Saturday, May 9, 2015

Scooter on Syros

The Babe on the beach.

In a day on Syros you can see lost mountains, explore ancient villages, lounge in a funky beach town, and sip pineapple juice as you watch the sunset. And all you need is 15 Euros for a scooter, and a phone to call George. That was who I was currently talking to.

“I pick you and we drive to get scooter. Your hotel?” George said. I trusted this proposition because he’d paid for a signboard in town. I assume human traffickers don’t advertise.

The Beard on his beast, Flytrap
Er… we’re staying at someone’s house, not a hotel.
“I don’t understand. Your hotel name?”
Can you just meet us at the Express Mart in Finikas?
“I don’t understand. Your hotel?”
Express Mart! Finikas.
“I don’t understand. Express Mart? Finikas? Thirty minutes?”
Yes! Express Mart! Finikas! Thirty minutes is great!
“I drive red car.”
Thirty minutes later and I’m pacing back and forth in front of the Express Mart. Is that his car? What about that one? Do you think that’s him?

“That car’s blue. That’s a bus. That’s a cat.” Raquel is nothing if not patient.

Finally George pulled up in—as promised—a red car. We piled in and drove off to rent a scooter. Raquel chose a blue one, and named it Fly-trap after what it would turn our mouths into, and we were off, albeit briefly. It seems 15 euros doesn’t exactly cover gasoline. But there’s not much better in life than a full tank of gas and nothing to but explore, so we paid the seven euroes it cost to fill Flytrap’s tank and vowed to discover every nook of the island.

Aloe in Anos Syros
The island of Syros is beautiful in May. Daisies and lavender bushes fight for the attention of honeybees. Goats and sheep lost in a maze of meter-tall rock walls munch on lush grass already starting to turn yellow. Blocky houses with funky arches and courtyards shaded by grape vines crowd together in the valleys and a whitewashed church trimmed in blue sits on top of almost every hill. It’s breathtaking and wonderful and feels very much alive. 
Our first stop was Anos Syros, a town atop a hill built in the 13th century by the Phoenicians. It overlooks the city of Hermopolis, and doted on by the locals. They all insisted that to not go and wander the streets was to not experience Syros.
So we parked Fly-trap near a marble staircase and looked towards the top of the town. A sandy colored church poked out of a mess of houses, laundry lines and gardens. With no clear way to the top, we meandered in. Up and up we climbed, through a labyrinth of courtyards, potted flowers and hidden tavernas. We smelled women cooking, heard children practicing the violin, and saw men painting and repairing mortar, readying the town for summer. We climbed past them all, under tiny arches, up crooked staircases, and over sleeping cats until we arrived at the church at the top of the hill.

The Babe got us lost
We caught our breath, let our grins tire themselves out and started our descent back down.
Wait, did we go this way, or that way?

“Ooh look a kitty!”

Wow that’s a beautiful view!

“Look another cat!”

We emerged from Anos Syros completely disoriented and a good hundred vertical meters below where we had left Flytrap. To take the obvious path would be easily a kilometer of snaking, highly trafficked road, so we braved the labrynth again to try to find our way out. After a painfully long climb up a staircase that meandered through wildflowers and brick ruins, we were back in the medieval hilltop town. Like  and the minotaur, I kept my hand on the right wall, and we found our way out.

Feeling foolishly accomplished, there was nothing left to do but explore the rest of the island.

So on we drove, around blind turns and cliff-hugging bumpy roads until we reached the church of St. Michalis on the far end of the island. There was nothing but a big black rock, fields of flowers and a farm with perhaps two dozen beehives. Our curiosity quenched we headed south to the town of Kini, where we did nothing but swim, nap on the beach, and eat fresh anchovies from the Aegean Sea. We watched the silhouette of a lone fisherman cast his line against the sun set of a perfect day.

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Greek Restaraunts and Waiters


Greek food is amazing. Everyone knows feta and olives but there’s much more to the cuisine. We’ve had roasted anchovies, crispy croquettes, lemony fish soup, and cucumber salads. Dining in Greece is also great because of the waiters. Everywhere we’ve been, except for one amazing bakery run by a grumpy baker, we’ve been treated as honored guests to be fattened and entertained.  
Crispy croquettes
It’s good to travel with Raquel because she eats half of my plate while I eat hers. The best meal we’ve had thus far was veal slow cooked with fresh green beans in tomato sauce and a massive hunk of mousaka. Raquel said the veal was so tender it fell apart when you looked at it, the green beans popped when sprinkled with feta, but we agreed the best was the mousaka. Potatoes and eggplant were roast to perfection then layered with spicy minced meat, house made tomato sauce, and topped with a layer of creamy béchamel sauce and (surprise) a sprinkling of feta. It was then put in the oven just until the top turned all brown and crispy. I know the ingredients and how it was prepared because when our waiter saw that we’d licked our plates clean he thanked us profusely, and when I told him it was even better than my dad’s mousaka, he proceeded to tell us, in perhaps too much detail, all of his secrets for the next fifteen minutes.

Fried fresh anchovies (better than the sardines)
There must be a fraternity the waiters join, and if you speak Greek to them they’re forced to lavish you in kindness. At a seafood restaurant on the island of Kea a waiter saw us looking at the menu and practically dragged us to the back of the place to look at the fresh fish.

Looks delicious! But we just ate.

He didn’t care. He knew we’d be back, we’d seen the fish after all.

We returned the same night and were greeted by the same man. He helped us pick out a scorpion fish (I like to eat strange things, and scorpion fish look strange) and two delicious red fish whose name I have forgotten. The scorpion fish has a texture something like crab and a rich almost meaty taste. Raquel could not stop eating its cheeks. The other fish was light, flaky and crispy with salt and I cannot remember because I thanked one of the waiters in Greek, and he practically fell over in delight. Soon as we finished our fish we were presented Mastiha. I tried to ask the waiter exactly what it was to which he simply asked, “You know Mastih? It is made of Mastih!” It is so delicious that Raquel actually drinks it, perhaps too quickly for when the waiter saw our empty glasses he snapped his fingers and they were refilled. Raquel slid her second shot of this wonderful drink to me (she’s still a lightweight, no matter how good the booze) and I proceeded to become pleasantly inebriated. On our way out we thanked our hosts, efharisto, to which they added, efharisto poly, or thank you very much. A meal and a language lesson. Marvelous.
Amazing rabbit and onions. Notice the
falling-off-the-bone quality

But our best host was a man in Hermopolis. He was thin and goateed and did everything with a flourish, whether it was pouring wine or clearing plates. He recommended the rabbit, and we thankfully listened to his suggestion. It came with caramelized pearl onions and pile of fried potatoes. We rounded out the meal with a bowl of fat fresh beans topped in feta and white wine. The rabbit was savory and decadent and was accented by the sweetness from the caramelized onions which popped in your mouth, braising the rabbit in their juices with each bite. Between morsels of rabbit we scooped up the beans and feta with our fried potatoes and watched our waiter. The only time he wasn’t singing was when he was acting like a monster to make little children laugh, doing pratfalls when he banged his head against the signboard, or clearing a table, an activity he liked to do without a tray, much to the chagrin of the other waitress, who would follow him to be sure he didn’t drop anything. He repaid her assistance by placing a potted plant on her tray anytime she got too close. Maybe it was just the wine, but we found it all hilarious.

And what’s better than a fine meal served with a personal touch? A week of them.

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Speak Greek

The Bear
“It’s all Greek to me,” I joked, looking at the funny letters that look like ours but don’t sound like them. We were in japan a year, and any attempts to learn the language were met with giggles and embarrassment, so why bother in Greece? It’s not like I’ll be able to get any sort of handle on the language in two weeks, and what will learning a few phrases really do?

Turns out that a few words in Greek have earned Raquel and I all sorts of goodies.

First, a disclaimer. I can’t read Greek, neither can you probably, so my translations are all just the sounds of Spanish. So think adios amigos not goodbye my friends.

We were given our first lesson in Greek from the first restaurant we went to. I asked the waiter how to say thank you, and he told us, efharisto, then spent the rest of the evening teaching us greek spelling on our table cloth. He was great. He’d write down a phrase, then vanish and let us absorb it, then as soon as we’d glance his way he’d be back at the table, checking our pronunciation. After the meal and the lesson I told him efharisto for everything. So impressed he was he brought us mastiha a sweet herb flavored digestif. It was perfect after a meal of spiced meatballs and mousaka. Raquel spent her entire time on the subway telling me how good it made her tummy feel.

The next phrase we learned was yasas, which means cheers and is good for hello or goodbye. We tried out this handy phrase in a little bakery. It earned us free sesame seed crusted pretzels and a big smile from the shopkeeper.

Of course, when learning all of this greek, you may get in over your head. This happened to us in the town of Finikas, when at a Taverna (spelled Tabepna in Greek). We ordered in greek, feta parakolo, or feta please, and the waiter proceeded to interrogate us in his mother tongue. I understood not a word, but the waiter figured this out soon enough and switched to English. Half a bottle of wine later and I was drinking tsipouro with the Frenchmen at the table next to us. Siporo is distilled white wine and I can’t for the life of me figure out why anyone would take something as good as greek white wine and turn it into something as repulsive as tsipouro. Fortunately the waiter noticed my distressed and brought Raquel and I rakomelo, which is the same vile liquor that’s been boiled with cinnamon and honey, and is marvelous.
After that drunken debacle I learned the next phrase. Milate Anglica? Or, you-speaka-da-english? This one earned us chocolate at a coffee shop one day and cheaper cups of coffee the next. Seriously I think they just like spoiling young Americans.
But perhaps the most powerful phrase in my limited vocabulary is roharismo parakalo. Which means simply, “check please.” If you learn anything besides yasas, I’d focus on this one. I always say it at the end of the meal and the waiters seem unable to help but bring us desert. I’ve earned us yogurt with figs and honey this way, a coconut custard that was quite tasty and two pieces of something like flan, one of which was coated in lavender syrup and the other in a pomegranate reduction. Ambrosia, and all thanks to asking for the check in Greek. I think the waiters appreciate an attempt at the language, and can’t help but feed us a little bit more.
The Babe and the Beard

But then again, I could be full of crap. The locals have told us they haven’t seen Americans here in years, and everyone might be being nice just so we’ll spread the good word. Either that or they’re trying to get at my wife. Aw well, at least they know enough to try to get me drunk while they’re doing it.
If you enjoyed this post, there's more! Use that Greek at a great restaurant or perhaps while you explore the island of Syros!

Cats in Syros

Our first week in Greece was spent on the island of the sleeping cats. They won’t say this in the guidebooks, but Syros is the land of cats. Tens, twenties, hundreds, thousands.

Do you see the sleeping cat?
At restaurants they stare into your soul with hungry eyes. Order the seafood at your own peril. It is delicious, but nothing calls the cats like fresh roasted fish. I nibbled at my anchovies, and when our waitress wasn’t looking, slipped a feminine feline delicious morsels of salty fish. How could I help it? Her eyes were half hooded, her gaze seductive. Yet, resist I should have, for a second later we were surrounded by her family. Their coats were all grey and striped, their lips all black, and they had a system. It was like something out of a how-to-not-get-pickpocketed guide book. The old uncle who was losing his hair gave directions from the back while the tough ones prowled the perimeter and made sure no one interrupted our little transaction. The curvaceous twins took front and center. They plied us with heavy petting and helped us part with the food we didn’t know we didn’t need. Meow! Try as I might, I couldn’t resist them. I ate bread and the crispy tails of the sardines, while the cats munched on the meaty filets. Curse their whiskers! I’m just happy they weren’t after my wallet.

 It’s not just the restaurants either. Everywhere we go, we see cats. In the mornings they sleep atop low, whitewashed walls, warming themselves after the cool night, and in the afternoon they move down into the shade, careful not to expend any energy. They hide in the tall flowering bushes and prowl rooftops, eager to catch a sparrow but cautious to avoid the ever screeching seagulls. A night hasn’t passed without the shrill shrieks a catfight, battling over a morsel of fish or a wounded mouse. There’s even a statue at the church of a sleeping lion. His followers catnap around him, worshipping the idol in their dreams.
Each part of the island has its own clan of cats. In Kini, it’s the grey striped family I couldn’t help but feed, in Hermopolis, they’re mostly orange. Here in Finikas, there’s a clan of cats with white fur and patches of orange and black on their faces.  There’s a mangy mother, a generation of young, sleek teenage hotties, and a bundle of kittens we can’t get enough of. We’ve woken to the sounds of mewls only to find our hosts’ daughter has wrapped up all the kittens in a towel and is parading them around the house. We’ve tried to keep the mother cat out, for she is undeniably infested with fleas, but she is always quick to sneak in when she smells food. Last night she licked our plates clean of fish clean before vanishing back into the night.

Well, not vanished. She stopped on the porch to spray filthy cat urine all over Raquel’s beach shawl. Ah, Syros, where the cats are cheap, you only pay if a piece of cloth falls from the clothes line.  No worries though, it was nothing soaking it in ocean for an hour couldn’t fix, and this1` is the price of tiny kittens. A territorial mother and stolen morsels of fish.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The People of Greece

Thus far, my favorite thing in Greece, besides the food of course, is the people. Everyone here is boisterous, loud, and almost honest to a fault. Most people are very friendly, but some, well, it’s not that they’re mean, it’s just that they don’t sugarcoat anything for foolish Americans.

Right now we’re staying in the town of Finikas on the island of Syros. There is a bakery in town that is amazing. We’ve gone every day thus far, yet we’re still regarded with suspicion. The first day I sauntered in and yelled a loud, “howdy!” much to Raquel’s dismay. A plump older woman came out and I proceeded to interrogate her about her savory pies.

What’s that?

“Cheese feta.”

Uh-huh. And what’s that?


Interesting. But what’s that?”

“Zucchini-cheese,” she said as she gritted her teeth.

Raquel interjected before the woman baked me into a pie. “We’ll take a feta and a spinach, thanks!” Outside she told me “You can’t do that!”

How am I supposed to know which one I want?

“Just… don’t ask about more than three, OK?”

I follow Raquel’s rule, but neither the proprietress nor I am happy about it. Too many questions for her and not enough for me. Yet, despite my questions, on the third day Raquel actually got her to smile. She squeaked or chirped when the lady handed us our pastries the woman melted her like a piece of feta in one of her delicious pies. But the next day her scowl was back and fiercer than ever. 

I’m not convinced it’s my questioning though. For she’s not the only person on this island that regards us with suspicion. My mantra when travelling is always, “do I look like a tourist? Do I look like a tourist?” to which, on Syros at least, Raquel responds, “yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, stop asking.” One evening, when sharing drinks with a Frenchmen named Fred at a Taverna, the white wine made Raquel brave enough to ask about our predicament. Fred and his Greek companion were happy to explain.

“No one wears hats here,” the Greek said from beneath the brim of his canvas fisherman’s hat.

“Oui, you look like a cowboy,” said Fred who sported a bright red and blue hat of his own.

Ok, so perhaps a straw hat and a denim long sleeved shirt with suede shoulders isn’t the best choice. But what’s a man to do? I gotta protect my skin and that was the only shirt on the island Raquel liked!

“But why do they stare at me?” Raquel asked, “Is it because I have a tattoo?” That hipster wife of mine. Even in Greece, she can’t help but flash her ink.

The Greek regarded her coolly, “everyone here has tattoos. It’s your skirt.”

All eyes went to my wife’s legs.

“People don’t dress in long skirts anymore. You look like something from history.”

“And that color!” said Fred, “you look like an Indian.”

“Yeah! A cowboy and an Indian!” The Greek said and the pair of them died laughing, not the least bit concerned they had offended us.

And I like that. So come to Greece, relax, and don’t worry. If you do something stupid, the locals won’t hesitate to let you know.

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