Wednesday, April 16, 2014

I Falafel This Blog Post Is So Late, But I Promise It Will Be Worth Gyro Time!

I Falafel This Blog Post Is So Late, But I Promise It Will Be Worth Gyro Time! 

Sophie and I left for our first stop of Spring Break on March 28th: the homeland, Greece. From the moment I stepped onto the flight leaving Prague, I couldn’t stop smiling. We flew Aegean Airlines and I was so proud of myself for being able to respond to the steward’s “Yasas” with a “Yasas! Kalimera”. I pulled out every possible Greek word I knew, the little I do, and practically studies the night before. And I don’t know if it’s  because I had stayed up the whole night before working on homework, or because it truly was a wonderful airline, but it was one of the most comfortable and relaxing flights I had taken. We landed in Mykonos around 3 with a bunch of other friends from our program in Prague. We were all going to different locations in Greece, so after we said our goodbyes Sophie and I hopped in a taxi to take us to the docks where we would board our ferry to take us to Mykonos. The Greek hospitality starts immediately in the taxi with our very welcoming driver, Nikos, who had endless questions for us, told us all about living in Greece, and also proceeded to try and arrange a date between me and his daughter Christina. And if I were spending time in Athens, I probably would’ve taken him up on the offer, but we had a boat to catch. As we waited for the ferry I introduced Sophie to one of Greece’s wonderful guilty pleasures, frappes.

            We boarded the boat, and began out photo-shoot on the back balcony, and as we sailed away and Athens grew smaller and smaller, we watched the indescribable sunset in awe. After toughing the winds for as long as possible we headed in and took a bit of a nap, and for the very last stretch we moved downstairs and people watched the few people left on the boar whose final destination was also Mykonos. I was quite entertained by a little boy and his parents. I understood a lot of what his parents were saying to him, because it was a lot of the words my parents use to tell me in Greek; “Sopa”, “Stomata”, “Ella”, “Pame”, so if anything I was comforted to know I could communicate with 4 year olds!

          We got to Mykonos around 10, and debarked the ship in search of our hostel host, Maria, who had offered to pick us up for the docks. She had said in previous emails she would be waiting for us with a sign, so when we scanned the crowds and didn’t see a sign reading “Studio Eleni” I began to freak out. Thankfully a woman with frizzy Greek hair comes up to me with a heavy accent and asks “James?”. Maria, the nicest host I’ve met, walked us to her car and proceeded to us a saga about her car breaking down today, and having to borrow a friends car, which is why she didn’t have a sign, but everything worked out fine. As we drove to out hostel Maria questioned us with the typical “Where are you from?” and “Have you ever been to Greece before?” and I knew it was going to come up sooner or later, so I hesitantly told her I was Greek, dreading the follow up question. “Oh wonderful, so you speak Greek?”, and I sadly had to respond ”Well…”. I went on to tell her I knew very few words, but really want to learn more Greek. And after going through my limited vocabulary with her, she then asked if I knew where my family was from, and after sharing that my Great Papou was from Tripoli she instantly stops me and tells me that is where her family is from. After joking about the possibility of us being cousins and sharing the rest of our family trees, we arrived at our hostel, which ended up being more of a guest room in one of her multiple buildings she owns throughout Mykonos. After settling in and getting a full list of Must-Do’s from Maria, we relaxed a bit, got ready, and went out for a casual drink. We could not find a club that Maria coined as “the place to see, and the place to be seen” but rather stopped at a bar we found along the way. After listening to some pop Greek music and having a ridiculously over-priced drink we called it a night and proposed what the island might actually look like in daylight.

            There’s something special about waking up in a new destination, and being on an island only made it more special. The next morning we opened our windows to a new world. We were on a small narrow side street painted all in white, of course, with shutters and doors varying in shades of blues. As we began to get ready we heard Maria coming down the street with a new group of students checking in whom she quickly introduced to us as they were walking by and suggested that we get together later. And after our very brief introduction, we decided to take leisurely walk to wherever the island lead us. Our first stop was at the infamous windmills, which were 5 minutes from our room and continued to walk along the main road that ran along the ocean. We stopped often to take in the views and of course lots of pictures. We ended up getting a little breakfast at a café long the way, relaxed for a bit, then headed back and continued past our room to walk in the other direction which lead us to more restaurants  and hotels along the beachfront. We also stopped at what became my favorite little church, which was on the beach front.

The natives say there are 365 churched on the island of Mykonos, one for every day, and I found this so fascinating and a quintessential example of how pertinent religion is to our culture. We relaxed and explored for most of the day, got lunch on the water, took the perfect afternoon nap, and luckily woke up just in time to catch the group we had met walking by again. We hooked up with them after dinner and decided we would try and find a bar later that night. They were a group of 5 (Sarah, Reid, Alexis, Katie, and Ashley) studying aboard in Athens, who were taking a weekend trip to one of many island in Greece. It was exciting to hear stories from a group of people living in Greece who had never been there before. We hung out late in the night and decided the next day it would be fun for us to rent ATV and take them around the island together. After saying goodbye, Sophie and I headed back to our hotel and reflected out Mykonos was not close to what we imagined it would be. We were both expecting large parties on the beach and a bustling and lively island, but I guess we got there a bit earlier then most of the party tourists. Most shops, restaurants, and hotels were all going through what looked like Spring Cleaning, and almost every other building was being repainted white. We also noticed a trend in the hours of stores or restaurants…there was no consistency in opening or closing times, or even what days they were open. It’s as if owners woke up each day and decided whether or not they were gong to open up shop. This proved to be disappointing since we were staying in what was coined the Little Venice of Mykonos, which was supposed to be lined with shops, many of which were closed though. However we heard exciting news that a cruise ship was coming in the next day and that we could expect more shops to be open. So in hopes of being able to shop the next day, we went to bed.

            The next morning island time got us, and we must have slept in til 11:30. Ashley, Sarah, and Alexis met us at our room and we headed up to the bus stop where we could also rent our ATVs. We rented 4 ATVs for the 6 of us, and after a bit of a rocky start with the second hand engines we were off and running…to the gas station. In true Greek fashion they rented the ATVs to us with enough gas to get us to a station where had to fill up. I also found it hysterical the comparison of this rental company to a rental company that my family had used in Hawaii, in which we had helmets and a little training session, as well as a run around a small test track. Well in Greece you pay, find a helmet that somewhat fits, and your off. Oh and there was no definitive time we had to bring them back, they just kept saying “Oh you know just bring them back at the end of the day, or whenever.” We were off, with no clue where we were going, but we knew by the end of the day we wanted to a least make it to Paradise Beach. Along the way we stopped at some amazing viewpoints, and even with the multiple dying engines and 2 and half hours of exploring, we made it to Paradise Beach, which looked just like the rest of the island, under refurbishment. We spent a good amount of time there enjoying the view and then headed to a restaurant for a late lunch. After a great lunch, possibly the best meal we had in Greece, we went back out to our bikes to head to the home base to get in some shopping before dinner. And of course, our ATV wouldn’t start. Luckily there was a phone number on the ATV, and the lovely waitresses at the restaurant offered to call down and communicate for us.

We were told they were sending someone up, so as we waited we began to friend each other on FB. As Alexis, a Texas native, friended me she was surprised, as was I, to see we had a mutual friend. Well, the world truly is a small place; her roommate in Athens, who was coming to Mykonos that night with two friends, was a friend who I had done a show with when I was in 7th grade. Sheryl and I had done “The King and I” at Broadway by the Bay, and were quite close friends when we performing together. After the disbelief wore off, the rental owner had arrived and toyed with our bike. After a couple of attempts he was able to start it for us and we headed back. We decided we would get together for dinner again, and for an unexpected reunion between Sheryl and I. Sophie and I split off on our own and went shopping for a bit, and Sophie made a great purchase of handmade leather sandals from a charming couple who were also from Tripoli. We talked for a while about my family and exchanged fun stories. I had forgotten how friendly strangers can be, because it doesn’t happen too often in Prague. We got ready for dinner and decided to meet up at the windmills at sunset. The 7 of us were waiting for Sheryl and her friends to show up, and without a double take Sheryl shows us and recognizes me instantly. It was amazing, mainly because I look nothing I did in 7th grade for those of you that can remember. We couldn’t believe it and after we couldn’t laugh any more we headed to a waterfront dinner, all 10 of us. After a rowdy dinner we went back to Alexis’s apartment, where the 5 of them were staying together, for drinks and games. They had plans to leave the next day, so Sophie and I were so happy to spend the little time they had left in Mykonos with them.

            On April 1st we had made plans to get together with Sheryl and her friends, Beebee and Tyler, who had flown out from school for their Spring Break. The three of them go to Cornell, and were so much fun. Unfortunately Sophie and I slept in again, well maybe it was more the fact that I slept in, so we missed our chance to get together with them, so we decided to take advantage of the nice weather and go to a small little beachfront tucked away into a nook underneath a church near the windmills. As Sophie was taking pictures of me on a rock, my true klutz emerged as I dropped my phone and wallet into the water. I was sitting on the rock and saw this thing in the water that looked like a wallet, and I thought it was so weird. Then I thought to myself “Jeez that looks like my wallet”, and as I patted my pocket to make sure mine was still there, my heart sank when I felt nothing. I instantly had to jump in the water and grab my wallet as it was being pulled out into the sea. And while I was doing that I also saw my phone, which had already been fully emerged. I grabbed it hoping it would still work, and somehow it was still on, however it conked out soon after.

After our rocky start, pun intended, we relaxed a bit on the beach, took more pictures, then decided to walk around some more and escape the sandy beach that had a little more dog poop then we had hoped for. We passed another quaint church, which had the most amazing view of the waterfront restaurants, a beach, and windmills in the distance. We passed my favorite church on the way back to the room, and I went in to light a candle for Papou and say a prayer. It was such a peaceful and comforting moment for me.

We had a surprise when we got back to our room because Sarah, Reid, Alexis, Katie, and Ashley were all still here. The ferry workers had gone a two day strike and they were all forced into buying plane ticket back to Athens unfortunately. But that wasn’t the only bad news for them, souvenirs they were planning on taking on the ferry they could no longer take on the plane…such as alcohol J. So Sophie and I scored a bottle of vodka and my feared enemy, ouzo. We said goodbye to them for a second time, took a nap, met back up with Sheryl, Beebee, and Tyler and went out to dinner. After dinner we headed to a lounge for some dessert, where we had a wonderful language mishap over some nuts Tyler may or may have not been allergic to. We never really found out what kind of nut was on the sundae, so we played it safe and Tyler ordered something else. We headed back to our room, made some drinks, and just hung out there and played Heads Up, as well as looked through old King and I pictures for some nostalgia.

            The next day we got all out shopping done, and were surprisingly confused that more shops and restaurants were busy on Monday than on the weekend. It worked out well for us because we were able to get all of our souvenirs and enjoyed our last full day walking and relaxing, something we weren’t used to on other weekend’s trip when we have to rush through a city and see everything as quickly as possible. Again later that night we got together with the Cornell group, go dinner (have you noticed the common theme of food on this trip?) then went out to a club to dance the night away, even if we were the only ones on the dance floor. After saying goodbye to Sheryl and her friends, we headed to bed for an early morning on our way Istanbul, which I was not really looking forward to. It just didn’t seem like a place that would interest me! Boy, was I wrong.

            On the 2nd, Maria’s brother drove us to the worlds smallest airport and after a short flight we were in Turkey. We made it to our hostel and waited for Mackenzie and Ashley, who had gotten there a day earlier, to come back for their excursion. We had our happy reunion, and decided to go try an Istanbul staple: bake potatoes. These were no normal backed potatoes though, they were loaded with atypical toppings that you choose. Mine was filled with all the goods; butter, cheese, mushrooms, bacon, hot sauce, grilled zucchini, and some macaroni salad. It sounds so weird, but it was delicious. We explored the wonderful night life, and ended the night with some Turkish delight.

This was also somewhat of a cultural trip for me because my Yiaya Mary’s family is from Mamara, which used to be part of Greece, until the Turks claimed it as their land. So it came as a surprise to me when the Turkish delight shop owner asked me where I was from. I answered “San Francisco” and he shook his head and said “I mean nationality.”. I was a bit worried to say I was Greek, knowing the hostility between Greeks and Turks in the past, but it was a younger guy so I thought it would be OK. But, before I could answer he says, “You look Turkish”. I laughed a bit, and said, “Well my Grandma’s family is actually from Mamara, so I’m Greek, but I guess in some ways Turkish too”. He ended up being very friendly and actually was playing Greek Music in his shop. We said goodbye, and walked back to our hostel, which had a very prime location next to the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque.

            The 3rd was a packed day full of adventures, so after we had our complimentary Turkish breakfast at the hostel we headed out into the big city to the Grand Bazaar. If I had done my homework, I would have known to not pack a single thing and bring an empty suit case, because I wanted to buy everything in sight. Beyond amazing and unique Turkish souvenirs, they had great knock-off clothing. It was a bit stressful being with 3 American girls and feeling responsible for them when each salesman would call out to them. “Lady, I give you good deal on pants!” “Lady, come look at this!” The worst one thought, which happened multiple times is “Oh, you dropped something!” and then you turned around and realized you didn’t drop a thing and they just wanted to get your attention…which they did. We felt quite accomplished though because we seemed to have good judgment when choosing a salesman to five our business to. All the men we bought things from we very friendly, patient, and were willing to bargain.

My favorite purchase of that day was a really cool blue mosaic hanging lantern that I can’t wait to put up in my room down at school! After feeling as though we were walking around in circles, we headed to the Spice Market where the colors and fragrances rules. While bargaining with a salesman about some tea the girls were buying, I was once again asked what nationality. It happened multiple times that day, and for some reason my answer always changed. We felt as though we needed to re-fuel so we had a traditional Turkish lunch complete with kebabs, hummus, and pickled vegetables. After lunch we went to the Blue Mosque, and along the way we stopped at a fountain we later found was donated by the Germans.

The Blue Mosque, or Sultan Ahmed Mosque is a historic mosque in Istanbul. The mosque is popularly known as the Blue Mosque for the blue tiles adorning the walls of its interior. It was built from 1609 to 1616, during the rule of Ahmed I. Its foundation contains a tomb of the founder, a mardrasah and a hospice. The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is still popularly used as a mosque. Pictures and words don’t do this place of worship justice. It was such a cultural experience for me, nothing even close to what I have witnessed traveling. After spending an extensive amount inside gawking at the beauty and colors of the interior, we went to the Basilica Cistern.

The Basilica Cistern is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul (formerly Constantinople), Turkey. The cistern, located 500 feet (150 m) southwest of the Hagia Sophia on the historical peninsula of Sarayburnu, was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine emperor Justinian I. It was eerie and almost felt like we were on the movie set of National Treasures or Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Located in the northwest corner of the cistern, the bases of two columns reuse blocks carved with the visage of Medusa. The origin of the two heads is unknown, though it is thought that the heads were brought to the cistern after being removed from a building of the late Roman period. There is no written evidence that suggests they were used as column pedestals previously. Tradition has it that the blocks are oriented sideways and inverted in order to negate the power of the Gorgons' gaze, however it is widely thought that one was placed sideways only to be the proper size to support the column.

We moved on to a roof top restaurant, called Seven Dreams, for some afternoon tea, that was wonderful by the way, and another priceless view of Istanbul…oh and Asia! How crazy is that!? Istanbul is the only city that is on two continents. The waiters were particularly friendly and funny at this restaurant and even asked to have a photo with us. They then proceeded to try and get the whole restaurant up for a picture, although we only had one addition to our group! I couldn’t stop laughing!

We decided we wanted to see other parts of Istanbul, so we walked across the Fish Bridge which, you can guess by the title, is a bridge lined with fishermen. On the way the girls bought the traditional tourist souvenir of a flower headband as well as delicious fresh squeezed pomegranate juice, I indulged in the latter. It was delicious! We made it to the prime shopping district and walked around for a bit, but didn’t want to stay too long, because this was an area filled with younger people and has been in the news lately for strikes and riots. We felt safe the entire time, but we knew we didn’t want to be there once the sun went down. On our way back to the hostel we walked across the opposite side of the fish bridge and viewed a wonderful sunset.

That night we went out for a wonderful dinner of schwarma and the freshest falafel I had ever had! (Again with the theme of food! Have I told you I love international food!?) After dinner Ashley headed back to the hostile and Kenzie, Sophie, and I decided to smoke hookah, because well..when in Istanbul?! But we were all so tired from the full day of sightseeing, we didn’t last too long, and it was for the best since hookah isn’t really the best past time in the world.

The next day we woke up early and took on the Hagia Sophia, which was a very meaningful excursion to me. Hagia Sophia, from the Greek: Ἁγία Σοφία, "Holy Wisdom”, is a former Greek Orthodox patriarchal basilica, later an imperial mosque, and now a museum in Istanbul, Turkey. From the date of its construction in 537 until 1453, it served as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral and seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, except between 1204 and 1261, when it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral under the Latin Empire. The building was a mosque from May 29th, 1453 until 1931. It was then secularized and opened as a museum on 1 February 1935. It was beyond interesting to actually see the history of the church through it’s architecture. The Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus can be seen in mosaic next to Islamic words, crosses can be seen next to Muslim ornamentation. It was so massive and felt almost like a mecca to me. It played such a significant role in our culture and religions history and to be in it, not even just seeing it from the outside, but to be in it, was magical. Mt favorite part of the mosque was the mosaic of Jesus flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist.

After our visit to the Hagia Sophia, we headed to the docks via the spice market where the girls bought some tea, to take a cruise down the Bosphorus River. The Bosphorus is a strait that forms part of the boundary between Europe and Asia, and is also connected to the Sea of Marmara, where my Yiaya’s family was from. We totally lucked out with beautiful clear weather and it was a great way to end our time in Istanbul.

The next day we took a short plane to Budapest, which I only got to see very little of, grabbed some dinner, and then went to the Ruins Bar, which was a really cool hodge-podge atmosphere with deconstructed cars as furniture and eclectic decorations. I even left my mark on a lamp near our table! I’ll just have to find it when I go back to Budapest, because it looked like a wonderful city! We hopped on a bus around 11:30, and before we knew it we were in Prague and it 6:45 Sunday morning. It was a bit of a trek, but having Sunday to recuperate and finish homework for Monday was perfect! It was an unbelievably successful Spring Break!

And as always… the adventure continues!