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Athens, Greece

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View of Athens from the Acropolis

Greece’s economy is recovering at a painfully slow pace. Now is the time to visit Greece, to spend your money there, and enjoy the beautiful people and culture.

“Athena and her uncle Poseidon were both very fond of a certain city in Greece. Both of them claimed the city and it was decided that the one who could give the finest gift should have it. Leading a procession of citizens, the two gods mounted the Acropolis. Poseidon struck the side of the cliff with his trident and a spring welled up. The people marveled, but the water was as salty as Poseidon’s sea and it was not very useful. Athena’s gift was an olive tree, which was better because it gave the people food, oil, and wood. Athena named her city Athens.”

In Athens the sidewalks are made of marble and the streets lined with orange trees heavy with bright but bitter temptations. The air was soft and warm, not too hot yet, and not smoggy; it had just rained and another storm was kicking up. The buildings have balconies, filled with bougainvillea, geraniums, roses, wind chimes, maybe a little table for breakfast.  Men finely dressed in suits with pastel ties pose on corners swinging worry beads in one hand. Cafes line the streets with tables of Citizens, talking, gesturing enthusiastically while drinking demitasse cups of espressos and cappuccinos, or in the heat, frappes. Bakeries are just as plentiful and fascinating as their golden brown flaky treats are a hybrid of French, Italian, and middle Eastern baking traditions. We partook of it all.

The ancient sites, especially the Acropolis are guarded by stray, but civilized dogs. These mystic dogs are generally asleep on a marble walkway, or under a clump of bushes. They look healthy and well fed. They will lift their heads and look at you with contentment, never asking, never sad, just being.

The Parthenon

The Parthenon

At 1PM, we take a siesta with everyone else in the city.  The metal doors come down to cover the shop fronts. The streets are quiet, no people, no cars. We soon learned that siestas make one day feel like two.  You wake recharged and ready for another complete set of daily activity.

We walk toward the Acropolis. It is always lit so majestically, floating above the city, a marker as one navigates through the distance and time of the city. There is a restaurant on the way Manh Manh.  On the street, it is completely quiet and the only indication of the entrance is a large dark green door, propped open with candles on the stairs. This must be it. We venture cautiously up, fearful that we may be entering someone’s home. On the third floor, tables were set, the windows wide open, and suddenly we could hear the people boisterously carrying on, each with a large glass of wine in one hand, a cigarette and a fork of fig in the other.

We started with a mountain of salad: finely chopped red lettuce with finely chopped green figs, a sweet fig vinaigrette dressing and two puffs of tangy goat cheese on the side covered with pistachios.    It was divine. I have been trying to recreate it. Our second course was risotto with scuttle fish ink. (Ah, scuttle fish. It is a type of squid that is very popular in the Mediterranean. Its ink is so black one hesitates a moment, awed by its edibility. Its flesh, white with a tinge of orange, cut into quarter inch wide and two inch long strips of tender but firm and smooth morsels. For a main dish, we ate rooster! Stewed in a savory sauce that included some cinnamon. It was almost like a mole but without the chocolate. It is a traditional dish.

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The city belongs to us

In addition to seeing ancient sights, walking through Plaka to the old market where there are antiques, old phones, phonographs, lamps, posters, espresso sets, buttons, you name it, we spent a great deal of our time conversing with my former professor and dear friend Nanos Valaoritis in cafes and at his home.  Nanos is a well-known writer and poet, and his great grandfather was one of Greece’s most famous national poets; to this day, all the children read his work in school. Nanos fled the Nazis when they invaded Greece and lived in London where he knew Lawrence Durrell and met Henry Miller and T.S. Eliot. Then he moved to Paris and became a surrealist, and friends with Andre Breton and Marcelle Duchamp. In Paris he met a lovely painter from California, Marie, and stole her away from Picasso! They married and moved to the Oakland hills, had three lovely children, and Nanos taught at San Francisco State for over 25 years.

“Between us there was no other obstacle but a beautiful and fearful ampersand.”

“For many years I have pursued a poem, Which regularly escapes me, It’s a funny little poem, About nothing at all.”

Nanos Valaoritis

After several days in Athens, we drove through the Peleponese, down a road that looked well defined in thick red on the map. At one point, we are stopped by a flock of sheep. My husband, born and raised in San Francisco, with a look of absolute terror asked, “What do we do now?” I replied, “Just wait here. They will go around.”

Along the roadside I kept seeing these little dollhouse size churches or boxes.  As we whizzed by, I could just make out their contents to be photographs, crosses, rosaries, cans of coca cola, packets of cigarettes, prayer cards.  It was explained that they were shrines to those who had died in accidents on the road. Despite these constant reminders, people sped and passed like maniacs, though it was not as bad as I had expected.

The sun starts to set, and we wonder how we will be able to reach the sea, on such a road; finally we hit a rock slide and have to go all the way back to the main road. Ten hours later, (the trip usually takes four) exhausted, we end up at a lovely hotel. Our balcony looks out at the bay, a perfect perch from which to watch the town wake and sleep and wake, the fishing boats, the trucks of fish, come and go. The square filled with families and children like the tide at 8AM, 1PM, and again at 10PM.  Melina Mecouri’s daughter, or so she appeared, served us at a bay-side restaurant, octopus, dandelion greens (horta), homemade white wine, a whole fish with sharp, strange teeth. For dessert we walked to the square and sat on a comfy wicker sofa under a gigantic oak tree. The waiter suggested the chocolate lava cake with a small shot of ouzo. I never would have thought of it. He was right!

The sun weds the sky to the sea (I think Author Rimbaud wrote that)

The sun weds the sky to the sea (I think Author Rimbaud wrote that)

The sea’s siren song: During the day we lounged on the beach under shade trees with roses and geraniums all about, either swimming or staring into the hypnotic azur. I think that the Mediterranean is closer to our biological fluids than other bodies of water. It has a perfectly soft salinity, warmth and dreamy clear color. It was paradise.

We ate at a restaurant that had tables with white tablecloths and antique rose china set out under the shade trees, just 50 feet from the water’s edge. There we ate garlic yogurt with cucumbers, and fresh from their garden, Greek salad and Kalamata olives. Groves of Kalamata olives made the hills green and lovely. My favorite though were the aubergines, small and sliced thin, then fried until extra crisp in fresh olive oil and sprinkled with dry mizithra cheese. Of course fried anchovies are also a favorite, and the souvlaki (sausages) are a must, each region, each restaurant, each cook, takes pride in their souvlaki. For dessert we had the best cup of demi-sweet Greek coffee ever – a demitasse cup with the fine grounds in the bottom. And of course, a honey filled yet flaky, nutty pastry.  Sometimes, the other people around us, made us feel that we were in an Agatha Christie novel or a Monsieur Hulot film; we were not sure which.

Sadly we had to depart this paradise very early one morning to catch a ship, called Zeus’ Palace, that left at midnight.

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