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!

Greece update #7: Life if Kypseli, part 1

DSC02959

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.

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.

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.

*

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.

*

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.

2010 plans

2010 is shaping up to be an interesting year. The book, for instance, and, in more recent developments, Andrew and I are going to be in Greece between May 2 – September 13. (I know! We’re psyched!) We’ve been talking about going to Greece for an extended period of time for the past three years, but only seriously started considering it last year. Job situations aligned and, more importantly, we decided that if we were ever going to do this, why not do it now. That’s what savings are for, right?

Why Greece? Because we actually have a place to live in Athens. Both of my parents immigrated to Toronto in the seventies, my father from Greece and my mother from the Philippines. Their families stayed in Greece or the Philippines and as a result I have a small family in Canada (just the three of us since I don’t have any siblings), but a larger family abroad. And one of the perks of having family in far flung places is that you always have a place to stay. No one is currently living in the apartment in Athens, so we’re going to take it over for four and a half months, a teeny one bedroom on the fourth floor of a building near the centre of Athens. It has a big balcony, an ancient, loud refrigerator and the same furniture my father had when he was a child.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Greece, but not for that long, and not as an adult (jeez, I guess I’m an adult now.) (That was an accidental reference to The Pursuit of Happiness). My Greek is passable, but I hope to improve it while I’m there. Andrew has managed to learn the alphabet, but a few months in the country will expand his vocabulary. What we really want to do while we’re there is concentrate on some of our own projects. I started working full time immediately after I graduated in 2002 – I’m curious about what kind of writing I can do with a large chunk of uninterrupted time. Andrew is going to focus on another photography project. We’ll travel as well, but for the most part we would like to stick close to Athens or within Greece and really get to know it. Greece is an interesting place right now – and by “interesting” I don’t mean “good”. Its national debt is at crippling levels and there have been rumours of bailouts, even talks of expelling it from the EU. Greece was in the news last year for the mass riots that occurred when a police officer shot a student. In short, the glory that came with the 2004 Olympics has dimmed. I’ve dealt with more than my fair share of infamous Greek bureaucracy myself and it’s infuriating (maybe one day I’ll tell you about the ordeal I recently had trying to renew my passport), but there’s also so much beauty in that country and I want to really immerse myself in it.

Anyway, you’ll hear a lot more about this in May once we’re actually out of the country, but we just finished booking our non-refundable tickets so it feels irreversible now, like, we’re really, really doing this! And I’m excited.