Thursday, June 24, 2010

Call Captain Yiannis

Our host for two weeks, Petros, has given us the name and number of Captain Yiannis. Petros owns a shipping company, which means he knows something about boats. And Captain Yiannis has an important job: he pilots Petros's own boat.

After trying a couple cell phone numbers, we finally reach Captain Y. "Do you want to go for a tour of Antiparos?" He tells us to wear our bathing suits and bring a few towels. We tell him that we'll bring sandwiches. He says that he has drinks. Do you have beer on the boat? "No problem. Biera." We're not sure, but we think that is a "yes". How will we find you? "I meet you at the dock." We ask him where. "You'll know me." Is ten people too many? "Not problem."

We arrive at the dock. Moored to the pier, we see two big, shiny 35-foot boats. "Captain Vassilis" and "Captain Gregory." No Captain Yiannis.

Then, we look up. Motoring in from mid-harbor is a small, pontoon motor boat. In the stern is a portly man in a white shirt and a white Nike tennis hat. He's waving. We've found Captain Yiannis.

The pontoon boat, of course, is not the real thing. The real thing is "Argos" -- a 52 foot motor boat with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. It's stunning.

And it's fast. Before we know it, Captain Y has us cruising toward the southern end of Antiparos at 30 knots. We wave as we fly past our villa.

After about 20 minutes, we've flown past Soros, and around the far southern point of Antiparos. Ancient cliffs stare down at us, as we head away toward the smaller, uninhabited island of Despotiko, which sits just south of Antiparos. Captain Y steers us around the south side of Despotiko, past two coves, until he finally takes into a third, shell-shaped lagoon.

The water is stunningly clear, with the white sand floor visible from the deck of the boat. Hundred foot cliffs stare down at us from either side of the lagoon's mouth. We ask Captain Y if it's not too shallow to jump. "No. Still deep here." And suddenly, half of us are in the water, swimming the final fifty yards into the beach. Captain Y lowers the pontoon dingy into the water, and loads our remaining passengers ... as well as beach towels, lunches and cooler with Biera ... on to the dingy, and motors it in around the swimmers.

The beach itself is about two hundred yards long. There are five or six palm-branch umbrellas permanently in place. Along one cliff wall, a small dock has been built.

It's a normal day at the beach. We smim out to the dock, give a wave to the beach, and dive back into the lagoon.

We collect drift wood, eat our little sandwiches. We share a biera. And a deserted ancient cove all to ourselves.

After an hour or so, we reverse the routine -- half of us swimming back to the Argos, the others getting a lift from Captain Y.

He gives us the slow tour back. With eyes and mouths wide open, we stare at the cliffs that tower over us, at the monumental rocks jutting out from the sides of the cliff walls. As we cruise the narrow strait between Despotiko and Antiparos, we talk about Ulysses, and his cruise between Scylla and Charybdis. We had a better day than he did.

And then we are headed home.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

"You must earn your Ouzo"

Costas, the silver-haired chairman of one of Athens's leading companies pronounces, in perfect King's English, "You must earn your Ouzo."

We don't know this man. He is a friend of a friend. But, for him, the fact that we are friends of his friend is a big deal. He has welcomed us into his home, so we feel obliged to earn some Ouzo. Ten minutes later, in borrowed swim suits, flippers, and scuba masks, we waddle down to the beach in front of his house in the Voutakos section on the island of Paros. "This is a good beach," he says. He then points south. "That is a better beach." He then points north, around a rocky point, about a half mile away. "That is the best beach. Today, the good beach will have to do."

And then we're in the water, swimming toward the rocky point. We are propelled by flippers, and are bounced around by the waves. A half hour ago, the idyllic windmills that dot the coast line seemed so serene. But now they are just another reminder of the powerful gusts that start in June, and last throughout the summer. Those gusts are making the surf feel like a giant mogul run. And we are feeling like first-time snowboarders, without the option of pulling over to the side of the slope to catch our breaths.

Costas doesn't need flippers, and he is leading the way. He is gliding through the waves like a methodical fishing boat. He counts his swim strokes. If he doesn't make one thousand strokes, he will swim around in a circle at the end for a few more minutes.

About half-way to the rocky point, we finally get a rhythm going, and we start to notice the terrific sights through the eye-blue water below us. A half dozen varieties of small fish dance around corals, and in and out of small caves. Tiny sea urchins dot the rocky floor.

Our "little swim" to the rocky point and back is indeed rewarded with Ouzo, in the drink's most refreshing form: over ice, with a good dose of water. It's like liquorish-ade, and it was well worth the workout. Costas does this twice a day, every day. "I like my Ouzo, but I have to earn it."

We enjoy our first Ouzo on an open patio surrounded by a vineyard and vegetable garden. We are joined by Costas' wife Anthi, and her sister Kalli -- both educated at American universities, and delighted to share their Sunday afternoon with total strangers from the United States and Sweden. We then move on to a mid-day lunch of octopus, fish roe spread, Greek salad, beans, olives, and local baked bread. Everything is local, it turns out, and everything is fresh and exquisite. The olives are home grown; the olive-oil cold-pressed.

The conversation dances from politics and the economy to an extended discussion of food and agriculture. Kalli is a devotee of Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, Julia Childs and Barbara Kingslover. Needless to say, she and Kristen become fast friends.

Another couple drops by -- George and Sophiana. They're not staying to eat; they simply wanted to invite us over to dinner later in the week. A third couple -- visiting Brits -- drop in half-way through the meal. They're not late ... actually, they're just in time for the main course: a local fish that looks like trout but tastes like lobster. That is about when the second Ouzo arrived. Evidently, we earned more than one. And then, the final delicacy: karathopita -- walnut cake, smothered in honey.

When we are finally escorted back to the ferry for the ride across the channel to Anitparos (i.e. opposite from Paros), we ponder our good fortune and try to figure out when we are next going to earn some Ouzo.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Week One, Athens: it's not the heat, it's the humility... and hospitality

Did the public transportation workers know that Athens would suffer an epic June heat-wave when they chose to strike last week?

"Saranda". That's Greek for "forty". As in 40 Celcius. My iPhone says that's 104 F. Is that all? Maybe it seems hotter because the subway and bus strke means massive traffic jams, and the taxis don't believe in air conditioning (i.e. $8 gallon gas.)

Whatever the case, it's the wrong time to lose the option of using Athens terrific (and cool) subway. Site-seeing and business meetings are sweaty ventures. And no swimming pool in sight from Tuesday until Friday, when we gladly accepted an invitation to a friend's back-yard oasis.

Of course, our 15-year-old, globally-networked mommy's helper has figured out a way to find not only a swimming pool, but an air-conditioned health club as well. She connects with friends staying at the Grand Bretagne -- a modern Parthenon of a hotel, on the Constitution Square, right across from the Parliament. Beyond the splendor of the place, she scores a few Grand Bretagne pool and spa "time outs". Forcing the rest of us to ask: why did we pick the quaint side-street boutique hotel without a pool or even exercise room? And how do we get to know her friends?

The heat-wave takes a back seat to more powerful memories of a week in Athens. The first is humility. Exactly 2500 years after tiny Athens beat the great Persian Empire in the battle of Marathon (490 BC... do the math), Greece is again the talk of the globe. Not in a good way, of course. What was most striking about the conversations in Athens was the sense of humility. From government officials, to business leaders, to journalists, to cab drivers, to waiters, Greeks were to a person humbled by what had befallen their global brand.

Public lying by government officials about national finances. The disgrace of the EU letting it twist in the wind before giving it a bailout. A supplementary IMF bailout, usually reserved for least developed countries, not for the birth-place of democracy. A political system incapable of making the changes that almost everyone expects.

So, we ask, where is the hope? That now, maybe this one time, with this one non-corrupt Prime Minister, Greece might actually balance their budget, strip back their regulations, and hit "restart" on their democracy.

But our strongest memory is the hospitality. The invitations were overwhelming. The meals were never-ending. The curiosity about all things American was endearing. And the feeling that now was a time for friends was reassuring.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The great carry on bag experiment

The challenge: spend a month in Greece with all you can pack in one carry-on bag. Nine cities in 28 days. Two weeks on an island. One carry-on.

In theory, it's brilliant. Simplify. No lost bags. No jet-lagged waiting at the luggage carousel. Rent the smallest car you can get; all the luggage will fit.

It certainly goes against type. Ater all, an entire brand was built around the American Tourister. Greek-American Tourister? Double it!

Still, this should not be too tough. It's a hot country. What more would each of us need than a couple pair of shorts, a few tee shirts, a bathing suit, a half-dozen undies, and running clothes?

Theory? Meet practice. Rain coat? No. Regular shampoo? No. Sunscreen? Buy it there. Extra sports-coat for Athens business meetings? Yes. Half-dozen books for the rising third-grader? Yes. American Girl doll with accessories? No. Travel guides? Kindle for iPad!

Final tally: we each maxed out. Four wheeled carry-ons, four 'hand-bags' (of varying shapes and sizes). (Yes, Kyri, that's Daddy's extra shirt in your roller bag....)