Greece update #7: Life if Kypseli, part 1

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A few weeks ago I was doing a load of laundry. When the cycle ended and I opened the machine to pull out the clothes to hang on the line to dry, I realized that the machine was still full of water. The dirty soapy water spilled all over the kitchen floor and our clothes were still soaked. Andrew is good at fixing things, and he played around with it for a bit. At first it seemed like everything was okay again, but a load of laundry later we realized that it was officially broken.

I only tell you this story to give you a glimpse into what our life is like in Kypseli.

Not quite sure what to do with a broken washing machine, I mentioned it to Stella. Stella lives on the second floor of our building, and is a dear family friend. Whenever she realizes that Andrew and I are in Athens, she makes sure we don’t go hungry. Just last week she called us at 11 pm. “Are you awake?” she asked. I assured her that we were and a minute later she was knocking on our door with spanakopita she had just pulled from her oven. “I was going to give it to you tomorrow morning, but it’s even better when it’s still warm.”

Stella’s going through tough times right now – she keeps getting cuts to her pension and she’s worried. When she tells me that she has no idea what’s going to happen next and that she worked for so many years and paid her taxes, the austerity measures seem unfair, or at least misguided. On top of that, her sister just hurt her shoulder and her brother is in the hospital for some pretty scary surgery. She spends most of her time either at her sister’s or in the hospital, but still when she’s home, she enjoys cooking, and will always give us food and hug us warmly when she sees us. When I sheepishly mentioned that our washing machine was broken, she insisted that we do a load of laundry in her machine. She also said that she could probably help us find someone to fix it.

Another thing that guarantees that we never, ever go hungry in Kypseli: there’s a bakery next door. I only have to take 3 steps from the front door to buy bread or milk or cookies, and unless it’s Sunday, it’s always  open. We smell the bread baking in the morning, we wave hello to the family that runs the bakery whenever we see them. Let’s call them Mr. and Mrs. Fournos. (Fournos = bakery in Greek). They factor into this story as well.

A few days later it got very hot in Athens. 40 degrees, the kind of heat that zaps your energy. And then there were talks of more metro strikes, so at the last minute we looked at the ferry schedules and hopped on a boat to Agistri to escape Athens for a few days. We went swimming, we ate good food, I finished the rest of Roberto Bolano’s “2666″ (um, intense and amazing). It was lovely. The temperature dropped to a much more reasonable 30-34 degrees and we returned to Athens.

On Sunday we bumped into Stella outside the apartment and told her that we’d gone to Agistri. She looked concerned for a second.  Apparently the people who knew the washing machine repair man were Mr. and Mrs. Fournos, and they were going to call him last week when our machine broke down. Since we were away, we must have missed him. Oops. I figured I would go by in the morning, buy a loaf of bread and apologize for any misunderstanding. It wasn’t that easy. When I visited the bakery the next morning, Mrs. Fournos was seriously ticked off. “Where were you?” she cried.

And this, I think, is so hilarious and representative of life around here: within hours of our washing machine breaking down, not only did most of the entire apartment building know about it, but the bakery next door too. And it was the bakery that was given the task of calling the repairman, without asking us first or making sure that we were actually home before telling him to come over.

I apologized, bought some bread, told her I would be home for the rest of the day. “Do you have my phone number?” I asked so that maybe we could set up an appointment since obviously she was going to be the one to coordinate it. “I don’t need it,” she told me. “I’ll just buzz.” I didn’t have any plans for the afternoon anyway, so I went upstairs and sure enough a few hours later our door buzzed and soon Mr. Fournos and a man who was presumably the washing machine repair man came up to the apartment. I showed him the machine, explained the problem in broken Greek, and for awhile the three of us crowded into the tiny kitchen and watched the repairman take the machine apart. Eventually Mr. Fournos left. “Nothing to worry about!” he told me. Okay. I continued to awkwardly watch the repairman, but when that got boring, retreated. A half hour later, the machine was fixed. I think? We couldn’t communicate very well. Either way, the problem from before was solved. I paid him what he told me (no receipt, of course) and he left.

When Andrew came home, I asked him if he saw Mrs. Fournos and if she had waved hello or if she was still mad at us. He didn’t see her, so we’ll find out if she’s still mad tomorrow morning when we buy our bread.

And this is why we are never, ever bored here in Greece.

Greece update #6 – Apergia

I’ve added a new word to my Greek vocabulary this summer. Apergia. It means “strike”. Since arriving in May there have been new strikes announced almost every day. They’re short – 24 to 48 hours – and don’t generally impact us, travelers with minimal obligations. We don’t need lawyers (anymore, anyway) or dentists and we haven’t had to visit any government offices. But that’s not to say that we haven’t been affected. The Tuesday market that takes place a few blocks away from us was quiet a few weeks ago when the laiki workers went on strike just a few hours before I’d made a date to go with someone in my building. A few days earlier a ferry strike meant that we left a day earlier than planned, and last week a train strike meant that we left a day later.  There are a series of metro strikes planned over the next few days, so we’ll walk and take the bus, or I’ll sit at my desk and write more. I won’t lie and say it’s not annoying, but we adjust.

Gimme my hand!

Memoirs about Greece tend to fall into the realm of the mythical – people getting in touch with their inner Zorba.  This tends to happen on some sunny Greek island, usually involving an old Greek man or woman with a few wise and snappy axioms that sound better in Greek than English. Some cloudy glasses of ouzo are ingested, some grilled octopus too, the writer then has a love affair with that hot guy on a scooter. Life lessons are learned! And the reader rolls their eyes.

But I know I fall into that trap of documentation too. (See the past 5 “Greece updates”. I’m sure a few of you wanted to throw a glass of cloudy ouzo at me while you sat at your computer at work.) But after reading articles about tourism rates in decline I wouldn’t mind concentrating on the good parts of Greece for a bit. I’ll get back to complaining about another apergia soon enough.

We spent a few days based in Larissa, the capital of the Thessaly region of Greece. It’s mainly known for being a transportation hub, but we were there to visit our friend Tassos. Because we were visiting him, we didn’t do much background research, and had convinced ourselves that a trip to Larissa would be a good break from Athens’ heat. That’s when we found out that Larissa is known to be the hottest part of Greece. Whoops. But, as usual, we adjusted.

Milopotamos Beach

Part of Larissa’s appeal is that it’s close to many beautiful things. On Saturday we explored the Pelion Peninsula, driving through twisty roads on Mount Pelion in search of Milopotamos Beach, a gorgeous beach with cool Aegean water. Mythologically speaking, Mount Pelion was the home of the Centaur (those half men/half horse creatures), and while we didn’t find any roaming around, we did see dolphins jumping in the sea. I’d never seen a dolphin before outside of Marineland.

Milies

We visited a small mountain town, Milies, that’s typical of towns in Pelion, all cobblestone paths for donkeys and slate roof houses. The church in Milies is intense. The small stone building built in 1741 looks unassuming from the outside, but inside every available space is covered with murals. They were painted over 33 years by one anonymous monk intent on capturing the circle of life in paint in the church. An old man took interest in the 3 of us and pointed out some details we missed at first, like Bezelbub as a hideous monster swallowing sinners whole or lost souls flailing in a river of blood. There was a zodiac painted on the wall too. It was beautiful and creepy all at the same time.

Cherry festival

We also happened to be in the area for the annual Cherry Festival. Larissa is an agricultural area, and we passed many fields of cotton and wheat and fruit trees – apples, apricots, cherries. The town of Metaxohori has a cherry festival every year, and on Sunday, after a strenuous day at the beach we visited the town to check it out. We bought cherry preserves and they shoved containers of cherries for us to take too. We rinsed them off with mountain stream water, sat in the town square and drank Greek coffee, ate the cherries, and also grabbed a slice of warm halvas farsalon. This particular type of halva is specific to the region, slightly gelatinous, buttery, with a burnt sugar top and studded with whole almonds.

Agios Triadas

Finally, we also explored Meteora, another area close to Larissa. Meteora is known for its monasteries which are built at the top of  spectacular cliffs. Monks built the monasteries in the 14th century as a refuge from Turkish invaders. They used to be hauled up in baskets and nets, but now there are paths to walk on, and paved roads along the mountains for the tour buses carting in the tourists. The rocks are eerie and beautiful, and it’s easy to see why a monk would chose the cliffs as a place to lay low for awhile.

Meteora

So, beaches, dolphins, cherries, mountain villages, and more. I can definitely adjust to that.

Greece update #5 – Lykavittos Hill

Acropolis
Lykavittos (or Lykabettus) Hill as viewed from the Acropolis

Someone in our block of apartment buildings is waging a war against the neighbourhood. His weapon of choice is a recording of maniacal laughter that lasts approximately 20 seconds and then ends with a cheery woo woo! This person, whoever he is (we refer to the culprit as a he, but don’t know for sure) plays this recording randomly throughout the day, sometimes in 15 minute stretches, play and repeat, ad nauseum. Everyone generally ignores it, but recently he’s taken to playing it late into the night, and at two in the morning, his neighbours aren’t as forgiving. The cops have been called twice and we don’t quite understand why they can’t do anything about it, but usually it escalates into amazing screaming matches, everyone spouting off their opinions from their respective balconies. So far this mysterious man always has the last (recorded) laugh.

Lycabettus Hill
View from Lykabettus (by Andrew)

A few days ago we walked from Kypseli to the top of Lykavittos Hill. It’s the highest point in Athens and a fairly popular tourist destination, but at dusk it’s not overrun. It’s peaceful, actually, and quiet. No car horns honking or creepy recordings of evil laughter. You can get a drink at the bar or you can simply sit near the church and marvel at the view of Athens from the top of the hill, an impossible tangle of squat buildings interrupted by the occasional splotch of green park, the sea way off in the distance.

Lycabettus Theatre

We returned a few days later for a different reason. At the last minute we’d purchased tickets to see Rufus Wainwright play at the Lykabettus Theatre. Neither of us were huge fans, but we had a hunch that the atmosphere would be perfect for live music. The first half was a performance of Rufus’s latest album, a song cycle that included him slowly marching onstage wearing a 17 foot feathery cape. Visuals were projected on a screen behind him and the audience wasn’t allowed to clap between songs. Something about the constant stream of music and the night sky made it easy to sink into the songs.

The second half was my favourite. He emerged (sans cape), this time chatty and charming, playing older material. For his finale he covered one of his mother’s songs. Kate McGarrigle passed away from cancer in January, and watching him play was intensely moving. “The Walking Song” is a love song Kate wrote for Louden Wainwright. It’s the sweetest song, despite the fact that their marriage ended horribly. The bittersweetness of that combined with Rufus singing it as a tribute to his mother while still obviously grieving her death was powerful. There weren’t many dry eyes around, at least not in our little corner of the amphitheater.

The show ended after midnight and we shuffled out quietly.We walked back down the hill and found a taverna with hanging vines in the courtyard and ate eggplant imam and roast pork with mushrooms and drank white wine and decompressed. One of my favourite things about Greece is that you can wander into any restaurant after midnight and there’s not a question whether or not they’ll still be serving dinner. Of course they are. A stray dog also showed up and he must’ve been a regular because the owners had a little baggie of saved leftover food for him. When we left we saw that they’d also given him water in his own little glass.It was magical, the whole night. By the time we arrived back home, Kypseli was silent, that rare window in the middle of the night when most people are dreaming, too sleepy to make noise and terrorize their neighbours.

Greece Update #4 – Full Moon

moonlight

Time gets a little wobbly in Agistri, stretched out. It’s the sunlight and the solitude, I think, the way each section of the day announces itself loudly and so instead of bleeding together, the hours get chopped up into distinct sections. Night time comes like a surprise: dusk lasts awhile and then suddenly everything is dark and because we have hardly any streetlights around where we live, the darkness is deep. But then you’ll get a full moon.

We were in Agistri last week, and one evening while we were eating dinner, saw the moon rise in the distance. We forgot about it until much later and then climbed up to the roof to see what it looked like. Have you seen a full moon above a sea? All these different shades of darkness – the sky, the sea, the outline of trees – and then the moon high up in the sky, a dusty and bright beam of light slicing across the water. It’s beautiful. Andrew took a picture of the full moon, but it came out looking more like a sunrise because the moon is so brilliant.

It doesn’t really look like that, but it approximates the feeling of seeing it.

Recent Reading

There’s this taboo about writing about people in their 20s, that it’s the most boring period of a person’s life to read about. I guess the rationale is that people in their 20s are too old to fall into a good coming of age trope (despite still feeling pretty wide eyed and naive about life), but they’re also too young for any of their actions to have any real weight or meaning attached to them. I kind of hate this rationale, enjoy reading about people in their 20s, and just read 2 memoirs about people in that age period, and they were both fascinating.

I finished Patti Smith’s memoir of her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids, and their early days living in New York and wanting to become artists. They were young and ambitious and focused, and had no idea what their lives would eventually evolve to. What I liked most about the book was how reverent she was about things she liked, how everything meant something. A gold wire ring, a certain white shirt, books, prints. The memoir is more hagiography than anything, a little overblown, I’m sure, but it did make me realize that I appreciate those kinds of collections as a way to represent a time in your life, a moment. She and Robert turned their objects into collages or poems (which then evolved into photographs and songs).

Sometimes I get preoccupied with wanting to write about Important Things (like, politics, the economy, religion, death), but then I have to remind myself that there are ways to write about this stuff without stating upfront: Guys, this is about politics. I was thinking about this when I read Emily Gould’s And the Heart Says Whatever, another memoir about  a woman in her twenties, also in New York, but unlike Patti Smith writing at the Chelsea Hotel, most of Emily’s writing is done in college writing workshops and a stint at gawker.com. Emily Gould has gotten so much flack for her book, and there’s a certain brand of vitriol that seems to be reserved especially for female bloggers who eventually get book deals (like Heather Armstrong of dooce.com or Julie Powell of Julie & Julia). The biggest criticism of Emily’s book is that it’s pointless: she doesn’t experience any trauma or live anything more extraordinary than dating a dude for a long time and then cheating on him while also trying to carve out a life for herself in New York City. It is, according to the reviews, definitely not a book about “Important Things”. But… I thought it was.  I thought the book did say something about New York in the early 2000s and the effect of the Internet on women growing up today – maybe not obviously, but it was there.