Athena, Athens, Attica
July 27, 2012 § Leave a comment
I know it’s barely acceptable — read not at all — to be complaining about being in a warm country with beaches, fresh seafood, juicy peaches and iced espresso and gyros on every street corner. But this San Francisco girl — read girl who grew up in the fog and the cold sea air — has been sitting in bed for the past few hours, next to the fan, waiting for the opportune moment to go on a run. Only to discover that, come 8 p.m., half an hour before sunset, it is still 90 degrees outside, a whole ten degrees lower than it was this afternoon. After several rounds of being that annoying person who complains all the time, which met notably with “f*** working out, relax,” I’ve effectively decided that it’s a putter-around-the-apartment night for me. Highlights include eating the best parts — read, the cashews, sweet dates and the sesame peanuts I picked up from a street vendor — out of my latest batch of granola, plowing through the dark cherries I picked up from the Pagrati neighborhood farmers’ market, and applying a yogurt mask, in the hopes that it will pull out the redness of my sunburn.
Lest you think I’m a lazy person, I should preface this all by saying that I spent the hours between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. walking the entire city, because my apartment is located quite far from the metro and the taxi driver wanted 15 euro to drive me home (I could have gotten to the port for that price!). I reshot parts of the Agora Central Market, notably the spice and dried herb shops — you would not believe the crazy things they store in jars there, such as oak tree bark for making teas. I wandered off into the distance looking for the Ancient Market, the oldest “mall” in the world (and the long, rectangular building in the sunset picture below), only to discover that my sense of direction is useless without the vantage point of sitting at the base of the Acropolis. Then I topped this all off with a cup of frozen yogurt and a march back across town to the National Archeological Museum, which I bet I walked through entirely spaced out. I had to sit down several times in front of numerous ancient vases because I thought I was going to pass out. Then I refilled my water bottle and walked the hour home. And I’ve been here ever since.
Still there is one beautiful thing about the heat. It creates these hazy, pastel sunsets that I simply cannot get enough of. Whether I am standing in the Mediterranean water, perched on top of the highest hill in the middle of the city, or strolling — read shopping my way — through the small island town, the sunsets can maybe, maybe, only be topped by the vibrancy of the setting sun over the Pacific on Ocean Beach.
July 25, 2012 § 1 Comment
I took off from Athens for a couple of days for a real vacation — a tour of several Greek islands. And somewhere between piling my clothes into my backpack for what feels like — and is probably close to be being — the hundredth time, conquering the scorching heat in rickety buses, where the driver yells at you to get on board without answering your question about the destination of said bus, with sweat pouring down your face, and dipping my toes in the water, as the sun finally starts to set, things started looking up.
I think I forgot that it is summer. That I am in a foreign country, where everything I look at is brand-new to my eyes. That this is the time for exploring, for pushing myself, for doing me and for doing the incredible amount of things waiting to be experienced around me. Volcanoes. Black-sand beaches. Ferry rides watching the clear, vibrant blue ocean drift past. Dancing on tables. Souvlaki — pita stuffed with meat shavings (traditionally lamb) vegetables, tzatziki sauce and a smattering of French fries — at five in the morning. And while I may be experiencing Greece mostly as a tourist, I am rounding up some awesome Australian friends. So guess what continent we’re exploring next?
Meanwhile, I’ve been stepping back and actually enjoying time to myself again. Time just sitting still and taking it all in — except I rarely actually sit still. After a day of lazing around poolside, with a walk along the harbor and an ocean-side skype sesh with the boyfriend, I finally deemed the temperature low enough to attempt a run. Boy, was I wrong. But run I did, up every damn desert hill on the island. Beet-red, panting and pouring buckets of sweat, I finally made it back to the hotel, where a dip in the Mediterranean and a watermelon slice twice the size of my head were exactly what my body ordered.
And then, I also wanted to share the site that I’ve been working for in Athens, and also in Barcelona — Culinary Backstreets. It just launched yesterday, and you’ll see my photos popping up here and there in the next few weeks. Here are some from a delicious lunch at Melilotos in Athens. I got to go into the kitchen here one night to take photos — lots of fire action for a traditional chicken pasta dish. When we returned in the afternoon, it was too hot to attempt eating pasta, but the veggie options were not scarce.
Beet salad with balls of creamy herbed goat cheese.
The best citrusy tabouleh I have ever had, served with a row of freshly fried, salty sardines.
Deep-fried tomatoes and cheese.
Zucchini very thinly sliced and flash fried. Crispy, crackly, and served with tzatziki yogurt for dipping.
I still dream about that bittersweet chocolate pie with buttery biscuit crust and may have to make a quick stop before heading to the airport.
July 18, 2012 § 1 Comment
I’ve started this post over and over again, and each time, I end up stopping because I decide, no, that’s not what I want to talk about here. By all means, it was a very good day. I woke up early and went for a run through the national gardens in the city center, running past the Parliament building, ruins, the first modern Olympic stadium. Later on, I wandered into what was suggested to me as the best bakery in the world, and sampled a variety of goods — homely chocolate chip cookies (with pistachios!), eggy challah dusted with almond slivers, dense balls of coconut flakes, scented with orange and cardamom. I then meandered down to the Acropolis museum, where, in addition to seeing never-ending tributes to the goddess Athena, I enjoyed a Greek café and a tower of cream topped with heavily-sweetened figs on the rooftop terrace, with full view of the Acropolis. I shopped — prices, low to begin with due to the crisis, are now slashed in half for summer sales. I drank iced espresso, perhaps my favorite part of Greece so far. I arranged my yoga schedule for tomorrow. And then I came home and sat down to write.
And that’s when the problem started. I got lonely. I tried putting on soothing, jazzy French music. I tried writing, and stopped, and started again. I tried eating a cookie, and then thought about baking. But, to be honest, all my grand baking plans sort of fell through with the realization that it’s actually 40°C here and the thought of turning on the oven makes me miserable inside. Plus, I don’t exactly fancy buying huge bags of flour and sugar (and that not even counting the baking power that I would have to track down in Greek), only to leave them behind, mostly unused, in less than two weeks. So now I’m back to just sitting, and trying to write.
Normally, traveling alone is my prime writing time. But I think I’m well beyond the point when being alone inspires thoughtful reflections on life and key observations about the new culture, which I am experiencing full-on as I lack the homey distractions of traveling with family or the ruckus of active friends eager to do everything at once. I’m well into I have so much time to think about everything that I’ve thought about everything once or twice or a hundred times and I am so tired of my own thoughts.
So there you go, no profound reflections, just a plea for you to start making your own granola, because it is so much better than the sugary catastrophes that you buy at the grocery store. Just a couple of spoonfuls of honey, a drizzle of olive oil, three handfuls of walnuts, some chopped dried figs, and half a bag of rolled oats.
Departures and Arrivals, Paris and Athens
July 16, 2012 § Leave a comment
The first striking thing about Athens is the heat — it hangs like a heavy blanket over the city, beating down not as the scorching sun but more like a sluggish lag that permeates all movement. But despite this, activity is not smothered. At the corner of my block, a man stands at the window, roasting meat on a large stick, surrounded by trays of various sauces, creamy white ones and pasty, hot reds. He beckons me to come in with a smile and a nod, but I’m more focused on finding the grocery store, which is just across the street.
Before diving into the local cuisine, I was more eager to get back to cooking. It seemed a bit crazy to arrive and immediately turn on the heat, but there’s currently a batch of walnut-fig granola, dusted with Greek honey, roasting in the oven, and I’m now enjoying — despite the lack of pans and cutting boards in the kitchen — the feeling of having a knife in my hands again and being able to just eat slices of raw tomato, dipped in honey mustard, without getting weird looks from a waiter for not ordering the four-course menu. I already can’t wait to make breakfast tomorrow morning.
I had a lot of misgivings about coming to Athens, which consisted of the now commonplace warnings of protests, economic collapse and all-out disorganization, but also of several lackluster, or downright negative, accounts of the city from people I have met on this trip, and also from some very good friends back home. However, the drive through the city from the airport, and then the quick three-block walk to the grocery store, were reassuring. The streets may twist and branch off every which way and some of the sidewalks may have garbage piled up on them, but there are smiles everywhere. I don’t even know how to say hello, thank you or excuse me yet, but it doesn’t seem to matter to the old women debating types of grains in the grocery aisle.
Before I sign off and head out for drinks with the owner of my apartment, I thought I’d share some Paris moments. I spent the majority of my (unexpected and unplanned) time in Paris sitting in my hotel bed, or at the small table on my balcony. I spent some time reviewing posts from last summer, particularly one I wrote following a weekend visit to Paris. Last summer, I commented that revisiting Paris, after having spent the fall semester living here, was slightly bizarre, like experiencing a past life, only this time behind a plane of glass. Walking by my old apartment, the patisserie where I used to buy tri-colored slices of Turkish marzipan, my favorite street-side crepe stand, with the orange awning, inspired a bout of homesickness. But I don’t think it was ever really homesickness for my life in Paris, but rather an inability to imagine living that over again, a feeling of exile from the city I once fought really hard to call home. This time around, I lay around in bed in front of my computer, feeling pretty alone in a city that people always say, in adoring tones, is full of light and love and unparalleled opportunities of discovery, whether your passion is art or architecture, or eating.
And then, finally, I shook myself awake and went out. I walked to the Pierre Hermé boutique by Saint Suplice and ordered myself five macarons, some dusted with edible glitter, in flavors such as jasmine tea and peach cardamon. I laughingly remembered the feeling of never feeling like I was chic enough to be in the store, feeling like the ladies behind the counter could see right through my clothes and knew that my underwear isn’t 300 euro lacy lingerie from the boutique down the street. Then I wandered over to Les Deux Magots and had a café crème next to a dapper old man who had to lean in an inch away from the paper in order to read the morning news.