I’m OK, and I’m on my way.

Man, I didn’t mean for this many days to pass between posts.  But I’ve had some squirrelly wi-fi, most importantly in my hotel room last night when I thought I’d have plenty of time to write a post, and I spent most of yesterday returning to Athens from Chania.

I was distressed to discover a wildfire near Athens when I arrived.  You may have seen this on the international news.  It is very close to the city, and the winds were high yesterday which made it more difficult to fight.  But it didn’t directly impact me; my hotel was in a different part of Athens, although I had a good view of the billowing smoke on my way into the city from the airport.

I really feel bad for the Greek people this summer — as if everything happening there wasn’t enough, now they have several wildfires to deal with.  I’ve had nothing but warm encounters with the people I’ve met over the last two weeks, and I wish only the best for this country of stalwart, infinitely patient and good-hearted people.

I’m now at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, waiting for my flight to Minneapolis (one of three total — four if you count yesterday’s flight from Chania).  I had hoped to write my next post here, but the wi-fi isn’t good enough for me to deal with photos.  So I’ll resume writing when I get home, and I hope you’ll still be along for the ride.

Touched by Human Hands

My free Saturday in Athens had two halves.  After touring the Museum of the Acropolis and enjoying lunch at the Museum’s restaurant, I went looking for what’s at the end of this long green tunnel.

I almost walked right past it!

I almost walked right past it!

Hidden behind greenery along a busy city street sits the Benaki Museum, which I found by googling “Athens Greece hidden gems.”  Like the Museum of the Acropolis, the Benaki offered me discounted admission with my student ID (even from a school in Nebraska!), and displayed archeological finds.  But the private Benaki collection travels all the way from pre-history to the Greek Civil War, in the 1950s.  It is a whirlwind tour, but the good news is that I could take pictures.

Tiny forms and stone tools -- yes, these are old.

Stone tools — yes, these are old.

I’ve found that in this kind of museum I’m most drawn to the little, humble and everyday objects.  Yes, grand pieces celebrating glorious battles are impressive, but it’s small pieces like these remind me that each of these was made by hand, by a living person.  I can imagine the lives of these people, our ancestors.

And sometimes, we all have stomach trouble.

And sometimes, we all have stomach trouble.

So here, a few pics of the grand sweep of Greek history, from from thousands of years BC to about 1500, compliments of the Benaki Museum.

One of my favorites: bird lady.  Plus her lady peeps.

One of my favorites: bird lady. Plus her lady peeps.

I cannot for the life of my understand how these earrings' artists made them with only simple tools and crystal magnifiers.

I cannot for the life of me understand how these earrings’ artists made them with only simple tools and crystal magnifiers.

Who knew that the baby Jesus had early-onset male pattern baldness?

Who knew that the baby Jesus had early-onset male pattern baldness?

The Benaki had a large collection of gorgeous, well-preserved and presented items of clothing.  This was from the 1500s.  All I could think of was, "My word, that looks so oppressively hot."

The Benaki had a large collection of gorgeous, well-preserved and beautifully presented items of clothing. This was from the 1500s. All I could think was, “My word, that looks so oppressively hot.”

Turkish windows.  The Greeks have a long history of being controlled by, and then fighting off, foreign invaders.  The Ottoman Turks controlled Greece from 1453 until 1821, resulting in a great deal of Turkish influence in its architecture.

Turkish windows. The Greeks have a long history of being controlled by, and then fighting off, foreign invaders. The Ottoman Turks controlled Greece from 1453 until 1821, resulting in a great deal of Turkish influence in Greek architecture.

About this time, I tired of taking pictures and began to wonder if the Benaki cafe was as nice as my online sources had told me.  So I investigated, found that yes, it was so, and ate watermelon.

Then I had to return to my hotel and call it a (very good) day.  I determined to walk through the Greek National Gardens on my way to the Metro.  Commissioned as Royal Gardens by Greece’s Queen Amalia in 1838, today the National Gardens act as an arboretum with many beautiful and interesting tree species.  They also provide a much-needed green oasis in the city, especially with their many water features.

Lovely light

A peaceful place for a walk.

Gurgling stone-lined streams wind through the Gardens.

Gurgling stone-lined streams wind through the Gardens.

Palm trees planted by Queen Amalfa

Palm trees planted by Queen Amalfa

Then it was time to return to the hotel to prepare for tomorrow’s adventure: flying to the island of Crete!

Back to the Museum of the Acropolis

When we went to Athens last year, we headed to the Acropolis right away.  How could we not?  And when we finished, we went to the nearby Museum of the Acropolis so we could better understand what we had just seen.

This is as close to the Acropolis as I got this year.  It's an imposing sight (site) (ha ha).

This is as close to the Acropolis as I got this year. It’s an imposing sight (site) (ha ha).

I didn’t return to the Acropolis this year — too hot, and too many tourists.  But when I realized that my Saturday was open, I decided I’d like to go back to the Museum.  It’s a beautiful place, and I could see things at my own pace this time.  Also, air conditioning.

So after a bit of a lie-in, I ate a quick breakfast and headed to the Acropolis’ neighborhood on the Metro.

The public transport in Athens is the best, most convenient and well distributed, that I've ever seen.  Not that I'm an expert -- but it's tremendous.

The public transport in Athens is the best, most convenient and well distributed, that I’ve ever seen. Not that I’m an expert — but it’s tremendous.

Upon arriving at the Akropoli Metro stop, I was faced with these stairs, next to an escalator going — down?!

Oh my.

Oh my.

But the good news is that the Museum was right around the corner from the Metro stop, so I was soon happily looking at very old things.

The entrance to the Acropolis Museum, with glass floors showing the ongoing archeological excavations underneath.

There are antiquities at every turn in Athens.  Here, the entrance to the Acropolis Museum, with glass floors revealing the ongoing archaeological excavations underneath.

A look at the excavations

A look at the excavations

The Museum of the Acropolis holds items found at the site of the Acropolis itself, as well as in the surrounding area.  This part of Athens has been inhabited since prehistoric times, so there’s a lot of “ground” to cover.  I crack myself up — I’m full of the puns today.

One of the main galleries.  Note how open and airy it is -- perfect for appreciating each piece on display.

One of the main galleries. They were all this open and airy — perfect for appreciating each piece on display.

As I mentioned in my post about the Museum last year, I love how the pieces — hundreds or thousands of years old — are right out in the open, with nothing between them and us.  We could get right up to them, to feel “close” in a way that isn’t typical at museums.

Unfortunately, the Museum only allowed photos in a small portion of the displays, which limits what I can show here.  I guess you’ll have to visit the Museum yourself!

One place where I could take photos was actually my favorite area, displaying the Caryatids of the Erechtheion, one of the Acropolis’ buildings.  These lovely ladies, which acted as columns supporting a porch structure on the Erectheion, likely represent the strong, tall and beautiful young women of Karyæ, who served the goddesses Athena and Artemis (my two favorite goddesses, if you’re interested).

These caryatids were restored in 2012 with lasers, which selectively removed grime without harming the stone.  One caryatid, carried ofr to England in 1888  by Lord Elgin, remains unrestored at the British Museum in London.

These caryatids were restored in 2011-2015 with lasers, which selectively removed grime without harming the stone. One caryatid, carried off to England in the early 1800s by Lord Elgin, remains unrestored at the British Museum in London.

You can read a nice New York Times article about the caryatids’ restoration at the link below:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/08/arts/design/caryatid-statues-restored-are-stars-at-athens-museum.html?_r=0

One of the five lovely ladies

One of the five lovely ladies

One thing that captivates me, and many others, about the caryatids is their backsides.  Well excuse me, it’s true!  Each lady is similar, but unique.  One of the most detailed areas is their hairstyles — which actually allowed the sculptor to thicken their necks, which would otherwise have been too delicate to support the roof over their heads.

Graceful folds and an ancient fishtail braid, carved in stone

Graceful folds and an ancient fishtail braid, carved in stone

Just look at that gorgeous braid.  I love it — and I wasn’t the only one taking close-up pics of it.

This braid hasn't unraveled for 2500 years.  Amazing.

This braid hasn’t unraveled for 2500 years. Amazing.

After my tour of the Museum I stayed to eat lunch at its swanky restaurant.  Look: giant beans!

Delicately flavored with fresh herbs, and served with herbed bread and pancetta, they were delicious.

Delicately flavored with fresh herbs, and served with herbed bread and pancetta, they were delicious.

I got a chance to view the Acropolis one last time, from the roof of the Museum.  All in all, a wonderful beginning to my day off.

Giving the Acropolis the side-eye.  Don't think you can pull one over on me, you old relic, you.

Giving the Acropolis the side-eye. Don’t think you can pull one over on me, you old relic, you.

Outside the System

One of my big interests, which will be part of my dissertation project, is how food is produced and makes its way to our plates.  The mainstream system, in which we all participate, includes big, industrial-scale farms, massive trucking and other shipping efforts, and big-box stores like Target and large supermarkets.

While this system has streamlined the process of getting food to us all, and given U.S. citizens the cheapest food our country has ever known*, there are downsides to it as well.  Most of our cheapest food isn’t the most nutrient-rich, but it’s highly subsidized by the U.S. government, encouraging us to eat unhealthily.  Foods that are sturdy and shelf-stable are prized, while tasty, fresher foods are given little respect by the shippers and the corporations that decide what will be on our grocery shelves.  And it can be difficult to find products from our own local farmers in “the system.”

In Greece, as in the U.S., these realities encourage people to buy what is cheaper and easier to find, rather than the amazing, unique items grown right here in their own country.  One of the things I’m doing here this summer is meeting with people who are working outside the system to make these things more available to everyday Greek people.

Does your local big-box store have one of these?  I don't think so.

Does your local big-box store have a window seat like this? I didn’t think so.

One place I visited is called Lacandona, a coffee shop / dry goods store / meeting place whose name references the Lacandon rain forest in Mexico and Central America.  Lacandona is run cooperatively, and patronizes other cooperative and collective groups both worldwide (coffee, sugar, vanilla) and throughout Greece (pasta, cereals, beer).  In fact, the Lacandon rain forest itself is best known as the adopted home of the Zapatistas, whose cause Lacandona supports as like-minded to their own.

Sorry so dark ... Lacadona is a cool sanctuary from the bright heat of Athens.

Lacadona is a cool sanctuary from the bright heat of Athens.

Lacandona does a good coffee trade, but doesn’t have as brisk a business selling food as they would like; the neighborhood people have visited the store, but then went back to the local supermarket because its prices were lower.  This problem is similar to that of local food vendors in the U.S.: efficiencies of scale work in favor of the big guys, and the little guys spend more on transport, packaging etc.

I also visited Bathoskipos, a mostly organic grocery store owned by two brothers.  Bathoskipos, which means “back garden” — referring to the little garden at the back of the store — works with Greek suppliers as much as possible, choosing organic vendors outside Greece when necessary.

A view toward the front door of Bathoskipos.  Check out those light fixtures!

A view toward the front door of Bathoskipos. Love the use of packing crates!

Lukas, one of the brothers, told me about how the small-scale Greek farmers he works with make the rounds, visiting Athens once in a while to bring their produce to several small shops around the city.  He agreed that it can be more work to use several small producers rather than one large distributor, but he knows that this way he is getting the best.

Looking toward the "back garden" -- or "deep garden," as Google Translate suggested.

Looking toward the “back garden” — or “deep garden,” as Google Translate suggested.

Bathoskipos is integrating into the neighborhood, as locals have found certain items they like to buy there, and keep coming back.  But most of them don’t do their big shopping trips there — a common issue in the U.S. local food system as well.

After my meeting at Lacandona, I was walking back toward the Metro station when I was suddenly confronted with this:

Seems a little weird to see this in Athens ...

Seems a little weird to see this in Athens …

Now, whether you like KFC or not, it seems like a fitting example of the differences between the corporate biggies, which have gone world-wide, and the little shops like Lacandona and Bathoskipos, whose goals may be smaller-scale, but are still important and relevant to our societies.

And then I had a lovely salad at a trendy sidewalk cafe.  Didn’t think I’d leave you hanging on the food pics, did you?

Greek greens and oranges, Italian walnuts and cheese ... not too bad.

Greek greens and oranges, Italian walnuts, balsamic vinegar and cheese … not too bad.

*As an academic, I can’t bear to say something like I did at the beginning of this post without a citation or two …

First, an exploration of my assertion that, in the U.S., we spend less now than ever before on our food.

In 1900, the average U.S. household brought in $750, and spent 43% of that on food.  By 2003, average household income had increased to $51,000 (unadjusted for inflation).  And we spent 13% of that income on food.  That means that many of us have a lot more money freed up to spend on things like rent, technology and yes, expensive health care.

Find out more at the Atlantic article linked below:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/04/how-america-spends-money-100-years-in-the-life-of-the-family-budget/255475/

Another thing to think about: We in the U.S. spend a fair amount of our taxes on subsidies for farmers who grow corn and soybeans.  These subsidized crops can be fed to animals to make cheap meat products, and can be processed into cheap food where most of the retail cost comes from advertising, packaging and transport.  See this article from Scientific American for more:

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/time-to-rethink-corn/

 

Technical Difficulties

Thanks to: http://www.kevinalfredstrom.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/Technical-Difficulties.jpg

Thanks to: http://www.thelittlemrs.com

Some of you might be wondering why I haven’t updated in a couple days.  Some of you might be imagining me lying in a ditch somewhere.  So I thought I’d make a quick post.

It’s OK!  I flew to Chania today, and am happily ensconced in an old-fashioned ‘pension’ that’s so adorable it makes my teeth hurt.  I just finished eating cherries in bed.  Very happy!

But I can’t seem to get my photos from my iPhone to my computer.  So I’m going to work on fixing that.  Until then, just imagine me in paradise, in a mobile phone shop having an unintelligible conversation with someone who’s trying really hard to help me.

There, that’ll do for a day or so.

Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight

OK, to be clear — I had a hot time last night because it’s just. so. hot.  I mean, it could be worse.  I appreciate the difference between 88°F, which was the high temp yesterday, and 100°F, which is what I was expecting as I planned my trip.  But Athens is one big concrete island (although sometimes it’s marble, rather than concrete — fancy), and being out and about in the afternoons gets pretty uncomfortable.

Just look at all those hard surfaces.  At least I'm standing in the shade.

The entrance to the National Library.  Just look at all those hard surfaces. At least I’m standing in the shade.

Here, everyone must live with the heat rather than fight it.  I have seen many tall, office-block-type buildings with open windows along the top floors.  Can you imagine working in a professional office environment, on the eighth floor, let’s say, with no air conditioning when it’s 88°F outside?  Ugh.

And on the ground, people hug the shade, dab delicately at their brows and carry folding fans that come out whenever they stop moving.

Even the pigeons get hot and tired by midday.

Even the pigeons get hot and tired by midday.

But after two casual dinners, I was determined to find a special restaurant for this evening.  The criteria: not just gyros and souvlaki on order; great reviews; and — most important — a short walk from my hotel.  Did I mention that it’s hot?

I chose I Kriti, a quick jaunt from the hotel and with several rave reviews online.  A nice older man found me wandering back and forth on the street that Google had told me held the restaurant, and showed me that it was actually tucked into an arcade that cut into the building.  Thank goodness; I might still be there if he hadn’t stopped to help me.

Not the best pic, but it shows what "I Kriti" means: see the island shape?  It's my old friend, the island of Crete.

Not the best pic, but it shows what “I Kriti” means: see the island shape? It’s my old friend, the island of Crete.

The family that runs I Kriti, and has done so for 28 years, hails from Crete and cooks in the old Cretan ways, with lots of herbs and spicy touches.  Even though I’m headed to the island itself in a couple days, I was happy to begin eating Cretan a little early.

Mushroom caps with staka -- gorgeous and rich.

Mushroom caps with staka — gorgeous and rich.

I felt that I should try more than one thing, although I knew I’d never eat it all, so I began with mushroom caps and staka.  There is no American equivalent for staka, but I’ll attempt to describe it.  It’s made in a manner similar to a roux, with butter and flour.  Staka is the butterfat from goat’s milk, cooked, with barley flour stirred in at the end.  It’s the rich base to many Cretan goodies, like pilaf and baked goods.  Its creaminess was a fantastic complement to the earthy mushrooms.  The dish was served with the spicy cheese-stuffed tomatoes you can see at the top of the pic.  They were doused in olive oil.  Of course they were!

Vegetarians, sorry for the meat close-up.  But it was really good meat.

Vegetarians, sorry for the meat close-up. But it was really good meat.

I then had the “lamb in the oven”, slow-roasted lamb with potatoes and Cretan greens.  The meat fell off the bone, and the veggies held their own against the richness of the lamb.

This was definitely the best food I’ve had so far on this trip.  And thank goodness the restaurant was slightly cooler than the outside air.  But it was still a hot evening, and I had to eat lightly or risk … regretting it.  But I enjoyed every bite I ate!

It was nice to see that I Kriti had customers -- even at the ridiculously early dinner hour of 7:00 pm!

It was nice to see that I Kriti had customers, even at the ridiculously early dinner hour of 7:00 pm!

I then strolled back to my hotel without getting lost once, and enjoyed my room’s air conditioning while prepping for the next day.  Hot times, indeed.

Being a Sort-of Tourist in Athens

This trip is really different than my visit to Athens last summer.  Then, I was part of a study abroad trip, made up mostly of undergrad students, and our time was very regulated.  We were essentially tourists, albeit tourists who hoped to learn something.

A break at a cafe to cool off -- and to use the WiFi to check emails.

A break at a cafe to cool off — and to use the WiFi to check emails.

This time, I’m here on “business” — that is, to work.  It’s strange, being in Athens and not planning a trip to the Acropolis!  But I have several meetings scheduled, and they are all over the city, so I’m spending a lot of time going from place to place.  Yesterday I spent zero time popping into shops and restaurants, and I still managed to be late to two of my three meetings (I got lost.  Multiple times.  It’s OK.).  I have next to no experience navigating big cities without a car, so this is a new challenge.  But it’s the only way!  Driving in Athens would be a huge mistake.

And there are taxis EVerywhere.

And in case of emergency, there are taxis EVerywhere.

So I wander around, tacking back and forth among the tangle of streets like the path of a sailboat, eventually finding my way to each destination.

And during my wanderings I am more like a tourist — Athens is so different from Nebraska that even the small details catch my eye.  As it did last year, the ever-present graffiti grabs my attention, from the chaotic tags to the gorgeous art that enhances the space its in.  Graffiti would be considered an affront in my neighborhood, but here is seems just part of the ambiance.  I wonder if the Greeks feel the same as I do?

kkkk

Wouldn’t you call this art?

I caught up on the Greek news this morning.  Among the stories about the wrestling match between the Greek government and the EU, there were articles about “the tourists’ experience in a Greece in free-fall.”  Mostly they talked about oblivious partiers on Mykonos, and worried travelers being reassured by enigmatic Greek shop owners.  My experience is a little different: yesterday, I met with two researchers, and with a member-owner of a collective cafe.  We met to discuss my dissertation project — the researchers to help me find my way doing research in a foreign country, the cafe owner as a potential project participant.  But it was inevitable that in each case we would discuss the never-ending crisis.

Like I said yesterday, they were all three tired of what they saw as political game-playing and attempts to protect the powerful.  They can’t tell which move — staying with the euro, or the “grexit” — will be best for themselves and their families.  One, who is at retirement age, hears the young people say that “the older generations have ruined everything for us” and is frustrated at their blame game.  Another, a young woman, says it would be nice to “move to the country” like the media claims so many people are doing, but: “if you don’t have land to move to, you can’t afford it.  No one can.”  I know the situation here is dire, but it’s funny, too, how familiar those concerns sound.

Today I had two more meetings.  One was with the owner of a small grocery store that sells organic food, both local and imported.  His shop, Bathoskipos, is not cooperatively owned but is still an example of efforts by the Greek people to support farmers in their own country.  He expressed sadness when I told him how few Nebraskans “buy local.”  “Without their support, how can you succeed?” he asked.  Indeed.

Just some of the tasty wares meticulously displayed at Bathiskipos

Just some of the tasty wares meticulously displayed at Bathoskipos

I also met with my contact at the Hellenic American University.  HAU organized last year’s Athens experience, and have been so helpful over the last year as I have gotten closer to figuring out my dissertation project.

Between meetings, I enjoyed a late breakfast (at my hotel) and a casual lunch (at a street-corner souvlaki joint), and sailed my way across the city, leaving myself plenty of time to get lost.  I still find myself in a perpetual state of confusion making my way here, but somehow I don’t think it’s that unusual right now.

A working lunch.   Last year I discovered that tzaziki is great on french fries.  Today I discovered that it still is!

A working lunch.
Last year I discovered that tzatziki was great on french fries. Today I discovered that it still is!