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.

"Epharisto."

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.