Soaking Wet in the Troodos Mountains

Twenty years ago, when Tina first visited the Troodos mountains with her family, the roads were unpaved and extremely narrow. Her Uncle Pete drives professionally, so they were in good hands, but I can’t help but think what a harrowing experience that must have been. Because twice this week, we have driven those same roads, only now they are paved…and there are guardrails everywhere. The roads are still narrow. In some places, the roads have hairpin turns with no visibility around the corner.  And those particular roads will sometimes truly only accommodate a single vehicle. And occasionally, they are still unpaved.

It is a testament to the villages, scenery and beauty of the ancient churches nestled throughout the Troodos that we make this trip, not once, but twice. I think I could spend months in those mountains before I was satisfied that I had a good sense of the place…another time perhaps.

The first day, we ended up driving mostly. The map we have is not very reliable, so we were just pointing our car in the general direction and crossing our fingers. We spent a good bit of time in Platres, a beautiful and comparatively large village in the Troodos. We stopped at the Chocolate Factory for three chocolate shakes and perfectly divine “Metrio” chocolates. This is a rather unassuming little place where chocolates are made by hand. And the flavors sound incredible. I wish I could figure out how to get some back to Houston, but that is unlikely. They would be eaten halfway through the flight, I feel certain.

We ate lunch at a gorgeous second floor café called To Anoi. I simply cannot imagine why anyone here would choose to dine at any place that does not look like it came out of a storybook. We sit in plastic chairs, but the deck is beautiful and the view is stunning. Again, the indoor area of the restaurant is fairly small…everywhere here, it is clear they understand the value of the atmosphere. It is possible I will never be able to enjoy dinner out in Houston again.

But the highlight of the day was the Kaledonia falls. We climbed through gorgeous unusual trees, on a stone strewn path, beside a river rushing over stones down the mountain we just navigated up. The signage is unclear and we keep thinking the small falls we are walking by may be all there are to the falls, and this is plenty. Even the small falls are incredible and worth the hike up. We are just about to turn around and descend when we hear Jesse and Grant, who have dashed ahead of us, say “Oh My God, we found the falls.”

The heat was stifling…which is probably what prompted Jesse to walk straight into the falls. Shoes, socks, clothes…everything.

Needless to say, we all ended up hiking down the mountain soaked from head to toe.

And happy.

The second trip up into the Troodos…coming soon.



Food Perfection on the Beach in Oroklini

At almost 9pm, half of the welcoming party left. It was time for dinner.

Dinner at 6 is a laughable concept here. Or rather, it would be laughable if it were even considered at all. Not that we are ever given the opportunity to have even a moment of hunger. Our days have been filled with food…and I am afraid that is only going to be worse now that we have landed in the land of “Yea! Ellie is here!” I afraid we are going to be “hosted” into morbid obesity.

We pulled tables together at the beachside restaurant and looked over the menus. To be honest, I was only interested in trying a KEO, a Cypriot beer. But I ordered the fish and chips anyway. To be honest, I have no idea what the food was like…I was so tired and overstimulated. But the beer was wonderful.

Michaelis is a Greek-Cypriot, a composer, a teacher and choir director—probably in that order. He tells stories with his entire body and his face channels his passion for every detail. The storyteller in me wishes I spoke Greek so that I could hear them in his native tongue, which he insists is the most beautiful of languages.

“If only I could tell you these stories in Greek! So beautiful this language. Every word has its very own meaning.”

I am unaware in this moment that this snack bar of a place on the beach near our house will become such a favorite for me. You will never find it listed in any reviews of Cyprus or on Tripadvisor…though, I’d like to think I will figure out how to do this for this wonderful place. The only name I can discern for it is Kiosk, which is hopelessly generic here. Everything is a kiosk of some sort.

It is pretty unassuming really. A very small kitchen with a large outdoor patio. We end up eating multiple meals here…breakfasts, lunches and dinners. When we leave Larnaka, a week later, it is the place I will miss the most.

It is situated directly on the beach. While we wait for the food, or the check after the meal, the kids run in the surf and try to skip perfectly flat skipping stones into the ocean. There is no hurry to leave. In fact, you could be there for hours and no one will bring you a check unless you specifically ask for it. In the mornings, half of the tables are taken up by older men playing Tavli (a game played on a backgammon board) and drink their coffees. Some of their wives sit together at other tables chatting and laughing. No one appears to have anywhere to go.

On our third trip to the kiosk, we become regulars. We chat with the waitresses and the owner brings us small glasses of Cypriot wine after we have finished our meal. We sit peacefully drinking our metrio or greek wine, while the kids play on the beach. No schedule. No pressure. We are truly outside of time here.

It is here I try what will become my favorite find here in Cyprus…a village salad and a lountza and halloumi sandwich. The village salad is cucumbers, tomatoes, a little cabbage and feta. It seems crazy to describe it that way, however. I don’t think I have tasted vegetables this fresh since my dad grew a garden when I was still in elementary school. And the feta is different too, fresher and richer somehow. I eat it without any dressing at all. There is no need. And it is the best salad I have ever eaten. Period.

The lountza halloumi sandwich surprises me. I am not much of a meat eater…I avoid eating it if I can, which is easier to do in other countries I have found. But this sandwich is perfection. Lountza is a Cypriot meat, pork to be exact. It is a teeny bit like Canadian bacon, but I would not get carried away with that association. The meat and cheese are put into the bread (which is also beyond perfect here) and grilled. Then fresh cucumber and tomato are added. No spices. No condiments. And it is perfection. For the remainder of our time in Larnaka, I will order only this every time we go to the kiosk.

If you ever find yourself in Cyprus, this unassuming kiosk is worth a trip to Oroklini.

And tell them we said hello.



Tonight, I learn a little something about rescues

There is something hypnotic about sitting in the middle of a conversation in a language you do not understand. Something about the familiar cadence and the unfamiliar words causes my brain to flicker in and out this afternoon…as if I were trying to fall asleep in self-defense. I watch Tina and wonder if it’s worse for her, because she understands enough of the Greek conversation surrounding us to follow it, having been exposed to the language her entire life, but not enough to truly participate. Her brain is grasping the edges of the conversation, so must be working very hard.

The topic of conversation is music. The people we sit with are professional musicians of one variety or another. If it weren’t for the fact that I am a stranger here, I would be of no interest at all in this room and I am lulled into a false sense of invisibility that one gains by being completely unable to comprehend anything that is going on. This does not last long. My heart races as I realize that Ellie is referring to me in something she says. My dull, glazed over look feels inappropriate when I am suddenly referred to. I can tell she is letting them know that I told her months ago about Kataklysmos, the festival in town…that she knew nothing of it until I told her about it. Her story is clearly charming and animated…I am clearly surrounded by storytellers actually…but still I can’t follow. Though no one seems to notice, I find myself embarrassed by the fact that I am making the freshman traveller mistake of mirroring the movements and expressions of the people talking without understanding what they are saying. I feel a little like a bobble head doll.

Ellie’s friend, Mary, has been scurrying around making sure the house is in perfect condition for us. Unnecessary, really, as it was beyond perfect when we walked in. Unexpectedly, she slides into the room beside me and asks me if perhaps we would like to go for a walk to see the beach. I dearly hope my rush for the door didn’t appear as desperate as it felt. I did not even want to take a moment to change into more comfortable shoes and risk the chance that the opportunity would pass. The people in the room with us were clearly so sweet and kind. But my brain ached from trying to remain awake. Plus, I wanted to see the beach.

Tina and I walked with Mary and she spoke to us in English. She was quite capable of communicating with us, but I felt bad that she had to make the effort, having just scrambled out the door to escape the challenge to my own brain.

Mary’s 21 year old son was studying in the states when he was diagnosed with cancer and told he must go to Houston to be treated. She took an eight month leave of absence from work and rented an apartment in Houston to be with him during the treatment. She was alone in a huge city where she knew no one, spending the few hours a day with her son, as she was allowed while in cancer treatment and then returning to her apartment alone. The thought of this truly dear woman enduring this time alone fills me with so much grief that I am grateful when the well of emotion running through her slows her to standing. Motion seemed inappropriate given the intensity of story. The story she shares runs so deep in her that I can literally feel the lonely ache of sitting by herself in an empty apartment counting the hours until she could be back with her son. And this is how I learn about Ellie.

I have known Ellie for years, of course. But today, standing along the beautiful beach as the sun sets, I really learn about her in a way that would be impossible except through the words of a woman like Mary.

Ellie received the call about Mary through the Cypriot network in Houston and sprung into action. Every day for eight months, Mary could count on Ellie’s call, a connection to something other than the fear and loneliness that filled her days. Ellie came often to pick Mary up from her apartment and take her shopping, to lunch or dinner, or to just sit amongst the noise and chaos of a house full of people somewhere. Mary was clearly not a charity case to Ellie, Mary was a sister…a sister who needed her.

Suddenly, the fuss over ensuring our comfort was understandable. I came thinking that Mary felt indebted to Ellie and was happy to have a chance to give back to her in some way. But this is not really it. Mary was inviting family into her home. She is proud to have us here. Having us stay somewhere else is unthinkable, not because she has a debt to pay but because she loves Ellie, and by extension, us. And she truly does.

I have always loved Ellie. She is easy to love. But as we walked back to the house this evening, I loved a part of her that I had not really known before. Ellie has a gift for making family of strangers. She gives where she is most needed. She loves those who most need her love.

I silently thank Mary for the fresh glimpse of Ellie.


Manual Transmissions and Halloumi

I am sitting at an umbrellaed garden table in the small courtyard of the gorgeous summer house that has been loaned to us for the duration of our stay here in Oroklini, a small town just outside of Larnaka. I make a note to myself to always lay a feast for visitors when they come to stay with us. I sit here eating fresh watermelon and the salty, chewy Cypriot cheese, haloumi. It has been available in Houston for some time now, but I have never eaten it with watermelon. As many times as Tina’s family has suggested it, I have resisted the pairing of salty and sweet…the contrast of textures. Today, I am wondering why. They are perfect together. It is watermelon season in Houston (probably everywhere). If I were there, I would make a feast of these two items and invite you over. All of you.

I can see, from where I am sitting, the car that I drove here from the airport. I was not expecting to drive at all, but the rental car reserved for us was too small to fit us AND our luggage. I realized half the way to the house that:

  1. I have never driven in another country.
  2. I am driving a manual transmission for the first time in over 25 years and
  3. I have no way to contact anyone should I get separated from the three car convoy heading to a house I don’t have any information on.

Despite this, I was actually relaxed for the entire thirty minute drive. But still I glance over to the car now, as if I need confirmation that I actually did that. And it makes me laugh. I’m glad I didn’t know that this would be necessary.

The kids are immediately whisked away by Photos, the son of our hosts, for a tour of Larnaca and I am deeply grateful to him. He is an accomplished musician, about 30 years old and is currently in the process of writing a musical. As they walk out to the car the conversation moves to iPods and pop music. Had I wished for the perfect afternoon host for our gang, he could not have been more perfect than Photos. I lean back in my chair with a feast before me and Tina beside me, and melt into a perfect moment under flower vines and palm fronds.



An Angry Old Greek Woman at the Top of the Hill (and Lycabettus)

This should really be a video post. A very old native Athenian at the top of the hill we were climbing becomes agitated and extremely vocal when Ellie asks for directions to Lycabettus. We can see the passion and ferocity of her expression, and she holds Ellie at attention for much too long for the simple directions we have asked for. Tina fumbles through the backpack for the video camera as I stand completely transfixed by the interaction. I am paralyzed by the unexpected intensity. Ellie nods periodically and says nothing. Her back is to me so I cannot see how she is faring with the angry words I can’t understand. I keep thinking it is about to end, but it doesn’t for a very long time. Finally, the woman dismisses us and we descend back down two blocks of the hill we have climbed. We don’t know what happened until we turn the corner and head to our destination.

But I am ahead of myself.

Today we head out to find out what is on the hill opposite the Parthenon. A metro ride…ten blocks along a busy road…and about the same number of blocks straight up, we are in range of what we are looking for…Lycabettus.

But before we can get there, we must ask no fewer than seven people if we are heading in the right direction. This incredible spot at the top of a hill, with a stunning vista, is maddeningly difficult to find. It seems bizarre that we can be climbing this long without even the slightest indication that we are heading in the right direction, but we keep getting affirmation that we are on the right track. So we continue to climb.

So, at the point we are about to begin losing oxygenated air (ok, I’m exaggerating a wee bit), Ellie asks the elderly woman we run across if we are still heading in the right direction. What we find out, as we turn the corner toward our destination after the interaction, is that the woman is completely and wildly infuriated with the government. They have paved the road to her house…which she confesses is wonderful, but they have done little else in a very long time and she is enraged. Enraged enough to monologue her displeasure to unwitting American tourists…winded and lost on the way to an elusive hilltop.

And Tina is as transfixed as I am. We did not get any of it on video. Fail.

But we did finally make it to this:

This alone was worth the climb. It is a bizarre contraption of a tram that pulls tourists up through a tunnel to the top of the mountain. It is a short ride. We have already climbed much more than this will eventually carry us. But the thing is irresistible. Come on. Can you imagine NOT getting on this thing?

But at the top…good lord, it is beautiful. We can see everything from here. A little church sits at the very top and vendors sell icons and keychains to visitors.

And this is where Meagan begins to totally drive Grant crazy.

Grant wants to look through the telescope, which costs two euros. Tina and I aren’t up for it…because it is really not the kind of place where a telescope is gonna add much to the experience frankly. But Meagan has two euros and she will give them to Grant in exchange for…a kiss on the cheek. (SPOILER ALERT: Meagan will leave after two weeks without a kiss from Grant, despite NUMEROUS attempts.)

I snap photos and try not to laugh and the silly interactions…because it is all very serious to Grant. I get some great shots. They are on Facebook, but here are a couple:
We had a much more pleasant walk back to the metro station…largely because we did not have to ask for any directions.




“Greek coffee makes me really happy!”

That’s Jesse. Ellie taught Jesse and Meagan how to make Greek coffee this morning and Tina and I are being treated by the newly trained. Newly trained and caffienated to the point of extreme enthusiasm. It is heated in small, long-handled brass pot on a bed of fiery sand (we later feel this heat ourselves on the beach in Larnaka…but that is another story). Then you poor the boiling water directly over coffee grounds in the bottom of a small cup. The finely ground coffee remains in the bottom of the cup, so you must be careful as you drink at the end, or you will end up with the grounds in your mouth.
I drink them on purpose. I love them. That’s not good, hunh?

Greek coffee, Cypriot coffee (Turkish coffee if you want to cause a fight around here), is wonderful. I know why it makes Jesse happy. Drinking it gives you super powers. I swear. It’s true. We generally order it “metrio”, which means lightly sweetened. Perfection. Not sure how I am going to go back to drinking plain old filtered coffee.
Ellie’s family has been making it forever. Tina fondly remembers her Yia Yia making it for her on her first trip to Cyprus as an adult. She could go all day on that coffee. I can see why.

Today, we go to Lycabetta. This is the place we saw when we were at the Parthenon yesterday on the top of a neighboring hill. But first, as we are getting ready to go, Ellie’s friend Catharina calls and wants to take us to lunch at the Greek Officer’s club. We head our stuffed-to-the-gills-bodies back to our rooms and change into fancier duds…hoping that the walk to the club will give us the strength to eat again.

On the way, we sidetrack into the street with the government buildings. This beautiful street is lined with flowering trees and vines. At each of the government establishments, there is a little guard house outside the gate with a uniformed man on guard.

I took stop motion pictures of the changing of the guard…which I am going to attempt to turn into a video and upload later. It is truly bizarre and amazing so I am hoping I can figure it out.
We eat at the officer’s club and then head out for pastries, which was the real eating highlight of the moment, of course.

 More later on the trek up the hill. I need another metrio before I start that one.

Our Parthenon

Today, we take the metro.

Athens’ metro system is new and wildly easy to navigate. We buy 24 hour passes and off we go. Toward Demitrious on our way to the Acropolis and toward Antonios on our way home. Clean, fast and insanely efficient. No need for a car because the city is incredibly walkable.

The Parthenon is a temple to Athena, or not. That is how it is referred to, but archeologists document that the structure never hosted the cult of Athena, and was probably just a grand setting for statues, as well as the place for the treasury.

But this is not what it is for us.

For us, it is a discussion on how inconceivable it is that this marble was brought up the hill we just climbed. It is looking out over the city and understanding why this spot was chosen, you can see everything from here. It is looking out onto a neighboring hill and wondering what it is that stands atop that hill and deciding to figure out the next day. It is noticing that the structure is all marble, because we are having to choose our footing carefully and still we are sliding. It is hearing languages from all over the world swirl around us and through the crowd. It is watching men on scaffolding carefully tending and repairing this beloved monument. It is standing to one side, looking out over all that still remains and imagining it all as it once was.

I don’t know why I had always thought the Parthenon was stone. Well, marble is stone, of course, but this is not what I had expected…at all. And I guess that is why people stream into this gorgeous place. We stand incredulous. These walkways were once walked by people in togas and sandles. The people who constructed these columns that we would later name doric columns and the marble stairs that look like they might have been carved out of marble only yesterday…they could not have imagined what this would be like thousands of years later…people from all over the world walking their hallways. We are tourists here. This was a usable structure in their time.

At night, we walked through Plaka looking for a restaurant we had heard of that had a view of the Parthenon lit up at night. Each restaurant, with white linened tables lining the narrow streets, would have made for an impossibly romantic dining spot. The candles on the tables and lanterns on the wall on the exterior of the restaurant created a scene worthy of a Hollywood movie. Surprising to find it here though, these streets look like what I imagine in the streets of Venice or Rome.

We find the restaurant, and sit on a tree shaded deck with an incredible view of the dramatically lit Parthenon. They take great care here to light their history well.

There is a Greek flag flying to one side of the monument, a recent addition. Ellie explains that Athens was occupied and this pole flew the German flag. Two Greek men, incensed by the claiming of something so clearly belonging to Athens, snuck into the encampment and replaced the enemy flag with a Greek one. They were eventually caught and executed. Their story is proudly captured on a plaque next to the flag.

There is a long running joke that Greek people insist that everything was invented in Greece. “Give me a word and I will tell you the Greek word that it comes from,” says a character from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” But in this place, where the buildings themselves are centuries older than any construction back home, the point is well taken. Looking into the dark sky at the dramatic majesty of the Parthenon, I can feel the birth place of democracy. I can feel the stretching of the mind by Plato and Socrates. Sitting here, I believe in this moment, that everything was invented here.



The Birthplace of Democracy

Ellie’s elegant friend, Katerina, met us at the airport, piled us into taxis and took us into the center of Athens, where our hotel sat situated in the middle of everything. The Titania is a block away from the national library, and then it is an easy walk through history from there. Past buildings called “the university” and “parliament”…all very recent construction for a country as old as Greece, but ancient to our eyes.

But we don’t see any of this right away. A nap is no longer a “nice to have.” It is a priority. I am not sure how anyone else slept, because I fell into a coma. When I woke up, Haley, who has fought sleep since she was a baby, is sitting up telling us that we missed protestors marching by the hotel in the street. I am thrilled she got to see them…and anxious to get going so that we might see them as well.
Our first walk in Greece was sweet and exciting at the same time. We walk past the national library and Grant runs through the pigeons at the foot of the stairs. We walk past the University and see a lean-to built as a form of communication…Afghans petitioning for political asylum. We walk past vine swept buildings between pastry shops and watch stores. Along the way, everything is tagged and stenciled…but somehow, at least for me, this adds to the scene rather than detracts. This is a place where people can speak and they do.
After just a few blocks, we are at the parliament building. We hear it before we see it. Protestors chanting and singing, line the streets and sidewalks in front of the building. The sidewalks are tagged with images of, what I assume to be, members of parliament…with lines slashing through them. This group is angry about the economy. They want something done about it. They are demanding something be done. But these crowds are not like the ones in London last fall. The protest, while serious, is actually peaceful enough for our family to walk through. The only fear I feel is that I will lose sight of the kids in the big crowds…which I don’t, of course.
Further down, we see Zeus’ original temple, still in excavation, and in the distance…the Parthenon. It is too late in the evening to make the trek there tonight, even though it is enticingly close, but we will get there tomorrow.
But tonight, we make our way back to the hotel, through the same crowds we encountered on our way out. It is dark now…and there is something more dramatic about the protests, not threatening…dramatic. The lighting of this city, a city that knows something about drama, makes everything beautiful. There is a concert in front of the University now…next to the lean-to made for Afghani asylum seekers. In Greek and English, they are singing songs about freedom.
And I remember that we are walking the streets that brought us democracy. And here, in Athens, it is good to see how alive that spirit is.




The Flight to Athens

(disclaimer: this entry and many of the ones that follow, were written almost two weeks ago. Finding the time and access to upload them has been difficult. But here we go.)

My eyes actually hurt as I strain to open them in response to Tina lightly brushing my leg. I am not sleeping. There will be no sleep for me during this almost 24 hours of this trip from Houston to Athens. We are off to a stunning adventure amongst history and natural beauty, but in this moment, it is hard to remember that. In this moment, all I can think about is how I miss being horizontal.
I have been on multiple international flights over the last few months on different airlines. I had set the kids expectations along the lines of what my experiences had been on each of the flights. Entertainment screens at every seat with movies, televison, video games and music…temperatures in the 60s in the cabin…snacks set up in the galleys…power outlets at the seats. We have none of this on this twelve hour flight to Athens. The kids and I peeled off jackets and still sweated as we tried in vain to sleep. Eventually, Haley did manage to eke out an hour’s rest. Grant and I have only been able to rest our eyes. I feel a little bratty complaining about this, but it has been a long 24 hours of travel and waiting in airports. And everything in the description of our flight led me to believe my expectations about the amenities were accurate. I think I’m due a little bratty.
The kids are being amazing, frankly. I am sitting between them now as they read their magazines, for the billiondth time. Tina and Ellie are two seats behind us, supplying the kids treats when they venture back there to check in. And i bless them everytime the kids come back with something delightful. Tina has offered to change seats with me, but it is really too late for sleep unfortunately. We will nap at the hotel.
Jesse and Meagan are several rows behind Ellie and Tina. We have not heard from them at all and I am hoping against hope that they have managed to sleep.
It is something of a miracle that we are sitting together like this. Our seats were all over the place when they were assigned. Twice, I elbowed my way past fairly aggressive people trying to jump my place in line to talk to beleagured gate agents accustomed to requests like ours. The joke in our little party was that I was going to go off on them when I got up there in order to get us sitting together. It wasn’t necessary. In fact, it is so rarely necessary to go off on people. Despite telling me that it was highly unlikely that we wouuld find ourselves sitting together, they managed to move people around to get us together. Others around us were not so lucky. I am not sure why this worked out for us, but I am grateful.
We are flying over Grenoble now. The kids are delighted at the information screen tracking our flight.
“Look! We are going to fly over Rome!”
“I wish we could fly over Copenhagen…I like the way that sounds.”
“It’s negative 63 degrees outside!”
I am reading an article in a magazine about a family who took their two kids out of school for a year to travel and learn. It is an overview of their travels in Peru, Africa and France…just a light touch in this brief article, and I intend to read more on their blog because I am fascinated. But right now, I am thinking now of this trip and how we can make this a more active learning experience.
More from Athens…

I’m back…sort of.

I am having so much trouble writing.

It’s not that there is not stuff to write. There is plenty. But when I have written on this trip, there is something travelogueish about it. There is no humor or drama…just us. Plus, I have had to shift my focus a little. I had begun to write down the details of everything we are doing every day, and there is just no way to make that interesting. I have forgotten, on this trip, how to look for moments and themes. I have been recording like I am writing a news story. Just the facts ma’am.

So I guess I do know what the problem has been. But fixing it is another thing entirely.

I have written multiple blog entries. But I lost steam when it became clear that there was no way to upload them. Even if I am writing for only one person, I am writing this for someone…and if no one reads it…

All this to say, I will uploading the posts I have already written…as they are. It is a blog after all…not a book to be published. Read at your own risk.