Epic Greece

We’ve been to other places that were hard to read–the Germans’ extensive use of the umlaut and the scharfes S (ß, the “spicy S”), the at-first-bewildering-but-then-totally-sensible use of diacritical marks in Slavic languages (seriously, why do we use “ch” or “sh” for sounds in words like “cheese” and “sheet?” Wouldn’t a little mark on the affected letter, like č or š, be clearer for everyone?), or even the dual signage of Montenegro, written often in both Latin and Cyrillic alphabets–but Greek was especially, well, Greek to us. We were already unfamiliar with their words, except for the easy and life-saving ones like retsina and baklava, so the addition of the Greek alphabet only complicated things further. It made all of their text look like algebra: as far as I could tell, Αθήνα might as well have been the formula for the volume of a sphere (4/3πr³, which I had to look up just now).

Still, we managed to navigate the streets of Athens, a city that our excellent AirBNB hosts admitted has little for visitors beyond the ancient stuff in and around the Acropolis (literally, “top of the city,” per a tour guide I overheard). Which, really, was more than plenty for us; as this recovering English major can attest, the various ruins on the site of the Acropolis–the inspiration for (or at least the referents of) thousands of poems and novels–and, tucked away in a nearby corner like a shy child, the birthplace of all Western drama as we know it (the Theater of Dionysus) comprised an improbably rich concentration of Important Things to See.

Similarly, the new and excellent Acropolis Museum provided a comprehensive but still comprehensible narrative for all of that historical stuff, giving us a clear sense of Ancient Greek culture and how the Acropolis’ fixtures–the Parthenon, the Propylaea, the Temple of Athena Nike, etc.–fit into it. If a museum is measured by the increase in its visitors’ understanding of history or art or whatever else the museum features, then the Acropolis Museum may be the best we’ve been to, in or out of Europe. For the first time, I began to intuitively grasp how the apparent contradictions in Ancient Greek religion could make sense, how the various gods interacted like a sprawling, dysfunctional family and how a single one, such as Athena, could be the goddess of so many things and have several aspects–Athena Nike (Athena of Victory), Athena Polias (Athena of the City), Athena Ergane (Athena of Artists and Craftsmen), Athena Promachos (Athena who Fights in the Front Line), etc., as if she were a prototypical Barbie, with a different outfit always ready for the mall, the beach, or, y’know, the moon–yet remain a distinct, recognizable goddess, smiling upon the city that incubated democracy and Western philosophy.

I used to think this conception of the universe must have been grim and unsettling; I expected it would be little solace to be told, if you were an Ancient Greek, that the vanity of these capricious gods could have a profound impact on your daily life–influencing whether you ate enough or starved, won in battle or lost, lived to be old or not–even if you didn’t knowingly do anything wrong. (Though, now that I think about it, how different is this, really, from the relationship most of us today have with the financial Masters of the Universe?) But at least these Greeks recognized their limits as mortals and that, often, the paths we take in life are shaped by forces beyond our control and, sometimes, our perception. If nothing else, they made good stories out of otherwise chaotic events.

Seeing the Acropolis also concluded a narrative we’d begun earlier in the trip when we visited the British Museum, the home, for the past two-hundred-odd years, of several major pieces of the Parthenon, the crown jewel of the Acropolis site. Lord Elgin took these items to London in the early 1800s, presumably with good intentions: Athens, at the time, was not an especially stable place, and the ruling Ottomans had allowed the Acropolis to decay for a few centuries, so housing these important relics in England, one of the world’s then-strongest empires and a country that valued the work of the ancients, probably seemed like a sensible move. The Greeks, of course, view the gesture as considerably less than generous and want the pieces back, seeing as they still have the majority of the ruins and have undertaken a painstaking, decades-long process of restoring the buildings on the Acropolis, including the Parthenon, reassembling it like a jigsaw puzzle. Britain has, in response, stuck its fingers in its ears and pretended not to hear anything.

Outside the British Museum a few months ago, we met a Greek grad student named Antonia who very kindly asked us if we’d respond to a survey she was conducting as part of her thesis. She wanted to know how we felt about seeing the museum’s Greek spoils and whether we had a cohesive experience, if we really grasped the pieces’ significance without seeing them in their home, and she was (I think) making the case that, regardless of the political implications for the Greeks or the English, visitors would have a better experience if they could see the Parthenon as a complete and unified artifact, with everything in place more or less as it was 2300 years ago. She’s probably right. But I can’t deny there’s also value in the mystery of a fragment, of having to imagine how it might have looked originally and adjusting that image as you learn more (for example, it turns out that the Greeks painted their sculpture, so over the stark, white marble that survives in museums today were riotous patches of blue, red, yellow, etc.) and, eventually, assembling the puzzle yourself.

I mean, I recognize the privilege we’ve had–we’ve visited both London and Athens, plus many points in between, and seen most of the pieces of the Acropolis in one journey–and that most people in most situations couldn’t or wouldn’t even want to go to the trouble of going to separate museums to see different pieces of essentially the same building. Nobody should have to take, like the 18th century nobility, a Grand Tour through the European cultural capitols just to see this stuff. But the story of an artifact is as important as the artifact itself, and I hope that, if the British and the Greeks do ever work this out, they incorporate these pieces into the Parthenon in a way that highlights, rather than obscures, their cracks and breaks, casting Elgin as a sympathetic, if perhaps misguided, character and situating this episode in the overall story of the Parthenon’s shifting fortunes over the centuries. It’s been destroyed and rebuilt twice, converted into a church and then a mosque, looted repeatedly, and blown up by an unfortunately located gunpowder stockpile. The addition of a Prodigal Son chapter would only make the tale more epic and its resolution more triumphant.


Turkish Delights

I admit that I tend to over-plan. Before we left for this trip, I printed out page after page of documents and directions and Trip Advisor restaurant recommendations and organized them by country and city and then chronologically in the order we would need them. And some of that has been well worth the effort. It meant that Matt and I had a perfect anniversary dinner in Vienna last month at a quiet, independently owned restaurant run by Hungarians who specialize in pairing wines with your meal of choice and making you feel like family. (They treated us to just-for-us cocktail creations, a rousing rendition of “Happy First Year To You” to the tune of Happy Birthday, and hugs all around when we departed late that night.)

But more than my planning triumphs, it’s our planning misadventures I’m most thrilled by. For me, the most profound delights have been the unexpected ones.

About a week ago, Matt and I were in the Cappadocia region of Turkey. Most of the reason we were there was to go hot-air ballooning, but as that’s a sunrise activity, we had plenty of time during the days to go exploring. We toyed with the idea of taking a nine-hour guided tour to make sure we didn’t miss anything, but ruled it out when we realized we didn’t really want to spend a full day on a bus–and that we were actually okay with missing a thing or two. (They were going to take us somewhere called “pigeon valley,” for crying out loud.)

We were very interested in visiting the underground city of Kaymakli though because, well, IT’S A FREAKING UNDERGROUND CITY. So we visited (and it was epic), but we were hungry when we finished our tour. So when a pair of 60-something men wearing matching paper deli hats waved to us and asked us if we wanted to come into their restaurant for some tea, we quickly said yes.

A couple of things to note here: 1) Calling it a restaurant is incredibly generous of me. It was a single room consisting of one long table, a stove, and a chicken doner kebab near the window. 2) If a Turkish person invites you in for tea, you accept. It typically means that something amazing is about to happen.

After tea, we tried to order lunch and quickly discovered that our new friends in the matching deli hats (and, as I later discovered, matching plastic aprons hemmed in red trim) didn’t speak English. However, one of them did speak fluent French–and as I speak terrible French, we were able to order (sort of). I asked what the owner recommended, and he showed me to the stove in the corner. “Poulet,” he said, lifting the lid off the pot simmering on the stove, “et boeuf,” as he pulled the lid of a different pot. “Very good,” he added in English. And then in French, “La mieuller!” So I got the beef and Matt got the chicken, and our new friend puttered over to our table with mounds of meat served on top of rice, sliced tomatoes on the side, and an entire loaf of crusty French bread for us to share. And this man, this tasty food, this weird/sparse ambience, in this “restaurant,” made for the best meal we had in Turkey.

After lunch, we grabbed a van back to a nearby city to make our transfer back home, which we did without issue. We did, however, completely miss the subsequent stop for Goreme, the city we were staying in. Passed right by it without batting an eye. It was only when everyone disembarked, including the driver, that we realized we had maybe gone too far.

But, as it happened, the town we landed in is home to one of Turkey’s biggest and most award-winning wineries! So instead of heading back to Goreme on the next bus, we trekked up a hill to the winery and sampled a handful of different Turkish wines, enjoying unfamiliar grapes with unpronounceable names. We stumbled upon a second tasting room built into the rock of the fairy chimney it was situated under, a single cozy room filled with antique trinkets and curiosities, wooden bows and arrows, impossibly old swords. We bought a bottle from the charming Turkish man who owned and ran the shop, a man who made fun of the local college kids (and college-age tourists) for their poor taste in wine.

The bus we eventually took back home to Goreme didn’t actually go to Goreme. (Surprise!) Instead, we piled out of the bus two miles out of town and started walking back, munching on the peanuts and potato chips we had in our daypack. And that’s when we stumbled upon Rose Valley, with grease on our fingers and crumbs on our cheeks, to see one of the most dramatic, stunning vistas we’ve seen this trip (which says something). We tromped through sandy fields of wild grapes and scrambled over soft rock to stand on the valley’s edge and watched the sun drift lazily toward the horizon. We snapped photos that won’t measure up.

But that’s just it, isn’t it? Nothing in that day was really what we expected it to be, including the underground city, and it was all the better for it. If we only ever experience what we expect to, then we’re limited to the current bounds of our knowledge, imagination, and Google prowess. No matter how detailed our folders of documents, no matter how in depth we plan, we may never meet gentlemanly Turks in matching outfits who bring us to their “kitchen” to help us make an informed decision about lunch. No matter how good the guidebook itinerary and how much time we spend in the Trip Advisor forums, we may never drink Turkish wine with a man who had a hand in the production of what we’re drinking. If we plan our travels (and lives) to the minute, we may never find ourselves in a private vista, in a wild vineyard at the foot of sandy mountains, sharing a kiss under a pastel sky containing both the sun and moon at once — how can you plan that moment if the biggest magic is that you never saw it coming?


I’m Eating Seafood, You Guys!

Growing up in landlocked Minnesota as I did, my childhood was not full of shrimp, scallops, or sea bass. We did not pull oysters from the bay near our home or visit fish markets to see what was freshest that day. Instead, my big adventure was pulling corn out of a neighboring field and trying to eat it raw right off the cob. The staples in our house were hot dogs, pork chops, and beef stroganoff, with plenty of carbs on the side. This was not my parents’ fault, mind you: they were lucky if they could get me to eat peas–good luck getting me to eat anything that smelled funny, wasn’t beige, or had eyes. Yes, there were fish sticks in my childhood, those marvelous mozzarella sticks of the sea, but as fish sticks bear about as much resemblance to fish as the cast of Jersey Shore does to actual Italians, I’m not sure that counts. In fact, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t.

I have spent the majority of my adult life avoiding sea creatures. Every Christmas, my family sits around fondue pots and we all gorge ourselves until our pants need unbuttoning. Sure, shrimp and scallops are options alongside the beef and pork, but you can bet your bottom dollar I’ve never been part of that nonsense. In restaurants, I routinely choose duck, chicken, lamb, cow, pig, and wee little rabbits over whatever fish dish our server is reciting passionate poetry about. There are some truly fantastic restaurants in Minneapolis we’ve never visited because their specialty is seafood and, you know, ew, oysters. The problem with fish, I’ve always said, is that it tastes like fish. (I said this, of course, without having eaten much fish at all. What do I know about what it tastes like?)

So given my lack of experience and my insane anti-fish prejudice, what I’m about to say is a pretty major development and stellar victory for humans everywhere: I’M EATING SEAFOOD, YOU GUYS.

I mean, not often, and not always, but I’m totally doing it. It started in London, where my standard pub order was fish and chips. Then fast forward to Dubrovnik, the gorgeous seaside town where they film Game of Thrones. The only non-fish item on menus there tended to be sad pasta with tomatoes. So one night, after I had already eaten plenty of sad pasta with tomatoes, I took the plunge: while Matt ordered an entire school of tiny fried fish, I ordered shrimp risotto. (My theory was that I could eat around the shrimp and just go to town on the risotto if need be.)

But need did not be! It was fucking delicious! So delicious that I abandoned my previous plan and I ate the shrimp first! I even almost forked Matt’s hand when he tried to go after a particularly tasty-looking one I had my eye on. That’s how good it was.

But wait! There’s more! Recently, Matt and I found ourselves walking around Istanbul with our friend Jamie, who is lucky enough to live there. She pointed out a street vendor selling something called media, which is essentially chopped-up mussels mixed with rice and lemon juice and then served right out of the mussel shell for a paltry 25 cents each.

However emboldened I may have been with my shrimp success, though, I was still not prepared to hop on the mussel train. I had never encountered a mussel I enjoyed even the look of, and that they were often described as “briny” did nothing to promote them in my mind. But somehow, over my mumbled protests and head shaking, I somehow found a little shell in my hand and the vendor’s eyes on my face. And because I have a deep need to be liked by strangers, I tilted my head back and downed the thing.

AND IT WAS AWESOME. So I had another. And another. And then I had a fourth because the vendor didn’t have change for us, so why not? Later, we all ate sandwiches full of deep-fried mussels and thick garlic-butter sauce. And I finally got what all this seafood fuss was about.

Now don’t get me wrong: I will still continue to eat more land creatures than sea creatures. Old habits die hard, after all. But a goal on this trip was to expand my midwestern palette and eat some new stuff. And maybe even like some new stuff. So while I don’t see myself ordering tuna tartare any time soon, there’s the slightest chance I’ll try a bit of Matt’s. And at the Christmas 2013 Bowls of Meat marathon, you can bet your ass I’ll eat a scallop or two. After all, that’s how Jesus would want it.