A love letter to the Peloponnese 

Every year, almost without fail, one or more of the following messages will show up in my inbox/messenger :
“Hey, I’m heading to Greece! What should I do?”
Usually, these requests are followed up by questions almost exclusively about the islands, with one or two inquiries about Athens (because of course one must trek up to the Acropolis at least once), and although I’ve been to several islands and enjoyed my visits there, my heart still lies firmly in that large peninsula to the south : the Peloponnese.
I suppose it partly has to do with the fact that both my parents grew up/have roots here – my mom comes from a small village near Kalamata, and my dad, although he grew up in Athens, spent a good part of his childhood in the seaside town of Finikounda – , and consequently, my trips to Greece when I was younger were almost exclusively confined there. But with the financial crisis, as well as the many conversations around tourism in Greece that it inspired, I felt my affinity for the region grow stronger.
Because although the islands – especially this year – are boasting record levels in tourism, the mainland has sort of crept along slowly, seemingly left behind for promises of wild parties, picturesque white houses, and idyllic beaches, which is a shame.
And so, I’ve sort of taken it upon myself to try and convince as many people as possible to stay on the mainland a while.

Pictures of food usually help. I mean, do you see those tomatoes?!
…not to mention these figs (which I could quite literally eat all day).

Although summer 2017 is coming to a close, I figured I’d write a “Peloponnese appreciation” post anyway, partly to convince people to reconsider just sticking to the islands, partly because every year – and especially this year – that I come here, I always leave with a new sense of vigor, the kind of calm yet present energy that only comes after you’ve disconnected from the world for a while. Or, in my case, after you’ve been almost obligated to withdraw into yourself for a bit and just let the world encompass you, interact with you, make its presence felt on you.

Souvlaki in Corinth : the gateway to the Peloponnese. A traditional stop on the drive down from Athens.

The Peloponnese I know and tangentially grew up with has two faces. On the one are the mountains, basically the cradle of the Greek Revolution. The villages used to be more lively here, but what with many families having left – opting either for a life in Athens or, as with my family, in America – over the years, things are pretty quiet. The landscape is wild, rugged, with hills that almost dare you to climb them, and the occasional monastery that seems to be hanging on to the side of a cliff within an inch of its life.

Oh and the olive oil. You can’t really go wrong with some excellent, cold-pressed olive oil from Kalamata. If we can talk about terroir (a taste of place) with wine, then we certainly should be talking about it when it comes to olive oil, and especially Greek olive oil. I have a soft spot for oil from Kalamata. It’s slight greenish tinge and olive flavor is pronounced where others are neutralized. Let me put it this way : when I step outside in my mom’s village in the late afternoon, there’s a certain crisp, comforting smell of dry grass, pine, and a hint of oregano in the air. If I can taste that in my olive oil, I know I’ve found a good one.

My mom’s particular village is located in the region of Arcadia, where the closest city of note (other than maybe Kalamata), is Sparta. While I would not necessarily enthousiastically recommend anyone visit Sparta – the Spartans, as their name suggests, did not leave much behind in the way of ruins or artefacts -, if you are ever lucky enough to be invited to a village panigyri (celebration) in the immediate area, and especially for one held on or around August 15, go. Stuff your face full of salad, cheese (usually graviera but sometimes feta), and the ubiquitous roast pig that always accompanies the August festivities. Yes, contrary to popular belief, Greeks eat a good amount of pork. The souvlaki pictured above? Pork. Indeed, pork souvlaki and gyros are pretty much standard here, with chicken oftentimes being the only alternative option.
After you’ve had your fill of pork, cheese, salad and beer comes the dancing where you can work all of it off. If you’re lucky, there will be a live band. Unfortunately, this year our village had to make due with a DJ, although this did mean we got a quick, if very random, disco break a little after midnight (prepare yourselves, these things can go until 2 or 3 in the morning).

Quiet village sunsets. Before the mayhem begins, naturally.

The second face of the Peloponnese is one that is perhaps more in line with the clichéd, though not entirely fictitious, images of Greece that dot tourists’ imaginations. It’s where the ‘fingers’ of the Peloponnese reach out and meet the Aegean Sea, that impossibly blue body of water where I honed my swimming and sandcastle building skills, where I got lost in Hemingway, Vonnegut, Genet, and Hugo, and where I developed a seasonal addiction to atherina – small white bait that’s fried and eaten whole like french fries. Pop a couple in your mouth, crunch the thin, flimsy bones down, and take a sip of ouzo. All thoughts of those emails you really need to send out (at some point) eventually begin to fade away.
And of course, the advantage of having our summer home where we do – at least for me – is its proximity to the ancient theatre at Epidauros. Now, this may come as a surprise to some of you, but even as someone who studies contemporary French theatre, I have never been to the famous summer theatre festival at Avignon (yes, I know, shame on me). Why? Because I’ve always been here, in Epidauros, watching performances in a theatre that was initially built as a sort of therapeutic outlet for patients at the nearby hospital (yes, even the ancient Greeks had the sense to realize theatre’s potential positive effects on mental health, although their citing of it as a cure for physical ailments is…dubious). Performances are held here on Friday and Saturday evenings during the summer Athens/Epidaurus theatre festival, but even the tours during the day/off season are worth it for a chance to explore the space and witness first hand its amazing acoustics (yes, you really can hear a pin drop on the center of the stage even if you’re sitting on the top row). If you do choose to see a performance here, know that they can be hit or miss depending on the play/company performing, but friendly ticket prices means you won’t be grumbling about having had to throw down $100+ for a dud. Another plus is that surtitles in English have become standard at Epidaurus in the last few years, so don’t worry about not being able to follow along (although, if the performance is exceptionally good, you might just end up ignoring them).
We were lucky this year in that the show we saw – Aeschylus’ The Persians – was an incredibly engaging, well-paced, production, whose recalling of an almost ritualized performance style served to create an almost trance-like environment where I found myself at once wanting to draw closer to the center of the stage, into the actors’ energy, as well as acutely aware of the scent and rustling of the surrounding pine trees, nature cocooning and encroaching on us. A final bit of advice though : see a tragedy. Comedy, even when done well, can very much get lost in translation, and when done poorly (looking at you, 2012 production of The Clouds) can be so dull it almost makes you wish you were watching a rock grow. Not grass. A rock.

But before I end this somewhat rambling post, I want to go back to the sea. There’s something rather special about the particular beach I grew up going to. It’s not the sand, nor the warm, calm waters, nor the fact that it was (and still somewhat is) a locals only spot. It’s the fact that I can walk about 50 yards – yes half a football field – before I have to start treading water. And I’m 5’3″. I generally feel very comfortable swimming out in open water in the Agean, but here it’s almost like being home again. There’s a certain freedom that comes with diving down under water and instead of tiles all you see is sand and a tantalizing expanse of gradiante blue. It almost makes you want to float on your back and let the sea carry you where it may, dropping below the surface every so often just to catch a glimpse of that impossible blue color again.

Almost.

Because then your stomach rumbles. And you remember there may be atherina or at least a choriatiki or ‘village’ salad waiting.

At the time of writing this, I’m winding down on my time here, as well as a little over one month out from the official split. To be honest, this vacation was not nearly as carefree as my trips to Greece usually are, nor was I expecting it to be. There were enough high points to counteract the (very) low ones, and though I am not magically healed, I can at least feel myself working towards something that could be called ‘healing’. Time is helping. Distance, perhaps even more so. There is still a feeling of dread that creeps in every so often, but it’s starting to grow fainter.
And I’m not sure, but I think that it may have something to do with the fact that I was in the ‘homeland’ for a month.

So ends my love letter to the Peloponnese.

Back in Paris, Day 8

So due to a weird mixup on someone’s (mine, maybe? Who knows) part, my mom’s flight was actually scheduled for today instead of tomorrow. After a quick rush to Châtelet to see her off on the RER on the way to the airport, I went back home to actually get some version of put together before I set out for the day. And since I had an unexpected day to myself, of course I spent the majority of it walking.

Oh, and buying books.

Behold the official reading list for Greece summer 2017. The bottom two books are new additions, the top left a gift from (and written by) a friend, and Genet is there because of course he is. I’m feeling the pull towards his particular brand of sublime destruction at the moment. 

Since I am leaving to spend the next month in warmer climates tomorrow, meals had to be strategized today. I wanted to get a jumpstart on all the healthy eating I’m about to do – as well as to counteract all the pastries I’ve been eating – but choices were somewhat limited, given how the whole city seemingly shuts down in August. Thankfully, Wild & the Moon was open, and as the weather today more closely resembled fall than summer, I opted for a bowl of their stew of the day. Today it was a Thai-style curry.

Thai-style curry over rice and quinoa at Wild & the Moon

Granted, this move towards healthier eating was later practically nullified with a piece of apricot-pistachio tart at Le Loir dans la Théière (accompanied by a pot of Darjeeling tea), but I think the 2.5 mile walk home made up for that.

Apricot-pistachio tart at Le Loir dans la Théière

And now here I am. Alone in this apartment that I will have to fill with myself until the time comes that the lack of his presence no longer affects the way I move through it. There is a certain potentiality for creativity in that though, and the optimistic side of me wants to keep that alive and present.

Because I am here. 
Because I can move through things on my terms, heal on my terms. 

A month away should – will – be good. I still have a dissertation to tackle after all. 

Back in Paris, Day 7

First piece of apartment decor is up. Coincidentally, there is an inherent blend of ‘old v new’ in the display, what with the little pots I made in Cambridge holding up the piece I bought here.

There are so many blank walls in this space. So much white space to fill up, and I feel both a rush of excitement and a pang of…regret?…at the thought of doing it alone. Of choosing what to place where, of defining my unshared living area. It’s times like this when it’s hard not to slip back into thoughts of what should have happened, of what was supposed to happen, especially when you’re still teetering a bit after the rug’s been pulled out from under you. I suppose the only thing that can be done now is to try and find the beauty in the blank space, the space ready to be ‘marked’, ready to evolve with you and ‘as’ you.

And if not that, there are always small successes like trips to Glace Bachir near the still chaotic mess that is Les Halles for a scoop of their signature achta ice cream – it’s got orange flower water as well as masticha in it, a reminder of my Greek homeland I’m due to visit in a couple days – covered in chopped pistachios. Funnily enough, I used to hate masticha when I was younger; now I can’t seem to get enough of it.

A small achta cone at Glace Bachir

Back in Paris, Day 6

More walking today (including a stop at the café of the Grande Mosquée de Paris for a mint tea and pastries), but really the highlight was passing by a furniture store and seeing this : 

Which to me looked like a slightly more f-ed up version of this : 

This has been a Sunday.

Back in Paris, Day 5

Going back to the whole ‘mini successes’ thing today because this evening I treated my mom to her first tasting menu experience as a thank you for helping me move (hauling 5 suitcases up six flights of stairs is not easy, even with two people).

I chose to take her to Le Chateaubriand partly because as far as tasting menus go, this one is pretty affordable – although there is no conceivable way I’d ever be able to make it a regular thing anyway, at least in the immediate future – and partly because I had been wanting to go back since my first visit there four years ago. There’s almost no point in going through what we ate in detail since the menu changes daily, but the basic structure is that there is a set menu of five starters, followed by a first course, a fish course, a meat course, and two desserts (although one could also choose to substitute a cheese plate here). The option for wine pairings with each course at an extra charge is also available – and which I did the first time I ate here – , but we chose instead to stick to just one glass each.

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Gougères at Le Chateaubriand

 

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Steamed salt cod with yellow bell pepper, verbena, lemon, and a chorizo broth

 

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The one standby – other than the gougères – , and an egg yolk I actually enjoyed eating

 

I remember the first time I came here, I mentioned to our waiter (after he had asked about any potential allergies or food aversions) that I did not like eggs*, a fact that still stands to this day. I don’t quite know why I did not bother to do the same this time around – perhaps I did not expect to see this dessert placed in front of me again – but the end of the meal saw me face to face with my nemesis the egg yolk.

 

But unlike during my first visit, this time I actually popped the thing in my mouth in one bite – as instructed by our server – and to my surprise, I found myself actually quite enjoying it. Maybe it was the fact that I got the yolk down first before tasting the rest of the components, or maybe it was the fact that it tasted remarkably like an exceptionally creamy crème brûlée, but I wasn’t having an averse reaction to it like I thought I would.

 

So I guess that’s another success for the day. I ate an egg yolk and was fine with it. This does not mean that I am ready to graduate to omelettes quite yet. Got to have some principles after all.

 

 

*exceptions to the egg-hating include things like quiche, frittata, and strata – where you really cannot taste the egg at all – as well as things that involve egg in the preparation but it’s not the star of the show.

Back in Paris, Day 4

A note to anyone who has ever thought ‘hmm I think I might want to pay Effie a visit in Paris. Surely that will be a swell, relaxing time…’ : be prepared to walk. Everywhere. All the time. 

You will walk until you think you can no longer stand on your own two feet.

You will walk until the brink of delirium.

You will walk until you start to legitimately consider the merits of a Segway. 

I’m pretty sure I walked my mom to the limits of her sanity today, but I firmly believe that one of the best ways to explore this city is on foot. And considering that, despite the rather ominous-looking clouds, the day was promising to be dry, I figured why not take advantage of it before the unpredictability of fall really kicks in. 

And so we walked from Hôtel de Ville to the Eiffel Tower and back again, ticking off the usual sites while soaking in the almost uncanniness of Paris in August. I have only spent one August here – in 2013 when I was finishing my 1st Master’s thesis -, and back then I was so absorbed in crafting that beast of a paper that I barely noticed how quiet things got, how even with the constant stream of tourists there were these pockets, these empty spaces that were opening up. That the city seemed to oscillate constantly between activity and dormancy, never quite reaching either but performing a strange sort of balancing act, cognizant all the same of this bubble of energy growing – somewhere – underneath. 

I’m still of the opinion that it was rather fortuitous of me to come here when I did, under my current circumstances. Sometimes I feel as though I am standing on the edge of a precipice dreading but also desperately wishing for that inevitable plunge into the unknown. Those who have listened to me ramble about my research interests know how much I invest in the meaning of space, its charged nature, the fact that it is constantly ‘marked’ not just by our presence but by the presence – and absence – of those who occupied it at the same moment we have. The first time I lived in Paris, I was single. When I came back, I had him. Now it’s as though I’ve entered a process of coming full circle, approaching completion but never quite getting there – because can you truly ever come full circle when you’ve been so changed, when you walk through familiar spaces juggling two different versions of yourself all while wondering where this new one fits in? I am in flux. The more my memories pull, the more I want to at once keep them and burst out of them

Then again, this could all just be the steak-frites talking. Or the wine. 

Yes, it’s definitely the wine. 

Back in Paris, Day 3

Roaming around the kitchenware section of a department store is pretty much a recipe for disaster for me because 1) I want everything and 2) I immediately remember the limits of my budget (also, does one really need a spiralizer?).

On the plus side, I did manage to snag (among a couple other things) a filter coffee maker – because there are some American things that cannot be given up, apparently – and a small kitchen scale for when the inevitable urge to bake hits (as well as for my daily coffee measuring. Again, habits).

This evening I met up with an acquaintance at the Canal, and during the course of our conversation, the subject of what we were planning to do after finishing our respective PhDs inevitably came up. Maybe it’s cliché, but every time I get asked this question, I can’t help but think of the opening of The Graduate when everyone is hounding Ben about his ‘future’. 

(Side note : this is also the film that inspired my affinity for bourbon because if, as a woman, you’re going to take inspiration on how to live your best life, why not take it from Mrs. Robinson?)

I mentioned that I had been considering getting back to writing again, specifically for theatre. I haven’t written a full play since high school, but I have little free-form sketches and imagined dialogues scattered amongst the pages of countless notebooks stored mostly in my parents’ house in California (if not lost forever). Part of me thinks I should just buckle down and make something out of them – especially in Paris, which up to this point has been one of the few places where I’ve felt an insatiable itch to write – but there’s this nagging fear in the back of my head of putting out something in the world that I consider to be an intimate part of myself. Maybe I just set too high expectations for myself for what I consider to be ‘worthy’ for public consumption. Aren’t we all our own worst critics, after all?

Speaking of books, I’m leaving for my annual visit to the homeland (Greece) soon, and am looking for book recommendations since I pretty much sped through the one I was hoping to save for the trip (final side note : everyone should read Wajdi Mouawad’s Anima. Non-French speakers, I’m not sure if there is an English translation available, but if there is, get it. Now. Seriously. It’s that good. TW : I should note that it gets very intense/violent at times, so it might not be the best read for everyone), and now I’m very close to just bringing my copy of A Thousand Plateaus with me.

So, any recommendations, friends and readers? I’m open to pretty much anything and everything. To give an idea, past summer beach reads have included the following : 

  • Les Misérables
  • Anna Karenina
  • War and Peace (this one being a particularly hilarious choice, given that a large part of it takes place in the dead of Russian winter). 

Back in Paris, Day 2

Is it really that surprising that my first meal out back in this city was tacos from El Nopal

No. No it isn’t. 

As much as I lamented about the dearth of quality tacos in Boston, for some reason, even during my brief work/school trips back to Paris before the official move, I had not made it back to El Nopal since moving away three years ago. And although I cannot say the same about all my former haunts (looking at you, noodle-place-that-will-remain-unnamed), this place has not changed a bit. 

Really, I should have stopped to take a photo of my pastor, alambre, and pollo tacos before chowing down – to memorialize the moment and whatnot – but sometimes the need for comfort and satisfaction through food overrides the demands of the ‘gram. Maybe I’ll remember next time I’m there, and I order a torta. 

This morning also came with the discovery that I will be potentially woken up daily by the loudest church bells I have ever encountered. Unfortunately, unlike the rest of the city, they have not gone on holiday.

Back in Paris, day 1

I’ve decided that in order to recultivate a sense of optimism/general positivity, I am going to – either on here or elsewhere – list a few things I did successfully throughout the day.
Here are today’s successes :

1. Successfully moved in to my apartment. This included lugging 5 suitcases (3 of which were rather giant) up six flights of stairs. I guess all that working out paid off.

2. Successfully filed a change of address at the bank. Before my last move out of Paris three years ago, I made the decision not to close my bank account here mostly because opening an account in Paris (well, France in general) is almost hilariously complicated, and I had a feeling I’d be back relatively soon. I also found out that in the time I was gone, they never received my change of address info for Cambridge, which explains two things. First, the fact that I never received the standard letter that accompanies a request for password recovery (this was two years ago, and I haven’t been able to log in to my account since. Also, it’s 2017. There has to be a better way of doing this). Second, as a follow-up to the first point, the fact that despite my supposed “nomad” (according to their system) status, they still kept my account running, so now I know that the occasional transfers I made into it so that it appeared active were worth it.

3. Successfully purchased my year-long Navigo pass. A mini success to accompany this one is the fact that I was first in line at the window. Granted, I was also at a less-frequented station, but this just goes to show that sometimes it pays to trek out to the slightly more obscure ones. 

Today also involved doing some shopping at Monoprix, with this particular location being the same one I shopped at three years ago back when I – when we – first lived in this neighborhood. It was strange walking around there again, at once familiar and unknown. Some of the cafés are still the same, others have been replaced by new ones, and still there are those that I wondered if they were always there, and if so, why they seemed so strange to me. 

I also walked past the old apartment building. I feel as though this is going to be a repeated but inevitable occurrence. Maybe someday I will be able to pass it with indifference. 

One day in Reykjavik

There were two thoughts running through my head the moment I took my first step off the plane at Keflavik Airport.

1. I really should have reconsidered trying to stay longer and camp out a bit.

2. There is something very serene about looking out into a seemingly never ending stretch of nothing.
Reykjavik is a rather small city, so seeing it in a day is very doable. Conveniently, there is also luggage storage available at the airport (via Geysir rent-a-car) for a reasonable price, so we – as in, my mom and I – did not have to lug our giant bags into the city. And at just shy of $50 total for 24hr storage for 5 bags, I’d say it’s a pretty good deal.

Getting to Reykjavik

Back when I booked my tickets, I had reserved seats on Flybus to get from the aiport to the. Reykjavik bus terminal. The ride is about 45 minutes long, and once at the bus stop, you have the option of either taking a cab downtown, walking, or – what we did – taking a smaller shuttle that drops you off at your hotel/guesthouse (Flybus provides a list of places they offer drop-off service for, which you can find when reserving a spot on Flybus+).

So you’re in Reykjavik. Now what?

As I mentioned before, Reykjavik is rather small, so seeing most everything in a day is definitely possible. There are some buses and tour groups that can take you around, but, as is my habit, I prefer exploration on foot.

One of the advantages of this quasi-flâneur (or flâneuse) approach to doing things is that it allows for you to stumble upon some of Reykjavik’s wonderful street art.

As well as some rather interesting bike racks :

Of course, we also took the time to see some of the more well-known monuments, like the Sun Voyager :

And the Harpa

We were only able to take a look around on the ground floor of the building, but for those interested, they do offer guided tours (or you could also choose to see a concert).

We also took some time to stop in at the National Gallery of Iceland (they don’t allow photos inside, so no pictures, unfortunately). If you choose to visit here, note that your ticket also grants you admission to the Asgrimur Jonsson Collection and the Sigurjon Olafsson Museum.


Where (and what) we ate


As I meantioned earlier, Reykjavik is expensive, and this can somewhat affect how/what you plan for your meals. Since we were only there for a day, we didn’t worry too much about strategizing going out for meals with trips to the grocery store, but I will say that we did forego ordering any alcohol during our meals out (because that’s where things can get realllly pricey).
Also, as we were planning on going to bed early in the evening in order to get enough rest before waking up at 3am to catch our shuttle back to the airport, we stuck to two full meals: brunch and dinner.
Brunch was at a lovely bakery called Sandholt (Laugavegur 36). Here you can either grabbed some baked goods to go (just grab a ticket at the entrance and wait for your number to be called), or you can do as we did and eat in.

Cinnamon bun and flat white at Sandholt

We shared a cinnamon bun (because you kind of need to in the Nordics – and these are particularly good ones), and I ordered some skyr with granola while my mom opted for some eggs with fresh-baked bread and a small salad. Everything was absolutely delicious, but due to how busy it was, our order somehow got lost in the shuffle. Thankfully the staff was very attentive, and the mistake was promptly rectified.

Brunch pretty much filled us up for the day, although I did insist on stopping for some coffee at Reykjavik Roasters later that afternoon (pretty sure I would have passed out mid-walk if I didn’t) :

Macchiato at Reykjavik Roasters

Dinner was at a place called the Sægreifinn (or Seabaron) near the old Harbor. I chose this place on the recommendation of a friend, and I’m very glad I did because  not only is this place a good value, the food is rather excellent as well.

The main thing on offer are fish skewers, with most of the fish being local (although they will tell you which ones are not if you ask. We ordered a couple of different kinds (my advice: get the monkfish) and split a bowl of lobster soup to start (an appropriate choice, given the chilly wind that picked up right before we got there).

Monkfish and veg skewers at Sægreifinn

And for dessert : chocolate

We pretty much just went to sleep (or at least tried to sleep) after that. It still blows my mind how late the sun stays out when you’re so far north.
I really would like to come back to Iceland again someday. There was this moment when I was sitting by the Sun Voyager, looking out at the hills across the bay, and I could feel this pull towards them, this urge to plunge into this open expanse at once full of life and blissfully empty. Maybe that’s part of the whole renewal thing.