Monday, June 18, 2012
A Tour of Northern Greece
In beauty of face no maiden ever equaled her. It was the radiance of an opium-dream - an airy and spirit-lifting vision more wildly divine than the fantasies which hovered about the slumbering souls of the daughters of Delos. - Edgar Allen Poe
I didn't know what to expect upon my arrival in Greece. So much has been reported about it in the news lately that it was almost impossible to come here without certain expectations--of poverty, anger, Molotov cocktails and, most importantly, of a world that has essentially stopped functioning. Nothing, however, could have been further from the truth. The Greece that I have seen for the last week is vibrant, friendly and passionate, especially when it comes to politics and soccer. Working to calm this fiery passion is the relaxed atmosphere that seems almost a part of the landscape itself, from the expansive beaches to the rocky cliffs. And, quite honestly, I can't remember the last time I've been this relaxed; I like it. A lot. It's like a mental shift has taken place that has been long overdue.
Since arriving, I've almost been constantly on the go. There's been iced coffee at a rooftop cafe, a visit to the Greek Hagia Sophia, and a night out at Tsinari, an ouzeri (ouzo bar) with the Greek and a few of his high school friends. Tucked away in the winding hills of Thessaloniki, it's the kind of place that, as a tourist, you only dream of stumbling upon. The ouzo is appropriately strong and bitter, and the small plates are varied and flavorful. Out of everything we had, I liked the μπουγιουρντί (bouyourdi)--a saucy mix of feta, tomatoes and pepper--best. Keep in mind that my love of this dish was a bit ironic since I was originally somewhat opposed to it; to my American ear, it sounded like (Chef) Boyardee, though it couldn't have been less similar. All the way through the free dessert, which the restaurants give you as kerasma (an offering that shows their appreciation for your business), we talked about politics, the Euro and the upcoming election. I loved every minute of it.
Then, a few days later, we set off for a short tour of Epirus--the northwestern part of Greece that is known for its mountainous landscape, stopping in both Metsovo and lakeside Ioannina. In Metsovo we had a fantastic meal, during which I ate my first piece of lamb (mind you, this was only the first of many), a savory pumpkin pie (pie is a specialty of the region), saganaki (pan-seared cheese), lima beans, meat balls and the most amazing thing of all, glika koutaliou (spoon sweets), fruity, syrupy concoctions that can be eaten plain or used to top Greek yogurt. Needless to say, being in Greece and happily accepting all forms of kerasma, from wine to dessert, I am not only in awe of Greek hospitality, but I am also extremely concerned for my waistline. "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" came on the radio yesterday and, needless to say, having just bought a bikini with pineapples all over it and surrounded by all sorts of intriguing sweet and savory things alike, I feel that this song is in danger of applying to my condition. How can you not be tempted to try everything you see in this country? It's either try everything or stay forever. I'd be lying if I said I weren't more than a little tempted to do both.
After Metsovo, we drove onto Ioannina, which was both quaint and lively. The cool breeze from the lake provided a necessary respite from the almost omnipresent heat and people were out and about, taking advantage of it, too. Many of the townspeople were biking and fishing, while we opted for a long walk around the lake and through the center of town, eyeing some shops to stop in the next morning. Watching the sun set over the lake was also nothing short of magnificent. We had a perfect view as well, since we had dinner at a lakeside Italian restaurant.
Walking through Ioannina the next day, I enjoyed seeing the various shops and their wares. Everywhere I looked there was something new to see: clay baking dishes, the workings of a butcher shop offering AAA quality meat, old churches and buildings...It does seem true that wherever you go in Greece, you're sure to stumble upon some kind of ancient ruin. It's one of those humbling experiences that reminds you of how old the world is and how our lives, in comparison with its own, are nothing but the briefest of moments.
After we looked around to our heart's content in Ioannina and had some ice cream to combat the heat, we set off for Smixi, the Greek's "ancestral village"and home to Greek Vlachs. Our first order of business was lunch--yet another filling meal that offered a variety of Greek foods that I've been able only to salivate over in Greek cookbooks--lemony chicken, stuffed vegetables, creamy and salty feta...
And then, again as kerasma (why other countries don't get on this bandwagon is beyond me), we had revani, a coarsely textured semolina cake soaked in syrup, with some ice cream on the side. Needless to say, I've been in a kind of heaven that even my wildest fantasies couldn't dream up.
To exercise a little after the meal, we took a brief walk along the river, admiring the natural beauty of Vlach country. And then it was time for yet another round of food and conversation when we headed back to the village to have coffee with some old friends of the Greek's parents. As the American girlfriend of a much beloved only son, I suspect that I have been an object of great interest for the various people I've met. I'm happy to report, however, that all of these meetings have been pleasant and the assessment on the part of the Greeks who meet me is: "Oh, she's just like a Greek girl!" I'm not 100% sure what this means, but I get the feeling it has something to do with three things: 1) I am game for eating any and all syrup coated pastries placed in front of me, 2) when asked, I choose to drink Greek instead of French-style coffee and 3) I don't fulfill the stereotype that most Europeans have of loud, boisterous Americans. And even if it has nothing to do with any of these presumed reasons, it's certainly a positive thing that makes me happy. Rather than feel like a tourist, I already, despite my shaky command of spoken Greek, kind of feel like one of the family.