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.