Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Naked in Monemvasia.

My wife belongs to an organization called the WIC, Woman’s International Club. The club often organizes trips, some husbands go along, they are informally called the DICS, do not ask what it stands for, each person has it’s own definition. Needless to say there is a bit of drinking amongst the DICS, so the trips with the wives are a big success. The women feel good that the men made the effort to be with them and the men figure they are entitled to have a drink or two on these trips.

I have to admit that we have had some really great trips, Turkey, India, Monemvasia, the Greek Islands, and many more.

The Turkish trip was memorable, more about that later. The cruise to the Greek Islands was another great trip. The one that stands out to me though is the trip to Monemvasia, I made a complete fool of myself on that one. I will share it though, since it was bizarre.

Monemvasia is this great walled city on the first finger of the Peloponnese; it was Byzantine, Venetian, Frank, Turkish, and now Greek. It was a wonderful defensive position, the name means, “Only entrance”. Look it up and you will be amazed at its beauty and historical importance.

We went with the group, for a long weekend, and stayed in this series of old interconnected houses converted into a very elegant first class hotel.
We had a wonderful room with an amazing view. There was a problem though; all the doors in the hotel are the same, room doors, bathroom doors as well as closet doors. This shortcoming will play a role in my mishap.

After a long evening meal at one of the local tavernas, with very ample amounts of monemvasia wine, and lots of laughs, we all wandered back to our hotel. The infamous hotel with the uni designed doors.

We are in our room and soon fast asleep. At about 4 in the morning I woke up and went to the toilet, or so I thought, I opened the door to our room instead and found myself in the hallway, obviously the door closed and locked behind me. The title gives it away, I was naked, I did not want to knock on the door to wake my wife up, God knows why. I went to find a toilet, assuming there was one nearby, I was soon wandering in the courtyards of the hotel, I found the breakfast room, the bar, the reception area, and all closed thank heavens, no toilet so far. I continued to wander, avoiding leaving the actual hotel and going into the road. I finally found a large pot of bougainvilleas on one of the terraces, with a view of the sea, this would have to do. The next challenge was to find our room, but I was feeling relieved and fortunately found the room. I knocked and was let in by my rather surprised wife.

Breakfast was my recount of the story to mixed reviews, laughter, shock, distain and even some people worrying about the bougainvilleas outside of their room. It was too good a story not to share.

When you visit Monemvasia, and stay at this amazing hotel, make sure you know which door is which.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Puppies in the Garbage

The other day Kathy, our housekeeper, was driving into town. She passed a garbage bin on the road and found six abandoned puppies, less than a month old.

The shepherds, who have a bunch of dogs, have the unfortunate tendency to abandon the pups. God knows why they don’t have their dogs fixed, must be the cost. This is one of the horrible things about living in Greece, the abandoned animals. The shepherds are not the only ones to blame. The summer people get a puppy for the summer and then abandon them in the autumn. The roads are full of these dogs; some are not mutts, but purebred dogs.

We already have about four dogs on our property. We could not leave the pups in the garbage, even though the last thing we wanted were more dogs.

All our dogs are street dogs; we even sent some to family in the States. We are mushes when it comes to abandoned animals, our youngest daughter is the worst, and the rest of us aren’t so far behind. So we picked them up, brought them home and we are in the process of finding homes for them. I am sure at least two will stay here.

Go to my daughter’s dog’s blog to see them, you might want one or two. If you live abroad, and if you are lucky, she will even hop on a plane and hand deliver them to you!

This terrible habit, that not only exists in Greece, but also in other Mediterranean countries, is slowly getting better. Street dogs live in parks and are fed by locals on a regular basis, almost like having a regular pet.

So when in Greece and you are about to dump your garbage, check the bin, it just might have a bunch of puppies in it.

Please do not bring them to us: we still have at least 3 we are trying to find homes for.

By the way would you like a puppy, or did I ask you before?

Now and then.

This blog is by Frank Verdi, an old, old friend.

Greg was one of my best pals when we were young teens growing up in Coney Island, Brooklyn, N. Y.
Greg had a magnificent 1951 Schwinn Black Phantom and he let me sit on it once in a while. I also had a bike and we would ride around all the Coney Island hot spots. Hot dogs and clams at Nathan’s. Delicious creamy frozen custard at Pappas.Egg creams at Mr. Birbil’s Luncheonette and chocolate shop. Knishes at Grabstein’s. I have to tell you that my buddy Greg was a chubby little kid as evidenced by these photos but when he grew up he became a lady-killer. Go figure.

We had Steeplechase Park and the boardwalk. We had the roller coasters, the Ferris Wheel, the games of chance, amusements and Nishizaka’s Skeeball alleys. That’s the world we lived in and that was Coney Island.

We also had the Brooklyn Museum for culture and painting. Going into Manhattan on the subway and seeing all the wonders of the city. Even going all the way to the Bronx Zoo and the Botanical Gardens. Sometimes with my kid brother, sometimes with Greg and sometimes with Billy Nishizaka, who’s family I used to dine with and ate dishes with noodles, shrimp and other wonderful Japanese delicacies. Billy’s father used to own huge skeeball alleys where I used to work also.

For me, growing up poor, it felt like I was rich to have all these wonderful things to do and places to go. And I worked all summer and in Coney Island there was always a job for a kid because kids worked cheap. I was a Barker at a “Guess your weight” game, worked at “Walking Charlie”, sold Ice Cream in the blazing sun walking the hot sands on the beach and of course the Nishizaka skeeball alleys. What a place to pick up girls. I bet you’re wondering “what the hell is Walking Charlie” I will tell you in another article.

Then there was Greg. A great guy. He got married. I got married. Then for 50 years we lost touch until one day we found each other. The amazing thing was that with the entire world that Greg saw and all the things he did, when I saw him after 50 years had gone by; he was the same kid I grew up with. And you know what, I knew he would be.

Then Greg said, come to Greece. And I did and stayed at the beautiful home that Greg built. I had a wonderful time. My only regret was that we weren’t 15 again so we could hop on our bikes and cycle all over Greece

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Margaritas and Mel Gibson.

Outdoor movies have always been part of Greek summer life. One of the delights of visiting, or living in Greece is the summer cinema.

When we first came to Greece in 1964, we where exposed to the outdoor cinema. Being from Brooklyn where the movies were a Saturday event with a double feature as well as cartoons, I could not imagine an outdoor movie.

We were in Edipso, on the island of Evia visiting family; it was a discovery of roots as well as new experiences.

The town set up a screen, actually a sheet on the side of a building, the projector made more noise than the sound track. A woman on a balcony of the building where the film was being projected watched the movie upside down. I have no idea what we paid, I am sure my cousin treated.

We dragged chairs and refreshments from home and settled in the square to watch the movie. A scratchy black and white movie in Greek. We had to wait for it to get dark so we could see the film. Everybody gathered hours before, it was a once a week ritual, the projector made the rounds all over the island, Edipso got it on Thursday, I think. People made visits to their homes or the tavernas for refreshment as well as the proverbial ice cream sellers that were always there.

On all our subsequent trips, before we retired here, the outdoor cinema was always a must. It did not matter what was playing, the worst film gets better when you see it outdoors in a Greek village, even if that village is Athens.

I remember going to a cinema in Plaka, and it was on the roof of a building. This cinema had an amazing view of the Acropolis, so even if the movie sucks, you have one of the best views in Greece.

We now are retired in a rather sophisticated town in the Peloponnese. There are foreigners as well as locals here. Our local cinema, the Cinema Star, gets us all together. It has its own space and a proper screen, with good sound and a refreshment booth, with traditional popcorn as well as all the drinks you can imagine. It is also used for town events; the school plays, etc. are held there.

We never miss a movie, no matter what is playing; there are two shows, one at 9, and the other at 11. Lately, they get the latest films and you see first run films. I kind of miss the old scratchy B/W films and the screen being a sheet hung on a building, if I remember correctly the sheets sometimes had a flower print on it.

With progress have come some innovations in all the areas. Drinks are more than homemade wine, and soft drinks. The other night we were offered mixed drinks, not only, Gin and tonics, but Margaritas as well as Mojitos, and even Caipirinhas, a.k.a.Guyperinias, what is Greece coming to?

We saw the latest Mel Gibson movie,“The Edge Of Darkness” and we had Margaritas. This is not the Greece of before, but it ain’t bad.

Margaritas and Mel, I am sure he would have approved.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Nana's family.

My wife’s family is Christian Orthodox, from southern Albania, she always tells me they are from a very classy family.

This amazing photograph is of her grandmother, her Nana, with her family. One of the little girls is her Nana, the little one in the back row. The two men are my wife’s Great Grandfather, and her Great Granduncle. Their wives are standing on either side of them in the back row. The one in the ethnic dress is her Great Grandfather. He insisted on wearing traditional dress for this photo, his brother is in the three-piece suit. They were successful traders and businessmen and had offices in Egypt as well as Albania and Greece. I guess they were very classy.

The Greek Evzones, at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, wear the fustanella, the kilt, it is from northern Epirus (Albania), and the uniform is made up of various traditional pieces of costumes from all over Greece. The skirt has four hundred pleats for the 400 years of Ottoman occupation. I am not sure all Greeks will accept that the principle piece is Albanian, but it is.

I then have to assume the three-piece dark suit is from Albania as well. All stockbrokers and businessmen throughout the world owe their look to the Albanians, maybe even to my wife’s Great Granduncle.

OK, maybe the three-piece suit is not Albanian, but it could be.

This is a wonderful photo and the woman in the middle is the mother of the two men, Jeannine’s Great Great Grandmother. The Albanians probably invented the camera as well. Why not?

It is established that Columbus is Greek, why shouldn’t the 3-piece suit, the fustanella and the Camera not be Albanian?

We did visit her Grandmothers village, Leusa in Permet. It is just over the Pindos Mountains between Greece and Albania, not far from the Zagarohoria, north of Ioannina. The architecture of their village is very similar to the Zagarohoria, 3 story large stone houses, and arched stone bridges and in the mountains towering over Permet. There are really no differences between the two countries up there physically.

After all those years in the ad business I occasionally wore a 3-piece suit. I never realized I might be wearing traditional Albanian clothes. Yes, I like the idea that the fustanella and the 3-piece suit are Albanian inventions.

OK! OK! The camera is not Albanian, I concede that one.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Washing machines on the beach?

I do not know if I hallucinated this or not. Many years ago, somewhere in Greece, I saw a washing machine facing the sea, sitting on a beach; it was plugged into a little taverna on the beach. I imagined little old ladies washing their clothes and laying them out to dry on the rocks. Nevertheless it still seemed very bizarre to me, and I continued to watch from the comfort of the taverna.

Waiting for a little old lady to approach, I was amazed when a gnarled, mustached fisherman went to the machine and peered inside it, it was a front loader. He turned and went back to his small boat, which was pulled up on the beach. I assumed he was washing some clothes, odd as that seemed. I did not imagine Greek men doing laundry, it didn’t fit the image, and if they did, I couldn’t imagine them doing it on a public beach.

I ordered some grilled octopus and an ouzo, my favorite snack, especially on a Greek beach.

A little later, the fisherman returned to peer inside the washing machine ( I assumed he was concerned about his laundry ).
He seemed pleased and turned off the machine. He squatted in front of it, opened it, reached inside and removed a huge octopus. I was completely confused and did not realize that the octopus had to be washed. I asked the owner of the taverna what was going on, and why the octopus had to be washed. He turned to his friends and repeated my question to the amusement of them all. The fisherman approached the taverna with his laundry (the octopus ), was filled in on my question. More hysterical laughter followed at my expense.

Finally it was all explained to me, since this was a modern village, they had a washing machine to beat the octopi till they were tender, no more 100 blows on the rocks by hand.

A little nuts, but it makes complete sense, the agitation of the machine softens the octopi, no water and no soap.

My embarressment turned into a wonderful afternoon, being treated and toasted by my new friends, residents of this modern Greek village that didn’t have to beat their octopi by hand.

For years, I have been on the lookout for washing machines on the beaches of Greece, no luck. It is unfortunate that Greek fishermen still beat their octopi on the rocks to soften them up, what happened to all that modernity that once existed.


I am an American, born and raised in Brooklyn, but I am a Greek, both my parents were Greek, from Asia Minor. I was raised in a Greek area, I had Greek friends, did Greek things, went to all the Greek events. I drank ouzo, I drank it in the evening, lunchtime, believe it or not, I even drank it in cocktails. Somehow it never seemed sensational, but I did it, because I was Greek.

We lived in London for a number of years, naturally we ate in the many Greek-Cypriot restaurants. Still doing my Greek thing, I would diligently order my ouzo. A rainy evening in London is about the worst place to have an ouzo, no matter how good the mezedes. Thinking back on all the times I tried ouzo, and in all the places, I was really a die hard Greek, and just as stubborn.

I finally came to Greece, and eventually retired here. Now I know what ouzo is, what I wanted it to be all those times I tried it. Ouzo does not seem to travel, you need the Greek sea, the sun, the grilled octopus, the salad, the olive oil, the friends, the atmosphere. There really is nothing like a swim and a bit of sunburn, a table overlooking the sea, the grilled octopus, the little carafe of ouzo some ice and water. When you have an ouzo, you have the best of Greece.

I now know what was missing when I drank it in all the other places.

It just does not travel, no matter how hard you try to recapture the experience. Ouzo, it is not a drink, it is a bit of the real Greece, a bit of the Greece that I hope never changes.

Yes, I know, the photo is taramosalata, not octopus, we ate it.

Home made Greek wine"I made it myself, no chemicals."

I am going to write something that will get every Greek crazy, especially my friends. I have to admit that I do admire the Greeks that have a couple of grape plants, and believe they are wine makers. Nevertheless, not one of them will admit that they sometimes miss, and make something that borders on undrinkable. “ Its pure, no chemicals, I made it myself” as if that puts it in the same class as the really good Greek wines. OK, I have had some homemade wine that is drinkable, especially after the 4th glass.

We Greeks have the ability to believe that our thing, whatever it may be, beach, wine, village, olive oil, car, kids, anything, is the best, and sometimes the best in the world.

I guess I really like people bringing me plastic water bottles, with the label still on, filled with bright pink rose, and told they made it themselves” no chemicals”. Our cupboard still has some old Fanta bottles filled with homemade wine, maybe it will age and I will have to write a retraction.
I doubt it though.

Where to retire

At a certain point in our lives, we started to think about where to retire. I was fortunate to have worked for a multinational company and we lived in many countries. The USA, England, Spain, Italy, Mexico, Columbia and Greece, were some of the countries we lived in, so the choice was rather broad. We started by eliminating countries for various reasons, not safe, too cold, didn’t feel comfortable, etc.

The winners were Mexico, Italy, and Greece, countries that answered all or most of our needs. We loved living in those countries, we had made friends there and we loved the food, the lifestyle, the culture, the people and the natural beauty of the landscape. We thought of maybe living in all three, but that just wasn’t practical, nor could we afford it, but it would have been great.

At this point I have to confess something, I am an American of Greek descent, which you already know adnauseum. This was a burden when it came to picking a country to retire in.
Naturally you would think it would tip the scale in favor of Greece, but it also could make you say no way, I know too much about those guys.

Mexico was an early favorite. Close to the States, colorful with a fascinating pre-Colombian history, great pyramid architecture, impressive volcanoes were a part of our landscape, fabulous food, warm people, the Mariachi music, it was a real runner. We lived there 10 years, and loved every minute; we could have easily retired there. The Mexicans say, “ Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States”.

Italy is an amazing country, great food, gorgeous scenery, great taste, people are elegant, sophisticated and stylish, the houses are superb, and the villages are beautiful. So what if the place seems a little nuts and disorganized, but I believe that is an act to discourage people from taking them serious, (helps in negotiations). They are a very cultured and civilized people and charm you with their irreverence. An Italian friend told me that, “the sign of true culture, is not to have a great army, and to be proud of it”. Italy really was a contender, and it came very close to being the place to retire.

All right, why did we end up in Greece? The Greeks say, “ When God was creating Greece, he put all the sunshine, the sea, the fish, the mountains, the great plants, and all this beauty there; then when the Angels asked him, why so much goodness in one place God’s answer was,” not to worry, he would populate it with Greeks”. There you have it, Greeks can be the greatest people in the world, and the worst…many times it’s the same person. This unique characteristic makes living here exiting as well as frustrating, but never boring. I do not have to tell you about the amazing beauty of this place, and the culture that abounds here. So Greece won, but I have to admit, being a Greek played a role. The Greek word NOSTOS came into play. The desire to return to a homeland, even if you were not born there, won out. Are we sorry? Not on your life, we love it; we love these people, this place. Are we frustrated sometimes? You bet we are. Does the bureaucracy make us nuts? You bet it does. Still that all fades away on a breezy summer day as you sit sipping a tall glass of milky Ouzo while picking on a grilled octopus overlooking the remarkable Aegean Sea. Can’t beat that.

A Greek friend visited us when we lived in Mexico and described it as Greece was 50 years ago, but with color. So maybe we got a bit of Mexico, and we are pretty close to Italy. I guess we got what we always wanted, all three.

Why coffee is so expensive in Greece,

Everything in Greece seems more expensive than before, but I guess some of that is normal.

It seems preposterous that Greek Feta is cheaper in Germany than in Greece. There are a series of other anomalies like this.

I have to defend the high cost of coffee in Greece never the less.

It may cost 2 or 3 times the price of other European countries, but it makes sense if you understand the Greeks.

In Italy, a cup of coffee is consumed in an instant; a cappuccino takes a little longer.
It is a matter of culture; Greeks have a huge variety to choose from.

The frappe is exclusively a Greek invention, not consumed instantly, even though it is made from instant coffee.

Making Greek coffee on the other hand, is a prized ritual, nor should its consumption be hurried but sipped slowly. We also have espresso, cappuccino, American, and hundreds of variations of these, depending on how sweet you want them.

Starbucks has also invaded Greece, so we have 38 more types of coffees at least.
But why is it so expensive?

I said it was culture. Now let me explain. Nobody that I know in Greece hurries their coffee, it is a social event that may take hours.Nobody drinks coffee alone; no one gulps it and runs.

The most expensive piece of real estate in Athens is Kolonaki Square, filled with coffee shops; the beautiful ports in Greece are lined with coffee shops and if it is attractive real estate, with a beautiful view, you are sure to find a coffee shop.
When you order a coffee in Greece you are renting space for up to two hours, and probably using 2 to 3 chairs per person.
Considering the coffee experience and all that goes with it, view, location, time, friends, etc. coffee turns out to be pretty cheap.

You are partially renting space, usually in a great place, with friends and you are viewing the passing parade of people, many of them very good looking, discussing sports, politics, smoking, twirling your worry beads, receiving and making phone calls.
It seems to me, considering the time Greeks take (as well as all the rest) to drink a cup of coffee, it is money well spent.

Considering the pleasure derived from a simple cup of coffee, it may very well be the best value for money, especially if you learn to enjoy it like a Greek..