Scrapbook #5: Souvenirs

I’ve been thinking a lot about Greece these days. I will admit: I miss it. The nice thing is that we were good at bringing back souvenirs – thoughtful, lasting ones – and seeing them strewn about our home in Montreal puts me in a good (although sometimes wistful) mood.

Visiting the Atelier of Spiros Vassiliou(Posters hanging up at the Spyros Vassiliou Atelier, which also doubles as a museum for his life.)

We visited the Spyros Vassiliou Atelier one afternoon early into our stay, and fell in love with Vassiliou’s bold, striking style. Vassiliou, who died in 1985, was a painter/printmaker who liked to paint modern Athens in all of its ugly, beautiful sprawl, often weaving in religious icon imagery which is also so prevalent in Greek art. We told ourselves we would buy one of his prints and returned a few months later to select the one we wanted. (Actually, we wanted one so badly that we had to make three return trips. The first two didn’t work out because the studio was closed and in typical Greek fashion, we had no way of knowing until we showed up and saw the sign taped to the door.)

photo(Our home reflected in the glass of the framed print.)

We liked this print for its vivid sea blue and the small ferry boat in the corner. It reminds me of one of my favourite things about flying into Greece – there’s this point where you’re close enough to landing that you can start making out details below and one of the first things I always notice are the ships. They look so small compared to the huge, blue sea surrounding them. The print is now hanging up in our staircase. Continue reading

Things To Do in Athens

This past summer I received a few emails from people looking for recommendations for things to do in Athens and I thought I’d put everything together in one list before my time in Greece settles into a hazy, pleasant memory.

img055(A photo of a hazy, pleasant memory)

If you’re visiting Greece, I doubt you’re going to spend as much time in Athens as I have – you’ll probably be in the city for 3 or 4 days bookending your island hopping excursions. You could easily spend more days in the city, but I understand if you’re eager to hang out by the beach and swim in the sea.

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Here’s the thing about Athens: as far as European cities go, it’s a hard one. If you want simple, stick to the Plaka/Acropolis bubble, but if you want to see something beyond that (and trust me, you do), you’ll have to keep in mind that it’s easy to get lost, the streets might be dirtier than you expect, you won’t see as much grand architecture as you would roaming around say, Paris or Rome. But it’s worth it, and if your plans get derailed, shrug it off, stop for a drink or a frappe to regroup. It will be an adventure either way.

So, here’s my list of things you should do, tips, tangents, etc.

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Update #15: The end.

You Can't Go Home Again

In this case, Thomas Wolfe is wrong: you can go home again. You have to go home again according to the plane ticket in your name that departs Athens at an ungodly hour on Monday September 13, 2010. I can barely believe that we landed here back in May.

Ferry to Agistri
So, 4 and a half months. Athens, Agistri, Aegina, Nafplio, Monemvasia, Epidavros, Larissa, Pelion, Meteora, Rome, Berlin, Paris, Reims, Spetses, Hydra. 15 and change blog entries. Many ferry rides. Probably too many gyros. A suitcase of books, some downloaded television and movies. I finished editing Bats or Swallows and I wrote a very first drafty version of a novel (I did it, I did it!).

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Update #14: Oh, Agistri

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Whenever Athens became a little too much (too hot, too crowded, too empty, too noisy, too whatever), we would take the metro down to the port in Piraeus and buy a ferry ticket to Agistri. You can take a hydrofoil to the island and you’ll get there in a little less than an hour, but here’s a secret: those big, hulking ferries are better. You might lose another hour of your life to travel, but there’s something magic in that ferry ride from Athens to Agistri. Skip the air conditioned interior and head straight for the outside deck. Watch Athens blur into a smoggy spot in the distance and then, for two hours, clear your mind and look out into the water.

agistri port(Approaching Scala on the big ferry.)

Agistri is a small island covered in pine trees. From far away it looks uninhabited, but once you get closer you see the edges of the villages built along the coast, barely creeping up the sides. Once you’re closer you’ll see houses, pensions, boats, a church. It’s a humble island – you won’t find billionaire yachts docked at its harbour like in Spetses, it doesn’t have the donkeys and white washed buildings of Santorini and it definitely doesn’t have the party zone atmosphere of Mykonos – but it’s simple and beautiful. The air smells piney, salty.  It can get busy in town, especially on a weekend in August, but for the most part it’s quiet and peaceful. In the summer you’ll hear cicadas as soon as the sun rises – they’re everywhere – and then they quiet down at night.

Skala Continue reading

Update #13: Spetses

Ligoneri beach, Spetses(Ligoneri Beach, Spetses)

Our time in Greece is coming to a close (already?!), but we’re still squeezing in some last minute exploring. We decided on Spetses, a Saronic island located about 2.5 hours away from Athens by hydrofoil. Because it’s relatively close to Athens, it tends to be especially busy on the weekends, so we smugly decided to leave on a Monday after the rush. It would’ve been a good plan, but because neither of us are up to speed on European royalty gossip, we hadn’t realized that our trip coincided with the wedding of Prince Nikolaos, the son of the former King of Greece. Despite the fact that Greece hasn’t had a king for over 30 years, King Constantine won’t give up his title. Their friends – kings and queens and princes and princesses from all over Europe – still consider them royalty as well, and came to the island for the wedding. And when royalty travels, paparazzi does too.

Paparazzi(Crowd outside the Poseidon Hotel)

To tell you the truth, it was kind of novel to be on the island while this was happening. People were excited; it was palpable. But it wasn’t too distracting – the island was simply bustling the way you would expect it to in the summer. That being said, Spetses is a swanky island, but not obnoxiously so. It has all the charming markers you’d expect of a Greek island: narrow cement paths, seaside cafes, lots of pretty vegetation and good beaches. People tend to emphasize the fact that cars aren’t allowed on the island, but motorbikes are to the point of nuisance. We opted to enjoy the island on foot, and particularly enjoyed the walk between the main town of Dapia and the old port, where we came across pomegranate trees, courtyards littered with fallen lemons, and kittens that walked right into our outstretched hands for a cuddle.

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Update #12.5: Paris filtered through Diana

So, in Paris I kind of fell in love. Her name is Diana.

Fleurs

The Diana is a type of camera with a plastic body. It’s feather-weight and uses 120 medium format film. It was originally designed as a cheap novelty item, the kind of thing sold for 99 cents a piece, but was abandoned and like with many toy cameras with wonky results, a cult following developed.

The day we decided to explore Montmartre, we stopped in at the Paris Lomography store and on impulse I purchased one. For all intents and purposes, the Diana is a crappy camera. It has light leaks, a cheap body and lens. Some might say that I could simply download an Iphone app to get the same quality of photos. But there’s a difference, and even if it’s a stubborn, misguided insistence on my part, so be it.

Jardins Luxembourg

I have a Holga, which is the same concept (plastic body, cheap, medium format), but I’ve been frustrated with it since my first roll of film. It was a little too fussy for me and I got very few usable shots out of it. It’s currently sitting up on a shelf in the apartment in Montreal.

With the Diana, on the other hand, I was extremely pleased with the quality of the photos. They’re grainy and the light is wobbly and sometimes things look strangely flattened out, like I’m looking at a cardboard cut-out of the Sacre Coeur rather than the real thing. I like it. I like the dreaminess, I like the feelings these photos evoke.

Sacre Coeur

There’s been a lot of photography related activity in this household this summer. Andrew takes photos every day here in Athens. He’s also been reading many books about it, and I end up flipping through them as well. The Ongoing Moment by Geoff Dyer is a brilliant discussion of photography and literature, on considering photography as a continuous conversation, one where similar themes and images are repurposed and reinterpreted over the years. I read Susan Sontag’s classic On Photography. I’ve examined the photos of  Robert Frank’s’ The Americans, started looking at the images once published in Steiglitz’s classic Camera Work magazine, and seen so many photography exhibits at different museums in Athens, Paris, Berlin.

Bar a chiens

I love taking photographs, but the truth is that I’m satisfied with my little point and shoot. I don’t need fancy lenses, I don’t need to play with settings. The digital photos I take turn out crisp, the resolution is good, and the camera’s small enough that I can take it with me wherever I go. I’m more interested in the memories I’m capturing – I like taking pictures of my friends, of the details of places I’ve been to.

Store window

Most of my artistic impulses are focused on writing, but I still get the urge to make something more visual from time to time. I decided on collages back in May, picked out the perfect hardcover notebook to paste them in and started saving little scraps of papers. It didn’t work out as planned: the notebook has one collage in it, but is fat with random papers I’ve stuck in it to use for future collages. I’ve saved too much, but it will all probably be discarded if I don’t figure out a way to use them soon.

Somewhere in Montmartre

Now that I’ve seen the results of my first rolls from the Diana, I’m glad I have this little camera. It will do the trick for awhile.

(The rest of the photos are here.)

Update #12: France

Back when I graduated from university Andrew and I rented a car and drove between Paris and Strasbourg, winding through the Champagne region, camping, and sneaking out of campsites before we had to pay the next morning. I went to Paris again in 2005, this time with Lesley. She was going to grad school in Victoria, I wanted to hang out with her, but tickets to BC from Toronto were exorbitant. A ticket to Paris, on the other hand, was surprisingly much cheaper, and because we could stay at my cousin Panayiotis’s apartment, the trip was actually economical. Both trips were wonderful, but it’s funny: I’ve been in France for the past two and a half weeks, and it was like the Universe was all, “You think you had good times in the past? I bet I can do even better than that.” Um, sure? Merci beaucoup, Universe.

A WEDDING, IN CHAMPAGNE

After the church ceremony

The motivation for the trip was the wedding of Lisa and Alain. They live in Montreal, but Alain is from Breuil, a village in Champagne, which is where they decided to host their nuptials. A bunch of us arrived a few days earlier to enjoy the countryside and drink champagne. I left Montreal at the beginning of May, and was ecstatic about the idea of catching up with best friends in such an idyllic setting.

In Breuil

The wedding itself was beautiful, and the ceremony was in an old stone church in Breuil where we sang (or at least, attempted to sing) French church hymns. The reception was in another nearby village, Fismes, where the meal lasted until midnight, the champagne flowed freely, and the dance floor was busy. It was a perfect celebration.

Lisa and Alain!
(The radiant couple)

PARIS!

Other than the Champagne region, we settled down in Paris. We spent the first few days at my cousin and his girlfriend’s apartment in Montparnasse, and then rented a studio of our own in the Marais for the second half. It was on the sixth floor of an old building with the slantiest stairs, and there was no elevator. The pipes in the building were also ancient, but the climbing and precarious plumbing was worth it for the view:
View from our apartment
(Looking down onto rue Rambuteau)

A short version of our time in Paris:
Basically our trip summed up in a photo.
(A picnic in the Jardin des Tuileries)

This photo speaks for itself.

A longer version:

Our last day is also representative of the trip. We woke up early, grabbed a pain au chocolat from the bakery across the street, and took the metro to the Paris catacombs. Instead of going into the museum we met Gilles Thomas, an expert on Paris’s network of underground tunnels, who took us and 3 others on a tour of the quarries below the Cochin hospital. This area may eventually be turned into a museum – they’ve applied for a permit and there’s a good deal of lighting set up, plus the access point is easy, a long flight of stairs. In the meantime it’s closed to the public unless you know someone like Gilles, and Mr. Under Montreal unsurprisingly knows someone like Gilles. (You could probably go yourself if you asked nicely. Take a left at the urology building, walk through the parking garage, knock on the door.)

Hopital Cochin quarry
(The tunnels are old, and are marked with the names of the streets above or the years pillars were built. Occasionally you’ll see the rough draft sketch of the inscription scribbled on the walls.)

After 2 hours of exploring tunnels, we were hungry and went off in search of a bistro. I had an entrecote, Andrew had steak tartare. There was wine. We went home and napped, and then set off again, first making a stop at the bookstore at the Centre Pompidou. We eventually ended up at La Grande Epicerie in the Bon Marche department store. My version of heaven would include a Grande Epicerie, which is stocked with every French food you were ever curious about. There is one counter specifically for foie gras, with prices over 100 euro per kilo. You can get bottles of Angelina hot chocolate, slices of Pain Poilane or jars of Christine Ferber jam (a steal at 6.75 euro a jar compared to what I saw at other stores!). We bought supplies for a picnic and then headed off to the Champs de Mars where we were meeting Panayiotis and Marieme. The clouds were ominous, but we stubbornly set up shop beneath a tree anyway and spread out our food. When it started to rain, we took out the umbrellas and ate underneath those. The Eiffel Tower was beautiful, all swathed in fog, and the fields were mostly empty, and we were proud of ourselves, the most prepared picnickers in all of Paris on the evening of Saturday August 7, 2010.

Le Champs de Mars et le Tour Eiffel dans la pluie

We were also lucky to be in Paris when the Tour de France ended, and after eating lunch here (Which Les wrote about), we sped over to Place de la Concorde to watch the cyclists do their final stage in Paris. Andrew is a Tour de France fan, so I’ve learned terms like “peleton” and “maillot jaune” and it was exciting to be part of the massive crowd cheering on the cyclists. You don’t get a sense of how fast they’re biking until they pass by in an overwhelming blur, and when you’re standing so close to it, it’s engulfing, like a quickly rising cloud of dust.

Cyclists!

Other happy coincidences: The day before I left, I found out via Twitter that one of my favourite food writers, David Lebovitz, was doing a signing in Paris. I was able to swing by and buy a copy of his book, The Sweet Life in Paris. The Clair de Lune film festival began and we spent one evening watching A Bout de Souffle outdoors in the Jardins des Champs Elysees. We sat near the front, Jean Seberg larger than life in scratchy black and white film, everyone around us huddled in scarves and drinking wine they’d brought themselves.

There are too many other lovely moments to list here. Seriously, Paris, are you always this perfect? (I read David Lebovitz’s book; I know it’s not, but in 2 week increments it’s pretty fantastic.)

Marche des fleurs

We’re now back in Athens where I hope I will shed the extra pounds I’ve gained from eating cheese every single day simply by sweating. I would also like to rest my feet a little, and do a million loads of laundry. Everyone in the city is on vacation until August 23rd according to the little signs I see taped hastily to store windows, but now it’s my turn to be productive again. A bientot.

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.)