Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Finding my Path

It's deceptively sunny in Greece. The illusion is that with such a radiant sun there is also warmth, and this is incorrect. I realize how spoiled I've become when I grumble about this, but my sweaters that I have worn day in, day out (and mostly just out) since December are starting to look a bit tired. They've been washed in sinks and stuffed under my head as pillows on night trains to Bulgaria, on the cot above Sylvia, a platinum-haired Bulgarian who has been living in Athens for the last eighteen years. She had an amazing amount of sparkly green eyeshadow on and I wanted to ask, where did she find eye makeup with such staying power? Why is it that every Eastern European girl I've ever met is never without eye makeup that is smudged or creased? Are they born with it? But back to the sweaters, which have absorbed scathing proportions of cigarette smoke and urban smog and washed in the sink again and hung on the line outside my window where Porgy and Bess, my resident pigeons, have been caught using them as wooly lounge chairs.

One sunny day such as this, beautiful and frigid, I was assisting George in taking some visitors from their hotel to the airport in the early evening. When I left I thought I could manage, climatically speaking, needing only a burkha to disappear completely, but as the sun sank into the background I started to pray that someone would have mercy and just light me on fire. The streets were jammed so we jagged to the back roads winding through the mountains and George threw out an idea:

"Let's surprise Panos!"

Panos, hotel owner of Acropolis House, has a little cottage not far from the airport. Once you find the road (something of a feat) his house is easy to locate; it's the last one backing into the side of the mountain. There is a long dirt trail that winds through his rose garden and you hop-skotch all the way to his front door over various scraps of wood, garden tools, boots and other yard waste bric-a-brac.

We realized it was his "sleeping time, " (a 7pm nap that prepares one to resume the Greek schedule of eating and entertainment, lasting well into the morning) so we phoned first. No answer. We gave him ten minutes to call back, just sitting in the big black bus, company transport vehicle, with Bob Dylan providing a soundtrack to the sunset which was otherwise perfectly noiseless. The ten minutes came and went and so did we, looping our way back toward the main road when the phone rang just in time that we could not claim being too far to turn back.

George hadn't told him I was with him and I had not seen Panos since leaving the Acropolis House in mid-January. He's asked about me frequently and I've made a few failed attempts at visiting, seeing as the best times to drop by were also during his "sleeping time." He came outside and was speaking to George in Greek until I got a little closer and I could hear in his voice a broad smile.

"Ela rey! Is that Paige!?"

I'll back up and describe Panos as I knew him in the hotel. He was usually wearing a sweater vest and tweed trousers, carrying a cup of tea, making him something like a character from Wind in the Willows minus animal head. Here in his mountain cabin he looked much more like Grizzley Bear Adams with a flannel shirt left open, tattered pants, a loping grin spread out on his face which was left unshaven. His house is small with terrific, huge windows that look to the mountains. The walls are plain and white, stretching up to a wooden ceiling. Everything in it has been touched by his hand. The doors were repositioned and the rocks of the original house were brought in from one place to form a low bench in another, two mismatched light fixtures suspended from a beam that he might choose which one he prefers.

"Neither," he said when I asked which was the victor.
It is the disheveled mess of a bachelor but a loving one, and he cleared some newspapers to make room for us by the fire while he prepared Helleniko Cafe, or Greek Coffee. His little white cat, Asperula, kneaded the ground beneath her and wound around our legs.

We talked about silly things and I rummaged through a tin treasure box that I found on his bookshelf with old letters inside. I remarked that several were from the same city in Germany and written by the same hand and asked about who would be so dedicated. His expression slid into a nostalgic glow but he did not answer me.

George and he bumped back and forth between Greek and English, but my understanding of Greek is getting much better. It's become a game, picking out the words that I know and forming the subject with fragments. It was very clear, for instance, when Panos was no longer discussing day to day affairs and gossip but was reciting Cretan poetry by heart.
I packed the letters back into the tin box, we all agreed that the next time we would make a party of it and bring meat to grill and wine to drink. The center of the house is filled by a long, wooden monk table that I insisted would be decorated for the occasion. Standing at the door Panos examined us as a trio:

"We are all positive -strange, and that's why we fit together."

Now that work has started up, I spend almost all of my time in the company of books, taxi-drivers, and positive-strangers. When they're not with me I'm tramping the streets, cracking the doors of cafes and shops to satiate my curiosity and my dedication to research of the city. On one such day I saw a cobbled wall with Christmas lights strung all around the entrance and peered at the menu posted outside. It was written in Greek but the name was "Cafe Boheme." Three of the three served as fail-proof Paige-hooks so I stepped inside. Billie Holiday was singing and three ladies sat on stools, smoking cigarettes and plunging their forks into salads. All heads swiveled to me and they cheerily greeted me in Greek. When I hesitated, one switched to English to reveal a beautiful British accent. Her name is Cassie and she is the owner of Cafe Boheme.

"Are you looking for someone?"

"Well yes, I, I mean no, but.."

"Well you've found us so come and sit for a bit!!"

And five hours later I was still there.

Cassie moved here to Athens thirteen years ago. She more or less extended her vacation to the point that she had become resident Greek and after a few years of playing the token blonde-haired, blue-eyed part on Greek soap operas opened up her own place. It is a bar with the touch of a woman. Not girly, per-say, but certainly cozy, like your best friend's living room. Silk roses curl from the ceilings and the specials are hand-written on brown paper. She showed off her kitchen where they bake bread and crush olives for the tapinade that is served fresh every night.

She also introduced me to her own creation: the Mastica Martini. Part vodka, part Mastica, a resin from a plant that will only grow on one island in the world, the island of Chios, the last port of Greece before the southern tip of Turkey. Recently studies have shown that it is one of these miracle plants that improves your skin, state of well being, and makes you more attractive to the opposite sex so they have tried to cultivate it but it refuses to grow anywhere but this one little place.
It is also scientifically proven to make you very, very drunk.

After Cassie had heard my entire life story, I wobbled out of the Cafe Boheme and hailed a taxi back to my little coop under Singrou Avenue, falling into bed under the spread of my poppy wallpaper. Research is exhausting work.

One of the unexpected assets I've uncovered about myself as researcher and explorer is my ability to get lost. It's taken a few years to learn not to panic and to embrace these moments as opportunities for discovery. Athens is a good city to settle into this philosophy because there are very few neighborhoods where you feel unsafe and there is usually some mode of transportation that can get you back to the bright lights of the city center from wherever you are. While admittedly I'm reluctant to think that tourists will embrace my Explorer's philosophy, making myself more lost so that I can find the things I might not have found if I'd stayed on my course, it serves me well when I want to come across a little gem like Cafe Boheme and friendly, British transplants like its owner.

I'd gotten used to my three-times a week commute to Greek lessons that took me over two busy avenues, up four very large hills, past three historically significant archaeological sites and on one bus where I could usually count on an accordian player boarding at one stop, playing from the front of the bus to the back, and stepping off at the next. Here is where I show my adoption of Athenian anarchy: I rarely buy a bus ticket, but I almost always put one or two Euros in the pouch of the accordian player. Maybe one day I'll become a grown up that pays for her bus tickets and doesn't encourage busking for gold, but I hope not.

Anyway one of these days I was running a bit late for class. I had stopped by a tailor to get my pants altered for work, and this was an adventure in a new language. I think my powers of comprehension through context are improving. I've gotten so used to not understanding what's being said to me that I read bodies, voices, and hand gestures. Through this and the various adjectives I've accumulated like "short, beautiful, shining...." I managed to provide amusement for her at the very least and she promised to have them ready by five.
I rushed out, knowing in my head that there was a bus with a little less work in the middle to get from point A to point B but I wasn't exactly sure where to catch it. I made a few good guesses. Wrong ones, but good ones, and before I knew it I was exploring my neighborhood with thoroughness. It was the Friday of Carnivale, the big celebration before everyone swears off the things they love to prepare for Easter. In the case of Greeks it is any meat that spills blood in the kill, so chicken, beef, lamb, fish, even dairy products are technically off limits. From what I've seen very few Greeks are actually orthodox about this, but the tradition of the buildup is Carnivale for three days followed by a holiday called "Kethari Theftera" or "Clean Monday." In other words, three days of partying and one day of feasting, but feasting only on the foods that are considered "clean." Who decided these are clean is another story because one of the big winners (or losers depending on which viewpoint you take) is the octopus and the shrimp, two animals considered unclean by the Orthodox Jews, who incidentally do not have good relations with the Greeks so I suppose there is logic in there somewhere...

And on this day of Carnivale where I was now not just late but very late for class, I surrendered to my muses of misdirection and pulled out my camera, because while passing a schoolyard I was priveledged with the site of the children on the playground, dressed for carnivale but also for this deceptively sunny day. Girls with brown down jackets and tufts of pink touille spraying from underneath. Boys with wool sweaters and red nylon capes on top. Kitty cat ears, pointed hats, golden shoes ran about the concrete, laughing and shouting in that universal language of "young, clueless, happy..." I missed an hour of Greek class but was gifted this photograph:

Carnivale makes for a wild weekend and Kethari Theftera is typically a day where the Greeks get together and eat (imagine!) providing huge feasts where all of the food is free to anyone in the area. There's a special bread called "Lagana" that they bake in big sheets for this day only. It's a little sweet and covered in sesame seeds. You dip it in fish roe salad, which looks a little like pink marshmallow cream, or cheese salad which looks like the regular marsmallow cream... neither of which actually taste like marshmallow cream. Olives, grape leaves, pickles, tomato "keftedes" or balls that are tasty vegetarian alternatives to meatballs make an appearance. Halvas, also made of honey and sesame, is so sweet I thought my brain would shoot through my ears given the speed that my blood sugar shot up. But my favorite was the little squiddies marinated in vinegar. It's a bit carnal, maybe, but I like the way the little tentacles splay out of your lips as you suck them down.

They also fly kites, and while it was said to me that this activity had waned in the last few years, it was a spectacular sight. Up and down the roads, kites with foil trim were being sold and the sky was animated with quivering squares, diamonds, decorated with Picachu, Dora the Explorer and spinning tails.

My "Kethari Theftera" was spent preparing for my first experience at organizing a week long itinerary for tourists, and those tourists happened to be my mother and two of her lovely friends and members of her church in Magnolia, Texas. I don't think it would have mattered; I was nervous and wanting badly to prove myself to George, my mother, the ladies, and yes, okay, also myself. I put on a suit. I printed out a sign with the names of my mother and Donna, the other, who was flying in first. George and I, who have done most of our work in the kind of clothes that would put us at home with box-car riders, met in front of our fancy black company bus, dressed in our matching black suits, and I burst into a rioutous fit of giggles.

Picking up Donna was effortless. I had three instructions from George which we had gone through the night prior in an airport test run:
1. Walk in and look at the sign.
2. Check the flight number and whether it's arrived.
3. Check to see if it's in terminal A (for countries outside of the Shengen agreement) or B (for the rest.)

I wish I could have captured the expression of the line of Greek taxi drivers. They were all holding up their hand-made signs for "G. Pappodopolis" and 'Betty Aggliou," smoking their cigarettes and drinking their iced coffees from pink plastic straws, when the lily-white redhead strode up and joined the ranks. Their sunglasses are dark, mind you, but if you can imagine the slightest twist of the head, the most subtle arch of the eyebrow...

Donna arrived in Gate B, the "Inter Shengen" flights, which are all of the countries who have chosen to cooperate and share their borders. We hugged, pottied, and I escorted her back to the bus which zipped into the city center. She was in good spirits in spite of her suitcase being lost, remarked most of the way in that Athens looks just like Durango, and was a bit flabbergasted by her impressive lodging, the Grand Bretagne, former guesthouse of royalty. It's the kind of hotel where cupids are holding up the chandelier and flowered carpet bleeds into the scroll of the table leg, and on this table there is a tiny plate with three Belgian chocolates.

"Is your room satisfactory, Donna?"

She said it would do and I went back down to the bus to join George and Mick Jagger who provided soundtrack to the ride. We were early so I drank some coffee, ate some of the chocolate I swiped from Donna's room, babbled to George about nothing in particular and finally it was time to go to the gate to pick up my mother. I knew she was flying Olympic airways, a Greek airline, Greece being part of the Shengen agreement and so I checked flight and arrival time which was later than expected. I wait. I realize it would be nice to have a flower for my mother after not seeing her for three months so I go and buy an orange rose. She'll like an orange rose, I think, and re-assume position with my "Rusti Moore" sign raised high. The doors slid open and closed, each time spitting out another glob of weary travelers, but no Rusti Moore. At this point the screen reads that the flight had arrived but with her accident and knowing my mother in general it will take her a little longer than the rest.

Half an hour later I decided something was the matter.

I carefully went over the steps again in my head... check flight number, arrival, terminal, it was Olympic Airways an inter-Shengen airline coming from... London, the hornary city that refused to join ranks which would make her plane arrive at terminal A.


The conspiracy theorists are still talking about the white, black and red blur that was sighted the airport that night. Not knowing if she would have wandered off after such a long time of waiting, I ran between the two terminals three, four, five times, one of which I was joined by someone coming up from behind. George, smiling and keeping in step, "Something wrong?"
"I've lost my mother."

Surely she wouldn't have left the airport, though. Who leaves the airport without saying so? I asked George about the possibility.

"In eight years of this work I've never had someone leave the airport without me."

Just then I got an sms, or "Text": "If you get this I'm on the way to the hotel. -Mom."

An hour later I arrived at the hotel and joined Donna and my mother on the rooftop restaurant of the Grand Bretagne at the table I'd requested with a view of the Acropolis. The way I'd envisioned it when I made the arrangements, this would have been the crowning glory of a day full of positive first impressions, but Mom had assumed that after the hour long struggle she'd had with having lost a bag and the flight already having arrived late I would not have waited for her. For those of you reading who have any inclination to use the services of my company, I can assure you of two things:

1) rest assured I'll be the best terminal-checker in the history of Travel assistants from this day forward.
2)I will never leave the airport without you.

It's amazing how a five star hotel and a dinner of dolmades and lobster spaghetti will wash away the mud of the evening. The rest of the week was relatively seamless and in spite of a dust storm in from the Sahara the day that Gail arrived, we retrieved her without incident and celebrated the conglomeration of Texan ladies at Cafe Boheme with Mastica martinis and calimari. A clean meal.

Mom, you will agree that we had some tough moments through the week. Four months in another country, especially one that claims to be European but has more in common with Bangladesh, will change a girl's perspective. It's difficult to miss home when everything around me makes me more curious and hungry to understand. I wouldn't even recognize the sensation of feeling "bored" or "lonely," and while I rarely know what to expect, if I can anticipate how something will go it's cause for a celebration; an achievement in my Greek education. Every once in a while, though, I'll get a letter from someone back in the states. These are usually from my wilder friends, those who let my imagination trip around deserts, ponies and acoustic guitar. I got one from you, Zara, detailing the way your garden was coming in, and Ellen and Bill fixing up their beach house and going to the five dollar cinema in Galveston. Anna and Jim are throwing a party in the bicycle-festooned backyard of Holly Street with bands that span from Austin to Berlin. This is just so you know, I've no desire to cut my ties to home, I just want to lengthen the cord a bit, so I thank all of you for letting me know how life dances along in my absence.

This will be the last blog on this page. I'm preparing a website that will incorporate my writing and pictures with local discoveries, as well as promoting myself as company-for-hire for those who would like to see Athens by way of my window. The panes have rose-colored glass, this is for sure.

I'll update as soon as it's ready.

All my love,