Wednesday, October 31, 2018

More then Feta and Tzatziki

View from Our Window on the Edge of the Caldera
More then Feta and Tzatziki
Takeoff from Naples on our Airbus 320 went smoothly.  There were four of us on this adventure, our friends Jack and Dotty, Maria Elena, and me.  Years in the making, we’d talked about making this trip a long time.  Heading out over the Mediterranean, we quickly circled left around mighty Vesuvius that so dominates the Naples skyline.  As we gradually climbed to altitude, we easily traced our progress eastward through clear morning skies.    We knew the area well and could make out
Dotty, Jack and Maria Elena
familiar landmarks – the pass through the Apennine Mountains to Avellino, SS7 east to Lioni, the lake at Conza della Campania followed by lofty Cairano.
  With such a prominent marker like Cairano soaring into sight, hometown Calitri easily came into view spilling down the side of its roost from atop a time-trodden plateau like a landlocked Positano.  Everything looked different, then again, it was all so familiar.
Nearby to Calitri, Our Local Piece of Greece
Before coasting out over the Adriatic Sea, our diagonal track across the boot of southern Italy took us close to Brindisi, once a Greek settlement predating Roman expansion.  It would be from here that Sylla would leave to chase Mithridates of Pontus, whose kingdom surrounded the Black Sea, from Greece and later during Rome’s civil war, where Caesar’s fleet would head off in pursuit of Pompey.  Tied to the sea, Brindisi’s earliest inhabitants entertained strong trading ties with neighbors on the opposite side of the Adriatic and with the Greek inhabitants throughout the adjacent Aegean Sea.  By this point in our journey, perched high above the Adriatic, the 80 miles across the chokepoint between Italy and Albania looked miniscule.  It was easy to visualize how the Greeks, who’d island hopped throughout the Cyclades Islands during their expansion throughout the Aegean, could easily venture west to colonize southern Italy, especially in coastal Campania, Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, as far distant as Sicily.  The Romans referred to this phenomenon as Magna Graecia, what we refer to as “Great Greece” because of the dense Greek populations they discovered throughout southern Italy.  It was in this manner that Greek Hellenic culture, and let’s not forget the grapes, made the jump to Italy.  We see it dramatically, for example, in the three exquisite Greek temples still standing a little over an hour away from Calitri in nearby Paestum.  In a way, our flight would return us to our cultural origins in Greece.  It might take an ancestry DNA test to track down the truth.  Who knows, as part of the Greek diaspora maybe there is a trace of Greek blood in me.  Before any test, however, I’d first have to think over the consequences … the trade-off of Sambuca for Ouzo could frankly be “staggering”.
Cyclades Islands
Our short flight terminated at one of the southernmost islands in the Cyclades group, Santorini to be exact.  I guess we’d arrived in the windy season for a heavy crosswind made the approach and landing interesting.  Thankfully, a wing held low, killed our drift and we touched down to the relief of the passengers, maybe even the crew.  An arid landscape bordered by the sea, running parallel to the runway, greeted us.  With little annual rainfall, the terrain was desert-like with clumps of withered scrub-grass across barren terrain.  With our carry-on luggage in hand, we were quickly through the terminal to a waiting van that whisked us to our hotel, Hotel Ilias.  It would be our home for the next five days.  As we drove on what was explained was a new road, it gradually, though ever increasingly, climbed what we’d soon realize was the former cauldron-like wall of an ancient, though still active, volcano.  It is in fact the largest caldera in the world.  On what is promoted as the most extraordinary island in the Aegean, emerged little towns that teetered on the very edge of the yawning mouth of the caldera risking extinction on a quirky whim of Mother Nature.  The rim was topped by a string of whitewash and blue trimmed villages like Oia (ee-ya), Fira, and Firostefani.  From afar, the contrast of the buildings, stunning white against the reddish stone
Our Tenuous Perch
cliffs, looked like snow draped on the sides of the volcanic walls.
  This well-known vista of the vast bay and its trademark white and blue trimmed buildings clinging like gleaming jewels to the slopes, was a feast for the eyes.  The optics, however, are not all of distant vistas.  There are stories here beginning with the land that continues to evolve to this day and there are its people.
Like Italy, Santorini has its share of history.  This history begins in its remote past with the land, a land synonymous with earthquakes.  It experienced what is considered the largest eruption in the last 100,000 years.  This eruption is thought to have occurred sometime between 1200 BC on the more recent side of time to 1483 BC on the far side.  I can’t see why the exact time matters so much but in the field of archaeology, careers can be based on, give or take, the question of a few hundred years.  While this variation concerning when the cataclysmic event took place exists, authorities seem to agree on the time of year of the eruption.  Hard to believe they can pin down the event, but they are confident that it occurred on a spring day from evidence found in the remains of ancient Akrotiri, one of the most important prehistoric settlements in the Aegean.  They reached this conclusion by piecing bits of evidence together.  One concerned seeds found in household jars.  When excavations unearthed these storage jars, they were found to be almost empty.  The absence of seeds is interpreted to mean that plenty of time had passed since the last autumn harvest and yet well before the next.  But couldn’t the Akrotri villagers simply have thrown a big party?  Seriously though, more evidence lies in the large layers of pumice found in Egypt, Eastern Europe, and the Greek Dodecanese island complex carried there by westerly winds on that day of devastation.  These winds are known to have prevailed even back then during autumn and spring in Santorini.  The earthquakes, tsunamis, and rains of pumice, some over ten feet thick that followed, ravaged much of the Aegean.  Events happened fast, with earthquakes preceding the volcanic eruption by weeks or at the most months.  The absence of skeletons, jewelry, or gold in archeological excavations indicate that pre-warning in the form of tremors had given the residents time to escape.  The issue would have been escape to where and how far away considering the catastrophe which shortly followed.
When the entire center of the circular island collapsed beneath the surface of the sea as a result of a tremendous explosion that abolished all life on the 9-mile-wide island, the ensuing tidal wave, 820 unbelievable feet high, traveling at 217 mph, virtually wiped out the neighboring Minoan civilization centered on Crete, at that speed only 18 minutes away to the south.  As opposed to a nuclear blast, Crete’s palaces took the brunt of the equivalent overpressure from an unimaginable wall of water that contributed to the abrupt decline of the Minoan civilization.

In the Background, Still Bubbling "Volcano Island"
Thankfully, the earth lay still our entire stay there.  We were staying in Firostefani, between Oia and Fira, on the bayside of the caldera wall, only a slide and splash above the sea hundreds of feet below.  Set on the volcanic cliff above an enclosed sea, now home to visiting cruise ships, we observed broken pieces of the volcano’s rim that looked like crescent shaped islands.  They trace a circle around the center of the lagoon today occupied by Nea Kameni, referred to as “Volcano”.   This uninhabited island still being formed by oozing lava emissions from the forge of fire far below, gives it the distinction of being the last active volcano in Greece.
The island’s ancient name was Thera.  In modern times it is still officially referred to as “Thíra” after an 8th Century B.C. Theban, Thiras, who arrived with a group of noblemen to settle on Santorini.  Many, however, prefer its medieval name, “Santorini”, born from a reference to the saint and its church by sailors of that day who called it “Saint Ireni”.  This unofficial name has persisted and remains in use to this day.  Santorini also has a romantic tie to being the site of lost Atlantis, described by Greek philosopher Plato in 375 BC.  While earthquakes happened in Santorini as in legendary Atlantis, its claim to be the site of Atlantis remains a myth rivaling for authenticity with other possible sites especially those in the mid-Atlantic.
The Fisherman Fresco
There is a famous fresco which has survived from the time of the obliterating earthquake.  It seems that tremors before the cataclysm made the fresco of a fisherman detach from the wall of what is referred to as the “West House” in Bronze Age Akrotri and slid down vertically until it hit the floor.  It remained there for about 3500 years until this former town of 30,000 inhabitants was rediscovered by archaeologists in the 20th century.  This famous fresco depicts a male nude figure of reddish color carrying fish in both hands tied together with a yellow string.  He has only two locks of hair, painted black, while the greater part of his head is shaved and painted blue.  Interestingly, blue on a figure’s head indicates that part of their head was shaven.  Red was used for male torsos while white was used for females.  But what of the Santorini men of today?

It’s rather funny but it seems that about a third of male Greek men appear to be named Georgios (George).  It has gained popularity from the widespread veneration of the warrior saint, Saint George, who was of Greek origin.  This, of course, I learned from a waiter also named George!  During our stay on Santorini, I came to meet George the Bartender, George the Hotel Manager, George the Waiter, and George the Store Owner.  I’m sure there were plenty more.
George I
George I was our hotel manager.  A man in his 40s, he supported a wife and two children – a son and daughter.  He was perfect for the job, helpful, available, and willing to chat about daily life on Santorini.  In our conversations he mentioned that he had regular Greek government medical insurance for which he paid about 5000 Euros annually.  At the time, Maria Elena was still in her Velcro boot recovering from her fractured foot, and I was especially interested in European medical care having experienced a sample, Italian style.  As a supplement, George I also paid for private health insurance, for an additional 2500 Euros annually.  He went on to relate how his wife had become sick one evening.  He took her to the hospital, but because of an accident they were too busy to even take her vitals. Understaffed?  Too small a hospital?  They suggested he take her to a pharmacy where they might find a cuff blood pressure machine.  He tried but couldn’t find any open in the early morning hours.  He finally stopped at an ambulance dispatch center where medical staff was on hand and they helped him.
He shared with us another story, this one about the time he’d flown his wife to Athens, not out of pleasure but out of necessity.  She was eight months pregnant at the time and his private doctor had advised that they visit an Athens hospital for neonatal testing, not available on Santorini.  Flying so late in the final trimester would be frowned upon by most doctors but the risk to his wife was most likely mitigated by remaining at low altitude and the short duration of the flight.  Arriving the day before their appointment, they checked into a hotel.  That evening his wife began to experience labor pains.  Possibly the flight was to blame after all.  He called the ambulance service for help, something they call the Misericordia in Italy, but in the time it took them to respond, the baby was born into his hands.  When the EMS team entered the room, they were taken aback in surprise at finding him holding the baby still connected by umbilical to the mother. They explained that their usual experience, upon breathlessly arriving, was to validate a false alarm or have plenty of time to get mother to the hospital.  It had been a first for them and certainly for George I.  His stories served as a sort of template.  I came away with the impression that Santorini is best a place for the young.  If a medical emergency were to arise, little in way of services would be available and the critical time needed to get proper medical attention aggravated by the need to island hop to a bigger island like Naxos or reach the mainland.
George II was one of the ubiquitous journeymen found throughout Santorini.  This George was our waiter at the Aktaion, a highly regarded restaurant in Firostefani.  Very much a part of Santorini’s history, this restaurant dates back to 1922 when it was started by Lefteris and Irene Roussos.   It continued with their son George (another George of course) along with his wife, Argiro.  It has 
The Aktaion Restaurant
since passed to third generation, Vangelis, who continues the family’s tradition of genuine Greek cooking and hospitality.  The Aktaion sits in the center of town at a very active crossroad.  It is here that lanes come together, one from a busy bus-trafficked inner road, another the main passageway to Fira, and finally, an exquisite mini-plaza seemingly right out of the movie Mamma-Mia located in front of a Greek church, all of it overlooking the sea.  Telling from the old pictures that adorn the Aktaion, much of the paraphernalia depicted in the photos is still right where they appear decades earlier.  The name, roughly translated, means “place by the shore”, although it sits high above and back from any sort of shoreline.  On our first night together (it was so good we ate there twice) he was somewhat reserved, a lot like a French waiter we’d once had near Lincoln, England.  By the end of that English evening, that waiter had his tie off and his arms around us for photos.  It wasn’t long
George II
though, after a barrage of questions, not necessarily all about the menu of course, and George began to loosen up too.
  Sitting there so long, practically closing the place with George II, no-doubt also contributed to his growing friendliness. 
You Guessed it, Moussaka
Chatting with him two nights in a row over the comforting dance of flavors known as moussaka, the Greek equivalent of Italian lasagna, I inquired about what he did on days off only to learn that during the lengthy tourist season, he worked over 250 days straight.  Such apparently was the life of a Greek waiter on a touristy island.  Daily, the cruise ships came and went, daily the faces at table would change, daily the pages of his order pad would disappear to be replaced by plates of food served and retrieved.  He could easily have grown numb from his “Groundhog Day” movie-like existence.  He was aware, however, that his fellow countrymen were not so fortunate to suffer from steady work.  Unemployment on the mainland, the highest in the developed world, reflected an economy on
oxygen.  While George II could easily have been suffering, forgive my lapse, from what I’ll refer to as “Same Shit, Different Day” syndrome, we enjoyed our time together.  For us, our stint at the Aktaion had been made extra special because our waiter, George, hadn’t been zombie-numb with us but had remained himself.  The Aktaion has been there all these years for a reason.  It is a delightful little gem of a place, with a refined expression of local cuisine, traditionally Greek through and through.  It’s not a label I gave it, but one it, along with George, has earned.

Oia Shopping
We’d heard that Oia was the shopping and cultural heart of Santorini.  We wanted to visit it but there’s a price to pay greater than the 1.40 Euro bus ticket. To get there you won’t be bored in the least taking the bus ride from Fira to Oia.  From my seat on the aisle, I looked off into nothingness.  The drop-off beside our bus rivaled the Amalfitano.  Instead of an emerald-blue sea extending to the horizon, there was sun scorched terrain that dropped off dramatically just feet from the tires.
Perhaps the only characteristics the Positano and Oia roads had in common were the absence of guardrails, driving on the right side of the road, and a narrowness of lane.  This obligated oncoming vehicles to form temporary coalitions of squirming cooperativeness, for once one vehicle yielded and pulled in its mirrors, it enabled them to get by.  While there is a lot of white paint on the buildings in Santorini, none is used to stripe the roads into lanes.  If they had been divided, there would have remained lanes only wide enough for golf carts and little else.
We found that busy Oia provided the best shopping venue on the island.  A maze of streets led us past elegant art galleries, numerous jewelry and high-end stores, pottery outlets, local handicraft and souvenir shops, as well as many contemporary style clothing boutiques.  My needs were simple.  I was on the lookout for an evil-eye talisman, an ancient blue-eyed symbol to turn away evil and some worry-beads (kombolói), similar to prayer beads, that Greeks calmly flip to relax themselves during difficult moments.  Then again, with our time on Santorini withering, there was a higher calling for our visit.  It was Ammoudi Bay.  This rather small sea-washed cove on the inside wall of the caldera, below Oia, its waters so clear that boats cast their shadows on the bottom, is home to five amazing fish taverns.
The Five Tavernas of Ammoudi Bay
As our journey to Oia had been exciting, entry to Ammoudi Bay was totally unorthodox.  The only way to Ammoudi on foot was by negotiating 214 steps and most likely the feeling of double that on the way back up.  This would have been a physical non-sequitur.  Instead, we threatened the existence of the planet, fell back on internal combustion, and took a taxi.  Something appeared off, however, when our driver pulled into a lot only to immediately reverse out onto the road again.  Had he missed a turn?  It turned out he hadn’t.  However, from this point on, though we weren’t blindfolded, a slipstream of dust only allowed us to glimpse where we had been, not where we were going.  This phenomenon was achieved by going down the cliff road to the sea, backwards.  Just maybe, the exact approach was confidential, as though how you got there was a secret.  It was a strange sensation, something the driver was obviously skilled at as he adeptly maneuvered at high speed, mirrors confidently still extended, between cars parked on either side of us.  It was a relief when he finally stopped, and we realized we’d arrived in one piece.  He was certainly oriented to easily drive back up the ridge which may have been the reason for our arrival in reverse in the first place.  Still, it seemed unnecessary for there was plenty of room there by the sea for him to turn around if we’d arrived more conventionally, front end first.  I rather wanted to believe that like pirate bases of old, Ammoudi Bay was a secret waterfront hideaway … Avast matey!  The secret was apparently out for there were plenty of us wannabe pirates around, even a few pirate flags.  The “base” was a series of restaurants, one beside the other, nestled in the imposing red rock of the caldera walls. Real estate, being scarce, we walked through other restaurants to get to Dimitris Taverna, our destination which happened to be at the very end of, let's call it, restaurant wharf. 

Our journey down the mountainside and through the neighboring restaurants concluded, we were offered an inviting table and a relaxed view of the sea which welcomed us with a glint of a wink.  It was a spectacular day with the fishing boats at anchor following the rhythm of the sea’s shifting surface.  From this cozy wharf-like corner of Santorini, the caldera bay stretched before our taverna table.  The taverna, once a small abandoned warehouse where locals stored their boats, as might be expected, presented a nautical theme.  Among its paraphernalia was a life-sized pirate, embellished with the mandatory trappings of a hook, eyepatch, and pegleg.  It only lacked a parrot, which being a staunch tourist, I suspect, would have been overdoing it just a bit.  All that remained was to find the treasure, the map to which we were sure lay in the menu.
Air-dried Octopus
As you might expect, dishes inspired by Mediterranean cuisine accompanied by ouzo, Crazy Donkey beer, and carafes of vino bianco fresco (cool white wine - I’ll stick with Italian and not attempt the equivalent in Greek) made up the fare.  As we looked over the menu, they enticed us with a rather small bowl of meaty kalamata olives.  No way of telling but it may have been a subtle way to induce us to order larger portions.  As you would expect, fish (psari in Greek) reigned supreme here.  Their fish selection was legion, with just about everything that swam and wiggled tallied.  It ranged from bug-eyed Bogue and tasty Gilt-head Bream to squirmy Octopus.  We got to see the daily catch on ice when the owner took us back stage into the kitchen area.  Convinced of the quality and freshness, our travel mates, Dotty and Jack, tucked into a Sea Bass and grilled vegetables along with, what else but, a crumbly feta Greek salad.  Maria Elena and I began with calamari, shared a Sea Bass cooked with garlic in baking paper, and a Santorini salad that included olive leaves.  If memory serves me, all together, we also consumed three carafes of local Argyros white wine whose special character added to the pleasure of the moment which extended over three hours.
The non-George, Armando
Helping us with these decisions was a token “non-George” named Armando.  While he was proof that not all the men there were named George, he only added to our belief that all the waiters were males.  Yes, males seemed to have clearly co-opted that livelihood.  He was our 21-year old waiter and shared with us that he’d worked there for five years, was single, and lived high above in the nearby village of Tholos.  In addition, he spoke unaccented English to perfection.  When he had a free moment, he’d stop by our table to chat and see how we were getting on.  On first meeting him, I thought he was the taverna’s manager, but when I inquired, I learned that he wasn’t, at least he wasn’t yet.  In comparison with the other wait-staff, he was on the ball, personable, helpful, knew the operation, and certainly had the trust of the owners, Dimitris and Joy.  It was hard to push away and finally leave, especially while listing to one side that I’ll blame on the wine.  We’d stayed such a long time that they were setting up for the sunset dinner crowd when we finally said our goodbye ciao-ciaos.  Dimitris’ had certainly been a winner, well worth the hassle of getting there.  If ever in the area, be sure to come about, furl your sails, and steady your sea legs ashore right there.
Our swaggers adjusted, our lists righted, time for merriment set aside, it was time for reflection.  We got up especially early on Sunday morning.  Close by, in Fira, there was a Greek Orthodox Church that we’d pass just about every day.  It seemed that God was often off somewhere, for its iron gate had always been locked and the door to the church closed. 
Beautiful Greek Church by the Aktrion
It being Sunday, I was sure we’d find it open that morning and we did.  We had been inside a Greek church before.  In fact, in Connecticut once we’d been given a tour by the local priest.  However, we’d never attended their liturgy.  We’d be careful not to give ourselves away as non-Greek parishioners.  Our strategy would be to remain inconspicuous … we’d not look for holy water on entering, abstain from genuflecting and kneeling, and avoid making a non-Greek sign of the cross.  Good luck with that.  It didn’t help at all.  We stuck out like sore thumbs, beginning upon entering when we didn’t make the rounds to kiss all the holy icons as everyone else did, and for late arrivals, even while the service was underway.  This was interesting to observe as people would arrive at any time, walk around the church kissing particular icons, all while vigorously signing themselves.  We hadn’t a clue about their liturgy and Rick Steve’s guide book certainly hadn’t prepped us.  The interior, though small, was ornate with the colors maroon, gold, and silver dominant.  The walls were covered with religious depictions and banners.   Opulent lamps on long chains, much like those we’d seen in Jerusalem, hung in luminous clusters from the ceiling.  The priest stood to one side and from a carousel-like arrangement read from a tome I took to be scripture.    Beside him, an ancient woman dressed in black also read.  Eventually,
You'd Feel Holy Being Near Him
he departed behind a screened sanctuary wall.
  Occasionally, she along with another man who’d joined her, would sing and the absent priest would respond.  I thought there would be communion at some point but instead the priest reappeared carrying an ornate book aloft which I assumed was the Bible.  Communion may have come later, for I understand that it is common in Eastern Orthodoxy for the liturgy to go on long and pass through multiple phases.  We did not stay to its conclusion.  All told there were about 15 in attendance.  Their devotion was in evidence as each approached the venerated book and kissed it along with the priest’s hand.  Our intrusion in this unique service, so rich with tradition, was an enlightening experience.  In the quietness of this sanctuary, the cruise ships anchored outside and the throngs of people with their cell phones and selfies aside, there was a soothing feeling that it has been ever thus.  In sharing in this centuries-old tradition, we’d certainly seen a part of what it means to be Greek.  I’m glad the door was open that morning.

Sunset over Thirasia Island in the Caldera's Bay
John Steinbeck, following his first visit to Positano once wrote in a May’53 Harper’s Bazar article, that tourists would never go there.  He gave his reasons.  Go there today and see just how wrong he was.  Granted the benefit of the doubt, his may have been a treatise in reverse psychology to keep the place pristine.  Santorini likewise had been discovered without any help or hindrance from Steinbeck.  This is borne out by the steady flow of tourists fed by cruise ships that anchor below the caldera walls for a few hours almost every day.  Once upon a time, we were aboard one of those ships.  During that brief visit, Santorini had cast its spell, urging our return.  Helpless, we promised Our stay would not simply be to experience its spectacular sunsets, enjoy more of their cucumber tzatziki dip, or appreciate its stillness when the crowds had departed, but to hopefully get to know the Greek people who live on these few square miles, listen to their tales, feel the texture of their culture, and gain some appreciation for their remarkable history.  We did just that and more, and for this we shout-out a mighty, “Thank You” to Santorini, which if I still have it right, in Greek, sounds like “Ef-har-rist-toe”, Santorini!
that one day we would.  

From that Rogue Tourist