Update #11: Exploring Athens

It’s been a gift getting the chance to explore Athens over the past few months. Kypseli is near the centre of Athens, so we do most of it on foot, taking new routes to see if we encounter anything different along the way. In general, things look the same. Most of Athens is composed of block upon block of identical apartment buildings, the same garbage bins on the corner, the same rows of cars lining the streets, bumper to bumper and occasionally creeping up on the sidewalks. But we still look, and we still find things.

Gazi
(Truck in Gazi)

Athens has many open-air cinemas, and there’s something kind of quaint about watching a movie outside. It’s especially sweet when it’s been a hot day – by the time it gets dark, the air is refreshingly cool. There are plenty of cinemas in the centre of Athens (you can find schedules and addresses in English over here: http://www.xpatathens.com). If you’re not in the mood to watch a Hollywood blockbuster, the Riviera in Exarchia shows older films. A few days ago we saw Charade starring Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant, and it was lovely to see the two of them banter back and forth and run around Paris on a big screen. Occasionally we’d hear cars or boisterous groups of people passing by, but it wasn’t annoying, just part of the experience. Afterwards we bought gyros and ate them in the square, and it was a lovely (and cheap!) way to spend an evening.

Benaki - Pireos St Annexe
(Andrew looking at the Droog Exhibit at the Benaki Pireos St Annexe)

We’d been saving the Pireos Street Annexe of the Benaki Museum, and finally checked it out last week. Unlike the main Benaki Museum, the Annexe features contemporary art. It’s carefully curated – there were 4 exhibits and you have the option to chose what you want to see. As much as I love big, splashy galleries, there’s something nice about a museum you can digest properly in one afternoon.

Vouliagmeni Lake

It was hot last week, so we decided to check out a beach close to the city. For 1 euro you can hop on the E22 bus downtown and about an hour later end up in Vouliagmeni. There’s a large sandy beach, but we were intrigued by Lake Vouliagmeni, with its striking greenish water, all surrounded in cliffs. It’s known for its healing properties and is supposedly good for various skin and joint ailments. I quote Matt Barrett*: The composition of the lake is brackish and full of such minerals as potassium, natrium, lithium, ammonium, calcium, ferrum, chloride, iodine and is slightly radioactive (the good kind, I guess). We weren’t suffering from any health problems, but were curious enough to go. The entrance fee is a bit steep (8 euros each), but the lake is peaceful and calm, especially compared to the bustle of the beach, and there were plenty of chairs to lounge on. It’s not the hippest place, I guess – we were the youngest people there and occasionally I got the impression I was at a sanitorium for a water cure – but I recommend visiting, wholeheartedly. The water, which is fed by hot springs, was sublime. Maybe it was because I haven’t really swam in brackish water before, but it was eerie to swim in it, which, even if isn’t healing anything, felt charged with something.

* If you’ve ever done any online research about Athens, I’m sure you’ve read Matt Barrett’s Athens Survival Guide. I hope he’s getting paid for the valuable information he provides. He’s also based in Kypseli, and we keep meaning to seek him out and buy him a drink for all useful tips we’ve picked up from his site.

Greece Update #10 – Halvas

This blog has kind of lost its focus, I guess? For awhile I had 3 different blogs: one where I talked about brunch, one where I talked about music and one where I talked about books and writing. The music blog was the first casualty and as much as I still love music, I don’t have much to say about it anymore.  I should resurrect the breakfast blog, but since I’m currently living in a country where brunch isn’t as much an institution as it is in North America, I feel like it would be cruel to remind myself. Finally, I haven’t been writing much about books and writing  either. I’m not sure why. I’ve been reading fantastic books recently, like Joe LeSueur’s memoir “Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara”. (LeSueur was O’Hara’s sometimes lover and long time roommate, and his ruminations on many of Frank’s poems are fascinating.)  I’ve been writing a lot too, more than I have in a long time, and as much as I love thinking and reading about writing, I’m currently tapped out on insightful things to say about it other than “yay” followed by “oof”.

So, I’ve been writing about Greece. It’s informing my writing anyway, and probably more interesting for you to read about. But, hey, why not make this site even more unfocused and turn it into a temporary food blog? Here’s a recipe.

I’ve mentioned Stella in some previous entries, a neighbour and dear friend who constantly supplies us with food. Last week, she knocked on the door with a plate of halvas. So many countries have their version of halva. The Greek version is of the slightly gelatinous type (rather than nut-butter based), and I’ve spent many years of my life avoiding it. It just didn’t appeal to me – the texture looked strange and I mistakenly thought it was honey-based (which I thought would be too sweet). But then this summer I actually ate halva, and it’s so delicious! Sweet and toasty, not too cloying, soft, but with nuts for texture. A few days later Stella called me over to her apartment so that she could teach me how to make it myself.

Sugar and water bubbling on the stove

Halva is one of those 1-2-3-4 ratio recipes, so you can scale it up or down as you wish. We used a juice glass to measure out the ingredients and ended up with halva that fit in an 8 inch bundt pan. It was too much for just Andrew and I, so next time I’ll make less, unless I’m expecting guests. It’s a ridiculously simple recipe – you barely have to do anything and it’s hard to mess up.

Making a roux of semolina and olive oil

Ingredients

1 part olive oil (You can also use another oil if you don’t have olive on hand. Also, halva has the tendency to be oily, so if you want to use a little less than 1 part, go ahead.)
2 parts coarse semolina (NOTE: Semolina is a by-product of durum wheat. Use coarse semolina for this recipe, which is distinctly grainy. Fine semolina will be more flour-y and won’t work.)
3 parts sugar
4 parts water
Optional: as many nuts as you want

Recipe

Step 1. In a pot, add the sugar to the water and bring to a boil for about 5-7 minutes until the sugar is dissolved. Skim off any foam that might develop on the surface of the water. Set the water mixture aside.

Step 2. In another pot, heat the oil and add the semolina. This is the only step that requires a bit of work. Keep stirring it around so that the oil is incorporated by the semolina. The semolina will start getting fragrant and toasty. Do this for a few minutes until it’s golden, and don’t let it burn.

Step 3. Add the water mixture to the pot with the semolina. It will hiss and steam, so don’t be alarmed. Stir it around a bit and then let the pot sit. If you want nuts, throw a bunch in now (and you probably do; almonds and walnuts are especially good.) The mixture will thicken into a porridge-like consistency and you’ll see satisfyingly big, slow, fat bubbles coming up to the surface. It will smell very good.

Step 4. Pour the thickened mixture into a pan or a mold – bundt pans are good for this. When it’s cooled and set, turn onto a plate and sprinkle with lots of cinnamon. Then, slice and serve.

Halvas, unmolded & sprinkled with cinnamon

Greece Update #9 – Halfway point

Checking out our first mountain view

Our time here in Greece is about half over, and although we still have more than 2 blissful months left, the end is in sight and slowly infiltrating my subconscious. Milestone: first anxiety dream about returning to “real life” last night! Yikes. A little too early.

Thinking back on the past 2 months, I’ve been making mental lists of what I’ve “accomplished” since arriving, worried that this time is being squandered: places visited, books read, short stories edited, a start on the messy first draft of a book. But when I think like that, I ignore all the in between moments, and it’s the in between stuff that makes up the bulk of a life.

Swimming in Limenaria

Like, the days where we wake up and then walk and walk and walk around Athens. We usually walk straight downtown and don’t bother with the bus. We cut through the park and skinny side streets. We’ve taken to heading down to Exarchia as a starting point. There’s a place in the square where you can buy cheap gyros, and we’ll sit outside and eat and watch students play ping pong. Yes, there’s actually a communal ping pong table in Plateia Exarchia, which is hilarious and wonderful.

Thank you's to the Madonna

We’ve been visiting the museums too, one at a time, slowly doling them out. On Tuesday we went to the National Archaeological Museum. I wandered around and wrote down the names of things I liked: death masks for corpses made out of the thinnest gold leaf, beautiful diadems, little pins made out of obsidian and bone. The Cycladic sculptures of women with big noses, no eyes, their arms folded over their stomachs. No one really knows what they are, and they’re always displayed standing up, but maybe they really should be reclining. Their feet point down, anyway. The Kouri statues of the naked men with curly hair, smiling.

Meteora

Or the evenings where we make dinner. Sometimes the best dinners are the easiest ones. Cut up an eggplant, sprinkle with salt, coat in olive oil and roast in the oven until the cubes are brownish and soft. Then heat up more oil in a pan, add some chopped red onions and garlic (Garlic scapes are even better if you have them, the spindly green parts that shoot up from garlic bulbs. We found garlic growing in big plumes by the sea. I snapped the scapes, shoved them in my purse and they lasted for a long time in the fridge.) Dump in the eggplant and add some chopped tomatoes and then simmer for awhile until everything is soft. If you have some zucchini, add that too. Eat it with pasta.

Tuesday market haul

So I know that there’s no way that my time here is being wasted or taken for granted, but every so often I have to remind myself anyway. But I think what I’ll concentrate on more over the next few months is the in-between, and cross my fingers that I can quell the worry in my subconscious.

(Pictured in this post: Andrew on a mountain in the Peloponnese; swimming off a rock in Agistri; a shrine to the Lady Madonna in Rome; at a cliffside monestery in Meteora,; a market haul. All in-between moments, and good ones.)

Greece Update #8 – Berlin!

Prenzlauer Berg at dusk

We haven’t heard the crazy laughing toy in Kypseli for awhile but, the night before we left for Berlin it was replaced with something more maddening: a radio, volume cranked up, songs blaring all night long. And I mean, all night. Occasionally someone would come out and yell at the offending apartment and at one point the police came by, but mysteriously couldn’t do anything about it. Around 3 or 4 in the morning we heard some windows breaking, but Top 40 pop songs were still streaming into our apartment. By 5 am we gave up and got ready for our morning flight to Berlin, and then, once we made it to Germany, couldn’t help remarking on how quiet it was. For some reason I hadn’t expected Berlin to be such a peaceful city, but it was, all those wide streets, and trees, and occasionally the Spree River winding through it.

(Although, “peaceful” isn’t the word I’d use when Germany is playing in the World Cup. The day of their win against England was full of spontaneous fireworks, vuvuzelas, and cab drivers who insisted on watching the game even while driving us.)

We were in Berlin for a few days, part of it with good friends, and it wasn’t enough time to explore as deeply as we wished. We covered most of the touristy things – the Brandenberg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, the Jewish Museum, the East Side Gallery portion of the Berlin Wall – and we squeezed in plenty of other things like drinks on terraces, amazing shopping in Mitte, and visits to a few other galleries. But sometimes it felt like we were still simply scratching the surface. Another thing I hadn’t really anticipated about Berlin was its size. It’s a sprawling city – just have a look at the U-bahn and S-bahn maps and you’ll see just how large it is. We spent the first part of the trip meandering about somewhat aimlessly before wising up and buying metro day passes so that we could cover more ground.

Greeks aren’t big on breakfast, so it was fun to be in a country that knows how to serve brunch. Every morning I ended up eating a typical big German breakfast, the best one being in the leafy garden terrace of Cafe Einstein: multiple types of cheese, cold cuts, piles of smoked salmon, good bread, fruit, eggs. And after 2 months of mainly eating Greek cuisine, we also pounced on the chance to go for Vietnamese one night and Korean another. And German food! Schnitzel, bratwurst at a street fair, mustardy potato salad, pretzels. We also fit in a lunchtime picnic made out of a visit to the famous KaDeWe food hall, and yes, of course we had currywurst, the slightly sweet ketchup-y sausage you eat with toothpicks.

Cafe am Neuen See in Tiergarten

Our travelling companions are more into wine, and although we gladly made it a habit to have prosecco at brunch, we took advantage of being in Germany to drink beer. The concept of a beer garden is so simple and perfect: shove some picnic tables under a bunch of trees, offer some good beer on tap and a little bit of food, and let the people come. Tiergarten, a huge park in the middle of the city, has some good ones, and on our last day we sat by the water in Cafe am Neuen See, watching people in boats row by and ducks splash about, and it was all so serene and beautiful. We followed it up with dinner on Oderberger Strasse in Preuzlauer Berg, and by then were smitten enough with Berlin that we looked up how much it cost to live in the city. Guys, it’s cheap. Let’s all rent a huge sunny apartment for not much money and make art in Berlin, okay?

Our apartment

Okay!

Book Update #9

Working

I haven’t written a lot about the book recently, but I’ve gotten a few questions, so here’s a little update. The tentative release date for Bats or Swallows is October 15. I’ve been working on the edits off and on since May and just sent off my last batch of changes to Sacha, my lovely editor. The deeper I’ve gotten into the edits the more grateful I’ve become for the whole process. I mean, I know it’s an obvious thing, that that’s the point of editing, but, trust me, the book’s so much better now than it was a few months ago.

One thing I’ve learned about editing is that I’d expected to feel more clinical about it: cut this, expand that, tighten up a thought, fix some punctuation. And it was like that in a way, but there’s something about reading your work over and over and over again that leaves you feeling a little raw. When you have to analyze something you’ve made so closely, you can’t help questioning yourself, and not always in a good way. But then, at a certain point, you just have to let go. I’m not quite at that point – to just let the stories go, float away, bye bye, but I’m getting there. And, well, I don’t have much choice in the matter. Tying up some loose editing ends, typesetting, copyediting – all stuff that’s out of my hands.

So, instead of feeling neurotic about it, I’m just going to be excited. The book, it’s almost done! I’ll have more details to give you in the upcoming weeks. In the meantime, I’m busy typing other things not related to Bats or Swallows and hoping that I’ll be lucky enough to get the chance to eventually edit these as well. Actually, who am I kidding, I’m just hoping that they come together into something at least quasi-coherent so that I can move on from the crappy first draft phase to the slightly-more-improved second draft phase. But that’s a long time coming.