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September 2, 2013

Driving in Greece

Driving in Greece is an adventure.  According to the Lonely Planet book, Greece has the highest traffic fatality rate in the EU. The intricate, beautiful and sorrowful miniature churches that dot the roadside where people have died attest to the truth of that statistic. But that did not deter us from striking out in our rented Super Racing Hyundai to less-travelled beauty spots of Greece (many when we got lost).

The Hyundai dutifully hauled us over narrow mountain passes, across sand and dirt roads, and down/through/over innumerable and expensive tolled roads, tunnels and bridges. The kids complained of the heat, pleaded car-sickness on the twisty roads (an excuse to get another Coke, I think), and expressed justified terror on mountain passes with no guardrails to guard against sheer drops of hundreds of feet. Not to disparage the Hyundai, but a small 4-wheel drive vehicle with a sturdy passenger compartment and cold AC would have been better.

I’m happy to say that I have proven myself a superior navigatrix. I came, I saw, I conquered vague directions, maps without highway names and highway signs that perplexed, amused or scared us silly. As Kurt said, if they would quit writing everything in Greek and write it in English things would be a lot easier. Kurt and the kids came to see me as the Delphic Oracle of the Road.

Maps of Greece are helpful only to a point. They are not detailed and even major highways rarely have a universally agreed upon name or number. Most people don’t rely on street names or highway numbers at all, instead describing streets by where they go – “the road to Thesoloniki” or “the road over the mountain.” This is fine unless you don’t know where you are in relation to Thesoloniki or what is on the other side of that mountain. Language barriers added to the confusion with written instructions like, “at the right fork to Greek, go left.” We started giving each other joke directions of “Turn left at the olive tree,” or, “At the next goat, go right.”

The sign–making department at the Greco DOT is prolific. Traffic signs are everywhere – signs that contradicted each other, signs that were redundant, signs that were out of date, signs every tenth of a kilometer telling you that you’d traveled a tenth of a kilometer, and signs warning of multiple life-threatening dangers just around the next corner. More is not necessarily better. Interestingly, while there was too many traffic signs, there were blessedly few billboards.

The silver lining in driving around in ignorance, confusion, and sometimes bare-nuckled fear is that sometimes we found ourselves lost in really cool places we would not have otherwise seen.

August 11, 2013

The Road Less Travelled to Agios Ioannis

Bear with me – I swear this is about Agios Ioannis. Once, when Kurt and I were in Honduras for our honeymoon, we turned down an unmarked dirt road assuming we would eventually find a beach. We were off the map and going on instinct. The road kept going, kept getting worse and the modest houses petered out all together. But, we kept going. Suddenly a pink confection of a hotel with the most dazzling cove came in to view. We stayed for several days smug in our discovery.

With Agios Ioannis, history repeats itself. Based on the recommendation of a woman in a Turkish bathhouse in Athens and the directions of a couple of girls at a fruit stand in Volos, we went over the mountains of the Pelion Peninsula. The way through the mountains is a narrow roller coaster jigjagging through ski villages that look more Swiss than Greek. The roads are small. The signs are incomprehensible. Some roads peter out in a town and dwindle to nothing but a goat path. So, its no wonder that the coastal villages of the Pelion are not a tourist destination. But, fighting the vertigo and glancing through the fir trees at the coastal town of Agios Ioannis below and you know why Greek sun worshipers flock to the place!

The harsh rocky coast of the Pelion is interrupted by magnificent beach coves. It reminded us a lot of the Nepali Coast in Kauai. During the week Agios Ioannis was a quiet paradise. By the weekend, it became a hot mess of bodies fueled by café fredos and disco. We retreated to a quieter hotel and were just fine. If we had more time and the kids were older, we might have risked going further down the coast looking for a village with a room to let or some beach camping. Camping on the open beaches is illegal in Greece. But, on the Pelion who would know?

Moral of the story – follow the road less traveled.

August 11, 2013

Hank: Agios Ioannis, Greece

The best beach in the world is the Agios Ioannis beach out side of hotel Eden. You don’t even need to go under water. You can see the bottom just as well from out side the bluish green water. We swam and swam and swam. The last morning we got up very early and went to watch the sun rise. It was very pretty. Instead of sand the beach had small pea sized white pebbles. My theory of why the water was so clear was that the sun reflected of the pebbles and up through the water thus brightening it. Our first couple of nights we stayed in Hotel Eden. A medium sized hotel about one and a half kilometers down a tiny dirt rode. The people who owned it were very surprised to see us because they said that only greeks ever come. Fortunantly they only had rooms till Friday and we moved to a different hotel on Friday. As we found out on Saturday Hotel Eden turned into a mad house on weekends.

August 11, 2013

Hank: Vourvourou, Greece

While we were in Vourvourou we met our friends the Seremetis’. they took us to a crepe place the first night where me and my dad got a chicken, mushrooms, and olives crepe. It was delicious. Me and my dad went on a hike with them which took three hours. It was really fun but I was very tired when I finished. One evening me and dad and Nadine and George, Laurie (the parents) and Alex who is the youngest of two. That was very fun and two days later we went on a kayaking tour with two guides. They took us to three beaches that were only accesable by boat. At the second one we ate a delicious lunch of sandwiches and following that was a super sweet mellon. I ate three pieces. We also kept finding these cool little hermit crabs that would crawl on to your hand and tickle it.

August 7, 2013

Batumi Rocks

The sound of Batumi is a street musician playing Hotel California on an accordion.

The smell of Batumi is salt air.

The taste of Batumi is fresh tomatoes and cucumbers with Khachapuri (cheese bread).

The feel of Batumi is a collision of East and West, Communism and Capitalism, old and new, war and peace.

I have never been in a city more in flux. Even the architecture is like liquid. One building is called “The Bottle.” Another looks like it’s twisting, another is undulating, yet another is melting. Their fountains dance as the huge ships move in and out of the port.

Many thanks to the Tevzadze family and their friends for an amazing time in Batumi!

July 28, 2013

Dear Mom, move to Italy!

Dear Mom,

Don’t move to Bartlesville, Ok. Move to Castel Gondolfo, Italy!

There’s a reason the popes live in Italy and Shakespeare set nearly a third of his plays there. It ROCKS!

Florence is great. Rome is awe-inspiring. But the popes win the genius prize for putting the papal summer villa in Castel Gandolfo on the side of an ancient volcano overlooking Lake Albano. Please, Mommy, move there!

Any of the 17th century villages hugging the cliffs around Lake Albano would be fabulous. The narrow streets, shops and apartments hang on the cliffs like floral window boxes. I bought a scarf for you from a street vendor. You will look fabulous wearing it in any one of the cafes on the piazza as you sip cappuccino and nibble a tart made with tiny strawberries.

And mom, you’ll love the Woodson family which hosted us. Brady Woodson is brother of our friend Ashley Woodson in Austin. His wife Luisa grew up in Castel Gandolfo. We immediately fell in with their rhythm (I hope they would say the same) and had a great time with them and their three fabulous kids.

Can’t wait to discuss your expatriation to the Castelli Romani!

XOX, Sarah Pi

July 24, 2013

Dear Willie, you would love Tuscany!

Dear Willie:

You would love Tuscany. The countryside, the City of Florence, the wine, the people all made me think of you.

We stayed in the mountain village of La Valle 20 km outside of Florence. La Valle is just a cluster of houses hugging the road passing through the most glorious rolling countryside. Everyone seems to have vegetable gardens, chickens and fruit trees. La Valle has a single store by the bus stop that sells basics plus meats, cheeses and breads made on premises. Like all of Tuscany (except the tourist spots) the store hours are 7am-1pm and 4pm-7pm. I want to be an Italian!

Life slowed way down. The land, the buildings and the people were beautiful, inviting and earthy. All of Tuscany seemed to take its time and occupy space with languorous confidence.

Even Florence, a city of 400,000 people, was in no rush. The narrow streets and incredible architecture hug the Arno River and are in turn are hugged by the mountains. The city is all old stone, fountains and flowers. Even the working class neighborhoods on the edge of the city, with the newer apartments and shopping centers, were lovely. Cars were small, busses were easy and bikes were everywhere.

The people, the buildings, and even the roads and trails are part of the landscape. I read this quote from Luciano Bartolini, Mayor of Bagno a Ripoli (one of the Tuscan municipalities) in a tour book:

“…the trails along which you will walk … have been opened, marked and cleared by those same women and men who … teach us the value of slowness, of a more respectful, almost symbiotic, relationship with nature.”

Wow, what a way to live!

XOX, Your little sister

July 16, 2013

Sarah: Paris

Paris makes me think of that Marianne Faithfull song, The Eyes of Lucy Jordan – “at the age of 37 she realized she’d never ride through Paris in in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair.” I am 48. I have now felt the warm Paris wind and, … meh.

Lucy Jordan’s Paris was about running away from her family. My Paris was about reuniting with mine after being separated from them for a month. Big cities aren’t the best places for kids. But, it was a mighty glamorous spot for our much anticipated rendezvous.

We had a lovely flat with plenty of cafes and shops nearby. The closest park had a duck pond. You couldn’t sit on the beautiful lawn surrounding the pond. Everyone was of course, until a gendarme came through blowing a shrill whistle and scooting everyone off onto the walkway. The most fun we had as a family was in the Jardin des Plantes at the Museum of Natural History, the Zoo and the Botanical Gardens. It was beautiful AND you could sit on the grass! The kids could finally run amok.

Nadine and I had a fun girls’ day of shopping in the department stores of Boulevard Haussmann (I LOVE the fact that a street is named after a famous urban planner!). We saw the stained glass ceilings of Printemps and Galeries Lafayette. We marveled at the women of Paris who all wear painfully fashionable heels and flats. Even if our course American speech hadn’t marked us as tourists, our sensible shoes would have.

On a professional note, the urban planning and transportation system of Paris is excellent. Zoning and building codes have succeeded in making the city feel ancient and modern at the same time. If the historic buildings of the Louvre can coexist with a modern glass pyramid at their center, we in Travis County can figure out how to preserve the iconic buildings of our past while accommodating the new .

Narrow neighborhood collector streets open up to grand boulevards connecting neighborhoods. Cars are small, there are lots of motorcycles, buses and bikes and bikes and bikes. Women in painfully fashionable heels even ride bikes. Paris has self-serve bike sharing and electric car sharing stands, too. Although I missed seeing Copenhagen with Kurt and the kids, I hear Paris is working on adding grade separated bike lanes like their buddies in Denmark. Will some streets be designated for bikes only?

I’m glad I saw Paris! But, we’re all happy to move on to the fresh air and rolling hills of Tuscany.