Wide Awake in Wonderland

We’re only dancing on this earth for a short while

When bon appetit goes bad October 28, 2008

Years ago I went on two-week trip to Thailand. Overall, it was a great experience except for one little tiny glitch – I loathed Thai food. Just the smell of it on the streets would make my stomach turn. I got by on a mishmash of Power Bars, McDonalds, and poorly executed versions of Western classics. You never know what will get lost in translation: breakfast sausage and canned cocktail wieners were considered interchangeable.

Nonetheless, all was well until the day we found ourselves in a small village near the Burmese (Myanmar) border, and there was nothing but Thai food. Absolutely nothing. For three days. Never much of one for food strikes, I put on a brave face and ate most of the rice and as much as I could tolerate otherwise. They say no good deed goes unpunished, and within twelve hours, I was brought to my knees by a ferocious bout of food poisoning. I honestly thought I might die. Somewhere out there are pictures of me lying on a hammock, looking up to the heavens, and praying for a swift death.

This little tale is made extra ironic by the fact that for somehow I was convinced to try Thai food again…and now I really like it.

Anyway, and in contrast, this trip has been a breeze. Minus the very occasional and comparatively mild digestive disturbance, I’ve eaten the local, the freaky, and even the scary (from a hygiene perspective, anyway) without trouble. In fact, street food has been a good friend along the way. I’ve found I like being able to pick up a corn on the cob for my walk across the Bosphorous, and I rarely say no to a roasted chestnut.

However, I must confess that I have hit a food wall. By and large, I can’t do it any more. I’m done. The mere sight of the giant meat log from which the schwarma/kepab/kebab/gyro is cut now turns my stomach like the Thai food of yore. The thought of drinking any more salty yogurt, eating another piece of goat-derived cheese, or laying down good money for some cold eggplant makes me ill. The food isn’t making me sick – I’m just sick of it.

Now I imagine this next suggestion may hurt some feelings. I mean no harm, but I really do think that the Greeks and the Turks must have sat down and drawn up their national cuisines together. You could blindfold me and present me with a ‘best of’ plate from each country, and I swear it’s pretty much the same exact thing. The only clear differences are the names:

  • pastry with either spinach, cheese or ham inside

  • yogurt in varied and sundry forms

  • olives, olives, olives

  • salty crumbly cheese made from goat milk

  • a clear alcohol that tastes like licorice and turns cloudy if you add water

  • meat on a stick

  • fourteen different oily salads made of cold eggplant

And I’m not saying any of this is BAD, I’m just saying I’ve been eating it for almost a month. And I’m starting to hate it. And I think I’m ready to go home. To a large degree, I look forward to the cornucopia that is our lack of food identity. Sure, we have too many choices. Sure, overall we’re way too fat and dying faster than anyone else. But I swear, if there’s anything better than being able to eat from the menu of any country, nationality, or creed for breakfast, lunch, and dinner…I don’t know what it is.

I’m sure the day will come that I crave a Greek salad rather than shudder at the thought one, or find myself trying to make a chicken gyro and tzatziki in my own kitchen. It could happen. It probably will. But for now, having discovered an actual jar of peanut butter in the local grocery store, it’s PB&J and Pilav (rice pilaf) until I am back on my own turf. And I couldn’t be happier. Bon Appetit!

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Tourist killed by angry mob of peacocks. October 21, 2008

Trying to look nonchalent despite the growing crowd behind me

Trying to look nonchalent despite the growing crowd behind me

This is the headline I envisioned as no less than 50 of them inched closer and closer and closer to me at the ‘Hidden Forest’ in Plaka here on Kos island. For such a pretty bird, they have mean faces. Menacing. And did that one just give me the evil eye? Lest you think a bird is a bird is a bird, follow me in this logic: Parakeets, and finches have cute faces. Owls look smart. And vultures? Enough said.

Anyway, on paper it sounded really cool, if not a wee bit complicated. Go about 30 kilometers out of town, just past the airport and shortly after the road bends to the left, take a right by the small blue and white church (they’re ALL small blue and white churches, but that’s just details), follow the road, cross the bridge and you’re there. A magical forest in the middle of the island.

At first, I sat on an empty bench near a couple with a German Shepherd puppy. A happy, exuberant little four-month old puppy that kept tearing after the peacocks like they were littermates, sending the birds – terrified – up into the trees. Then she would run over to me, and jump up waiting to be praised while her owners called for her by a name she was too young to recognize as her own. I wasn’t able to explain in Greek that I LOVED the attention from their dog and she was no bother whatsoever, so soon they put her on a leash, and walked away.

The cats know who's in charge at the Secret Forest

The cats know who's in charge at the Secret Forest

Shortly thereafter a female peacock (peahen? Is that right?) arrived to fill the lonely space left by the puppy. And then another and another and another, until there was no loneliness, but a fair amount of anxiety. Why are they getting so CLOSE? Is this normal?

A picnic table opened up, and I moved over there…and all the birds came. And it started to seem like a scene from an M. Night Shamalyan movie. And those so rarely end well.

It was at this point that a car full of Australians pulled up, and for a good long while they had to settle for pictures of the birds with me in the midst. One of the guy commented that it was “very Jurassic park”. Another series of movies that don’t always end so well.

I guess I felt nervous because I don’t really know anything about peacocks. I don’t know how to read their body language, and I don’t know if they’re dangerous or placid or bite or peck or get an inch from your ear and let out a shrill call just to see if you’ll drop dead. And I suppose all these ideas got in my head when it became clear that the three resident cats were afraid of the peacocks. This didn’t require anthropomorphizing on my part: The cats would try to slink by the peacocks, the peacocks would notice, get pissed, and start lunging, and the cats would run 15 up a tree to get away from them.

Your own private beach oasis in Ag. Stefanos

Your own private beach oasis on Ag. Stefanos

If you’d asked me yesterday: Peacock versus island cat, my money would have been on the cat. No questions asked. Thus, watching a lone female peacock threaten a cat…and the cat back down was a little intimidating to me. Vanessa versus peacock? I say put your money on me. Vanessa versus 50 peacocks plus however many are still in the trees waiting to swoop down and peck out my eyes? Well, let’s just say it might end up being a closed-coffin funeral. To paraphrase Julius Caesar: I came, I saw, I cowered.  And when a big one jumped up onto the picnic bench next to me, I left!

In other news, it’s only been about 48 hours, but my stomach is revolting against the buffets. I don’t know if it’s the quality or the repetition, but either way, I’ve spent some time on the gastrointestinal equivalent of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. At the same time, not only does the buffet menu repeat regularly, so does the music. Every day it’s the exact same rotation of 20 songs. Its kind of like the movie Groundhog Day. Hey, wasn’t I eating greasy pork and listening to Endless Love last night? WAS that last night? What day is this!? Wasn’t Tom Jones Delilah playing the last time I had oily chocolate cake with clove-flavored ‘Coca Cold’? However, I will admit that I enjoy that part of “Let’s Dance” where she transitions from a slow ballad about “last chance for romance” into the thumping disco groove. Almost makes you want to get up, dance to the keg, and pour yourself another glass of carbonated red wine. Opa!

Ag. Stefanos beach on Kos, Greece

Ag. Stefanos beach on Kos, Greece

 

You’re either in or you’re out October 20, 2008

There are some things in life where there is no gray area: Cat Person or Cat Hater. Winner or Loser. Kosher or who cares. Capitalism or Communism.

Buffets,it seems, are such a thing. So is Las Vegas. You either love them or you hate them. And the two combined might be your heaven or your hell.

I happen to love Las Vegas. I don’t really gamble. I just like the lights and the energy and the sheer audacity of the place. It’s big, it’s bright, and it’s larger than life. It’s like a party that never ends. Similarly, I feel the same way about buffets. Particularly Vegas buffets. My favorite is the one at the Wynn, followed by The Paris. As much as I like being able to walk from New York to Paris to Venice in 45 minutes, I also like to see my pizza rubbing elbows with my California rolls, Alaskan crab legs, and prime rib. Buffets represent the glory of choice.

However, I have standards. And I don’t get excited about just ANY buffet. Like the one in Vegas Vacation where you decide between the green stuff and the blue stuff? Not so much. Or your average cruise ship? No thank you. That’s why it was probably a sight – even to myself to a certain extent – to see me going to town on the Gaia Garden breakfast buffet this morning.

Let’s be honest here. This buffet would’ve been laughed out of Circus Circus. It wouldn’t even be up to snuff at the Four Queens..but it was the first such morning feast I’d seen in almost three months. Sure the bacon was raw, and the eggs sunny side up – and made seven hours ago. Admittedly, the coffee was cold and the apples had cinnamon on them to hide the brown spots, but it was a big spread of sub par products, and the cost was included with my room.

Put it all together, and I was positively thrilled.

If you haven’t guessed, the last few weeks have been a little tough in the food department, and I’ve got some calories to make up for! Although I’m a fairly intrepid eater, and a big fan of the schwarma/kebap/gyro/kebab/souvlaki pita, I have seen and sampled some wares that would make your toes curl:

  • Pizza covered in canned corn

  • Pizza covered in canned corn, canned peas, and canned carrots

  • Pizza covered in canned corn, peas, and carrots and then taken over to a counter by the pizza cart and drenched in ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise (Surely this is dinner in hell?)

  • Schwarma (gyros) heavy with French fries (what IS that!?)

  • Sidewalk corn on the cob that looks (and tastes! Oh yes. I bought one like a fool) better suited to a scarecrow decoration than to eating

  • Sidewalk fried pig’s ears

I actually have to stop here, because even recalling some of this makes me feel a little ill….

That stated, I find myself particularly pleased with my choice of an all-inclusive option on Kos. Is the food wonderful? Well…not really. I’d say somewhere between public school cafeteria and cheap cruise. Is there variety? Ummmmmmm….not so much. All in all, the Greeks slap some stuff between pastry or grill meat. There you go. Greek food. And there are only so many variations on two songs.

But is there plenty of it? Check!

And it is free? Absolutely!

And is there unlimited horrible wine, cheap beer, and Greek ouzo? Oh yeah, baby.

And you can blame the third for the reason this post is so short.

So forgive me. I took good notes in Athens, and I have tales to tell. I just need to be slightly more clear-headed to write clean copy. So, tomorrow, tomorrow! It’s only a day away…

 

We’re not cooking with gas October 15, 2008

Greetings from Naxos, Greece, the largest island in the Cyclades. There are dozens of Greek Islands, but the Cyclades chain is probably the most famous due to its proximity to Athens (six to ten hours by ferry), and the fact that it’s the chain that includes the two islands with the highest name recognition – Santorini and Mykonos.

As for Naxos, the ancient Greeks believed that Dionysus (aka Bacchus) – the god of wine and revelry – came from here, and there are still some ancient Greek ruins scattered along the coastline, including a pretty amazing arch right by where the ferry comes in. The middle of the island is filled with olive trees and vineyards, and I booked a little room with an ocean view which ended up being a rather large two-bedroom, four bed suite with no chance of seeing the ocean whatsoever. I hate to be judgmental, but the claims of an ocean view have been irrevocably exposed as a balls-out lie. Nonetheless, it’s spacious, so if any of you are in the neighborhood, come on by!. Although the view is blocked by the hotel in front of it, the room is just 50 meters from the beach…and a mere 5 kilometers from civilization.

Unlike Santorini, which is very tourist-focused and has several decent-sized ‘towns’ spread quite a bit apart, Naxos consists of many independent, tiny villages a few kilometers from one another. In Santorini, you are very isolated from the rest of island (25 minutes by car, an hour by 4-wheeler) and the routes are quite mountainous and not walkable. However, when you’re in your little town (Perissa, in my case) the area is heavily laden with grocery stores, restaurants, souvenir shops, and bars, Granted, 75% of them are closed in October, but there’s still a fair offering. Every building that isn’t a hotel is set up to sell something to the people staying in them, and whatever you need (within reason) can be found.

I think one of the things that perhaps made me a little overconfident about what I might find in Naxos is that Perissa (on Santorini), had not one, but two 24-hour bakeries. I don’t know how the local baker got swindled into this deal, but it seems unfair. They’re already making their product, do they really need to available at any time to sell it?

Meanwhile, on my birthday I took a late night walk in the moonlight. I decided to go by the bakery I came to prefer for its lower prices and friendly owner and see if he really was open and if he had any spanikopita. He had been there the last two times I’d gone by, so I was surprised – if not a little dismayed – to see him dozing in a chair at 11:30pm. Remember those “Time to make the donuts” ads for (Dunkin Donuts? Well, on Santorini it’s ALWAYS time to make the donuts.

In contrast, when i got to Ag Anna here in Naxos, I was informed that there are no longer any restaurants open this time of year…and the one mini-market would be closing in ten minutes (at 7pm). I rushed over there, and was immediately flummoxed. It was extremely small. And the cabbie who had charged me an arm and a leg for the ride to my studio was running the cash register. At first I thought I was hallucinating or maybe he was a twin or something, but after I stared at him for about five seconds in disbelief, he threw up his hands and gave me a sheepish smile as if to say, “Busted!”

It was like a scene from an Adam Sandler movie: You’re on a small island and everywhere you go, the same guy is working there, waiting to overcharge you. The same guy played (poorly) by Rob Schneider. Unrelated, there was a Rob Schneider doppleganger working at the hotel in Santorini. i considered pointing the uncanny resemblance out to him, but didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

As for the market, I guess I shouldn’t really be surprised by anything anymore, but this place hit a new low. Among the limited offerings and vast empty shelf space, one could find potatoes with very healthy looking 3′ sprouts (at 1 euro a pound, a virtual steal!), oranges from 1981, a variety of cheeses that expired in August, and a package of hotdogs with no expiration date, but an usual white hue along one side. In the mini-market’s defense, they did have piles and piles of canned dolmathakia (dolmas) – rice wrapped in grape leaves (as well as a variation in cabbage leaves), but unfortunately for me, I don’t like those.

As with the markets in Santorini, the place was desperately in need of restocking. The freezer had two gigantic restaurant supply-sized bags of peas and an entire octopus. You probably think I’m exaggerating, but this was no squid. The arms alone were the size of specimens more commonly seen at an aquarium. However, between the dog food and the dish soap I did find a package of linguine and a jar of Barilla spaghetti sauce. In need of protein, I threw caution to the wind ad bought a tin of meatballs. I know, I know. Normally I would be having the same reaction, but I’d already stared down an entire octopus, so I was feeling unusually bold.

Besides, I didn’t really eat much of anything today (mistakenly thinking I could get a nice dinner once I got here), and I’m hoping that they taste like Chef Boyardee ravioli or something in that ballpark. I don’t know that I’ve ever in my life WISHED for food to taste like Chef Boyardee, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

I hauled my wares back to my studio, and surveyed the scene. Somehow I hadn’t registered that one of the two kitchen hotplates was no bigger than the palm of my hand. If I had, I might not have gone with a meal plan that involved boiling water, because as it turns out, that was the only burner that worked. They’re electric and the light to tell you they’re on isn’t working, but I cranked them both up to to “3” (the max) and waited. After about five minutes, I came back and threw a little water on each of them. The larger burner didn’t react. The mini burner sizzled a little. Emphasis on the word ‘little.’

Long story short, I couldn’t really get anything warmer than tepid water out of the tap (something I will be discussing with the owner, as my shower was the same temperature), but I put a pot on the tiny burner, put a lid on it, and waited. And waited. And waited. And when the water finally got to a ‘pre-simmer’ (the most it appeared it would ever be able to achieve), I put the noodles in and waited, and waited, and waited.

In the end, they were crunchier than I might normally prefer, but they softened enough to be edible. In the same vein, the meatballs were bearable, and the tomato sauce they were in was better than the Barilla. The balls themselves were fairly standard, except for the unexpected yet unmistakable flavor of mint. It was an aftertaste, but mint is one of those things that’s so strong that even a little bit can be overwhelming. The effect was like a meatball with a smear of toothpaste on it.

Thankfully, the water here is not nearly so funky as Santorini, because one of the many things not offered by the Ag Anna mini-market was bottled water. For your drinking enjoyment, they carry a wide array of hard liquor, wines, and some orange Fanta. If you’re not in the market for booze, hopefully you’re looking for a sugar high and some orange dye.

Anyway, I realized I was thirsty about 10 minutes after I got back to my room…and 15 minutes after the market had closed. After making my linguine, I found a little tiny pot (probably meant for heating milk) and the same size as the little burner and boiled up some water. Well, I didn’t BOIL it, that’s not possible under the circumstances, but you get the idea. It’s my personal theory that if you’re going to drink something bad, may as well drink it through a veil of Earl Gray tea. Thankfully the tea tasted more or less normal, and a later sampling of the unadulterated tap water found it drinkable.

Food acquisition troubles aside, the Greek islands are incredibly beautiful – chalky white buildings along jagged coastlines, delicate olive trees, and endless blue water. I took the most gorgeous ‘sunset on the water’ photo today as the ferry was arriving in Naxos. Moreover, if you’re the kind that tends to wander on foot (like me) you will come upon hidden little spots with natural panoramas that are jaw-dropping perfection. Like something out of a calendar.

Otherwise, and to be honest, I am way out in the sticks. I thought I was in the sticks in Croatia, but I think I’ve topped myself here. For example, I have never actually seen a horse give birth, but if I had to wager a guess on the noise coming from outside my room right now, that would be my first guess. Seriously though, it’s kind of alarming, something akin to a child bawling mixed with a donkey noise, although it does help distract from the half-dozen roosters braying.

It probably goes without saying, but if you find yourself on Naxos and decide to drop by and crash on one of my unused beds, follow the sound of the distressed mule. I’m right next door. And if I’m already asleep, feel free to help yourself to some of the leftover peppermint meatballs in the fridge.

(And just so you aren’t feeliing too terribly sad for me, I will add that I ended up walking to Naxos Town this morning – which took over two hours. I didn’t mind. I could walk all day so long as it’s warmish and the sun is shining. Plus, I think it would have taken more like an hour if I hadn’t stopped on this one beach and also taken a bunch of picures on the way. And played with some cats. By the way: DO NOT PICK UP GREEK CATS NO MATTER HOW FRIENDLY THEY SEEM!!! They go from friendly feline to whirling dervish of claws, fur, and maybe even a couple switchblades in 0.3 seconds.

Anyway, I am currently savoring a lovely lunch rich with local feta and heavenly tzatziki and calamari and Greek salad AND it turns out they have free wifi, so I can post the blog! All’s well that ends well…)