it was sometimes annoying. Also there’s a page that talks about both Lorrie Moore and spicy chicken sandwiches from Wendy’s, and I liked that. So, I don’t know. I did like it. I read it between reading chapters of The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon. It was probably unfair to read those books at the same time because I’d inevitably compare them (Lyon writes a fictional account of Aristotle’s tutoring of Alexander the Great; you can’t get more different), but I needed something contemporary to read at the same time to balance it out. Sometimes historical fiction makes me feel restless. But The Golden Mean didn’t make me feel that way, actually. It was so good and satisfying, the kind of book I can’t shelve right away because I want it around for a few more days, even if it’s just sitting there, hanging out with the rest of my stuff.

Greece Update #2 – Dogs

Nafplio

Nafplio, a seaport town in the Peloponnese, is built along the sides of a hill, and if you’re staying there, it’s hard to avoid walking up and down steps to get anywhere. We arrived, found a cheap hotel near the top of the hill (the higher up you have to walk, the less it costs), dropped off our stuff, and then walked back down to find dinner. Among the maze of small steep streets, we came across a dog, a stray, but the kind of stray that saunters around tourist towns and knows how to identify a pair of suckers when he sees them by the way they say, “Hi doggie!” and pat it on the head. We had a companion for the rest of our walk as we sought out a restaurant. For a few moments we loved this dog, the way he trotted happily beside us, our well-trained off-leash pet. We found a restaurant, sat down, and then realized that our dog had followed us in and was now begging other diners for food at their tables. “Is that dog yours?” our waiter asked us. We blushed and shook our heads. We suddenly hated the dog for revealing us as the tourists we were. The dog was sent away. Hours later, we took a different route up to the hotel and after turning a corner, we suddenly came face to face with our dog, now sitting under a tree, hanging out. “Doggie!” we exclaimed. We apologized for the way we’d forsaken him at the restaurant. He accepted our apology and walked with us again, accompanying us to our hotel. I ran into our room to give him any food we had, but only came up with a bag of fruit gummies. I tossed him a lemon gummy. He didn’t eat it. “Try another flavour,” Andrew suggested. The dog flopped on the ground, rolled on his back, surrounded in a circle of candy. He didn’t need food; he would be happy with cuddles. We rubbed his tummy and his tail thumped on the ground, and then he walked away, satisfied.

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There used to be more stray dogs in Athens. I remember seeing them sleep in the midday heat, piles of them, at the subway station. At the old airport you used to be greeted by dogs after you’d collect luggage. They just lived there. Pigeons, too. And then the Olympics happened and the dogs were taken care of and you don’t see them as much anymore, which is probably a good thing.

We took a walk around Kipseli the other night, the neighbourhood we’re living in, taking a route I’d never taken before that winds through a big park and has things you don’t see a lot in Athens, like big groups of trees and grass and wide open spaces. And on one particular stretch, we found the dogs, so many of them! Now they belong to owners and the owners take them here to throw a ball around, to give them room to roam. For a second we missed our tourist town dog.

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Agistri is quiet. The kind of quiet I’m not accustomed to and sometimes think I won’t ever get accustomed to, the kind of quiet that’s so quiet that it feels like an entity unto itself. Loud quiet. Kipseli, on the other hand, is all noise, all the time. Right now it’s nine in the morning and I can hear cars, birds, someone sweeping up their balcony, and just before that someone was blaring Taylor Swift before being told to shut if off. Oh wait, now I hear other music. I think it’s a television, actually. It blends together into white noise and settles into the background, but occasionally you hear something out of the ordinary.

The other night we were at home and a bang snapped us to attention. It was a spectacular kind of crash, booming, like a really fantastic door slam maybe, but with more resonance. We later found out it was an explosion, over 10 kilometres away, but powerful enough for us to hear. A bomb, outside the main prison, supposedly an act of sympathy for some people locked up inside. No one was killed in the explosion and the area was evacuated before it went off, but it was powerful enough to blow out surrounding windows and to be heard even by us. And not just us, the dogs, too. All those dogs that we’d seen chasing after balls and running around suddenly started barking, and their howls in unison from all of the surrounding apartment buildings were so loud, just as loud as the explosion.

Greece update #1

In the Peloponnese, somewhere outside of Nafplio

So, hi!

I write to you from Greece. Since arriving at the beginning of the month I’ve been mostly in Agistri, a small island in the Saronic Gulf about an hour and a half ferry ride away from Piraeus, the port in Athens. My grandfather bought property in Agistri for a ridiculously low sum of money when he was a young man, a small parcel of land on an island that at the time was barely inhabited and had no infrastructure for electricity or water. People thought he was crazy. He only lived to see the foundations of what my father built on that land, but he should be proud of his brilliant foresight. Over the years, Agistri has become a quiet and peaceful refuge. It’s not bustling like its closest neighbour, Aegina, and it doesn’t have the glitz and overtouristed sheen of islands like Santorini, but it’s beautiful, close to Athens, and has some of the most gorgeous, untouched beaches. I can recommend some good places to stay if you’re ever here, like Rosy’s, where Andrew and I got married last year. Come.

After a few years of talking about living in Greece for an extended period of time, the combination of some job flexibility and general existential angst lead Andrew and I to book tickets out here from May until mid-September. I’ve been working in accounting since I graduated in 2002, and I figured it was about time I took some time out to think seriously about something else for awhile. And so here we are.

We’ve been here 13 days now, and I’m flip flopping between exhilaration at the freedom and fear of the time simply slipping away, a blink of an eye, soon we’ll be back in Montreal and working and what will these months have meant? It’s a typically North American way to think, I know, and I have to be deliberate in slowing down, in taking time to focus and concentrate, and frankly, to relax too.

Greece has been in the news a lot these days. It started when the new government restated the national budget figures and revealed that the country’s fiscal deficit was projected to hit 12.5% of GDP in 2010, the largest in the West, and far above the prior year’s official projection of 3.7%. Keep in mind that the maximum allowed by the European Union is 3%. Oops.

Since then, the IMF has approved a 110 billion euro bailout for the country. Associated with the bailout are a number of austerity measures, many immediately in effect. The list of measures is long and runs the gamut from one time taxes on businesses, a “sin” tax for alcohol, tobacco and fuel, and cuts to pensions. There is virtually not one facet of Greek life that is untouched from these measures. There have, unsurprisingly, been protests and strikes. The lowest point happened last week, after we’d been in Greece for 3 days, when 3 bank employees were killed by a Molotov cocktail thrown by protesters. Oops again. Actually, “oops” is an understatement.

We’ve been asked if things are safe out here, if we’re nervous about everything going on. The truth is that as visitors, no, we’re not worried and yes, we’re safe. Despite the media attention on the protests, the trouble is relatively self-contained, centering around the main square in downtown Athens. Strikes are known ahead of time (there’s one next week, actually, on the 20th). Other than our days in Agistri, we’ve spent some time in the Pelopponese, driving on twisty mountain roads, and eating lunch in the sleepiest towns, and guys, it’s lovely here, and beautiful, and when we breathe in it’s all fresh, salty air, pine needles, not tear gas. So, you should come. Seriously. Greece’s economy depends on tourism, and cancelling trips is worse for the economy.

Over the next few months, I’ll write about life here and what we’re doing. We’re now in Athens, where it’s not as bucolic (more car exhaust, less salty breezes), but more fast paced. Athens is in a strange position now, and it’s interesting to be able to witness it, to see if these changes will be visible from my outsider view.

This site is in the midst of getting an overhaul, so it will be back in proper shape soon. This url is still only temporary, so don’t hang on to it – it will redirect back to the old one soon enough. I’ll talk more about the progress of the book (I’ve been editing it here since arriving), and about the books I’m reading too.