It’s all Greek

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Baking on the Acropolis with the Caryatids. We’re all well done.

Athens, the second stop on our long trip east, isn’t Paris.

Just as Paris is profoundly Western in its gallic snotty attitude, rich flavor and fastidiousness, Athens belongs to the East. The sun is hotter, the streets narrower, the decibels roar. Neighbors shout at each other from across the street, motorcycles rev their stinky engines, dogs bark from high-rise condos, vendors compete in singing praises for their merchandise.

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The loudest olive merchant in the market.

For years, the Greek economy has been in a world of hurt. The austerity imposed by the  IMF is starting to bear fruit, but it made the Greeks resent the EU and cherish Brexit. Austerity or not, efficiency still comes after job security here. It takes three people to sell you a museum ticket.

We spent four hot days canvassing Athens, visiting world-class museums loaded with priceless artifacts, resting our feet in noisy street cafes, eating Souvlaki and drinking ouzo and retsina.

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Salad, the Greek version. Greeks eat more cheese than anybody else. Here, Feta is an honorary vegetable.

The famous Acropolis is in a state of perpetual renovation – the scaffold hasn’t changed since we last saw it, ten years ago. The cranes are still there. The Caryatids’ necks are stiff from carrying the Erechtheion on their heads like they have for two thousand years. Athens is littered with archeological sites inhabited by cats, and tavernas with sharp-eyed owners lying in wait in the doorways like spiders watching for fat flies. They sweet-talk you into coming in, then ignore you to look for their next victim. In a place where one-time tourists abound, it’s not about the quality, but about the numbers.

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The Archeological Museum: The Jockey.

Dark traditional Orthodox churches are scattered everywhere, from the quiet squares to the pedestrian commercial streets. Skinny yellow candles smoke emaciated saints sporting circular auras perched on their heads at impossible angles. In crowded streets, personal space diminishes to nothing. Friendly passers-by will check your pockets and relieve you of any extra weight. They kindly relieved Steve of all the cash burdening him.

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Orthodox church: drop a coin, light a candle, make a wish.

The Greeks speak – you guessed it – Greek. Even worse, they also write in it. That makes the street-signs hard to figure. For the first time ever, I was grateful for my high-school Algebra. It allowed me to identify the Ds, the Gs, and the Ts and find our way through complicated labyrinths of narrow alleys.

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Second-hand glamor.

My most significant accomplishments in Athens were three.

  • I bought an evening gown. I needed it since the cruise requires it for the formal nights. Ten euros and previously-loved, it allows me in the restaurant so I can eat.
  • I got a pedicure. You may think that’s easy, but try saying pedicure in Greek
  • I ate a sheep head.

While looking for dinner one evening, we found a nearby restaurant advertising their rotisserie. Golden roasted chunks of meat twirled gently, dripping sizzling fat over the fire and over three scary-looking sheep heads. We had found our place. We shared a Greek salad and a bottle of the house white. Steve got a Gyro. I ordered a sheep head. It was on the menu, only four euros. I had never had a sheep head before. And I’m always up for a challenge.

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Rotisserie, Greek-style

The waiter got worried. Not sure why, but I seem to often worry waiters.

“Sheep head?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Have you had one before?”

“No.”

He shrugged and poured the wine. My sheep head arrived split in two with a hatchet and covered with French Fries. That was good, since the Americans at the next table looked queasy, but couldn’t take their eyes off my plate.

“It’s better with the hands,” the waiter said. “Not knife and fork.”

I looked at the skull on my plate. I couldn’t disagree. My knife didn’t look like it would get through that. I put it down to wrestle my dinner bare-handed. Twenty minutes later, all that was left was a pile of clean white bones. The folks at the next table were just as white but weren’t piled yet. The waiter came. I took his wide eyes and slack jaw for a sign of admiration. I must be the first American sheep-head-eater he’s seen, and maybe the last. How was it? Mild, crispy and well-seasoned. One of my best Greek meals.

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Communication turned out to be challenging in Greece. Not only with the natives.

“It’s down there, by the Stigmata,” Steve said, looking for the Acropolis Museum.

“Where?”

“By the Stigmata. The place we went to yesterday. The square.”

“Syntagma. You mean Syntagma Square?”

“Yea. Stigmata. Where the blood pours out of their eyes.”

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The flower market.

“We could go see the last Leprechaun,” Steve said, as we planned our day in Crete. “It’s a day trip.”

“I thought those were in Ireland. Do they take you to Ireland?” I asked.

“It is an island. Spinalonga. The island of tears.”

“No, I meant Irish. I thought Leprechauns were Irish.”

“Leprechauns? No. I’m talking about those people whose arms fall off. The last Leper Colony.”

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Finally, a few tips on Athens.

  1. Keep your hands in your pockets. If you don’t, somebody else might.
  2. Don’t order a sheep head unless you plan to take a shower.
  3. The main ingredient of Greek salads is Feta Cheese. Vegetables are optional.
  4. Ouzo is sweet, it smells like fennel, and water turns it cloudy. It’s an acquired taste.
  5. Retsina is white wine sealed with pine resin. It smells like the forest.
  6. Take a picture of the menu when you order. When you pay, check that the bill includes only what you ordered and the prices haven’t changed.
  7. Greek Leprechauns don’t have a pot of gold.

Thank you for being with us. I hope you had fun. See you soon in Israel.

Rada Jones is an Emergency Doc in Upstate NY where she lives with her husband, Steve, and his black deaf cat Paxil. She authored three ER thrillers, OVERDOSEMERCY, and POISON.

 

6 thoughts on “It’s all Greek

  1. Thanks Dr Jones to share in pictures and stories your travel around the world with us, I always enjoy ever lines you wrote, and I almost sometimes heard your voice reading it to me has a gift. Can’t wait for you next story 🙂

  2. Enjoyed reading every line of your story … am a fan of this country. Will be going back in May 2020 to enjoy the spring.

  3. Ha ha on the sheep’s head. Cal and I went market to market in South Philly looking for a pig head. The bowls are the best.
    You would have thought we were looking for fentanyl or come. Our FDA has outlawed selling pig heads because of something with their teeth.

    1. Sorry for the late reply, olivia. Just found this. Their teeth? That’s weird! A lot of Romanian Chrismas dishes revolve around pig’s heads- and feet.

  4. Loved it. Been to Athens twice. Never had sheep’s head, but lamb was great. Octopus grilled with ouzo is good. Glad you are enjoying your cruise.

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