Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Monday evening after classes, we embarked on our journey to the southernmost island of Greece. Also the largest of all Greek islands, Crete proved to be land filled with vibrant culture. The history of the island begins as far back as the Minoan civiliaztion, of which the most recognizable site is Knossos. I was surprised to learn that the island has been under various different influences throughout history including the Venetians and the Ottomans. On Crete we learned about this history (this was an educational field trip after all) and got a taste of present day life on the island.

We visited three main cities while in Crete; the first of which was Heraklio. Upon arrival in the city, we visited the tomb of Nikos Kazantzakis, a well-known Cretan writer. His tomb is on top of the enormous Venetian walls that remain today, centuries after they were built. The size of these walls is incredible both in height, length, and width. We also stopped at the Archaeological Museum and the Historical Museum of Heraklio. Although the archeological museum was closed for renovations, the temporary exhibit that was available contained the most recognizable artifacts from the area. I saw the Minoan bull head, the bull jumping fresco, and the mysterious Phaistos Disk. While our morning was packed with all this history, our afternoon focused more on the present. After some time swimming on the beach, we went with the WWF to clean up the wetlands in Mallia. We picked up trash at the wetlands (aka the beach) and put up some signs on the beach- a much more complicated task than I originally believed it to be. It involved digging holes for the large wooden posts and gluing the informative signs into place. Afterwards we celebrated at a local shop with some raki, olives, cheese, and snacks.

The following day we visited Knossos. The experience was not quite what I expected; it was a very hot day and the site was extremely crowded with Spanish cruise guests even though we went right when the site opened. Unfortunately, we did not make it into the throne room, but I did see enough of the site to get a sense of what the palace might have been like. While I appreciate Sir Arthur Evans’s attempt to reconstruct the site in order that visitors may better visualize what the palace once was, I am not sure that other archaeologists should follow his lead in reconstructing sites. Evans reconstructed parts of Knossos in the 1920s after his excavations, but after gaining more knowledge since then, we now know that his reconstructions have great inconsistencies with what actually stood there during the Minoan civilizations. Although my experience at Knossos was not fantastic, I did appreciate visiting the archaeological site I have read so much about. After leaving this site, we visited the archaeological site of Eleutherna, which was completely different from Knossos. First off, we were the only ones at the site, for it is not yet open to the public. The director of the site showed us around and much of it is still unpublished. It was cool to see an archaeological site that was still being excavated. We looked primarily at the necropolis where we could see all different kinds of burials (even some skeletons!). After leaving behind this archaeological site, we stopped at the Monastery of Arkadi, which was a gorgeous place to be at sunset. We learned about how the monastery was the center of society for all the surrounding lands. We then spent the evening in the city of Rethymno.

The third morning we spent on a walking tour of Rethymno. We stopped at the Rethymno Folk Museum, which I found to be pretty interesting. The weaving the women did is absolutely beautiful. We also saw the Venetian fortress. We left this city and went on to our final destination of Chania. In this city, we saw the Romaniot Synagogue; the director of it told us about the Jewish presence and Cretan identity. Crete is an island that has been occupied by many different powers and only recently has become part of Greece. The people of Crete seem to think of themselves as Cretan long before they consider themselves Greek. It is interesting how the unstable politics of the island has really shaped how the Cretans think of themselves.

Our final day in Crete was spent in Chania again. Although we were supposed to hike the Samarian Gorge, the weather prevented us from doing so. In Crete I saw the first rain clouds over Greece. While it only rained for five minutes, it was still a strange sight to see so many clouds. Since then, the weather has remained cooler. I don’t think we have had weather in the 90s since that day at Knossos. Fall has definitely begun here in Greece and I can’t say I mind it too much. A break from the 90 degree weather is kind of nice especially when I have to walk around Athens.

Also, the food in Crete was wonderful. My personal favorite was the dakos. Dakos are served as an appetizer and consist of a crispy bread topped with tomatoes and a local cheese called myzithra- so good!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Weekend in Attica

This weekend I did not make it out to another island, but instead stayed on the mainland. Here are the highlights:


Saturday morning I took the bus from Athens to the tip of the peninsula Attica. The bus runs to Sounio and stops right in front of the Temple of Poseidon. This temple is rightfully perched on a hill overlooking the beautiful sea. It served as a sanctuary in antiquity for all the surrounding towns. I continue to be amazed by the ability of the Ancient Greeks to build amazing, long-lasting, sturdy buildings on top of great hills. I know I would not have wanted to carry marble up to the top! I am thankful for their hardwork because I can enjoy the beauty of the structure today. After poking around the site a bit, I walked down a path to the beach at the bottom of the hill. At the beach I once again enjoyed the warm, dry weather of Greece and swam in the sea.

Dora Strattou

My Sunday evening was filled with clapping, dancing, music, and laughter, for my flatmate and I trekked over to Philanpappou Hill for the final performance of Dora Strattou, a Greek Folk Dance show that performs daily throughout the summer in Athens. Once again, I sat in an open air theater not quite sure of what to expect for the show. The audience that arrived was of all ages, and there were both Greeks and tourists present in the crowd. When the show finally began, the man who introduced the show noted that this was the final show and the dancers had prepared special skits for the show tonight.The performance sampled dance from several different areas of Greece including Crete and the Peloponese. Each area has its own traditional dress and style of dance.Some areas seemed to have more flair with the men doing high kicks and spins while other dances were less show-offy and stuck to a tight line and precise steps. The parts of a dance were divided by gender and in some dances there was a single male/female lead who did more complicated footwork than the rest of the dancers.

There was live music accompanying the dancers. In one dance the dancers also chanted the words to the song. The older gentleman seated next to me would occasionally sing quietly along with the music. He was clearly familiar with the songs as well as the dances.The sketches that were added into the performance prompted laughter from the audience. They poked fun at tourists and tied one of the dancers to the maypole at the end of the maypole dance. Two men came out with enormous knives after the completion of one dance where the men wore chicken masks and chased after the chickens. Both the dancers and musicians appeared to be having a blast throughout the show.The Dora Strattou was a fantastic experience. I feel like I have learned a bit more about Greek culture and can appreciate the Greek sense of humor.

In an hour and a half I will be off to Crete for the rest of the week. I am excited to visit this island which I am told is like a different country. Rain is also predicted- maybe my rain jacket will finally be of some use.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


This weekend I journeyed to the island of Andros.  A large island to the east of Athens is known for wind that is strong enough to make opening your car door difficult.  While I didn’t experience wind that strong, I did find the island to be windier than the dry city.  My time on Andros was relaxing, eye-opening, and highly valued.

In Andros we stopped at the archaeological site of Hypsili.  It is an extremely old site that consisted of the foundations of a small village and some walls.  For lunch the first day we stopped a picturesque tavera where we shared a variety of Greek foods from tzatziki to fried cheese.  To drink we had wine as well as water which we collected from a lion head spout on the side of the road.  The water, which comes down from a spring, proved to be exceptionally clear and perfectly okay for drinking. 

After lunch we travelled to Chora, the main town on the island.  At Chora one of the locals, who is a good friend of my Modern Greek teacher, gave us a tour of the town.  She pointed out the square of the unknown sailor.  This is an open square at the end of the peninsula that locals have fought to keep as open space.  It features a large statue of an unknown sailor and overlooks the water and a castle.  She said that it is where young people come at night to spend time, and she remembers a couple nights where she went skinny dipping in the water below.  I enjoyed hearing about the town and finding out all the small stories about the lives of the locals.  She also showed us her favorite church in town.  The church seems to be an integral part of the community there.  In the evening I enjoyed walking through the pedestrian streets filled with many people.  The yogurt pomegranate ice cream here is delicious.

The next day we visited a monastery up on the cliffside and visited Korthi, a town for fishermen on the other side of the island.  One fisherman let us onto his boat and told us about how difficult it has become for the fishermen with the new restrictions imposed by the EU.  Now the fishermen must go out alone rather than in small groups because they will not catch enough fish to split among multiple families.  We then hiked to a beautiful beach.  The calm, clear, warm water was a joy to swim in.  It is so much better than the cloudy waters of New England beaches.  While on Andros, we went to a different beach every day.  The one we visited on Saturday was extremely windy.  While the beach was gorgeous and I enjoyed swimming, sitting on the beach proved to be painful as we were pelted by sand.    At lunch on Saturday, I tried a small fish.  You eat the entire fish (eyeballs and tail!) in one bite.  It wasn’t horrible, but I also don’t think I would choose to eat it again.

I found island life in Greece to be completely different from Athens.  It is much quieter, slower, and prettier.  If I were to move to Greece, I think an island would be much preferred over Athens.  Athens tends to be quite dirty, loud, and at times, a bit unnerving.  Yesterday evening, a small riot formed outside our school in front of the stadium.  There was a large crowd of Greek men yelling and running about with flags.  Traffic stopped and police broke it up.  This morning as I walked by the stadium, one worker was sweeping up broken glass.  It amazes me that these riots are just a part of the usual happenings of the city.  I guess I’m still adjusting to all the commotion of Athens.  Until I can move to a peaceful Greek island, I’ll just have to get used to living in the city. Good thing all the history and ancient monuments make Athens a desirable place to study!

Taxes? No Thank You. Not Today.

As I was reading Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War this evening I was struck by a quote about taxes. Thucydides says that the archaic Athenians were only taxed "a twentieth of their incomes, yet they greatly improved the appearance of their city, carried through their wars successfully, and made all the proper religious sacrifices" (Thucydides, Rex Warner-translator, 444). I had to read the sentence twice. One twentieth? They were still able to thrive? Taxes, and the issue behind them-big versus small government, are a consistent subject of debates in the States. I expected the modern Athenians, the ancestors of the founders of democracy, to share in this debate. There is a lot of debate and democratic protest here, but I was shocked to discover the apparently unanimous discontent with big government.

I came to this realization over the weekend when I went to the local taverna I've been frequenting for a late pre siesta lunch of horiatiki (Greek salad). I have become so accustomed to my taverna over the past few weeks, studying over warm mezhedes on the weekends. It felt incredible to be able to walk in and greet the staff and the regulars; I've been integrated so quickly! The restaurant is owned by Lili Armenis, a kind woman in her fifties. I have seen her take on any and every role in the taverna: chef, hostess, server. So I was surprised to see her taking a break when I entered this Saturday. She had just survived the daily lunch rush and sat down in the seat next to me to enjoy her lunch. She asked me what I was studying and why I came to Athens. As I told her in mixed Greek and English, her eyes lit up. Something I had said had lit a fuse in the taverna owner. With fire in her voice, Lili told me “the Greeks do not want to be told what to do…they do not listen to the government”. Even with three decades of consistent democracy, memories of former subjugation and misrule have created mistrust in government. Lili blamed the recent Greek economic trouble on this attitude, explaining that her countrymen do not pay their taxes. She continued to say that even those who do wish to pay the government have a difficult time because civil servants like to complete work on their own time. Lili has been trying to pay taxes on her new apartment for the past four years, but cannot get government employees to cooperate.

My conversation with Lili received some reinforcement yesterday evening when peaceful tourist activity became a tear gas controlled disruption. Three bus loads of young Athenian sports fans were visiting the Marble Stadium just outside of CYA's offices. The police guarding the stadium felt uncomfortable with the young visitors' behavior and tried to control the fans. The young Athenians seemed to resent the government's attempt to control their activities and the scene evolved into chaos. I was not there to witness the disarray, but some of my roommates had evening classes and came back with great stories. Their professors acknowledged the events occurring just outside of the classroom, but continued lecturing as if the disruption was equivalent to the lawnmowers that seem to run constantly at Tufts. Professors even encouraged students to go outside and get a closer look at the riotous activities. It's all just a part of the interaction between Athenians and their government. Citizens don't always want to listen, express their opinions by ignoring government or protesting loudly, and continue on with life.

This experience and my discussion with Lili gave me something else to think about in my study of democracy: where are today’s democracies going? What will happen when everyone’s dissatisfaction with increasing government influence reaches a saturation point? Maybe the next time I go visit Lili I'll ask for her thoughts on these new questions and her reactions to the fact that the Athenians once did pay their taxes, back in the days when taxes were 1/20 of income!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

What Rules?

When my Origins of Classical Greek Civilization Professor asked me this morning how my first week in Athens went I had several responses at the ready. I was prepared to recount my first (of hopefully many) adventure at the Acropolis, Acropolis Museum, and Odeon of Herodes Atticus. I could have discussed my initial climb through Kolonaki up to St. George's at the top of Lykavittos Hill, Athens' highest point. There were also plenty of thoughts on my new classes and professors- the great things they were already teaching me. I was eager, too, to tell of my experience with the kind dry cleaner who speaks no English, but patted me on the back with a smile, using hand motions to explain that I could just buy him coffee in exchange for the five euros I owed him, but didn't have exact change for. Yet instead the first thing out of my mouth was "I'm really struck by Athens' straddling of East and West". Of course every European nation has its own unique aspects, but I find Athens remarkably different from the other European nations I've travelled to. The city can't seem to decide whether it is an Eastern or Western nation and, with an added ironic twist, sometimes it appears that it is neither, it's just Athens. Perhaps I'll tell you a little bit more about Athens' Eastern-Western tension more another time, but for now I'm really amazed by the situations in which the city and its people follow their own agenda.
The first time I encountered this distinct characteristic of Athens it literally hit me...well, almost. According to CYA Professors jaywalking is an Athenian art. I happen to love jaywalking and was thrilled that I already possessed a skill that would help me become an Athenian even quicker. Well, it turns out that jaywalking is not just a casual hobby, but the national sport! In other words, I need some practice before I can truly become an Athenian jaywalker. On my way to class one day I saw cars begin to stop at the corner of my street, erasthinous. I was thrilled that I did not have to walk to the corner before crossing so I threw my head to the left and right, just in case a car seemed to be inching forward. I jumped into the street and, but a second later, heard screeching. Upon whipping my head to the left I realized that I had just almost been hit by a motorcycle!* I hadn't seen the driver previously because he had been in another lane, a real lane. Athenian motorcyclists and moped drivers create their own lanes if the legitimate ones are unsatisfactory. I have borne witness to mopeds speeding down roads and then popping onto people filled sidewalks as well as what I like to call 'Off to the Races'. At a red light all of the motorcyclists maneuver in whatever way necessary to get to the front of the line of traffic. Then, as soon as the light becomes green, revved engines and screeching tires are heard for miles as all of the motorcycles speed faster and faster down the street as if racing. Actually, red lights don't even seem to matter too much as I've seen many automobilists drive right through them. Surprisingly, I have not seen any accidents. I admire the freedom that the Athenians exhibit in their driving. There are rules, but the city's residents choose to see them more as guidelines.
Similarly, Athens seems to regard EU regulations as suggestions rather than requirements. Walking the slippery, and rather unique, marble streets of Athens my friends and I realized that there is a ridged strip of sidewalk on almost every street. We theorized that the strip was there to help us grip onto the sidewalk, but we were proved wrong when, on a tour of our neighborhood, we asked Professor John Karavas what the 'grip strip' really was. Professor Karavas explained that the Athenians do not always like following the directions of others. He told us that ridged sidewalk strip was a European Union instituted measure to aid blind people in finding their way around the city streets. Not three feet later, though, Professor Karavas showed us what he meant that the Athenians do not always listen. A line of restaurants all had tables outside covering the strips of ridged sidewalk. A blind citizen would walk smack into a table. Yet I have never seen any regulatory officials out on the streets reprimanding restaurant owners. Interestingly, Professor Karavas had a few thoughts on how this Greek attitude has lead to some of the country's recent problems (and I do too and will share them in a future post!). He seemed to resent the Greek's lax attitude, but funny enough he then turned around, continued with a slow swing in his step, asked if it was all right if he smoked, and inquired if anyone wanted to join him, and proceeded to a route off the map CYA had asked him to follow. He seemed to embody the attitude he had just derided and has obviously been living here for a while! Even adopted Athenians create their own paths rather than always doing what they are told.
So why haven't I seen any car accidents? Why didn't the city fall to pieces year ago if no one follows the rules? How is this attitude influencing current Greek events? All great questions, but I'm afraid I'll have to leave them for the future as I must go prepare for a trip to the Ancient Agora with my Archaeology of Athens class at 7 am tomorrow! For now I'll leave you with the image of Eris, Greek Goddess of Chaos, continuing to spread disorder around Athens. I've already seen great things come out of this seeming chaos!

*PS: Don't worry, I'm practicing safe, and rare, jaywalking!

The Herodeion Theater

Saturday evening I, along with thousands of other people, made the journey out to the base of the Acropolis. Once there, I became a spectator at the Herodeion Theater, which was built into the hillside thousands of years ago as an open-air theater. Today, the theater is used to house classical performances during the Athenian summers. I was told this was an experience not to be missed while in Athens, and, boy, were they right.

Although I was told it didn’t matter what was showing at the theater, I went to see Medea, which I was familiar with after having read it in translation in Classics of Greece with Professor Merzlak in the spring. I wish I had had time to reread it before seeing it in this ancient theater, for it was entirely in Modern Greek. At times I found it extremely difficult to follow, but whenever I did catch a word that I recognized from Ancient Greek or identified Medea’s fury, I found myself smiling at how I could understand what was happening despite the language barrier.

I found the performance to be phenomenal; it held my interest despite only understanding about three spoken words. The chorus moved about and filled the stage with their presence. Their verses were beautifully rehearsed and provided a pleasant complement to the angry monologues of Medea. Overall, my experience at the theater was enjoyable and entertaining. I recommend stopping by if you are in Greece, but bring a fan- it warms up quickly with so many people!