Sunday, December 21, 2008

"Standard" Operating Hours in Greece

I've noticed that Greek women appear to be thinner since last I was there. The food hasn't changed. Every single dish is still both cooked and served swathed in gallons of the local olive oil which pools at the base and seductively stares at you. Just try not dipping your bread in one of these many pools when the lovely, eggy, thick, white slices sit dry in the basket next to you.

During our last visit (which lasted 2 months), The Chef and I realized our bodies could not afford to eat 3 squares a day without becoming exponential. We began going out for a large, late lunch as our main meal and skipping dinner (or snacking in the evenings on the local, divine, dark breadsticks covered in sunflower seeds).

The operating hours in Greece make this a perfect schedule. Greece still holds to the old European tradition of long lunches in the afternoon complete with siesta and most businesses reflect this. Shops close at 2:00 or so and don't reopen until 5 at which point most everybody keeps their doors open until at least 8pm. Recently though, one small business owner we needed to interact with could only be found in her office in the mornings (and by that I mean between 9-11). One cannot count on strict rules for operating hours in Europe. It's different strokes of the clock for different folks.

Some of the smaller bakeries stay open longer in the afternoon as they know this is when business owners and employees do their shopping. We discovered, however, the coveted breadstick bakery does not so these must be picked up during specific hours. And the restaurants serve all afternoon to accomodate the Greek's long "lunch hour" between 2-5.

We noticed on this visit that there appears to be a health consciousness sweeping the culture as the young women look to be 20 to 30 pounds lighter these days. They are beginning to sport that long leggy, tiny torso physique of French women. During the afternoon siesta hours, many more young men and women jog the beach-walk path in their sweats. The middle-aged and elderly can also be seen walking in small groups of 2 or 3, chatting as they go. Increasingly among the crowd are even a couple of business women walking the rocky path in their dress clothes and shoes before returning to work.

A couple of years ago a friend came to visit, took a look around and declared, "I've found my people!" But at the trend of things, in a few years, one may feel as uncomfortable in Greece wearing a Size 8 as one does in Paris.

Where will we find our peeps then?

Monday, December 15, 2008

From Our Window in Nafplion...

We look out over the tile rooftops of the Old Town, past the nearest square's church bell tower to some of the palms along the waterfront, out to the bay and the mountains beyond it. To the NE spans the newer red roofs of Nafplion's new town apartment buildings. Directly East of us is the majestic cliffside with steps and arches that lead up to Palamidi, the Venetian fortress at the top which towers over us. Our living room roof is slanted and when they built this top floor apartment, someone was smart enough to stack the windows (which run 3/4 of the living room in each of the aforementioned directions) with increasingly larger angled windows. Which means that from most spaces in the living room, one can sit and enjoy the view of the castle above us, protective and quiet during the day, magnificently on show and displayed in its fully-lit regalia at night.

Guide books say there are 999 steps to the castle (though I've never bothered to count). We paid a cab driver 5 euros once to drop us at the top so that after our tour, we could walk the steps down and then the block to our door.

Directly behind us and out the East bedroom window is the rock wall of Akronafplia, a wall so old there are still remnants of Byzantine stone to be seen. This ancient wall once connected to Palamidi (so it's said) and the bottom sits just about eye level with our windows, the natural rocky hillside jutting out from below it. The bottom two flats of our building lay directly against the natural rock while the top two floors sit out one house-layer away from it. So from our windows, we look out on both the rocky hill terrain and the stone-built wall as well as our neighbor's yards. Unfortunately their patio gardens hold very little charm, mostly decorated with filthy white, stacked, plastic chairs and yellow shirts left hanging in the rain, old ladders, rusting tools and piles of rubble with broken shards of pottery. But along with the view of the castle and its walls on this side, these yards sprout luscious lemon and orange trees, plump fruit dotting the branches like Christmas tree ornaments.

Beyond the new town and across the bay, bald, gray mountains light up in December's dappled sunlight. The landscape calls to me in Greece. Visions of its ancient people, centuries past, seem to shout out but in a whisper; from beneath the orange trees, within the hillsides; from the leaves sprouting out from the twisty, gnarled old olive trunks and somewhere within the earth. I feel their lives as if their thoughts, hopes, dreams, fears and daily emotions are still embedded in the soil and seem to escape like wispy, smoky mirages each time I wonder about them and give them the slightest voice.

The people of today, the ones who have trashed this enduring landscape, their lives feel like noise to me. But the people of the past, the energy of their lives long since dispersed, sing to me like a distant aria. They move something in my heart like opera music to its fans.

What is it about them? Is it because they have come and gone and now have the knowledge of what's beyond transition? That event, time, place that we still can only wonder about and are (pardon the pun) so deathly afraid of?

They are the forgotten ones and as I look out over the land, I work to remember. I see them traversing the hillsides in homespun clothing. I see their fires, taste their bread, smell their sweat. I envision the hustle of their lives, struggling for survival against this harsh beauty, and the timeless quiet and stillness of their deaths.

At nearby ancient archaeological sites, I lay my hands on the pocked stone, searching for the tremors of energy of lives so long gone; searching for a deeper connection to their world, a time warp.

From our window, I have a view of the bustling present and a whispering portal to the past.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Terrorizing the Elderly in Greece

I finally did something I've always wanted to do. On our walk home the other day from the open-air market (held in the New Town on Wednesdays and the long stretch under the castle near us on Saturdays), our arms filled with our own plastic bags of fresh shrimp, cucumbers, purple broccoli and garlic for our lunch, I spied a little old woman walking the long stretch along the park. The top of her sterling head maybe reached my collar bone and the pronounced hunch in her back painfully reached high to the right.

As we walked the opposite side of the street, I saw her set her full plastic bags on the concrete bench at the middle point of the stretch and carefully seat herself next to them, giving her tired legs and gnarled hands a break from the load.

I decided today was the day--though attempting this in a country where I share maybe 5 words of the language might not have been my brightest move. I handed off my bags to Ed, told him I was going to try and would meet him at home.

I stopped in front of the old woman who had begun her journey again, her tiny form typically draped in traditional black. I asked if she spoke English. "No Ingles," she smiled and looked to keep going, probably happy not to have to even try here. In slower English and hand signals, I asked if I could carry her bags for her.

She didn't understand. I tried to be clear, pointing and using simple words.

"Me. I carry for you. Here to there." I pointed. And then I ended by gently and slowly trying to lift the heavy bags from her fingers to show her what I meant, pointing again.

She began a litany in Greek, possibly of things I could do with myself. I caught the words, "limonies" and "No Ingles" more than once. I looked down and noticed one of her bags was indeed filled with lemons.

"Ahhh, limonies." I struck on the one bit of communication we could muster. She had lemons and I recognized them. I noticed she switched the bags from the arthritic hand closest to me to the other, furthest away. She showed no signs of panicking, at which point I would have left her alone. My intent was not to cause her old heart to give out and have her drop down dead in front of me.

I walked quietly beside her, trying to come up with another way to explain my intentions. I couldn't help but wonder what else that Greek barrage might have been saying: "They're only limonies for Heaven's sake. You can pick them off any tree in town. Why in God's name must you have mine?" or "I need these limonies for my dinner. They're cheap and in season so please, for the love of Costas, go buy your own and leave me be."

I tried again, gently reaching for the bags, pointing and stating, "Me. Carry for you. Here to there." She finally relented, releasing the bags to my hand, most likely finally realizing that if I'd really wanted the damn limonies, I surely could have easily had them by now. We walked silently, slowly, carefully at her pace, the heavy bags (even for me) in my hand nearest to her. She may have wondered the rest of the way down the stretch, "At what point is this wicked woman going to knock me down and run off with my limonies?"

When we reached my favorite cafe on the corner (the one we look out on from our windows, that takes up an entire block with its own small waterfall and pond, that sits at the base of the castle and graces the ancient wall holding the entrance portal to the old town), she motioned we should walk through. I nodded and followed her. I stepped out of the way to make room for her to cross over and hold onto the railing for the step up and put my hand on her back to steady her. Once through the portal and across the street where the buildings of the old town begin, she stopped and questioned me in Greek.

I knew she did not wish me to follow her home and we were at my corner so I pointed that I must go left and handed her the bags.

"Epharisto," she said. Thank you.

"Parakalo." You're welcome.

I waved goodbye, she nodded deeply and as I climbed the many steps to my door, my heart soared. She had finally given over her fear and allowed me to do something I'd never quite had the courage to attempt.

My only wish now was that I had responded in kind with what my heart was saying.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Walks in Greek Culture

My favorite walks beneath Palamidi Castle and Akronafplia here in Nafplion, Greece are exquisitely as I dream of them when I am gone. The breathtaking Mediterranean blue extends out from the tiny beaches below me, reaching for the mountainous island shores in the distance. The sun sparkles and dances on the water as if it shares my glee.

The road from little Arvanitia beach just around the corner from us (a civilized city beach with cafe, cabanas and ladders with which to lower one's self into the water) leads to the longer Karathona beach a couple of miles away. The unpaved road sits beneath the castle and is dotted with pines, olive trees, cypress and spruce as well as barely-still-blooming oleander and wild bougainvilla and other varieties for which I have no names. The cliff walls are stained a deep orange and dusty blood-red running down from the top as if they have overflowed from the inside. White butterflies--fooled into being by warm sunshine lasting only a few days-- flitter past my head, on to their own nebulous destinations.

An old man sits on a bench under a tree twirling his colorful worry beads. True to Greek form, he only greets me after I have smiled and offered, "Kalimera." Good Morning. It took us a long time to figure out why the Greeks simply stared at us with scowling faces as we traveled the islands and small villages of the mainland. A dour face and long stare was the usual response.
We declared it to be an angry curiousity and the culture extremely harsh toward Americans.

Finally, our Greek friend explained that they are awaiting our greeting as they would never impose themselves without first being invited. And sure enough, once we offer it, the angry faces brighten up like glittering Christmas trees and the "Kalimera" is pronounced as if we have known and loved each other through thick and thin, for lifetimes.

The angry face appears to be a guarded drawbridge in their cultural kindgom but the password lowers the bridge for entrance to each princely castle.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Tastes of the Mediterranean

Oregon is stunning
during the summer and
fall months and while it is
THE best time to be here,
having been more home-bound
this past year, I am missing the
sights, smells and tastes of
the Mediterranean~
specifically Greece.
Give me those white-washed walls,
churches and walkways,
the dusty sweetness of wild rosemary
and thyme on the warm breeze--

I'm a sucker for those Greek salads with shiny, fresh peppers, tomatoes and cucumber and huge blocks of feta cheese sprinkled with lemon juice. The thick, rich local olive oil can be purchased in large, plastic jugs at small road-side farm stands. (FYI: These stands are also an inexpensive way to buy the local wine. And yes, also in plastic jugs!)

Every meal for me must be accompanied with the simple but inspiring tzatziki--the tangy yogurt and cucumber dip with plenty of garlic. While Ed sometimes tires of it, I can never get enough, slathering it on my bread, salad and every kind of meat. He often suggests we try something new in place of it while I suggest we try something else to accompany it.

What a Greek menu calls a salad can also be a pureed vegetable mixed with garlic. Eggplant salad (melitzanosalata) consists of blended eggplant, olive oil, lemon, yogurt and garlic while Fava salad uses pureed split peas and onion with garlic and fresh oregano. Greece's famous garlic dip (skordalia) can be made with garlic, almonds, lemon and olive oil including bread crumbs and/or mashed potato. One feels just a bit foolish at first smearing potato on bread but once tasted, that feeling dissipates. And like the tzatziki, it goes well on vegetables, fish and red meats.

Ed prefers the hefty, meat-filled dishes like Stifado--a thick beef and pearl onion casserole, Pastitsio--baked pasta with a spicy meat sauce-- and any braised meat dish with the local olive oil, herbs and spices. My favorite dishes are of the lighter fare: salads, fresh fish, the local greens, souvlaki--chicken kabobs with yogurt sauce--and octopus spritzed with lemon and dipped in tzatziki.

Octopus, when done well, is fare for the Gods here thanks to the age-old tenderizing process we've witnessed in several Greek ports: leathery hands and face hunched over a rock, cigarette with its long ash dangling from his lips, the fisherman slams the hopefully already-dead critter against the rock or cement--over and over, maybe to make sure there are no brains left. Octopus in the States (and even in some of the more touristy Greek restaurants) can be rubbery and chewy but when cooked right after this relentless texturizing process, is tender, moist and divine.

Anchovy and sardines are fish I rarely touch in the States but served fresh in Greece, yield an entirely different experience. And while I've never been a fan of okra, I am now a convert after tasting braised okra with tomato, onion and garlic at a little Plaka restaurant in Athens. One might think it was just a case of grateful tastebuds after a long day treading in the ancient footsteps of theater performers and goddess-worshipers but having now tried the dish in several Greek locations, I am a dedicated follower.

In Nafplion, where we like to spend time with friends, most of the best fish restaurants are out of the town, away from the touristy areas and a short drive to nearby beaches. In Greece, the fish is to be eaten whole, heads and all.

Been there & done that--but after consuming my share of fish brains (just enough to say I've eaten like a local!),

I prefer to leave them for the school of cats that endlessly hang around every eatery waiting for just such a morsel.

The French find that Greek cooking leaves something to be desired but for me that something is encapsulated in the magic of every day in Greece; in walking ancient archaeological sites; pondering lives long turned to dust; traditions and cultures barely known to us; scents and tastes married to a harsh but exquisitely beautiful land albeit a beauty in which one must frequently overlook the blight of man.

But the taste
is on the wind.
It grows in groves,
in the wild mountain greens
and rocky hillsides
and it feeds
on the view,
overlooking the waves
of endless
mythological lives.

Photographs copyright: Kirsten Steen

Monday, November 17, 2008

Pain Poilane

One of my favorite boulangeries to walk past in Paris' 15th arrondissement is Poilane on Boulevard de Grenelle (pronounced: Pwa-lan). Usually with a line of Parisians gathered to pick up their daily bread or pastry, it is one of two storefront locations of the late Lionel Poilane's dedicated attempt to carry on the family tradition, started by his father, Pierre, in 1932. The front and corner windows are lavishly decorated with ornate furnishings made of, what else? Bread crust.

Over the years, I've witnessed an array of astonishing ensembles looking like ice sculptures of golden dough. Giant flower arrangements, the petals, stems and vase all crafted and baked into varying shades of crusted-honey hues, call to bees and bread patrons alike. Chandeliers, books and dishware are just a few samples of the edible decor that pleasantly shock passersby with what is possible when a little flour yields itself to an artisan's hands. Poilane's alchemists spin yeasty gold out of pixie dust and tap water. During Paris' Fete de la Musique, a music festival held every June 21st when Paris holds its street music festival on the day of the Solstice, Poilane's window displays sing with their own musical instruments.

Unlike many other boulangeries in Paris who flout their patisserie pretties and chocolate delectables in perfectly-lined rows along street-front windows, Lionel opted to keep his daily output to a small assortment of traditional breads, tarts, gateau and punitions (small, thin, butter cookies known as "The Punishment"~the recipe of which can be found in Dorie Greenspan's book Paris Sweets).

My favorite is the simple and plain-looking Gateau Basque (almost like a custard pie with a densely-thick, not-too-sweet center) which I am compelled to buy every time I see it in the window. Ed's favorite is the early morning, tender-yet-flaky brioche to go with his coffee. While their pastry shelves are not lined with the busy colors and shapes of other windows, they always have something you want.

According to Ron Lieber (, Lionel's motto was, "Do things with intention, not with extension." Lionel's intent, after taking over the business from his father in 1970, apparently became a treasure hunt for THE best traditional French bread (Lieber states that according to Poilane, France's popular baguette actually came out of Austria). Poilane, with some help, interviewed over 10,000 bakers for their 2 francs worth and then created and revitalized what was once the most common bread in France: the dark, round, peasant bread of the region made in the traditional fashion using wood-fired ovens. The original boulangerie started by Pierre is still located on Rue du Cherche-Midi in the Latin Quarter where Lionel kept an office.

While those dark, fat, rounds nearly lost out to the flashier, skinnier, fair-skinned models (who are most often spotted tooling along French sidewalks canoodling in the arms of Parisians busily chewing the baguette's missing tip), Poilane saved the dark, regional manna from heaven. And he found his own patronage. In an interview, Lieber quotes Poilane as stating that one of his most dedicated followers paid him a large sum to keep his children and grandchildren in weekly shipments of bread for the rest of their days.

Next time you are in Paris visiting the Eiffel Tower, walk down to Blvd de Grenelle (3 blocks from the Champs de Mars) and on your way to the Metro (directly between stops Dupleix and Bir Hakeim), stop and marvel on the latest creations gracing the windows. And have a gateau for me!

If you have any trouble finding it, mention one word to any Parisian on the street: Poilane. They will point you in the right direction.

(Sadly, Lionel Poilane died in a helicopter crash in Oct. 2002 in Brittany)

Photographs copyright: Kirsten Steen