Archive for September, 2007

Sep 18 2007

So what DO your lumberjacks eat?

Published by under Crete,Greece

Tonight marked another failed supermarket outing. Sometime this afternoon, Brittany and I decided that we had grown weary of one pasta night after another, and that we’d like to have pancakes for dinner. Pancakes would be cheap and simple to make, they’d remind us of home, and we’d make enough to have the leftovers for breakfast tomorrow. Thinking ourselves clever, we looked up the necessary ingredients online, and then I was off to the supermarket, list in hand:

Sugar
Flour
Baking Powder
Milk
Pancake Syrup

I was a little concerned about the baking powder, and whether or not I’d be able to recognize enough Greek letters to know baking powder when I saw it. But in a rare turn of events, I quickly began finding all the items on my shopping list with little trouble. The baking powder turned out to be identified in English on the can, which allowed me to snag the first 4 of my 5 items in about two minutes. Reflecting back on my first attempt at the Greek supermarket, I became quite proud at my own progress.

And just as so many Greek poets have written, hubris was my fatal flaw.

I did not consider that pancake syrup might be a difficult item to find in a Greek supermarket until the moment I scratched milk off my list and looked back up. What would pancake syrup even be shelved next to here? The grape jelly? The grape liquor? The grape vegetable oil? A quick jog up and down each potentially promising aisle revealed nothing resembling pancake syrup. Undeterred, I approached the butcher and inquired,

“Parakalo, mipos milate Anglika?” (“Please, do you speak English?”)

Many Greeks will answer this question with “a leetle,” which statistically has no bearing on whether or not they actually speak any English at all. But in this case, the butcher’s answer was a throaty grunt, followed by him walking away and into a storeroom. My translation guide isn’t entirely clear on this point, but I believe that his answer translates to:

“Good morrow, sir, and thank you for the inquiry. As it were, I do not in fact speak English, and I will now kindly take your leave.”

It was right about then that it struck me: even if I were able to find an English-speaking Greek in this store, what are the odds they will have ever heard of “pancake syrup?” Or pancakes, for that matter? Do maple trees even grow in Greece? Despite all my initial success, I began to doubt the likelihood of returning home as the pancake bearer after all.

It’s times like these when true champions reach into their sleeves and pull out one final Ace. Not two days before, I had ordered an ice cream sundae at a cafe, and I now recalled from the Greek/English menu that it was topped with “sirop chocolate.” Heartened, I approached an employee stocking an endcap, and asked in my broken Greek:

“Parakalo, o sirop?” (“Please, the syrup?”)

This was, of course, accompanied by the requisite exaggerated gesticulations that I seem to have adopted whenever attempting to speak Greek. At first, I saw only confusion in her eyes. Then, a glint of recognition. Success? She led me down the aisle and pointed at exactly what I’d asked for: Hershey’s chocolate syrup.

And now I’m sitting in my kitchen, waiting for Brittany to get home, and trying to formulate a convincing argument that what she really would like for dinner is pancakes with Hershey’s chocolate syrup.

6 responses so far

Sep 17 2007

Top 5 Tips for Not Looking Like an American While Traveling in Europe

Published by under Crete,Greece,Travel

Tourism is Crete’s #1 industry, and this means that restaurants are big business here in Hania. The harborfront is crammed with restaurants, all claiming to serve the most authentic Cretan food, and all charging a significant markup due to their waterfront location. Many restaurants employ aggressive greeters, who are paid to stand outside and convince passing tourists that their restaurant is the only one of the lot that truly serves the Greek fare you came so far to taste.

The application process to be a greeter must consist of a test to judge how accurately the applicant can guess a tourist’s nationality based on appearance. They are remarkably good at sizing you up in a glance, and selecting the appropriate language with which to harass you into patronizing their restaurant. Americans are a favorite mark, probably because we travel with money, and because everyone knows we’re a long way from home. It is therefore in your best interest while travelling to not look American (along with one million other reasons). Your ultimate goal is to confuse the wolves by looking like a European of unidentifiable identity. With that in mind, I present…

The Top 5 Tips for NOT Looking Like an American While Traveling in Europe

1. Don’t Shave
For whatever reason, American and British men tend to be far more clean-shaven than the majority of Europeans. You probably only speak English, so you need to make every effort to disassociate yourself from your brethren in every other way possible. As long as you can keep your mouth shut, a little facial hair can go a long way toward your successful camouflage as a European of questionable origin.

2. Wear Dark-Colored Shoes
White tennis shoes are an instant tip-off that you’re American. Dark-colored shoes are the norm around most of the rest of the world. And if you can pull off the look, outrageous-colored Pumas are worth bonus points.

3. No Undershirt
Many American men (myself among them) are in the habit of wearing a white undershirt beneath their outer shirt. We do so to prevent shirt stainage, odor emanation, chest hair sightings, and pokey man-nipples. Nonetheless, you must come to terms with abandoning the undershirt prior to your arrival. It is apparel non grata among European men, and spotting one here only means that you’ve just spotted an American tourist. And while we’re on this topic, go ahead and unbutton your shirt one more button than whatever you’re used to.

4. No Smiling!
New Yorkers excluded, we Americans are accustomed to acknowledging one another with a smile in passing. Do so in Europe, and you will only be met with steely stares. Cretans are widely considered to be among the most welcoming in the world, and even here you do not find smiles on strangers’ faces. Fortunately, this one isn’t too difficult to perfect. Simply imagine that your beautiful historic hometown is perennially over-stuffed with lost, gawking, photo-snapping tourists in oversized backpacks. And you must push and squeeze your way through their herds just to get to work every day. Actually, this sort of explains New Yorkers as well.

5. The Shorts Factor
Asking a European man what temperature is too hot for pants is like asking him about the sound of one hand clapping. “Too hot for pants???” Be warned: if you plan to travel Europe in the summer, you are up against an ancient anti-shorts prejudice that is at least ten times older than your country. Fortunately for you, recent fashion developments have introduced two possible alternatives to the shorts in your wardrobe, neither of which would be acceptable in the States:

  • Capri pants: These are quite popular among European men, and should be found easily in many clothing stores. You may know them as clam-diggers, pedal-pushers, or high-waters. Only for the bold.
  • Tiny shorts: aka “short shorts”; “hot pants.” Think pre-1990s NBA. Or John Stockton, circa: his entire career. Only for the very bold.

If you find neither of these options to be palatable, then you should know that it is a punishable offense in many countries to complain about the heat in pants. You’ll see the sign when you land at the airport – it’s a picture of Uncle Sam getting clubbed with a bottle of wine by an unshaven man in pants.

You may choose to ignore these tips. It is, after all, up to you to decide what sort of travel advice to heed. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you when you end up looking like this:

What Not to Wear

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Sep 16 2007

What’s In My Purse, Honey? (Quick Sunday Update)

Published by under Crete,Greece

We chose an apartment in Hania with a kitchen, so that we could conserve money by cooking our own meals. And by cooking, I mean using the small hot plate that is provided. We have been doing a better-than-expected job of avoiding the over-priced restaurants so far, but last night we decided to make a rare trip out to eat dessert. We decided to finally try the restaurant known as Ela, which touts both its open-roof dining room, and its inclusion in seemingly every guidebook in publication. All this really means is that Ela paid the piper at each publisher, in order to ensure their inclusion in the latest edition. But this does not prevent them from setting up a sandwich board advertisement in the street to ensure that that every passer-by knows all about their accolades.

Ela restaurantEat at Ela!!!!We decided to order both baklava and something I can not pronounce that means cheese pies with honey. We confused our server by explaining that we would only be having dessert. Greeks don’t typically do “dessert,” so most sweet offerings are only on the menu to appease the tourists. Often, what they will gladly sell you as dessert seems to be more like dinner with honey on top. This was certainly the case with the cheese pies. What I assumed would be similar to cream cheese was in fact much more like feta with chives. But with honey on top!

We had a very difficult time figuring out how/where/who to pay for our food, so when we realized we would have leftovers, we were reluctant to go down the path of communicating “doggie bag.” Brittany’s solution was to wrap up our leftover baklava in her napkin and stuff it in her purse. (This would have made for less of a spectacle if she hadn’t been shiftily scanning the room left and right while she did so). Nevertheless, it was actually a rather good solution to avoid accidentally purchasing whatever would constitute the direct Greek translation of “doggie bag.” Or, it would have been had a good solution if we hadn’t forgotten about the baklava when we got home. Brittany did remember it today, after only several hours of shopping in the city sun. She is currently in the kitchen trying to clean honey from the inside of her purse.

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Sep 14 2007

But How Do You Say “No One Reads Our Blog” in Greek?

Published by under Crete,Greece

“How does this work?”

“I have no idea.”

“Is that word in the book?”

“No.”

“Let’s ask someone.”

“I wouldn’t even know how to ask that.”

Welcome to the conversation Ben and I have countless times each day. Every time I leave the house, I brace myself for the inevitable challenge that comes along with completing the simplest task in a country where I don’t speak the language. Mailing a letter yesterday was an all-morning event.

What we now refer to as simply “the book” is our guidebook, the Rough Guide to Crete. With its map and Greek vocabulary transliterations, it’s become as precious to us as our passports, and we never leave home without it.

I took for granted in the States the confidence that comes along with having a reasonable idea of what I’m doing on a daily basis – or at least in my ability to figure it out. I read somewhere before our trip that all self-consciousness has to be abandoned in a foreign country, and I’ve found that to be very true. Here, unlike at home, it isn’t just probable that I will embarrass myself in public; it is guaranteed. How was I supposed to know that the actual mailbox was outside the post office door? In America it’s also on the inside! Aren’t you impressed that I FOUND the post office and applied the proper (I hope) amount of postage?? It’s unnerving for two Greek women to be obviously talking about you rapidly in Greek, fully aware that you don’t understand what they’re saying but not disguising their laugh at your expense.

oregano chips
What kind of chips are these? Your guess
is as good as mine! We eventually identified
them as oregano-flavored. (And they rule!)

In Ben’s 9/10 post, he described one of many embarrassing debacles at the grocery store. The supermarket is consistently our biggest challenge. First, we have to identify what an object is: butter? sour cream? cheese? yogurt? If we’re lucky, a label, or a neighboring object, will have an English translation. Next comes the game I like to call “Match the Shapes,” where we try to match the Greek word on the label to the Greek word on one of the price stickers. Not as easy as it sounds. Did you know that these six characters: greek_alphabet_sigma.gif are all the same letter?

Self-consciousness also has to be abandoned to attempt to communicate with non-English-speaking natives. Most interactions end with frantic gesticulation and me yelling a nonsensical string of the few Greek words I know: half-hour! kilo! sorry!

Take, for instance, our attempt to get a bus schedule a couple of days ago. We’d finally located the bus station (“station” being a liberal word for a ramshackle booth on the side of a road), but couldn’t find bus times or fares posted anywhere. I approached the attendant, a stocky, expressionless Greek man.

“Parakaló, mípos miláte angliká?” (Excuse me, do you speak English?)

“Né.” (Yes.)

“Great! Do you have a copy of the bus schedule we could have?”

“No.”

“Oh, well, is it posted anywhere?”

“No.”

“Ok. When does the bus leave for Elafonissi Beach?”

“No.”

“Ya Elafonissi?”

“No.”

“AUTOBUS! [imitate driving a car, hands on wheel] TIME! [point to watch]”

“No.”

Hm, right. Fortunately, most of the locals actually speak a little English and are friendly and accommodating. Ben has embraced speaking Greek and will spout off the words and phrases he knows with reckless abandon. The locals get a kick out of it, and politely let him finish before responding in English. He likes asking how to say things in Greek (“Pos léyete sta Eliniká?”) which the locals also enjoy and we’ve received many Greek language lessons.

Ben’s also taken to speaking English with a heavy Greek accent. Granted, it’s hard to avoid doing that occasionally, as we’re surrounded by such accents. I fear, however, that he’s never going to stop as he not only talks to me with a Greek accent, but I just overheard him talking to himself in the shower: “Water praysher is preety sheetty.”

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Sep 13 2007

Crete’s Wild Kingdom

Published by under Crete,Greece

As I ate my dinner of chicken souvlaki and green beans last night, I noticed some unexpected movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned my head, and spotted it down where the wall meets the floor in our kitchen: a tiny lizard! His pale red body quickly skedaddled behind our giant refrigerator. I started to tell Brittany, but checked myself when I considered that such a decision would likely doom the rest of my night to become a one-man, furniture-moving, lizard hunt. Instead, I turned to our guidebook for answers.

Billy Crystal, Jr.The experts advise that our lizard was most likely a gecko, which are known to sometimes enter homes on Crete. If one does enter your home, our guide suggests you welcome it, for it will dine on the mosquitoes and other biting bugs that may invade as well. Fully aware of 1. Brittany’s hatred of bugs, and
2. Brittany’s love of When Harry Met Sally, I have since convinced her to allow Billy Crystal, Jr. to stay.

Spend any time on Crete, and you will soon become familiar with several members of its animal kingdom. The first that you are likely to notice in a city like Hania is the dogs. Stray and domestic alike wander the streets all day, and are distinguished by their curiosity. Upon our arrival here, we were met near the bus stop by a black lab mutt, who we promptly dubbed Samuel. Samuel followed us everywhere for the next several hours, which we rather enjoyed. The locals, on the other hand, generally consider all the dogs a nuisance, and you will often see shopkeepers stomping at the doorsteps to chase away sleeping strays.

Cookie the dog
Cookie the dog

Our landlords keep a special chair at their cafe for one dog that looks like a chihuahua in a toupee. She is named Cookie, and she likes to play with her rubber chicken.

Wait until nightfall, and you will become more familiar than you ever wished with two other species. The first is the tree frogs, which I have still been unable to see, but whose presence you will never doubt. Their croaking is LOUD, and seems to be coming from all around you. My sanity thanks the warriors who largely deforested the island hundreds of years ago. The history books would tell you that they needed lumber for construction, but I know the truth: they just wanted some sleep.

The second nocturnal nuisance is less exotic, but far more annoying. Feral cats prowl the alleys at night, engaging in cyclical territorial disputes. I was awakened one night by what sounded like an angry gang of babies hollering obscenities outside our window. Curious, I opened the door to find feral cats wrestling and clawing on our doorstep. Before I could shut the door, I was overwhelmed by the smell of cat spray. Pungent!

The last animal I want to mention is one that is said to live in the mountains of the island, and is rarely seen by expedition groups. It is called the kri-kri, and it is allegedly Crete’s native goat. The guidebooks and Brittany insist that the kri-kri’s existence is universally accepted, and that its horns are used for steak knife handles. Fortunately for the pursuit of truth, I watch “In Search Of” with Leonard Nimoy, and I remember one episode about the elusive kri-kri, which has never been photographed, and is dismissed by scientists as myth. It was either about the kri-kri or some sort of South American goat-demon, but what matters now is my new quest: to take the first legitimate photograph of the elusive “kri-kri” in its native environment, and thereby prove Brittany, science, and Leonard Nimoy wrong once and for all.

kri-kri???
Kri-Kri or amateur hoax? You decide.

All proceeds from the sale of my photos to the tabloids will be used to provide a better life for myself and the one friend who never doubted the importance of this mission: Billy Crystal, Jr.

9 responses so far

Sep 11 2007

Our arrival in Hania

Published by under Crete,Greece

Thought I’d take a step back and tell you a little about our arrival in Hania/Chania/Xania/Khania. Despite the fact that we’d determined we were going to stay in Hania for a month, we had not secured any sort of housing prior to our arrival. This was not for lack of effort — any place we were able to contact was just confused as to why we were calling them. Apparently “reservations” aren’t really done here, and we were told time and again to just show up when we arrived in Crete.

The ferry-from-hell dropped us off at Soudha Bay, about 10km east of Hania, so we hopped a bus we hoped would take us into the city. When we stepped off the bus into Hania at 6am Sunday morning we were literally homeless. Also, we had no idea where to go. So, as we’ve done for most of this trip so far, we just started walking. Finally we came across a street name that resembled the spelling of a street name on our map — a street that luckily led us into Hania’s old town. Hania is situated on the coast of Crete around a harbour. (Neat factoid: Hania is one of the longest-inhabited cities in all of Europe, according to our handy guidebook!) What is referred to as the “old town” encircles the harbour’s edge and is made of up a web of cobblestoned alleys and squares. Vines of wild grapes hang off ornate balconies above the narrow streets, small houses and shops cluster side by side along water that is crystal clear, the crumbling ruins of ancient Venetian fortresses pop up here and there. Yes, it’s pretty much paradise.

HaniaObviously, despite our lack of sleep and short tempers, Ben and I were instantly charmed upon arriving in old town and within minutes were trying to drop cities from our list of places to go to extend our stay in Hania. It became clear that finding a place to stay wasn’t going to be difficult — every other house in Hania advertises “Rooms for Rent!” Unfortunately, at this time of morning, absolutely no place was open. We wandered around the old town for what felt like hours, getting sufficiently lost, but trying to locate a few places we wanted to check out. “Wandering” is the wrong word for what we were doing as it implies leisurely meandering. A better word is “dragging.” We carried giant backpacks on our backs and lugged huge rolling suitcases behind us, no small feat on streets that are centuries old. I thought the wheels of my suitcase were going to fall off as I forced its mass over the uneven rocks. I also thought Ben was going to throw his suitcase into the harbour he got so fed up with it. The noise the suitcases made was horrific: a loud and echoing grinding (imagine putting rocks in a blender) that interrupted the morning silence and I’m sure woke up the entire city.

Just as we’d decided to squat in the middle of the street for a couple hours until the shops opened, I heard something. “Ben, do you hear… techno music?”

We followed the music until we turned a corner and discovered… an internet cafe! That was open! And playing techno!

We have determined that we are addicted to the internet. We can’t go a day without it. Basically, if I don’t know what’s going on RIGHT NOW then I am TICKED OFF. I felt a visceral relief as I sat down in front of the computer screen. Fortunately, we were able to park here and while away the hours surfing the web to our heart’s content.

When the city began to wake up, we pried ourselves from the keyboards and began to visit the few places we’d identified as desirable places to live. The first thing we discovered is that Cretan vendors, like those in Athens, are pushy. Some, when they saw us coming lugging our bags, approached us and said “room?” We’d shrug and nod and they would show us a room, assume we’d agreed to rent it, force the key into Ben’s hand and demand our passports. Quick side story: one particularly old and pushy Greek woman still heckles us every time we walk down her street. She’ll yell “ROOM!” and motion insistently that we come over. Despite the fact that we respond, “Óhi! Efharistó! Óhi!” (No! Thank you! No!) repeatedly, she has not yet stopped. Ben’s trying to figure out the Greek for, “we will rent from you… NEVER!!”

Unlike most Athenians, many Cretans do not speak English outside of a few key words, which is helpful enough for day-to-day interaction, but difficult during apartment negotiations. This made explaining that we wanted a room for one month difficult. Most balked when they finally understood, as renting a room for a month in the high season (September is the tail end of the high season) is uncommon (what? people don’t take month-long holidays? eight-month long holidays?). The language gap made bargaining even more difficult (obviously, I was getting a bulk discount!).

Our new apartmentWe had a surprising amount of success, and at the end of our hours-long search, worn out and exhausted, we had many offers to choose from that ran about 15 to 20 euros per night, thanks to our ridiculous low-balling. We were satisfied as this price is cheaper than, or equivalent to, that of the crummiest hostels. We finally chose a small apartment on the west side of the harbour, with a couple beds, a bathroom that actually had a defined shower area (in most, the “shower” is just a showerhead hooked to one wall of the bathroom), a small kitchenette, and a porch — and, thankfully, English-speaking landlords.

We’re trying to get to know our way around the city, which is hard since Hania is a maze of alleys that all look identical. So far in our explorations we’ve discovered great shops and street-long markets, and cute outdoor cafes and tavernas. We’ve yet to explore the majority of the city; this afternoon we hope to get to the local beach. The only route I’m absolutely sure of is that from the apartment to the internet cafe, so you can be sure to expect many more updates to come.

Note: Just in case you haven’t noticed, we set up a Flickr account for our photos. Visit Euros Ate My Dollars on Flickr!

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