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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Entry 6: Journey to Greece

Sunday March 15
My last night in Israel I stayed one more time at the Milk and Honey Hostel, the place I worked at for almost two months in December and January.

While there I met a new hostel volunteer, Stephanie, another Jewish American active in politics who enjoyed my Birthright critique. We talked endlessly about Israeli politics, as she was actively involved in the campaign supporting the labor party, the main opposition to Netanyahu. While she has no doubts that the Israeli labor party is no win for the peace struggle, in her view it's the lesser of two evils, at least better than Netanyahu. Some disagree however, as a Netanyahu win means the horrors of the occupation won't be hidden by the nice guy face of the Labor party.

My last few hours I said goodbye to Milk and Honey staff when I suddenly remembered I still had the key to my friend's place in Jerusalem, so had to rush to deliver her key to her parents' place in Tel Aviv. Luckily some friendly Israelis helped me find the place and gave me money for the bus as well as a lecture on why I should make Aliyah and marry a Jew. I'm not sure if the free bus ride was worth suffering through that talk.

On the way to the airport I met Alberto, a Spanish-German guy trying to bike around the world who paid for my train ticket to the airport as I had little money. We ended up sitting next to each other on the two hour flight to Athens! After landing at nine at night Alberto and I took the train into the city and instantly started talking to a Greek woman who invited us to dinner the day after the next, which unfortunately neither of us could make it because I went with my relatives instead.

Alberto went to his hostel and I met my CouchSurfing host Dimitri. His one room apartment on top of a building in the south of Athens can see the mountains overlooking the city, and welcomed me to a comfy couch and crunchy paximadi.

Monday 3/16
I toured Athens, mostly the Acropolis, Parthenon, and its museum. Honestly it was underwhelming, Greeks openly admit that I should go to Italy for the ancient architecture instead. Later that night I watched Annabelle, some horror film with my CS host Dimitri. I hate horror films, and my sweaty hands from my nerves affirmed that.

Tue 3/17
There's a neighborhood in Athens known for it's rich political history and vibrant anarchism, Exarchia with a public square that hosts parties every weekend and a market once a month. I never saw this happen but supposedly if police try to enter some parts of this neighborhood they will get molotovs thrown at them from the rooftops. Curious, I went to Exarchia Square to hang out with my ukulele, (any instrument can easily make you new friends) and met a self-proclaimed anarchist Syrian refugee named Sam. We talked for a while and he bought me a beer as I played ukulele for the others around him, and met some other refugees. Towards the evening, there suddenly poured tons and tons of people all wearing black out of a cafe in the corner of the Square. Sam and I wandered over and I met a Bookchin inspired anarchist who explained to me what was going on: they were preparing for a demonstration and march in solidarity for the political prisoners going through hunger strikes. I ended up joining them as well as thousands of others dressed in black in Monastiraki Square. Sticking out like a sore thumb in my blue sweater and ukulele, I wandered around talking to people to get a feel for what was about to happen. It took an hour to finally begin marching but when we did they yelled chants in Greek and asked me not to take pictures of their faces because of security culture, they don't want the police to find out who they are. Check out my blurry video in which you can't see much but you can at least hear the Greek chants. Here are two articles of the event, one from an anarchist perspective and one from the mainstream. In a fortuitous display of events the march just happened to end at Syntagma square at 8 pm, which is the exact time and place where I had arranged to meet my relatives for the first time for dinner. They were late due to the march but it was fun getting an escort there. It was only after I left the demonstration that the fires and clashes with police erupted, which were far away from me and my relatives' dinner.

Before leaving America six months ago I met with Manny, my Dad's cousin in Cambridge to learn about my relatives in Greece who I hoped to meet. Manny gave me their contact information, so I emailed them to explain who I was, hoping to meet them in person. Christos and Dimitris Kaklamanis are brothers with another sister who couldn't make it there, my Dad's second cousins. My great-grandmother is their grandmother's sister.  They bought me dinner and I showed them the family tree Manny made for me as well as pictures of my family, and I learned about my relatives in Greece and told them about my travels in the Middle East.

Wed 3/18
I left my CS host Dimitris (note: very common name in Greece, I'm referring to my CouchSurfing host here, not my cousin) Wednesday night to take the six hour night train to Thessaloniki, the cheapest train ride I could find. With the lights on constantly and no room to stretch out, I barely slept but at least I got plenty of reading done.

Thurs 3/19
Early Thursday morning at the train station, my new CS host Vasiliki, or Billy, came to get me to take me to his home where he lived with his brother, both attending a local university.

Fri 3/20
Today for the first time I tried busking, the word for performing on the street as a street entertainer. I still wasn't coordinated enough to sing and play ukulele at the same time but I played almost all day, practicing my heart out. The very first person to give me money was a little girl who handed me a few cents. All together I made maybe a couple euros over five hours but it was worth it. Playing ukulele simply makes me happy, as it's music and I'm used to playing piano whenever I want at home and missed playing so much. I really don't care if I don't make money as the act of playing it relieves stress on it's own.

That night Vasiliki and his friends took me to a bar where plenty of wine was drank and Greek music played, and we all ended up going to the home of one of his friends' friends to hang out until maybe four in the morning.

Sat 3/21
I busked for just a half hour with Vasiliki, who is an excellent musician who made twenty euros after four hours of playing while I wandered off to meet another friend I met online at a cafe.
At ten pm I walked to Vasiliki's friend's house to meet him and his friends there, with lots of music, dancing, baklava, paximadi, and rakomelo, a very strong alcohol mixed with honey that stung my eyes when it touched my lips. Surprisingly, ouzo, the licorice flavored alcoholic drink commonly associated with Greece isn't very popular in Greece. Vasiliki played greek music almost the whole time with his bouzouki, a Greek styled guitar, and sang with the music in Greek as I danced along and they all laughed at my dancing. Oh and I ate so much paximadi, which they covered with a tasty salsa drenched in olive oil I was full for days.

Sun 3/22
I met Nathan, who Vasiliki also hosted from CouchSurfing for that night. Also Jewish, he left America two years ago after he hated his job and has been traveling since, now does copy editing from his mini laptop as he travels for work. He bought me a pork gyro, which had ketchup and mustard on it -- very surprising to me as I expected only tzatziki.
That night I went to my new CS host Fereshteh, an Iranian student of an Italian university currently on Erasmus student exchange at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki. The whole time I stayed with her I pretended I was an Erasmus student to get into the university's cafeteria for free but shitty meals.

Mon 3/23
Nathan joined Fereshteh and I for lunch at the cafeteria and then Nathan and I tried looking for museums to explore, however they were closed as it was Monday. We also discovered that the Jewish cemetery where Nathan's great-grandfather is buried was destroyed by the Nazis and Aristotle University was built on top of it. So we just hung out in a cafe as he worked while I did emails and planning.
Nathan and I had dinner at uni then went on a bus to a party Fereshteh suggested, running into her on bus. It was a Erasmus student party at a bar/dance club, with games too like a "famous couples name tag match game", if you found your match you both got a free shot, which I did. Some very drunk person got loud and angry at me for having a Bill Clinton name tag even though I didn't have a choice but thankfully I found nicer people to talk with, like another traveler who was visiting Greece from Turkey.

Tue 3/24

Wed 3/25
The past two days poured lots of rain in Thessaloniki, so that meant lots of conversation with Fereshteh about each other's cultures. One of these nights I ate an entire jar of olives for dinner as I walked along the boardwalk, feeling the breeze of the Mediterranean.

Thurs 3/26
Took the night train from Thessaloniki to Athens, met Syrian and Palestinian refugees, showed them my pics of Palestine and tried talking to them in Arabic and what little English they knew. One of them kept trying to speak Arabic to me no matter how much I didn't understand a word of what he said.

Fri 3/27
Arriving early in the morning to Athens, I ate a jar of snails I found in a market for breakfast, escargot drenched in olive oil. Later on I felt fine, thankful for the protein.
I met my CS host Vaios and his girlfriend Stella who had an odd fascination for America with pictures of my homeland all over their house. They have visited a couple times and plan to go again so I promised to host them when I return to America and serve them pancakes with maple syrup. Stella is from Cyprus, and she taught me much about Cypriot history like that they still have their own extant language in addition to Greek.

Sat 3/28
A few months ago I asked the anarchist subreddit, /r/anarchism if anyone in Greece would like to tour me around, host me, or at least get coffee to talk about the situation in Greece. Someone responded and I finally met this guy today, though he was sick and couldn't hang out long we got coffee and he toured me to a university known for the uprising in the 70's during the dictatorship, which is still occupied.

Sun 3/29
Busked with ukulele and made over 4 euro, so technically this means I'm a professional ukulele player now, right? Anyone want to recommend songs to play? So far my list, in order of how well I know them and how much I play them, includes "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, "Hot and Cold" by Katy Perry, "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" by Green Day, "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen, "In My Mind" by Amanda Palmer, "Let It Be" by the Beatles, "No Rain" by Blind Melon. I figure a good mix of traditional and pop could net me the best income but I so far only have three songs memorized and I need sheet music for the rest, so I keep it at my feet as I play.

Mon 3/30

Tue 3/31
Left Vaios and Stella
Busked, made 4.10
Got my cell phone charger back from CS host Dimitri since I left it there when I went to Thessaloniki. He bought me coffee and a pick for my ukulele as I was developing a blister on my thumb from strumming my ukulele.
Later that day I met Garifallia, who's name means I think means flower or chrysanthemum in Greek. She took me up one of the big hills (mountains for an East-coaster like me) of Athens to see the sunset, and on the way down we played basketball with invisible ball at a court we found until a kid felt sorry for us and gave us a real ball.
As night came I went to my new CS host Chris, an aircraft engineer in the Greek military who says "dude" more than most Americans and served me popcorn and beer for dinner.

Wed 4/1
Went with Chris to the Olympic stadium with his girlfriend, an immigrant from Nigeria. As I saw the Olympic pool my inner child burst in glee -- this is where Michael Phelps won his six gold medals in 2004. Unfortunately I couldn't go in but perhaps I'll find a way to pretend I'm friends with Phelps.

Thurs 4/2

Fri 4/3
Fantastic view of Acropolis at night (see pic) from a nearby hill in Thessio, a neighborhood/area of Athens.

Sat 4/4
Busked for an hour in Thessio and made two euro, met another ukulele player and played with her for a bit.
That night I went to a synagogue (see pic, outside and inside) in Athens for Passover (Jewish holiday), which has 24/7 armed guards outside as Antisemitism is rampant in a country in which the Nazi party Golden Dawn has 5-10% of the vote. It was a Sephardic synagogue that split men to the bottom floor and women to the top, with barely anyone in attendance. After the service they invited me to the Chabad House (sort of a Jewish community center) that doubles as a Sephardi (Spanish Jews) cuisine restaurant for the Passover Seder (pics, one and two). Despite the lack of matzah balls, the Mediterranean flavors impressed me over the top as I ate my heart out. It was at this Seder that I met yet another guy from Silver Spring, a town just ten minutes away from my hometown. If you've following my blog you would know that I've met several people from Silver Spring in my travels already, so this pushed the freaky coincidence meter over the top and spilled over the Seder plate. He was in his sixties, on vacation visiting his son if I remember correctly, traveling to Turkey and Israel as well as Greece. I asked him if he could take some stuff of mine with him home but unfortunately he couldn't because he over-packed too. At least he was ok with his picture on the internet with my crazy hair!

Sun 4/5
Left CS Chris
While waiting to meet my relatives for dinner, I used the restaruant's wifi to FaceTime with my friend from home Carl as a test to see if FaceTime would work. It just so happened to be my Dad's birthday today, and so I had this idea to FaceTime with him as a birthday present while I had dinner with my relatives, who are my Dad's second cousins. Though the noise of the restaurant posed difficulty hearing, we passed my phone around for us all to talk with him, and my Mom, cat and dog also said hello from Scaggsville, Maryland. At the restaurant with me was not only Christos and Dimitiris Kaklamanis again but also their sister Dimitra and their mother Marika. Dimitra's daughter, my third cousin Marianna, would have shown up but she was sick. Of course, I was so distracted I forgot to take a picture of this get together but I'm sure there will be lots of pictures when I'm with them for Easter.
That night I went with my second cousin once-removed Dimitri to stay with him until Easter. He and his wife live at the foot of a mountain (legit mountain, not a hill) on the edge of Athens with their two baby twins and a maid who helps with the twins as one of them is chronically sick and won't eat.

Mon 4/6
I'm thinking of teaching English as a second language (TESL) as a way to travel and work, so I'm looking into various certification courses that could get me such a job. The Certification in English Language Teaching for Adults (CELTA) is one such qualification administered by Cambridge University in England, which is a governing body for centers all over the world.  To taste the waters to see if it's right for me I found such a school in Athens, and went in to learn about it and take the pre-exam at the center. Twenty minutes into the exam without having done anything, I realized that the full-time one month long course would be a massive mistake, as my level of ADHD cannot possibly handle such intensity. I used up the 90 minutes allotted for this pre-exam staring into the wall, my mind wandering, and messaging some friends to vent about my lack of focus. There is another option for me however, a part-time semester long course that would be much easier for someone like me without much time-management ability. Unfortunately these longer, more relaxed courses don't start start until this Fall, which may screw up my plans to be in Paris Nov/Dec for the UN Climate Conference. Or perhaps I'll stay in Greece until then and try to get Greek citizenship/passport as I wait to take the part-time course in Athens this Fall.

Tue 4/7
For now, busking is my source of income and I continue to practice. I recorded myself for you all to hear: please enjoy and know that I've only been playing a little over a month, so I'm still learning. Feel free to critique, be blunt and honest! Should I stop singing and try playing harmonica with ukulele instead with one of those neck stands that let me play ukulele and harmonica at the same time? I don't know how to play harmonica but I have one with me.

Garifallia found me playing ukulala and we ate spanikopita together, unfortunately without cheese because the religious tradition says no animals products in the forty days before Easter and some bakeries and restaurants follow this rule.

This weekend I will go with my relatives to Lefkada, the island my family comes from, for Easter as we will roast lamb, play Greek music, and visit Karya, the village in Lefkada of my ancestors.

And hopefully I'll post my next blog entry much sooner!