Friday, February 15, 2013

A Tale of Two Days

Wednesday was one of the least fun, most wretched trip days in Greece so far.  Upon disembarking from the bus in Piraeus, the ancient and modern port of Athens which is just a few kilometers away, we were told to watch our step and look out for "syringes and human excrement."  Our professor wasn't kidding - never, ever have I seen so much shit, in so many colors, textures, and sizes, in one day of my life.  I even considered taking a photo, but since I once unfriended someone on Facebook for posting photos of her baby's poopy diaper, I decided to spare you all.  But consider this a background theme of the day. 

Then the wind and the rain started.  Sheets and sheets, which would stop just long enough to instill hope for a rainless future, only to start again.
The low point was standing in the pouring rain looking at the very scanty foundations of the Arsenal of Philo (which, bizarrely, doesn't have a wikipedia entry for me to link you to) in the middle of a building plot, listening to a presentation...before we realized that not 20 feet away was a perfectly good roof to stand under.
From under the roof.
Wait, I take that back: the low point was during our lunch break, when we tried to have a picnic on the bus, and the bus driver kicked us off, at the high point of the rain, because he had to move the bus.  We huddled together in a doorway, passing around hunks of bread and jars of peanut butter. 

But, like most things in Greece, the discomforts were balanced by pretty incredible archaeology finds and spectacular views. 
Crashing waves, the ancient fortification wall, modern city; the island of Aegina comes into view at left as the clouds clear.
Block for standardized measurements such as a foot, a hand, and a cubit (because, you know, everyone's fingertip to elbow is a different length).  So cool!
The other bits were fairly normal, but the hand was HUGE!
But also, this.
And that was going to be the end of this post, but I had a pretty spectacular day today, as days in the library go, when several things I've been working on for a long time finally came together and could be crossed off the list, including submitting an abstract to a national conference next fall, completing the handout for my presentation on Crete next week, and getting preliminary permission to stay in Greece for the summer to complete a museum studies requirement and play around with glass (more on that, hopefully, in a bit, provided it works out). 

But the most exciting, scariest, and monumental was finally sending my first ever article for peer-review to a journal editor for publication consideration.  On my final read-through this morning, I was feeling nostalgic for the journey this piece of scholarship and I have gone through together, from my first playing around with the idea and collecting data early in Fall 2011, complete surprise at the structure which emerged from the data, the first seminar paper it generated, its submission and eventual acceptance at an international conference last March, playing with more charts and ideas, experimenting with various visualization softwares, the second seminar paper, a summer of figuring out images and phrasing which would be appropriate for other people to actually read...  And, holy cow, is that last one a scary step: it's a long jump from a seminar paper with an audience of one or even a conference paper, with an auditory delivery and a lifespan limited to 20 minutes, to conceiving an article which anyone, anywhere, at any point in the next several decades could read and even use in their own research.  This, of course, is the ultimate objective of the whole academic discipline - to produce the kind of work people will read, cite, and internalize, which will contribute to our overall understanding of and appreciation for the human condition - and for me, the culmination of many years of writing, learning, thinking, and training as a student to become a scholar.  I feel totally, completely, 100% ready to make this jump, and I am damned proud of the article I sent off into the world today.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Vacation from Athens, or, Why It's Awesome to Live in Europe

On my sticky note To-Do list for the week, which I made last Friday, I included "blog about how AWESOME Paris was!"  This was a bit presumptuous on my part, but also designed to cheer me up when I got home and not be too sad the adventure was over.  Well, one way to be excited to be back home in Athens is to get stuck on your Paris vacation longer than you intended due to a missed flight.  That part is boring and depressing, so I'll skip it.  But maybe it was just the universe's way of making me feel happy to be back, happy to be in Athens, happy to be home.

But! Back to weekend vacation adventures!  One of my college roommates lives in London now, and we had been planning all fall to figure out some time and some place to meet up in Europe while I was in Greece.  We chose this weekend, in Paris.  It turned out that we are excellent travel companions because we both like to 1) go to museums, 2) eat food, and 3) walk around looking at stuff.

The first Sunday of the month in Paris, several museums are free.  That meant that we went to the Louvre on Saturday, but saved the Musee d'Orsay for Sunday, and threw in a visit to Sant Chappelle while we were at it.  The Louvre completed my pilgrimage to the three museums containing the majority of sculpture from the Parthenon (more about that in another post, I think).  It's hard to gauge my overall impression, so I'll share a few impressionistic thoughts:  I was most struck by the historicity of the building itself, which is integrated into the museum presentation in a very cool way, with the history of the architecture and the objects held within the space not really competing, but not existing in complete harmony either.
Hall of Glass.  Hannah is bored but doing an admirable job pretending not to be.
On the way to the Mona Lisa - which, actually, impressed me much more than I thought it would - were fantastic examples of medieval paintings with elements of Greek and Roman myth which I found fascinating.
Also this.
Running out of time, I was walking quickly through the Roman galleries when a low relief sculpture caught my eye, and I thought to myself "that looks like the Ara Pacis."  Turns out, that's exactly what it was. Just, you know.  Hanging out.  Did you know it was there????  Because I sure didn't.
Ara Pacis, on the right; Augustus on the left.
I didn't take photos of our fancy 'bistro' meal at A la Biche au Bois, mostly because we were so tightly wedged into our table that I couldn't really get to my bag to get my camera. The food was good, but not exceptional after reading all the glowing online reviews.  However, I did take pictures of the better splurge, which was our tea time at Laduree in St. Germain, famous for their macaroons.  Did we each order both cake and macaroons?  Yes, yes we did.

We found another, cheaper but less posh, place to get takeaway macaroons to bring home.  Although they got a bit crushed* and didn't really make it all the way home, I sure enjoyed them in the airport.  The cheese did make it back to Athens, where it awaits me in the refrigerator. Cheese, while smellier, is more crush proof.

All in all, it was a really lovely weekend.  Thinking about and planning for the trip really got me through the last couple weeks here in Greece, and I'm very happy to have had the experience of jetting off to Paris for the weekend.  But, I have to say - it's quite nice* to be home. Home, as in the country where I have figured out the airport transportation, know my way around the city, and can sit in peace in my little room eating a gyro or go down to the saloni to drink ouzo with friends whom I will be happy to see.

*Side effect of only speaking English with a Londoner all weekend: picking up all sorts of Britishisms, or at least things that sound like Britishisms in my head for the moment.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Strange Things

It's a rainy, somewhat cool (we're talking 50-some degrees) afternoon in Athens.  I returned a bit over two weeks ago, so the jet lag is gone, break stories have been exchanged, the routine has set back in.  But coming back, I was struck again by the things about Greece which had become normal over the course of the fall and seemed once more strange upon return (and even more strange because they had once been normal... or something like that).

Strange thing 1: Toilet paper doesn't go in the toilet; it goes in a little bin next to the toilet.  95% of toilets in Greece have some kind of sign, usually in both Greek and English, telling you not to throw paper or anything else in the toilet.  This is actually less weird to me than some people, because the plumbing in Israel is equally incapable of handling tp.  It's not a super hard thing to get used to, but as a result, when you do get to discard things in the toilet - well, it's a pretty exciting day.  Like when we went to a party at our professor's house last week which has one of those rare toilets that accepts paper - there's a sign telling you so! - and we walked around whispering to each other that you have to go to the bathroom here, because you can flush your paper!  Amazing!
Strange thing 2: A shower head fixed to the wall is a rare thing indeed.  Most of the time, there's a shower head on a cord; if you're lucky, there will be some kind of head-height mount from which to hang the shower head.  If you're really lucky, that mount will actually hold the device in place.  For the shower I use in Athens, I'm not lucky.  I have, however, figured out how to prop the shower head on the faucet so at least my lower half can get a continuous stream of water.  Again, something you get used to, but I miss standing under the water flow.  And some days, after working out, my arms are just too dang tired to constantly hold the shower head up over my head. 
Strange thing 3: Our bathroom and shower stalls are marble.  Classy!

Hmmm, I'm detecting a theme here... ok, non-bathroom strange things:

Strange thing 4: Today is January 26, and it's strawberry season.  They're sold in the street markets for about 3 euros for a half kilo right now, but in another week or two they'll cost half that much.  For me, this may well be the strangest strange thing. 

Strange thing 5: In addition to being sold in glass bottles as in the rest of the world, wine can also be bought from most stores "unbottled", or rather, in what looks for all the world like a reused bottle from bottled water.  They're usually unmarked, and cost all of two and a half euros for a liter and a half.  In restaurants, like the one we usually frequent on Sunday nights, a half kilo of wine costs about four euros.  Ok, this one isn't strange so much as awesome. 

Strange thing 6 (to get off the food kick): Greeks don't believe in spaying or, especially, neutering animals because it's emasculating.  As a result, the streets are full of strays and dog poop.  And the dogs get to walk around all over the archaeological sites, not paying any mind to rope barriers or fences.  Why does the dog get to go inside the Parthenon whenever it wants, and I don't?!?

In other news, the cost of one euro is up to $1.35.  It was about $1.26 when I got here in September.  Not quite as bad as when it was well over $1.40 a few years ago... but c'mon U.S.!  Pull that dollar value together!  You're making cheap strawberries and cheap wine less cheap!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Καλά Χριστούγεννα και Καλή Χρόνια !

The holiday season in Greece has been especially strange for me.  Not only is it not freezing cold and snowy and things like pumpkins and cranberries are not to be found, but Christmas is rather unapologetic here.  No politically-correct "Happy Holidays" well wishes or generic "winter parties" - the Greeks have no problem belting out Καλά Χριστούγεννα to one and all.

On Monday we had a Trim the Tree party, complete with American Christmas carols, mulled wine, and an overabundance of fried food, from spring rolls to onion rings (is this what they think we eat all the time?!?).  There have been several Christmas bazaars and street fairs all over town.  It's fun... but not the same as home.

Fortunately, I get to have Christmas at home in the States this year, thanks to my wonderful mother and father and well-timed birthday that allows crossover Birthday/Christmas presents!  

My birthday in Greece, by the way, was fantastic and quite memorable.  We began the day on the Acropolis, where we got to go inside the Parthenon, then I was introduced to Paul, a French patisserie in Athens which will make the next several months oh-so-much better.
Glorious, sunny December day.  Possibly the warmest my birthday has ever been.
Espresso and mini pain-au-chocolat!  For less than two euros!  This is dangerous to know.
The afternoon was relaxed and full of lovely emails from friends and family, and the day ended with drinks and good company on top of Lykavittos Hill, offering fantastic views of Athens and the Acropolis all lit up at night. 

If this is 30, it sure ain't bad.
My bag is packed with books, wine, Christmas presents, and dirty laundry - must be time to go home. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The little things amongst the large

I might be a little obsessed with the current rotating exhibit at the National Archaeological Museum.  I've gone twice in the last week.  I may well stop by again on Friday.  (In fairness, we've been in the museum for other things; it's just nice to stop in for a visit!)  The exhibit is about the Antikythera Shipwreck, which crashed off the shores of Greece around 60 BCE, probably on its way to Italy.  I love this exhibit because of a) the cool technology and modern exhibition strategies used in the show,
This is just a video, but there are holograms used to recreate the functionality of the Antikythera Mechanism!
 b) awesome late Hellenistic pottery and miscellaneous objects from daily life aboard the ship,
So many lagynoi! Aren't they great!?!
and c) pretty, pretty glass vessels!

But, my very favorite object in the entire exhibit is this little guy, who can't be more than a centimeter and a half tall, and most people probably never notice:

If you'll allow me to geek out for a few minutes:  he's a glass pendent of a type found all over the eastern Mediterranean in the second and first centuries BCE, including Cyprus, Egypt, Delos, Dura-Europas (Syria), southern Russia and...Tel Anafa!  See, there's one like him in the collection of glass beads and pendents which I studied way back in my Masters' degree days (one day, that publication will come out ::knocks on so much wood::).  This one was previously unpublished, but it fits beautifully into the series of known objects - of which there are a ton.  But why he's exciting is because, just like all the others, he is a unique snowflake.  Lots of people have suggested that pendants like this were made at one central workshop and then distributed through trade.  But I have a theory, based largely on the variation in the way they're made, that they are actually made all over the place, in small workshops catering to local consumers.  It's also interesting to think that this piece was almost certainly being worn when the ship crashed - by a sailor, by a passenger... who knows?  I need to look into this a bit, but I think that statistically, therefore, it is much more likely that a man was the wearer than a woman; considering this has been often considered a apotropaic/fertility symbol, and that jewelry and pendents are almost universally - and completely erroneously - associated with females in the archaeological record, the presence of this little guy on a ship, as opposed to a settlement or domestic context, might have some strong implications. 

On my second visit, I caved and bought the 46 euro exhibition catalog.  It has already given me immense joy, paging through the beautifully illustrated assemblage of objects narrowly dated to exactly the period in which I'm most interested.  I have a feeling this is a book to which I will return again and again.  Nothing makes academics happier than buying books, and I am a happy, happy academic right now.
Here he is!

Monday, November 19, 2012

An attempt at summarizing the last 6 weeks of my life

So much for one post a week.  In fairness, we've been on the road a lot and the hotel internet situation throughout Greece is a bit spotty at best.  But the good news for you, fair readers, is that I'm in Athens now for the next several months (except when I'm Home for the Holidays) with a bit more down time, so I'm hoping to be able to post more regularly.

We're done with the Fall term now, which consists of four trips to various regions throughout Greece.  I told you a bit about Trip 1 already; the three following trips were no less full of adventure, non-stop sight (site?) seeing, and delicious regional cuisine.  It's hard to know where to start, but here are some highlights:

We went to a series of amazing museums operated by the Piraeus Bank Group Cultural Foundation, all of which promote traditional production methods and early industry through objects, dioramas, working models, videos, and - most awesomely - a sense of place.  The first was the Dimitsana Water Museum, which demonstrated the use of water in mills, tanning, and gunpowder production.
We also went to the Museum of Tileworks in Volo, which wasn't quite as cool because it was early industry and therefore not ancient, but the very best museum was the Museum of the Olive and Greek Olive Oil in Sparta (SPARTAAAA!).  They had life-sized models of various olive pressing methods over time, and it was a great demonstration of the fact that technology is constantly evolving, and the Industrial Revolution is not the paradigmatic single turning point in technology that we often think of it as.

I added significantly to my list of World Heritage sites visited: Olympia, Bassae, Mystra, Delphi, Hosios Loukos, Meteora, Mycenae and Tiryns, and Epidauros.  I've been conducting an informal photographic study of where and how the inscription of a site is located and presented.
Small, beat up, generic World Heritage sign at Bassae.
This is the standard World Heritage label, with the information on why and how the site was inscribed on the list in both Greek and English.
Delphi had tons of World Heritage signs of various stripes, including this one.
And also this, which both cracks me up and makes me a little sad.  "The Birthplace of World Cultural Heritage"???  Indeed.

 Many self photos were taken.

Sunset over the mountains near Delphi and the Corinthian Gulf, on a magical three hour hike from the Cave of the Nymphs to Delphi town.  We barely made it down before dark, but it was gorgeous. I'll remember this for a long time.

Acropolis of Orchomenos.  These stairs were crazy steep, and probably cut into the bedrock during the 4th century BCE.
Mean old fence preventing us from accessing Kenchreai, where I worked in 2005.

As were many landscape shots, courtesy of the landscape feature on my new camera.
Methoni fortress.  It was like walking through Game of Thrones.  We were all a bit hungover that morning, and walking around an abandoned fortress for two hours in the Greek sunshine with the sound of the sea was perfect.
Pavlopetri.  You can't tell it, but there's a site here!  (And an awesome video about it here.)  Swimming + site exploration = Happy Kate.
View of the gulf and isthmus of Corinth from Akrocorinth.  Standing here, you realize just how tenuously the Peloponnese is connected to mainland Greece (and, actually, since the completion of the Corinth Canal, it isn't).

And finally, the food.  I was going to do an entire separate post titled "The Meat I Eat."  I don't think I've ever eaten so much meat, and especially pork, lamb, and fish, in a two month span.  Greece is the country for carnivores.
Pork sold by the kilo during what was - as best we could figure - a giant festival of meat consumption in the town of Chora, near Pylos.
Souvlaki, served with fries and white bread, also known as the three Greek food groups.  The places that make the best souvlaki dip the grilled meat into some sort of magical sauce with salt and pepper which may well be the marinade.  The risk of food poisoning only increases the tastiness!

Mr. Donut in Sparta.  Open 24 hours.  If only there was an Athens branch.  Or a Minneapolis or Ann Arbor one, for that matter.  I remember a certain someone's Grail-like quest to procure donuts in St Paul one Bungalow morning...

This octopus was ungodly delicious and tender.  I didn't see it, but reportedly the restaurant had an old clothes dryer in the back that they used to tenderize the octopus.

Little fried fish called gavros, which you eat whole.  I was skeptical at first, but I'm a convert.  They go great with a cold beer and lots of lemon juice.  And, they're cheap.  Peasant food, ftw.

Suckling pig on the spit, from a big group dinner we had in Levhadia.  The meat was way too rich for me - the darkest dark meat, with a velvety texture and intense meaty, umami-type quality.

Winter term will consist of a seminar course and numerous day trips to sites and museums in and around Athens.  It will be really nice to sleep in the same bed every night and have a bit more time to myself, although I've been repeatedly warned that the winter is no less busy than fall.  I also resolve to become more adventurous on my own, exploring daily life in Athens through its markets, neighborhoods, and events. 

Most importantly, I'm still not tired of gyros. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Best of western and northern Greece

Tomorrow we leave for Trip 2 to the southern and western Peloponnese, including places like Sparta, Pylos, and Olympia, so I figured I had better do a summary and overview of Trip 1 before the whole cycle starts anew.

Trip 1 was amazing. There. 

Oh, more details?  Well, in 12 days, I stayed in 9 hotels, swam in the ocean 3 times, visited 34 sites and 12 museums, heard 43 site reports and talks and gave 1 of my own, spent who-knows-how-many hours on a tour bus, ate 6 gyros, rode 2 ferries, and enjoyed the company of 21 new friends.  These are some highlights of the 1600+ photos I took (and others took on my behalf during Camera Crisis 2012).

Swimming in the sunset on the first night at Naupactos.  We realized later that the Greeks view it an unacceptable place to swim, but never quite figured out why.  None of us got any strange afflictions, though.

Fresh fish dinner at Preveza.  (Not as good as the Boundary Waters fish, though.)

Inside the cistern at the "Necromantyon."  The guy who excavated here based his entire interpretation of the site on literary sources which discuss an oracle of the dead, including hallucinogenic raw beans, swinging puppet corpses from metal rings, and a labyrinth.  Others identify the site as a Hellenistic tower, with stores of crops, catapults, and off-axis entrances for defensibility.

Hellenistic house, preserved to the second level, at Horraon.  Simply amazing.  The openings you see on the back wall would have been for wooden roof/floor beams dividing the first and second stories.
We do pushups on the reconstructed Great Tumulus at Vergina (the site of Macedonian royal burials, and a World Heritage site).  The museum itself is built over the subterranean burial chambers, showing the finds from the burials alongside the architecture and site of the burial itself.  Fantastic museum idea and execution; alas, no pictures allowed inside, and the gift shop was closed, so no book-buying. 
The first of two amazing meals (and we ate several quite good ones), at the Hesperides Spa hotel near Vergina.  The man who runs the hotel serves a gorgeous buffet dinner and breakfast, and offers cooking lessons.  We'd been eating grilled fish and Greek salad for days, and the roasted meats, stewed bean dishes, and fresh seasonal green salads, with a hint of chill in the air, hit the spot.  And a glass of wine cost 1 euro.  I want to go back!

One of many glass bowls, resembling later cast glass bowls from Israel and the east, found in tombs and displayed in museums all over Macedonia.  Enough to make me realize I really need to learn more about Macedonian glass...
The ferry docks at the island of Thasos.  I could have ridden the ferry back and forth for hours.

Marble quarries at Aliki, the south end of Thasos.  Everywhere you see rocks projecting up out of the water is where the island was literally quarried away, likely by the Romans.  Human transformation of the natural landscape is hardly modern.

Not untrue, at least for the men who spend their mornings and afternoons at the cafes while the women are working.

I give my site talk at Olynthus, a 5th and 4th century BCE town which was destroyed by Philip II of Macedon (Alexander the Great's dad) in 348 BCE.  Archaeologically, it's known for the 100+ houses excavated here back in the 1930s, and many of the finds were saved, allowing for later archaeologists to learn about the uses of various rooms and study sets of objects in context.  One of the first books I encountered when I started grad school at Minnesota was a modern study of the household goods at Olynthus, and it was exceptionally exciting to visit the site five years later.
Excellent meal #2, at Litochoro on the slopes of Mount Olympus.  In the foreground is the "clay pot dish", and it was easily one of the top 5 best things I've ever eaten: chicken and pork stewed in tomato sauce with feta on top, but the seasonings and textures were incredible.  This dish is a specialty of this particular restaurant, "just like mom makes," and we never figured out the actual name of it, but abundant cookbook and internet searching for comparable recipes is in order.  Behind it is one of several meat platters, full of pork and veal.  I and the two gentlemen across from me consumed all our food and the leftovers of all the other tables - at the end we had five empty clay pots and five mostly empty meat platters, the remains of which were lunch the next day with some fresh bread.
Mount Olympus in the morning.  No more gods up there; they've moved to the Empire State Building (per Percy Jackson).

At Dion, the best archaeological reconstruction drawing EVER!  (Sorry about the glare.)  At the site was a great altar to Zeus and a series of 30-some blocks with iron rings, thought to have held the bulls for sacrifice.  Isn't the gore in this drawing hysterical?  Almost as funny as the idea that you could kill a 600+ pound bull and drag it tens of meters up the steps of an altar, and the other bulls would be cool with it.

While I was most excited for sites which I'd heard a lot about or studied somewhat extensively in the past (like Olynthos and Vergina), the places which really blew me away were those which I'd never heard of before.  It really drives home why I'm here - to learn about new things, get beyond the standard textbook understanding of the Greek landscape and Greek archaeology, experience the landscape, etc.  Places like the Macedonian tombs at Mieza, the Hellenistic towns of Kassope and Horraon, and the Aliki quarries on Thasos totally blew me away.

If I have time today, I'll try to make a Google Earth map of all the places we went, and post it here as a jpg.  (I say that to incite myself to do it.)