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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Greece is Good

Part II

After a few heavy posts (the last two below), this one is lighter with travel stories, tips, and links. And lots of photos to peruse . . .

During the two weeks that my husband was in Greece, we did manage to have fun. And my Greek family, especially my cousin and yiayia, wanted this for us. The first few days were spent with family and re-exploring my favorite city. Despite the cement, smog, people pushing one another, cigarette smoke that hangs heavy in the air, Athens unequivocally remains my favorite city in the world. Despite the aforementioned, always so much beauty to behold, the people, the place. One day Athens will have its own post; for today, Athens is a photoblog.

ATHENS

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Erechtheion with the missing Caryatids

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The “before” hair

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A beautiful city of cement

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For me, the happiest place on earth

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A cool day with few visitors

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With my Greek–well, Peruvian god 🙂

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With my first iphone 4S–loved this little white device. Just like the hair–it’s gone now.

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My favorite place to eat in Plaka

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Mouth watering as I post this

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IOS

After a few fabulous days in Athens, we went to the island of Ios, and despite its reputation for being a “party island” with young, drunk Brits, Aussies, and Irish folk, it was beautiful.FullSizeRender (28) We stayed at a lovely hotel with a pool that I highly recommend. www.mediterraneo-ios.com The owners are an Italian couple, and the place is immaculate. FullSizeRender (31)Sal likes to take care of his guests—from his special BBQ to tiramisu in a glass—if you want some personal attention, this place is ideal, especially if you have extra days to lounge by the pool or swing in the hammock while listening to his eclectic playlist.

A room with a view

A room with a view

Unfortunately, our days were numbered, so we spent very little time at the hotel and instead we enjoyed the crystal beaches and “extreme” night life.

While having a beer in an empty bar with loud music, a British boy ran in and wanted us to “Jump! Jump!” with him. So we did. We’re just that kind of couple. After Kris Kross’ song finished, he told us we were “cool” and then took off. When we walked back to the hotel around 3 a.m., we saw a red-headed lass sitting on a corner step vomiting, and another young thing in a fluorescent yellow miniskirt stumbled down the path as her friends tried to keep her up.FullSizeRender (30) It was indeed a party island, but we did encounter a club with an “older” crowd that played only Greek music where we spent most nights. And, my goodness, how I love Greek music, enters my toes, tickles my tummy, squeezes my heart.

The beaches, the sunsets, and the views of Ios are spectacular. From the hotel, we took hikes to two churches on top of two small mountains—one to the south, the other to the north.FullSizeRender (42) Young, polite, people gathered (with bags of beer, of course) to enjoy the view, too. A set of boys sat in front of us looking very Abercrombie-ish and another group perched themselves on the church roof.FullSizeRender (35)Hugo and I also took it in while sitting silently on a white wall.IMG_9385 IMG_9384

To the left, below, Mylopotas beach could be seen with its golden sand and blue water. We had spent the entire day there. Hugo went wind surfing (www.meltemiwatersports.com) and later we had a mojito and a plate of calamari, and then a final dip before taking a bus up the steep hill again.FullSizeRender (38)

At the second church, not a single soul stirred except for the men who were getting it ready for Agia Paraskevi on the 26th of July. I learned that I was born on the day this saint is commemorated. If my mother had followed tradition, my name would have been “Friday” (what Paraskevi means in English.) I kind of like that, then every day would have been Friday for me.FullSizeRender (40)

But Agia Paraskevi’s story is quite a bit darker. She is known as the protector of the eyes, but was a woman tortured and beheaded for refusing to pray to idols by the Roman governor Tarasius in the year 180. I have an icon of Ag. Paraskevi now and look at her with mixed feelings.

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My favorite view

At the top of hill the wind blew, but we were hot and sticky, so it felt good. Below, the fishing boats, the HighSpeed ferry, and the people spotted the harbor; inland, the terraced hillside reminded me of the land around Cusco and Machu Picchu, graduated landscapes of mountainous farmland. After we sufficiently sucked in the views, I pulled out my iphone, my husband his Nikon. Then we took other pictures–the most important ones had already been filed away in our mind’s hard drive, readily accessible and safely stored for days when life gets tough.FullSizeRender (43) Standing at the top of Ios made me feel like DiCaprio in Titanic. For a few short minutes, I was queen of the world.

NAXOS

FullSizeRender (75)The next morning, we were off to Naxos. The other Cyclades islands, the famous ones, Mykonos, Santorini, are genuinely impressive, but . . . Naxos. I fell in love with this island. It has everything. A beautiful port lined with cafés, restaurants, shops (all with speedy Wi-Fi!) Archeological sites. Statues, castles, towers. Breathtaking beaches with clear water. Villages hidden in the mountains. And, of course, the image of Naxos—The Portara, the entrance to the unfinished Temple of Apollo that welcomes visitors when pulling into the harbor.FullSizeRender (73)FullSizeRender (69)

The Temple was begun between 545 and 524 B.C. but never completed. Its massive blocks of marble jet into the sky creating a magical ambience when mythical gods and goddesses ruled the land. We visited The Portara at the hottest time of the day when tourists flocked to the beaches and locals took siestas, thus leaving my husband and I alone to explore with wonder and quiet. The walkway to the temple has clear water on either side, so after visiting the site, one can disrobe and take a dip (I did!) or enjoy some octopus at the restaurants at the edge of the town.FullSizeRender (71)FullSizeRender (62)FullSizeRender (76)

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This is not him 🙂

In town we stayed at Hotel Rea (www.naxos-rea.com). (I didn’t realize “economical room” meant the basement; clean, but eye-level to the street.) A cranky, funny owner said: “What do you expect for this price? Now you’ll go and say bad things about my hotel, so for an upgrade, I’ll put you in a better room.” For a few more euros, we had a third-floor room, more than we needed as all we do is sleep there, but I did like the kitchenette and being able to make my Greek coffee every morning in the briki on the little stove. I told the owner, when he dropped us off at the port, I would write a good review. He was a cute, dimpled older man and teased me (for my American side) up until the end. “You people in America all think hotels in Europe will be like the Hilton.” Not true, I thought. He continued to rattle on and I smiled because like most Greeks, he had a soft heart. His bark was bigger than his bite.

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View from the castle window

FullSizeRender (70)Right in Chora, the main town, “Domus Della Rocca-Barozzi,” a Venetian museum and castle, hovered above. The castle and its history immediately captivated my imagination. We got a tour from a historian whose words unsettled me; she made me tear up a few times as she talked about the loss, the wars, and how the Greeks finally got Naxos back. Her words were heartbreaking as I recently learned that we are selling off islands to pay for debts. For a mere 4,000,000 euros one can buy Tokmakia Island, and for 14,000,000 euros, some millionaire could have Nissos Makri as a playground. Awful.

Apparently a beach in Rhodes also went up for sale, but thankfully, on Naxos no mention of any of this as the beaches were some of the prettiest I have ever seen. Plaka, Mikri Vigla, and Aliko, all so different, most quiet with aqua waters, all only 7 km to 20 km from Chora. Many of the beaches on the right side of the island remain virgin with no human traffic.

FullSizeRender (52)The archeology on this island was not unexpected, but certainly better than I had imagined. One statue, “Near the village of Apollona, at the entrance to the ancient quarry, is a half-finished ‘Kouros’ (male statue) lying on the ground, which has never been moved from this spot. The statue is 10.45 metres high, and is dated to the beginning of the 6th century B.C. and was probably dedicated to the God Dionysus” (Naxos travel brochure). I imagined this statue blanketed in stories: the people who dragged it down the quarry and when it broke, how they must have looked at it with defeat and climbed and cut again, to make the perfect figure.FullSizeRender (53) We climbed a small hill and reached his brother who had had a similar fate. He had lost a leg, so his completion never took place either. Two abandoned men.

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FullSizeRender (49)Our next stop on the road-trip was Dimitra’s Temple, dating back to 530 B.C., one of the best–preserved temples in Greece. It reminded me of a small Parthenon in the middle of a field near the village of Sangri. I imagined my ancestors as they built this impressive temple to Demeter, the goddess of fertility, hoping for good crops.FullSizeRender (48)

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One of the oldest Christian churches on the island from the 6th century A.D.

Ample ancient towers and churches, FullSizeRender (47)mountainous villages like Moni, Halki, Filoti, Apeiranthos, and Halki as well as so many other points of interest make Naxos a truly special island. I would recommend a five-day minimum visit to experience all the diversity this island offers.

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So many picturesque places to eat in Greece

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I’ve finally learned to put down the camera and really enjoy the view

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View when driving down a mountain

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Moni

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Restaurant with remarkable view in Apeiranthos

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Streets of Apeiranthos

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Villages below

After almost a month’s stay in Greece, my husband and I boarded a plane back to Los Angeles. It’s always hard to leave; we are never ready to go. My husband loves Greece as much as I do; another reason why I know I chose the right guy. We still dream of living permanently in Greece one day, and though we both pictured a place in Kerkyra (Corfu), now the dream has been revised.

FullSizeRender (50)A little cottage with a vineyard in Naxos. Lots of animals: cats, dogs, goats, sheep, birds, a donkey or two; of course, homemade wine and a bookshelf. And if the dream is completely realized, a few of the books on the shelves will say: “By Kimberly K. Robeson.” I can already picture the Venetian princess of the Della Rocca clan and how she felt when the Turkish boats pulled in . . .

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London Calling!

It was 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving—considered the busiest travel day of the year—and we were snailing down the 405 at 5 miles an hour on our way to LAX. I didn’t think we were going to make our flight to London.

For those who know me, I am the quintessential Type-A person: I like to be prepared, organized, and always on time. My husband couldn’t get off work earlier and bad planning left us on a packed freeway, with me staring outside the window, too frustrated to talk and too stressed to form actual words—a first for me as I am known by friends as loquacious Kimberly. I wondered if our $4,000 tickets would finally be worthless or if we would have to once again pay re-booking fees (we had originally bought these tickets for Greece; complete story here https://kimberlykrobeson.wordpress.com/2013/09/04/life-happens/). Husband Hugo was jolly; he’s my yin and I’m his yang. When he’s up, I tend to be down and vice versa. It works. So he made jokes and I quietly seethed. Upon arriving to the car park, we ran to the shuttle, then ran into the airport, moved through the security lines (running was not an option) and . . . we made it! With half hour to spare.

ImageOnce we were airborne, the super-tan British flight attendant said: “Now that we have left Los An-gel-eeeeeze [love the way the Brits pronounce my city of angels] can I offer you a drink?” With a glass of Shiraz and The Great Gatsby on my monitor, I took a deep breath, a sip, and smiled. Yipeeee. We were going to London!

After a short ten-hour flight, we arrived to Costa Coffee, scones, and nippy weather. With some help, we successfully took the tube (love saying that word) to our hotelito. Because both Hugo and I had been so busy leading up to this excursion, we had made zero plans and had zero literature about what to do or where to go (except for several helpful friends’ Facebook recommendations that I did print out). It would be four days of exploring without a plan—another first for me.

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I usually book rooms through Tripadvisor, and the week before had found a little place in Kensington because someone had said “If you are flying into Heathrow, Kensington is convenient.” I think Brits know about U.S. Thanksgiving because everything for that weekend seemed double-priced. Reviews on Tripadvisor about Kensington Suite Hotel said: “the room is too small,” “the bed too lumpy,” “the breakfast too simple”; but they all said “location, location, location!” So I booked it because I knew we would be out all day and just needed a clean room and a place to crash at night.

The first afternoon, after checking in, we hopped on the tube (“mind the gap!”) Imageand got off at Oxford Circus. A shopper’s paradise. The hoi polloi were swarming the streets, shopping and spending. I saw a J. Crew, an Apple store, and an Abercrombie & Fitch —globalization alive and well. Hugo and I went into a shop with souvenirs and perused the local gifts looking for a snow globe (for our collection). Though my husband is certainly a manly man, he seems to get as much joy out of our snow-globe search as I do. “No, amore, I don’t like that one” he said. I usually let him choose as his taste for snow globes is quite exceptional. I was also looking for Dr. Who stuff for my nieces, neighbor, and school secretary who are all über fans of the show. There is a shop dedicated to Dr. Who but every time we Googled it, we were always half-hour away. When I got back and presented the secretary with a red phone booth sharpener, but told her I was hoping to find a blue Dr. Who one, she told me that I could just go to the local mall as Hot Topic has “a ton of Dr. Who stuff.” It’s the thought that counts, right? My neighbors got a magnet, and Tess and Drew, you’ll just have to wait to see what Thea got you . . .

ImageThe weather was chilly, but I dressed well. Layers upon layers, topped with my cute (albeit young) new chullo Imageand bottomed with my Cole Haan (Nike Air technology) boots, I was warm and comfy, no snapping Achilles tendons on this trip! (http://kimberlykrobeson.com/SNAP__Goes_the_Achilles.html) From Oxford Circus we walked to Picadilly Circus, the city alight with holiday decorations, looking simply spectacular. From there, we traversed the city, reaching Big Ben at midnight, where we took our first photo. A sharp left, and we continued along the River Thames, then up again, reaching Trafalgar Square a bit hungry and tired.

One of my favorite food thingies in London was the 7-Eleven-type shop called Tesco Express that sold yummy sandwiches and itty-bitty desserts—no super-sizing here! I got prawn mayonnaise on whole wheat with a bite-size panna cotta. We got our food and at about 1.a.m., gobbled down our Thanksgiving dinner under the English stars at the foot of a huge lion sculpture.

Realizing that the Underground was closed for the night, we chatted with a few police officers, who kindly helped us find a bus back to Kensington. After more walking, going in the wrong direction, then the right direction, we made it back to our too-small room with the too-lumpy bed at 2 a.m. In a scalding shower with amazing pressure, I was full of energy. I love being on holiday. After almost a year of being the primary caregiver of our three dogs (hubby has been working insanely long days), and zero time away from them, I felt free. “Free! Free!” Just like Louise Mallard said in my favorite short story: “The Story of an Hour.” But before hitting the pillow, my mind was on my kiddos, so I  logged onto gmail to get an update from our new dogsitter and all was well. A bit of rain in LA; Achilles, Oia, and Opa said they missed mommy (ok, and daddy, too) but they were happy and in good hands. I slept like a bebita.

The next few days flew by. We did the hop-on hop-off bus, and here are a few tips if interested. We went with Golden Tours instead of Big Bus or The Original Tour. ImageThe positive and negatives: Golden Tours was not as busy, so we always got great seats, top front, but the bus stations were fewer and farther apart, and the buses only came every twenty or so minutes with a long stop at Victoria. While waiting impatiently for Golden Tours and watching another very crowded Big Bus go by, I got a bit cold and antsy. Another Big Bus, another The Original Tour. One morning we waited for forty minutes and the Golden bus (actually blue) never came although were told there was “one more pick-up before 11:30 a.m. at this stop.” So if you go off season, decide: a crowed, regularly-scheduled bus or an empty, less-convenient one. As far as prices, Golden Tours had a buy one-day for two-day off-season pass (£20); I think the same as the other companies. Knowing what I know now, I think maybe BB or OT would have been preferable.

The first day we got off at the London Eye, and in a pod that fit about twenty people (only ten in our compartment since it was low season) we moved around a large ferris wheel at a turtle’s pace. ImageIt was neither scary nor cheap (£20 for a half-hour loop) but well worth it as the views of London were spectacular. A red-headed British lady with her two kids moved around the pod a lot as she talked loudly: “Darlings, where do you want to go next?” They both looked incredibly bored. “But, Darlings, I didn’t know we would get on so quickly. I thought the lines would be longer.” Her family’s annual pass hung around her neck. “Darlings, shall we go to a museum?” The little boy pushed the little girl into the glass, ignoring his mother. I stood there thinking: I know there are tons of joys in having children, all kinds of wonderful surprises as they grow (I’ve gotten a taste through my amazing nieces), but at that moment, I was thankful that I only have one other person in this world to keep entertained. I was also amazed at this mother’s patience and demeanor; women like her teach me so much. Whenever my kids (no, not my dogs, real kids: i.e. my students) get rambunctious, I channel mothers like her and a kinder, more compassionate teacher emerges.

ImageMy husband and I are lucky in the sense that we like to do the same things. We both love to walk, shop, stop for a coffee, then walk some more. We are not necessarily museum people; I need to have studied a painting or sculpture before I see it; otherwise, honestly, I just don’t get it. I loved seeing Picasso’s Guernica, Michelangelo’s David, Botticelli’s La Primavera and Magritte’s The Son of Man all because a crazy (but adorable) Humanities professor had talked passionately about them, showed slides, and described David’s perfect derriere while licking his lips. Since I didn’t have time to research what pieces are in London, and Hugo is not a big fan of old art, we skipped museums on this trip. We did pop into The Tate Museum (since all museums are free) but every floor we landed on had an extra fee (between £12-35) for special exhibits.

I did manage to do a bit of shopping even though we were on a budget. ImageA pair of shoes—of course. All my shoe purchases since my little foot accident are reasonable shoes, comfort comes second to sexy. Hugo got a Starbucks mug to add to his collection, but we never made it to Harrods. We did manage to see almost everything else I had heard about as we walked endlessly: from the London Eye, we jumped on the bus to the Tower of London, did a quick visit to see the crown jewels, and then walked across the Tower Bridge (some mistakenly calling it the London Bridge), another bus to the Globe Theatre. Strolling along the water we found a holiday fair, and I tried some mulled wine for the second time (still didn’t really like it), and then all the way back to Parliament and to Trafalgar Square.

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Seeing the outside of Buckingham Palace made me realize again how I don’t quite understand royalty, but, admittedly, do love the romantic story of Kate and William. From Westminster Abbey to St. Paul’s Cathedral to the Parliament to the many bridges, I fell a little in love with the buildings and architecture of this city. I loved the tube, the double-decker buses, (the ale!), the feeling of history. I did find it expensive and a bit cold for my Mediterranean self, but I would still move there tomorrow if the opportunity arose—at least for a few years then I think I would need the sun again.

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The final evening, my husband and I met up with a Greek cousin, Michalis, who is studying his master’s in London. ImageWe sat in Pommeler’s drinking wine and ale and talking about Breaking Bad. Hugo and I have only just started watching it as we had heard almost everyone talking about it. My husband is hooked; I’m not (yet), but as we sat with this twenty-eight-year-old young man, it was a common thread. Of course, we talked about our families, his studies, and the city, but it’s funny how a TV show is what crosses the continents in a very visceral manner. It was a fun night of reminiscing and laughing, but we had a flight to catch the next morning, so as the clock struck midnight, it was time to move on.

That is, to another pub. It was cold and after another long walk back towards “home,” we entered the first pub we saw after a long stretch of closed shops and restaurants. It was hot and crowded inside, but I was enjoying my last deep, rich Guinness when I noticed there were a lot of men around. I mean, a lot of men. A young Argentinean boy sidled up beside us and was trying to ignore the grey-haired man who was flirting with him. I smiled at the boy, curious as to what was in his Harrods’ shopping bag; Hugo was on his phone Googling the name of the place we were at. The “City of Quebec,” indeed, was a gay bar. Fun and friendly people, but it was time to do one more stop before we went back to our room: find some food. We found a place in Notting Hill that was still open, so after enjoying a large pizza, we took our final stroll back to our hotel.

ImageIt was a short adventure, but enough time to get a sense of the city. My only regrets were that we didn’t do a Beefeater tour at The Tower of London, I didn’t see the food court at Harrod’s, or go to some of the pubs or clubs a friend suggested. But it was a fabulous four-day vacation.

Upon return, I heard the flight attendant say, “Welcome to Los An-gel–eeeeze.” It was good to be back. We have lived in The City of Angels now for less than a year, yet when I opened the door of our little blue house and saw three slobbery bulldogs waiting to greet us, I have never felt more at home. I may have heard London calling, but I think I would like to stay put for a few more years. Then, who knows?

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Why Grown Women Still Need Their Mamas

ImageThis past week my husband had a business trip, and I was feeling a bit “alone,” not lonely, just like a stranger in a big, big city. New to Los Angeles, I have been very fortunate to have met some wonderful people. I made a few new friends and have the absolute best neighbors on both sides, who not only are animal people, but are people who I could call if I ever felt unsafe. But I don’t. I have my three bebitos at my feet and their snoring (and other sounds) actually put me to sleep at night. But this past week, I needed my mama. Yes, I’m forty-four, but does wanting or needing your mama ever really change? So I called her. My mother LOVES her home, her garden, and her swimming pool (where she does her daily—ten—laps). She loves going to Curves Gym: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Every Tuesday, she cooks dinner for my nieces; every Thursday, she sings the same three songs at her favorite karaoke restaurant. Every morning, she talks on the phone for hours with her sister in Greece. Simply put, she is retired and she loves her routine. But she loves her daughter more.

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Like most maturing adults, my mother hates to travel even if it’s a simple train ride from San Diego to Los Angeles. And she hates leaving her home more. But, like a good Greek mama, her kids and grandkids always come first. So instead of being by myself for a week, my mama came to stay with me. ImageShe always arrives with bags of goodies: pita bread and hummus (both of which we can buy from the corner Trader Joes), all my mail (still have Mom’s address from my college days), a few surprises (silver flip-flops and a pink nightie), and something sweet for my husband (homemade Baklava).

There are so many reasons why moms are the best. Here are some specific reasons why her visit was not only appreciated, but useful.

#1 She helped me clean house;
# 2 she taught me how to change my vacuum bag;
# 3 she taught me how to hem my husband’s slacks (okay, I lied, she just did it);
# 4 she kept me company when I took my Jeep for its smog check;
# 5 she helped me wash my Greek goddess dress that I wore for my birthday (that was hanging on the closet door for months!);
# 6 she took a pretty dress I bought and cut the back (it was too long) and attached it to the front (it was too short);
# 7 she scratched my back when we went to bed (just like she did when I was a little girl);
#8 and she made me laugh with her silly ways.

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And what did I do for her?
#1 I made her Greek coffee in the morning;

#2 I tried to treat her to a Starbuck’s simple coffee, but she wouldn’t let me because she said it was too expensive;

#3 I bought her a good wine to enjoy;Image

#4 I cooked a delicious curry dinner;

#5 I let her complain about our dogs;

#6 and I simply appreciated her.

It’s a funny thing, the relationship between mothers and daughters. You love that woman heart and soul, yet she is often the person who drives you a bit nuts. I look like my mom, I laugh like my mom, sing like her, cry like her. I repeat myself like her: I ask my husband a million times if he wants more food, more water, another pillow, an extra blanket. But I am also strong and happy like her. I remember a quote I read a few years ago that said: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, I am my mother after all.” I am a lot like her and also so different. My strengths are distinct, but I also don’t think I am as resilient and fearless as she is when it comes to life.

So when life is feeling a little unstable, and when I feel a bit alone, I know it’s okay for a grown woman, like myself, to need my mama.

My “Story”

The Sarawak headhunters wanted to kidnap me. They sought blonde babies, and I was the most beautiful baby she had ever seen. My mama told me this story for as long as I can remember. Obviously, she was seeing through mommy goggles because pictures of me at that time reveal a toddler with an alien-sized head, a non-existent nose, and a belly that matched Buddha’s. ImageThough headhunting rarely took place in the early 1970s and cute babies had nothing to do with their choice of head, to my mother’s relief, we left Borneo when I was almost two years old.

I grew up with stories—just like this one. My dad told strangers my mama was Miss Greece 1964 (as far as I know, in the early 60s, she worked as a hotel receptionist and never held the aforementioned title). In the 70s, an Arab Sheik wanted my mother to leave her engineer husband to join his harem; Imagein the 80s, our airplane on the way to South Africa had to do a crash landing into a bed of foam; in the 90s, my Greek grandmother gave me twelve gold bracelets from a toothless gypsy who owed her money; and in the 2000s, it was time for me to finally take my family’s oral tradition, and commit these and other stories to writing.

I still don’t know if these stories are somewhat factual or entirely fictional, but I guess it doesn’t really matter. In Saudi Arabia, as an eight-year-old, I would make up long tales of camels and princesses; fire and sand dunes. In South Africa, as an eleven-year-old, my stories became more elaborate, a missing treasure, a leopard who could talk, and a Bushman who saved the day. But my favorite stories have always been about Greece. The place where everything tastes better, looks bluer, smells nicer.

ImageWhen I was a few years old, my family and I moved, for a short time, back to mother’s native land, Greece. When my North American father got a new international engineering post, we packed our bags again. By the time I was thirteen, I had lived in six different countries and had visited countless more. In Venezuela, I ate arepas; in Saudi Arabia I rode camels; in South Africa I walked alongside giraffes and lay with leopards, Imagebut my favorite memories are in Kamena Vourla, at my grandmother and grandfather’s summer cottage by the sea.

Almost every summer of my life, I swam in the Mediterranean, ate watermelon and tomatoes from my papoo’s garden, and listened to stories that spewed from my yiayia’s mouth. Yiayia, who also grew up in several countries, told me about a green-eyed Bedouin woman who pawned her thick, silver ankle bracelets at my great grandfather’s kiosk in Egypt. Because the woman never returned, yiayia’s father thought, with her other-worldly gaze, she was an angel. ImageHe used the silver to make a religious icon, which now hangs in my mother’s bedroom. The eyes supposedly move; the “angel’s” eyes watching over all of us.

Yiayia would tell me stories of her youth in Egypt, her trials with two daughters who were so different, and the wimpy son who grew to be her favorite. My mother told me about her travels to Iran, Hong Kong, and Lesotho and about her youth in Nigeria. “I would climb a tree instead of go to school,” she told me, and “I loved swimming in King Farouk’s palace. Those days it was open on weekends to the public.” All my life I listened to the matriarchs of our family; I grew up with their stories and my father’s, so naturally enough, I too became a storyteller.

At Kmart, my first job, I worked in the fitting room. Hidden behind a stack of clothes, I would write for hours in my Hello-Kitty palm-sized notebook. After high school, I got a Bachelor’s Degree in English, moved to Greece, and got my first job teaching English. Three years later, I returned to the U.S, pursued a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature and became an Adjunct English Professor in San Diego.

In my 12th year of teaching, I met my wonderful husband Imageand moved to Peru for six years. In Lima I secured a position as an English teacher, and then soon after as Head of Department, at Colegio Roosevelt, a prestigious American I.B. World School. It was a great experience though seeing extreme poverty juxtaposed with affluence often left me questioning my own choices. It also filled my mental rolodex with new stories I want to tell one day.

ImageHugo and I returned to the U.S. in 2010 with our little family, three beautiful (and extremely naughty) English bulldogs, and a new adventure began.

Teaching has been a happy accident. I love being in front of a class and telling students stories (as well as teaching them the mandated syllabus). And, thankfully, I have been successful and have made great bonds with students over the years. But, after twenty years of teaching, it was time to write the novels that have been in my head, the first one being RED GREEK TOMATOES, a work of fiction inspired by my mother’s and grandmother’s stories as well as my own life experiences.

ImageThere are not too many things in this world that are certain. But of one thing I am certain: I was born to be a storyteller.

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A Glimpse of Cartagena

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ImageA never-ending boardwalk that wraps around a harbor with tall, modern buildings looming above; an old city with several forts and colonial-style homes with intricate balconies; tourists gathered in street cafés; musicians banging on their drums; locals selling cigarettes, cigars, Chiclets, bracelets, and necklaces; the beautiful Botero “La Gordita” sculpture; these are just a few of the sights and sounds of Cartagena, a city I immediately fell in love with when my husband and I visited in October 2009.

Hugo and I sat for hours in cafés watching the colorful people of Colombia, loving every moment of our five-day holiday. During the day we would lie on the beach as locals approached us to offer a beach massage or to sell handmade crafts and jewelry.Image In the afternoons we explored the many distinct barrios of the city—from the modern and hip to the classic and touristy. In a four-hundred-year-old fort at 11 p.m., we sat in an outside café-bar that boasted a seven-piece band; African, Caribbean, and Latino fusion beats filled the night. There was no cover charge. No class, race, age discrimination. It was a place where young and old mixed together, a place where age carried no number. A teenage couple on my left sat happily with fingers interlaced, kissing hungrily; to my right, two ladies in their seventies sat tapping their feet while sharing a fifth of whiskey. We had long days and even longer summer nights.

ImageIt was safe with friendly, warm people and had quickly become one of my favorite cities in Latin America. Just as CNN’s commercial states: “The only thing to be afraid of when visiting Colombia is never wanting to leave.” So true.

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