Monday, December 9, 2013

Make the Days Count (Part 2)


Since we only have to be in the classroom for a few hours a day, there would be ample time to sit in the apartment or library.  Instead, I use that time to actively be in Athens.  Even when I have work to do, I go out to a café to complete it.  The city is filled with artsy cafes, cool teahouses, and traditional tavernas to sit for hours with a cup of espresso.

Usually, I like to try new places every time.  I figure there are too many awesome places to discover to go anywhere repeatedly.  My main exception to this is Avocado.  Avocado is a delicious, organic restaurant using local produce.  They offer free meditation on Tuesdays and have a very cool vibe.  Everything on the menu (and believe me, I’ve tried a lot of it) is yummy.  I sit from noon until 5 pm working and snacking. 

For the first few months, my friends and I diligently participated in a tradition of our own creation, “Cultural Wednesdays.”  Every Wednesday night, we researched to find something “cultural.”  We entrenched ourselves with Greek culture and found underground activities.  When discussing our outings with a staff member, he was flabbergasted.  Impressed with our success, he said that he would have to ask us for recommendations on Athens, rather than the other way around. 

One week, we attended an outdoor movie theater with stunning views of the acropolis.  Another time, we had a picnic in the Garden near a fountain.   One of my favorite outings was to Mount Lycabettus.  Looming in the not-so-distant distance, Mount Lycabettus is taller than the acropolis.  At sunset, my friends and I brought takeout from Avocado and hiked the (very large, lots of vertical inclines) hill.  The effort was worth it.  From atop the small mountain, we could see all of Athens lay out before us.  The view was spectacular as the sunset and the lights of Athens turned on.

Another unique experience came when we went to a photography exhibit. We were the only people there that were not locals.  Late at night, the space also became a jazz bar. Greek conversation swirled around us as the band played.  The music space had no roof, and stars helped to illuminate my friends’ faces.  The music and drinks were impressive and we truly felt like we belonged among the natives that night. 

Make the Days Count (Part 1)

Throughout the semester, my friends and I have made a concerted effort to make the most of study abroad.  As we travel nearly every single weekend, it would be easy to feel unsteady in your routine.  We have a more limited time in our home city than many programs offer. 

To combat this, we are constantly exploring all that Athens has to offer during the week.  From Monday to Thursday, we made sure to take every opportunity to go out into Athens.  To create a sense of normalcy, I dedicated certain days to specific activities.  For instance, Monday is exploration day.  I choose a different neighborhood of this sprawling capital city and walk its streets with a friend.  Together, we seek out hidden side streets and shops, sip coffee in cafes, and appreciate the variety within Athens.  In this way, I have gained a true sense of the city and have made it my own.

Athens nightlife largely occurs on weekends.  The club scene is rather quiet during the week, compared to its rowdy nature on Friday and Saturday.  Mondays are still nights to dance in the clubs without quite as much of a crowd.  Other nights, my friends and I frequent bars like the Greeks do.  In an overly crowded, overly loud space, we find a table and post up.  Sitting outdoors if the weather permits, we sip a drink and socialize with our own table for hours. 

Greeks are friendly in some circumstances – and not at all in others.  At a shop or café, the locals will say hello and chat.   In a social setting however, they do not talk to people outside of their group. 

I often spend Tuesdays visiting museums.  With my school ID, I have free access to all of Greece’s museums and archeological sites.  Outside of class, I have viewed the artifacts in the National Archeology museum, the Acropolis Museum, the Benaki museum, and the Byzantine museum.  Initially, I saved the museums for rainy or cold days unfit for outdoor adventures.  However, as the semester progressed, I happily realized that days of inclement weather were infrequent.  

A snowy Christmas (market) in Berlin

I have just returned from Berlin.  Many flights in the hours leading up to my own were canceled due to strong winds and an entire airport nearby to Berlin was shut down.  So you can imagine how bumpy the flight was.  Sitting in the absolute last row, in a window seat that did not have a window (blank wall instead) I reminded myself that the motion sickness was worth getting to Berlin and that I was lucky that my flight wasn’t canceled in the first place.  With each dip of the plane and new patch of turbulence, I became less convinced by my own words.  I am happy to say that that was the worst part of the weekend.

While my friends and I were there, it snowed for the first time this season.  We all stuck out our tongues to catch the large, soft flakes and rejoiced in winter.  The Christmas markets were even more adorable in the snow. 

The twinkling lights, decorated tree, merry-go-round, and ice skating rink had us all feeling as if we had entered a winter wonderland.  We tried one of nearly every food item at the market, each savoring a bite from a shared pretzel, bratwurst, or waffle.  The hot cocoa and mulled wine were served in frosted mugs with depictions of winter in Berlin on the side.  The perfect drink and perfect souvenir, all wrapped into one.

The biggest surprise was the food.  German food is heavy sausages, potatoes, stews, and meat.  But Berlin is renown for its international and ethnic food.  I enjoyed superb Vietnamese.  The Mexican food was the spiciest food I have been able to find while abroad.  And the falafels were the best I have eaten outside of Israel.  The varied cuisines we found in Berlin were a much needed and appreciated change from the repetitious (yet delicious) Greek food in Greece. 

The nightlife in Berlin was unique.  The entire time in the city, we wore only black in order to avoid standing out.  When going out, we were instructed not to dress up.  The more casual we looked, the more we fit in.  A friend of a friend who studies in Berlin showed us the best spots.  One club was in an abandoned pool, while the next was an old power plant.  These spots were dark and dirty, and oh so cool.  Few people danced.  Those who did did the “Berlin Line Dance as we dubbed it.  Facing the DJ, men and women sidestepped back and forth.  Rarely, arms and heads bopped in time to the beat.  Shoulders and hips remained locked. 

During the day, we did the classic sightseeing.  The East Side Gallery (still standing portion of the Berlin Wall) hammered home the reality of Germany’s recent history.  The Jewish Museum was one of the very best museums I have ever explored, with a beautiful photography exhibit, an accessible history of the Jews, and a powerful Holocaust portion.  Unique architecture and interactive exhibits added to the overall experience. 

Greek Winter

Standing on the acropolis with my art and archeology class, I was acutely aware of one fact:  We have all become weather wimps.  Spoiled by the long, luxurious summer, cold weather in Greece took us all by surprise.

As the professor lectured, my peers stomped their feet to keep from losing feeling in their toes.  We huddled up for warmth and pulled our wool scarves tighter around our necks.  Each gust of wind caused teeth to chatter.  Our winter coats were not sufficient protection from the brutal cold.

The only problem? It was 45 degrees and sunny.  Of course, this is not warm.  But most of us are used to the much colder temperatures of winter in the northeast.   The months in Greece turned all of us into Greeks in regards to weather.

In Greece, heavy dew brings out rain slickers and umbrellas.  Anything lower than 50 and the parkas come out.  I am not exaggerating.  And now, I am part of it. 

Weekend trips to locations such as Prague and Berlin are startling reminders of what real cold is.  And frightful indicators of what I have to prepare for when I return to campus in January!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

From Hungary to Turkey for Thanksgiving

For fall break, I traveled with a few friends to Prague and Budapest, then continued on to Istanbul with a separate group.  Each city I visited was split into distinct parts by a river, which created an intriguing comparison between them. 

Budapest is my favorite city that I have visited on any of my travels thus far.  It is stunning in a less obvious way.  The history is tangible in the atmosphere, yet the city buzzes with an air of possibility for the future.  The weather was chilly, yet manageable (unlike Prague) and the leaves were fiery red and orange.  We explored castles and churches and went on a superb walking tour.  

Buda contained the famous castle, fisherman’s bastion etc, while we ate, went out, and stayed in Pest.   The ruin bars in Budapest were awesome.  Abandoned buildings are converted into bars without any renovations or improvements.  Each ruin bar is unique, with quirky artwork and vibes. 

Prague was pretty in a more obvious way.  The astronomical clock, Prague castle, and churches all reminded me of a fairytale town straight out of Walt Disney’s imagination.  We went -and added to- the Lennon wall.  It was so cold in Prague that we could only remain outside for about an hour at a time, before we needed to seek out a café to warm up.  This provided plenty of opportunities to explore the coffee, pastry, and café culture of Prague.  One day, we went to a wonderful old bookshop with art deco décor, plush couches, and fantastic hot chocolate.  

Istanbul was an exotic adventure.  Mosques replaced the churches I had grown accustomed to seeing on each block.  One mosque was more ornamental than the next, with the blue mosque standing out as the most famous and grand.  To me, the Hagia Sofia was the best aspect of Istanbul.  I have spent much of my college career studying the Byzantine Empire.  I therefore fully appreciated the importance of the site and its long history.  I stood, head back, in awe of the magnificent architecture and aware of all that had occurred within the space. 

The spice market in Istanbul was also incredible.  Dried fruit, nuts, spices, and teas stood in tall pyramids in every stand.  Men called out, attempting to attract our business.  They used dated references (calling us the Golden Girls) that were more humorous than irritating.  The colors, odors, and sounds of the markets were overwhelming in the best way.  I delighted in the sensory overload in the spice market, the market on the Asia side of Istanbul, and the Grand Bazaar.  

Toga party in Sparta for Halloween

CYA traveled to the Peloponnese this week.   Much like in Northern Greece, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the varied landscape of the peninsula.  We traveled from Olympia to Sparta, Nafplio, and Delphi.  These famous, ancient sites were as grand and awe-inspiring as I had hoped.  The oracle of Delphi had stunning buildings and views.  Olympia, the site of the very first Olympic games retained its majesty from centuries past.  We saw numerous buildings and artifacts that students around the world learn of, such as the Charioteer, the Lion Gate of Mycenae, and the temple of Apollo at Delphi.  The ability to see them in person compounds my education and leaves me continuously grateful.   

On Halloween, everyone on my bus held a Toga party in Sparta.  How could you not?!  

Nafplio was a magical little town on the coast.  The weather was warm and the sea literally sparkled in the sunlight.  We climbed a medieval fortress then proceeded to walk down the hundreds of steep steps back to the city center.  Each twist of the stairway brought a new view, more beautiful than the last.  The quaint town had red shingles and was dotted with ornate churches.  The sea was never far from view. 

The main streets of Nafplio were home to the usual tourist shops and restaurants.  However, a little searching brought true rewards.  We ate at a delicious, empty Greek restaurant down an alley lit by string lights.   We ordered appetizers one at a time, sharing each family style while sipping white wine local to the area.  After a few hours, we wandered into a gelato restaurant known as the best in Greece. 

The streets themselves were narrow and paved with cobblestone.  Flowers hung from every balcony and ivy covered the walls.  Old fashion lamps emitted a soft glow at night.  All in all, the town was picturesque and adorable.  For anyone traveling to Greece, I would highly recommend visiting the Peloponnese and Northern Greece, in addition to the islands and the capital.  Greece has so much to offer to anyone willing to adventure a bit out of the norm to enjoy it.  

Sunday, November 17, 2013

When in...Bulgaria?

Greece's unique location provides the opportunity to explore the more remote countries. My friends and I took advantage of our proximity to these less-visited nations of central Europe by traveling to Sofia, Bulgaria for the weekend. Though we were not sure exactly what to expect when we booked our trip, Bulgaria ended up being a pleasant surprise. The central squares and old churches, mosques, and administrative buildings that dotted the small city were breathtaking. We spent much of our time walking the entirety of Sofia, taking in the atmosphere, people, and beauty. 

The trip began with the best walking tour I have ever participated in. The tour guide was funny and knowledgeable. We were able to get our bearings and decide what aspects of the city we wanted to explore more deeply. The weather was perfect- a beautiful fall day. The walk took us past stunning buildings and adorable food and trinket markets. 

The biggest surprise was the cuisine. I did not go in with high hopes. The traditional Bulgarian food was fine, with the highlight being the bread. Much like challah in texture and taste, pitka set our meal off to a great start. Other than Bulgarian, we enjoyed soups (Vietnamese, Indian, Spinach, Vegan, etc.) that exploded with flavor. We also went out to a fantastic Moroccan restaurant. Who knew Bulgaria had such an international palate?

My friends and I also visited a communist propaganda museum that I would recommend to anyone and everyone. We took fantastic photos with the statues in the park section of the museum.

All in all, our trip to Sofia, Bulgaria was an excellent adventure. Though I think I will visit new nations before I return to Bulgaria, I highly recommend it for anyone in the area.

Friday, November 15, 2013

When it rains, it pours

Now that fall is upon us, the rain is falling as well.  And in Greece, the thunderstorms are no joke.  They come about suddenly but last for hours.  It rains harder than the most intense summer storms back home. The lightning is frequent and lights up the entire street. But what really stands out is the thunder. Rolling thunder, lasting long seconds makes one feel as if the city is falling.  The thunder is louder than any I have ever heard- by a factor of three.

More often than not, the storms come in the middle of the night. The usual street sounds are suddenly overwhelmed by the crash of thunder and the splattering raindrops. And let me say, it is no easy feat to drown out the street noises.

Sidebar: Athens is LOUD at night. Dogs barking and fighting, motorbikes speeding through the street no matter the hour, Greeks screaming at one another, and construction. Beginning at 4 am, workers pound away at the church that I live next to. Jackhammers set the dogs barking again and threaten to shatter my eardrums.  To top it off, Roma (gypsies) drive through the street with a megaphone, broadcasting their willingness to take people's trash. I do not know how, but I have grown accustomed to the noise.  Now, when I go on vacation to a serene, quiet site, I find it difficult to sleep. Who would have thought?

Aaaanyway. These past few weeks, I have found jolted awake to the wind and rain slamming my balcony door. Instead of closing the door and going back to sleep, I slip out onto the balcony and watch the storm. Though the rain comes down steadily, I stay dry. I watch late-night stragglers run for the safety of awnings and the silhouettes of buildings come in and out of view. The sounds and sites of a giant Athens thunderstorm are cleansing and surprisingly comforting. Happy Fall!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Hiking to the Gods: Mount Olympus

Over the weekend I, along with several other students on my program, climbed Mount Olympus in Thessaly. After spending all of my weekends thus far exploring Grecian islands, the cold was a shock to the system. Even at the base of the mountain, we could see our breath. The hike itself was strenuous but manageable. Anyone who has hiked near the Loj would likely be able to handle it.

The first day, the hike was flatter but longer. We slowly made our way up to the cabin where we had dinner and spent the night. The fall foliage enhanced the views (if that is possible) but made me nostalgic for a New England fall. Nothing can compare.

The second day's climb had a much steeper incline as neared the summit. Eventually, we climbed above the tree line...then above the cloud line. The coolest sight was to look across the mountain ridge and see the clouds in a shelf below you, being mirrored back by the sea. Stunning.

The adrenaline really kicked in when we reached the top and felt the sense of accomplishment. Totally worth the effort, and completely attainable. As instructed by my Myth and Religion professor, we offered libations to the Greek Gods reported to live on the mountain.

We told riddles and stories on the long hike down, pausing occasionally to breath in the incredible fresh air (here in Athens you don't get much of that).

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Island Hopping

In the month that I have been here, I have visited four islands: Mykonos, Andros, Crete, and Santorini. I have yet to stay in Athens (or leave Greece) for a weekend, but that seems fairly standard for this program. After spending over 50 collective hours aboard Blue Star Ferries, I'm beginning to feel at home on these boats.

Each island had its own distinct landscape, appeal, and personality. Personally, I had the best time visiting Andros as a part of CYA's optional trip. Prior to the trip, I had never even heard of Andros. It is a small island, with few tourists and beautiful, isolated beaches that we had to hike to reach. There was a medieval monastery built high up into the mountains. The monastery itself, as well as the view of the island/sea was incredible.

Yesterday, I returned from Santorini. Though it was more touristy than the others, there was an archeological site that was breathtaking. Akrotiri is an ancient city that was buried by a volcanic eruption. Like Pompeii, the site was perfectly preserved by the ash. Three story houses, pristine pottery, and impressive frescos were all discovered at Akrotiri.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


My very first weekend abroad I traveled to the Greek Island of Mykonos. With thirteen other friends, I took a five-hour ferry to this island paradise. Luckily, the ferry was more like a cruise ship, so I avoided any seasickness concerns.

Taking the trip so early on into the program was a perfect way to meet a lot of people in CYA and connect with the group.

As soon as we docked, hotel owners bombarded us with their offers and promotions. We chose an 8-euro hostel, which turned out to be shockingly nice. Though our individual accommodations reminded us all of old army barracks or tool sheds, the area was secure, safe, and had beautiful views. It even had its own infinity pool, restaurant, minimart, and beach with free chairs. Not too shabby for 8 euros.

We spent the weekend luxuriating in the end of summer sun and swimming in the Aegean Sea. So salty, So clear! Mykonos was the most fun introduction to the Greek Islands. I'm sure I will continue to love my weekend travels!

What really counts: Coffee and Naps

The Greek way of life is something I can really get on board with. Every day, there is a siesta period. I have no idea why they call it a siesta, as that is a Spanish word rather than a Greek word for rest time. I asked my professors, and they are equally perplexed.

The shops all shut down and you must remain quiet within your apartment. It is a little difficult to get used to the fact that I can't go down to the store to pick up some nail polish remover whenever I want, but the benefits of a nationally embraced nap time far outweigh the hassle.

The coffee: It is Strong. The national drink is called a frappe. It is literally instant coffee, whizzed up to create heavy foam on top. If you get it with milk, you are getting sweetened, condensed milk. The frappe was first invented by construction workers so that they could drink it on the job. The dust and dirt remained on top of the foam and never polluted their drinks. It gained in popularity, and is now Everywhere. I bought my own to go mug (a type specific to the drink) and the instant coffee grounds (mom, you would be so proud). Just add water and an ice cube, shake it like a martini shaker, and viola: a fully formed frappe.

To be perfectly honest, I prefer the espresso. It is bitter and strong, just the way it should be. When I order an espresso freddo (entirely in Greek, which is my latest accomplishment) it comes as three shots of espresso, ice, and, oddly, with foam on top as well. Yum.

So between the naps and the coffee I am feeling plenty energized and ready to explore Athens!

And so it begins!

Hello all! Welcome to my very first blog post, on my very first blog.

After the ten-hour flight from JFK to Athens (during which I was served at least ten in-flight meals) I made my way to customs. The Greek men in front of me in line began jubilantly singing what I can only imagine was a very patriotic song. Off to a very great start.

For a few minutes, I searched around for a CYA sign or a confident adult to shepherd me to my new home. Instead, I found a group of similarly jet lagged young adults congregated in a corner of the airport. Our leaders were late- an indicator of the differences in Greek culture that we will have to grow accustomed to. Eventually, we successfully made our way to the apartments in Pagrati, our neighborhood in Athens.

The apartments are huge, with four balconies and a spacious kitchen. The whole place is airy and big enough for my five wonderful roommates and me. The picture below is one my roommate, Marina took of one the two (!!) balconies in our bedroom. It overlooks a beautiful old, Greek Orthodox Church. I'm going to keep these short and sweet, in the hopes that it will make them less intimidating and encourage me to blog more often. More later!