Tuesday, November 30, 2010

El Clasico

Yesterday’s El Clasico was a gem. Well, at least for Barcelona it was a gem. In losing 5-0, Real Madrid was totally outplayed and with 7 yellow cards and 1 red, totally outclassed.

But the focus here should be on Barcelona’s brilliance. Their strategy, their execution, their speed, their passing, their finishing – all brilliant. If I have ever seen a better performance by any team any time I don’t remember it.

Exquisite! Felicitaciones Barcelona!!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Will she or won’t she? It’s the question on everybody’s lips. Ridiculous. Ludicrous. Of course she will. Her macho ego and messianic mission to save America won’t let her turn away. We need her. She leads an ignorance-based bunch that is on a crusade to give power back to the people. Every criticism is ammunition for a counterattack. Every criticism proves the rightness of their cause. Every criticism strengthens their resolve. Every criticism is a badge of honor.

Prediction: She’ll run but will not get the nomination. The leaders of her party will go into a self-preservation mode and in the end nominate one of their own. They’d rather risk losing the zealots who follow her than risk losing the election, which would surely happen if she were the nominee.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe she could win. Maybe the 40% or so of the people who resonate with her will grow. Maybe the income disparity gap in this country is so wide and the anger felt by those who feel left out or persecuted by the government they don’t trust is so deep that the numbers will tilt in their direction. Could be. What then? The downward spiral of American power and influence will accelerate. So it becomes not a matter of ‘if’ but only of ‘when.’

Good luck.

Different subject: So many politicians on all sides are complaining about the suggestions put forth by Simpson and Bowles, co-Chairs of the Deficit Commission, that it’s hard not to conclude they’re on to something. Unfortunately, the ones objecting to the proposals are the same ones who, if they had the guts and brains, could do something about it. So nothing will happen and we’ll continue to move inexorably toward the economic catastrophe that awaits us.

Prediction: This one is a no brainer. Michael Steele will soon be out as Republican Chair. It doesn’t matter if he wants to keep the job. He’s history.

And Nancy Pelosi should be gone. She did her job. She had some victories. And she led her party into the electoral toilet. With her approval rating at 15% she should have declared victory and become a full-time grandma. Again, ego and stubbornness trump graceful and appropriate behavior.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Forty Seven Years Ago

In November 1963 I was in the Foreign Service living in Calcutta. I was working for the U.S. Information Agency and my job was to establish relationships with Indian college students. To do that we organized educational and cultural programs in the major universities of Eastern India.

When possible I’d combine business and pleasure. So while I was delivering a University Program in the State of Orissa south of Calcutta, Kit (my wife at the time) and our daughter Lys were spending time in Puri, a seaside town on the Bay of Bengal. My plan was to join them in Puri when I’d finished working.

On the morning of November 23, we awoke to find a note under our door. It was from an English woman we’d met who was staying in our hotel. The note (I don’t remember the exact words, but this is close) said: “We are devastated by what has happened. We feel the loss as if it had been our Queen.”

While we were sleeping John F. Kennedy had been killed in Dallas. Like everyone, we were in a state of shock. We returned to Calcutta as soon as we could and found that the impact of Kennedy’s death among Indians was astounding. By the thousands they lined up to sign a condolence book in the Consulate, as they did at the Embassy in Delhi and our other Consulates in Bombay and Madras. The public outpouring of grief surprised me. I knew that in India, as elsewhere, Kennedy connected with people more than any American in memory had. Even so, I was taken aback by the breadth and depth of their feelings.

I asked myself what was going on here. And in the process of answering my question I learned something important. While the Indians in those days complained a lot about the U.S., our policies, our racism, our power, with Kennedy as our leader we represented a beacon of hope for the future that they couldn’t find anywhere else. So with Kennedy dead, the outlook for what was possible was significantly diminished. For millions of Indians it was personal. A member of their family had died prematurely.

In a way this conflicted with something else I’d noticed in India. My assumption about the U.S. was that we were a young, vibrant country, with enormous energy and countless new ideas. We weren’t old and tired like, say, some of our European friends. But I realized that many Indians, especially students, didn’t see us that way at all. To them we were old with old ideas. After all, they’d been independent for less than 20 years; they were really young. We were going on 200 years. Really old.

I’d never questioned my assumption about us. So to see that others didn’t have the same assumption, quite the reverse, was surprising. Having said that, it was clear that Kennedy poked a bit of a hole in the Indian assumption. Would that opening for a more positive future disappear with his death? Only time would tell.

As it turned out, even though it took a while relations between India and the U.S. have matured nicely in recent years. It is a totally different country than it was 47 years ago. And so are we. In their eyes we are even older than we were in 1963 and they’ve moved into middle age. We still have the respect of many Indians, but we’re no longer a beacon of hope. In many areas we have mutually overlapping areas of self-interest. Our current friendly relationship is based on this self-interest.

There is a downside to yearning for the past. I prefer to live in the present and don’t look back with nostalgia. India is living up to its promise very well. We, I regret to say, have lost our way. We are still powerful and relevant in the world, but our ability to inspire others, Kennedy-like, is long gone.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Greece 2010 - Pictures

You are invited to view Dan Miller's photo album: Greece 2010
Greece 2010
Sep 17, 2010
by Dan Miller
Message from Dan Miller:
Here are the pictures that supplement my just-completed account of our trip to Greece.
If you are having problems viewing this email, copy and paste the following into your browser:
To share your photos or receive notification when your friends share photos, get your own free Picasa Web Albums account.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Greece 2010 - Part 4

It is Sept. 26, a Sunday, and we are heading east toward the Meteora area. We drove out of Athens just a week ago, and a very full week it’s been. This is not a long drive, and our plan is to stop on the way for lunch in Metsovo. In recent years Metsovo has unabashedly and successfully promoted itself as the home of the Greek Alps. Tourism is Metsovo’s ‘thing.’ The central square is packed with cars and buses for the groupos. Souvenir shops and souvenir seekers are everywhere.

So why bother? Because we’d be in the area around noon or 1 p.m. and because Ms. Sandra had a restaurant she was interested in checking out, the Galaxias. It turned out to be a great decision. The Galaxias is a large, high-ceilinged room filled with authentic local handicrafts and artifacts. Outside around the square the name of the game is kitsch. Inside the Galaxias it is appealing local charm and hospitality. And really good food. We had veal with pasta, meatballs with leeks and local red wine.

Meteora is derived from the word meteoros, which means ‘suspended in air.’ It consists of massive pinnacles of smooth rock that rise vertically and dramatically up out of the trees in the flat Pinios Valley to a height of 1,000 feet. Perched on top of these thrusting spires of rock are monasteries that date back to the 14th Century. Questions come to mind. How could anyone get up there in the first place? And even if rock climbers got to the top how could they possibly build anything there? And if they managed to build a monastery how would an average person go up or down?

Originally the only access was by means of very long ladders or by baskets suspended from winch-drawn ropes. Steps have now been cut in the rock face and a good road makes it relatively easy to move from one monastery to another.

By the 16th Century there were 24 monasteries in Meteora. They were perfectly suited for the lifestyle of monastic monks. And obviously it would be tough for any invader to disturb them. Today, monks inhabit five monasteries, all of which are profusely decorated with frescoes and icons. We would spend time in one of them, Varlaam.

The gateway town to Meteora is Kalambaka. It is new and uninteresting, having been burned to the ground by the Nazis in World War II. But it is a convenient location, so we set ourselves up for two nights at the Monastiri Guesthouse. Again, my Internet research led me to choose the Monastiri. The reviews were good and since it described itself as a traditional monastery style inn built with a unique combination of stone and wood and since the main reason one travels to Meteora is to see unique monasteries, why not?

I had some problems with the Monastiri that I’ll get into shortly, but a wonderful couple who own and run the Guesthouse, Spiros and Ditta, easily temper any criticism I might have. When we arrived we found I hadn’t booked a room with a view of the Meteora, which I thought I had. The mistake was mine, not theirs, and since the Monastiri was full that night they weren’t able to do anything about it. As it turned out a larger room with a view was available for our second night, and they graciously offered it to us. The switch made our stay much more pleasant.

Spiros and Ditta have obviously put their hearts and souls into turning what was a rundown, unoccupied structure into an attractive and viable place to stay. They’d been open for three years. I had the clear sense that it hadn’t been easy – especially with the global economic downtown and Greece’s financial crisis.

Lighting was the main problem with rooms at the Monastiri. The main area in both rooms we occupied was dimly lit and filled with deep brown furniture, making it really dark. And the bathrooms were really, really dark. I used a flashlight to shave. My dilemma was whether to shine the flashlight in the mirror to see my face or to shine it on my face so that it would be visible in the mirror. Neither way worked well.

I guess you could say that a Guesthouse with a ‘monastery style’ design would be exotic – or you could say that it would be more akin to an orthodox monk’s cell that was short on candles. Whatever, I mentioned this to Spiros and Ditta. I think they were not well served by their architect and interior designer. And while they wouldn’t directly confirm this, my sense was that they felt the same way.

Meteora up close is as impressive as from a distance. Looking at it from Kalambaka I couldn’t imagine how there could be road that would get us there. But there was, and it didn’t take long to reach the topmost monastery, Megalo Meteoro. Megalo is the most well known of the Meteora monasteries and draws the most visitors. So it was quite crowded. Many groupos disgorging from their big buses. From a viewing area we looked across a ravine to the monastery. What we saw was an unbroken line of visitors (mostly students) headed down the hill and then up the path on the other side toward the entrance. We had decided to climb up to one of the monasteries. Given the number of people headed into Megalo Meteoro we concluded this wouldn’t be the one.

So off we went to Varlaam over on a nearby pinnacle. Less crowded. A climb that looked doable. Said to house a remarkable collection of frescoes. This would be the one. Varlaam was built in 1541. Inside is the All Saints Church, which incorporates the Chapel of the Three Hierarchs. Frescoes are everywhere – on every wall, on every ceiling. They are late-Byzantine art. Stunning! There are also carved and gilded icons and inlaid furnishings. Additional buildings include a refectory, an infirmary and a storeroom. The storeroom is home to a huge (12,000 liters) wine barrel and wine press. I hope the wine was as impressive.

We were back in Kalambaka for lunch. Spiros had recommended a restaurant, the Meteora. We’d looked for it, unsuccessfully, the previous night, but found it today. A very good choice. Outdoors next to the town’s main square – so much to our liking that we went back for dinner. We had pork, lamb, meatballs, good wine and a little extra ouzo for our final night on the road before heading back to Athens.

We also had a good talk with Dimitri, Meteora’s owner. We told him that Spiros had recommended the restaurant. “Ah, yes,” he said. “Spiros. He teaches my daughter English.” We hadn’t known that Spiros was a teacher as well as an innkeeper. Dimitri talked at some length about the challenges of being a small businessman in a place like Kalambaka. Turns out the restaurant next door to his on the square is owned by his sister. My sense is that while they are facing challenges he and his family are doing fine. What impressed me about Dimitri is that while he clearly isn’t without self-interest, he seemed to be thinking from a larger context. So his opinions about what is required of the people and government of Greece to meet their challenges went beyond self-interest.

Originally we’d planned to drive back to Athens on the 28th and leave the next day for Sicily, where we’d spend a week with our good friends in Carranco. Then I learned that an all-Europe strike was called for the 29th to protest austerity measures being taken by various governments around the continent. It was likely that air and other transportation would be affected. So we changed our departure date to the 30th and would spend an unplanned day in Athens.

We didn’t expect the drive to Athens to be difficult, and it wasn’t. But finding our way to the hotel to leave our luggage and then to the Hertz office to drop the car was a daunting prospect. The Oracle to the rescue! She didn’t let us down. Even though I took a wrong exit off the highway onto local streets (my fault, not the Oracle’s) she guided us through the maze and the traffic and finally to the Magna Grecia Hotel, where we would again stay and again have that extraordinary view of the Acropolis from our room. We had a high level of anxiety around dealing with the logistics of Athens, the hotel, Hertz, luggage, etc., but it all worked out. I was ready for a beer.

It felt like we’d come home. We were in familiar surroundings. For example, we’d been friendly with a young man who worked part-time at the hotel reception desk. I’d forgotten his name and when I asked he told us an interesting story. His name was Vaggelis, also called Evangelos. How did he get that name? He was born on the same auspicious date that two things happened. On that date, March 6 in 1821, the Greeks beat the Ottoman Turks in a battle that began the Greek War for Independence. It was also on that date that Mary was told she was going to have a baby. You never know what you’re going to learn.

We also returned to the Taverna Platanos, where we’d eaten our first night in Athens. The ambience was still wonderful. The food wasn’t as good as we remembered it.

And the next day, our final day in Greece, we did what we do best – walked around, ate, read and relaxed. Sandra had come up with one final restaurant to try, Daphne’s, more upscale than our usual on this trip. The setting was lovely. The food was OK. The service was a little stuffy. The price was a little high. The calamari, scallops and wine were good. I didn’t like the rabbit. I was ready for some pasta, which we’d be able to have starting tomorrow in Italy.

On our flight from Athens to Rome, Sandra and I had our usual end-of-the-trip conversation. What were our five favorites for this journey? I’d say that on average we come up with two or three that are the same. This time we shared four of our favorites and almost a fifth:

First Night’s Dinner at Taverna Platanos

View of the Acropolis from the Magna Grecia Hotel

Breakfast on the balcony of our room in Naflpio at the Aetoma Hotel

National Archaeological Museum

My fifth was the Meteora area. Sandra’s was the Frescoes at the Varlaam Monastery in Meteora.

Overall, we gave the trip a B+. We enjoyed it. We’re glad we went. Good but not great.

And where will it be next year? No final decision yet. I’ll let you know.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Greece 2010 - Part 3

Delphi has two positives that compensate for a big negative. On the down side: it is a tourist mecca, an easy day trip from Athens, and therefore attracts many busloads of groupos. In its favor: Delphi is located high up on the slopes of Mt. Parnassos overlooking the Gulf of Corinth and has spectacular views. Plus, the ruins of ancient Delphi are more intact and interesting than many old stones.

We arrived at our hotel, the Varonos, in the late afternoon. Our Oracle had done a good job of leading us to the site of the other oracle, for which Delphi is famous. In brief, here’s the oracle story: at its peak, in the 4th century B.C., multitudes of pilgrims made their way to Delphi to ask advice of an oracle who was believed to speak for Apollo. Those asking advice ranged from kings to peasants. They consulted the oracle on momentous issues such as whether to begin a war and personal matters such as what to do with a misbehaving child. Sometimes the oracle gave a clear message. Often it was ambiguous, allowing the listener to decide how to interpret what was said.

The oracle was an older woman chosen from among the peasants of the area. She sat on a tripod seat over an opening in the earth. According to legend (and validated by some historical evidence) intoxicating fumes rose up through the fissure causing the oracle to fall into a trance. At this point Apollo moved in to possess her spirit and, once possessed, the oracle prophesied. Unfortunately, the oracle spoke in gibberish (we’d say she spoke in tongues) and a priest of the temple was needed to translate. For those of you who care about such things, archaeologists think that a gas high in ethylene was the source of the trance.

A large and beautiful temple complex, the Sanctuary of Apollo, was built around the oracle. For a few hours during our one full day in Delphi we walked through the area, which is built on a hill. We saw temples dedicated to Apollo and Athena, a well-preserved theater, treasuries, a stadium and votive offerings. Fortunately, unlike our experience at the Acropolis a few days earlier, the groupos didn’t ruin the visit.

Delphi fell to the Romans in 191 B.C., after which the oracle’s influence waned. In the 4th century A.D. the Roman Emperor Theodosius abolished it – along with other ‘pagan’ sanctuaries in Greece.

The Varonos was a bit of a weird hotel. It is advertised as a friendly, family-owned hotel, centrally located on Delphi’s main drag, Pavlou & Friderikis. And it is all of that. Delphi is a very small village, so everything is centrally located. There are only two main streets, so it’s hard not to be on one of them. And the people at the Varonos were indeed friendly and helpful. Weird mostly in the décor. The lobby and reception area was filled with stuff. Chairs, plants, tables, pictures, tchotchkes everywhere – hardly space to walk. And most of this stuff was not beautiful, so the impression was one of clutter.

And then there was the room. We had one of their new premium rooftop rooms that promised a great view, which it did have. The only problem was that it was like an attic, with a sloping ceiling and large wooden beams that found my head on multiple occasions. I tried putting up stickies to remind me to bend down low enough to avoid a concussion, but the stickies wouldn’t stick, so that didn’t work well. Well, what the hell, it really did have a great view.

We continued our daily exploration of food and drink in Delphi. We weren’t expecting great cuisine, but we found some rabbit and lamb dishes that were new to us and, I’d say, OK. Not wonderful, but not bad either. I had developed a routine of having one or two glasses of ouzo before dinner. Two ouzos followed by wine left me in a more than usual happy state, which was fine if all I wanted to do after dinner was go to sleep. Sandra never got into the ouzo routine. She didn’t love the taste.

Bye, bye Delphi – we’re off to the north. It was to be a 6-7 hour drive up to the Ioannina area in Epiros. My idea was to explore the Zagoria Villages and whatever else we could find of interest. In the research I did it didn’t look to me like Ioannina would we a very interesting place to stay. It’s a large city with nothing much to see or do. So I searched the Internet to find someplace nearby that would be a base from which we could explore the area.

What I found was the Horizon Hotel in a little place called Ligiades. This is what a website said:

Hotel Horizon is found in Ligiades, a picturesque village a few kilometres from Ioannina. The hotel is ideally situated on the slope of the mountain Mitsikelli, looking out to astonishing views of the Lake Pamvotis and the city of Ioannina.

The hotel offers as a great base for exploring Ligiades and Ioannina, as well as the many historical, archaeological and religious monuments in the surrounding area. The villages of Zagori, Metsovo, Tzumerka and Konitsa, are also easily accessible from the Horizon Hotel.

All air-conditioned rooms of the hotel are equipped with a TV, refrigerator, mini bar and wireless internet access. The room balconies have views of the city and lake.

As it turned out, the description was accurate. But there were a few useful pieces of information that were missing. I didn’t realize that Ligiades was way way up the mountain to begin with and that once in the village everything was vertical – going up some more and then some more. Or that services in Ligiades were rather limited – like no stores of any kind. Fortunately, there was one restaurant and the hotel did serve breakfast. They were certainly right about the view. We had a balcony that looked down on the lake and Ioannina, and it was beautiful

Our first challenge in getting to Ligiades was where to go once we left the main road leading to Ioannina. Fortunately, our Navigon app covered small places and the Oracle was able to lead us up the mountain. But once in the village we were at a loss where to go, and there were no signs (that we could read) that were of any use. After some confusion (and no people anywhere in sight to ask) we saw a sign that looked hopeful and followed it. Turns out it took us to the restaurant, not the hotel. The restaurant owners were helpful. In fact, they sent a young man on a scooter to guide us.

That was great, until shortly after we got started a truck delivering construction materials blocked us. It wasn’t going anywhere, and neither were we, since the road/lane was too narrow to get around the truck. The young man told us (without words since he didn’t speak English) that we’d have to wait and he’d be going back to the restaurant. He did point us in the right direction and gave us this guidance: “Zig zag,” he said. “Zig zag, zig zag,” indicating for us to keep going uphill, zigging and zagging until we got to our destination.

Eventually the truck finished unloading and we were able to continue. We did as instructed, zigging and zagging up the hill. And, miraculously, we arrived at the hotel. There was one last zig that would take us up to the entrance, and as we were trying to figure out how to maneuver the turn a man came out of the hotel and said not to try, but instead park on the road. Success! We had arrived at the Horizon.

Ligiades was not teeming with tourists. As a matter of fact, we were the only guests at the Horizon and would be the only guests for the three nights we were there. The only dinner option in Ligiades was the restaurant we’d been to earlier. I’d had enough zigging and zagging in the car for one day, so we decided to walk down to have dinner.

It turned out to be a very tasty meal. We had tzatziki (a dip made of yoghurt, milk, cucumbers, garlic, olive oil and dill), meze, pork and chicken. The service was good, and – Surprise! – we had the restaurant to ourselves.

The next day we headed to the Zagoria Villages. There are 46 villages in the Zagoria. The attraction is that the area is mountainous and scenic, the natural habitat is undisturbed, the old grey stone houses and churches with painted interiors survive and the residents adhere to a traditional way of life. Incidentally, it was in these mountains that the Greeks defied the Italian forces when they invaded from Albania in November 1940.

The main village is Monodendri, 24 miles north of Ioannina. Monodendri fooled us. We were out of it almost before we knew we were in it, so we turned around, went back to the beginning and began walking. We were headed for the Vikos Gorge, which starts in Monodendri, and an old monastery nearby. To get there we meandered through the small lanes of the village, past the grey stone houses that were, as advertised, quaint and charming. It was cooler up here, even though the elevation wasn’t all that high, about 3,500 ft. We’d had sunny, warm or hot weather since we arrived in Greece, so the change in temperature was pleasant.

The Gorge is the focal point of the region. It is 7.5 miles long, 3,000 ft. deep and a favorite spot for trekkers. We would not be one of them. On the edge of the gorge with a panoramic view is the abandoned Agia Paraskevi monastery, founded in 1412. It is an absolutely wonderful structure (grey stone of course) that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. I loved it. It has a small basilica and nave with a wooden roof surrounded by monks’ cells. There were only two other visitors at the monastery when we were there. That was a real gift.

We had a nice lunch in Monodendri (souvlaki and moussaka) and mapped out a plan for the rest of the day and tomorrow. We’d stock up with food and wine, return to Ligiades and hang out. The room in the Horizon was conducive to hanging out. There were chairs for reading, good light and the balcony with a view. A break would give my hurting foot some down time. And we wouldn’t have to hassle the zigs and zags.

At our lunch restaurant we ordered sausages and kebab to go. At a little pastry shop in Monodendri we picked up some cheese pies. We restocked our mobile wine cellar. And on the way back to the hotel we picked up some tzatziki at the Ligiades restaurant. We were set for at least two days worth of in-room picnics.

As it turned out the next day was the first and only day of rain we had in Greece. It would not have been a good day for driving or touring. So all was well. Just one itinerary correction: if I were re-doing it I’d cut our time in Ligiades to two nights.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Greece 2010 - Part 2

We were going to be in Greece for two weeks. Given that there is so much to see and do in that part of the world an obvious first decision was where to spend our time. It came down to a choice between bouncing around from island to island or staying on the mainland. Then, once we decided to save the islands for another time, we had to negotiate an itinerary. And it definitely was a negotiation.

I was interested in some out-of-the-way places in the Peloponnese and the northwest Epiros area. Sandra was focused on Nafplio, the old stones of Mycenae and Delphi, plus Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city up in Macedonia. I liked the idea of Nafplio, and was willing to say OK to Mycenae and Delphi. Even though I’d visited them on my first trip in 1965, I didn’t remember much. In the end I agreed to forego the west coast of the Peloponnese, Sandra gave up on Thessaloniki, and we included the Zagoria area in Epiros and Meteora in Thessaly, which we both wanted to see. I’m always surprised at how quickly days on the calendar get eaten up when you sit down to finalize a schedule. Our Greek itinerary was no exception.

Nafplio is a small town with a big reputation. From the Lonely Planet:

Occupying a knockout location on a small port beneath the towering bulk of the Palamidi Fortress, Nafplio is one of Greece’s prettiest towns. The narrow streets of the old town, graced with elegant Venetian houses, gracious neoclassical mansions with flower-bedecked balconies, attract visitors in growing numbers.

Our hotel, the Aetoma, was one of those elegant Venetian houses, dating to the 18th century. If there is an archetypal boutique hotel, the Aetoma is it. It is an architectural jewel situated in a small square, St. Spyridon, next to a church of the same name built in 1702. The interior is immaculate, tasteful and welcoming. There are five guest rooms in the Aetoma. We stayed in the Fourousi Room (I have no idea what Fourousi means.) And the service is impeccable. The hotel is run by the Panagiota family. A son, a college student, and his mother manage the Aetoma. They spent time with us – letting us know what to see and do in Nafplio and, of great importance, where to eat.

It was not far from the Aetoma to the waterfront. Since the weather was warm and clear and the sea was calm, sitting next to the water to drink a glass of wine, a beer or an ouzo (or all three) was exactly the thing to do. And that’s what we did.

We also had dinner that first night at Savouras, a restaurant next to the water. Once we were seated (outside of course) we were taken inside to choose the fish we would eat, freshly caught and arranged neatly on ice in a refrigerator. Sandra and I chose different fish (I can’t remember their names, but they were similar to snapper or bass) that were grilled to perfection. Wonderful. The fish were preceded by an octopus appetizer and followed by baklava.

This had been a really full day. We began with the challenge of leaving Athens and ended with dinner on the Argolic Gulf. We slept very well.

Our room had a small balcony overlooking the square. We ate breakfast there (delicious of course) and watched the people of Nafplio go about their business. Behind the square, high above us on a hill, we could see part of the Akronafplia Fortress. The setting was quiet, idyllic. Memorable.

We didn’t have a lot of time in Nafplio – two nights and one full day. Rather than climb up to the old Citadel/Fortress or visit a museum, we spent our day wandering around, enjoying the ambience, reading, eating and drinking.

My impression of Nafplio was very positive. The setting is beautiful. The view from the hill that overlooks Nafplio – down at the town and the sea beyond – is picture perfect for a postcard. And that’s the only downside. It is a magnet for tourists, which means that the economy of this small place (population about 16,000) is dependent on tourism. Which means that kitsch and crowds could easily undermine its charm.

We were in Nafplio past the height of the tourist season, so crowds weren’t a problem. There were many visitors, but we didn’t feel inundated by them. Kitsch? Yes, quite a bit, but contrary to my usual response I wasn’t annoyed by it. I think that’s because 1) I didn’t pay any attention to what would offend me, and 2) it did not exist in such profusion that it overpowered the innate charm and beauty of the place.

Said most simply: We just enjoyed being in Nafplio. If we were redoing our itinerary we’d add a day – especially if we’d be able to extend our stay at the Aetoma.

On Sept. 21 we drove to Delphi, with a stop at Mycenae, not far from Nafplio. The ruins at Mycenae more than qualify as old stones, since they date back to something like 1600 B.C. That’s based on the historical record, where there is evidence that between 1600 and 1200 B.C. the kingdom of Mycenae was the most powerful in Greece.

If you choose to believe the mythology about Mycenae (as written by Homer) it was founded long long ago by Perseus, son of Zeus, whose most heroic deed was killing the hideous, snake-haired Medusa, who was then overthrown by Pelops, etc. etc. For this account I’ll stick with demonstrable history.

Like most of these ancient sites, there’s not much left to see, so you need a good imagination to visualize how it was back in its day. What we know is that the key structure in Mycenae was a large fortified citadel with a settlement surrounding it. Archaeologists have been unearthing artifacts – jewelry, pottery, weaponry, vases and stone tablets – since the 1870’s. Several thousand items have been found, many of which are on display at an on-site museum and at the Archaeological Museum in Athens.

The guidebooks say the citadel had a palace, a great court, large cisterns, a treasury, tombs, a throne room, etc. I’ll take their word for it. What doesn’t require a leap of faith is Lion Gate, the entry to the citadel. It is constructed of massive stone blocks, protected by two huge lionesses. For me the mystery is how the Mycenaeans could have built the gate. Those old stones are really heavy.

The drive to Delphi was less than 200 miles and not particularly difficult. We traveled along the south coast of the Gulf of Corinth toward Patra, crossed a stunning new bridge, and then drove along the north coast of the Gulf to Delphi. Traffic was light. The views were lovely. We were surprised at how rocky and mountainous the countryside was and how few small towns and villages there were. Most of the population centers were at the water’s edge.

I was also surprised at how civil and sane other drivers were. It’s all relative, of course, but my previous experience driving in Europe, especially in Italy, was quite different. I expected super high speeds, impatience, blaring horns, and generally insane risk taking. That’s not the way it was in Greece. Even in the cities, where traffic was heavy, driving behavior was less aggressive than I expected.

It’s possible that in rural areas we were the beneficiaries of less traffic and more civility because there were very few large trucks on the highways. That statement is slightly inaccurate. There were many trucks on the highways. They just weren’t in motion. They were lined up bumper to bumper (if they had bumpers) on the side of the road. Going nowhere. By the hundreds.

Every 10 or 20 miles we’d see the scene repeated. At first we couldn’t figure out what was going on. There didn’t seem to be any reason for the stoppage. Then it dawned on us. For months Greece had been experiencing strikes – unions and other organizations protesting austerity measures that the government was taking to deal with the country’s dire financial crisis. Greece was virtually broke and required massive support from other European Union countries, primarily Germany, to survive. In turn the Greeks promised to cut back on expenditures. So people would be fired. Wages would be cut. Whatever was necessary to get their financial house in order.

And many people didn’t like it. Certainly the truck drivers didn’t like it. So they parked their vehicles on the side of the road and didn’t work. A predictable response that wasn’t going to help. What it was doing was creating hardships for small business owners who needed goods to fill their shelves and consumers who were running short of basic necessities. As we continued on our travels we were told more than once how people were hurting. A woman who owned a small hotel told us she couldn’t get what she needed at the grocery store. A man who owned a restaurant told us how much his business was off. Apparently a few weeks earlier there had been a major petrol shortage.

At one of the museums we visited workers were demonstrating outside. They had signs and were yelling slogans, but they weren’t unruly. I kept a handout they were distributing:

It is titled: 30September2010 – 250 Employees of the Hellenic Culture Organization are being EXECUTED with the excuse they are not productive!

Below the title are images of people being used for target practice. Bullet holes are in the targets.

The text goes on:

However, they are the same employees, who, over a period of nine years, planned, organized, implemented and promoted:

500 Events

11 Museum Shops

9 Cafeterias

200 Publications

2500 Cultural Products

16 Digital Projects

4 Portals




At the bottom:








We only talked to a few people, so our sampling wasn’t exhaustive. The consensus was that the government had to act decisively. There was no getting around it. But the consensus also was that the burden should be borne by others. Not me. One man told us that he supported the austerity measures, even if it hurt him. How many people do you think feel as you do, we asked. About 40%, he said. They’ve got a long way to go.

End Part 2

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Greece 2010 - Part 1

I opened my eyes and was greeted with a stunning view of the Acropolis. From atop its steep rock platform several hundred feet high, this masterpiece of Greek architecture, the iconic symbol of ancient glories, was all mine to behold. From the comfort of my bed on the morning of our first full day in Athens the sight was awesome. I thought: It just doesn’t get any better than this.

I’d chosen the Magna Grecia, a small boutique hotel in the Plaka area of central Athens, because it promised a room with a view. The Magna Grecia delivered – big time. A very smart decision.

It had been a long trip. We left San Francisco early afternoon on Wed. Sept 15, arrived in Frankfurt mid-morning the next day, waited a few hours and then flew to Athens, where we arrived early in the evening. My definition of a good flight is one in which you take off and land safely. We did that – twice – with an added bonus of some good sleep en route to Frankfurt.

We unpacked and were ready for dinner. Sandra’s restaurant research had unearthed a place not far from the hotel called Taverna Platanos. Dating back to 1932, Platanos is an off-the-beaten-track eatery that offers traditional Greek food both indoors and in a quiet pedestrian square under a huge plane tree (platanos means plane tree). The weather was perfect, so a table under the platanos was an easy choice.

Finding the restaurant proved to be more difficult than it should have been. We had good maps. Sandra knew where we were going. So off we walked. But – we missed a turn and ended up zigzagging from one small lane to another until we finally located Diogenous Street. This was the first of many battles with street signs. They are small, hard to see, and in Greek, which is appropriate for Greece and not a problem if you know the language, which we didn’t.

Once seated – outdoors in the middle of an old residential neighborhood, with a bottle of white Macedonian wine to drink and black olives to savor – I was a very happy boy. I was even happier when our food arrived. We had stuffed grape leaves, eggplant and delicious grilled squid. An absolutely marvelous meal. Not fancy, unpretentious, down-to-earth. Perfect.

We were going to be in Athens for two full days. We don’t like to spend our time rushing from one tourist attraction to another. Rather, half a day of sightseeing is enough for us. The rest of the time we like to hang out, read or wander the streets to get a sense what it’s like to just be in the place. We decided to focus on the Acropolis the first day and the Archaeological Museum the second.

Breakfast at the Magna Grecia was on a rooftop terrace one floor above our room, with the same view of the Acropolis that we had. We were in no hurry, so it was late morning by the time we headed out. I’d been battling a sore right foot for months (a combination of plantar faschiitis and peroneal tendonitis) but I didn’t want to not walk, which is one of the real pleasures of a trip like this, so we chose to go to the Acropolis on foot rather than by taxi.

It was a lovely walk – past the old Roman Forum, through several neighborhoods and up the hill to the Acropolis. Then it got not so lovely. I’ve looked at pictures I took in 1965 when I first visited the Acropolis. There were a few people around, but it wasn’t crowded. I didn’t expect this would be the case now, 45 years later. I figured there’d be a few busloads of tourists (groupos I call them) but I wasn’t prepared for a horde. Or maybe I should say hordes. A Princess Line cruise ship, docked I assume in nearby Pireaeus, had disgorged its thousands into the bowels of Athens. They were shuffling sheeplike up the hill to the Acropolis. The lines of people were endless. And we were in the middle of it – unable to escape. They were divided into groups, badges stuck to their chests, dutifully following their leader who was holding up a sign to help keep them from getting lost. It was awful.

Those of you who have read these accounts in the past know that Sandra has a love affair with old stones. And the Acropolis certainly qualifies as a world-class group of old stones. Under the best of circumstances I don’t have the same emotional response to old stones. This was not the best of circumstances. So I endured. Trying to find a clear spot to just see what there was to see. I was marginally successful. Even Sandra, whose tolerance level is much higher than mine, had to admit that this was not wonderful. So endeth our visit to the Acropolis.

We revived our spirits with a lunch of kebabs, cooked cheese, and of course some Greek wine. We devoted the rest of the day to reading and relaxing.

Our room had a small balcony that overlooked the Athens Cathedral and the Plateia Mitropoleos (a large plaza) so if we wanted to look down rather than up at the Acropolis we could people watch. There was a lot of action down in the plaza: local families with lots of kids, tourists with lots of cameras, teenagers doing the ubiquitous, always noisy teenager things, and love-stricken couples who were paying absolutely no attention to their surroundings. Loud chimes from the cathedral alerted us to the time 24/7. Actually it was 48/7, since they chimed every half hour and offered a special medley of tunes at 7:30 in the morning. We kept the windows open at night, so earplugs helped.

The next day we thought it would be fun to take the Metro to the Archaeological Museum. We weren’t far from the Monastiraki station and the museum wasn’t far from the Victoria stop. Despite not really knowing what we were doing we figured out how to buy day tickets at an automatic machine and, congratulating ourselves on this major accomplishment, headed proudly to the stairs leading to our train.

Whoops! Not so fast. The stairs were blocked. The entrance was closed. Construction was underway and there was no service from Monastiraki to Victoria. We could bag the Metro idea and get a taxi or figure out a workaround. At this point we were committed (and a little stubborn about it) so we went for the workaround. We figured out that if we went east to Syntagma we could transfer to another line and then go north to Omonia, which was within walking distance of the museum. Our solution worked brilliantly – except for the fact that my foot was hurting and this involved more walking than I wanted to do. We partially made up for it later by taking a taxi back to the hotel rather than the Metro, which was our original plan.

The National Archaeological Museum is extraordinary. It is huge, so it is smart to be selective. We focused on the Prehistoric Collection and were well rewarded. We saw objects from the Neolithic era (6800-3000 BC), Early and Mid-Bronze Age (3000-1700 BC), and Cycladic and Mycenaean art.

We marveled at hundreds of ceramics, marble figurines, bronzes, stone pots, ivory, glass and faience pieces, golden seals, rings and cups, amber tools and jewels, relief stelae, sculpture – and much more. I’m often impatient with museums, but this one captured my attention and held it. I fell in love with many of these objects. They may be thousands of years old but in no way are they passé. They are, quite simply, masterful and beautiful works of art.

At lunch and dinner we continued our sampling Greek food and wine project. Today’s cuisine included chicken souvlaki, fava beans, mussels, moussaka and zucchini. Except for retsina I was unfamiliar with Greek grapes and wine. While we inevitably gravitate toward red wine, on this trip we found ourselves enjoying white too. Maybe it was because the weather was warm or because almost all of our meals were eaten al fresco or maybe it was just our mood. Whatever, we enjoyed them.

We found ourselves focusing on reds from northern Greece – Macedonia and Thessaly. In particular we liked the xinomavro grape. Xinomavro wines are big with rich tannin, often compared to Nebbiolo. Our favorite white grape was assyrtiko, which is similar in character to Riesling. We were told that assyrtiko originally came from the island of Santorini. As we traveled around Greece we made it a point to sample local wines wherever we could. Some were pretty good, but I can’t remember their names or other details.

Sept. 19 was a travel day. We were headed to Nafplio in the Peloponnese southwest of Athens. It was a Sunday morning, so I thought traffic would be light and getting out of town would be relatively easy. Wrong! Really wrong!!

We’d arranged for a taxi to take us from the hotel to a Hertz office where we’d pick up a car. The man at the hotel front desk, who spoke almost no English, seemed particularly focused on our being on time for the taxi. Some problems on the road, he said. That was a clue, but I missed it. Then I missed a second clue. The hotel was on Mitropoleos, a narrow one-way street just wide enough for one lane of traffic and cars parked next to the curb. We’d noticed that parking spaces along the street were almost always at a premium, but not this morning. There were no cars parked on Mitropoleos. Maybe I was right, I thought. Not much traffic on Sunday morning.

As the taxi headed down Mitropoleos we did notice traffic cops at every intersection. They weren’t allowing cars into the area. Aha! That’s what the front desk guy meant when he said there were traffic problems. Well, no matter. We’d get our rental car and head out of town. That was the plan and all seemed to be going smoothly until in the Hertz office Sandra noticed she didn’t have her passport. She looked for it in her purse and a bag she was carrying without success. It must still be in the hotel. We tried calling the hotel but couldn’t get through. Even if we had I knew there was no way we could communicate with the front desk guy. I had checked the room carefully and was sure we left nothing behind, but we couldn’t confirm that without going back to look. And so our well-laid plan for getting out of town easily was in the toilet.

Traffic in Athens is horrific. Often bumper-to-bumper – cars, buses, trucks, scooters and people – all compete for the right of way. Even for a local, it is a challenge. For a stranger even more so. For a stranger who doesn’t speak or read the language, near impossible. Fortunately, we had a secret weapon.

Our secret weapon was Navigon Europe. Dozens of times over the years we’ve used rental cars to travel in Europe. With Sandra navigating we combined maps, guidebooks, patience (sometimes wearing thin), and luck to get us where we wanted to go. Almost never has it been easy. So on this trip, for the first time, we would have an iPhone and a GPS app to tell us where to go. We named the calm, English-accented woman who talked to us and never made us wrong. She is The Oracle. Going in we thought we’d be happy to have her as a traveling companion. We didn’t know how deeply we’d fall in love with The Oracle.

Her first test, her inaugural drive as it were, would be to get us back to the Magna Grecia and then, hopefully with passport in hand, on to Nafplio. We knew where we were and we knew where the hotel was. We didn’t have a clue how to get there. The Oracle got us back to Mitropoleos OK, and then we hit a roadblock – literally. The street was closed to traffic because there was going to be a parade in honor of a saint or a festival – something. Now all those earlier clues made sense. But knowing this didn’t solve our problem.

We figured that if we could get closer to the hotel we’d find a place to stop, I could stay in the car and Sandra could look for her passport. The Oracle was still programmed to drive to the hotel, so even though we made deliberate wrong turns we knew she’d keep trying to get us where we wanted to go. And she did.

Now good fortune took over. We were on a street a block from the hotel but could go no further. A traffic cop, a woman, was controlling the intersection. We explained our problem, she understood, and directed me to a place on a sidewalk (parking not allowed) where I could put the car while Sandra went to the hotel.

I was there for quite a while. Behind me a brass band marched up the street doing its thing as part of the celebration, throngs of people were having a good time, it was a lovely sunny day, and we were supposed to be nearing Naflplio by now. But we weren’t.

Sandra finally returned. If you know Sandra you know that she is nothing if not thorough. She’d searched that hotel room from top to bottom, several times, and no passport was to be found. Without a doubt it wasn’t there. We were both stymied. I thought we must have it someplace and suggested we go on to Nafplio where we could look carefully through all our bags. Sandra agreed – reluctantly. We reprogrammed The Oracle for our new destination, crept slowly through the crowded streets following her instructions, and – voila – were on the highway out of Athens.

This is the end of Part 1. Should I save the end of the passport saga for Part 2 or tell you now? I’ll tell you. When we unpacked in Nafplio I thought there was a possibility I’d taken Sandra’s passport along with other items when I emptied the little safe in our hotel room. I didn’t think so, but still . . . There it was. In the small bag I use for such stuff. I could have looked there when we discovered it missing at the Hertz office. I could have looked there when I was waiting for Sandra on the parade route. I coulda, shoulda, etc. But I didn’t. My bad! Mea culpa!! Not too smart. Geez.

End of Part 1

Monday, November 08, 2010

The Snail

A story from Dave Sedaris:

A man is awakened from a deep sleep by a knock on the door. Muttering unhappily, he climbs out of bed, makes his way downstairs to the front door and opens it.

No one is there. Or so he thinks until he hears a voice from down near his feet. It’s a snail.

“Good evening sir.”

“What do you want?”

“I’m here to offer you a wonderful magazine subscription.”

With that the man swings his leg back as far as he can and brings it forward with a mighty ‘whoosh.’

His foot connects with the snail. It sails into the night and out of sight. Grumbling, the man goes back to bed and is soon asleep.

Two years go by.

Again the man is sleeping soundly. Again there is a knock at the door. He goes downstairs and opens it. Again the snail is down below in front of him.

In a loud voice he says, “Now what was that all about?”

Tuesday, November 02, 2010


It took 56 years for the Giants to win a World Series. Before last night it was 1954, and they were the New York Giants. They moved to San Francisco in 1958 and over those 52 years no championships – before last night.

I wasn’t a Giants fan in 1954. Ooops, that sentence makes it sound neutral. I wasn’t neutral. I was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, and as an article of faith we hated the Giants. When Bobby Thompson hit his ‘shot heard round the world’ that September and launched a home run in the 9th inning of a pennant playoff game to defeat my beloved Dodgers – it was a dagger in the heart.

In the 50’s I was on the east coast in college and later in New York as army Private Miller. So I saw these New York teams close at hand. There were no major league franchises west of St. Louis in those days. Those of us in the west who cared about baseball had to choose long distance favorites.

When I was in New York I often went to Yankee Stadium and Ebbets Field where the Dodgers played. Never to the Polo Grounds, home of the Giants. When the Giants and Dodgers headed west to San Francisco and Los Angeles I was living in L.A. So it was easy to maintain my allegiance to the Dodgers.

Then for a long time I drifted away from baseball. I was living in India and then in a New York that had no Brooklyn Dodgers. So I put baseball on the back burner – until I moved to San Francisco in 1978. What to do? I loved San Francisco and the Bay Area. I didn’t love L.A. But still, become a Giants fan? It seemed like I’d be turning my back on what I believed in. So it took a while.

Little by little, as my love affair with San Francisco deepened and my antipathy of the sprawling metropolis down south, the megacity with no heart or soul, grew stronger – I switched. I was now a Giants fan. I could appreciate the accomplishments of the pre-San Francisco Giants – when they were the hated ones – but I never embraced them. I did embrace my hometown Giants and now the Dodgers were the hated ones.

I went to a few games at Candlestick Park, but it wasn’t a wonderful place to be, so I never became a regular visitor. In 2000, though, when the new ballpark opened I was enthusiastic about watching my beloved Giants from the stands. That first season, through a friend of a friend, we managed to score access to season ticket holder seats, and thus began a tradition. Over these past 11 years we’ve seen about one game a month, 5 or 6 games a season, from the Club Level, just to the left of home plate, Section 220, Row D, Seats 8-9. I want us to win, of course, but win or lose, it’s a totally pleasurable experience to be in the ballpark. Our view out over the water to the East Bay is stunning. The park is people-friendly. And I get my hot links and an Anchor Steam every time. Can’t ask for anything more.

The only thing missing was a championship. We’d had some great moments over the years, the most memorable of which was watching Barry Bonds hit his 756th home run to break the record. What a stroke of luck – to be in the ballpark that night. But still, in all these years the Giants had never won it all in San Francisco. Until last night. Unbridled joy in this City by the Bay. Unbridled joy as we sat in front of the TV and hung on every pitch for all these games of the playoffs. And then to have it end with victory. Well, we deserved it. It’s great to be a Giants fan today.