Nike’s Special Air

 

FullSizeRender-24Reflections of Summer by a Greek American: Travel Tips and Personal Stories

It’s in the air. It’s in their voices. The instability. The frustration, the anger—but those are not the constants. The pride. The loud voices, the grand gesticulations, the love of their country: those remain static. Greeks are fiercely patriotic and proud; at times stubborn and sardonic—but always faithful with a fighting spirit.

Nevertheless, genuine fear has encroached upon the lives of many Greeks, and Summer 2015, with the climax of the crisis, the outlook looked dire. It was a strange time to be in Greece this past summer, but the looming crisis was also precisely why my husband and I chose to return after a year’s absence. If we had a few dollars to spend on a summer holiday, why not drop them in the country that is closest to my heart? That was one good reason, but seeing my Greek family took the top slot. When I heard my aunt’s anxious voice through the phone line in June, it made my desire to be close to my relatives even more powerful. I needed to be in Greece, see their faces, hear their stories, and—more selfishly—I wanted to stroll the streets of Athens, sip my Loumidis coffee on the balcony of our summer house, eat calamari with a xoriatiki salad, and visit an island with my favorite travelling partner.

Despite the country’s financial crisis and my family’s suffering, I was and am painfully cognizant that others are suffocating in Greece; yet, for me, Greece is—and always will be—the country that lets me breathe.

FullSizeRender-26When I’m in Greece, I’m another person. I drink wine by the kilo, eat lots of bread dipped in tzaziki, devour souvlakia filled with greasy gyro, suck on endless red Greek tomatoes—and I never step on a scale. Funny thing is, I don’t gain a pound. There is a lightness inside that permeates outward, sucking away the fatness of stress. Of course, I am on vacation with time, money, and a fun husband—why shouldn’t I be happy? But it’s something else. Being around Greeks, in Greece, recharges my battery. These people are beyond resilient, and this vivacity gives me strength. If Greeks can struggle, fight, and still laugh, then so can I. Despite the melee, Nike still seems to fly over Greece and, I believe, in time they will be victorious.

One victory was tourism. Many visitors ignored the fearmongers and did not take heed to negative propaganda and, instead, “hashtag visitGreece” took over. Tourism was up 2% compared to last year according to U.K.’s Daily Mail (July 20th, 2015). While eating at Thanasis in Plaka, we met a man who works at the airport in customs and he said it was up 10%, a family member told me 22%. Suffice it to say, tourism did not drop. In fact, as I walked the streets of various Greek cities, towns, and villages, on the mainland and on Skopelos island, I saw crowds of people, both Greeks and visitors, and I heard a lot of laughter.

ATHENS

IMG_6643Playing with my cousins and their kids in the blue water of Vouliagmeni reminded me why Athens is my favorite city in the entire world. Some parts of the city such as Kyfissia and Kolonaki offer posh shops, cafés, high fashion, and people-watching; other districts like Glyfada and Voula have the aforementioned but also provide island-like beaches—complete with chaise lounges, umbrellas, and cafés on the shoreline. For a few euros, one enters and can stay all day; have the freedom to drink beer on the beach or have a freddo cappuccino, and then a club sandwich or a tyropita. Somewhere in between these districts is Nea Smirni, where my family reside, and where my mother owns a house. I adore the neighborhood and feel quite at home there as does my husband who has visited six times. If I’m deep in Greek with my cousins, my husband disappears to the local platea (district’s center) to get a gyros at his favorite taverna or to relax at his favorite café. He knows how to say, “Freddo cappuccino metreo” and “Then milao Ellinika” (I don’t speak Greek). When we first met, he asked me how to say, “Hello, how are you?” So I taught him: “Eho geneka Elinitha, i kaliteri.” It was years later when he greeted someone with this phrase that I realized I had forgotten to tell him it actually meant, “I have a Greek wife and she’s the best.” But he forgave me and we still have a good laugh about it.

From Nea Smirni, my husband and I always take the tram to Syntagma Square where the Hellenic Parliament is located. In general, Athens’ public transportation is fantastic and one can get from Syntagma Square to Eleftherios Venizelos Airport for only a few euros, and “Express” buses run 24hrs a day/7 days a week from the center. The Express Bus takes about 35-40 minutes; the Metro is also an option though it can take between 45 and 90 minutes. Next to Syntagma is Plaka. I love the walk from the Parliament down Ermou St., where shopping is plentiful, to Plaka, the old part of the city where one can buy souvenirs and sip an Ouzo, enjoy a Fix beer, or have cold cappuccino.

FullSizeRender-23After souvenir and shoe shopping, we always eat at Thanasis, famous for its kebab plates. After eating, a picturesque walk to Thissio is a must-do. You continue past Plaka and walk at the foot of the Acropolis; then an entirely new neighborhood presents itself with countless taverns, cafés, and bars. Street vendors, who come out after dark when the authorities are too tired to arrest them for illegal sales, line the streets with incredible handmade goods. I bought a pair of miniature tsarouhi (traditional Greek shoes with pom-poms) earrings from a lovely Russian woman who has been in Greece for twenty years. It reminded me, once more, how everyone has a story. We chatted for fifteen minutes and I debated taking notes while she spoke, her voluptuous chest heaving, her smile wide with a missing incisor, but my husband gave me that endearing look of “You are my wife tonight, not a writer.” But when one starts writing, every scene, every image becomes one that we want to share because we think it’s important.

IMG_6830-2 We also met a Nigerian man a few days later in Kamena Vourla whose story was equally fascinating; selling burned CDs he told us that he was a graduate of the University of Athens and held a psychology degree. We talked about politics, life, and literature; about Boko Haram, my Greek aunt who was born in Nigeria, and my Master’s Thesis, which was about the Igbo and Yorubu tribes. When I asked him if he was from one of those tribes, he responded that he was indeed an Igbo and a proud one at that. I had just finished the best-selling novel Amerikanah about a Nigerian woman living in the United States. Jeff, as he introduced himself, pulled out his laptop from his backpack, wrote down the title and author’s name in Notepad, said he loved reading, and would download it that night. Yes, everyone has a story. And every story is important.

EPIDAVROS

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After a few days in Athens, we drove two and a half hours south, past the Corinth Channel to Epidavros where we visited its majestic theatre; built in 340 B.C., it holds 13,000+ spectators and provides unparalleled acoustics. The choice to build this theatre amidst a forest lay in the purposeful decision of the ancient Greeks; the ground was sacred, a magical healing center. Today, one can enjoy a modern or classical performance in this theatre, and the sentiment of “something special” lingers in the air. I sat for a while, after pictures were taken, and digested the view, felt the lumpy marble that cooled my derriere, watched the tourists who stood at the bottom, yelling to their friends in the seats far above to test the strength of a natural speaker. The sky seemed especially blue, the trees too green to be real, and the clouds almost transparent. Surreal, magical, extraordinary.IMG_6808-2

NAFPLIO

IMG_6713-2The next stop, about forty minutes from Epidavros, was a city that beheld a beauty of another sort; pink, yellow, and blue houses, a city center that reminded me of Venice, and not surprisingly since the Turks and the Venetians fought for this port city in the 13th century. The influence of the Venetian’s second occupation (1686-1715) is present in the architecture; today balconies adorned with hanging plants and underwear add to the colorful Italian-like setting. Nafplio enjoyed its seat at the first capital of modern Greece from 1829-1834, and although no longer a political hot-spot, it offers bars, cafés and hours of endless roaming.

IMG_6804Above Nafplio, a grand Venetian Citadel graces the skyline. It’s a short drive up the hill from Nafplio or a hike with never-ending steps. In August the heat can be unbearable, but that day, the goddesses gave us a slight breeze and a sky speckled with clouds. Yet, every time we wanted to take a picture of Nafplio or the blue water below that surrounded the citadel, the sky opened and the gave us a natural flash.

IMG_5557-2My cousin drove us around that day, and the car ride provided much needed girl-time. My husband dozed in the back seat while we talked about life’s challenges. My cousin is a wise young woman, only thirty-eight, and when we talk, it’s more like a discourse with Socrates. Apart from the financial crisis, personal issues have presented her life with increased challenges. In our conversations, which are more like discourses about the human condition, suffering, and the desire to find peace, we never reach conclusions but philosophize, laugh, and sometimes cry. Mostly there’s a feeling of xelafrosi (a letting go, a lightness) when we are done.

That’s what makes Greece so special for me: it’s the land too, but it’s always been the people—those who are living and those who are dead. One who is gone, physically, is my dear Yiayia. On August 12th, 2015, three car loads of family gathered for my yiayia’s one-year memorial. The forty-day memorial is more important in Greek culture, but my family gathered again to make it special for me, so that I could say my formal goodbye. The last time I has seen Yiayia was the summer before.

A MEMORIAL

IMG_6665On that hot day in August, we all gathered at the cemetery, the kids ran around, and the adults greeted one another. My aunt made koliva, wheat berries flavored with walnuts, raisins, cinnamon and powdered sugar, a favorite of mine (Yiayia used to make a huge pot just for me—even when someone hadn’t died). After the priest’s prayer, we sat in the church’s café, had Greek coffee, sans the traditional Cognac since my family are not drinkers. I really would have enjoyed some at that moment because even though the family chatter lightened the mood, it felt like a buffalo had sat on my chest.

When we had arrived to Athens the week before, I had walked though Yiayia’s house; I can’t say that I felt sadness or shock. My cousin lives there now, and my adorable niece and nephew were so excited to show me their new rooms that the ambience felt peaceful and happy. Yiayia was ready to go, so I was grateful that her death provided a home for a family in the time of need.

IMG_5247But as as I walked through the cemetery, the feeling was different. I started to feel like I couldn’t breathe. My kooky, fun-loving, naughty Yiayia was no more. She would be lying under a slab of cement decomposing. I won’t dive into religion here; hopefully heaven is real and she is laughing from above. After the prayer, the family left us for a few moments of private time, and I sobbed uncontrollably. Yiayia was ready, she was old, 94! She had led a full, good life. She had twenty people who stood there; many who shed tears again even though they had officially mourned her a year before, their sorrow still palpable.FullSizeRender-29

Then, I thought about my own death. When I die, my husband and a few pets will be present. I have never regretted not having children, and as I sat around a table with uncles and aunts, cousins and their children, I felt serene. Maybe a few nieces, family members, or friends will come. I’m blessed with an incredible family. I lack nothing. My husband held my hand and asked me gently with his eyes how I was doing. We all know there are no guarantees in life, who will go first, when, or why, but I know that I live every moment to its fullest and don’t wait for tomorrow’s success to be happy today. We all learned this lesson from Yiayia who was a genuinely happy and mischievous person till the day she closed her eyes.

DELPHI

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On the way to our summer house, we took a detour to the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi. According to tradition, Zeus sent two eagles from opposite sides of the universe to find each other at the center. They met at Delphi. Standing in the sanctuary with my husband felt electric. We were at the “omphalos,” navel of the world; at the center, with my center. FullSizeRender-30We walked around, took lots of pictures, but always stopped to admire with the naked eye. Visiting the theatre, stadium, and sanctuary, built in the 4th, 5th, and 7th century B.C. respectively, among all the other sites of yellowish-beige marble, demonstrated the creativity and mathematical genius of the Greek people. While we walked down the path, with large looming trees and mountains on all the sides, I could hear the cicadas chirping. It’s a sound that reminds me of good days, happy times, sleeping on the balcony of our summer house, the only care in the world was what I would wear to the disco that night.

KAMENA VOURLA

imageThis seaside village, also one of the settings in my novel, Red Greek Tomatoes, provides a sanctuary for my protagonist. Unlike the main character of my novel who goes to Kamena Vourla as a stranger on her way to Delphi and knows no one, I know this village intimately. It’s the village where my grandfather chose to buy a summer cottage in the 60s, so he could fish early in the morning, roll his cigarettes and drink Ouzo at night. And escape from hectic Athens.

While in Kamena Vourla, if one wants a break from taverns, Camino Restaurant offers sumptuous dinner and mouthwatering steaks. The popular Mythos and Friend’s Café are also favorites. Both are owned by acquaintances who I see year after year, and though they may temporarily forget my name, I’m always greeted with kisses and a warm welcome as though I am a long-lost friend. That’s what Greeks do; they make you feel special. When my childhood friends smile, hug, and kiss me, it feels like home—it doesn’t matter if we only spend a few hours together, time always stands still and our hearts feel just as connected. My Greek friends are tough-as-nails women who I admire for their strength and tenacity; they don’t count calories, worry about working out, and openly complain about their kids without one ounce of guilt. They are real. They enjoy life. Yes, they are stressed, tired, deal with mother-in-laws who live above them, but they laugh and bitch, then laugh again; no problem is too tough to handle.

IMG_6935A few kilometers from Kamena Vourla, towards Agios Konstandinos, is Asproneri, a pebble-stone beach that rivals any island one with its clear water and mountain as a backdrop. Thair, my protagonist, falls in love while at this beach so Asproneri is personified in my novel. It’s alive and offers Thair much of what it offered me; when I swim in the water, her hands caress me, the majestic mountains always take my breath away. It’s a sight I never tire of. My husband and I usually stay at the far end, close to the lighthouse where it’s quiet, but a visitor can sit close to the snack shack and see beautiful young bods and older ones who wear all their rolls and cellulite with pride and comfort.

That’s another thing I adore about Greece. Women don’t seem to have body issues. A girl may be 16 and long-legged or 60 with a pudgy belly, every female, despite age or size, wears a bikini. In fact, I don’t think I have ever seen a full swimsuit there. And when women walk to and from the café and order drinks, they don’t hide in a beach wrap. This confidence thrills me; men with their keg-bellies and skinny legs flirt with their eyes as if they are Zeus’ gift to women. When I ordered our freddos at the shack, I debated dropping my sari on the walk back, allowing eyes to critique my ample thighs, but the thought only entered my mind long enough for me to push it out. No way. I tightened the knot of my wrap, held the coffees, one in each hand, and strolled back along the shoreline. I’m only half Greek; my American self-consciousness won this time—again.

IMG_5808Over the years, the village has changed a lot; or it could be me that’s changed. Kamena Vourla still has romantic appeal with its countless taverns and cafés that line the shore, but—unlike my youth when I could stay for two entire months there—after a few days, I get restless.

In my teens we started the evening at Pringipico, a café on the water’s edge, and ended the night dancing at Laxmi Discoteque. Now the disco is a dilapidated structure at the far end of town, and the “in” place is Mythos Café where people spill on to the street, where people go to see and be seen. No more dancing; it saddens me that this new generation just drinks and stands around for endless hours. It also bores me. I don’t get it. A sure sign I am finally getting old. As an aging adult, time is running out, and Greece offers so much beauty and intrigue that after I’ve visited my friends, stood around on the street for three nights in a row, took my cleansing baths at Asproneri, I’m ready to move on.

SKOPELOS

IMG_7514From Kamena Vourla we took the ferry from Agios Konstandinos to the island of Skopelos, also known lately as the “Mamma Mia” island because parts of the movie were filmed there. Skopelos is part of the Sporades islands and offers tranquility, unlike the neighboring island of Skiathos that has a wilder nightlife, but equally beautiful beaches. Again, despite the crisis, Greeks visitors populated the beaches and cafés. We met Italians, Spaniards, saw many blonde Europeans, and heard a few Americans. We stayed in Chora, the main town, at Hotel Dionyssos, a hotel with an excellent breakfast, nice pool, and helpful staff. I met the bartender who was my age, a beautiful brunette who was a French professor in her native Albania and moved to Greece twenty years before. She lives permanently on the island with her Albanian husband and two teenage boys. She tried to teach private French lessons but her degree wasn’t recognized, so she instead, to help support her family, she works full-time tending bar and working in the restaurant. Everyone has a story.

FullSizeRender-16By U.S. standards the hotel was not expensive, but more than my husband and I usually spend when we travel since we spend so little time in the room. The Expedia photos looked inviting, and since the location was ideal, we decided to splurge. Our room, typically Greek: clean, small and simple, did have lovely views of the beach and mountains; mostly the details, little bottles of ouzo and loukoumades in our room to welcome us, added a nice touch.FullSizeRender-15

The first day we took an all-day, very inexpensive (12 euros), guided bus tour to the famous church, Agios Ioannis, (from a scene in Mamma Mia) that included stops at several beaches. Some have said that the movie has cheapened this island paradise, but I don’t agree. It has created a bit more tourism, so I think that’s good. If someone expected to see the same grand chapel from the movie, then they don’t understand Hollywood magic. The 202 steps that we climbed to reach this chapel were well worth it because at the top the vast turquoise sea could be seen, and a feeling of romance, indeed, lingered in the air. I signed the church’s registry where couples’ writings filled the pages, notes of love and adoration for their spouse or partner. If you visit the church, check out entries under Summer 2015; maybe you’ll see my name, my husband’s, and my wish for eternal love.FullSizeRender-27

The night life of Skopelos is similar to Kamena Vourla: sitting in cafes, standing in bars, talking, smoking; we did come across a “club” but when we tried to enter at 1 a.m., on our way back to the hotel from a drink at the center, they told us it would not open till 2 a.m but we were welcome to come in and wait. I definitely felt old. The only dancing we would be doing was in our dreams.

IMG_9133Skopelos with its mountains, valleys, and forests give the island a breezy feeling unlike some other popular islands that I’ve visited with dry landscapes. The greatest appeal of Skopelos are the beaches; from Limnonari to Panormos to Kastani, golden sand and clear water circle the island. Most of these places have beach bars with expensive beer and some food choices though it’s best to wait because the taverns in Chora serve up delicious traditional Greek dishes and fresh seafood for decent prices. It’s known to be a quiet island, one for couples, families, or those who just want tranquility. I found that to be true.

Back to ATHENS

The last day in Athens is always spent returning to Thanasis for a kebab plate and to walk the streets of Plaka. But this year plans changed. We stumbled upon a restaurant that opened its evening terrace for us early, so we enjoyed a spectacular view of the Parthenon. We ate and drank wine for more than two hours and by the time we left, our secluded terrace was filled with more than fifteen tables, never noticing when the tables had been set or the guests arrived. It was a perfect ending to a perfect holiday. Almost perfect. Saying goodbye is always tough. I’m not a fan of phones or Skyping and only call my family a few times a year because when I do, I know we will be on the phone for several hours. Everyone has busy lives, so we all understand because when there’s genuine affection, as corny as it sounds, distance is only measured in kilometers; the hearts remain close.

FullSizeRender-13That night, while I leaned on the balcony of the restaurant, with my husband’s arm around me, taking in the sights, life felt complete. It was a cool night for August, a slight breeze blew my bangs in my face. As I moved them to the side, I could see Nike in the distance smiling at me. I know she loves Greece as much as I do.

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Grateful and Guilty

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It was a clear, crisp day at the coast, and I had just finished a workout at my local gym. I was driving down Encinitas Blvd and I saw my eyes in the rear-view mirror. A sudden gust of white air passed through my body and I remember feeling “happy”—Pharrell happy—happy to the core. I was thirty-three years old and single for the first time in my adult life.

Only weeks before a heaviness had encapsulated my body: why does it work so easily for others? I remember thinking. Girls in my high school met cute college boys and now they were married, living on a hill, with three perfect kiddos. Childhood friends had coupled up, trying to work on “forever.”ImageEven my two Greek cousins (who are as close as siblings) as well as my brother had all met their spouses and were settled. But I was alone again. At the time I felt, “Forget all the Oprah BS, I don’t want to be whole alone! I want to be part of the exclusive married couple’s club.” I was a product of my mother’s generation, largely defining myself by a man. Through the years, I chose men, good men, but unfortunately partners with whom the fit wasn’t ideal for a variety of reasons. But because I was more realistic than romantic in my late twenties, I was willing to try. But trying isn’t enough, love has to be mutual, and I simply hadn’t found My One.

Nevertheless, that sunny day, leaving my regular routine, something changed. I found something else. It wasn’t like I was entirely whole, complete, Oprah-healthy, but I encountered something new . . . an appreciation for what I did have. I didn’t want another minute to go by without realizing all that I had been blessed with. A loving family, good friends, my own condo by the beach, and a job that I mostly enjoyed. Above all, I had a healthy body, a clear mind, and a light heart. I didn’t want to wait till something truly awful happened to “see” the beauty in life. I suddenly heard the birds sing—as silly as that sounds.Image

And I saw my own eyes. I liked what looked back. The woman’s eyes shone.

It hasn’t always been easy. I’ve had some struggles. I watched my mother survive breast cancer. I’ve tried to support my father as he falls apart. Thankfully, I didn’t want children, so when the doctor told me that my fallopian tubes were almost completely destroyed, I didn’t lose it. http://www.kimberlykrobeson.com/Me_and_My_Uterus.html

When I met my husband, we had various external issues to overcome, but we took them day by day, and every day has, indeed, been a blessing. A year ago we planned to go to Greece, tickets were purchased, but “life happens” https://kimberlykrobeson.wordpress.com/2013/09/04/life-happens/ so we cancelled our trip. As I write this, something has happened again, but this time it’s much more serious.

I have a family member who is struggling for his life. He’s my age exactly. He’s tied to tubes, he can’t eat, can barely see or talk, has not sat up for weeks. Unlike me, my family is very private, so I probably should not be writing this. But they also know I process through writing, so I hope they will forgive me.

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This family event has left me with tears in my eyes as I drive, an empty feeling in my gut every moment when I wake. I feel guilty on the treadmill. I feel guilty when booking hotels on Greek islands. Still, I bow after every workout, consciously thanking the powers that be for my strong body. I dedicate all my yoga practices to his healing. I started praying a few years ago and it feels good. Usually my prayers involve recognition and thanks for such a blessed life. Sometimes, I just repeat a Greek Orthodox prayer, over and over, like a mantra. Lately, though, my prayers ask for a bit more: they are not solely whispers of gratitude. I ask for this person to be walking, talking, and playing with his children again soon. I want his wife to be at home, not sleeping on a cot in a hospital every night. I request that his wife wake up on their matrimonial bed beside a husband who can get up on his own. And if she has to give him a bit of help, that’s fine. I pray for the family to be reunited with an excellent father and a loving husband. I want them to enjoy every moment again, and not just because they were given such a test.

Another family member said: “I try to pray correctly, not to ask for too much.” My philosophy is pray in honesty, one does not need to be diplomatic with God. If He’s somewhere and is listening, He already knows everything that is in one’s head. But that’s just me talking. I’ve struggled with religion for years, and after forty-four years, I have found what works for me. I don’t proselytize; but prayer, mantra, meditation, whatever you want to call it, is said to do all sorts of great things for one’s health. http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2014/03/27/enlightening-our-universities-and-medical-schools-about-the-health-benefits-of-meditation/ So I have become a woman who finds calm and clarity in prayer.

I have spent most of the past eleven years consciously working on being a better person: I smile more, I try to remember to always say “please” and “thank you,” I try to listen to my students, look them in their eyes rather than putting stuff in my bag and jetting out. I try. I make mistakes. I still want things. I still have superficial desires, but I am also so cognizant of every moment and so grateful for this beautiful life.

And, I would be even more grateful if in a few months I’m having a beer with my family member on his balcony on a hot summer night as his wife laughs and the children play.

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The Delicacy of Peru

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Lake Titicaca

A few weeks ago someone asked me what I missed most about Peru. I had to think about the question because even though I feel great affection for the countries where I was fortunate to have spent chunks of my life, namely Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Greece, and Peru, when it’s time to move, I am usually ready. Even when I left my beloved Athens, after living there for three years in my 20s, it was time for change. It may be because I have lived exactly half my life—twenty-two years—overseas that I tend to get “ants my pants” when I have been in one place for too long.

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Greek, Peruvian, and American family all gathered for a meal before our wedding.

After living in Lima for six years, my husband and I were moving to San Diego, and though I was terribly excited to be close to my family again, goodbyes are the worst. When my husband hugged his family and tears flowed, I knew my Peruvian husband would now, unfortunately, be on the other side of these long-distance familial relationships.

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Hugo and his childhood friends

Thus, what I miss most are the wonderful moments with my Peruvian family and friends. Loved ones gathered in our apartment as I made my famous pisco sours, days at the beach drinking chelas and eating choros a la chalaca. I miss calling friends last minute, at 6 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, and by 11 p.m. our apartment was full of familiar faces laughing and listening to merengue. I also miss strolls in San Isidro with our three bulldogs, sipping coffee at Parque Kennedy. And—of course—I miss ceviche.

Yes, I certainly miss the seafood. In fact, I often crave Peruvian cuisine; for me it’s of the finest in the world. My mouth salivates when I think about ceviche from Pescados Capitales, Imagearroz con mariscos from Segundo Muelle, lomo saltado from Tanta, or Elenita’s ahí de gallina. But the finest delicacy from Peru is, in my opinion, not the food.

It’s the people and, more specifically, their manners.

I’m not talking about their manners when drivers of combis, zipping down Javier Prado (a busy three-lane freeway in Lima) would scream and honk their horn, while simultaneously cutting me off. (Though one bus driver after insulting me, did send me a kiss. All I could do was laugh.) I’m thinking about Peruvians who are not behind a steering wheel.

I found that Peruvians have the most delicate, considerate manners. This was somewhat shocking to me because I came from sunny San Diego where people perpetually smile. I didn’t think I would ever meet people that were more polite than San Diegans. These sun-tanned, micro-beer drinking, say good-morning-to everyone people seem as if they have already gone to heaven, as if they have this secret city made of eternal sunshine, (but only in their minds?). For me, it’s a bit too perfect, a bit too tranquil. But San Diegans are great people; my closest family and friends live in SD suburbs; even my mother has become more of a San Diegan than a Greek! (Maybe that’s also why I hold on so tightly to my Greek roots—I like things that are a bit more tumultuous, a bit wilder.) So moving to Peru was comforting. In this new country, I met versions of my loud Greeks (who I adore) and happy San Diegans (who I admire) but mixed with something extra: this new delicacy that I had never before encountered.

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When I first moved to Peru, my husband and I were in Wong—the Super Supermarket of Peru. We bumped into a college friend that he knew, and when Hugo introduced me, the man dove in for a kiss. I didn’t know what to do, so I pulled away. My husband later educated me, telling me that when one is introduced, a kiss follows a simultaneous handshake. I don’t mind kissing customs—I just didn’t know the Peruvian one. Later, when we went to a party and there were about ten people sitting around a circular sofa, I hesitated, and then looked incredulously at my husband. Was I really expected to go around and kiss everyone? Hugo’s eyes told me “Si!” Initially, it felt strange. Then I grew to appreciate it—even like it! This kissing custom makes people recognize one another in a most intimate way.

Upon visiting friends in San Diego years later, my husband and I walked into a gathering and no one even turned around. It was rude awakening for me as I had not only learned to appreciate “the kiss,” but now expected it. From the corner of the room, I introduced my husband; a few people turned around and said “Hi” from afar, but most kept talking. Not because they were ill-mannered, but different country, different unwritten “rules.”

I also found it interesting when teaching at the American School of Lima “the Gringos,” as we were called with cariño, would see each other at school, and we would nod: “What’s up?” “Hey.” Sometimes we would be as polite to say: “Good Morning,” but at after-school functions we all got kissy-kissy. Greetings between gringos took on the delicacy of Peruvians.

These delicate manners that I grew to love and appreciate extended far beyond kissing. When I needed something, a Peruvian friend or colleague would go out of his or her way. Not to say my American, Canadian, and British friends weren’t helpful, but Peruvians helped with a sort of joie de vivre—“I’m here! I’m ready. Where do you need to go?”

And then there were birthdays. No one ever forgot your birthday and Peruvians made you feel super-duper-incredibly-awesomely special. These were the days before Facebook alerts, birthdays were noted and celebrated. As a teacher, my class would sing to every birthday student, both in English and then in Spanish. When it was my birthday, the phone calls, hugs, and kisses were plentiful. Peruvians truly get the importance of this day—one was brought to earth and there is no other day as special.

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These are just a few of the delicacies of Peru. This South American country is rich history, art, culture, commerce, organic products, and geographic bio-diversity. When one thinks of Peru, undoubtedly, Machu Picchu comes to mind. The four-day Inka trail was, indeed, one of my favorite adventures, but Lake Titicaca remains my favorite place; ceviche unequivocally my favorite food, but none of these foods or places compare to this country’s greatest commodity: the warm-hearted Peruvian people with their delicate manners.

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Lake Titicaca

It’s a delicacy that I will never forget and has changed me forever.

Life Happens

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I had said I wanted a job more than I needed a vacation. And my prayers were answered—with a little help from above—and A LOT of effort, after two months of angst, I was hired to teach part-time at a quaint college in Los Angeles. Some of the beautiful buildings date back to the early 1900s, and the students are diverse and lively. So though I am extremely thankful to be gainfully employed once more, a slight disappointment encompasses me today. I see my ticket for Athens, dated September 6th, 2013. On Friday my husband and I would have been on a plane going to Greece for a month. But new jobs equal no vacation time. So, for a costly fee, I will rebook.

ImageI know this desire to be in Greece is superficial in comparison to the grander issues in life, but—admittedly—I find myself envious for the first time. I see pictures of friends, former colleagues, ex-students, all who have all become Facebook friends, and when their travels include Greece, I feel a tickle in my tummy.

I see photos of Turkey, Thailand, Tanzania, Vietnam Nam and Austria; all places I would like to visit, but those are fanciful desires. My craving for Greece is different. I think my Peruvian students who studied in the U.S. and abroad must know this visceral desire of returning to a place that has “spice.” A country may have its imperfections (maybe economic and class struggles) but it’s the place that makes you feel alive—and you don’t know exactly why. I am sure we all have that special place, for a friend who lives on the East Coast, San Diego may be his spice. Another friend, who is from the Philippines, says there’s nothing like going back home.

For me, Greece is my magic place. It’s where I recharge my battery. It’s the place where I lie in bed beside my Aunt Lucy, my first best friend, with our feet in the air leaning on a wall, and philosophize about the meaning of life, feminism, and Choice. I take long walks with my cousin Daphne and talk about relationships and how our parents are getting old and crazy—but we love them nonetheless because they put up with us. Of course there are the Greek islands, the endless summers of swimming, dancing, gyros-eating, and playing. Those moments, those memories, oftentimes keep me going. And those moments have been made so much more poignant because my last four visits were shared with the love of my life.
ImageMy husband lies on a double bed with my yiayia. She’s eighty-five at the time, bed-ridden, round with baby-soft skin. Hugo is so great with old people, loves to hear their stories, holds their hands tenderly when they talk. Yiayia and Hugo got so comfortable that he would lie on her double bed with her as she told him the same (dirty!) joke over and over. When we were leaving, I asked her what she wanted me to bring her back from Peru (we were living there at the time). She said: “Bring me back Peruvian man—like Hugo!” and the three of us laughed. Yiayia Dina is bright, naughty, and demanding. She’s also the inspiration of the grandmother in my novel, Red Greek Tomatoes. When I told my yiayia that the grandmother in my novel loses her virginity at eighteen before marriage, she was horrified. “People will think I am poutana!” “No, Yiayia, she is just a character. She’s not you.” She just shook her head and told Hugo the joke again about the Italian soldier who got a macaroni stuck up his butt.
ImageMy other love in Greece, apart from my loud, warm family, is our little summer house in a village called Kamena Vourla. It a simple town with cafés and bars that line the coast. It’s also the setting for a section of my novel, but more than anything, it’s a place that reminds me of a time in my life when I was completely carefree and full in the belly.
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At only three years old, I would waddle to the neighbor’s house and come back with a handful of candies. In the back yard of our summer house, my cousin Tony, five years my junior, and I would bathe in a plastic bath filled with cold water. In my early teens, the neighbors would still give me sweets, pinch me, and tell me I had the softest skin. My mother and aunt would walk along the fifty-meter stretch to the beach in nothing but a bathing suit and flip flops. We didn’t lock doors, and we said kalimera to everyone we saw.

When I was in my late teens, I went to Greece every year and in my early twenties, I lived in Athens for a few years. Though life was different compared to when one vacations in a country, I still loved it. My dream is to own a small home in Corfu one day with my husband and grow our own vegetables and make our own wine. Ah, dreams.

Today I have childhood friends there, a small amazing Greek family, and the country, despite all its economic issues and turmoil, is still, for me, a land of mystery, history, and utter breathtaking beauty.
Image So as I plan my classes for Fall semester while sitting in my artificial-cool office in the scorching San Fernando Valley—instead of lying on the beach at Aspronairi—I am thankful for memories and for my life. Hopefully, we can reschedule, but anything can happen in a year. So prota o Theos, (or God willing) next year this time, my blog post will be from a place that has more water and less air-conditioning.

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Inspired

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She’s fit, forty-three, married with three kids, works full-time—and has written twenty books and has a few more coming out soon! I’m forty-three too, married with three bulldogs, and work part-time. I have been teaching for twenty years and have written one book that is looking for a home.

As I sat on February 17th at the Southern California Writers’ Conference and listened to the keynote speaker, Michele Scott, who wrote a series of books (Wine Lover’s Mysteries), I was hugely inspired—not only because she is sweet and humble and spoke well, but because—I have to admit—I saw myself in her. Except for a few things. She balances a marriage, children, a family business, and a love of horses with writing; my responsibilities include teaching two college classes, making homemade lunches for my husband, going to the gym, cleaning every so often, and sometimes feeding the dogs (my hubby is their primary provider; mostly I just give them hugs and rubs). Needless to say, my life is certainly less complicated, and I certainly have a lot more free time.

I often wonder if because I never had children, I never had to learn to budget my time hyper-effectively. Time has always been mine, so though there have been points in my life when I have been busy or have struggled, I’ve always allowed myself “down-time”—maybe too much. The hours dwindle away: I drink Greek coffee with my mama in the morning and chat about nondescript issues; I watch The View, go to the gym for a few hours; I often take two-full days to correct students’ essays while checking Facebook and email intermittently; and then I write. I did finish a 130,000 word novel in a year (revised it for another); now it’s the hard part—trying to get agent representation and sell it. I have weighed the pros and cons of self-publishing, but first want to give the agent search a fair shake. Whatever happens, at least I am writing. And I so love writing. I create little stories for my FB page, have started this blog, and have outlined a second novel—but after hearing the keynote address, I feel like I am not producing like I should be.

I am so darn grateful every day that I have a healthy body, a loving husband, a supportive family, and kind friends, but I want to accomplish more. As I listened to Michele Scott speak, I was in awe. I admire people who follow their dreams, persevere through tough times. Michele wrote for more than ten years before she landed an agent and a book deal with Penguin. Throughout it all, she never stopped writing, and now all her books, those traditionally published as well as her e-books, have made her into a successful author. If she can juggle so much, then—I felt—I need to do more.

After the conference, I set my alarm for 6 a.m. and by 7 a.m. I was writing. I didn’t watch The View, cut my morning coffee with my mama, went to the gym at night, and corrected my students’ essays in a one five-hour session while camped out at Einstein’s. Two bagels and three coffee cups later, I was back home catching up on social media.

It was a great week. This week though, I am moving a bit more slowly. The View was interesting this morning; I Skyped with my Greek family; and now—finally—(it’s noon) I am ready to write. I guess I just can’t push as hard as Michele Scott, but I am okay with that. We all have to do what feels right. I have kept my gym schedule at night to maximize my days, will continue to visit Einstein’s once a week rather than labor days over essays, and my visits with mama are shorter, so I have, indeed, made some changes. And, overall, what counts is that I am happy. And writing.