Archive | September, 2013

Smile and Say γεια σας (Hello)!

Smile and say hello. In Greek, if you’re greeting one person, phonetically, it’s pronounced yah-sou, a group, it’s yah-sis.

A great rule to follow no matter where or who you are. 

In particular, though, I’ve found it very useful here in Itea and, its environs, as a solo female traveler of asian appearance. The men in Itea have generally been quicker to return a smile than the women. What starts off as such a serious look can immediately become a broad, warm, genial smile. It’s the polite thing to do, but it also reminds everyone involved that as strange as the other person may seem, we’re all just human beings trying to make sense of our world and navigate it as best we can. 

People are curious and understandably so. 

First, being alone is an unusual thing in the Greek culture: people like to meet, to converse, to enjoy each other’s company. I love that fact. It’s relatively rare to see anyone drinking, dining or relaxing, in any way, by him or herself. Even walking is an activity most popularly done in pairs. 

Second, spending time out of the house has traditionally been a man’s game in Greece, with women meeting in the house. I see lots of men at cafes sitting and enjoying a drink, usually in pairs or groups,  and less often, solo. This pattern is obviously changing with the younger generation, but to memory, I haven’t seen a female on her own in a cafe or restaurant so far. Having said that, dining unaccompanied, especially for females, is still uncommon enough anywhere in the world that people are still writing tips on how to be comfortable doing this. (Personally, I find it easier at lunch than at dinner; at a more casual restaurant than a formal one; and in a quieter establishment than a busy one unless it has a bar area for dining.)

So, throw the two things together and I get a lot of stares. My friends just left after spending a few days with me in Itea and I’m almost certain that the combination of 2 black women, 1 brown woman and 1 asian woman led to fewer confused looks than me on my own. And I realize now it’s because the locals can more easily understand why a diverse group of females would be together (vacation) than why a single female (of any persuasion) would be here alone. 

My biggest regret is that I didn’t have the time to learn more Greek (truthfully, any Greek besides hello, good morning and thank you). This would be such a wonderful place to converse, to ask questions about culture, history and traditions: people seem to be as curious about me as I am about them. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about my travels… I’ve been so blessed to go so many places, but I find that some friends have a much more immersive experience. I think partly that’s because I travel alone and I am more cautious because of that, but it’s also part of my personality to be more careful than I know some others would be in the same situations. Another barrier, though is language. I find myself wondering what I could learn, who I could meet, the experiences I could have if I was only better able to communicate with the people who live in the places I visit. 

How do you find the balance between safety and a ‘true’ experience? What are your secrets to a more immersive adventure? 


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Water & Mountain: The Village of Galaxidi and the Town of Arachova

When I decided to come to Itea, I knew that renting a car was a must for me because I very much wanted to be able to explore the region at will. It didn’t hurt, either, that I knew many of the routes would be by the water or in the mountains and, being a stick-shift driver, there is nothing more fun than getting to put the gears of a car to full use on the winding roads that both terrains engender.

Two of the places that local contacts recommended I go see were Galaxidi, a village with nautical roots just a 20-minute drive northwest along the shoreline, and Arachova, a town roughly 1000 metres above sea level set on the slopes of Mount Parnassus.
On a clear day, from Itea, you can see Galaxidi across the water. The village rises up on a hill with St. Nicolas church sitting on its peak. Until recent times, Galaxidi was only accessible by water and as such, the authentic architectural style of homes and buildings has been retained.
The first entrance off the main road is so non-descript that I drove right by it, despite the instructions of my smartphone’s GPS navigation tool. I was sure it was malfunctioning when it told me to turn off onto what looked like a wide, gravel driveway for the nearby beach.
Choosing to make my way on foot for as long as possible along the shoreline, I parked in the first available lot past this beach. The dirt road quickly narrowed to a footpath that fronted several fairly new and sizable houses on the shore. The land was drier than expected with the tall grass crunching beneath my flip flops as I picked my way around trying to find the best angles for photos.
The path eventually turned into concrete and led me into town, passing an inner harbor and a cute small house turned tavern/café that sat alongside. Its small outdoor porch looked like the perfect place to sit and spend the afternoon, but this was an exploratory trip for me and so I pressed on, with full intentions of returning to enjoy that serene spot.
If you’re anything like me, the road to Arachova is a dangerous one. As the pathway twists and turns up the mountain, your eyes are uncontrollably drawn to the view: the jagged edges of the rock face that loom above you; the side-by-side line of hill and mountain ranges, the strength of the details melting away with distance; the faded, dry green valley of olive groves below; the blue-green, almost dark turquoise waters of the Gulf of Corinth.
What’s worse, most of the other drivers on the road are from the area and have driven this road over and over again, each curve, turn, rise and decline clearly embedded in their muscle memory. A word of advice: if there’s a Greek driver following you (and it’s always a Greek driver if they’re on your ass), don’t hesitate for a second – find a spot to slow down and pull to the right and let them pass. Don’t be fooled into thinking that he/she will wait until there’s a designated spot to pass: the double white lines in the middle and the fact that you’re on a mountainside S-shaped road don’t mean anything here. Somewhat worryingly, once I started edging up one too many times behind a camper van that was overly fond of its brakes, I found myself having the same urges.
Arachova is just a short drive past Delphi, and I would guess, has inherited much of its tourist overflow. In the winter time, this town is also used as a base for a major ski hill further up the mountain. With the number of visitors they receive, the attitude towards tourists is… more direct. The souvenir shop owners here are aggressive. They pounce on you as you walk past: it’s okay, just come and look they say. Is it ever really okay to just look? There are more restaurants here that cater to the non-Greek palate, more high-end and fashionable clothing shops and a fair number of tourist buses, even now, in the shoulder/off-season.

The view, though, is no less breathtaking upon arrival than on the drive and once you’re off the main road and wandering the inner streets of Arachova you can understand its appeal. The lanes and walkways are usually steep, turning haphazardly one way or the other, sometimes leading you off to another branch, other times to a dead end. It has a mix of architectural styles, but many of the houses still retain the traditional architecture with the quintessential terracotta tiled roofs. I’m sure a map of the town would look a spider web and I’m can’t be sure how many of those lanes had names… in short, it is a town built for a roamer like me.



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Acclimating: Itea and Earthquakes

Travelling brings the unexpected – you can’t avoid it and you probably don’t want to (entirely), if you’ve made the decision to leave your comfort zone. 

Itea is a port town (pop. ~7,000)  literally down the mountain from Delphi, the famous site of the Greek oracle. It is exactly what you would imagine a smallish town by the water in Greece to be: quaint, relaxed, relatively quiet, and to some degree, a little run down with half-finished buildings, peeling paint and weather-worn, cracked wood. Locals (and me now too) spend a lot of time outside, as much as possible while the weather holds: relaxing on balconies (or a rooftop if you are me), seated on a plastic or wooden chair on the sidewalk, lounging at outdoor cafes and restaurants, walking or biking. It is a safe place: seniors walk home at midnight; women leave their purses on ledges and hanging off chairs while dining; doors and windows often remain open and/or unlocked. 

Sounds idyllic doesn’t it? And it is, to a certain extent: definitely perfect for me and what I’m doing right now. Restoring and rebuilding after some seriously intense months with my day job; culling from and editing my photos in preparation for my first photography exhibit/show; relearning the art and skill of writing well; and discovering an as yet (for me) unexplored region, culture and people. 

You know what wasn’t idyllic? The 3 minor earthquakes that greeted me on arrival (two on the first day, one on the second). As my friend’s cousin said in response: Welcome to Greece! After driving (and, of course, getting lost) 3 hours to get here from Athens on very little sleep, you can imagine my… er, somewhat startled confusion when the very solidly build house of cement, marble and solid wood started shaking. None of the episodes lasted very long, maybe a few seconds at most, but a new sensation and experience for me nevertheless. Luckily, after the very major Japanese earthquake a few years ago I’d read that that country actually experiences a number of minor quakes on a daily basis and residents have understandably just gotten used to them. While Greece is on a “very active seismic activity zone”, this region is particularly prone… I was told this area averages 3,000 per year. Apparently, two years ago, for a period of a month and a half there was a ‘minor’ quake every 10 minutes! 

Now, though, I know what to expect and have been given tips about what to do and where to be if a bigger one occurs, and, thanks to the extended Tsakiris family (who have given me a place to stay here), a place and people to reach out to.

So, on to other minor battles: the (usually dead) cockroaches (par for the course here as in many hot countries, I know); the avoidance of a particular restaurant and its middle-aged owner/manager who asked me out; the very stealthy mosquitoes and the ten (10!) resulting bites; and – help! – the Greek alphabet and language.

Details and photos on Galaxidi and Arachova coming up next….


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