Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Nafplio, Greece

Nafplio, Greece
Dec 27-Jan 1

On Tuesday morning I left Thermi by bus and headed to Thessaloniki’s train station. Once there, I found out that all of the trains to Athens were full. Fortunately, the bus station is just across the street from the train station, so I was able to secure a seat on a bus that was scheduled to depart for Athens at the same time as the train was supposed to leave.

Before getting on the bus, I went into a nearby café bar to order a sandwich to go. As I was ordering, a man by the bar asked me in thick Greek accent where I was from. It was such a thick accent that I had to ask him twice to please clarify what he was actually saying. I told him “Arizona,” and he said, “Oh...cowboys!” (Most people say either cowboys or Arizona Dream.) Before I walked out the door with my sandwich, the man told me to wait—he went behind the bar and poured me a shot of Greek Tsipuro, a stronger and less sweet version of the anise-flavored ouzo. “Happy New Year, my friend,” he said.

When I arrived in Athens I began looking around the large bus station for a bus that would take me to Nafplio. Within a few minutes, someone asked me if I needed help. This person guided me to the correct bus and in a few minutes I was on my way to Nafplio, a town of only 20,000 inhabitants.

After the bus stopped in Nafplio, I asked one of the passengers on the bus if I could borrow his mobile phone to call a Greek number. He agreed. I talked to my next host, Vatistas, a 21-year old Couchsurfer that Eirini (the girl from Greece who I Couchsurfed with in Bulgaria) recommended to me. When he answered the phone, I told him that I just got to Nafplio and that I was at the bus station.

Vatistas met me within five minutes and asked if I wouldn’t mind going to a café before I drop my bags off. This is the second time that a Greek Couchsurfer has asked me this, and the second time that I happily agreed to go. Vatistas said that his mom is cooking turkey for dinner, and it will be ready in an hour or so. I met a few of Vatistas’ friends and stayed for a little while at this really attractive café that was strung with Christmas lights. At about 10pm, Vatistas and I left to go to his house for family dinner.

We had turkey, rice, and vegetables that were sitting in a thin pool of homemade olive oil. We toasted (Yamas!) with glasses of rosé, and enjoyed homemade bread with nuts in it with our food. During the meal, I enjoyed dipping this bread into the leftover olive oil. In Greece, they call this Papara. After dinner, Vatistas took a few fresh apples from the refrigerator and sliced them for everyone. Apple slices are, according to Vatistas, a very common dessert after a meal in Greece.

I learned that Vatistas is studying electrical engineering in Athens, and is in his third year. He’s in a five-year program that includes both a bachelors and masters degree. I met both of Vatistas’ parents and also had a nice talk with them too. They wanted to see pictures of Arizona, hear about what life is like there, and to see its location on Google Maps. Vatistas’ dad is a retired port policeman, and Vatistas’ mom works at a beauty store selling cosmetics. Vatistas gave me a set of keys to my own guest apartment on the top floor of the building.

After dinner, Vatistas suggested that we go out to a café with his friends for some drinks. At this café we ordered some Greek tsipouro. I got to meet Athina, Aimy, Eva, Sparko, Ariadni, Janis, and many more of Vatistas’ friends. We poured ourselves small glasses of ice-cold tsipouro, ate finger food, drank, and talked until the early morning hours.

The next afternoon we woke up and had lunch with Vatistas’ dad. We ate leftovers from dinner, but with the addition of a homegrown tomato and homemade feta salad bathed in homemade olive oil. Everyone started to notice my infatuation with papara. I could tell because Vatistas’ dad and Vatistas would chuckle and exchange comments in Greek while looking at me and saying papara.
After eating a few fresh apple slices for dessert, I also got to sample some homemade desserts: nut pie and buttermilk pie. That afternoon, Vatistas and I set out to see some of the sights in Nafplio. I saw the main square (where little kids were playing soccer while their parents’ sipped coffee on the outdoor terrace), the old train, the early 18th century Venetian castle on the hill, the original Greek capital building (Nafplio was the capital of Greece in the early 19th century, before the Greek revolution). After this, we went up to the hill for a panorama of the town and the Argolic Gulf.

When it started to get dark we headed to the café for a coffee. Vatiastas organized a Couchsurfing meeting in the evening. He told everyone to meet at the café at 6pm, so of course, people started showing at 6:30. Between 6 and 6:30, Vatistas and I played UNO at the café and sipped ice-cold coffee. As a joke, I told Vatiastas that the time difference between my previous destination, Macedonia (FYROM), and Greece was technically only one hour, but that realistically it was more like five hours—we get up in the afternoon, drink coffee in the evening, and party in the morning. He laughed and conceded that this was how many Greeks like to live life whenever they are on holiday.
At the Couchsurfing meeting I had the pleasure of meeting two Greek women in their thirties. Both women had such youthful spirits, which made them seem like they were hardly a day older than either Vatistas or myself. The other Couchsurfer that attended the meeting was a Greek man who was also in his thirties. He is studying for a master’s degree in engineering in Sweden.

Noise was everywhere in this café. It usually came in the form of eruptions of laughter, hands smacking tables, and voices that were much louder and punctuated with emotion than they would be in a conversation happening outside of Greece. At many points we talked about the difference between Swedish culture and Greek culture, saying that this type of café atmosphere is not at all common in Sweden. We concluded that when Swedes drink, they become Greek, but that Greeks don’t need alcohol to be Greek. We also talked about the Mediterranean way of life, and the similarities between Greek language and Spanish language when it is spoken.

After coffee, Vatistas and I went out to dinner with a bunch of his friends. We got Souvlaki—grilled slices of pork on a wooden skewer. It was served with potato fries glazed with a buttery lemon sauce, and lots of sliced lemons on the side to squeeze over everything. That night we drank more Greek alcohol and went to a club in a nearby town that played Greek trash music, a genre that is aptly named and needs no further explanation.

The next day for lunch we had bean soup and decided to have a more relaxed day inside. I caught up on work while Vatistas and his dad read, watched TV, and drank coffee. Vatistas’ older brother, Kostas, was in town from Lancaster, UK, where he’s studying for a master’s degree in web marketing. Kostas and I got to talk a lot that afternoon. He was really interested in my work. I got to learn more about search engine optimization (SEO) from him, something that is used frequently in my line of work and that Kostas is studying in school.

In the evening, Vatistas and I went to a Kung Fu gym. Vatistas has been learning and practicing kung fu since a young age. He even attends competitions several times per year. After he was done training, him and I returned home for family dinner at about 10:30pm.

His family had invited family friends over for a big dinner. We poured a flavorful beef sauce over pasta that had been coated in olive oil and Parmesan for the main dish, and also helped ourselves to two different kinds of salads. In Greece, I have noticed, most meals are served with two different salads. At an informal meal, each person eats salad out of the bowl in the middle of the table. When it’s a formal gathering, people serve salad onto their plates before eating it. For dessert, we had apple slices again—but this time the apples were covered in honey, spoon sweets (gliko koutaliou; it’s like marmalade but with fruit pieces that are firmer and more whole), walnuts, and cinnamon.

The next morning Vatistas and I had a delicious lunch—freshly baked fish, potatoes, and onions doused in homemade olive oil and sprinkled with sweet raisons. For a salad, we had a tomato, oregano, feta, and olive oil. Following the meal we had apple slices. After this Vatistas and I went on a walk in Nafplio. As per usual, when the sun went down, we went for a coffee.

By this time I was becoming acquainted with the different Greek slang terms and some of the slang phrases that Greek people say to each other. Everyone thought it was really funny when I started to use these words and phrases because of my American accent and because of how unexpected my use of these phrases and words would be. My favorite phrase, said when someone says something that was intended to be funny but isn’t, is “go to the corner, think about what you said, and come back when you’re ready to apologize.”

On the morning of New Years Eve, Vatistas explained to me that New Years is celebrated first and foremost as a family holiday. Before we got together with Vatistas’ godfather’s family for a spectacular New Year’s dinner, I gave a gift (a small Christmas tree) to Vatistas’ parents on New Years Eve—Greeks do their holiday gift exchanges on this day, rather than on Christmas.

Every corner and crevice of Vatistas’ godfather’s house had been decorated with red, green, or Santa Claus, and I ate more food than I ever remember consuming in my life. We had hors d'oeuvres to start with: crispy slices of bite-size bread topped with caviar and either raw salmon or beef tartare, as well as tiny slices of flakey Greek pie filled with white cheese. For the main course we had two colorful salads, chicken, pork, wild boar (hunted by Vatistas’ Godfather’s cousin), ground up chicken intestines (they were actually really good), freshly made yogurt-based sauces like tatziki (yogurt, dill, lemon juice, lots of garlic) that were served inside of cored bell peppers, and homemade bread covered in sesame seeds.

During the dinner conversation, I picked out words that I identified, and basically tried to figure out what everyone was talking about. Although I didn't understand what 99% of the conversation was about, I really enjoyed watching everyone's body language and the emotions behind each expression. At a few points during the meal, I could hear that the conversation was about me. Vatistas’ dad would be babbling on in Greek, and then I would hear words like ‘Couchsurfing’, ‘American’, ‘Arizona’, and ‘Piscina’ (swimming pool; I told them about the swimming pools in Arizona).

Just before midnight the music was turned off and the Greek television station was turned up. The channel featured a live lineup traditional Greek bands that sang their drunken hearts out to classic Greek songs. Everyone was singing, drinking rosé, and preparing to count down. As soon as it was midnight, champagne was popped, glasses clinked, and I observed several fascinating traditions.

First, I saw the mother of the house cut a few pomegranates and place them onto a tray. Then I saw her open the front door and put a horseshoe in the entryway. The woman’s son, Dimitris, went out the front door and then re-entered the house while stepping onto the horseshoe, eating a few pomegranate seeds, and then throwing some seeds down on the ground. This is a tradition in Greece that brings good luck for the New Year.

I also saw the mother of the house bring two massive cakes to the table. The first New Year’s cake is baked with a coin. The person that ends up with the slice that contains the coin receives a present and will have exceptionally good luck that year. As the first one was being served, I saw everyone checking under his or her slice.

It turns out that this year's coin was actually placed inside a cake that was baked and given to someone else. In other words, no one had the coin. Because of this, the family decided to just give me the gift, a red tassel that represents good luck. After everyone was done with their first slice of cake and first glass of champagne, Vatistas’ godfather went around and asked everyone if they want a full glass of Vodka. For me, this represents bad luck for the night, so I declined.

Declining an offer for food or drink in Greece isn’t considered rude, but accepting one is always a great way to please a host. I saw genuine happiness from my Greek hosts whenever I accepted their offers for food or drink. They would sometimes fill my cup or my plate before I could decline, just because they want to give me the impression that I am more than welcome to have more food or drink if I decide that I want it.

That night, Vatistas and I celebrated at his friend, Romano’s, parents’ house with drinking and traditional Greek dancing. The same TV station from earlier was playing more traditional Greek music. Some of us held hands and moved in a circle while putting one foot into the circle at certain times, and out of the circle at other times. I introduced everyone to King’s Cup, an American drinking game called that’s popular at the U of A (or at least it was when I was there…). They loved it, but we had difficulty with the ‘rhyming’ part because of the language barrier.

The next afternoon I packed my things and prepared to leave Nafplio. Vatistas’ mom gave me a pair of underwear for New Year’s—she said that she wanted to give me something that wasn’t heavy and that was practical. I told her that it was perfect, thoughtful gift.

For lunch we went over to Vatistas’ grandparents’ farm 20 minutes outside of Nafplio for a big New Year’s lunch. We ate cabbage, tomatoes, cheese, olive oil, chicken, eggs, potatoes, and lemons. Everything was plucked, washed, and prepared fresh for this meal. We also ate two cakes, and watched as Vatistas’ little cousin, Maria, freaked out when she found the coin (called the floo-REE in Greek).

One of Vatistas’ other cousins, a young teenager, was shy about practicing her English with me. Her mother scolded her loudly in Greek in an effort to force her to say some things, so the teen ended up asking me if I know who Justin Bieber is. Before leaving, Vatistas and I played with his cousins, and he introduced me his grandparents’ sheep, goats, turkey, and chickens.

I left the farm with a bag of fresh oranges and mandarins, hugs and kisses from everyone in Vatistas’ family, and a very full belly. They dropped me off at the bus stop that evening so that I could go to Athens.


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