Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Why Don't You Listen?

Fresh from the Volcano and headed off to the hot springs, we retired to the lounge. Partly because it was shaded, and partly because my feet were in too much pain to walk further than the lounge. We rode (sailed? boated?) for about 20 minutes, then were told we were at the Hot Springs of Palea Kameni and that we’d have 30 minutes total to enjoy them before we had to get back to the port.

These tours should be longer.

We were informed before departing that we would not be landing at the hot springs, but that we’d have to get off the boat and swim. What they meant by this, evidently, was “you will jump off of the side of the boat into 10-meter-deep freezing water, then hopefully you’ll make it to the section of the sea that’s somewhat warmer”. I’ve never really been one to start jumping off of my mode of transport, but, frankly, everyone else was doing it.

We formed a line to get to the side of the boat that we’d be jumping off of and waited as most of the people on the boat leapt into the bay and started swimming. There were a few hiccups; an older man in a white speedo that seemed to be having a lot of trouble getting his family’s attention refusing to jump until he was acknowledged and a few people who decided that they’d jump off the top deck of the boat and were admonished by the tour guide in a way that was not so much stern as resigned and amusing.

First “Please do not jump off the top.”

Then: “Do not jump off the top, please. Why don’t you listen?”

Once we were in, it occurred to me that this was the first time I’d been swimming somewhere that I couldn’t reach the bottom of in years, and that I was kind of bluffing when I told the tour guide that I was a strong swimmer. Evidently, I’m good enough to get from the jumpoff point to the springs and back.

The springs themselves weren’t so much hot as “not as ridiculously cold as the water we jumped into at first” and there was a sort of red mud that covered everything and apparently stuck in my beard. There was a small building, but no one was in it and I’m not sure what purpose it served. There were also cliffs rising up above the hot springs and, as we looked more closely, lots of goats, which was somewhat unexpected. They made noises and seemed not as pleased that we were there as we were. Almost as soon as we made it to the springs, we were told to come back to get on the boat and return to Fira.

Again, these tours need to be longer.

Once back aboard, we dried out on the top deck (as we’d forgotten towels) and made our way back to the old port. We were presented with the option to walk up the cliff we’d ridden down in the cable car or to take donkeys up the path or to take the cable car back up for another 4€. We chose the cable car. Eddie and Tim walked up, which I admire, but I’d done enough climbing things for the afternoon. Once at the top, we gathered the rest of the group and set off to find the bus station, which is harder than it was the previous night. Of course, the previous night we were just sort of driven to the station and we were now wandering the streets of a strange town trying to find what they called the city center. We eventually made our way to the bus, took it back to Kamari and went to the beach, exhausted. I tried to swim (and was pretty successful at that part), but was unable to get out of the water. The thing about a pebble beach is that pebbles aren’t nearly as soft as sand, and if you’ve climbed a volcano that afternoon in little more than straps of plastic, it’s excruciatingly painful. Eventually, though, I did make it out of the water (which is how I’m able to be writing this right now) and headed upstairs to get ready for the rehearsal dinner, which was back in Fira at a place called Naoussa.

Naoussa was great, and it was recommended to me to try their moussaka, which I did. It was significantly better than the stuff I’d had in Athens, with a sort of creamy potato topping. We also found (at last, as Marina had been talking about it since we left Chicago) teramasalata and salty fried cheese, which was salty and fried and therefore amazing. We shared some more of the local dry wines, took pictures of the donkeys going down the street and of the shop across the way that had a mannequin who apparently couldn’t keep her top up, then walked back through Fira in search of a taxi and gelato. We were also introduced to Carlos, Myles cousin and Best Man, a doctoral student in physics at Columbia. I talked a bit about the various things I’ve worked on in the past, then got derailed into a discussion about Green Lantern, Justice League and Locke and Key.

Which is how conversations normally go.

One taxi ride back to the hotel and a brief ridiculous fruity drink session later, and we’re going to pass out. Actually, while at the bar, the server asked us where we were from. We said “Chicago.” and he replied “Ah. Bulls.” Which is the same exchange we had upon checking in at Hotel Apollo in Athens, except that the inflection was different. Santorini Server said it as a way to acknowledge that he knew of Chicago. The Hotel Apollo guy said it sort of disappointedly, which I agreed with.

Tomorrow is the wedding.

Bad Decisions in Greece

We woke up at about 8am with the sun streaming in through the windows of our hotel room. You’d think that, given that this is a vacation, we’d be somewhat better about not doing too much and waking up when we felt like it, but then you wouldn’t have been accounting for how bright the sun is. We made our way over to a continental breakfast at a hotel that wasn’t ours (and thus charged us for the privelige of eating their ham). It’s a pretty good spread, and exactly the same as the one we had at our hotel in Athens. Some ham, some cheese, yogurt and honey, peaches, a choice of corn flakes or granola, orange juice, coffee and a boiled egg. We loaded up, knowing that we wouldn’t be eating for a while and we’d be doing something strenuous.

Andrea had arranged for us to go on a small boat tour, leaving from the old port in Fira, then heading to Nea Kameni to see the active volcano, followed by a swim in the hot springs at Palea Kameni.

Which sounds a lot tamer than it is.

We took a bus driven by some people that work at the hotel up the mountain to Fira. Well, more correctly, most of the rest of the party took the bus up to Fira from the hotel. Marina and I attempted to go to the ATM with 15 minutes before we had to be back to be picked up by the bus, but there are evidently only two ATMs in Kamari (that we ever found) and they’re not exactly right out in the open. By the time we figured out what street to turn down and which square to go to, we were cutting it close, and when you throw in a guy standing in front of the ATM apparently baffled as to how it works, it was hopeless. We gave up and ran back to the hotel to find Jordan outside, with an explanation that the bus had left but that a separate car would take us up to the top (it had always been the plan for the car to take three, and we’d just inadvertently decided that it would be us). The driver was a woman named Diane, the person Andrea had communicated with to set everything about the trip up, who was from Vancouver who’d gone on a Europe trip with a friend roughly thirty years ago and wound up getting a job in Greece.

So that’s fun.

We got to Fira and were dropped off at a steep alleyway with instructions to climb up the hill and follow the signs for the Cable Car. We did and, thankfully, found the rest of the party.

So, the thing about the Cable Car. When I hear the words “Cable Car”, I think of trolleys and the Brooklyn Dodgers and Star Trek IV. This was not the trolley kind of cable car. This was what I’d always thought of as an “incline”, what with the Duquesne and Monongahela Inclines being my only experience with little train that goes up and down the side of a hill. Rather than being a railcar system, it’s sort of an enclosed ski-lift, with gondolas hanging from a cable.

I was not prepared for the cable car.

It’s a smooth enough ride, though there are a few moments where the angle at which the cable is declining changes more drastically than I was expecting, and you do get a pretty good view of the old port.
We got to the bottom and ran to the end of the port and back a few times, looking for our boat, before discovering that it was the pirate ship looking thing that we’d run past when we first got to the port. Everyone boarded and we were off to the central islands.

Upon arriving at Nea Kameni, we were told that we could leave our belongings in the lounge. We got off, and were told that we shouldn’t leave money or cameras on board, but Marina and I somehow didn’t hear this and went up and paid for the privilege of walking up the volcano. There was evidently some confusion among the group and most everyone else stayed back to get our stuff off the boat and wait for the tour to return from the volcano. We later confirmed with the tour guide that they lock the lounge (which is why they directed us to leave our stuff there) and bring a second, smaller expedition back, and that the money-or-cameras thing was mostly given in a sort of “if you’re really paranoid” sense.

I’m glad we’d already paid and were walking up the hill by the time we heard all of this. Not because we were worried, but because I’d hate to have missed out on the volcano.

Tips If You’re Climbing To The Top Of A Volcanic Island

1. Do not wear flip-flops.

Because of the mixup with the ATM, we were unable to go back to our hotel room before getting in the car and jetting off to Fira, so I was still wearing the flip flops that I had on for breakfast as a result of being too lazy to put on real shoes. Which are fine, if you’re walking on a boardwalk or down to the beach, but climbing a hill made entirely of smallish igneous rocks is a bad idea. Most people had more sensible footwear than I (though there were some women in platform sandals) but this was not some leisurely walk up a smooth, slight incline. This was a hike. At noon. In 85°F heat. Being led by a woman who was running. Because she is a cyborg.

Marina charged up the volcano really well, mostly stopping to wait for me as I was doing it essentially barefoot, except with the added pleasure of having a little plastic thing dig into my foot and trying to tear my toe off by sheer force of friction. We eventually caught up to Uncle Eddie, then got overly enthusiastic when we reached the top of the first crater, apparently not understanding that there was a whole lot of Volcano left to climb.

2. Bring loads of water.

We brought some, but I’ll reiterate that it’s a pretty tough hike up a rocky volcano in the middle of the day in the sunniest place that’s ever existed. We took a lot of pictures (mostly of the scenery), but the ones of us mostly look defeated, tired, thirsty and sweaty. I’d say we could have done with more warning about how strenuous the climb would be, but then there’s no real fun in that, is there?

3. To hell with the tour guide. We’ll Wikipedia everything later.

Our boat only had a limited amount of time before it had to be back at the port. Our tour was due to end at 2pm, and another tour started shortly after that, so we were on a tight schedule. The tour guide seemed terrified that we wouldn’t get done in time, so she bolted up the volcano without actually waiting for most people to get off the boat. Our group (myself, Marina and Uncle Eddie) caught up to her at the end of her speech on the third crater, which erupted a few hundred years ago, to distinguish it from the one that exploded in the 17th century BC and created modern Santorini (and also may have destroyed Minoan settlements on the island). Evidently, we could have just hung one tour guide back, as the second guide (along with Andrea, Myles and Andrea’s dad Tim) showed up just as our guide decided to run back down the volcano.

Getting to the top was kind of thrilling in a way that I’m not entirely familiar with. There’s definitely a sense of accomplishment, even if they’re pretty well defined trails that thousands of other tourists have walked up. The view is spectacular, as you can see all of the island of Thira, as well as out into the Aegean Sea, and the communities (like Fira and Oia) dot the cliffs, all over the background of the hills of the volcano you’ve just climbed. Additionally, I’d just done the thing in flip flops, and the overall mood was “jubilant” briefly, then “We-have-to-get-back-to-the-boat-because-I’m-positive-that-woman-will-leave-without-us.” We rushed down the hill, Marina going much faster than I could in pieces of Old Navy foam rubber and made it back to the boat (and everyone else in the group). We boarded and were off to the Hot Springs.

As this post is running long, the hot springs and the rehearsal dinner in Fira will be recapped in the next post.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Taxi Driver's Wife

We were invited to a welcome dinner for the people attended the wedding in Oia, which is on the other end of the island. I suppose this is as good a time as any to throw a map in to show where we’re going.

We’re staying in Kamari (A), which has black pebble beaches and dozens of scooters. Dinner was at the top of the crescent, facing the caldera. Santorini was once much more of a roughly circular island with a volcano on it, until the volcano erupted with roughly the force of Krakatoa and blew out the center of the island. There’s still an active volcano on the separate island at the center of the caldera (Nea Kameni), which we’ll be visiting tomorrow.

To get to Oia (C), we had to take a taxi, as we weren’t too familiar with the public transit yet. So, we placed an order for two taxis (which should hold eight people total) to drive from Kamari to Oia, which would be plenty of seats to get us up there as Myles and Andrea had rented a car and could drive. They left, then the taxis arrived, but the driver seemed confused that we wanted to go to Oia (it was evidently his impression that we were going to somewhere else in Kamari, which doesn’t make much sense.) He then told us that we could only fit three in the first taxi, which means we’d need to call another taxi so that everyone could fit, while waving his hands and talking about another passenger we needed to pick up. We all thought that there must be someone else coming in from the port, so we went with it.

About ten minutes into the drive, he pulls off the road and picks up our other passenger (or, two, actually), his wife and kid. Adorable, I guess, and I’m guessing either he had some engagement that wouldn’t allow him the time to drive all the way to Oia and back or he just didn’t feel like going the whole way back alone, but in any case, we were now carrying another passenger (who, now that I think of it, could have probably chipped in for the ride.)

I’d finally stopped being able to feign wakefulness on the ride and fell asleep for most of it, waking up when it was time to get to the restaurant.

Oia is amazing. It’s mostly built on the edge of the mountain and has narrow winding streets that go past dozens of souvenir shops, art galleries and restaurants, most of them advertising the view. Our dinner was at Nectar & Ambrosia, which had promised a sunset view that it was evidently unable to deliver on. Which is a shame, but the view it did provide was the best I’ve ever seen while eating dinner. It looked out over the caldera, from which you could see the other four islands that make up Santorini and which only got better the more the sun set.

Jordan had also stopped being able to stave off jet-lag, took the seat at the head of the table that no one else seemed to want to take (possibly because for some reason it was more of a throne than a chair) and promptly fell asleep on the armrest.
I had a “Mediterranean Quiche”, which I found to be a quiche, and Marina had the mushroom risotto, which I’ve never been able to successfully prepare on my own. We had some dry white wine because all of the local wines are dry, which I’d imagine comes from being the only area in Europe that’s officially a desert in the “very little precipitation for much of the year” sense. Overall, dinner was great. Everyone ran out of their seats to watch the sunset, which is again certainly different than anywhere I’ve had dinner in Chicago. That’s probably a function of the sunset over the Aegean Sea being somewhat more interesting than the sunset over Des Plaines.

After dinner, most of the wedding party went back to the hotel, with the exception of myself, Marina, Jordan and Andrea’s brother Travis. We walked down the streets of Oia, stopping to take pictures of things that apparently don’t turn out when you take a picture of them, so you’ll have to trust me on their awesomeness. The cliff is dotted with lighted pools and little white hotels offering great views if you’re ok with your hotel being in the side of a mountain, and I can’t say whether there’s anyone that’s actually there that simply lives in the village. During the walk, we lost track of where we were and weren’t sure where to find the bus stop. There are several stops along the road, but it seems as though if you’re in a town and would like to ride to another town, you’ve got to catch the bus on the main square. We ducked down a little street near an alleyway and looked sufficiently confused enough for a person smoking on the stairs to ask us where we needed to go. We told her we were looking for a way back to Kamari, at which point she jumped up and ran down a bus, waving her arms, so that we could get on. We bought tickets on the bus, and the ticket-guy explained that we’d need to get off this bus in Fira (the largest town in Santorini, marked B) and transfer to a Fira-Kamari bus.

I have mixed feelings about sleeping on the way to Oia. On one hand, even in the dark on the ride back I could see that we were on narrow winding mountain roads, overlooking cliffs (which had little guard rails which would have done absolutely nothing to the bus) and from which you could see all the little towns on the coast. On the other, I would have been terrified if I knew what was going on.

We made it to Fira, made a sharper turn than I’ve ever seen a bus make, and found our way back to Kamari, proud of the fact that we managed to get from one end of the island to another on our own for 3.20€. The rest of the party was by the pool, where Andrea and Myles were throwing a welcome party (Champagne! Rum! Greek beer!) and we hung out for a while before realizing that we were going to pass out on the tile around the pool.

So we went to bed.

No Stop Signs

I’ve lived in Chicago for nearly 6 years. At times, the overwhelming flatness of the place gets to me. It was nice when I was riding a bicycle everywhere, but it’s also just flat. No texture. That’s one of the things I miss most about Western Pennsylvania. Yeah, it’s hard to bike there, but at least there’s something other than unrelenting flatness.

I was not prepared for Santorini. We landed at the Port and waited in the garage with a bunch of scooters and trucks that had come with us, waiting to get off. The door lowered, the music played, and we were out and desperately looking for a guy holding a sign that had the name “White” on it. We found him eventually, a short, balding man holding a white piece of paper onto which “White” had been drawn in orange marker. He helped us into his van and started driving up the mountain, away from the port and towards Kamari, a resort town on the western coast where we’ll be living for the next few days. Before leaving, we picked up Myles’ Uncle Edward, who for the remainder of the trip will be referred to by everyone, related or not, as Uncle Eddie. The man can talk. I’ve never met someone so good at conversation. He’s got that ability (which I wish I had) to make the conversation about whoever he’s talking to.

I like Uncle Eddie.

The thing about Santorini (originally Thira, until the Venetians took it over after it had blown up a few times) is that it’s a volcanic island and has a lot more cliffs than I’m used to seeing. The ride from the port to our hotel in Kamari starts by climbing the mountain that’s next to the port via a steep road that has a number of 180° turns, because that’s how you make a road go down the side of a mountain.

The whole area is beautiful. A mix of low valleys with villages, large mostly barren peaks with nothing on them and a panoramic view of the Aegean. It has apparently no concept of stop signs, as the driver seems to just be flying through the island’s roads, slowing up a little when someone turns onto a street in front of him, but otherwise just driving as though there aren’t any other drivers. Which there aren’t, really. Santorini’s a tiny island with one main road and a bunch of little streets.

Our hotel is in Kamari (Καμαρι!) which is a little beach town that appears to be almost entirely tourism driven. We’re staying in some nice studios that connect to a pool and, as the owner of the hotel explains to us, there are some markets and restaurants in the area that we’re welcome to take advantage of, especially for buying water. I’m entirely used to a society where water and electricity are omnipresent. Electricity’s still around (though we do have a nifty little slot to put our key fob into in the room to make sure the electricity’s shut off if we’re not there), but the water, he tells us, is not so much drinkable. It’s good for showering, and should be fine for brushing our teeth, but he warns that drinking too much of it will make you “bubbly”, so we should buy bottled water (which is really cheap). Evidently, water was much more scarce at one time, but they’ve since added a desalinization plant, but not a purification plant. So we get some water, unpack our stuff and get ready for the welcome dinner, which will be in Oia (which is pronounced Iä, which means I don’t know how the Greek alphabet works).

More on Oia later.

I'm On A Boat In The Middle of the Aegean Sea

It’s almost too much to process.

We decided against taking a short plane ride (apparently about an hour) from Athens to Santorini, opting instead for an eight (or, apparently ten, if the guy who hops on the announcements every so often is who you go to for this sort of information). We pass islands pretty regularly, and we’ve made one of our two stops on the way to Santorini, at Paros, which the travel guide we bought (which has all of two pages on Santorini) describes as being easy to explore and having a “trendy fishing village”. I’m not sure what that phrase means. Anytime you say to me that I’m about to enter a “trendy fishing village”, I’m going to stare at you like you’re insane.

We got up to the top deck, which was cold as we set off at 7:30am, but has gotten warmer. We picked a largish table with benches, which people kept walking up to, contemplating and passing until a French couple decided to stop screwing around and sit down. Which is good. I’ve been alternately reading a book (American Gods, which I should have read by now) and attempting to sleep in a variety of ineffective but no doubt hilarious poses. It’s actually a pretty lightly packed boat, so there are a bunch of seats inside in what appears to be the interior of an airplane, but on a boat, which has wall chargers. So I’m writing here.

I had been warned before we left that it’d be hard to actually get to the boat once we were at the port, but that doesn’t seem to be the case at all, really. Getting to the port, however, was entirely different. I thought that it’d be easy. We just take the Red Line from Metaxourghio to Addison Omonia, then transfer to the Green Line which would take us all the way to Piraeus. This didn’t happen. We took the Red Line to Omonia, then hauled our 50-lb suitcase up two sets of stairs to get back to just under street level, where we were informed by a bunch of construction equipment and tape that the Green Line connection was closed. There was probably some warning of this, but it was evidently in Greek, or I was inattentive. There are signs in English everywhere (as well as the metro announcements taking place both in Greek and English), but apparently, I missed it. So we went back down to where we came from and boarded the train back towards Aghios Dimitrios to get to Syntagma, where we could transfer to the blue line, which we would take to Monastiraki, where there was a working Green Line connection according to the guy in the booth at Omonia.

This all miraculously worked, but there was a lot of running and sweating. The Green Line train at Monastiraki hung out at the station for about five minutes (which added to the Panicked Ryan expression I’d had for the past half hour of being on every train that exists), but we were eventually on our way to Piraeus. We went into a ticket office, but not the one that had the tickets we’d purchased, so we ran out to pick up everything near the boat. Happily, there were a bunch of vendors selling bread and donuts so, bread in hand, we boarded.

We’ve got a stop coming up at Naxos (which the guide tells me is the largest of the Cyclades, and which The DK Eyewitness Travel Guide felt was worth two and a half pages) and from there on to Santorini. We’ve already seen some of the white, blue-domed churces on Paros, and Jordan recorded some of the ridiculous disembarkation music that plays when the loading hatch is being opened.

Now, to try for sleep and hope we eventually find Santorini.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Riot Gear and Souvlaki

To recap: the plan was to wake up relatively early, head up to the Acropolis and walk around until roughly 2:30, then head back to the hotel where, hopefully, Jordan would be waiting. We didn’t have any way to contact her as we don’t have cell phones that work, and we knew that Jordan wasn’t traveling with any sort of computer. So we left a note, explaining our plans, with the hotel clerk.

Also to recap: We woke up at 6:30 am, and it turns out that wandering around and trying to stay hydrated will make you sleep. Luckily, when we woke up, Jordan had arrived and managed to find our hotel, and rented a room. We headed out back to Plaka because we were comfortable with it and it’s touristy and we needed food, because we’d gotten into the habit of not eating ever, which is different from how things normally go.

The problem with looking for food while you’re hungry is that you’ll invariably try to stop at the first place that looks even somewhat reasonable. We picked a restaurant that had Coca-Cola seat covers, because we thought somehow that meant that it wouldn’t be terribly expensive.

Maybe Coca-Cola is subsidizing souvlaki restaurants for the aid of tourists.

It turns out that no, that’s not an indication of the amount of money you’ll be spending. Entrees were somewhere in the neighborhood of 18€ . That’s no good. So we awkwardly got up, handed the menus back to the guy who’d seemed so excited about a few new clients and walked across the square, where we found a more reasonable souvlaki place (Ithaki!). As far as somewhat-reasonable-but-still-more-expensive-than-street-food, it sufficed. We all ordered the beef-and-lamb gyros plate, which it turns out is a lot of food and, in our rush to get something we knew was somewhat Greek, we didn’t actually get to try anything other than that. Which is a shame. Mustard instead of tzatiki, though, which was new.

Across the street, we noticed a policeman. Then several more. Then they got riot shields and masks. With the oblivious nature of tourists, we assumed that everything was fine, finished our meal, and walked away from the restaurant to explore the rest of Plaka. In search of a gelato shop, we found our way through the winding streets to Monastiraki, and an apparently closed flea market, which I’m fine with. The square was lined with little souvenir shops, and seats on the wall were apparently at a premium, though when we found some, they were overlooking another glass-covered part of archeological Athens.

It’s a whole level of old that I’m not sure what to do with.

We wound our way back thorugh towards the Akropoli metro station until we heard a bunch of shouting, which we found out later was some manner of demonstration. We’d seen some anarchist graffiti near our hotel, but weren’t really prepared for whatever required the riot shields, so we walked rather quickly back to the metro and sped off towards our hotel.

Back at Hotel Apollo, we decided to check out the roof garden we’d heard so much about, by which I mean the hotel staff recommended it to everyone and, when I asked where I could buy groceries, was told that if I was hungry, I should probably just buy food from them.

To be fair, it was pretty awesome. 7€ for a bottle of wine and a rooftop view over all of Athens, including a clear line of sight to the lighted Acropolis. It’s kind of odd, actually, being in a city with no real skyscraper-esque buildings. Everything’s sort of 4-to-6 stories and made out of concrete. Still, that just means you have an uninterupted view as far as the city goes until you run into a mountain.

We collapsed shortly thereafter as we had to be up at 5:30am to get to the port to get on a boat to get to Santorini.

Let's try not to pass out.

So, when we left off, we were still waiting for Jordan to get into Athens and had just finished with the incredibly hot, incredibly sunny, incredibly prone-to-vendors Acropolis. The plan, as Jordan’s flight was getting in around noon, was to meet back at the hotel at 3, which should have given her enough time to get there and get settled and would have allowed us to finish up our touristy tourism. We went directly from the Acropolis to the New (!) Acropolis Museum, which has glass floors from which you can see archeological dig sites and cases and cases of jewelry for sale in the gift shop, in case you felt like dropping a few hundred euros on a silver bracelet. We bought our tickets and went up to the first floor, entirely ignoring the “This Is How You See This Museum Map” that we’d picked up from Information. Apparently, what you’re meant to do is to walk up to the first floor, ignore everything you see between you and the escalator, take it up to the third floor (the second being a bookshop and restaurant) and work your way down. I’m sure there’s some mindset in which this is a reasonable and natural thing to do, but given that we were making it up as we went along, we didn’t do that. There were old things on the first floor, so we started with those.

It probably should have been a hint that the first thing we looked at was “Athens post-Roman Occupation” and “Athens and Christianity”. We managed not only to start with the later period but went the wrong way around the museum, which we were later chastised for by a security guard. About halfway backwards through the Roman occupation, we decided that we were severely dehydrated and didn’t want to die in front of the gold coin display. Evidently, the New (!) Acropolis Museum doesn’t sell bottles of water (though they do sell water at the cafe on the first floor and, presumably, at the restauraunt) so we had to leave, walk to a newsstand and buy bottles of water from him.

In retrospect, we probably should have checked to see if that was OK with the Acropolis museum.

It turns out that your ticket isn’t a come-and-go-as-you-please sort of deal. We got back to the entry gate and found that we were locked out. The guard asked us if we had left the building or just gone to the gift shop/cafe area and we evidently mumbled noncommittally long enough that he decided we could be let in past the gate. Which is good, because we hadn’t gotten our 5 euros worth in the run up to overheating. We did the first floor (first backwards, then in order) which caught us up on the buildings on the Acropolis that aren’t the Parthenon, then figured out that we should go upstairs to get the chronologically first bit of what we were meant to look at.

Bonus: The Parthenon floor had a ten minute video on the history of the Parthenon (from construction to being-blown-up-because-the-Ottomans-were-using-it-as-an-artillery-when-it-was-bombed) which was informative, but mostly just had chairs.

We left the museum, proceeded to the Temple of Olympian Zeus (which had some impressively tall columns, but no actual signage to tell us what we were looking at) and Hadrian’s Arch, then took the metro back to Metaxourghio to wait for Jordan.

She wasn’t there.

After some freaking out about whether she’d be able to find the hotel, we figured out that her plane had been delayed in Frankfurt for a few hours, and so we passed out because 6:30 am + walking around in the sun for six hours does not equal “boundless energy”.

Evening recap in the next post. More posts than you’ll know what to do with to come.

In Which I Underestimate The Importance of Sunglasses

We've just returned to the hotel from a day (beginning at 6:30 in the morning) out actually exploring the Acropolis and associated museum. First, something I forgot to mention from last night.

Apparently, not all SD cards are created equal. Marina bought an SDHC card from Target before we left, but it turns out that her camera is too old to recognize that it's a valid card. I presume in the same way that I will eventually be too old to understand new technology. Marina's camera is the crotchety, cane-waving elder of digital cameras, despite being good at taking pictures and all around pretty hearty. So, we needed to get another card. We had asked Jordan to bring us a new one from O'Hare after being assured that anywhere that sold them would be closed by the time we were going out, then immediately found a Kodak store in Plaka. Marina bought a 2 gb card, so we no longer needed one from Chicago. Problematically, we didn't actually have a way to call home and by the time we got back to our hotel, we feared Jordan would be on a plane to Frankfurt. So we went to a little internet cafe (across the street from where we wound up eating dinner) to hop on Facebook to send her a message.

Facebook seemed concerned.

It didn't recognize the computer we were logging in from (which is understandable) and asked us whether we wanted to confirm the account by answering a personal question or by identifying pictures of friends. We chose the latter, because who doesn't like a good round of "Do you remember people you barely knew in High School" trivia?

Luckily, it chose people Marina knew, but it did feel uncomfortably like a cross between an online personality quiz and a way to identify dissidents to an authoritarian regime.

Which probably says something about Facebook.

Back to today, and actual travel writing, we stopped fighting the inclination to sleep as late as possible. We took the metro back to the Acropolis, bought our tickets and started hiking up. In retrospect, sunglasses and water bottles would have been a good idea. There was at least one little water fountain station we found along the way, but given that we had nothing to put the water in, it just acted to sort of tease us. Also, hiking up what amounts to a giant limestone rock is complicated by the fact that limestone is really, really slippery. especially if your shoes are mostly flat-soled. There seemed to be tour groups going around being led in most languages other than English, and Marina was able to translate some of what the Russian group was learning about the Odeon of Herodes Atticus (though we did find what appeared to be an American church group, although they didn't have anyone shouting out facts about our surroundings). We made our way around the proscribed Tourist Route (starting with the Temple of Athena Nike, through the Propylaea, and around the Parthenon, only slipping occasionally on the limestone. The Acropolis Museum (the old one that’s actually on the Acropolis) appeared to be closed, but we did get to walk around and look at the grey paneled temporary building that houses the offices for the restoration efforts. So that’s fun. Then, around to the Echtheleon and back down the stairs.

Then, the vendors. I’d wondered where they were on the way up, since it seemed like someone should be taking advantage of the fact that people like us don’t plan ahead and forget water, and it turns out that they just on the other side of the hill, next to the post office and frozen lemonade stand. One guy was selling water. One. Everyone else was either selling cheap parasols or these strange little gel things that you slam on a hard surface, watch it splash out, then watch it reform to its original shape. Like, seven parasol guys and at least three of the Slam Gel vendors. I’m not sure how that works as far as competition, and I’m really curious to see what the Slam Gel guys pay for their product. Marina asked what it was and was told it was “very nice” and “only 5 euros”. Which, you know, fair enough. If we had a nice dinner china cabinet at home, I could see just filling it with little gel things that look like tomatoes, then briefly don’t look like tomatoes, then look like tomatoes again. We walked away, and the guy reduced the price to 4 euros, then 3. Then 1 euro. Which seems like a pretty significant markup at the original price.
We walked up to another large, limestone rock (which was apparently the Areopagus,where the council of elders met in pre-classical times). There are two ways to get up the rock. You can climb up (what I presume were) the original stairs cut into the limestone itself which means you get to be terrified that you’re going to fall off a historic site to your death or you can climb up the handy steel and wood modern staircase. We chose to almost die. Which was fun, though the sign explaining exactly what the hell you’re standing on is near the convenient, this-is-what-you’re-supposed-to-climb-up-you-silly-tourist modern staircase.

Rather than continuing to write about every detail of the day in one post, I’ll stop it here. Next time, on Ryan and Marina Bumble About Greece, tune in for the New Acropolis Museum, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, more slammy tomato guys and the Reunion with Jordan. It’s exciting stuff.

Cats Universally Want Me To Give Them My Food

So, after a good six hour nap following actually getting into our hotel room (which is what I get for being one of those terrible people who finds it difficult to sleep on a metal tube 30,000 feet above the ground while a kid screams because, unlike the rest of us, that sort of freaks him out). We found an ATM (well, two, but the first one was “out of balance” which I presume means it’s not working). We successfully located the metro after walking down every street within a quarter mile of our hotel that didn’t have a metro station on it and rode off to the Acropolis, because hey, that’s someplace we’d heard of. Actually, as we were checking in, I wandered close to the hotel manager’s desk and she called me over and wrote down where we should go (Yes to Plaka and Montrasiki, no to Omonia). So that was good.

Having slept for six hours before getting out, the Acropolis was closed, but we did managed to wander into Plaka. Lots of shops, a bunch of little restaurants and, as we approached Montrasiki, an increasing number of international brands. Which is funny, because we walked a little past the Gap and ran into the Panagia Gorgoepikoos. We wound up eating at a place called Terina. I had mousaka (which, after we got back to the hotel and found a way to watch the Greece edition of No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain described as “a brick”. I get that, but as far as little clay pots of eggplant and lamb go, it was pretty solid. Marina got chicken souvlaki and we split an order of fried cheese, because wherever we go, whether it’s Greece or central Wisconsin, we need to have some fried cheese.

About halfway through the meal, a number of stray cats started showing up and meowing for some food, which is bizarrely comforting in a familiar sort of way. I think they knew we were tourists and might give them some food, but instead we just took pictures of them to post on the internet, because that’s what cats are for.

Now, it’s Sunday and we’re heading back to the Acropolis to actually see the old things (instead of cats) and will be meeting up with Jordan later.

I may try to take a cat home in my luggage. We’ll see.

Pictures when we get around to loading them up.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

"I Feel Like Going To A Party"

I have a new appreciation for Chicago cabs. First of all, there’s a slim chance that one of them will be a gameshow in disguise.

Also, I’ve never really felt like I might die in a Chicago cab. I’ve thought I might die because of a Chicago cab, but that was mostly when I was some sort of ridiculous cyclist. Now that I’ve got a giant steel enclosure of my own, I’m generally less terrified. Mild annoyance, sure, but not terror.

We landed in Athens and got in line for a taxi, which, all in all, was a fine experience. There was, as expected, a bit of a language gap, though that’s entirely my fault, as all I’ve got down comfortably are “I don’t understand Greek” and “Thank you.” Marina’s got a Lonely Planet phrasebook app, which helpfully has things like “I’m a tradesperson”, “Are you married?” and the title of this post. Which is good, if you’re looking to seduce someone with your mastery of your trade while ensuring that you don’t break up a happy marriage.

There were a few times that my sleep deprived brain was startled at how aggressively we were cutting past guys on motorcycles, but I have absolutely no idea how traffic in Athens functions, so let’s just assume that’s par for the course (or whatever the Greek equivalent of that metaphor is. The national sport’s soccer, apparently, but they’re also really good at basketball, so I don’t know).

Currently, we’re waiting in the hotel lobby for our room to be ready because in all the desperation to actually get to Greece, we didn’t actually consider whether check in time would have happened by the time we rolled in. We also need to buy an SD card, which will be fun and hilarious. I don’t think the phrasebook has an entry for “our camera is too old to recognize this SDHC card as something that actually is useful as memory, so please sell us something that will allow us not to leave here pictureless.” We do have phone cameras and a USB cord, so if all else fails, that’ll happen.

I need a shower.

Bad Film Choices

So, currently, we’re somewhere over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I think we’re going to be in Greece in roughly four hours, but I have no idea if that’s accurate. Apparently, going to another time zone prior to getting on a transatlantic flight is disorienting, because not everything that we’ve brought that has a clock acknowledges that we’ve moved away from Chicago.

Highlights so far:

If you’re going on a nine hour flight it’s at all possible to not have a two year old with you, do that. He’s asleep now, and in the runup to that headphones mostly worked to drown out the constant screaming. It’s not his fault. He’s bored and cranky (as are we all) and the poor little guy doesn’t even have his own seat. It’s not the parents’ fault either, I guess, but I’d somehow forgotten how much toddlers love making noise.

My selfish irritation was somewhat diminished when his dad took him for a walk up the aisle and he waved bye-bye to everyone. That was pretty adorable.

Other than that, we’ve mostly been attempting to sleep, failing at sleeping and trying to find ways to stave off the fact that we’re sitting in one place for nine slowly passing hours. We could be watching the in-flight movies/TV, but there are two problems with that.

Headphones cost five dollars. I only spent eight dollars on my standard-go-anywhere-use-with-anything-with-a-headphone-jack headphones, so I’m not inclined to spend nearly the same amount on headphones I can use twice. Someone help me out here. Is there a reason for the two pronged headphone jack other than forcing you to pay $5 to watch movies on a tiny television halfway up the cabin? Is there anyone who sells an adapter to convert a normal headphone plug into one of the special trapped-on-an-airplane plugs? Though, I guess if you’re going to buy an adapter, you might as well just buy the crappy headphones the airline sells.

The movie choices. First, a mid-Season One episode of Glee. Which, whatever, I guess, but it’s not possible to at least get something that aired this year? Then again, I don’t take transatlantic trips to catch up on Modern Family, so I guess it’s just as well. Then, The Green Hornet, which I’ve actually been meaning to see, and came out this year, so it’s at least conceivable that I haven’t seen it. Currently, what’s on screen is Vinnie Jones running around in a metal helmet, because for some reason X-Men: The Last Stand is playing on this flight. Which came out in 2007. And was awful.

So maybe no one rush to tell me about how to get around paying for headphones.

Instead, Marina and I brought along the Netflix DVD we’ve been meaning to get to for about a week. And have a headphone splitter, so we can both listen. Which would be great. If the movie we watched wasn’t 127 Hours. It was great, of course, but given that I’m already a little skittish about flying, it was perhaps a drop too intense. Everyone around us is trying to sleep (and trying not to do anything that could conceivably wake the toddler up), and we’re watching James Franco hack off his arm with a Leatherman. And because that’s the only thing we brought, we can’t follow it up by spending this laptop’s remaining battery life by watching something lighthearted and not-about-a-guy-who-amputates-his-arm.

Now that that’s over, I guess it’s either back to attempting to sleep or continuing to work on getting through American Gods. Anything that won’t wake the kid.


I really like the idea of traveling, and I know I haven’t done a terrific job of it so far. There was a bit late in high school where I decided I was going to road trip all over the place, but sort of failed at that. It’s easy to tick off states you’ve been to if you’re living and driving around the east coast (particularly if you get lost in New England and spend about an hour driving in and out of Rhode Island), but I still haven’t really been west of the Mississippi. Well, “haven’t really” meaning “haven’t at all”. Which is a shame. I’ve been to Paris, which is something, but I also mostly just followed the lead of the person I was visiting there who spoke French and knew more or less what the deal was. Now, I’m on my way to Greece. Athens, after a brief layover in Philadelphia, then an eight hour boat ride to Santorini for a friend’s wedding. I’m apparently not the world’s best flyer, which makes nine hour flights to Southern Europe a little bit more nervewracking.

In any case, I’m always looking for something to actually blog about, and so you’ll be getting some kind of Murphspot travelogue. Murpalogue. Travelmurp. It’ll be fun.

I think.

So far, the trip has mostly consisted of realizing that our cars were going to be ticketed because we’d be parked where Chicago’s going to try to do some street sweeping, frantically attempting to find a place to park that we can reasonably be sure that they won’t do that, and then rearranging everything we’d carefully packed into one large suitcase so that we didn’t have to pay $150 to get our clothes to Greece. Apparently, several of the people who boarded around us are also making a connection to Athens, the difference being that they (including the person manning the jetbridge) speak Greek. I do not. I’ve been assured that this won’t be a problem, but I’m anticipating at least some amount of hilarious translation (read: mundane and frustrating) mixup, which I’ll dutifully post here. I knew at least enough French to get around in Paris (which I’ve since forgotten), and really only had a problem when I realized that I wasn’t sure which word on the doors meant “push” and which meant “pull”. Hopefully, the stilted Greek I’ve gathered from a “Delude Yourself into Trying to Learn a Completely Foreign Language in Four Hours” cd will come off as endearing and people will take pity on the poor, merely bilingual (but not in the applicable language) American tourist.

Now, though, I’m on a plane to Philadelphia, where the most I’ll have to worry about is someone recognizing a tinge of a Pittsburgh accent and mocking me about the Pirates. I’m fine with that.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

In search of a hobby: Homebrewing.

A while ago, I stopped being a student and entered into the workforce, which is nice in the sense that work tends more to stay at work and I'm not constantly walking by idealistic college students who have yet to be crushed by reality. Also, having to be somewhere early in the morning upon penalty of not getting paid anymore has miraculously fixed my sleep schedule.

It's markedly harder to roll in at noon if it comes bundled with "crippling poverty".

The other half of that, though, is that I've actually got occasional free time now, and I need to do something to fill it. To that end, I've been looking for a hobby after realizing that I've got no idea how people start having a hobby. There are only so many video games I can play before I completely forget how to interact with actual people. There's music, still, but unless whoever's reading this has a guitar and somewhere to play that doesn't have neighbors that'd be bothered by a lot of noise, there's only so many bass solos I can practice. I tried woodcarving for roughly two days and I plan to get back into it, but it fell to the wayside when I realized I need better knives than I've got. I could get better at social interaction, so ideally the hobby should be something with people involved. And rather than separate what I do during the day from what I do in my free time, it'd be nice to try to incorporate whatever skills I've actually gained in becoming a chemist. Without winding up in the plot of Breaking Bad.
Hence, homebrewing.

I've started attempting to make drinkable beer with two other gentlemen, which is another of those things that it seems like you shouldn't be capable of doing on your own in a plastic bucket. Legally, anyway. It is, though, so we've begun. Some things we've figured out so far:

  • Brew and Grow is a paradise

    • I knew that homebrewing had something of a community, but my word there are a lot of options, and I have yet to piece together precisely what it is they all do. Luckily, Brew and Grow on Kedzie has been useful so far in getting supplies and recommendations on what supplies we need (Plastic fermenting bucket: necessary. Expensive wort chiller: not right yet, though it's nice to know what a wort chiller is, I guess) as well as ingredients and some insight on what the hell these ingredients do. Hooray specialty stores. I'm not sure how we'd be doing this if there weren't a place on Kedzie with a freezer full of hops.

  • Checking Equipment is probably a good idea

    • There's a chance we were too ambitious with our first endeavour, a Scotch ale that required, among other things, a secondary fermentation. We bought two buckets, thinking that we could simply siphon the beer from the primary fermentation bucket to the one with a spigot at the bottom. The problem is that the spigot is pretty watertight, but not entirely watertight, which makes it fine for bottling (where the whole process is going to take half an hour) but less fine for fermenting (where we're leaving it in Beau's closet for about a week.) Leakage, followed by necessary sticking-an-arm-into-the-thing-to-tighten-the-spigot-from-the-inside, as well as the addition of oak chips without actually toasting (and therefore sterilizing) them led to a sort of bananas-followed-by-death taste to our first attempt. Terribly demoralizing, but we actually learned a number of things not to do. Which is good.

  • Washing Everything Over and Over Until Every Last Microorganism has Been Sent to Bacterial Hell Where They Will Suffer Eternal Torment for Fun and Profit
    • It turns out that if you're going to prepare something by mixing stuff together and then putting it in a bucket in a closet for a few weeks, it's relatively important to make sure that only the stuff you intend to be in the bucket is in the bucket. We've had one contaminated batch already, so we've double down on our efforts to make sure everything is covered in disinfectant. Which is fine, except that I usually wind up soaked from attempting to rinse everything.

Thus far, we've bottled two batches (Easy Win Hefeweizen, so named after our first ambitious batch went to hell and The Bastard Prince, a sort of cherry stout thing with some oakiness and maple flavors if everything goes well) and are preparing to brew another. Five gallons isn't a ton of beer, but as we get better at this we're likely going to upgrade to some more equipment for quicker turnover and more beer.

Does this whole thing make me some sort of terrible hipster? I hope not. Maybe. Let's pretend it doesn't.

Pictures of the results of this nonsense when I actually get around to writing batch-specific reviews.