I live in DC, which is a great place to live and visit. I try to make the most of it. However, I also love to leave my home and see what the world has to offer. Come and join me!

Friday, September 28, 2007

It's All Greek to Me

You knew that heading was coming.

I try to learn a little of the language of the place I'm visiting before I go, which is one of the things that causes me to shy away from China and India. The languages seem much too daunting for me. Greek was also daunting because, well, it's a whole other alphabet! The pain is a little eased by the fact that it is related to the Roman/English alphabet (referred to as "English" for ease), or more properly our alphabet is related to it. In fact, Greek was considered the first true alphabet because it was the first to have symbols representing vowels. It has not changed much over the years, centuries, or millenia. It was fascinating to see old grave markers and other written items (generally not documents as the Greek climate is not amenable to the preservation of papyrus and paper) that have the exact same letters as the road signs of today.

Anyway, I had all sorts of good intentions about learning some Greek. I bought a course with a handbook and CDs. I lasted about two lessons. When I found that nouns come in four cases--nominative, accusative, genitive, and vocative--I gave up. I know, I have no fortitude. I studied Latin in junior high and I know it has the same sort of issues going on, but frankly I'm pretty sure I didn't understand the intricacies of its grammar back then and I *really* don't remember it now. My excuse is that I moved from California to Texas in the summer between 9th and 10th grade and because of different curricula in the states there are some things I missed out on in my education, including reading Dickens (which I eventually got around to on my own) and diagramming sentences (which I never got around to). I love words, reading, and writing (the latter being obvious from the voluminosity of this blog), but my formal grammatical knowledge is not as strong as it probably should be. Presumably I should be able to easily identify something genitive with a hearty "it's-nothing" chortle. I can't.

And thus I was defeated by the nominative, accusative, genetive, and vocative cases.

One thing I *did* do, which I can't recommend highly enough, was thoroughly learn the alphabet. It's not that hard, I promise. OK, it's kind of hard but if you give it five or six hours (not all at once) you'll get it. Upper case is easier because the letters bear more resemblance to the letters of the English alphabet; the lower case letters are trickier. The good news is most road signs use the upper case. The bad news is that not all of them do and you really can't get away with only learning upper case. I learned the letters, practiced writing them, practiced their sounds, and learned the tricky combinations. For instance, the letter beta makes a "v" sound, not a "b" sound. To get a "b" sound you put mi and pi together (μπ), but only at the beginning of a word. If the combination appears in the middle of a word it's generally pronounced "mp" like we would (e.g., amplitude). Delta is pronounced as a soft "th" dipthong, not a "d"; to get a "d" sound you combine ni and taf (ντ). There are a few more, but these were the trickiest to me. Then I worked on reading words. It was slow going at first, but after a bit of practice I gained a reasonable facility. This helped not one iota with comprehension, of course, but if you can read a menu item you can pronounce it and order it. If you can read what the next city is you can figure out where you are on a map.

Here is a basic Greek alphabet link, with upper and lower cases, letter names, and pronunciation, including the ability to play the sound. This link has an interesting feature--it shows you how the upper and lower case are hand-written, and gives a pronunciation.

I also tried to memorize the numbers 1-10. The challenge with that is that several of them vary according to the gender of the word they are describing. I got a little bogged down in that (as I knew there was no way I'd be able to memorize the genders of words). This link conveniently does away with that ambiguity and presents one number, one word. That makes life easier. I'm not going to tell you which ones are gendered.

As my trip got closer I felt guilty about my paltry effort, so I went to the library to see what kind of tapes I could get. DC Library's collection is not the most up-to-date, but they had a Pimsleur course with 4 CDs that I loaded onto the mp3 player I bought just for the occasion (I'm not a very gadgety person). Pimsleur is convenient because it is all audio, so I could do it while walking back and forth to work. The lessons are 30 minutes and my walk is about 25, so it worked out perfectly. However, Pimsleur has very limited vocabulary. Very. No grammar. And is not particularly tourist oriented. For what it does, which is teach you a few specific phrases, it is very good. The interactive format requires you to answer questions and do rapid-fire translation, which is very engaging. The 12 vocabulary words on the tape I learned quite well (Ok, maybe there were closer to 30). For the most part they were useless, though I did once get to use "Thellate;"/"Then thello, efharisto" ("Do you want it?"/"I don't want it, thank you.")

If this resource is available to you at your local library, I recommend it. If you don't have a library card, get one! Most libraries, even DC, now have online libraries where you can virtually check out audio books and movies without leaving the comfort of your home. There was a Greek vocabulary set available online that I checked out, but it was a bizarre and useless quick recitation and translation of random words, with "soothing" background music that I assume was somehow meant to stimulate the memory portion of the brain. I guess it was produced before Baby Einstein was discredited.

To my totally untrained ear, the Greek accent is a bit like Spanish, especially in the sound of the "r" (there is no rolled "r" in Greek, however). I wonder if this is due to Moorish influences in both regions. Of course, I pronounce every foreign language with a Spanish accent because it was the first foreign language I studied, back in high school when my mind was still plastic and receptive to new languages. I really do believe there is something to learning a language when you're young. Too bad the window on that closed long ago for me!

One of the hard things about Greek pronunciation is that the stressed syllable is often the last and words often end in a vowel. In English we have very few words that end in a stressed vowel. The words for please (parakaLO) and thank you (efhariSTO) end with stressed vowels.

When I got on the plane I suddenly started to get very worried about how little effort I'd put into the language. I had my little phrasebook/dictionary so I knew that in the worst case scenario I could pull it out and haltingly communicate. But that wouldn't be the optimal way to spend a vacation.

I need not have worried! Everybody speaks English, and I do mean everybody. It's not just that all the Greeks speak English to the American and British tourists, which they do. It's that *all* non-Greeks communicate with Greeks in English. A French person is thirsty? "A bottle of water, please." A German wants to go to a museum? "One ticket, please." An Italian wishes to buy some stamps? "Four, please." Apparently English is the new Esperanto. It's quite humbling to realize that this essentially means that English speakers are the richest (making it worth it to learn English) and laziest (making it necessary to learn English) peoples on earth. I felt guilty taking advantage of everyone else's hard work to learn English, but it did make things easy.

We only ran into a few people who didn't speak fluent and flawless English, and pidgin sign language was just fine. The farmer from whom we bought grapes and figs made a "ssss" sound to indicate we could use his outdoor sink to wash our fruit. The garage station attendant held his hand waist high to indicate half-full, shoulder high to indicate full. We wanted full. Store clerks showed us the receipt with the printed total to tell us how much we owed. When you're using gestures to communicate, remember that in Europe 1 is a thumbs up; 2 is thumb and pointer; 3 is thumb, pointer, and middle; and 4 is the same as American (thumb turned down, four fingers up).

I think the Greeks are so used to speaking English that they don't even realize when English speakers make an effort. At the first few restaurants we went to I tried to order in Greek. The waiters feigned incomprehension. My accent is not anything like a real Greek person's, but it's not *that* indecipherable. I gave up and switched to English. In Athens, which has a more tourist mindset than elsewhere, the waiters were gracious when I tried to order dishes by their Greek names.

All in all, I ended up using only five Greek phrases consistently:
Kalimera-good morning
Parakalo-please/you're welcome
Efharisto-thank you
to loghariazmo-the bill
imei hortofagus-I'm a vegetarian

I also had occasion to use:
kalispera-good evening
kalinichta-good night
signomi-excuse me
yia sas-hello/goodbye

I didn't have to say even once:
then katalaveino-I don't understand
then milao Ellenika-I don't speak Greek

I got the most mileage out of asking for the bill in Greek. In the food section I described the Greek restaurant experience, which involves asking for the bill at least once and often twice. Saying it in Greek made me feel culturally sensitive rather than rude (asking for the bill in DC can be rude). It also netted me a lot of smiles and an offer for free wine!

You'll still need a phrasebook to muddle through the occasional menu. They're all translated into English, but some of the translations are puzzling and the phrasebook helped. I had the Lonely Planet phrasebook, which was small enough to carry in my nighttime purse and is worth the price for the hilarity of the "Sex Phrases" section alone, which teaches you how to say both "It's my first time" and "Will you marry me?"


I am in no way qualified to offer a language lesson. My only qualification is I'm doing it for free. If you can figure out how to download the podcast to your iPod, have at it.

You can find lots of more comprehensive language lessons on the internet. The BBC has excellent traveler/beginner lessons for many languages, including Greek. However, I didn't find the Greek as useful as the Italian had been; it jumps immediately into complicated sentences and you must first learn the alphabet and pronunciation on your own. The sentences are too complicated to actually retain for longer than it takes to go through the unit and its quiz. Though I got 5/5 right on most of the quizzes, it didn't significantly increase my knowledge of Greek. It is fun nevertheless, with lots of pronunciation to listen to.

No means...yes?

Yes and no, very basic language building blocks, and easy, right? No. Or do I mean yes?

Yes is Nai.

No is Ohi, sometimes transliterated Okhi.

So yes is no, and no is OK.

I tried to get these to feel right in my mouth. I practiced saying "ohi" while frowning and shaking my head. I practiced saying "nai" while smiling and nodding. Eventually I got Ohi to feel right because at least it has the same vowel as no. I tried to get Nai to feel right by rhyming it with "yeah," but it really doesn't. It's just "Nay." I never did get used to Nai meaning yes. Hopefully you'll do better than me.


As in most languages, there are many, many ways to greet someone in Greek.

Allegedly, "Herrete" is the all-purpose greeting. The Pimsleur tapes were big on Herrete, and the other tapes I listened to also purported that this is the all-purpose greeting.

These people have never been to Greece.

I *never* heard it on the street, ever. And I traveled through a fair bit of the country so I don't think it's a regional thing. I tried it out a few times to gauge reactions and did not get an enthusiastic response. I mean, people knew what I was saying but they didn't say it back. If you say Kalimera to someone they will always say it back.

Another all-purpose greeting, one that is actually used, is "Yia sas." This is less formal than (the alleged) Herrete, like Hi as compared to Hello. It comes in two forms, "Yia sas" and "Yia sou." Like many languages, Greek has a formal and an informal "you." Yia sas is the formal (and the plural) you, Yia sou is the informal you. As someone coming from a language without a formal/informal you, I have never had a handle on when the informal is appropriate. It is my philosophy that you can't offend by being too respectful--think of how awesome it was when you were a kid to get a card addressed to Ms. Such and Such--so I just skipped Yia sou altogether.

Good morning is Kalimera, and it is liberally used. Say it with a smile to the people you pass on the street (within reason of course) and you'll get a smile and a greeting back.

Good afternoon is the dreaded Herrete. I just didn't say anything in the afternoons.

Good evening is Kalispera, though it is used less often than Kalimera. It's a nice way to greet the host of a restaurant before you ask if you can sit.

Good night is Kalinichta. I had occasion to use this only with hotel front desk personnel, but maybe you'll have a more amorous adventure than I. The Lonely Planet phrasebook will come in handy if you do.


Please and you're welcome are both "Parakalo."

Thank you is "Efharisto." I never got a good pronunciation on this one. It is sometimes transliterated "Efkaristo," and I couldn't work out whether the "k" was added to make it easier for the English speaker to pronounce, as "h" is not a hard consonant for us. I was understood either way I pronounced it.

Signomi means both "excuse me" and "I'm sorry."

Eating and Drinking

You can always order your food and drink in English with no trouble. If you want to get fancy you can order your Greek salad as a "horiatiki," your water as "nero," and your wine as "krasi." Ouzo, luckily, is the same in both languages.

At the end of the meal, ask for "To loghariazmo, parakalo." You can even get really fancy and say "Signomi, to loghariazmo, parakalo."

My specialized phrase, which I made sure to learn very well, was "Imei hortofagus," I am a vegetarian. it was understood by everyone I said it to.

Language Barriers

I didn't run into any language barriers, and if you don't stray too far off the beaten path neither will you. Nevertheless, you can tell someone you don't understand Greek, "Then katalaveino Ellenika," and ask if they speak English, "Milate Anglika;" In Greek, a question is signified by a semi-colon and officially the question mark doesn't exist. I saw it used everywhere, of course.

Smile and Nod

If you're at a loss, just smile. Smiling is universal, and universally appreciated.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Food Glorious Food! Eating (vegetarian) in Greece

I am a vegetarian (yes to eggs and dairy, no to fish or any kind of animal), so eating when I travel usually requires a little bit of research and forethought, and in less veggie-friendly areas food is not the highlight of the trip, to say the least. In Scandinavia I survived mainly on cottage cheese and Wasa crackers, apples, and chocolate bars. I lost four pounds in two weeks. My food restrictions are a personal choice so I accept that fabulous eating and culinary adventures will not always be a part of my tourism experience. Which made Greece all the more of a pleasant surprise!

I had read many trip reports describing the wonderful vegetable side dishes other visitors had enjoyed, so I wasn't worried about being able to get a decent meal. I didn't know if I would be looked at askance for not ordering a "main" course, and thought that I'd have to seek out specific meze restaurants to be able to order several vegetable sides without a meat focal point, but I figured I could just wait and deal with food until I got there. I learned the Greek phrase for "I am a vegetarian," which is "Imei hortofagus."

I had no idea what awaited me. Namely, the best food I've had in my entire life. I'm sure I've had individual meals that have topped the individual meals I had there (though nothing specific comes to mind), but as an overall culinary experience I have never had it so good, not even in my own kitchen. And I love to cook and greatly enjoy my own cooking! In fact, when I got back home it took me several days to readjust to the food. I could barely bring myself to eat anything because it was never going to be the same as in Greece. I was sure I had gained five pounds but when I weighed myself the scale hadn't changed an ounce. I should've eaten more!

Despite my pre-trip impression, all the tavernas and restaurants I went to offered small plates. In fact, most didn't offer "main dishes" except in the more touristed areas such as Athens. Greek families, many of whom dined at restaurants in areas I would have expected to be tourists-only (always a good sign!), always had lots of small plates on their tables, never individual meals. This made food ordering easy in some ways--no worries if there's one thing on a complete meal plate I can't eat because everything is ordered individually--but harder in other ways. Usually as a vegetarian I'm confined to one or two menu items. Having to choose from among a dozen or so was a challenge for me! But I suppose that's the good kind of challenge.


I didn't find a lot of variation in terms of taste from North to South or on the island of Naxos (the only island I had a chance to visit). Though I'm sure there were some dishes that were indigenous to each area, the reliance on fresh vegetables and olive oil, with maybe a little parsley or oregano for flavor, was the same throughout the country. Greek cooking is not spicy, and I don't think the Greeks have the palate for it. I like black pepper a lot but at some places the ground pepper was so old it had formed a giant clump inside the shaker. I took that as a sign to enjoy my food the way it was prepared.

There were some (vegetarian) dishes that were common to most menus:

Horiatiki Salata, which literally translates as "village salad" but is known to the world outside Greece as Greek salad and listed as such on the English menus. Its ingredients are very standard: tomatoes, cucumber, green pepper (usually bell pepper, but sometimes another mild variety of pepper), red onion sliced into thin rings, a few black olives of the local variety, and a slab of feta cheese, with dried herbs (oregano and thyme usually) sprinkled on top the cheese and olive oil poured over all. Occasionally large chunks of raw garlic were also included. I read that originally horiatiki was just sliced feta with red onions, and something about the two is an amazing combination. My habit was to load the fork with tiny bits of feta and little slices of onion together. The saltiness and creaminess of the feta were perfect with the aromatic bite of the onion. It didn't make for the most socially acceptable breath, but I would hate to miss out on a culinary adventure just because of worrying that my exhalation might be overly fragrant at very close range.

Spanakopita/Tiropita/Hortopita: Spanakopita is one of the Greek dishes that has caught on in the States, but actually it isn't that big of a thing there in restaurants. It's more commonly available as a quick lunch or snack from a bakery. We did order it from restaurants occasionally, when it tickled our fancy. A tiropita is basically a spanakopita without spinach; it literally means "cheese pie." A hortopita is a spanakopita made with wild greens rather than spinach; because the overriding experience of a spanakopita is cheese, filo, and butter, I didn't find that a hortopita tasted any different than a spanakopita.

Yiyandes, sometimes rendered Gigandes: Giant white beans, about twice the size of canellini, are prepared in a tomato-base sauce that has a little garlic and onion in it, probably some thyme and bay leaf are used for flavoring. I also detected cinnamon one of the times I had them. They were always perfectly cooked, firm but not at all underdone. I am a big fan of the legume, so I was always happy to see these on a menu.

Zucchini patties, sometimes called "zucchini burgers" on the English menu: Shredded zucchini is mixed with creamy cheese--probably feta and something else, flavored with dill, and probably a little bread crumbs and/or egg to hold it together and deep-fried. This is a favorite dish of mine at a local Mediterranean restaurant in DC, Zaytinya, and the experience in Greece was even better. The dill was kept in check so it just provided some color rather than tasting like a pickle, the inside was warm and creamy and the outside crisp. The cheese provided a tang, but it didn't overpower entirely the taste of zucchini.

Gemiste: For gemiste vegetables are hollowed out and stuffed with a rice mixture. The most common vegetables were tomatoes and peppers; I had read of zucchini, eggplant, and other vegetables being served in this manner but I didn't run across any. I don't like rice, so I'm not a good person from whom to take advice on this dish. I ordered it twice. Once was a disaster--emotionally and culinarily (see my account of dinner at Albatross in Galaxidi for details)--when the wonderful tomato and pepper were stuffed with what tasted like minute rice in tomato sauce from a box that seemed to have expanded to fill my plate and all nearby plates when I took the tops off the vegetables. The second time, on Naxos, it was actually quite lovely with the rice filling having a texture closer to risotto, creamy and cohesive. Ground lamb is sometimes added to the rice filling of a gemiste, so if you're vegetarian be sure to ask your waiter.

Fried potatoes: self-explanatory, though at one place (Elaias in Athens) instead of having french fried sticks the potatoes had been cut in rounds about 1/4 inch thick. French fries were usually not a standout dish, mostly because they had been standing out (har har). Fries must be served directly from the fry basket and eaten in a reasonable amount of time to be worth their calories, but the Greek pace of meals often meant they were cold by the time you got to them.

Oven potatoes: A much better way to enjoy Greek potatoes is from the oven. I don't know how they make them and I really wish I did. Potatoes (don't know what variety) are peeled, tossed in very lightly flavored olive oil, and baked to absolute perfection. I tried this at home with some yukon golds, but I overcooked them and they were too sweet when roasted in this manner. I just got some mixed fancy potatoes from Trader Joe's to try; I'll report back. Everyplace I tried oven potatoes I was not disappointed.

Mushrooms: We were lucky enough to be there during mushroom season, and a lucky happenstance it was! The Greeks appear to use only seasonal ingredients, so if you don't see mushrooms on the menu I apologize for getting your hopes up. Everyplace we saw grilled mushrooms we ordered them. Most of the time, we were served what appeared to be a variety of Oyster mushroom, lightly tossed in olive oil and cooked on a hot grill (I don't know whether it was a fire grill or an electric; I suspect fire). The delicate fluted edges were just singed and crackly when they were brought to the table with a half a lemon for squeezing over. They were the most sensational mushrooms I've ever had. In the US, such mushrooms are $8-$16/pound fresh; a big plate of prepared mushrooms (half a pound at least) ranged from 6-8E. Bargain! In Meteora the grilled mushrooms were white button, which wasn't as exciting but they were equally as well-prepared. I caution you to stay away from mushrooms on Naxos, however, as they were white buttons served in a gloopy, greasy, congeal-y cheese sauce. After trying them once, I stayed away when I saw them listed on the menu at other restaurants. It appears that's how mushrooms are prepared on the island.

Tzatziki: A dip of yogurt, feta, and shredded cucumber flavored with dill. I'm not a huge fan, as I my palate is overly sensitive to dill and I don't like cucumber enough to care for it shredded.

Yogurt/eggplant/fish roe salad: We learned this one the hard way. Except for the Greek Salad, most things called "salad" are really dip. Yogurt "salad" is yogurt mixed with feta. When we had it the feta was so briny it was hard to eat any of it. Eggplant salad, melitzanesalata, is pureed eggplant mixed with yogurt and feta, sort of like a less flavorful baba ghanouj. K and I ordered it only once, and it tasted of mayonnaise to me (*shudder*). Fish roe salad, taramasalata, which I knew enough to stay away from, is a puree of fish eggs, yogurt, and feta, and is an alarming 1950s shade of reddish pink. I half-expected to see it heaped into the center of an elaborate jello mold and surrounded by tiny sausages on colored toothpicks. Perhaps it is delicious and I should not unfairly malign it, but I don't think I can ever get past the appearance.

Eggplant: In addition to eggplant salad, there will probably be another eggplant preparation on the menu. I think the key is to have grilled or roasted eggplant served warm. Fried is not good. Cold is not good. Warm, drizzled with olive oil, and served with tomatoes and/or feta is good.


Eating out is a great tradition in Greece, or so it seemed to me. There were many, many family-owned non-chain restaurants everywhere we went--which was admittedly tourist areas. Until we got to Athens, at least half the patrons were Greeks who appeared local, half tourists. In Athens the proportion veered wildly toward tourists, but there were just so darn many of us it was hard for the Greeks to compete!

Technically, there are several different types of sit-down eating establishments in Greece. An Estiatorio (easy to spot it's a cognate with "restaurant") is more formal and slightly more expensive, a Taverna is more informal, and an Ouzerie serves ouzo with food incidental to it as the Greeks rarely drink without eating. I observed this on Naxos when even at the beachside bar a beer was served with a small bowl of peanuts or chips. While these divisions may still be going strong in non-tourist areas, I didn't see any difference in price, formality, or menu among the establishments that called themselves by the various demonimations in the places we visited.

In tourist areas, it is common for the owner or a waiter (usually a family member) to stand outside the restaurant and try to get you to eat there. The most aggressive behavior we observed was in Thessaloniki in the restaurant alley off to the right at the top of Aristotle Square. The touts were actually grabbing K by the arm and pulling her into their establishments. It wasn't scary or anything, but it was quite annoying. Everywhere else it was just talking, no touching. While I am normally very averse to the hard sell, and will walk away from anyone who gives it to me out of principle, you'd never find anyplace to eat if you did that in Greece! We actually found our favorite restaurant in Athens, Ksenios Zeus, when the owner solicited us so it just takes adjusting your mindset a bit. But I wouldn't recommend putting up with being grabbed!

Generally the menu is posted outside a restaurant with prices listed. Menus are almost always translated into English. This makes it easy to scan and see if you're interested and if the restaurant is in your price range. In the tourist areas we didn't find great variation in prices among the restaurants in a given area. I know there are fancy restaurants in Greece and particularly in Athens, but you're unlikely to find yourself in one accidentally. I found the prices for food to be extremely reasonable. The prices were much less expensive than eating out in Western Europe (UK, France, and even Italy), and were actually cheaper than an equivalent meal in DC.

As in most of Europe, the Greeks go out to eat late, but not as late as I thought. K and I generally went out for dinner at 10, but we came after the bulk of people had already been seated. Some would arrive after us, of course, but we seemed to be the tail end of the rush. The earliest I ate was 9:30 and I didn't feel like I was an Early Bird Special by any means.

When you enter the restaurant, you can usually choose where to sit. It is best to travel while it's still possible to eat outside because that way you are not enclosed in a box of smoke. While all restaurants are theoretically required to have a non-smoking section, "non-smoking" and "section" are both interpreted very loosely. Our favorite was our visit to Albatross, a narrow restaurant with three booths on each side. One side of the tiny restaurant is non-smoking. I am not sure if smokers are contractually obligated not to blow smoke directly in the faces of customers seated in the non-smoking section. We were seated on the non-smoking side, and a full ashtray was whisked off our table as we sat. Since most of the places we ate were at least half tourists, we actually had no trouble enjoying a relatively smoke-free meal. Only at a stop in a cafe in a non-tourist town were we surrounded by smokers.

After you've been seated a little while, the waiter will bring you the menu and after a while a basket of bread, usually with no butter and definitely not with olive oil. You will be charged a "cover charge" for the bread whether you eat it or not, usually around .80E. It may be that you can ask for the bread to be taken away and not to get charged the cover, but at 80 cents I never felt it was worth making an international incident of it. Unfortunately, bread is one of the few things that does not appear to be a strength in Greek cooking. For the most part, it was white bread with the taste and texture of Wonder bread. Not very appealing. There were a few exceptions, but only a few. That's ok, you don't want to fill up on bread anyway.

After a while the waiter will come around for your drink order. The tap water is perfectly drinkable in Greece, but all Europeans, Greeks included, drink only bottled water in restaurants. Again, I'm sure we could have asked for tap water, but we wanted to do as the Greeks did so we got bottled. A liter and half is 1.50 to 2.00E. Getting bottled worked out well as it made us hydrate. We would get a liter and half at lunch and at dinner and drink the entire bottle between the two of us. When I was on my own it was harder. Sometimes I'd get a whole liter (and drink it!), which was a bit much, but a half-liter wasn't quite enough.

While most restaurants have bottles of wine we never bothered with that. You can order house wine, red, white or rose, by the half-liter or liter. A half-liter is the perfect size for two moderate drinkers--you get about two small glasses each. We loved that. The house wine was always drinkable and sometimes very good. If you're a real oenophile, you'll probably want a bottle, but for those of us who just like to enjoy some wine with a good meal it was perfectly acceptable. And did I mention it's 3.50-6E for a half liter? The half-liters were served in adorable copper or glass carafes.

After another while, when you've closed the menus and put them aside, the waiter will come take your order. For two people who have been sightseeing all day, three dishes was enough, though we often ordered four because we couldn't decide! In the States, or at least in DC, tapas, meze, and other small plates are literally that--small plates about four inches on each side with a small serving that's enough for two people to each get a taste. In Greece, a "small" plate is enough for a single person's entire meal.

The food comes out as it's ready, and you serve some onto your little plate and dig in! Don't eat too quickly, though. No real Greek would finish dinner in under two hours. K and I managed to stretch it out to an hour and a half each night, and even alone I usually stayed put for an hour. It's a nice exercise to be leisurely over a meal. Quite a difference from scarfing something microwaved in front of the TV (not, ahem, that I would ever do that). "Turning the tables" is not a concept in the lexicon of the Greek restauratuer.

After the food is gone, the wine drunk, and the conversation thoroughly conversated, you must ask for the check. No matter how obvious it is that you're done, the waiter would never be so rude as to bring you the check without asking, thus implying that you should vacate your table. This is weird for an American. Where I live, it is rude to call for the check, as it implies that your server is not paying sufficient attention to your cues that you're done. When your plate is pushed back, silverware arranged in the universal symbol for "I'm done," and napkin placed on the table, the server comes over and asks if s/he can bring you anything else, and then you say just the check, thank you. To summon the server shows impatience and is a de facto criticism that your server is too slow. So it really took me a while to be able to ask for the bill without feeling uncomfortable.

Especially because you often have to do it twice. It is a tradition in Greece to provide a sweet finish to dinner gratis. Normally this is fruit--watermelon and grapes were in season while we were there. Some places served a proper dessert, I assume as a nod to tourist preferences, cake and ice cream being the norm in those instances. In Athens this custom had fallen off for the most part, and we got fruit or dessert only once. If you do receive dessert "at the home" (a joke between K and me based on a doesn't-quite-translate experience she had in Kosovo), after you're finished with that you have to ask for the check *again* and then it will be brought to you.

After you recover from your shock at how cheap it is (around 24-32E for two people, including wine, water, bread, and food), you pay the bill in cash. I never saw anybody paying with a credit card at any restaurant and I don't know if it's even possible. Americans tip, and everyone knows it. I don't know how much Europeans tip, and I don't think Australians tip at all, but a tip is expected from us and I don't mind. We usually left 10%.

Then you wander back to your hotel, trying to maintain the slower pace of life by strolling along. Also, because you're so full you can't move very fast.


If you don't want to eat a full sit-down meal, you can grab something from a bakery or get a souvlaki. I never had a souvlaki, as they are meat, but the people walking around eating them seemed to enjoy them just fine. Bakeries will generally have a spanakopita or tiropita, often in two different sizes, which is nice. They are usually heated by microwave, which is not optimal. All that work to put together the flaky phyllo layers and then gum it up in the microwave! Even with the microwave, though, they're still good. But not health food by any stretch--lots of butter or olive oil, lots of cheese, and a weeny bit of spinach. A large piece will run you about 2E, though if you sit down it will cost you more.

I believe historically there has been a difference between bakeries that sell savouries and bakeries that sell sweets, but most of the bakeries that sold spanakopita also had some sweet pastries. I didn't get a baklava until my last day in Greece. It was quite good, but very rich and sweet. I am allergic to walnuts, but there was enough variety that I could find one that was all pistachio. Depending on the bakery, you can also get cakes and chocolates. A sticky farina cake was available in the middle and southern half of the country; I liked it very much but I love the grainy farina (Cream of Wheat) texture. K wasn't as much of a fan. The bakery-made chocolates were all very high quality.

There are, of course, tons of little carts and corner shops where you can pick up snacks. A popular brand is 7 Day and I got some sesame bagel chips to have as a snack on the ferry. They were delicious! I wish I'd discovered them earlier in the trip. Well, on second thought, I ate quite enough as it was. I also got some "gemiste," little sandwich cookies (gemiste means stuffed, which is why it has the same name as stuffed tomatoes and peppers). They all sell ice cream novelties as well. I adored the Choco Magnum drumstick-like cone.

There are a fair number of little shops that sell what looks like gelato. I tried a couple different places and was disappointed every time. For all the give and take between the Italians and the Greeks, the Italians have clearly kept their secret gelato recipes secret. The ice creams I had were icy and thin and too sweet. Jess said the gelato shop in the square with the fountain in Naxos town was good, but I didn't get a chance to try it.

One kind of shop I didn't find was a Galaktopoleia. Literally translated this is "milk shop" (I'm guessing the name is related to the same root as galactose, a type of naturally occurring sugar in milk). These legendary establishments offer single servings of yogurt and all manner of dairy products. No such luck. We didn't see any anywhere, and believe me I was looking. I would have loved to have a yogurt snack in the middle of the day. I suspect this cultural relic has disappeared entirely, displaced by the more global preference for ice cream. We can't blame McDonalds for this one, though; it's not very popular in Greece and I only saw a few. Thank goodness for that!


There appears to be some sort of disconnect in the Greek tastebud and/or psyche. The food is fantastic, fresh, and unadorned. But their taste in beverages leans toward the terrible and the artificial. Colored sugar water abounds and it's hard to find real juice. And then there is...the frappe. The frappe is made with Nescafe (yes, instant coffee) and foamed milk, served cold. The cafes are full of people, not only in the afternoon but all day, drinking the stuff. It looks so wonderful, all creamy and foamy, and people relax for hours and watch the world go by over them. I am not a coffee drinker but K dutifully tried one. She said it was awful. I tried it. It was awful. The good news is you can get a cold chocolate, sokolata kria, instead. Yum! Grown up chocolate milk is nothing like the Nestle Quik I drank as a kid. It was rich high-fat content milk (I only drink skim at home) mixed with chocolate syrup and a few ice cubes to keep it chilled. It was sometimes topped with foamed milk or cream and drizzled with chocolate syrup. Let's not think about the calorie count. I found it a much better way to participate in cafe culture than the dreaded frappe!


I'll use a three tier rating system. Recommend means I would absolutely go there again, even for two meals in a row. Neutral means the meal was totally fine and I wouldn't be averse to returning, but if given the choice I'd try someplace new. Don't Recommend means stay away. Luckily, there's not much in the latter category and for the ones that are the quality of the wine was generally inversely proportional to the quality of the food, oddly. Where the restaurant's signage is in Greek characters, I have given them in the form they appeared (all caps or title case) so you can recognize it. Where it is in Roman characters/English, I haven't transliterated back into Greek. Unless indicated, the cost is the total price for two if I was with K or one if I was alone and before tip.


City: Pristina, Kosovo
Restaurant: Home
Meal: Dinner
Dishes: antipasti (artichoke, grilled bell pepper, grilled zucchini); mushroom pasta with bechamel sauce
Dessert?: Honey crepe
Cost: 7.90E per person, plus water
Notes: The food in Pristina is wonderful, especially the bread. My favorite thing on the plate was the perfectly grilled zucchini. Servings are huge and when you can't eat the whole thing (which you can't), the waiter will ask if you didn't like it.

City: Pristina, Kosovo
Restaurant: Marche
Meal: Brunch
Dishes: Vegetarian breakfast of beans, egg, mushrooms, and the most amazing grilled tomato, with fresh squeezed orange juice.
Dessert?: no
Cost: about 8E per person
Notes: This was the perfect filling breakfast, and again with the amazing breads. I think I have paid the equivalent of 8E for just the fresh squeezed orange juice stateside.

City: Thessaloniki
Restaurant: Opto Pyri (Oπτo Πυpι)
Meal: Dinner
Dishes: horiatiki (Greek salad), yiyandes (white beans), fried zucchini patties, grilled oyster mushrooms, tzatziki, 1/2 liter white wine, bottled water.
Dessert?: lemon cake sprinkled with coconut served with gelato
Cost: 23.70E
Notes: What a wonderful first meal in Greece! Everything was just delicious, but my favorite was the grilled mushrooms. K was full at the end so I got most of the dessert. Heh. It would have been rude to leave it there, right?
Location: Go to the top of Aristotle Square, turn into the restaurant alley on the right (can't miss it). At the end of the alley is a square with a fountain, and Opto Pyri is on the square.

City: Dion
Restaurant: Isida (IΣIΔA)
Meal: Lunch
Dishes: Horiatiki, melatzanesalata (eggplant salad), water
Dessert?: no
Cost: 11E
Notes: We did not really know what eggplant salad was, but we decided to take a chance and order it. Lucky chance! In Dion, and nowhere else, eggplant salad refers to a whole eggplant that has been grilled, probably over a flame, then peeled and topped with olive oil, crumbled feta, and large chunks of raw garlic and served while still warm. It was one of the most delicious things I've ever had and K actually drove back through Dion (off the main road) while taking the car back to FYROM so she could have it again.
Location: Right across from the Archaeological Museum.

City: Meteora
Restaurant: To Kipos
Meal: Lunch
Dishes: horiatiki, grilled mushrooms, two bottles of water
Dessert?: no
Cost: 14E
Notes: With the suggestion of To Kipos, my guidebook redeemed itself after our bad meal at Paradeisos. The food was simple and the grilled mushrooms were white button rather than the oysters we'd been spoiled by, but it was a perfectly nice lunch and the owner didn't seem put out that we were there during an off hour and were the ONLY customers in the place.
Location: Drive down the road from the monasteries in the direction of Kalambaka. It's at a fork in the road.

City: Galaxidi
Restaurant: O Tosos
Meal: Lunch
Dishes: horiatiki, hortopita, water
Dessert?: Watermelon (only time we got dessert at lunch)
Cost: Didn't record, probably around 12E
Notes: Our Greek salad was served to us with the feta slab on the side, the only time we ever saw it that way. The Greeks in the restaurant were getting theirs the same way so I don't think it was a special tourist thing. The food was good and it was a nice location for a leisurely lunch.
Location: Waterfront. Look for the bright yellow tablecloths.

City: Athens
Restaurant: Ksenios Zeus (ΞENIOΣ ZEYΣ)
Dinner 9/7/07: horiatiki, grilled mushrooms, zucchini patties, spanakopita, oven potatoes, 2 bottles water, 1/2 liter white wine. 32E. (This was way too much food for two.)
Lunch 9/8/07: horiatiki, roasted peppers served cold with garlicky yogurt sauce, oven potatoes, water. 14.5E
Dinner 9/9/07: horiatiki, oven potatoes, grilled mushrooms, eggplant merakles, water, 1/2 liter white wine. Free dessert of walnut cake and ice cream. 24.5E.
Notes: This was our favorite restaurant of the whole trip. The food was divine, the bread (in stark contrast to most of the bread we had in Greece) was fantastic--rubbed with a cut garlic clove, grilled, and then drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with coarse salt. The service was great. The location is great--right at the Acropolis, though you can't really see it through the trees. The oven potatoes are the best 2E you will ever spend on a food item.
Location: To get to the restaurant from Art Gallery Hotel, walk up Erechthiou toward to the Acropolis, and make a left at Areopagitou, the pedestrian path. Pass Areopagus rock and keep going along the pedestrian path (which is completely unlighted at a stretch; we were glad we'd brought our flashlights). The pedestrian path ends at a steep, slick, horizontally scored driveway that goes down and a little to the right. Ksenios Zeus is almost at the bottom of the driveway. To reach it from Plaka, walk uphill on Tripodon. When you reach a set of stairs off the left with a church at the top (where To Gerani restaurant is), take the stairs and go right (continue the same direction you were going on Tripodon). Ksenios Zeus is the equivalent of a couple blocks up from the church on the left.

City: Naxos Town
Restaurant: I Kali Karthia (H Kαλι Kαpδια), The Good Heart
Meal: Dinner
Dishes: Vegetarian plate, with stewed eggplant and squash, stewed green beans, oven potatoes, yiyandes, tomato gemiste, water. Wine was complimentary from the owner.
Dessert?: No
Cost: 6.50E
Notes: I was drawn to the vegetarian plate advertised on the sign board. It was nice to have a variety of foods even though I was eating by myself. The food was good, but very stewed and swimming in oil. It would have been nice to have something fresh on the plate. The owner was very nice and didn't charge me for my 250 ml of wine. I was wavering whether to put this in recommend or neutral; the service keeps it in "recommend."
Location: Waterfront

City: Apollona, Naxos
Restaurant: One of the ones on the waterfront--I didn't write down the name
Meal: Lunch
Dishes: Horiatiki, water
Dessert?: No
Cost: 6E
Notes: I took a bus tour of Naxos and we stopped in Apollona for lunch. The Greek salad was your standard Greek salad with its excellent tomatoes and cucumbers and good quality feta.
Location: In front of the tiny sand beach.

City: Naxos Town
Restaurant: Dolphins (Δελφινιας)
Meal: Lunch
Dishes: Organic potato salad, water
Dessert?: No
Cost: 6.70E
Notes: This was one of the best individual dishes I had on the trip. Potatoes are one of Naxos's primary crops. It was served room temperature, with potatoes, tomatoes, capers, olives, red onion, garlic, and olive oil. This is the one dish I have attempted to make at home (not quite the same, but still good).
Location: Waterfront

City: Naxos Town
Restaurant: Trattoria di Susanna
Meal: Dinner
Dishes: Pizza, called "Frescuria" and toppings were mozzarella, parmesan, cherry tomatoes, and fresh arugula; glass of red wine
Dessert?: No
Cost: 11.40E
Notes: As the majority of the Greek food I'd had on Naxos was so-so at best, I branched out into pizza. It was fantastic! The sign bragged about their good quality mozzarella, and there was no false advertising involved. The single serving pizza is huge, but somehow I managed to eat most of it.
Location: I have no idea. Go up to the square with the fountain and wander around for a really long time.

City: Athens
Restaurant: Elaias (Eλαιας)
Meal: Dinner
Dishes: grilled mushrooms, fried potatoes, two moussakas, tomato gemiste, water, wine
Dessert?: No
Cost: 50E for four people, including tip
Notes: This restaurant has a lovely rooftop with Acropolis view. Although it appears fancy, the prices were only one or two Euro above normal. The food was quite good.
Location: On Tripodon up from Plaka, across from To Gerani (I think).


City: Thessaloniki
Restaurant: Zythos
Meal: Lunch
Dishes: horiatiki, zucchini patties, water
Dessert?: no
Cost: Didn't write down; probably around 11-13E
Notes: Although it was late for lunch, when we sat down at 5:30 it was clearly too early for dinner. Despite the hour and the fact that the restaurant was mostly empty, the waiter seemed put out by the smallness of our order, which was uncomfortable. The waterfront location added a few Euro to each dish, though the food was no better than anywhere else.
Location: Waterfront strip between the White Tower and Aristotle Square.

City: Thessaloniki
Restaurant: Agora (AΓOPA)
Meal: Dinner
Dishes: Grilled mushroom, stuffed squash blossoms, arugula and parmesan salad, meatballs, water, and wine.
Dessert?: a slice of a moist cake, a farina square, grapes, and watermelon
Cost: 29E
Notes: Agora didn't quite live up to the Opto Pyri experience we'd had the night before. The grilled mushrooms had been soaked in too much lemon juice and were so sour they hurt my teeth and I couldn't eat them. The squash blossoms had been battered and fried, which I wasn't expecting. The wine, however, was excellent.
Location: In the Ladadika neighborhood in a little nook I could never find again if my life depended on it. K and I found it by wandering. The address is 5 Kapothistriou (Kαπoδισtριoυ).

City: Galaxidi
Restaurant: Albatross
Meal: Dinner
Dishes: Gemiste (two orders), tiropita, yogurt salad, meatballs, water, wine
Dessert?: What seemed to be a smooth molded plum pudding, maybe made of ground tapioca or arrowroot.
Cost: 28E
Notes: Our experience at Alabtross was quite dramatic, as I failed to ascertain that the gemiste would be made without meat. When the grandma asked me why I wasn't eating I had to explain that I was a vegetarian. Grandpa then proceeded to berate her loudly for several minutes, she spent the rest of the night crying and made me some gemiste without meat. Ironically, I don't even like gemiste and ordered it only because there wasn't much else available from the menu. Emotional drama aside, The food was ok but not great. The yogurt salad was way too salty to eat and the gemiste seemed to be made with minute rice.
Location: Up on the hill across from the church.

City: Galaxidi
Restaurant: Maritsa (Mapitσa)
Meal: Dinner
Dishes: Roasted eggplant with tomato and feta, baked potato, shrimp fettucine, wine, water
Dessert?: No
Cost: 32E
Notes: Maritsa was one of the more expensive restaurants we went to, and the only one K and I went to together where we had our own main dishes. I was sick as a dog with a cold and the baked potato hit the spot for me; I couldn't much taste anything. Though Galaxidi is a seaside village, the seafood was still quite expensive and K's fettucine with three head-on shrimp was 12E. The decor is adorable. We were given an all English menu, which I don't paricularly like. I enjoy being able to puzzle through the Greek. This place gets a neutral for the price and for the way they treated some Spanish tourists, banishing them outside on a chilly night under the pretense that locals wanted to watch the political debate--and then switching to music from the debate as soon as the Spanish couple was outside. It has great decor.
Location: Waterfront.

City: Athens
Restaurant: Museum Cafe
Meal: Lunch-ish
Dishes: Tiropita and an espresso
Dessert?: No
Cost: 6.50E (the coffee was 4E!)
Notes: The Museum Cafe is across the street from the Archaeological Museum. There's not much else there, especially on a Sunday, so we stopped in for a quick bite. It was fine, but nothing to seek out. I will say that they brought us glasses of tap water without us asking and kept them filled, which was a nice gesture. It costs more to eat in. I got some ice cream to go for 3.50E, which was not very good and not worth the price.
Location: Across from the Archaeological Museum.


City: Meteora
Restaurant: Paradeisos
Meal: Dinner
Dishes: Eggplant salad, saganaki (breaded fried cheese), yiyandes, stuffed peppers (meat), wine, water.
Dessert?: Grapes
Cost: 20E
Notes: After a long drive to Meteora and an even longer drive within Meteora to find our hotel, which was up on a hill with a wonderful view but with nowhere to walk to for dinner, we were ready for something easy. Both of our guidebooks (Lonely Planet and DK Eyewitness) concurred that Paradeisos was good so it made our decision easy. Yuck! Apparently this restaurant is now resting on its laurels. After our Dion Eggplant Experience we wanted another so we got the eggplant salad. This was partly our fault as everywhere but Dion eggplant salad is a puree of eggplant, yogurt and feta and, well, that's just not great. This one tasted of mayonnaise, which was not our fault. The yiyandes were cooked very well but oversalted. The saganaki was too much breading, and too soft of a cheese. Overall, this was probably our very worst meal. The waiter refused to meet our eye so we could ask him to bring us the check at the end and we finally had to call out to him across the (now empty) restaurant.

City: Athens
Restaurant: To Gerani/Scholarcheio
Meal: Dinner
Dishes: yiyandes, horta (sauteed wild greens, served cold), fries, meatballs, fried eggplant, wine, water
Dessert?: I'm pretty sure, but I didn't write it down and I'm blanking
Cost: Prix fixe dinner for two with 5 dishes, wine, and dessert is 24E.
Notes: Another guidebook recommendation, another bad meal. We should have learned from the first time. I was nervous (and yet secretly excited) that the menu was wholly in Greek. It was going to take me a while to get through it with my slow reading and dictionary skills--I can't keep track of what order the letters come in the Greek alphabet--but still, fun! But it doesn't work like that. A waiter brings a tray of prepared dishes, everything the kitchen has on offer that night, and you choose your plates right from the tray. This doesn't result in the most freshly-prepared food. Even if they had been freshly prepared, the dishes weren't that exciting. The restaurant was packed, but it was all foreign tourists, not even Greek tourists, much less locals.
Location: Walk through Plaka up Tripodon. When you get to To Gerani take the stairs on your left and keep walking to Ksenios Zeus.

City: Naxos Town
Restaurant: Meze
Meal: Dinner
Dishes: Mushrooms in garlic sauce, fries, water, wine
Dessert?: No
Cost: 17E
Notes: I went to Meze with some people I had met on the bus tour. We each got our own dish, and we got 1/2 liter carafes of wine in both red and white. The good is that the wine was *excellent,* some of the best house wine of the trip. The food was terrible. The "garlic sauce" on my mushrooms was gloopy, greasy, and congealed. The fries were cold. My dining companion's octopus was undercooked, and my other companion's chicken was sort of grayish.
Location: Waterfront. The waiters wear orange t-shirts with the restaurant's name on it. This makes it easier to spot and avoid.

Sleeping in Greece

Hotels in Greece are pretty standard European affairs. The rooms are small and the beds only have one flat pillow. The ones we stayed at were quite clean and, despite ashtrays indicating otherwise, did not smell of smoke. I was very relieved after having bad hotel experiences in Italy with the smoky rooms.

All my rooms had en suite bathrooms, with tiny showers that may or may not boast a curtain and likely had a handheld shower nozzle with nowhere to rest. I am petite, but I imagine someone larger than me might get claustrophobic in one of the little shower cubicles. If you have a shower with a handheld nozzle and without a curtain, the key is to always keep the nozzle pointed toward the back shower wall. And to remove the toilet paper roll from the holder and place it somewhere where it will stay dry! Only our 90E/nt luxury hotel in Meteora had a bathtub, though even that didn't have a shower curtain. Bath and hand towels were well-supplied, but (as is standard in Europe) there were no washcloths.

Breakfast is generally included in your room rate, though at our Athens hotel it was a separate 8E charge per person (not worth it!). Standard Greek-style continental breakfast is yogurt, muesli, cereal flakes, boiled eggs, bread (possibly including croissant or pain au chocolat), sliced cheese, sliced ham, feta, sliced tomato, sliced cucumber, coffee, and orange drink (NOT to be confused with orange juice). You can definitely get the right balance of foods to last you through a long morning of sightseeing at a hotel breakfast--be sure to eat the eggs for protein.

All the hotels I stayed at get a "recommend" rating, meaning I would stay there again. There is more information about the hotels in the individual blog posts for the days we stayed there.

City: Thessaloniki
Hotel Name: Hotel Tourist (aka Tourist Hotel)
Rate: 75E/nt for a double
Breakfast: Standard Greek continental, but no yogurt!
Notes: This hotel is in a great location one block from the water. The room was adorable, with "gilded" molding along the ceiling. The bathroom was clearly an afterthought--it was a little hut that had been constructed in the corner of the room, the ceiling about four feet below the extra-tall room ceiling. The desk clerks were very friendly and helpful.
Location: Waterfront

City: Meteora
Hotel Name: Meteora Hotel Kastraki
Rate: 90E/nt for a double
Breakfast: Excellent, hot dishes of scrambled egg, mushrooms, and sausages in addition to standard items. Beautiful view of Meteora sandstone cliffs from the breakfast room and hilarious cheesy 80s slow dance mood music.
Notes: This hotel was pricey, but if money is no object I highly recommend it. It's on the other side of the rocks from Kalambaka, so you don't get a view of any of the monasteries (which are on the Kalamabaka side), but the view of the backside of the cliffs is just as breathtaking. All the rooms have access to a balcony that runs the length of the hotel. They are putting in a pool.
Location: On a hill. Look for the signs.

City: Galaxidi
Hotel Name: Poseidon Hotel
Rate: 45E/nt for a double
Breakfast: Served up by the owner as he cooks it in a small kitchen. Per person you get a boiled egg, bread with jams, grapes, and a homemade donut, with orange Fanta and Nescafe. I would have liked a bigger breakfast, but you can't say the service isn't personal.
Notes: We did not book ahead in Galaxidi, and the Hotel Ganimede, recommended by both of our dueling guidebooks, was full up. The owner of Ganimede hopped on his motorbike, young daughter in tow, and led us to Poseidon. The elderly owner fussed over us like we were his own kids and sent us off with a bottle of ouzo.
Location: To get to the hotel, enter the town by the main road (the only way to enter the town, as far as I can tell). At the first big road you get to, turn right. It looks like the road dead ends at a little yellow house, which is the Poseidon.

City: Athens
Hotel Name: Art Gallery Hotel
Rate: 100E/nt for a double
Breakfast: 8E; standard Greek continental with particularly bad bread and croissants
Notes: You can't beat the location for the price of this hotel. It's three blocks down from the Acropolis on the unfashionable side, not the Plaka side, in the Koukaki/Marygianni neighorhood. The room was even a bit large by European standards, and the shower cubicle had doors. We found staff unfriendly and unhelpful at times (like when it was time to pay), however.
Location: At the Syngrou-Fix metro station exit toward Drakou, walk up three blocks and it's up on the left.

City: Naxos Town
Hotel Name: Hotel Galini/Sofia Latina
Rate: 35E/nt for a single
Breakfast: Greek continental with a few interesting additions, such as cinnamon sesame seed rusks.
Notes: This hotel was delightful. When I arrived the owners told me to sit down, have some water. When I finally told them I had a reservation they laughed and said they knew, I was the only single they were expecting that day. It is just steps from St. George beach and a quick walk to the waterfront and pier. My only complaint was the fire exit indicator lights. They were so bright I had to hang a towel over the ones shining directly in my eyes, which was quite an operation involving a very precarious sideways tiptoe perch on the refrigerator (oh yes, there's an in-room refrigerator).
Location: come off the ferry, walk down the pier to the harbor, and turn right (away from the Portara). Walk along the water always (DON'T TURN ANYWHERE), rather than going up to the main drag. Eventually the road will turn into a wide flagstone drive. You'll pass the Naxian Sphinx on your left. Keep going while the road winds around. After the bend there will be a driveway and the tiny church of St. George on your left. You can see the hotel behind the church. Make a left and go up the driveway and you're there. This is probably about 500 meters. A cab is 6E if you're not up to it.

City: Athens
Hotel Name: Athens Backpackers
Rate: 25E/nt for a six-person single-sex dorm, inclusive of linens but not towel, plus 5E refundable cash deposit for the key
Breakfast: Provided, but I didn't have any as I left in the wee hours of the morning for the airport
Notes: This was my first hostel! It had excellent reviews for cleanliness and safety so I wasn't concerned. In fact, it turned out to be a blast meeting the other travelers (all of them a decade younger than me, of course). The cleanliness and safety were very acceptable. The rooftop bar has an amazing view of the Acropolis, and of course I did not bring my camera, so no visual aid for this location.
Location: Akropoli metro, exit toward Athinasios Diakou, walk 30 metres, turn left onto Makri Street, 15 meters on the left

Monday, September 24, 2007

"The Facilities" in Greece

So this is an indelicate topic, but you know you want to know. I did. My bladder is approximately the size of a walnut. This is ironic because I am allergic to walnuts. In planning a daily itinerary, making sure there will be adequate restroom availability is a prime concern for me. In Scandinavia, I loved the city passes you could buy (Oslo Pass, Copenhagen Pass, Stockholm Pass) that gave you entrance to most museums because I was always near someplace I could duck in and use the restroom so I didn't have to worry about it. Every site, museum, and restaurant in Greece is fully equipped, so my mind was at ease.

Greece had a state-of-the-art plumbing system installed...two thousand years ago when the Romans came in. It's still going strong but it requires some special care. There are signs in most bathrooms telling you "Don't Throw Paper in the Toilet." The one at left is pretty standard. I guess the signs are trying to be discreet by saying "paper" instead of toilet paper, and picturing plastic bottles and whole newspapers as items not to be thrown into the bowl (who would?) but they are sort of defeating the purpose by being delicate.

The biggest thing for the American to get used to is that the septic system can't handle toilet paper. That's right, NO toilet paper in the toilets. There are little foot-pedal trashcans by every toilet and you put your used toilet paper in there. As I say, it takes some getting used to, but when in Greece, do as the Romans would have you do. It may seem "gross," but it's a lot less gross (and embarrassing) than a clogged toilet!

Bathrooms are usually easy to find as they are almost always marked with the universal "WC" symbol. Allegedly, the Greek word for toilet is "toualeta," which is a nice easy cognate to remember. I only saw this once on a sign (in Greek characters) and only used it once, but the one person I said it to had no trouble understanding what I meant. It doesn't *really* matter because everybody in Greece with whom you will come in contact as a tourist speaks English. Even if they don't, they will recognize the standard non-English "vay say" pronunciation of "WC" and point you in the right direction.

Many of the restrooms have fancy pictures of women and men instead of the standard skirt-ed and pant-ed symbols, which is fun (and it's always clear which is which) although sometimes I felt like I was too schlubby to enter into a bathroom with such a sophisticated siren on the door!

I didn't use any unaffiliated public toilets, only those in hotels, restaurants, museums, and the airport, so I can't say how they work. Now that I think of it, I don't recall seeing any unaffiliated public toilets so they may not be very common. I can only assume that it's similar to the rest of Europe in which there is a small charge, usually less than 1E, to use the facilities. Some such restrooms have coin operated stalls, but it is more common to have a restroom attendant who takes your money.

I had expected to run across a substantial percentage of Turkish (squat) toilets, but in fact I think there were only two. The first was at the Archaeological Museum in Dion, the second at the monasteries in Meteora. Wearing a skirt is invaluable in case you run into a Turkish toilet. I wear them because I find them comfortable (I never wear shorts anywhere except the gym) but ease in squatting is certainly another point in their favor. So, don't worry too much about this, but think of your strategy because it's probable you'll have at least one on your trip.

I also ran across a few what I call "Italian toilets," meaning the toilet seat was missing. I think it must be that somewhere in Italy there is a giant mountain of toilet seats that have been removed from every public toilet in the country. It is probably an installation piece by a conceptual artist to make a statement on the Western obsession with elimination. It was a much less common phenomenon in Greece, so the toilet seat art installation in Greece is more like a hillock than a mountain.

Toilet design is not as standard in Europe as it is in the States, where the handle is always in approximately the same place...unless it's an automatic flushing toilet in which case all you can do is flap your arms wildly and hope for the best. But that is another story. If you can't find the flush mechanism, look up and look down. Sometimes there is a tank above, like old-fashioned toilets, where you push or pull a little knob to flush. Sometimes there is a foot-operated flush. Where there is a foot-operated flush, the sink is often foot-operated as well. If the sink looks like it has an automatic sensor because there's no faucet knob but it doesn't turn on when you put your hands under it, look under your foot. The placement of the foot pedal by the sinks is remarkably ergonomically precise to capture the natural human stance and you're probably already standing on it.

All the toilets I ran across--and that is quite a large sample size, believe me--were clean and had toilet paper and soap (with the single exception of a gas station bathroom, but that's an unpleasant experience the world over). I highly commend the Greeks on their public restrooms.

Driving in Greece

K and I met when we were in law school, she at Cornell and me at Texas, when we both worked at the same law firm in DC over the summer. This particular firm billed itself as the alternative biglaw. "Biglaw" is the term lawyers use for the megafirms that charge their clients hundreds of dollars an hour for the privilege of working their young attorneys to, but not beyond, the point of death. I have not yet heard of any firm requiring billable hours from the other side of the grave, but on the other hand I wouldn't particularly be suprised to hear that a firm had Sylvia Browne or John Edward or some other star medium on retainer to figure out if it is possible.

Anyway, the firm we were at had cultivated a reputation as the kinder, gentler biglaw that believed in work/life balance, family time, and overall serenity and happiness. This reputation, which I found not particularly well-deserved when I joined full-time after law school, rested largely on the strength of the personality of the managing partner.

The managing partner was (he is not deceased, but is no longer the managing partner) truly a good man, devoted to his family, charismatic, amazing with names and faces and places of origin, and--believe it or not--humble. Humility is a rare quality among lawyers in general and among the partners at biglaw, with their connections and their millions, it is elusive indeed. Some of the ways in which the managing partner kept it real were maintaining a relatively modest home and driving a modest car. I believe it was a five year old Honda Accord. It was easy to pick out in the parking garage among the Jaguars, Mercedes, BMWs, Towncars, and other vehicles costing more than the annual salary of the average American.

Because the car was utilitarian rather than compensatory, the managing partner was comfortable allowing summer associates to use it while he took his family on a two week vacation (usually to the woods for hiking in Maine or New Hampshire, rather than five star resorts). It was generally his practice to have a drawing for use of the car, winner take all. For some reason he changed it up a bit our summer. I think one person wanted it for most of the time, but K and I ended up with it for a weekend. I wanted a car so I could drive some of the things I was mailing home to myself to the PO and we wanted to see Mt. Vernon and driving is really the only way to get there. I believe there is a bus that goes there, and you can bike or hike 18 miles or so on the Mt. Vernon trail but car is the easiest.

So, we're in the car of the managing partner of the very fancy, very well-known, very blue chip law firm at which we are working, driving through the streets of Washington, DC, and both had this simultaneous epiphany that to the other people on the road we appeared to be any old car that had the right to be there, but we were totally lost, didn't have a handle on DC traffic, and just generally did not feel like we belonged.

The point of this story is that this is how I felt in the beginning while driving in Greece. From the outside, we looked like just a regular car with regular girls (the picture was taken while we drove down the street in Thessaloniki). On the inside, I felt a little crazy and sort of wished I had a public address system I could use to alert other cars to be careful of us!

But then, very quickly, it felt like the most natural thing in the world. The whole earth is a giant strip mall and driving through Greece, especially between the Macedonian border and Thessaloniki, is pretty much like driving the New Jersey turnpike. I had been very nervous about driving in a foreign country. I had never driven in a foreign country and at home I drive maybe twice a month (I walk to work and everywhere I can, take the Metro most other places, and only drive when absolutely necessary). I am not a natural driver. I'm a cautious driver, make no mistake--I drive like an old lady and am very safe. But behind the wheel does not feel like my milieu, and add in some sort of je ne sais quoi "foreignness" to the mix and I thought it would be overwhelming. I was relieved that it was not so.

K and I rented a VW Polo in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. It had AC and was a standard five-speed transmission. Luckily, it gave us no trouble so we didn't have to find out whether Europcar has good roadside assistance! Most European rent cars have standard transmission, so work on your clutch-and-shift skills before you go. We needed all five of the gears for mountain driving. As with many European cars, reverse was a bit of a mystery. It was up and to the left of first, which is the opposite of what I'm used to (all the way over to the right and down) but it was clearly mapped out on the stick shift so how hard could it be? Luckily, when we tried to figure it out we were pulling out of a parking place in a deserted parking lot, not on a busy street! After much finagling and lurching forward we finally realized you had to push the stick shift down and then put it in reverse. It's nice that you can't accidentally go backward, but we were sweating it there for a minute or five.

We were baffled by the gas cap although the rental agent had demonstrated it for us. We got gas twice (and remember when you think it's less than a dollar per gallon--it's sold by the liter, which is about 1/4 of a gallon) and both times the gas station attendant pumped for us. We couldn't tell if it was full-service, or if they just had pity for our inability to remove the gas cap and took over. Greece is very much a cash-based economy and though you might be able to pay for gas with credit at chain gas stations cash is much more common and what we used. The gas station attendant will be able to make change for you right at your car.

Greece uses standard European road signage, which really didn't mean that much to me but K knew what all the signs meant and you can find information on the internet http://www.ideamerge.com/motoeuropa/roadsigns/. A stop sign is a stop sign, identical to what we have in the States. Parking is indicated by a big "P" even though what looks like a P in the Greek alphabet is actually an R.

The speed limit sign is round with a red border and white in the middle with a number. This was the only one I had a hard time catching onto because it's just a number--no km/h or other designation. The speed limit in Greece is exquisitely calibrated...and widely ignored. On some of the mountain roads each individual bend had its own speed limit, but most cars didn't even deign to treat it as a suggestion, much less a rule.

The vast majority of road signs are provided in Greek with a Roman alphabet transliteration. Sometimes it is on the same sign, and sometimes the transliterated sign is posted 50 m after the Greek sign. However, you will occasionally run into a sign that's not translated (mostly in smaller towns and more rural areas), as in the photo. I *highly* recommend learning the Greek alphabet before you go and practicing to get your reading speed up. My Greek vocabulary is virtually nil but I had worked up to some level of facility with the alphabet and being able to read the characters with reasonable speed was immensely helpful on the road.

Passing is a national pastime in Greece, and it's a sport that allows everybody to get involved. We quickly discerned that it is polite to drive on the shoulder to allow the person behind you to pass. When you move over, you're indicated that it's clear for them to pass. Some trucks will helpfully let you know it's safe to pass them by putting on their right blinker for a few seconds, but this was not universal. Even on roads with multiple lanes going the same direction, slower drivers still veered onto the shoulder to allow passing, and on the six lane highway (three in each direction) into Athens I was constantly moving between lanes to manage the delicate passing dance--in the States I would have stuck in the middle lane and let everyone else go around me but that is just not done in Greece.

Passing is the biggest issue on the winding mountain roads where every driver has a different comfort level with the curves. Trucks necessarily go slow. Some roads had two lanes going up the mountain so you could always pass safely, but on those that didn't I relied a lot on the person in front of me pulling to the shoulder to indicate it was safe to pass (and doing the same for the fearless cars impatiently tailgating me).

Archaeological and historical sites are well-marked on the road with standard signage. The signs are brown and have a little picture of a broken down column, the name of the site in Greek, the name in English, and an arrow. If you drive through the country you'll see just how many of them there are!

You'll probably spend most of your drive in Greece on the National Road, or Egnatia Odos (EΓNATIA OΔOΣ). It is technically the E75, but Greeks don't use the number system and it rarely appears on a sign. It is a toll road and toll is 2E for a car as I recall. We actually only had to pay the toll once or twice; the other toll plazas we reached had Free Pass day.

All roads are well-maintained and safe, if not well lit. At the border with Macedonia was a magnificent row of streetlights that were completely inoperational. I assume they were part of the sprucing up for the Olympics that never quite got finished. Mountain roads are well-banked and almost all roads had generous shoulders.

It's generally easy to find your destination from the roads in Greece, though it's important to take to heart the advice of the desk clerk of the Hotel Tourist in Thessaloniki and DON'T TURN ANYWHERE. There will be signs and they will be accurate, but there is no hand-holding. When a sign tells you to turn to get to some town or sight turn and then just keep going until there's another sign that tells you to turn again, no matter how long it is. I am used to having reassuring signs every 500 feet telling me I'm going in the right direction. You won't get any of that. Just don't lose your nerve and turn back, thinking you've missed something. Every time we did that we got lost, and had we just kept going (for many kms in some cases!) we'd have gotten to the destination.

The only time it's hard to find your destination from signs is when the sign has been completely covered over in stickers, which is unfortunately common. Sometimes the directional arrow is obscured, sometimes the English transliteration, sometimes the whole thing. When we first entered Greece I thought it was a protest against providing English translations of everything for lazy foreigners and that the transliteration was deliberately obscured, but after seeing more it just seems that people like to put stickers on road signs.

An interesting cultural difference is the way in which road deaths are commemorated. In the States, families generally put up small white wooden crosses on the side of the road where there has been a fatal accident. In addition to commemorating the deceased, they are also a small reminder to drive carefully. In Greece, they go for a much more permanent system. I kept seeing what looked like church-shaped postboxes and finally asked K about them. They are put up to commemorate people who died in traffic accidents. The one in the pic is more elaborate than most (and was put up in front of a church; as we were driving while passing those on the roads I didn't get a picture of any roadside ones). The family's economic standard is clear by the quality of the church postbox. Some are stone, some are simple sheet metal. But the basic idea is always the same. A post, a little box with a cross on top, and items inside to honor the memory. Usually inside there is a picture and a bottle--Coke, whiskey, or both--plus other miscellaneous items like dried flowers. The postboxes are much more enduring than our white crosses, so on curvy mountain roads they are often closely spaced, maybe one every 50 feet. Their presence doesn't seem to slow people down, though.

All in all, driving in Greece was easy, safe, and painless. In fact, it sometimes made it a little surreally *too* familiar. Driving is driving and K and I would be going along and chatting comfortably and then suddenly I would have a small epiphany that we were in Greece, not home in Washington DC.

Friday, September 14, 2007 The Long Flight Home

I managed to fall asleep for a bit at the Athens Backpackers, but was able to get up and head out in the dark in a timely manner. On the walk up Leoforos Amalias to Syntagma Square I kept panicking that I had left things behind (my pashmina, my air tickets), but I hadn't. I got to the Square to wait for the 4:30 X95 Airport Express Bus around 4:15 and there were a few other people already there. I realized I was still drunk (duh) and was glad there is no breath test to get on an airplane!

I started worrying because I had meant to go into a metro station and validate my ticket, as I hadn't been clear on whether there were validating machines on the buses. The bus arrived around 4:20 and the driver let us get on and there is a validating machine on the bus where I stamp my ticket. I was glad I'd been there early as it filled up almost completely and pretty quickly--I'd already been able to snag a seat in view of my suitcase on the luggage rack. It took off at 4:30 on the dot and though it is an "Express" bus it makes an awful lot of stops. At every stop more and more people got on and it was absolutely stuffed. People were standing every which way.

There is no traffic and we arrive at the Eleftherios Venizelos Airport around 5:20. I found the Austrian Air ticket counter based on the signboards (which tell you which counter number to check in for which flight). There were lots of people already in line...and no staff at the counter! So much for getting to the airport two hours before your flight! Some staff rolled in around 5:30 and took about 15 minutes setting up, and finally started checking people in around 5:45. Security is quick and easy and I was in the waiting area by 6:00, boarding not until 7:05.

Oh no! There is no real foodservice in the waiting area! Only a coffee cart with some wonderbread-looking sticky buns and a newstand with chocolate bars. I really wanted something to eat to help me sober up but I couldn't stomach the thought of either of those items.

When it is boarding time a bus takes us to the plane and we get on. As we go into flight we are promised a "small snack." I am praying for a dry packaged croissant or a cakey muffin with indeterminate bits of "fruit" rather than pretzels. Well, god bless Austrian Airlines, operated by Vo Tyrolean! I was handed a warm box with scrambled eggs and tomato, with the slice of ham way over to the side so it didn't "contaminate" the eggs (I'm vegetarian) and a warm roll. Perfect hangover food...except I was still drunk and as it soaked up the alcohol in my system I feared I could feel the hangover setting in. I was very surprised and pleased to have had a real breakfast. I sletp fitfully on the flight in 30 second spurts. During the final descent I could see the airport below us, and then suddenly I was awakened as we jolted onto the ground.

In the Vienna Airport I wandered the duty free with my 6E in change in search of protein-rich foods to supplement my upcoming airline "meal." The woman at Starbucks told me I could take the yogurt parfait through security as long as she wrapped and sealed it in a duty-free bag with the receipt showing. Indeed, security scrutinized the date on the receipt through the layers of plastic, but once satisfed with that let me carry it onto the plane. I also got some chocolate-dipped biscuits and a Milky Way Special bar.

Boarding goes without incident. The flight attendant directs me to my seat in German. I got a lot of that. The food was much better than on the way over. I appeared to have gotten the dairy meal this time instead of the vegan meal. Lunch was noodles in red sauce with some vegetables and topped with cheese and chocolate cake for dessert. Second lunch was a caprese salad with fancy greens and surprisingly good panna cotta. No dessert was as good as that Milky Way bar, though. Man, why can't we get that over here?

It had appeared I was going to be alone in my row (window seat!) but at the last minute a man came in and dropped his bag into the center seat and sat down with some profanity. It was sort of every single woman's fantasy, in that he was attractive, age appropriate, and not wearing a wedding ring, but he had walked in smelling like the floor of a frat house and immediately proceeded to have a glass of wine, a beer, and a giant scotch (in that order) in the hour before I fell asleep (yay! sleep on a plane!) and the only words he uttered throughout the flight were angry swears. But hey, the alcoholic with anger issues is single! (Or at least not married. Or at least pretending not to be.)

So about 20 minutes before landing I initiated conversation with him. He is a government lawyer like me, though about to leave to be a law professor, which is every lawyer's dream. He'd been abroad for work and visited Estonia, Latvia, and Prague. We had the DC versus Virginia debate and found out that we both prefer the DK Eyewitness Travel Guides and made fun of the Lonely Planet's backpackerier-than-thou world-weary tone. It was an enjoyable conversation, but we didn't exchange any personal information, not even names. To demonstrate what a how small DC is, I later was talking with a good friend and told her this story and we have identified him with 97% accuracy as the guy who was jerking her around for a couple of months earlier this year. So it's a good thing he wasn't interested in me.

We land at Dulles at 2:46, so there's no way I'm going to make the 2:50 A5 metrobus. It took forever to get off the plane (had to wait for a second moon landing vehicle), go through Passport Control, and go through Customs. I decided to splurge on the commercial bus to West Falls Church Metro for $9. The A5 is $3, but the Washington Flyer bus has luggage stowal below rather than unattainably high luggage racks inside; that's worth some amount of price differential. Unfortunately, it doesn't run any more often than the A5 and I had just missed it so I had to wait 30 minutes. I finally made it home around 5:00 (ugh, I HATE Dulles), hauled my suitcase up the stairs to my third floor walkup, and collapsed. I was home. It was over, my wonderful trip to Greece, but oh, the memories!