Wide Awake in Wonderland

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

Moto Mama October 23, 2008

Groan all you want…but then thank me for deciding not to go with “Zen and the Art of Moto Maintenance”.

So all the Greek islands are a lot larger than I somehow realized – like 40 and 50 miles across. And in the off-season, the public transportation doesn’t run efficiently, if it runs at all. As a result, if you want to see something beyond your hotel and its immediate surroundings, you need to rent a 4-wheeler, a car, or a scooter. After three days on a scooter (moto), I have learned a few things:

  1. It gets cold on the Greek islands after the sun goes down. On a moto, it gets damn cold. Like, “Excuse me while I go into hypothermic shock” cold.

  2. The gas mileage is amazing. If it didn’t get so cold in Washington, I would seriously consider getting a Vespa. And if they’d throw in a sidecar for Dozer, we’d be quite the sight. Maybe I should write Vespa and pitch this as an ad idea along with some crude crayon renderings? My modeling services in exchange for a powder blue Vespa with all the trimmings. I suggest they’d be getting the long end of the stick on that trade.

  3. If you let your mouth relax in the wind, your lips flap all over the place and you look something like a large mouth bass.

  1. I like being outside. I like smelling pine forests and cow stink and wood fires burning. I like the air in my face and even freezing my @ss off. I think I may have a place in the Hell’s Angels yet.

Otherwise, I did a little exploring the last few days. The island of Kos is the home of Hippocrates. There’s a willow tree that they claimed he ‘learned beneath’, but considering that the tree would have to be 2500 years old and it ain’t really that big, it’s probably more colorful legend than fact. However, it is widely accepted that Hippocrates was probably trained at the asklepioion here in Kos, the ruins of which you can still visit today. What’s weirdly amazing about these copious Kos ruins is how there are pieces of sculptures and carvings and things that probably belong in museums lying around everywhere. I picked up an intricate carving of a lion’s head and wondered, “Is this REAL!? Is this really 2500 years old, and lying around like a discarded Coke bottle!?”

My dad tells me that Carl Sagan postulated that if the Greek civilization had continued to flourish, technologically we’d be 3000 years ahead of where we are today. So basically we’d all live underground and our days would be occupied with fighting The Machines and Skynet would rule the world. Anyway, case in point, when I was at the archaeological museum in Athens, they had an exhibit of Greek medical devices from thousands of years ago, and I’ll be damned if the antique speculum didn’t look exactly the same as the one my gynecologist uses (sorry about that graphic, Dad). And they were cauterizing and doing internal medicine and the whole nine yards back then, too. It was both impressive and kind of freaky. Like what will look barbaric to the people of the future that we take for granted right now? Certainly all the C-sections and open heart surgery scars for starters. And how about boob jobs? “Wow. ANOTHER skeleton with two silicon sacks buried with it. It’s how the people of the past prepared for a heaven full of water balloon fights!”

At any rate, as a result of the museum, being here in the old stomping grounds of Hippocrates has that much more meaning. What granted him his place in history was that he was the first the first physician to reject superstitions and beliefs that credited supernatural or divine forces with causing illness. He founded a school of thought that disease was not a punishment inflicted by the gods, but rather the product of environmental factors, diet, and lifestyle.

Admittedly, it wasn’t all advanced thinking. He was a fan of the four humours theory – sarcasm, irony, slapstick, and dark. Hardy har har. Not really. I’m just applying a little of my own attempt at humor there. They were blood, yellow bile, black bile, and (who can forget?) phlegm, and a person was healthy if all four were all in balance. For those that were ill, Hippocratic therapy was directed towards restoring the balance, with a focus on natural remedies.

I have this vague memory that I once got the results of a personality test, and in with some other things I was classified as “Yellow Bile”. I am familiar with yellow bile both from learning about Hippocrates and the Four Humours a billion years ago, and from a couple outrageously terrible bouts with food poisoning. I think I felt kind of offended, although it’s still better than Black Bile. I say you see Black Bile, and it’s time to get yourself to the hospital (and preferably one with a guy like ‘House’ on staff) immediatemente.

 

Love – and a little well-timed hate – will keep us together October 22, 2008

This is one goat who knows how to mug for a camera

This is one goat who knows how to mug for a camera

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of money on dog school. A LOT of money. My German Shepherd went to every class offered through the local trainer: Puppy school, intermediate classes, advanced theory and logic, you name it. We spent Saturday mornings at ‘Agility’, Tuesday nights at ‘Paw and Order’, and who can forget “Choose to Heel”? This was a class in which my disobedient mutt was allegedly going to learn to CHOOSE to heel by my side – with or without a leash. This would be achieved partly through dog-training magic and largely because I lured her on with a fistful of roast beef.

Putting a closed fist of roast beef in front of a German Shepherd (mix breed or not) is like sticking your hand into a piranha tank: STUPID. I renamed that class “Choose to Eat,” and I would drive home each time bleeding all over the steering wheel. They no longer offered ‘Choose to Heel’ by the time Dozer came around, and Pixie, God bless her, never heeled a day in her life.

And Pix was my SMART dog. A veritable genius next to the Malamute, who for all his heart and beauty is several bones short of a skeleton (a la ‘several sandwiches short of a picnic’ but more dog-esque). So despite dozens of hours, hundreds of dollars, and vast amounts of energy contributed toward training their hairy behinds, I was a little bummed to discover that mine are not as remotely well-trained as the average European hound.

Case in point: While walking down a busy Vienna street, I passed a large supermarket. Outside sat several dogs – large dogs, like Labradors and Golden Retrievers, and not tied to anything or physically restrained in any way – urgently awaiting their owner’s return. They sat there anxiously peering in every time the sliding doors would open, hoping to catch just a glimpse of their beloved human. If MY dogs were left unleashed outside a large urban grocery store? They’d be hailing the first cab, trying to make it to the county line before I got out of the produce section. Their only passing thought would be, “Holy crap, we’re free to do as we please! Let’s GO!!!!!!”

This is probably why I find the unwavering obedience of the dogs of Europe so amazing. What kind of spells are these people putting on these dogs!? What kind of Cesar Milan dog whispering mojo does everyone possess!? And it’s not just the dogs. The goats of Greece seem uniquely self-possessed. They all stay within a few yards of their appointed yogurt and honey shack or gyro shed, sans collar or rope or fence. It’s positively spell-binding in its own simple way.

Maybe it has something to do with the baffling love/hate spectacle I witnessed today?

This afternoon, I ran across what may be the ugliest cat in the whole country. If you are familiar with cat breeds, I’d describe him as a “Scottish Fold gone wrong.” I was trying to get a few photos of the spectacle, when an older woman came out with a giant pile of cat food and meat – like enough meat to make a couple decent schwarmas. She placed the plate on the floor in front of the cat, and then proceeded to beat him with a newspaper while screaming at him.

A face only a mother could love...

A face only a mother could love...

I found this pretty damn confusing, personally. Anyway, she left, and the ugly cat went and took a few nibbles off the heaping mound of food. Then he went back to where I’d first spotted him, and resumed his sour expression.

Not two minutes later, the woman came back out, yelled what I can only presume are Greek expletives at him, and yet again swatted at him with a newspaper. She seemed to be swatting him toward the food, but who really knows what the hell was happening here??? She carried on like this for a minute, then started down the street, threw the newspaper in a trash bin, and turned a corner.

The cat turned and made eye contact with me, and I could almost swear he shrugged his shoulders. “She hates me,” his look seemed to say, ‘but I’m ugly as sin, and still I find myself the best-fed cat in Greece.” It is indeed a crazy world.

In other news, I can officially confirm that the mosquitos of Kos, Greece do NOT carry malaria. Because if they did, I’d be in the local hospital. I’ve been on Kos three nights, and it’s pretty much been a bloodletting around here. I’ve got no less than 20 bites per limb, a giant bite on my cheek, and a full-blown ‘mosquito sound’ neurosis well underway. Thank god I spent so much time in the Egyptian section of the Athenian archaeological museum. I applied several of the mummification techniques in order to wrap myself in my bed sheet last night in vain hope of keeping the whining mosquitoes at bay. I even wrapped my head, which is not a particularly comfortable way to sleep.

Communing with goats

Communing with goats

But I think in the end it was worth it. I’m not sure how to prove it, but I’m fairly confident that I’m at least one quart of blood richer for my efforts, and that can only be a good thing as I draw ever closer to the big race on Sunday. More blood = less chance of dropping dead during a Turkish half-marathon. Right??????

 

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…)