Friday, July 23, 2010

Dolma, Dolma, Dolma

I’m aboard the ship right in Istanbul right now. Monika went to a Turkish cooking class with a bunch of the staff, and I stayed behind to take care of Elise. So after a fun morning at the park in the middle of the pouring rain, with lots of puddles to jump in, Elise went down for a nap. I’m just waiting for Mon to get back, and I’ll be heading out with Kevin, another staff member, as we try to get a haircut in a foreign land. Which is always an adventure.

It really has been a great several weeks now. After a long haul crossing the Atlantic, and testing the waters a bit in Spain, I think we’ve gotten into a really nice rhythm. Italy and Croatia were great with Monika’s parents, and Greece and now Turkey have also been fantastic, with some of my favorite days in these two ports. We had staff Karaoke night at sea followed by a full day in Istanbul that culminated in an enormous all-staff dinner in Taksim, and it couldn’t have been much better.

I can’t believe how much we’re getting done, and how great Elise is handling it all of it. With all the new places, new people, and shuffling around, it is a lot of stress and stimulation, but she’s doing amazingly well. She misses everyone at home a lot (she mentions everyone by name all the time), and she’ll miss everyone on the ship when we get home as well.

But I’ll do a quick summary of Greece. At some point before we arrived in Greece, we decided that five days would probably be too much to just stay in the port/Athens area, so the night before we dock, we decide to go to an island. Most of the students were going to Mykonos, and Monika really wanted to see Santorini given all the wonderful testimonial of all our friends who have been there – including Dave and Tanya, who spent their honeymoon there.

So in true Semester at Sea fashion, we make a last-second plan and purchase our tickets for a 2:15pm flight the day we dock. With the crises in Greece, there was going to be a air traffic controller strike the day after we arrived, and we wanted to make sure we had at least 2+ days to explore Athens. We figured that with the ship arriving around cleared by about 9:30am, we’d have our passports not long after that, could each lunch in Piraeus, then head to the airport in time to enjoy the famous sunset in Santorini. We booked our flights with our good friends Tom and Rebecca Jelke, who also have a little one (Parker).

We’ll, even though people were able to leave the ship, we didn’t get the passports back until about 2pm or so, which meant that we had to change our flights to 6pm or so at some cost. In the meantime, went out to explore Greece until it was time to leave for the airport. Which we discovered…

- We love the greek alphabet. It felt like an omnipresent calculus class (or a fraternity, if you’re so inclined. Which I’m not). I kept wanting to solve for all the missing variables. It was fun because by the end of the voyage, we were kind of able to pronounce some of the words, as long as we very carefully spelled out the greek letter aloud. We had no idea what it meant, but at least we knew how it sounded like.
- Greece is really hot this time of year. Really hot. It makes it really hard to go out with the little one, which meant we needed to keep her hydrated at all costs, use lots of sunscreen, go swimming as much as possible, and really try not to go out in the middle-of-the afternoon sun. My favorite moments of the port – the amazing sunset at Ia in Santorini, and the sunset at the Acropolis followed by an early evening at the Plaka district – were my favorite in part because it was so dang pleasant at that time of day. We’re getting in this pattern of going out early, eating and going to museums when it gets hot (and Elise falls asleep on the stroller), then enjoying the late afternoon and early evening hours again.
- The food is fantastic. Even the smallest, touristiest place has tasty greek food. Too bad I don’t remember the name of a single item. But Monika does. Hmmmm….. And we always order too much. There’s no way around it.
- I don’t know if we just got lucky, but the greek people seemed to have an exceptional care for children that I’ve never seen en masse before. Everyone has been absolutely wonderful to travel this whole time, making it very pleasant to bring Elise everywhere in Europe, but they took it to a new level in Greece. By the time we sat down to lunch on our first hour in port, we already had two people show us pictures of their kids and grandkids, and she was become fast-friends with our fast-talking waitress. If there was a line, we were sent to the front of it. Seats were always made available to us, motorcycles would stop accelerating and even stop traffic for us (and nobody else), and everywhere we got some free foods and items because of Elise. It was often quite touching and completely unexpected, and I really hope that we didn’t just hit an amazing streak, and that this is something the culture really values.
- The economic crisis is real over there. We benefit from not having as many tourists around, and lower rates to meet the lower demand, but everyone we talked to told us how slow business is right now (and thanked us for sailing in with so many students for five days).

So after the passport delay, an hour-long cab ride to the airport, another 2-hour flight delay because of air-conditioning problems, we were aboard our 40-minute hop to Santorini, where we witnessed the Santorini sunset from the air.

The island is very striking in appearance. Located on an enormous volcano, the caldera is open on two sides into the ocean, forming creating a huge three-quarter circle of gentle slopes on one side and 1000ft drops into the sea on the other. Inside the caldera, there is a growing lava island of the active volcano. The island used to be the home of the ancient Minoan Crete civilization, and there is a lot of evidence that the massive eruption around 14 BC (I believe) became the origin of the myth of Atlantis, because parts of the island disappeared, and the populations of Santorini and neighboring islands, including Crete, were destroyed.

Now the island, particularly the top of the cliff on the caldera, is covered in these distinct white buildings with blue roofs. I kept wanting to visit a hardware store just to take a picture of the paint aisle. I’m pretty sure all swatches are either “Santorini Blue” or “Santorini White”.

We arrived at night, took a short cab ride to the city of Thira, where our (cheapo) hotel was in the middle of everything and less than 100ft from the caldera. There’s enough time for us to get some delicious whatdoIcallits pita with Kebabs (greek tacos? Sufliakes? Mon, help!), then go to bed and get ready for a full day.

We discovered how much Elise loves beaches, so we made it the first priority the next day. We took a bus down to the public black-rock beaches on the southeast corner of the island, and parked there the first half of the day while Elise had the time of her life in the water. I don’t think it was possible to have a better water temperature… in the extreme heat we were in (made hotter by the dark pebbles), it was just cold enough to be extremely refreshing but not too cold. Fun times for all.

After lunch and nap on our way back to Thira, we jumped on another bus on our way to Ia (spelled Oia with what I though was a silent Theta in greek, but what do I know?) on the northern tip of the island. Which, to us, was the best part. Quaint, clean, with the best view, this is the place I would recommend staying to anyone visiting the island (though prices were sometimes six times more expensive than what we paid for our hotel). Elise fell asleep in time for us to have a glass of wine, and woke up to discover the playground out of heaven (Mt. Olympus?), on top of Ia, just ahead of a most amazing sunset. After playing for a few minutes, we grab a pizza, enjoy the most perfect of evenings, then take the bus (again) back to our hotel in Thira.

(OK, Mon’s back to watch Elise. I’m going to get a quick haircut. Be right back.)

(Alright, I’m back. That was hilarious. I guess they are used to dealing with a lot of hair here. I went with Kevin, we found a random barbershop near the ship, they spoke no English, and they give you the equivalent of a Turkish bath on your head. Lots of stubby fingers all over the place, lots of tools to snip hair you didn’t even know you had (they sure take care of that nose hair for you), and, best of all, they singe your ear hairs. Yup. I didn’t even know I had them until I felt a burning pain in my ear. The barber had pulled out a lighter, put them to my ear, and burned away all of my ear hair, on the lobes and everything. And he didn’t just put the flame and pull it away. He kept it there. It hurt a lot. And it smelled like burnt hair.

Then he took my head, dunked it in the sink in front of him, washed my face all over – stubby fingers in my eyes, ears, and nose, and then dried me off with a towel so vigorously I kind of felt I was being waterboarded. It was hilarious.)

(And my ears feel like a baby’s bottom right now. We have so many hilarious stories from Turkey – I can’t wait to type up that blog in two days).

(But I digess).

So after enjoying one more light day in Santorini, we made it back to Athens. The following (extremely hot) day, we explored Piraeus by going to the local playground with Cal and Cash, ordering WAY too much delicious food (I blame Dave), going to the local archaeological museum, and taking a nap, before waiting for things to cool down to visit the Acropolis near the end of the day.

The Acropolis is something. Way cooler than anything I could have imagined, and just a shame that much of it was destroyed by conflict. We picked a perfect time and day to do it – even though it was extremely hot, it was certainly cooling down at that point, the pollution had mostly blown away (giving us an amazing view of the city and sea from up top, and Elise was in a pretty great mood.

We were scrambling to make it but there before it closed, so we didn’t bother getting more cash. They didn’t take any credit cards, and we somehow managed to pay for the 24 Euro entry fee with the last remaining coins we had, and miraculously, we barely had enough. I can tell you the cashier loved us when we dropped all the coins in front of him.

For those of you who have never been to Athens, the walk up to the Parthenon is pretty precarious, with slippery, worn-down 2000-year-old marble, on some pretty steep ground. I can’t imagine what it is like when it rains – I can only imagine that these ancient marbled cities like Rome and Athens was a disaster when it rained. Can marble be any more slippery?

After enjoying the view, we tried to make it to the new, amazing Acropolis Museum, but it was too late. So we let Elise play in the grassy hill outside for a while, then walked over to the beautiful and quaint Plaka neighborhood, on the foot of the Acropolis, for another perfectly pleasant dinner with a view of the Parthenon.

We took it really easy on our last day in Greece and decided to go back and explore the Acropolis museum, which is stunningly brilliant. It is built on top of ruins (which you can see through the plexiglass floors), is laid out more like a modern art museum than a history museum, then had an offset third floor of the size and orientation of the Parthenon, to house every single sculpture that was ever part of the outside of the Parthenon.

The problem is that many (most) of the artwork is outside of Greece, and in fact, much of it has been housed outside of the country, primarily at the British Museum in London. The Greeks have been trying to get them back for years (claiming they were stolen), and one of the biggest arguments against returning the artwork has always been that they would be better cared for in England than in Greece.

But with the new museum, that argument is done for. It really is world class, and though it’ll be unlikely that the Brits will return anything, I think the Greeks have made a pretty good case that the statues belong in Athens, in the context of the Acropolis. It’s a must see for anyone visiting the city.

So that was pretty much our time in Greece. I think the pictures summarize it pretty well (

Now we’re almost done with Turkey (I’m now enjoying the most amazing view of nighttime Istanbul from the Staffulty Lounge, or 10 Forward, as we call it on this voyage) and we have crossed that point in the voyage where the ship is home; that you get the nice feeling when you see the lights of the ship when you’re out at night, and that you get really excited if you haven’t seen somebody for several days. We miss everything from home, and are looking forward to going back soon (two more countries), but doggone it, it’s nice to be here.

Off to bed, but a quick Elisey-ism before I go (I need to keep better track of these - there are a million of them).

The three of us were in our cabin two nights ago, and while Elise was having a boob, one of us (who shall remain anonymous to protect his identity ) passed gas, and quite audibly. So to distract from the fact, I say, "Elise, I think there's a frog in the room".

She looks up right at me and says, "A farting frog."

She would have gone back to the boob but Monika was too busy rolling on the floor laughing.


The next day, Elise was looking out the cabin window when SHE flatulates. She giggles for a second, looks at us, and says, "That was daddy's frog."


Back in a couple days.

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