A quick summer recap (yeah, yeah, I’m still here)

I find it almost fitting that my first post back from an unintentional hiatus arrives on the official day of la rentrée, which also happens to coincide with Labor Day back in the US, and, since today’s only dedicated to the students’ orientation, I just so happen to not be working. That, of course, will change tomorrow, but until then, I’m going to take advantage of these last few free hours available to me to remember what feeling moderately relaxed is like.

 

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Where I would much rather like to be right now

 

I say “moderately” because while this summer was, by and large, wonderful in terms of getting away from things for a while (more on that in a bit), I did nevertheless dedicate a large chunk of it to writing—just not on this blog.

 

 

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Spetses

 

 

For those who want to know, at this point, the status of my dissertation is that I have first drafts completed of every single chapter exceptmy introduction (and conclusion, though what form that thing is going to take is up in the air right now). Arriving to this point was one of my primary goals for the summer (though it remains to be seen as to how goodor usableany of the things I produced/added will end up being…the joys of writing never end), and a good bit of that was completed in the course of lazy afternoons in my family’s beach house in Greece as well as at my mom’s village. Everything has pretty much been sent off for looking over; the only thing left now is to wait for feedback. To be honest, the more I think about it, the more I’m starting to realize that thisis perhaps the primary source of my anxiety with regards to this whole endeavor: the waiting.

 

But enough of that. Time for a quick summer recap.

 

 

I’m going to focus on my time in Greece this year for most of this—as I did spend about a month there—, but before then, a quick shout-out to the quick pre-holiday holiday I took to Valbonnais, a small mountain village a couple hours outside of Grenoble. A good friend had invited me to her family’s house there for a sort of “writing/working weekend”, and I’d say that the fact that I managed to churn out about 10 new pages while editing old stuff—all without an internet connection—is evidence enough that, as far as working weekends go, this one was pretty successful.

 

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As usual, however, the majority of my vacation was spent in Greece, and honestly, at this point, to notspend a good amount of my summer there would feel almost wrong. It was just my parents and I this time around (the joy of having a sister who has just started her medical residency and is too busy literally saving lives to come and hang out at the beach…so rude… /s), but though this holiday wasn’t exactly party-crazy, we still had a quite lovely time. I would like to think that this is in large part due to the decision—on my recommendation, based on the advice of some friends—to start our trip with a couple of days on the island of Sifnos.

 

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Like the majority of the Cycladic islands, the terrain here is more rocky than lush, but unlike some of its sister islands (looking at you, Santorini and Mykonos), Sifnos hasn’t been completely overrun to the point of getting nonsensically expensive—yet. While we all wait for that inevitable chain of events to take place, I would just like to say, in full confidence of the fact that the readership here is low enough that the effects of my pronouncement will be more or less inconsequential, that everyone who has the means to should go to Sifnos.

 

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Artemonas as seen from the walk to the town of Apollonia

 

 

You want quiet but then a chill, not super crazy/insane nightlife? Sifnos has that.

 

 

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Golden hour in Apollonia

 

 

You want clean beaches, including an organized beach at the port which is surprisingly impeccable, given its location? Sifnos has that.

 

 

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The ferry from Athens pretty much drops you off here.

 

 

 

You want cute little towns with whitewashed houses, but without the nonsense of Santorini? Sifnos has that.

 

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Kastro, Sifnos
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Kitrino Podilato (Yellow Bicycle); Artemonas

 

 

But most importantly, you want to eat damn well and not have to clean out your bank account to do so? Sifnos definitely has that.

 

 

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Top 3 photos (in order): Greek salad with mizithra cheese; grilled eggplant with whipped feta yogurt, pomegranate, pistachios and herbs; grilled octopus with lentil salad and chamomile vinaigrette from Nus (Platis Gialos; highly recommended)

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In order: baked eggplant with feta; roasted lamb with potatoes from Tou Apostoli to Koutouki (Apollonia)

 

 

Sifnos has been something of a culinary destination for a while, given that there are several Greek chefs who were either from there or have worked there, in particular, Nikolaos Tselementes, a native of the island who, in the early 1930s, published the first complete cookbook in Greek. The island’s reputation for quality, but also simple, not terribly fussy food is more than well-deserved, and successfully highlights the things I love most about Greek food: fresh fish, an abundance of seasonal vegetables and legumes (I think I’ve said this before in another post, but to reiterate, Greek food is traditionally much more vegetable-oriented than all the gyro stands one sees Stateside and elsewhere would have you believe), and a focus on highlighting the products being used rather than trying to mask them. In short, I ate incredibly well in Sifnos, from the grilled red porgy at the fish taverna near our hotel (where, and this is a rarity, the people running the taverna are also the ones who get up at 5am to go out in their boats to catch the day’s offerings), to the amigdalopita—almond cake soaked in syrup—with almond ice cream from a café/patisserie that also offered Paris-Brests that were literally the size of a bicycle wheel rather than the mere suggestion of one, to, last but certainly not least, the creamy revithada—chickpea stew—one of the island’s signature dishes, and the source of my newfound appreciation for chickpeas. It’s not that my love for them was ever waning, but something about having them in this format, where they were the literal stars of the show rather than just a base for a soup or curry, shifted things a bit. Suffice it to say, I will most definitely be making this come later this fall/winter, thanks to my newly acquired clay pot (yeah, Sifnos is also known for its ceramics).

 

 

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I don’t think I ever got the name of this place, but it’s the last beachside taverna in Kamares as one walks from the beach back towards the port.
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From Kitrino Podilato, Artemonas.
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Nus, once again, with probably my favorite dish of this trip to Sifnos.

 

 

Beyond that, the rest of the vacation went more or less the way these things usually do. My mornings started at the beach at 09h00 when there was literally no one, then came a late lunch, then work (yay), dinner, sleep, repeat. In between, there was also an excursion out to Epidavros to see Ivo van Hov’s Éléctre/Oreste—which also marked the first time that the Comédie-Française performed in that venue—, some quick evening trips out to Spetses, and figs. So many figs. Thankfully, we actually managed to make jam with them this year (and I got to take a jar home with me) instead of just staring at the ever-growing pile of collected figs toppling over the sides of what we assumed would be an appropriately large enough bowl to hold them, wondering how in the hell we were going to manage to eat these.

 

 

Yes, everything was lovely. I even had a little victory moment on the balcony at the house in my mom’s village when, after an entire day of writing like a maniac, I managed what I thought was impossible and met my writing goal. I felt good. All I had left to do at that point was plan my lessons for my classes this year (which I did after I got back). The rentrée and the end of summer were approaching, but I was feeling pretty good.

 

 

And then, in Athens, the afternoon before I was to leave, I got a call from my landlord.

 

 

I thought this was a bit strange, since usually we are only in contact once every six months or so when I relay the water meter readings to her. As, however, our building was in the process of getting new electric meters installed in every apartment, I figured this may have had something to do with that (I had already called the service in charge of that and rescheduled to have someone come by when, you know, I was actually there to let them in, but one never knows in France…). Oh, how very wrong I was.

 

Now, fortunately, this post is not going to end with me finding out I’m getting evicted or anything. No, instead, we will end by commemorating my new induction to a club I never really wanted to be a member of. Yes, everyone, as of August 21, 2019, I have now joined the ranks of Paris residents who have to deal with the nonsense of a water leak.

 

 

Thankfully, nothing exploded or anything (dear god, the situation would have been sososososo much worse if that had happened). No, what happened was that the glue on one of the connecting pipes out of my water heater had worn off, and so the water—which I had neglected to turn off, since I don’t have the habit of doing that anywhere except in Greece since when I leave there, it’s with the understanding that I won’t be back for another year—had just been slowly dripping down on my counter. For about a month, would be my guess. Long story short, my downstairs neighbor (who as it turns out, is an incredibly nice and understanding human…thank goodness) noticed water stains on his bathroom walls, deduced—rightly—that it was coming from my place, relayed that info to our building’s guardienne, who called my landlord, who called me.

 

 

 

So, needless to say, me coming home was a bit of a stressful situation. Thankfully, renter’s insurance is mandatory here, and given the cause of the damage, I do not have to do or pay anything. My bathroom is going to have to undergo a bit of work (side note: who thinks it’s ever a good idea to put hardwood floors in a bathroom?), but hopefully that won’t take an insanely long time. In the meantime, the source of the leak has been fixed, and the fruit flies that also decided to invade my momentarily moist house have also been mostly destroyed.

 

 

In the meantime, I’ll be back on here soon enough blogging about shows, even though I have pretty much set my show critiques for my dissertation. In other words, the writing might become more unhinged/carefree than usual. I’ve got this last year left before I (hopefully) hand in/defend this beast of a thing in the spring.

 

 

 

Bring. It. On.

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.