Thursday, September 24, 2009

Greece Travelogue #4

Here we are in Athens!

Getting the complaints out of the way (saving the best for last?) - the traffic noise (at the Best Western Pythagorian on Agiou Konstantinou) is appalling, and let's face it, it's *not* the best neighborhood. Hopefully I will sleep better tonight (the unmuffled peeling-out motorcycles at 3am didn't help my beauty sleep...) Oh, and despite being named "Pythagorian," the street isn't really even diagonal. I mean, honestly.

The last day of the conference was the best from a work standpoint -- even though I only went in the morning, the poster session had two very interesting and relevant papers. So that was good.

We had an evening (6;30pm) flight, but not that much we particularly wanted to do, so we just had a leisurely lunch, then sat at a coffee shop for a while, then went to the airport early. Uneventful trip. Our taxi driver in Athens *was* a trip -- he has a son who's a cardiothoracic surgeon in Pittsburgh, so his English was good and he was delighted to have passengers from the US. Gave us some key beta about sights to see & where to eat.

The hotel is loud but otherwise OK. What the pillows lack in softness, the beds more than make up for... oops, that was another complaint, wasn't it? The quick-meal options were rather limited, so we ended up at McDonald's for a late dinner. I did have the European-fast-food "French cheese salad" (saganaki-style fried camembert on green salad, not bad really).

Today we slept in a bit and then had breakfast in the hotel. We took the metro (very easy, very well marked, very clean & quick) to the Acropolis station and visited the New Acropolis Museum (just opened in June). It's really beautiful and very well done. The excavated ruins are all visible below plexiglass floors (which my mom *hated* walking on), and there are lots of beautifully restored artifacts, including a life-size display of the entire Parthenon (well, the marble carvings) on the top floor -- with the Elgin marbles conspicuously replaced with plaster copies. (The Greeks really want the Elgin marbles back, and I totally agree -- come on, England, you took care of them, but now Greece is a big kid and you should give them their toys back...) We had lunch in the museum restaurant (salted fish plate for Caroline, potato salad w/ anchovies for me, spinach salad for Grandma, and a cheese & fruit plate to share). Beautiful view of the Acropolis from the patio.

Then the long, sweaty, hot hike up to the Acropolis itself. It's really an amazing place -- to think that 2500 years ago (more if you count the Myceneans who built there before the Greeks), they could build this entire fortified city with marble temples on top of a huge craggy rock -- the engineering feat just boggles the mind. And that so much of it is still there to see is incredible.

They've been restoring the Parthenon & other buildings, so unfortunately there is a lot of scaffolding. But it's still breathtaking.

Afterwards, we made our way back down, walked through the ancient agora (mostly ruins but with a few restored buildings), and then had a late-afternoon snack (fried calamari and taramosalata) at a cafe along Adrianou (Diaskouri, recommended by our guidebook). Then took the Metro back to the hotel (very crowded at rush hour, but only a few stops -- good things, because the Greeks are even pushier on the subway than New Yorkers, and less considerate of old ladies, people with casts, and children!) Sat in the lobby playing games (Lost Cities & Five Crowns) for a while, had Caroline work on some of her makeup homework, then went out for a late dinner at a place called Megae Alexandros (Alexander the Great). Very traditional Greek -- lamb stew, saganaki, spinach pie. The pie was just so-so but the rest was very good. I really like how in Greece they always bring you some extras -- today, tzaziki, olives, and peppers with our fresh, warm bread, and a plate of assorted baklava after the meal. Picked up an ice cream cup for Caroline on the way back, and now I'm trying to get caught up on email and blogging. :-)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Greece Travelogue #3

Things are certainly looking up. Once we got out of the Hotel from Hell, life seemed much better. There's a bit of traffic noise here, but it's just normal noise, not like the Elektra Palace. [Kiri: I have earplugs, but this was not earplug-relevant noise. i.e, he noise filtering provided by earplugs was negligible compared to the decibel level being produced. :-)]

Today I went to the conference for a while (yes, there actually is a conference, and it's pretty good despite receiving little mention in the blog... because really, who wants to read a blog about AI planning papers?) Then we picked up a picnic lunch (prosciutto and toast crackers) at a deli, and walked down to the White Tower, where we caught the "tourist bus." The deal is that for two Euros, you can ride the tourist loop all day, getting off and back on whenever you want. The problem is that it only runs once an hour -- and as we found out, not on a particularly fixed schedule. So we got off to visit a church, the Roman Agora, and the ancient baths, got back 55 minutes after we disembarked -- and the bus never came. So we went up to see an old mosque and stopped at a "Krepas" (crepe, surprisingly common around here) shop for a snack, then picked up the bus again -- 10 minutes earlier in the "hour cycle" than we'd been dropped off. We also stopped up at the Byzantine walls and strolled through the old monastery (though the buildings themselves were closed for the afternoon "siesta"). Then we rode the bus back downtown. I tried ouzo (very strong anise liqueur, actually rather good albeit pretty intense) at an outdoor cafe. (The city is positively *littered* with outdoor cafes and bars -- many more cafes and bars than actual restaurants, or than any other type of place of business. People here are very serious about their relaxation!) Then we strolled around for a while, looking for a restuarant in the guidebook. We never found it, but ended up at 1901, "a traditional Greek taverna," which turned out to be quite good. We had beet salad (kind of like tzaziki (yogurt sauce) with beets mixed in), grilled calamari, french fries, and (for Caroline, of course) smoked salmon pasta. Later we wandered back to Aristotelus Square and got Caroline a cherry crepe -- but she was quite disappointed, because we expected real cherries and ended up with a crepe filled with maraschino cherries. So we also got her mango ice cream.

The bus trip back was a bit of an adventure, but we found our way.

To answer Kiri's questions -- I don't have many Greek phrases, but do know how to say thank you. When I can't remember how to say something, I usually ask how to say it in Greek. That does break the ice for a lot of people. I think we just had bad luck with a few people early on. I do feel like the culture here is very aggressive -- people in general won't step aside to let you off the bus, or take turns when there's a crowd trying to get through somewhere. And forget about anybody offering a seat on the bus to an older lady, or a kid, or a person with a cast. (Hey, we're the traveling trifecta of neediness, but you wouldn't know it in this country! Luckily despite our helpless appearance we're actually all pretty tough. :-)

Tomorrow: the end of ICAPS and onwards to Athens! Internet access in Athens unknown, but I'll keep y'all posted. :-)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Greece Travelogue #2

Sigh. This trip is not going the way I'd dreamed. For years I've wanted to come to Greece -- it's one of the few European countries I haven't been to -- but I imagined it as peaceful and friendly. Instead my experience so far has been loud, stressful, and not (for the most part) welcoming.

I'm hoping things will turn around now that we're at a different hotel. A different hotel, you say? But you weren't supposed to go to Athens until Wednesday. Yes, we're still in Thessaloniki, but now at the Hotel Queen Olga.

Last night we strolled up Aristotelus Square, shopping a bit (bought new shoulder bags and some gifts), and were shanghaied into an open-air restaurant by a very aggressive waiter. OK, it looked fine, and actually the food was quite good, and cheap too! I ordered moussaka and a glass of retsina -- or I *thought* it was a glass, for 3 Euros, but they brought me a whole liter bottle! We were pestered by a stream of peddlers and beggars trying to sell us various things or beg for money, but that's just life when you're traveling (especially in the middle of a global recession...) So dinner was fine, though when we asked for the check, we instead got another round of drinks (including another whole liter of retsina for me)! Turned out they were just comping us some drinks, which was actually nice of them (score one for the friendlies). But we really were ready to go, so we paid and left. We stopped on the way back to buy Caroline a Nutella crepe -- again the girl behind the counter acted sort of cold and unfriendly, but then when she was wrapping up the crepe and saw it was for Caroline, she handed her an extra napkin with it, which made me smile, and she smiled back. So like I said, some of the people don't act overtly friendly the way they would in the US, but that just seems like a cultural difference.

Then we got back to the hotel. We were exhausted, so we crashed shortly after 9:00. And were woken up around 11 by unbelievably loud music coming from the banquet room down the hall. Even though we're in Greece, I hadn't actually planned or hoped to find myself in the middle of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" (as an extra who doesn't get to have any fun or any food, just noise!) I called down to the front desk, and they helpfully (*not*) told me that it would only be "for a few more hours"!! He did say he would talk to the banquet manager, but it only got louder after that. Finally the music stopped around 1am, then we had to listen to drunken Greeks yelling up and down the hall for a while longer. Eventually it started to quiet down -- but a group of men from the party apparently went outside to smoke and party some more, because then we were kept awake by loud yelling and singing out in the courtyard until 3am.

So finally, finally, *finally* at 3am it was quiet enough to fall asleep. Until 7am, when the construction started right next door. Just incredibly loud, banging, crashing, drilling, sawing, hammering, yelling, nonstop for the rest of the morning. I think Caroline eventually got a bit more sleep, but I never did.

When I went down to the front desk to ask what they could do for us, he said he could move us to the 6th floor -- on the same side of the hotel! When there was another (Greek, actually) woman complaining about *her* room on the 6th floor and how loud the construction was! I asked if they would at least credit me part of the cost of the previous night's room, and he said snottily, "You'd have to talk to accounting." He also said I should have asked to change rooms last night. "In the middle of the night??" I replied. "Why not?" he answered (again, snottily). So I just said, fine, we're going to find another place to stay and we'll be checking out. Which we did.

So now we're over at the Queen Olga, farther away from the city center (but closer to the conference, and the same distance from the museums, and on a major bus line). Our rooms face the bay and seem very quiet -- plus we're at the end of a hallway, so nobody will go back and forth past our rooms. They also seemed reasonably competent and polite at the front desk. I even have an Internet connection here (supposedly the Elektra Palace did too, but it never worked).

Hoping things will get better... and trying not to hold the hotel desk clerk's obnoxious and unsympathetic attitude against an entire country...

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.