Rest Day(s)??

February 26-March 4

This is the story (more of a picture book really) of how one rest day turned into four.

After nearly two months of winter travel we were both craving some beach time. Our level of desperation for sunshine and surf only became fully apparent when we caught ourselves scoping the Airbnb map of Italy for any accommodation as long as it was cheap and close to a beach. Coliseum? Pompeii? Venice? We didn’t care, we just wanted to lay down and let the sun do all of the work. So yes, I would say we have reached some level of travel exhaustion.

Where did this moment of desperate trip planning take place? In Edipsou, Greece, a tiny resort town fed by piping hot streams of thermal water. So we gave our heads a shake, shut the laptop, pulled on our bathing suits, and began searching the deserted town for its famed thermal pools.

Only a few steps away from the beach and we could see billows of steam rising from the shore. In seconds, we had our shoes and clothes piled on a nearby rock and were tiptoeing over mineral encrusted rocks towards a scalding waterfall.

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Usually, as a tourist, I am the one trying not to stare at people who are doing something unfamiliar to me, but this time the roles were reversed. As we relaxed in the algae covered volcanic rock pools, Edipsou locals, bundled up in parkas and scarves, took turns peering over the railings to inspect the crazy ‘Americans’ who had taken over their beach.

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We were eventually joined by a Siberian woman on vacation and a Greek-Australian basketball player on his day off. It seemed we all needed some warmth and relaxation for our own reasons. We chatted off and on, but mainly spent the evening silently submerged in the ocean/spring water.

On our second day in Edipsou, we decided to put a bit more effort into our budget spa experience. At the risk of offending locals, we began hauling rocks of assorted sizes from the beach and redirecting the thermal water flow to create a new pool.

gopr7703-1 Our well intentioned efforts were mainly a failure, and we managed to overheat the one pool with a perfect temperature, while creating one fragile and leak prone new pool. Fearing retribution from the Edipsouians, we bid the village goodbye and headed south hoping for not only another beach, but also better beaching weather.

After a four hour drive and one goat herd sighting:

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we arrived at the Peloponnesian seaside:

img_0943Where we took our beaching very seriously:

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While we were happy to see some sun, my favourite part of the day was maybe not what you’d expect…unless you know me well then you might not be surprised.

Some sort of mystery citrus fruit was growing at our beach house Airbnb! It was almost the size of a cantaloupe with a thick spongy skin that, from the outside, made it seem rotten. If the neighbours had been home at the moment, they would have seen a pasty white blonde girl jumping around in the courtyard tossing a massive fruit in the air and begging her husband to get her a knife so she could hack it open and see if it was poisonous. It wasn’t poisonous, but it was impossible to eat because of its incredible size. I offered Jakob a hunk, but he likes to know the name of a fruit before he eats it.

Eventually we did meet the owner of the orchard. On our walk back from the beach later that evening, a deeply tanned Greek farmer stopped his tractor in front of us, climbed down and motioned for us to follow him. He reached over the fence and plucked two ripe fruits (which were recognizably oranges) and pushed them into our hands. What’s with people and giving us free produce? He then began to push open the orchard gate, motioning for Jakob to help. We set down our beach stuff and made a feeble effort to pay off our citrus samplers. He nodded in thanks and sent us on our way. For future reference, I will accept oranges in exchange for small favours.

This was not our last strange encounter with an elderly Greek man. On our second day at the beach house, we had run into problems with the washing machine. As in, we had put all our most essential clothes in, shut the door, discovered it didn’t rotate, and then couldn’t open it again. Our approach to the problem started with a frantic youtube search for “how to break into a washing machine” and ended with an apologetic text to our Airbnb hosts. They ensured us that a mechanic would come later that day, so don’t fault us for thinking that the hunched old man who wandered into our yard around 5:00 pm was the mechanic. He shook our hands and began a spirited one-way discussion in Greek. If “baba” is Greek for grandpa, then maybe he was the grandfather or our Airbnb host, or he wanted to be our grandpa. I’m still not sure. At this stage we still assumed he was the mechanic, so we led him into the kitchen. He followed, inspected the washing machine, and began explaining the issue… in Greek of course. Jakob and I repeated any words we could make out, adding a question mark and some hand signals. The conversation became even more vigorous. Until we realized that: one, he wasn’t the mechanic, and two, we had let a stranger into the house. We fell silent, shrugged our shoulders, guided him back to the yard, and waved good bye.

Eventually, the actual mechanic showed up and we hauled our liberated laundry over to a neighbouring beach house with a functioning washing machine. I spent the next few hours practicing my Greek letter recognition skills, which as an arts major, consisted of no more than π and Θ just five days ago. Painstakingly, I translated the words ‘Cotton,’ ‘door,’ and ‘end.’ Which is really all the words anyone needs to do laundry. Jakob endured my sporadic shouts of “TELOS! I get it, like teleological, like the study of the end times. Telos is the end of the laundry cycle!” Only the coolest kids use theology to do their laundry.

So in case you missed it, in the course of about three days, all we had accomplished was three beach visits, two discussions with Greek grandpas, and one load of laundry. We agreed that we would achieve more in the coming week.

Our first day in Rome was clearly a reactionary response to our recent laziness. Over the course of only about four hours we had:

Explored several narrow medieval streets:

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Scarfed down some delicious gelato:

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Tried to blend into a wall:

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Walked over some bridges:

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Sat in the middle of a square: fullsizeoutput_403

Climbed to the top of the Spanish Steps:

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Stared up at the Pantheon:

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The Pantheon is one of the most impressive buildings we have seen so far and, even better, entrance was FREE! It was built in the 2nd century and turned into a church about 500 years later. Today, it still holds the record for the largest unreinforced concrete dome.

and finally, watched the sun set over the Vatican:

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a papal pigeon

We walked over 20km of Rome’s streets and plazas and counted it as practice for our planned pilgrimage in May. I can’t think of a better place to practice for a pilgrimage.

What are we doing today? Well the length of this blog post should tell you that we aren’t walking 20km. No, we are 50 days into this adventure and today is the first day that our bodies refused to cooperate. Jakob experienced a bad combo of poor underwear choice, friction, and 20km of walking and I was experiencing some sort of digestive rejection of Italian food. So we decided to listen to our bodies and take a real rest day. Not a beach day or a travel day, but a sleep in, eat breakfast at noon, read books, and go to bed early rest day.

While our Airbnb kitty may look sceptical:

fullsizerender-3I am quite confident that it was the right decision.

 

Introducing: Helena

February 22-26

If you asked me before we left which part of the trip I was most excited for, I probably told you: Greece. Sure enough, the country of epic poems and heroic legends has not disappointed. In every direction there is an ancient ruin, a turquoise sea, or a snow capped mountain.

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Exploring the ancient theatre at the base of the Acropolis (because it’s free and none of the other ruins are!)

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View of the Aegean from the peak of a mountain in Athens where the muses lived or something

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MOUNTAIN!!

It seems like every highway is sea-to-sky and thanks to our little Helena, we can drive them all.

Introducing Helena:

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A feisty Nissan Micra, who’s overbearing GPS and gutsy first gear has brought us through the mountains of Delphi, to the rocky pillars of Meteora, and to the shores of the Aegean.

We’ve had a lot of fun taking buses, trains, metros, planes, and ferries over the past seven weeks, but there is something irresistibly thrilling about regaining the freedom to depart from the typical tourist track. In fact, no more than four hours after signing the rental car paper work this is where we were:

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Ten kilometres down a dirt road, looking for a cave-shrine dedicated to the Greek god Pan. With only two short sentences in my lonely planet book and a GPS coordinate as our guides, we parked the car in a field and started hiking up a steep set of switch backs. Jakob’s complaints were endless.

“Classic Meghan, ‘Oh I read about this thing, now we have to drive to the middle of nowhere to see if we can find it’.”

Welcome to being married to a Horlings.

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“Onwards and Upwards”

Halfway up the steep incline we realized we probably should have taken our passports and wallets with us…this wasn’t exactly the little roadside pitstop we thought it would be. Another 200m straight up and we were peering over the side of the cliff, hoping that the lonely dirt biker coming down the backroad wasn’t there to break into Helena and take off with our travel documents and potato chips. What were we going to do from up here anyway? Send Pan after him?

Eventually our upward ascent brought us to this:

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A pretty cool cave…until I saw the bats hanging from the walls inside and then I wanted none of it.

Taking a few deep breaths I put my historical logic to work: if people have really been coming here for thousands of years to worship the hoofed god of nature, then these bats are probably pretty well behaved. In we go!

Once inside I wanted to explore every corner and look for signs of the ancient writing mentioned in my guide book. Jakob stood frozen about 10 metres from the cave opening.

“Well this is as far as I go,” he hastily snapped a few GoPro shots and moved back towards the exit.

My suggestion that we explore the dark passageway in the back of the cave was quickly declined.

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Me trying to show how big the cave is, if you can even see me

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The mysterious abyss at the back of the cave

Back out in the fresh mountain air we took a few minutes to take in our surroundings. The snowcapped mountains appeared to run straight into the desert below, as if Pan couldn’t decide if he liked summer or winter better, so decided to do both at the same time.

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The remaining daylight hours were spent navigating windy Greek backroads to Petroto, a tiny village boasting a church, a corner store, and the cheapest Airbnb in all of central Greece!

We had the entire house to our selves, but we didn’t touch most of it…in fact most of it appeared untouched since at least the 1950s. That first night in Petroto was spent in fear that the propane fire place was going to explode with each bang of warping metal. There was also at least one paranoid check for intruders when the wind and window shutters decided to take a midnight tango. Finally, in the morning we were woken by what must have been a military grade loud speaker declaring what we assumed was a hostage or bomb threat situation.

The second night we wore ear plugs and just hoped that the impending furnace explosion wouldn’t be too hot and that the thieves wouldn’t be too loud on their way out with our few belongings. Oh also we took our chances and glanced out the window when we heard the loud speaker…turns out that’s how the local veggie seller gets his produce to his customers. When we listened closer we realized that the aggressive bark was actually an informative song: “Potate, tomate…” Now don’t we look silly peering timidly through the shutters at a truck bed full of cucumbers.

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Home sweet home

Our nightmares were also terribly misplaced, because Petroto turned out to be a town nearly as charming as Avonlea or Stars Hollow. On our last day in the village, our Airbnb host, Dimi met us just as we were leaving and offered to take us for coffee. How could we decline such a generous invite to bypass the standard tourist experiences and get to know a real local? We eagerly agreed and a few minutes later we were following Dimi into a large cafe filled with mismatched wooden tables and a handful of Greek men enjoying a Sunday morning smoke. Dimi called out to each patron by name, and before long a little receiving line appeared at our table. We shook each large leathery hand, and smiled to convey our gratitude, all the while regretting our failure to learn more Greek. It didn’t take long before each of us around the table held a coffee in one hand and a smart phone in the other. We took turns typing words into google translate.

“car salesman”
“graduate student”
“historian”

It didn’t take much to find out that Dimi’s son also has a graduate degree in history!

Sensing the halting conversation, our server returned to the table. “I work at a hotel in the nearby city, but I come home on weekends to help at my family’s business,” she explained in confident English. Having introduced herself, she began to quiz us: “How old are you?” “Are you together?” “Do you work or are you students.”

She didn’t hold back her own personal details either. “You have watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding?”
“Ya I love that movie!” I responded, eager to make a connection with a local my age.
“Yes, that is my life. That is how life really is in Greece, and that is how my life is. I am 32 and my mom is always yelling at me: ‘get married!’ and my boyfriend is always yelling at me ‘get married!’ and I will always work in my family’s cafe. Just like the movie.”
“Really?” I laughed, unable to believe that she was willing to claim the popular stereotype of her culture.
“Yes,” she insisted, “I am just like that girl in the movie.”

We chatted a bit more and soon the conversation turned from movies to the complexities of politics and the economy.

“Greece is not the problem,” she explained, “Greeks have lots of money, it’s just that Germany is taking it. Everyone around Greece attacks us. They want our money. They are jealous because Greece is in the best location, it’s not so cold, we have the islands, we have the tourism. We are not the problem, they are the problem.”

I was fascinated to hear her perspective on the financial crisis. The last few days we had seen countless boarded up shops in Athens and row upon row of incomplete construction projects in the country side. I wanted to ask the other men sitting around the table what they thought of the situation, but our server, having satisfied her curiosity, had returned to the counter and I was unsure how to discuss an economic recession using largely hand signals and google translate, instead we discussed our previous day’s adventure.

Like every other tourist who forsakes the islands for the Greek interior, our main goal was to visit Meteora. The men at the table nodded. I am sure 500 year old monasteries perched on massive stone pillars aren’t as exciting if you’ve lived in their shadow for most of your life. For me they were the pinnacle of my trip planning, and I enjoyed every minute of exploring their ancient halls and pathways:

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Getting serious about seclusion from the world #monklife

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How amazing is this view?

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This is what a happy church historian and her husband look like

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Check out these two cuties #TooCuteToMonk

The men at the table were more interested in what we did after our visit to the touristy holy sites. Using a combination of google maps, charades, and collaborative story telling, Jakob and I explained that from one of Meteora’s view points we had spotted a dirt road snaking up the opposite side of the valley at an impossible angle. We checked our GPS, and sure enough, it was a real road, with what seemed to be a village(?) at the top. So with some hesitation we left the tourist crowd, crossed a river near this medievalish bridge:

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dodged some road side chickens and some sun bathing farm dogs, and made our way up the windiest road I have ever seen in my life.

In most ways I think my husband is pretty different than my Dad, but seeing the look of thrill and determination on his face as he geared down and coaxed our little car up that mountain, I realized they may not be so different after all.

I quickly slipped into my mom’s role:

“Are you sure it’s not going to over heat?….What is that smell, is that burning? Do I smell burning?”

After twenty-five switch backs, we hit a stretch of road better suited for a 4×4 than a Nissan Micra and we unanimously decided that we had better give Helena the rest of the day off before she declared a strike (she is Greek after all).

The view was decent, despite the clouds rolling in:

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But much greater was the thrill of driving up a road that even the Sunday morning coffee crowd in Petroto would never drive. After recounting our story, Dimi shook his head in dismay.

“Why? I give you map? I show you to go mountains like Switzerland!”

I don’t know what to tell you Dimi. There’s no accounting for the crazy things two small town kids will do after six weeks of living in cities and depending upon public transit.

We tried to explain, but all I could say was,
“We come from the mountains, this feels like home.”

Project Icy Rust Bath

February 22

Our adventure in Greece began with a bottle of wine and a tub of tzatziki (as it probably should). Our Airbnb host was a Greek Orthodox priest, who evidently had no need for a corkscrew. Instead of doing the reasonable thing and walking down the street half a block to buy one, we hacked the bottle open with a creative combination of kitchen knife, screw driver, pen, pliers, and desperation. Once the haggard cork was landed in the bottom of the fruity red, it was time to bust open the carton of tzatziki. Jakob had a genuine conversion experience when he realized that he actually didn’t hate creamy cucumber dip soaked in garlic and together we finished the carton in no more than seven minutes.

Happily full of wine and tzatziki, and exhausted after our uneventful day of wandering ancient Athens, I declared that I was going to take a bath. Oh how naive. I returned a few moments later reporting that there was only ice running in those pipes, and no bath could be had. Jakob, the eternal optimist, maintained that there was a way. So the kitchen kettle was filled and two pots were set on the small hot plates. A slow paced water relay began, as we took turns dumping the boiled contents into the icy half filled tub.

Twenty minutes into the endeavor I returned with a scientific assessment of the situation: The temperature is improving, but the water levels are dropping. I think it’s time to abort the mission. Jakob was not to be deterred. I returned to the cold tiled bathroom to find the rust coloured water was tinged even more red.

“What did you do, plug it with your own blood?”
“Nah, just a red wash cloth.”

I looked down at the opaque water wondering if it even had any cleaning properties. Regardless, I chose to believe in that moment, that the water we were drinking from the kitchen tap was not coming from the same source as the orangey brown liquid filling the bath.

The water relay continued with renewed vigour, and within another twenty minutes, I was sitting in the meagerest bath I’ve taken since I was seven years old and my water conscious parents were in charge of the faucet.

If the goal was getting my hair clean, then Project Icy Rust Bath was a moderate success. If the goal was to have a unique experience in the carefully curated tourist trap of Athens, then it was a laureled victory.

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