A Weekend in Syros

Right. So.

International summer travel in the age of COVID.

Round 2.

I’m technically in the middle of my (after a temporal truncating last year) usual month+ long trip back to Greece, so this isn’t going to be an overall summation / assessment of my summer. Nevertheless, before I get to the core of this post (see title), I figured I’d throw out a couple of general observations.

Call it my usual soapboxing that all of you, I am sure, know and love by now.

I’ll start with the most timely, given the current situation: everyone should get vaccinated. Additionally, more work needs to be done to make vaccines more equitable/accessible to folks in underserved communities (particularly communities of color…and this holds true for France just as it does in the US) as well as more rural areas and/or medical deserts. Insisting on maintaining patents on vaccines/vaccine development technology is ridiculous and will only serve to exacerbate the already deep divide between “wealthy” and “poor” countries. No one should be profiting off this. Period. Furthermore, the global south should not be dependent on “charity” from countries in the global north to kickstart comparatively trickling vaccination programs (though in the short-term, surplus absolutely should be redirected to countries with low vaccine supply…like, yesterday). There are scientists, researchers, laboratories there who are, I am confident, more than capable of fully engaging in the development and manufacturing of current and future COVID-19 vaccines. The greater needs of global public health far outweigh those of generating a profit / maintaining intellectual property rights. 

And I also want to acknowledge my own incredible privilege in being able to write this post. I recognize that I am able to travel as I do in part because of my dual US/EU citizenship status, because I get to live in France, and because I had the resources available to me in order to be able to get vaccinated when I was (even though that whole process was its own little hell, given Education Nationale’s insistence that teachers didn’t need to be considered as priority workers).

With that, let’s take a look at Syros.

Syros is a small island in the Cyclades group, as well as the administrative capital of the region. Throughout its history, the island has seen several occupations, but of particular note is that of the Venetians in the 13th century (sometime around the Fourth Crusade). This led to the founding of the town of Ano Syros, located at the top of a hill north-west of the main port, as well as helps explain the decent Catholic population on the island. Following the Greek War of Independence, the early 19th century saw the construction and development of the main port of Ermoupoli, which, up until it was unseated by Piraeus towards the end of the century, was one of, if not the most active commercial ports in the region. The shift to a more tourism-heavy focus in the area only really took off relatively recently (within the last couple decades, give or take). Given this, one of the truly unique things about this island compared to others in the Cyclades – notably Mykonos and Santorini – is that a not-insignificant number of people actually live here year-round and, further, these folks are not necessarily all working in the tourism/tourism-adjacent industry. This is an island, in other words, that is noticeably “lived in”, as the numerous instances of neighbors crossing each other on the streets and stopping to say hello / chat can attest. 

In short, if you’re looking for a spot that explicitly caters to tourists, this may not be exactly what you’re looking for. On the other hand, if you want something that is a mix between tourism and local character, you might be in the right place. 

[As an aside, I’d also say the same re: a more calm/localized/less explicitly tourism-focused experience when describing Sifnos – which still remains my favorite island in the region – and to a lesser extent Milos, which sees noticeably more tourism traffic than either Sifnos or Syros, but not to the extent that it has become completely overrun. Milos still ranks pretty highly at number 2 for me, if that counts for anything.]

How We Got There

While there is a small airport on the island, the best (and very likely much more affordable) way to get there is by ferry out of Piraeus. The trip is only two hours on the fast ferry (operated by SeaJets – this is the one my parents and I took), but the island is served by most of the major ferry companies (Blue Star Ferries, Hellenic Seaways), so there are definitely other options available (though travel time may vary slightly). 

Should you opt for the ferry, you will disembark at Ermoupoli. From there, you can either take the local bus to your destination (though, as with all the islands, while the buses may run pretty much on schedule, they don’t run super frequently, especially when compared to city buses) or catch a cab at the port or in the main square (about a five minute walk). We chose the latter option, after stopping for some coffee and breakfast in a café (the ferry left Piraeus at 07h00 and arrived at 09h00, so we had some time to chill before a 12h00 check-in).

The size of this cake should’ve been my first clue that dessert portions are rather generous here. Not that I’m complaining…

Before moving on to our accommodations / other location specifics, I want to take a second to point out something many folks might not be aware of: Uber isn’t a thing in Greece (which, to be frank, I think is a good thing). As such, you will see taxis everywhere. Many times, on the islands there are set fares to get from one town/village to another (as was the case with Syros), and the cab driver should let you know if there is a set fare / how much it is when you get in (usually you’d tell them first what town/village you’re headed to before the name of your hotel/hostel so they can let you know the price, assuming it’s a standard / set route). Additionally, a cab driver may also give you a business card with their direct number on it. If they do, awesome; getting a ride on an island – especially in cases where the number of cabs on the island is very limited (*cough* Sifnos) – has just gotten a whole lot easier for you.

Plus, your cab driver can be a good source for local info, and who knows, they may even have some…interesting…observations about someone in your group’s celebrity doppelganger (my dad, for example, was deemed, in absolute sincerity, to bear a strong resemblance to JFK. I’ll spare the details, but suffice it to say that my dad looks nothing like JFK). 

Where We Stayed

We booked two rooms at Morpheus Rooms in Kini Beach, a small, family-run hotel located in this little beach town on the west side of the island. The drive from Ermoupolis was only about 10 minutes by taxi, and 20 minutes by bus (which I ended up taking a couple of times to do some exploring). We chose the location primarily because of the hotel’s proximity to the beach (literally a minute), but the fact that it’s located on a relatively narrow – and quiet – street definitely worked in its favor, particularly during naptime in the afternoon.

Where We Went and What We Saw There

I’ve decided to break this down by location, rather than go day-by-day to make things a bit easier. For reference, I’ll be starting off with Kini before moving on to Ano Syros and then back to Ermoupolis.

Kini Beach

As mentioned earlier, Kini is pretty much a beach town, so if what you’re looking for is a spot to chill, swim, sunbathe, maybe have some lunch or a drink: you’re in the right place. There is apparently also an aquarium here, though I didn’t really feel the urge to check it out, so can’t really say whether it’s worth a visit or not. 

Lotos Beach

As for beaches, while the many cafés and beach bars along the long, main stretch of Kini Beach provide ample sunbeds / parasols for all-day use for a small price (the café I rented my chair / umbrella from required a minimum 5 euro purchase, so I basically just rounded up the price of the freddo espresso I ordered each morning), on the advice of the daughter of the owner of our hotel, I decided – right after check-in – to make the trek to nearby Lotos Beach. And I say “trek” for a reason. It’s not that the beach is necessarily far (if you were to look to your left while looking out into Kini Bay – which is rather small – it’d be the last small stretch of beach you’d see before a rock outcropping that marks the entrance to open water), it’s just that right before getting there, there’s this hill that’s a bit of a bitch to walk up. 

The end result is worth it though. Unlike Kini, this beach is unorganized (save for a few basic, palm frond parasols planted here and there in the sand), so you can plop your towel down wherever there’s an open spot and/or some shade. Like in Kini, the beach here is all sand, and shallow, so you see lots of families with small kids here as well. Just note that, like in many of the Cyclades, the wind can get rather strong sometimes (though not to a really dangerous point), which, while honestly pretty great when it’s super hot out, might mean you should be wary that none of your things start flying about.

We did have dinner at one restaurant in Kini that I’ll post about later. Before moving on, I’d be remiss not to talk about one of the area’s most famous “landmarks”.

Ignore the lighting but behold the Virgin Mary as a mermaid. Apparently, she is the patron saint of those lost at sea. The fountain lights up at night too. This is also where the bus does pick-ups and drop-offs, which is the perfect transition into the next location.

Ano Syros

I had briefly mentioned in the introduction that one thing that distinguishes Syros from other parts of Greece is its small Catholic community. This community was established when the island was under the control of the Venetians, who chose to settle at the top of the hill of what would become Ano Syros, primarily for its strategic location.

Also, yes, for those wondering it is a bit of a hike to get up there from Ermoupolis. Again, though, the effort will be rewarded.

I actually went up to Ano Syros twice. The first time was with the parents on our first night on the island, and we stopped at the (somewhat lower down) Greek Orthodox Cathedral to check out the view before heading back down to Ermoupolis for dinner. 

The second time I went was on my own the next afternoon, and this time, I went all the way to the top of the hill. 

This is probably the most stereotypically “Cycladic” part of the island, with its winding streets, white buildings and blue roofs / shutters / doorways. The bougainvillea in bloom stood out beautifully against the white, and the quiet from the lack of cars (taxis can only get you to a certain point here) was a welcome contrast from the morning’s bustle in Kini. This part of the island does come back to life around sunset / nighttime, but as I was there just before, my walk was mostly accompanied by the wind and the occasional meowing of one of the many neighborhood cats. 

View from the top

While there’s no real vantage point from which to take a good photo of the outside Saint-George’s Cathedral once you’ve reached it, at least the inside remains open for visitors (and air-conditioned), a little reprieve from the winding hike. 

Before moving to the final location, I should also point out that Ano Syros’s other claim to fame (though not sure how much traction this one gets outside of Greece / the Greek diaspora) is that it was the birthplace of Markos Vamvakaris, sometimes called the “patriarch of rebetiko” (a kind of Greek urban popular music, sometimes likened to a sort of Greek “blues”). I’ll link a video of one of his most popular recordings here (a bit cheesy, but this one does include an English translation to follow along with). If you look around carefully, you may even find the lyrics to some of his music painted on the walls around Ano Syros.

Ermoupolis

Miaouli Square

I spent part of the afternoon of our third day on Syros getting coffee and walking around a bit in Ermoupolis with my mom. Unfortunately, it was too late to check out any of the notable sites (like the theatre, for instance) before they closed for the day, but it was also a touch early to check out any shops, as most hadn’t yet reopened from their afternoon closures / siestas (essential here, as in almost every Mediterranean country), but I did get some nice shots.

Where (and What) We Ate

Right, now to the moment many of you, I’m sure, have been waiting for. Again, I’m going to separate the descriptions out under headings (and I’ll link to any websites / socials when possible for reference). Note that I’ll be listing restaurants in the order we visited them at.

To Tsipouradiko tis Mirsinis (Ermoupoli)

We weren’t originally planning on eating here on our first night, but when some restaurants we called in Ano Syros while exploring the area told us that they were unfortunately booked up for the evening, I took to my mapstr and found this place, right along the port. While all their outdoor tables were also booked, they did propose us a table just inside (provided we were vaccinated which, we all are). Given how windy it was that evening, dining inside turned out to be a pretty good idea, in the end.

As the name implies, this restaurant is primarily centered on serving tsipouro (a rather strong spirit made from pomace – the residue of the wine press – similar to Italian grappa or Turkish raki) alongside shareable mezze. They have several different kinds of tsipouro on offer, and your waiter will be more than happy to help guide you to one you may like, especially if, like myself/my parents, you’ve had tsipouro before but not enough to develop specific preferences. We opted for a bottle of Idoniko Tsipouro (which, coincidentally, I realized I have a bottle of at home once the waiter brought it out), produced in Drama, in the north of Greece. Note that, while the 200ml bottle may not seem like a lot, this stuff clocks in at around 40% ABV so believe me, you’ll be fine. Like ouzo, tsipouro is commonly served with ice, but unlike ouzo, you don’t add water to your glass to distill the drink down even more. 

Unless you’re taking it as a shot (which can be really fun at parties…personally, I’d take a shot of this over vodka any day), tsipouro is meant to be drunk slowly throughout the meal, alongside the several mezze you’ll likely be ordering (and you should plan on ordering a few). As we had not had a full lunch that day, we went basically all out:

  • Greek salad (basically mandatory at this point) and local San Michali cheese
  • Marrinated anchovies on toast with tomato and garlic
  • Fried zucchini (I had never seen it served this way before – usually zucchini is fried in disks – but I want to go on the record and say this is genius) with tzatziki and loukaniko sausage in tomato sauce with a fried egg (guess who did not eat the egg? Yeah, me.)
  • Oven-cooked lamb with fennel and potatoes, topped with shaved San Michali cheese. The lamb was just melt-in-your-mouth good. Very glad I saved room for it. 

To say that we were stuffed at the end is a bit of an understatement (though I did welcome the complimentary shot of masticha liqueur at the end of the meal as a digestif), but nevertheless, we did manage to roll our way into a cab and back to the hotel to rest up for the next day of more eating.

Allou Yialou (Kini)

By the way, some of you who have read my other travel recaps before may be noticing that there are comparatively fewer restaurants on the list this time around. This has nothing to do with any lack of good food in Syros, but more with the fact that other than dinner (and one lunch before jumping on the ferry back to Piraeus), other meals tended to be more independent. No, instead, we saved our appetites for dinner. While we did not partake in quite the same level of intense feasting on our second evening as we did during our first, I would still say we ate quite well.

Allou Yialou is arguably one of the best seafood restaurants on the island, though I will also relativize this slightly by saying that contrary to what one may believe, given its geography/location, Syros is not really a big fish-consuming island. The exception here is Kini, where you can still find fishing boats anchored along the right side of the bay. Conveniently, this restaurant was also located only steps away from our hotel – and they also took online bookings – making it the perfect choice for a post-sunset dinner.

Our table was basically right next to the water.

That there is not much other competition in the seafood department does not mean that Allou Yialou is not objectively good, however. It is good. Quite good. And, should you want to opt for a whole grilled fish as we did, a nice surprise is finding that the prices by the kilo aren’t that much different from what you can find on the mainland either. 

The restaurant’s other claim to fame in the fish/seafood department is revisiting classic Greek dishes with a slight twist, using local ingredients. I did not try any of these dishes – as the fam and I opted for the whole grilled fish option as we almost always do when going out for fish in Greece – but judging by how other tables reacted to their meals, I’d say you can be happy with whatever choice you make here.

For our part, however, in the aim of keeping things a bit lighter than the night before, we started off with some revithada (which, yes, is a dish local to Sifnos, not Syros, but whatever):

A bit less saucy than I usually like it, but the chickpeas were still super creamy so it’s all good.

Followed by the aforementioned fish (in our case, a whole grilled Porgy), which was presented and then butterflied/deboned tableside:

Not pictured: the greens that came with the fish…as is tradition.

I mean, maybe I am just unoriginal at this point, but you really can’t go wrong with a whole fish like this. 

To close out the meal, we were also treated to complimentary slices of portokalopita (orange cake). And yes, in case this has not become clear, offering a complimentary dessert or fruit post-meal is a thing in Greece (though not every establishment automatically does it). 

Taverna O Mitsos (Alithini) 

For our final dinner, we opted to follow the recommendation of our cab driver and check out Mitsos, a traditional taverna, and one of the few restaurants on the island that’s open even during the winter / off-season. The spot is pretty loved by local residents, and that plus its increased popularity with visitors means that one would do well to call ahead to book a table (as we did).

We were hoping to get to try some of the μαγειρευτά (“megeireuta” or slow-cooked) dishes the restaurant was known for, but as they had unfortunately run out of portions at lunchtime (not necessarily a bad thing in terms of freshness / reasonable food quantities) we opted for some mezze and grilled meats instead.

We started with some green beans, skordalia (garlic dip – for those who really, REALLY like garlic, which I do), beets and beet greens, and fried San Michali cheese:

Followed by grilled lamb chops (which were excellent) and seftelia, Cypriot lamb meatballs wrapped in lamb caul and grilled:

And I honestly cannot remember if we even touched what they brought out as a little sweet…that’s how full we were after this meal. 

Taverna To Petrino (Ermoupoli) 

Finally, I don’t have any photos from the spot where we had lunch before taking the ferry, but I do want to take a minute to highlight the place anyway. First off, the outdoor seating here is lovely. Located down a small street – and sandwiched between some other taverna’s / cafés – and covered in a canopy of bougainvillea, it provides a welcome respite from the sun, and a bit of calm away from the bustle of the nearby port. We kept it vegetarian here (which is incredibly easy to do in Greece, by the way) and along with the ubiquitous Greek salad, ordered two other dishes that I highly recommend, should any of you ever find yourselves here:

  • Marathopita: spinach and fennel pie
  • Eggplant pilaf: it sounds incredibly basic but honestly with eggplant that creamy and a warming hit of cinnamon, this became an easy favorite. 

Café Mentions: Café Bistro Feggari (Ano Syros) and Ellinikon Kafeneion (Ermoupoli)

Finally, to close out all things restos, a special shout-out to a couple of café’s I visited for refreshment and (in the case of the second) decadence.

First, Café Bistro Feggari in Ano Syros where I treated myself to a nice cold lemonade on their rooftop patio after hiking up all those stairs and around the neighborhood.

You can technically also add alcohol to this if you like, but just be aware that you still have a decent number of stairs to deal with in order to get down from Ano Syros afterwards.

Second, Ellinikon Kafeneion in Ermoupoli – right across from the main square – where my mom and I treated ourselves to coffee and quite possibly the most generous single-serving of karidopita (walnut cake) I have ever seen in my life.

Local specialties

As to local gastronomic specialties (other than the San Michali cheese, which made a few appearances during our meal) arguably the island’s biggest claim to food fame is its loukoumi or Turkish delight. Of course, this is not to say they invented them. Rather, that the island has an established reputation for making particularly good ones. You’ll find several shops selling them along with the Syros’s other sweet specialty, halvathopita (basically, imagine nougat sandwiched between two very giant communion wafers), near the port and elsewhere on the island. 

Overall

As I mentioned earlier (albeit parenthetically), Sifnos still has my heart as my favorite island of the Cyclades (if not favorite island I’ve visited in Greece, period). With that being said, I really enjoyed my time in Syros, and could maybe even have done with another day either to do some hiking or possibly explore another beach. Ah well. Perhaps another time.

Until then – and until I come back again full-force at the rentrée with all my opinions regarding all things theatre – I hope those who’ve stuck through to the end of this recap have found it informative or, at the very least, enjoyable. 

In any case, this has rambled on long enough and I’ve got another beach to get to.

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.

 

IMG_3022
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.

 

 

IMG_3077
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.

 

IMG_2777IMG_2787

 

 

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.

 

IMG_2966

 

 

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.

 

IMG_2934
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.

 

 

IMG_2948
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.

 

 

IMG_2964
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.

 

IMG_2998

IMG_2987
Kastro, Sifnos

IMG_2924
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.

 

 

IMG_2900IMG_2901

IMG_2905
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)

IMG_3007

IMG_3008
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).

 

 

IMG_2970
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.

IMG_2923
From Kitrino Podilato, Artemonas.

IMG_2906
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.