Sunday, September 20, 2009

Greece Travelogue #1

I thought I'd try posting a running travelogue on my trip to Greece. Since I don't have a good Internet connection at the hotel yet, we'll see how this works out. (Next trip I'll try to figure out how to post photos from my camera too... but let's not get too ambitious prematurely.)

We (my mom, 12-year-old daughter Caroline, and I) left on Friday. Difficult to travel to Thessaloniki - short flight to Philadelphia, long layover, 9-hour flight to Athens, long layover, short flight to Thessaloniki. At BWI, they tried to convince us that since the flight was delayed by 20-30 minutes, we should instead take a cab to National Airport for a 1:20 flight. This was around 11:45am, so it seemed unlikely that we'd even make it on that flight. The ticket agent got very snippy and said she would put a note in our record saying that we had denied their offer to help, and basically implied that if we then missed the Athens flight it would be our problem. But with a 3+ hour layover in Philly, it seemed very unlikely that we'd miss the flight. The gate agent was much more reassuring, and as it turned out, also more competent -- the flight left 45 minutes late, arrived 30 minutes late, and we had more than enough time.

Uneventful (but lo-o-o-ong) flight to Athens, during which none of us slept particularly much, but at least we dozed some. In Athens, it immediately became clear that I should have paid more attention to those Greek letters in mathematical equations. I've been practicing, though, and can now decipher most signs -- but of course the words are so different from most of the languages I speak (English, French, some German and Italian) that it's pretty hopeless. Luckily most people speak some English, but it's definitely challenging trying to communicate.

We had to check in for our flight in Athens, then had a lot of time to kill -- picked up some breakfast, sat and waited, waited some more, waited some more... the only really bad part is that nearly everybody in Greece smokes, and although there is a separate smoking area in the Athens airport, it's entirely open to the rest of the airport, no physical separation whatsoever. So the whole place just reeks of smoke. Pretty unpleasant when you're used to the nice smoke-free environments in the US or even the rest of Europe. (I looked up some statistics: nearly 50% of Greek men smoke, and 25% of Greek women, according to what I could find. And Greece has the 5th highest rate of lung cancer in the world. Someday maybe they'll figure out this correlation -- Aristotle would have spotted it in a second.)

We took a taxi to our hotel, the Elektra Palace in Aristotelus Square. I've noticed that Greek people aren't very friendly initially, but sometimes warm up a bit if you wait patiently. So at first the taxi driver was completely silent (except for the incessant cell phone calls, a bit scary considering he was also swerving in and out of traffic, blowing his horn, and not wearing a seat belt -- consistent with the risk-taking smoker's mentality, I suppose -- at least he wasn't smoking...) But eventually he started chatting a bit and pointing out a few landmarks. So far I feel like the locals really aren't that friendly, and people are *really* pushy (you have to shove your way through the crowd -- there's no concept of waiting in a line or taking turns). But I'm trying to reserve judgement until we've been here for a while longer.

The hotel is fine; there are a bunch of fans outside our room, generating white noise that covers up the city/traffic noise. Our neighbors were unfortunately in a couple of rooms and had kids running up & down the hall, banging on doors. But we were so tired by the time we went to bed that we mostly went through it.

After unpacking and resting a bit, we strolled down to the water -- the area we're staying in is right in the center of town, so there are lots of outdoor cafes/bars with tons of people on a Saturday night and loud music (and of course lots of smoke...) We walked down a little ways west and then up Aghia Sofia, looking for a restaurant that was listed in my book. But then we spotted a "Restaurant Cafe" (just off Aghia Sofia Square) whose name we couldn't decipher, and the food we saw people eating was very tasty, so we stopped there. Turned out to be Kourdisto Gourouni, a hybrid Greek/German restaurant, with over 50 different beers and a mix of dishes from the different cuisines. Caroline had a very tasty rabbit with black truffle sauce; mine was a Greek specialty (stuffed cabbage in a lemon sauce); and Grandma had wiener schnitzel. We also had a grilled cheese appetizer and local white wine. Everything was delicious.

After dinner we walked down to a cafe we'd spotted with a good ice cream selection, then strolled back to the hotel. I think we ended up crashing around 8:30, and I set my alarm for 7:30. Other than waking up a few times during the night and having trouble getting comfortable, we (Caroline and I) both slept straight through. I feel pretty well adjusted to this time zone - we didn't make the mistake of napping in the afternoon when we got in, so we had a good night's sleep on local time. Caroline woke up a bit when I got up, but was sound asleep again when I left.

They had a very nice breakfast buffet in the open-air rooftop restaurant (best part: sour cherry juice). Then I decided to be a risk-taker and took the bus to the university. Bit of an adventure -- I wasn't quite sure what bus # (turned out to be 12), how to pay (luckily had the right change to pay on the bus), or where to get off (bus driver waved me off at the right stop). Then I couldn't figure out where the university was, but walked in the direction he pointed, and eventually saw the buses (from the main hotel) with the "ICAPS" signs, then someone wearing a lanyard who was also going to the conference.

So here I am, blogging and sitting in the Learning & Planning Workshop. Tonight I'm planning to skip the conference banquet (it was way too expensive, around $100, to get tickets for Grandma and Caroline), and we're planning to try a local popular restaurant that was listed in my mom's book (Aristotelus, just a block or so from the hotel). Grandma and Caroline were thinking to take a taxi up to the museum area when they got up, but I haven't talked to them today, of course.

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