Wide Awake in Wonderland

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

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


The further I get from civilization, the more I find myself talking about celebrities October 17, 2008

Hanging out in my room and enjoying some Greek TV

Hanging out in my room and enjoying some Greek TV

The last few days were mellow mix of sand, sun, surf, cats, and nursing my cat-inflicted wounds. They do not like to be picked up. I cannot stress that enough. Even the babies are little ninjas. Nature’s Swiss Army knives.




On Wednesday, I waited for the bus (which comes every two hours, or when it feels like it) for a while, and then decided to walk to town instead. How far could it be? Well, it turns out it’s far – 7km each way from Ag Anna to the Naxos harbor (just shy of nine miles round trip for those of us never taught the metric system and now clueless in a metric world). At least half of it is a picturesque walk, and the other half can be spent musing on things that don’t matter, like “Wasn’t my childhood pediatrician’s name Dr. Precopio? How did he spell that? Could it have been Prokopios? Like Ag. Prokopios? What did he look like? Was he Greek? Think back… No clue. All I remember is that he would always say he could hear a duck in your tummy. ” or wherever your own pointless ruminations might take you.

Street scene in the labyrinth of Naxos

Street scene in the labyrinth of Naxos

When I got there, I found the wifi and had the nice meal that I mentioned. Once fueled, I started wandering and checked out the town. Naxos is really amazing in that the entire ‘old town’ is this unbelievable labyrinth of streets and archways and stairways and alleys, and somehow it looks EXACTLY like it should. Everything is blue and white and cobbled and crumbling and covered in bougainvillea and cats. I have not taken so many pictures since Venice. (And it is my full intention to post some photos for you tomorrow. The only reason I don’t do so more often is that this Linux-based mini-computer freaks out my camera, and it takes ten to fifteen minutes PER PICTURE. Seriously. WordPress, although mostly awesome, kind of sucks like that.)

Meanwhile, if you recall my food woes from the scary market (which, by the way, never opened again. I went by twice to see if they had gotten any bottled water or beer, and it appears I may have shopped there in the last minutes of the 2008 season), you’ll understand what happened next. Although I knew the walk back from Naxos Town to my studio would be long, I was unable to resist when I recognized a sign for 50% Dia – the same grocery store chain as they have in Madrid. Not knowing what I might be up against the next three days, I decided to get some survival basics – milk, eggs, orange juice, a seriously huge bag of muesli, blue cheese, a package of those sesame stick pretzel rod things they sell all over Greece, and two large bottles of water. This was by no measure the biggest shopping trip of my life, but I don’t usually carry the groceries home four and a half miles on my back, either.

A little beyond the edge of town, I passed a sign: Six kilometers to go, and feeling fine. At five kilometers, I was a little horrified to recognize the area where guys had been loading a truck with something that smelled like moth balls. That’s as far as I’d gotten!? At four kilometers was my first right turn and a long stretch of beach. The bag was starting to feel heavy, but the worst of it was my pants.

Naxos Town in the distance during my long walk

Naxos Town in the distance during my long walk

When I had started out in the morning, it was very overcast and kind of cool. It had rained the night before (or at least I think so – there was some water on the seats of the chairs outside my room), and I felt chilly, so I put on a pair of black sweat pants, a green tank top, a sweater, AND a jacket. By the time I was halfway there, I was down to the tank top and thinking maybe I could buy a pair of shorts with “Naxos” on the butt once I got into town? By the time I got to town, I would’ve been happy to grossly overpay for a pair of shorts that said “Kick Me” on the butt. Unfortunately, despite visiting at least five souvenir shops, no shorts of ANY kind were to be found.

By 4pm and my walk home, It was hot and humid and sunny. Carrying 25 pounds of groceries and wearing dense black sweatpants in the intense afternoon sun was not helping the situation. I tried rolling the pants up, folding them, pulling them down as low as I could, ‘pegging’ them above the knee. No matter what I did, they unrolled themselves back to their full, oppressive heat generating shape within minutes. For a solid half-kilometer I considered taking off my pants and wearing just my thong underwear. I’d seen some totally nude old guys on the beach – a thong and tank top would be modest in comparison.

However, in tune with my general policy to “attract no unnecessary attention,” I couldn’t bring myself to do it. So on I trudged, sweating like a stuck pig.

This is why I was so very happy when, with 2 kilometers left to go, a car pulled over. Probably 25 people had honked at me along the way, but no one had actually STOPPED. I walked up and found a Greek woman in her late 20’s in the driver’s seat. She asked where I was headed, and when I told her, she laughed and said, “You are going to Ag Anna on FOOT!? It would be good exercise, but…it looks like exercise you don’t need.” I agreed, got in, and within minutes we were at the door of my studio. As I waved and walked away, she pulled a U-turn, and headed back to her afternoon. Thank you, kind stranger!

Yesterday I decided to take it easy, and stayed in the three-kilometer radius of my studio. In the morning I went for a long run (where four people, including one on a motorcycle, pulled over and offered me rides. Go figure?). Later, I walked the entire length of Ag Anna beach (3km each way, according to a sign I saw), went swimming, searched in vain for a gyro, and laid in the sun. There may be no other human being on earth that enjoys laying around in the sun more than I do. I know it’s not good for you (in large doses, anyway), but I love it. This is probably why I worked as a lifeguard until I was 22. Come to think of it, I haven’t entirely ruled out moving to Hawaii and resuming my lifeguard ‘career’. Don’t judge. David Hasselfhoff did it until he was 67.

The Temple of Apollo in Naxos

The Temple of Apollo in Naxos

Anyway, there’s nothing like the sun and the sea to make you sleepy, so last night (after searching in vain for wifi or an internet cafe, and finally asking the owner of the studios where I was staying if i could use her laptop), I took it easy.

It was then that I learned that the Italians have nothing on the Greeks with respect to TV. Along with the usual dubbed-over American programming and several CNN-looking channels, it turn out the Greeks really like to gossip. There were at least three shows seemingly dedicated to the topic (and a picture of Madonna was on the the screen of one of the CNNs). One show featured a panel of about six people (mostly overdone, bleached-blond ladies) discussing the facial features of the children of American celebrities. Another crushing moment where it seems I may never have a blog as successful as ‘Black Celebrity Kids.’ and for that I blame you, the sheep that make up the world. (Well, not YOU if you’re actually reading this sparkling commentary instead of stalking some Hollywood kid, but I digress…)

Basically, there would be a split screen with a picture of Halle Berry and her husband, and on the other side a paparazzi-taken photo of their child. Ditto for Julia Roberts and her husband and some serious invasion of privacy, super blurry telephoto lens shots of their children. Then it would cut to these people talking about (presumably) how the kids stack up against their parents, with a lot of gesturing toward one’s own nose or eyes or mouth.

At first i thought, “Well, Julia Roberts and Halle Berry are international movie stars. Although I couldn’t name a Greek movie star if you put a gun to my head, probably the Greeks are interested in these people because they see their films.” Cut to Nicole Ritchie and her kid. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but Nicole Ritchie hasn’t added a scrap of anything to the human race. I’m not even sure how she got on the radar of the universe, except maybe that she is a friend of Paris Hilton, who is of course, famous for being stupid. And rich. And thus – apparently – worthwhile fodder for the whole, entire world to discuss and ponder the reproductive talents of her friends. I thought only America was this brainless, but it looks like we’re all going down together, people.

Meanwhile, the Greeks also enjoy a rich and varied public access TV lineup: Three of my ten channels seem to endorse an “anything goes!” spirit, and this evening you can find:

  • Three guys sitting at small green desks (like from an elementary school) talking earnestly to an audience you can’t see while he volume varies wildly. Then, there’s an abrupt splice to a different formation of the same guys, still talking. I couldn’t even begin to guess what’s going on here.

  • A live feed of someone’s anniversary party and some group circle dancing – very “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

  • A guy in a spandex shirt three sizes too small interviewing a very alarming-looking individual in an insanely flamboyant outfit. Kind of like Emo Philips in over-sized glasses and a yellow lounge suit. And if both of them aren’t waxing nostalgic about the legendary gay scene on Mykonos (but only during the actual summer months!) or something in that vein, I’m Paris Hilton.


Behold the inadvertent Pied Piper of Naxos October 16, 2008

Somewhere over Naxos tonight, there is a “bat light” summoning the island’s cats to Sunday Studios in Agia Anna.

I don’t know how they found me out, but they recognize a sympathetic cat loving soul when they smell one. I got home from a VERY long journey to and from town today (7km each way, as it turns out), and was changing out of my ridiculously warm pants when a cat opened the door and sauntered inside. Oh yes. These are no ordinary cats. The Naxos cats can open your door and/or bleed out your jugular before the word ‘go.’

As for my calico visitor, moments later, she was followed by five others, one only three or four months old. And they all proceeded to love upon my feet and calves in a manner that can only be described as obscene.

I didn’t have much by way of food, so I resisted feeding them. And that’s when they brought out the big guns, the deadly weapons – the kittens. Kittens so young their eyes are still blue. I’m not even sure how they made it up the stairs. Probably one of the other cats carried them? I had some milk, and cow milk isn’t actually good for cats…but they like it, so why not? You only live once. And apparently, in the case of the cats of Naxos, you not only live once, you probably don’t live long.

Wherever I go on the island cats come up by the handful meowing and rubbing on my legs, and it doesn’t take much to notice that they all have upper respiratory infections. Some of them have it quite badly, a terrible weeping from their eyes and nose. At one point in my life I had nine cats (simultaneously) and they all got sick like this. In their case, they were all given medicine (which makes it sound so simple. One of them, a calico named Wingnut BIT THROUGH MY THUMB NAIL when I gave here her medicine, but that’s another story for another time) and they all recovered. However, Alexandra, the owner of the place I’m staying, tells me that every winter for the last three years, the cats have died a terrible death.

As it gets colder, their eyes get worse and worse. And then, within a week’s time, they lose all their weight and cannot move. And they lay around on the driveways and sidewalks and streets of Naxos mewing and dying, so weak they cannot get up. “They suffer,” she said, “You can tell that they suffer.” She said that if they have 20 cats in the fall, by the next year there are only two or three.

We were watching this funny little baby kitten stalk one of the older cats when she informed me that the tiny ones are sure to die. After I calculated the odds of getting a cat out of Greece, into Turkey, and through customs in the United States – ZERO – plus the fact that even the babies claw the crap out of you if you pick them up, I decided to make a more rational contribution. This is I bought them the largest bag of cat food at the store today – probably brought in at the start of the season waiting for just the right sucker to arrive.

As for this pandemic, Alexandra tells me she’s talked to vets and they say nothing can be done – there’s no medicine. And in a twisted way, I suppose it’s nature’s horrible way of controlling the population. I guess the only upside is that I didn’t come so late in the year to witness the cat plague in full form. For now, they’re cheerful and friendly and I’ve done what I can to make their last month one big binge. Bon Appetit, kids!

Meanwhile, and totally unrelated, can anyone explain the curtain-less shower to me? How is this supposed to work? How is everyone else managing not to get soap and shampoo and water everywhere? Once I’m done, it looks like someone took a hose to the room. As a solution I’ve taken to sitting in the little tiny basin on the floor, crouched up against the corner, and only turning on the flow when absolutely necessary. And let me tell you, this sucks.

The first time I encountered the configuration was at my place in Croatia, and I thought it was a mistake – like they forgot to install the curtain or had the glass encasement on back order or maybe just figured they’d get around to it next season. This situation was particularly tense because they didn’t provide any towels or floor mats, and I’ve got one travel towel and no consistent means to do laundry, so I’m not about to mop up somebody’s filthy floor with the same thing I use on my hair. Thus, I had to leave all the water all over the place and remember to walk carefully when going in there at night.

Now I know there are worse things out there, but that’s why I don’t put myself in the $6.00 a night Portuguese hostel where the shower and the toilet are the same thing (meaning hole in the ground, and the shower spigot is directly above.) I believe they call this a ‘Turkish toilet’ and I hope to hell I never have to use one, at least for showering. Imagine if you SLIPPED!?!? (***cringe***) And I’m not saying the lack of shower curtain situation is uncivilized…just wet. And baffling. And probably unnecessary. I mean, give me $5 and access to a Dollar Store, and I’m confident I could rig up something pretty efficient.

Meanwhile, I am using Alexandra’s laptop to write this, and she and her father are having a very heated ‘discussion’ (screaming fight???) behind me. It brings to mind the two guys on the train from Ljubljana to Vienna, and I’m wondering if typical run-of-the-mill Greek conversation comes across like verbal warfare or if they just fight a lot or ??? Regardless, I’m feeling a little awkward here in their living room, so I will cut this off and catch up with you all tomorrow!


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…)