Saturday, May 24, 2008

My Big Fat Greek Vacation... Sadly No Wedding.

Housekeeping First (and I'd look at these cuz the ones here don't do Greece justice)

Given that my last entry was more than a month ago, I believe this to be the longest blog hiatus to date. It’s not that I don’t have time to write or anything to say, but I suppose I am reluctant to post when I don’t have anything overwhelmingly positive to say or can pass on funny stories, scandalous exploits or good drama that makes this a much more interesting read.

I’ll split this in two… and will start with the good stuff.

Spring is full of holidays in this country, which most of you already know if you read my March entry. And believe me, the swarm of festivities has not yet stopped after the flurry of early March celebrations. The great part about this is I don’t have to work a lot of days. Spring Break rolls around at the end of March and whereas most volunteers have to stick around Bulgaria and work because their schools were on strike for the entire six weeks, Sehee, Krista and I hightail it out as quickly as possible to find some warm weather in our friendly neighbor Greece. We had heard good things about the travel situation with the trains; mainly that it is not the normal Bulgarian fleet and thereby actually has the quality and amenities you would expect on a European train. Tickets in hand, we step on what we think is our train, hand the tickets to the Greek official, and ooh and ahh at how nice this train is. After leading us a bit down the car to what we are expecting to be our seats, the ticket man stops abruptly, looks up from the tickets at us with a horrified expression and with brows furrowed and mouth open wide moans, “Ohhh NOO!! You are in the BULGAAARIAN car!” Well, this is a nice start to the trip. We relocate to the one Bulgarian car, which was probably built by the Russians in 1952 and find that our home for the night is something smaller than most people’s closets, but somehow home to three beds. The top bed is apparently made for dwarves, so this is where I sleep. However, with a Dramamine induced state of haziness, it is difficult to be cognizant enough to mind. Being na├»ve as we are to such train establishments, it takes us quite some time to discover a hidden sink and the entire night to figure out that the beds fold up and become chairs. I am sure our amusement and naivety to the entire situation fully amuses our neighbors. I won’t discuss the bathroom situation…

After fifteen hours of train fun, we eventually arrive in Athens to be greeted with fantastic weather, which warrants the first dresses and sandals of the season. We stay with two wonderful hosts, Natalia and Dinos who we found on (a site for travelers to find hosts/accommodation abroad). It was really nice to be in a city again and after that trip, it became overwhelmingly clear to me that I cannot do small town life. I mean I can survive as any human can, but I do not believe that I am at my best. There is nothing to give me energy in a place like Samokov. Anyhow, we find Athens to be quite delightful, but I suppose after Bulgaria, anything is. The public transport is clean, works like a charm and free of skeezy-fueled air-humping experiences as encountered in Istanbul. The city is full of unique culture that is a product of a marvelous history and deeply-rooted and tremendous pride. It truly is amazing to be in such a modern city and look up to see the Acropolis right above your head.

We see the good stuff: The Temple of Zeus, Acropolis, Parthenon, the Ancient and Roman Agora, the market where the purchase of choice this trip was leather sandals (as opposed to vintage sunglasses), the Aegean Sea and normal supermarkets with a good selection of items. Yes, this is a highlight.

We miss some of historical stuff, but thankfully we are all similar travelers and get over that stuff somewhat quickly. It’s more our style to just wander and get a feel for what life in the town is like. Unfortunately at some point this wandering lands us into the H&M and Bershka and onto the high shopping street with clothing we actually want to buy. One day we decide to take the tram down the coast to see the beach in Athens, but find that for the most part, it is dirty and full of trash. We sit on that tram for about half an hour going south until a British ex-pat tells us to get off a nearby stop for some good food and gelato. We do. All of a sudden we are in the Beverly Hills meets Pacific Palisades of Greece. We honestly could be in America with how this part of town feels, and there is even a Ruby Tuesday’s to prove it. Additionally and throughout our time in Athens, we eat delicious Greek food and go out with Natalia and Dinos for some good times with great company (and without the chalga music).

After four days in Athens we board a train for Thessaloniki, which is the worst experience of the entire trip. There is just something about these trains… Before we get on we see about a hundred rowdy high-schoolers on some school trip so we race for a seat, only to have a bitchy teacher later tell us the entire car is reserved for the students. Now having to face a five-hour train ride standing up, we curse and pummel our way out. We have giant bags so making our way through an overcrowded train is nearly impossible and at one point, Krista becomes an unfortunate casualty of the trek. Volunteer down. For the next three hours, every place we try to perch we are rudely kicked out of. Early on in the troublesome experience we send Krista to explore and assess the options. She comes back with news that in first class there is a children’s playroom with giant play toys that we can sit on. After taking out a few old people with the bags on the way there, we arrive and enjoy an hour of peace before some angry train official, who from this point on becomes our mortal enemy, decides to get discriminatory with the Americans. There are Greeks doing the same things we are, but only we are continually relocated. We are probably kicked out of six different (uncomfortable) places. For about an hour or so I sit on the steps leading out of the train preparing to face death at whichever point the door decides to abruptly open. Thankfully, I meet Stefanos, a fellow seatless friend who is great company and makes the experience less painful. He makes me laugh, impresses me with his English skills and basically tells me the entire history of his people and country in a few hours. He is like a seventy-year old man trapped in the body of a twenty-three year old knowing every myth and old saying possibly ever told. Eventually, the train Nazi gets off about three hours after we boarded the train so the girls and I with Stefanos ride out the rest of the experience in our reclaimed playroom somewhat peacefully.

We arrive in Thess and meet our next host Marios, who takes us to the home he shares with his mother. She is fantastic and it is kind of nice to be mommed again, although we feel quite bad she even feels obligated to do anything for us. But since Marios has to work a lot, we probably spend most of our time with her. Marios is fantastic and quite a quirky character with a love of Smurfs, comic conventions, and beer can collections (he reminds of Hagop but less schizophrenic-like ☺). The Smurf shirt I found at the thrift store in Sandaksi proves to be a big hit with him. Anyhow, Thess is very different from Athens in that the sites can be seen in about a day. We also have bad weather, so we switch from go-go-go tourist mode to being out all night and sleeping all day. The city is home to a large number of university students so it has loads of cafes, coffeehouses, bars and clubs - definitely nightlife oriented. It is a very nice city and certainly seems like a pleasant place to live, but less of a tourist destination unless you are in for the party, which we were. We find out the embarrassing way that Americans eat dinner quite early, because one night we decide to treat ourselves to seafood and arrive around 7:30ish to find we will be the only ones in the restaurant until about 11:00pm. Because of this, we have the full attention of a hilarious staff, which provided some fantastic seafood. Unfortunately, it also ends up being the most expensive meal I have probably ever paid for out of my own pocket (considering the exchange rate). With full bellies, we trek into the center to try and find a club with music with suitable for our American tastes. Marios has given us a list and map so we wander around in the train trying to locate them. Lost and not completely satisfied with the music we are hearing coming from the places we are passing, sounds of Tainted Love begin to emerge out of a club near the water. We all hear it, stop in our disoriented tracks and say, “follow the tainted love!” All is well and we end up in a club with the best assortment of music heard on this side of the UK and unlike the Greeks who stand stoically still, dance our gleeful American hearts out.

Sehee has to leave Krista and me a bit early for some Peace Corps business back in Bulgaria and Marios is off to Athens for a comic convention so we switch hosts to a crazy man named Anastis. He is basically the spoiled son of really successful and rich doctors who is into sex, drugs and rock and roll in probably the worst way. He makes for an interesting character, but his opinionated demeanor is wildly overbearing at times. Anastis is the owner of a music studio and quite a member of Thess’s music community. We go out with him a few nights and continually encounter people who wanted to “inform” us Americans that they are the real Macedonia, not the country of the Republic of Macedonia. Do not even dare say the word Macedonia in Greece in reference to the country unless you are prepared for a serious history lesson. Or mention Turkey. Overall we sense a bit of anti-Americanism in Greece for our country’s part in the reorganization of Yugoslavia and the consequent problems that created for the culture and pride of the people of Greece and this general area of the world. I mean I get it. I understand it.
This is the stuff American’s don’t find in their history textbooks. At some point it becomes quite funny how many conversations we unwillingly have on this subject and we are REAL sick of Anastis’s thoughts being pounded into our heads about it. Anyhow, one rainy day in efforts to avoid him (and the rain) Krista and I camp out of a TGI Fridays for hours to eat American food and play cards. Cheddar cheese, nachos, burgers, Heinz ketchup and a manager who gives us free brownies - such a treat. Later that night we meet up with Anastis again who has found a bunch of Erasmus students studying abroad in Thess from various European and EuroAsian countries. That is the highlight off this portion of the trip as we spend an evening in the company of about forty people from all different cultures. This is the beauty of traveling. The next day Anastis’s parents invite us to take part in a scrumptious Greek Sunday lunch before we finally commence our trip back to Bulgaria. Unfortunately, there is again some problem with the train so we are bussed to some tiny village about two hours away. Despite the inconvenience, this bus ride is probably the happiest I can remember being in a really long time. Sitting with an ipod playing fantastic music, I pass breathtaking scenery of a beautiful country with the sun warming the experience as it sets in the back window. It all seems so simple, but I think the energy received from the cities was enough to make this moment of quiet, relaxation truly happy.

We returned to Bulgaria and had two more weeks of school before eleven days of Easter vacation started. Easter is a three-day celebration here and just as big as, if not bigger than, Christmas. On Easter Friday some of my 7th grade students ask me to come to the church with the, which I happily agree to do. However, I get real awkward in these situations because I have absolutely no idea what to do. They become the teachers as I follow their lead, purchase a handful of what seemed like weeds to me from the baba outside the church, buy candles in the number of people in my family, place the flowers on a relic (that due to hygienic reasons I refuse to kiss), do some crosses, crawl under a table, light the candles, place them on the candleholders, cross again, look reverent (though swallowing laughs), find the priest, tell him my name, and let him put a cross of oil on my forehead (which later made me break out) and bless me. What is even stranger is that a woman from my actual church in Sofia happened to be in that Orthodox church in Samkov, which took me by such surprise that I couldn’t remember who she was for about five minutes. Although Easter was about six week prior in the Protestant/Catholic world, in Bulgaria the holiday is so much about culture and tradition that everyone just celebrates it together and in the same way no matter what religion they actually are. Anyhow, afterwards these students take me to the market where I buy some egg dying kits for Kevin and I. The tradition is to dye one red egg the Thursday before Easter, which is kept all year in remembrance of the blood of Christ. Then on Saturday or Sunday everyone dyes a ton of other eggs in the most intricate and beautiful colors and designs I have ever seen. Afterwards, the eggs are hit together and whosever does not break will have health and luck. Kevin and I had good fun dying eggs and got dye everywhere, including on his wall in the form of a Hawaiian masterpiece. Unfortunately, our eggs were nowhere near as beautiful as the Bulgarians’. In addition to church on Friday where people go under tables, on Saturday night at midnight everyone returns, lights a candle and circles the church three times before returning home with the candles still aflame. I went out with some English friends at a restaurant across from a church that night so whereas I did not participate, I witnessed. Easter Sunday is the big shebang and Eli came up to my apartment that morning with eggs, baklava and kazanluk, the Easter sweet bread. I went to church with her family and again having no idea what to do, walked in circles around the church, was given candles, told not to put them on the bottom because that was for dead people and tried to look legit as I crossed myself and pretended to know who these saints I was praying to were. I didn’t score the coveted invite to Easter lunch, but that was because they went to visit some extended family. Oh well. Maybe next year.

After Easter I went to Bobov Dol to join in on a traveling Cinco de Mayo party that some volunteers were bringing through. After the craziness (or crazies) left, Janel and I had a relaxing day in the sun on a hilltop in her town playing cards and being narcissists by taking pictures of ourselves. After a few days in the Dol, we headed towards Bobo to meet Day and take it back to where it all started. Once there I realized how much I love it. Bobo is so beautiful, relaxing and full of familiarity that I still haven’t found in the town I have been living in for eleven months. Being with the Bobos was a great treat and definitely a needed getaway to address, talk and think about my life and problems here in Bulgaria. I did not stay with MamaVanya because she ended up being in Italy, but Day’s BabaLily was fantastic. She even bought and dressed Day in the most dreadful outfit ever known to man that put 35 years on Day, but it was done with such love that it was fantastic. We did not stick around for St. Giorgi’s Day (look in the archive for the entry on the lamb soup induced horror from last year), mainly because I wanted to avoid anything involving lamb, but also because I wanted to get to church for the first time in five weeks. It proved to be the boost in spirits needed.

After the eleven days we returned to school the week of my birthday. Now I generally hate birthdays, because I hate having to believe I am supposed to feel special on a day that I fear I won’t. This stems from high school, because birthdays were made to be very public events. It came down to balloons. If you had a ton of balloons on your birthday or flowers, stuffed animals, toys or whatever else could fill your arms and make it publicly known you had friends, this meant you were cool. If you saw someone with one balloon or a little teddy bear you would think, man, your friends don’t like you very much… if you even have them. Harsh, I know. It would have been better that girl ditched the bear and pretended it wasn’t her birthday at all. High school hurts people. The birthday became such a stressful event that every girl had to basically campaign for weeks before her birthday to make sure that the birthday date was known and her friends were planning on bringing her something. It was unaccepted to risk being outted as unloved and uncool. I learned this all very quick my freshman year and luckily my good friend Brooke Mildenhall brought me a balloon bouquet that was waiting at the office. Unfortunately, the school had recently banned latex balloons so I collected this “determinant of cool” to find that its once voluminous form had dwindled to two sad balloons all because some kid could have died from the latex. At the time this did not seem relevant because my “coolness” was definitely affected. Now obviously the superficiality and ridiculousness of high school has long passed, but the anxiousness surrounding birthdays still remains. I had birthday depression all week and did not want to celebrate, but accepted Kevin’s invitation to dinner. The dreaded day came and (most of) my students and colleagues were great, bringing me flowers, gifts and other birthday items. And many of you sent your love and wishes, for which I dearly thank you all. I met up with Kevin that night expecting a dinner for two, but he surprised me with a birthday party with many of our local friends and the Bobos. It was fantastic and definitely put a smile on my birthday-hating face. I even got a microwave, which is a big deal for over here (and a bodysuit with a snap crotch as what I hope is a joke from the Bobo’s, because that is a fashion trend that should have never existed and I am embarrassed that in 2ND GRADE I took part in it. Not now…) Thank you Kevin for being way more amazing than I deserve. You get me through this mess of a rollercoaster. So I have now embarked on the 24th year of my crazy life. I would have never expected to be where I am at this point, but truly grateful that my life has been filled with the great love, friendship, adventures and experiences that it has. I am a lucky 24-year old!

*NOTE* Apologizes for the inconsistent verb tenses and constant switches. It bugs me too but I am too lazy to go back and edit.

Lastly, Happy Birthday to the girl that taught me a lot of what I know now in middle school, Jessica Collins. Also loads of birthday love send to MDA buddies Andrea, Ru, Mat, Jenna and Steven, little cousin Adam, freshman roommate and Haribo queen Vivian, the infamous Shiloh Winder, former partner in neighborhood crime Lindsey Foley, the biggest smile I know Katey Kalama, Glendale 7th loves Becky and Jordan, PCV lovelies Amanda and Molly, soon-to-be-famous Gwendy and last but certainly not least, my bestest Kayla Kennedy. Big congrats to Shannon, Jina and Ryan on their engagements. Congratulations to all who graduated and my sister Jen who gets to stay in Hawaii. And lastly, thanks to all of you who are still in my life listening to, learning with, loving and going through this adventure with me.

More soon. And get your summer traveling butts over here!


Jessica said...

As always, a great read.
I laughed out loud at your description of your church experience with the kids..mostly at the image of your discomfort..haha. We can all relate to that.
You know I LOVE that you pointed out the inconsistency of your verb tenses. I was not going to say anything, but I'm happy you did. Love you

Tim Malone said...

Hi Amy,

Happy belated birthday. What a great multimedia post. It must have taken you hours to put it all together. Thanks so much for sharing. Loved the videos, photos and stories. I feel like I was there on your trip. Keep safe and happy. Love and Cheers!

Uncle Tim

ANN said...

I absolutely LOVE this blog! I always read every word. Thanks!

Renee said...

Happy Belated Birthday!! I am so jealous of your adventures in Greece and Bulgaria. I wish I was loaded and could come for a visit!! Can you believe you're almost half-way done? Is that right? 2 years? Or is it 1/3? Either's CRAZY!

Sista Ali said...

What does that mean? To all who graduated and Jen who gets to stay in Hawaii? I could have stayed if I wanted to!! Utah is the cool place haha