Monday, May 31, 2010

Santorini Sublimity

I have succumbed utterly and entirely to the charms of Santorini on this, our third day of bliss. Initially I wasn't entirely convinced. Having just come from lush, verdant Maryland (all the more so because of abnormal winter snows and a long wet spring), it took my eye a couple of days to adjust to the stark, rugged beauty of this Cycladic island. Now I understand why people go slightly berserk after several days and give up their native land to settle here. We have met people from all over the world who have set up businesses or work in local shops and restaurants. Not surprisingly those from cold climates seem the most gobsmacked: the bronzed Czech girl who waited on us last night at Ginger Sushi Cafe (which, incidentally, lived up to its reputation) couldn't stop smiling. She's been here one month and still talks non-stop about the climate and laid-back ease of the island.

This morning we returned to Cafe Mylos, which has become our go to joint for breakfast. They serve absolutely the best Greek yoghurt topped with fresh fruit and drizzled with Cretan honey. That and a double Greek coffee sets me up for much of the day. We hiked down to Thira around noon and took the bus to Parissa, a black sand beach that is just spectacular. The beaches are all private, with each cafe or taverna claiming the patch fronting its business. The system actually works very well: one is welcome to stake out a chaise lounge, a little table, and umbrella in exchange for ordering something. Even a coffee will do, but most people end up ordering drinks or light snacks over the course of the afternoon. Hustled by an enterprising Greek businesswoman, we settled on her perfect bit of beach. We ordered cold Mythos beer and, later, some mezzes to nimble. The service was perfect. Never did one feel pressured to buy additional food, but the service was available if one wished.

Never having swum in the Aegean before, I didn't know what to expect, but the water was cool (not cold) and absolutely refreshing. It's clean and intensely salty, rather like the Caribbean, which makes for especially buoyant water. Unhindered by waves or undertow, I swam fairly far out in the calm seas, ecstatically happy by the combination of sun and water. For an erstwhile California girl who grew up on the beach, well, it just doesn't get any better than this.

Rod dragged me away in time to make the 6.30 bus back to Fira (I would have stayed until 9.00 p.m). We hiked back to our town, showered, and then had a light supper at a little traditional taverna recommended by our landlady here at Hotel Galini. We tried fava beans with fresh capers, a Santorini specialty; grilled eggplant with sun dried tomatoes; and a slice of spinach pie, all of them "small plates." The first two were just superb; the spinach pie was good, not brilliant. The climate and volcanic soil here lend themselves to several crops, which include fava beans, capers, cherry tomatoes, pistachios, black sesame seeds, and the clean, light white wine for which Santorini is known. All are very good indeed.

I am also feeling better disposed toward Hotel Galini. Yesterday we mentioned to our landlady that our room was a bit cramped, and she immediately offered us a much nicer accommodation, for which we are both grateful. She is a hard-working, kind woman who really does try in earnest, something I have found to be the case with most of the people on the island. We can now stow our clothes in drawers and move around more easily. The view from this balcony is prettier--one sees a wider expanse of the caldera and neighboring islands. Tonight we watched the sun set into the Aegean, a moment I have now witnessed three times but still find indescribably moving. It is not just the aching beauty of the sunset itself but the sense of history, sitting in my balcony and wondering if the early Thirans also paused in the course of their day to gaze upon this blaze of fire sinking into the vast sea, its light throwing into silhouette all of the islands, for as far as one can see.

Tomorrow morning we intend to rouse ourselves at a decent hour, hike down to Thira, jump the bus to Kamari, and then find the mini-bus that will drop us within a 20-minute hike of ancient Thira, the ruins I want to see. We have an hour-and-a-half to explore the site before meeting the van that will return us to Kamari. If the weather is nice again, I want to take the water taxi from Kamari back to Parissa Beach, where I fully intend to plant myself for another serious afternoon of sun and surf. Then back to the hotel, alas, to pack for Thessalonki, the next leg of our journey.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Cycladic and Culinary Delights

We overslept woefully this morning, felled by the previous day of heat and hiking. We roused ourselves mid-morning and walked up the road to Cafe Mylos in Firostefani, the village where we're staying. We were not disappointed. The cafe blends traditional Greek architecture with a very hip, very contemporary look (and blasts great house music to boot). They have a nice internet cafe; overall, Cafe Mylos exudes an inviting vibe.

The food was excellent: fresh and handsomely prepared. Indeed, I have been pleasantly surprised so far. After years of hearing Rod recount horror stories of greasy moussaka, I expected the worst. Rod (albeit somewhat grudgingly) admits that what we have experienced so far bears little resemblance to his memories from twenty-five years ago. Food is very good and, by European standards, reasonable. Yesterday we lunched at Nikolas Cafe in Thira, and again had absolutely fresh, tasty food: Rod ordered stuffed cabbage, and I had stuffed zucchini with a light lemon sauce. We shared a killer appetizer of beets, which included the sauteed greens. Santorini wine has also been a revelation. I had been warned off Greek wine, but the local white is absolutely delicious and light, perfect for this climate. At lunch yesterday we paid all of 2 euros for a small carafe, which seemed crazy cheap; all told, our substantial, very good lunch totaled 21 euros for the two of us, certainly a bargain by any standards.

Tonight we're dining across the street at Ginger Sushi Cafe, which is reputed to be fantastic. Web sites say it's the best sushi outside of Japan and California. Tomorrow we will probably succumb and try Naoussa or Mama's cafe, both Santorini institutions. In short, good food is to be had easily and relatively inexpensively.

After brunch we ambled down the cobblestone path that follows the cliffs overlooking the caldera, around a 20-minute hike. Once in town, we headed for the Museum of Prehistoric Thira, another unexpected delight. I've decided that Rod and I are incorrigible geeks. Inevitably we find ourselves in places like this museum, enchanted beyond expression only to realize that we're two of perhaps ten people in the entire place. Everyone else is buying curios or drinking in bars. The museum has an impressive collection of pottery and objects from the 17th - 20th centuries (BCE, mind you). I especially loved seeing the implements and wall paintings from the recent excavations in Akrotira. Alas, the site itself is still closed, but the collection gives a good sense of the advanced civilization--certainly rivaling Minos--that flourished before the great volcanic eruption of around 1450 BCE.

Tomorrow we might take a cruise to the volcanic center of the caldera, where one can swim, if so inclined, in sulfuric waters. On Tuesday we will attempt the trip to the ruins of ancient Thira. We finally discovered (through one of dozens of travel agencies dotting the island) a fairly straightforward route. Mini-vans make the trip several times in the morning, but they only depart from Kamari and--this being Greece--one cannot depend on the published schedule. The agent, though, offered to call the company on our behalf, so I am hoping we won't stand for hours in the sun waiting in vain for our transportation.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Santorini Sunset

We arrived last night in Santorini after a long day of travel: disembarked from the QMII at 7.00 a.m. in Southampton; met our (very good, very efficient) driver at 7.45; and then arrived at Heathrow by 9.00. Strangely we ran into little traffic. Our late morning flight to Athens left right on time and Aegean Airlines did a nice job: the new Airbus was immaculate, and we were served a tasty lunch and wine on the 3-hour flight to Athens. Always I am shocked when I fly in Europe. To be given lunch is sufficiently impressive but lunch and wine? I'm lucky if I get a bag of pretzels flying coast to coast in the U.S. Our connection to Santorini also went smoothly, although we were both very tired by the time we got to our hotel.

Our accommodations aren't quite what we hoped for: I suppose the best that can be said is that the Hotel Galini is clean. The bed is rock hard and the room cramped and charmless. We don't even have a chest of drawers for clothes, most of which remain in our suitcases. When we booked, we did not realize that most hotels on Santorini have swimming pools, a luxury we would have appreciated on this unseasonably hot Saturday after hours of tramping around in the Greek sun. Ah well.

I like Santorini very much, but the photos one sees of the famous caldera, with white-washed houses perched on the hillside, are somewhat misleading. Yes, the view from our balcony is spectacular, and seeing the sun sink into the sea tonight from Oia was just as breathtaking as everyone says. The cliffs around the rim of the caldera secure Santorini's claim to fame; the rest of the island, though, is scrubby, arid, and visually uninteresting. We booked four days here; two would probably have been enough.

We took a bus tour today, which turned out to be longer (nearly six hours!) and more challenging physically than we expected. The buses are very modern and well maintained; the driver was a solid citizen, a far cry from the stories one hears, and our guide, a young man in his twenties, was solicitous if not terribly well informed. He tried hard, though. We made several stops, which included a traditional Greek village, a Venetian fortress, and the oldest church on the island. All were interesting but entailed long hikes up many, many hills and stairs. I prided myself on sprinting up the first two destinations; by the fourth, I was dragging, a victim of the unforgiving Greek sun and swelling feet. Still, I fared better than most. Two Ecuadorian women groaned with each step up the fortress, stopping frequently to mop their brows and confirm the temperature ("treinte-tres grados?!"), as if this repetitive exclamation would somehow alter the stifling reality. We ended up at Oia, turned loose for two hours to find water and/or sustenance before claiming a spot to watch the famous sunset. Then, at 8.30 p.m., we all staggered back to the bus for the ride home.

We had thought about attempting the ruins of ancient Thera tomorrow, but after reading about the difficulty in accessing them, we are considering a lazier option, perhaps a morning at the beach and an afternoon at one of the local museums.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Goodbye to All That

Our final day on the QMII will no doubt resemble the preceding ones. Quickly we fell into a pattern of lethargy punctuated by occasional bouts of activity. Like the famed nineteenth-century Russian character Oblomov, our greatest decisions revolve around food, drink, and leisure: what will we have today? What will we do with ourselves? Oh, the monumental decisions that await!

Yesterday was particular shocking: we slept in, had a bit of breakfast, read, lunched, and then napped. Our evening was equally sybaritic: dinner and then an hour musical revue (surprisingly decent), followed by a nightcap and jazz at one of the onboard bars.

I love people watching on the QMII. Last night at the bar, I watched amused as one of the leggy girls from the revue, a gorgeous blonde hailing from the Ukraine, made an undulating entrance, well-heeled man in tow. He looked like he had been hit by a 2 x 4, which in some sense is probably true. A handsome young American couple, scrubbed and shiny as new pennies, gazed adoringly into each other’s eyes, most likely celebrating their honeymoon. A bankruptcy judge we had met at lunch sat with his partner, the two of them exchanging confidences and knowing looks as they too gauged the spectrum of humanity. A rich English dowager, bejeweled and expensively coiffed, entertained her much younger guests with stories from her youth. It was like being in an Evelyn Waugh novel or on Agatha Christie’s Orient Express.

The last two days we have been blessed with interesting dining companions. At dinner we are seated with a very nice couple from Savannah, Georgia. Warm, homey, and kind, they embody a kind of American character all too infrequently seen—or at least represented in the media—these days. They are fiscally conservative but socially moderate (certainly liberal by Sarah Palin standards), the sort of Republicans I remember from my youth. Two nights ago we had drinks with another couple we liked. He’s a retired French engineer; she’s an American editor. They own an apartment on the French coastline near the Spanish border that we might consider for a future rental.

While both Rod and I have enjoyed ourselves immensely, the thought of a conventional cruise makes me want to jump overboard. We’ve met an extraordinary number of people who are cruise junkies (that ghastly woman I blogged about previously is hardly unique in this regard). It is not uncommon to find folks who have done 30 or 40 cruises, a phenomenon that crosses ethnicities and nationalities. Yesterday in the laundry room, for instance, I chatted with an older white woman, recently widowed, who does a yearly round-trip Atlantic crossing on the QMII in addition to other Cunard voyages; an Asian woman who cruises with her husband 2-3 times a year; and a middle-aged African-American man who has taken 35 cruises (“I have to do something with my time now that I’m retired”).

Admittedly, the QMII is a great way to get to Europe: one arrives relaxed, Circadian rhythms adjusted, rather than stumbling half-dead off a plane at Heathrow, Charles de Gaulle, or Frankfurt at 6.00 a.m. I will do it again if prices remain affordable. But living on a cruise ship for 10, 17, or even 22 days (as many of these passengers do) while disembarking for a few hours at some port of call, well, that would drive me nuts. Maybe when I’m 80, I’ll feel differently, but for now, donning a good pair of walking shoes and exploring on my own is how I want to see the world.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Cruising Life

“The natives.”

I blinked in incredulity: had I heard correctly? Does anyone still use that kind of abhorrent language? Evidently one of our tablemates does, the sort of woman who unfortunately makes the phrase “ugly American” all too real. She and her companion, both overweight, badly dressed women in their late sixties, stuffed themselves with high-fat, caloric foods throughout the meal while enumerating cruises taken in recent years. Like boys collecting baseball cards, they seemed more intent on acquisition than experience. They could not recall ports of call, nor could they remember the contours of various cruises. Neither seemed to take particular pleasure in anything other than eating and onboard gambling. One woman dismissed most European cities with a wave of the hand: “after a while, everything blends together.” She never visits museums abroad, explaining that, “if you have the Met in New York, why do you need to see anything else?” Why indeed.

Instead they were intent on racking up nautical miles on various cruise lines, which I suppose gives them bragging rights back home. These women might not have been able to remember the difference between Morocco and Monte Carlo, but they could tell you the fine nuances of service on the Oceania liner. One announced proudly that she was “diamond class” on Cunard, which means that she’s made countless voyages, most of which she cannot remember.

The inveterate gambler of the two jumped up halfway through the meal, announcing “Bingo!” to no one in particular. She scurried off to make her game while her remaining companion proceeded to hold forth on the state of the world. She brought out the worst in us. Rod made an acid remark about Sarah Palin; I followed with equally sharp comments about Dick Cheney and Haliburton. The set of the woman’s jaw only egged us on. All the usual fault lines were drawn, from Obama’s health care reform to the federal response to the BP spill. Upon hearing her dismiss national health care, I was tempted to point out that grossly overweight people making poor lifestyle choices—as she clearly was—would be largely responsible for future spikes in costs to taxpayers. The woman did not want to spend a public dime on anyone else, but she was more than willing to cash in her social security check and add to our ever-growing Medicare bill.

In brief, the four of us, all Americans (Rod, of course, a naturalized citizen), enacted for our polite but understandably appalled Dutch dining companions the polarities that fissure America these days. Blue versus red, Democrat versus Republican, liberal versus conservative. Our mutual detestation was all too apparent.

I left feeling angry and yet somewhat ashamed. We should be better than this, I thought, able to reach across the divide that Obama urges Congress to traverse. If, as an everyday citizen, I cannot be civil to someone with opposing political views, then how can I expect otherwise from my politicians? Then again, I don’t know how to respond politely to someone who advocates involuntary birth control for prisoners or who wonders aloud why “the natives” in Africa didn’t learn “civilization” from their English masters? The problem is this: how does one tolerate intolerance? How does one enlighten stupidity of the very worst sort?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Monday Morning on the QMII

One of the pleasures of dining shipboard is the chance to meet new people. Unlike our trip last year, when we were assigned to the same table for lunch and dinner, we are now in a class of service—somewhat lower—that allows for “open seating” at lunch. And, due to some confusion over our table assignment for dinner, we have had various dining companions in the evening as well.

As might be expected, they have been an international bunch: Canadians, Brits, Europeans, Americans, and South Americans. So far, my favorite is a Venezuelan named Rafael, a gregarious and charming screenwriter who divides his time between Montreal and Paris. He works largely in the Francophone film industry, with a self-professed interest in “drama and comedy—no thrillers and certainly no action movies.” Last night we chatted with a Canadian couple from Victoria, British Columbia, who regaled us with stories of trips into the Indian desert.

Then, too, there is the occasional annoyance, no doubt to be expected when dwelling among three thousand people. As I write this entry, a pushy Canadian woman asked for my desk in the library. She likes the spot and claims that the power cord to her laptop won’t extend to the nearest outlet (not the case). I politely refused.

Then there are the loud, obnoxious folks. On our first night of dining, at a lovely table near a window, we were accosted by the braying laugh and piercing timbre of an extraordinary American woman nearby. She held my fascination throughout the meal. Like something out of Auntie Mame, she was larger than life: too loud, too effusive, and far too painted. In tow was a mummified man she referred to as “my fiancĂ©.” Not once did he utter a word. She spoke for him throughout the meal, while Rod and I, horrified and entertained, stole looks at his frozen, glassy-eyed demeanor. Was he drugged? Suffering from dementia? Or simply overwhelmed? His dress and appearance were equally compelling. The cut of his suit suggested money, but he wore a ring in his ear—perhaps somewhat strange in a man well into his seventies—and a very bad toupee (is there any other kind?). As the meal progressed, our bemusement turned to irritation as madam’s stream of commentary intensified in volume and frequency. After 24 hours in her presence, I would have resorted to arsenic.

This morning I am working on publication projects, putting the finishing touches on an article and fleshing out a book chapter. I am sitting in my favorite spot on the QMII, the wood-paneled library. Dotted with windows, it offers a wonderful view over the bow of the ship, where one can look beyond the railings to the Atlantic. Window-side seats abound, as do desks and even some sofas. It is a very popular spot. Passengers like to curl up and read or, like me, write at their laptops.

Speaking of reading, I expected to see lots of Kindles and iPads on this voyage, but so far, I have espied only one person using a Kindle and nary an iPad in sight. I wonder in part if the paucity of e-readers is generational: Cunard cruises tend to attract an older crowd, many of whom seem tech-challenged, if not phobic. Several times while working on Rod’s laptop—we brought along his new 13” MacBook Pro, a snappy, energetic little machine—I’ve been approached by folks who are having trouble signing on to the ship’s very good WiFi. Cunard provides good support—a tech specialist is available around the clock in one of the computer labs—but I suspect some of the older passengers are too intimidated to approach a young, obviously tech-savvy, younger male in his twenties. As a middle-aged woman, I probably appear a bit safer, closer to them in age and presumably more sympathetic to their technology woes.

As for me, I would have loved an iPad for this trip. I am tired of lugging around bulky books while traveling, but, as advised by Al3x, I will wait until the next generation appears.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

People Watching on the QMII

If anything, this passage on the Queen Mary II is even better than our voyage last year. Blessed by mild weather and calm seas, we have made steady progress toward Southampton, averaging 23 knots. I think Rod would prefer a bit more nautical excitement (translation: a goodly storm), but I am very happy with the current conditions.

The passengers seem a bit more colorful this time through: two 60-something hippies, with graying waist-long hair and wildly inappropriate gypsy garb caught our eye, as did a young man in psychedelic pants. On our first evening we saw a woman in a burgundy colored velour tracksuit—indescribably awful—wearing a hat with bunny ears. The contrast between the madcap garb and her hatchet-faced expression was, um, compelling. Perhaps the bunny ears were supposed to cheer her up?

I don’t know if it’s the current economic climate or political tensions or even the volcanic ash, but more people seem to be gorging on food this year. We went for herbal tea last night in the King’s Court, a central cafeteria area that stays open until nearly midnight. While we sipped our hot drinks, I watched a succession of people attack various desserts with grim determination—and this after having dined on a 3-course meal two hours earlier. One man in particular caught my attention, a trim bearded fellow, perhaps in his early sixties, who returned five times—no, I am not making this up—to the desserts, each time heaping his tray with two or three items. He didn’t appear to be enjoying the sweets; indeed, he seemed generally unhappy, and it made me sad to think that all those bowls of pudding and slices of cake would never sate his emptiness. Then there were the usual overweight people (as many Europeans as Americans, I might add) who had no business indulging midnight snacks but nonetheless stuffed themselves with empty carbohydrates.

One can very easily eat well on the QMII: fresh fruit is available around the clock for snacking, while salads, grilled vegetables, and lean proteins abound at every meal. Lunch and dinner choices include Canyon Ranch specialties, all relatively low in calories and sodium. Yesterday for lunch I had a superb vegetarian meal of grilled vegetables atop toasted risotto and a fresh tomato soup. It can be done.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Another Transatlantic Crossing

I guess I'm resuming blogging after a long hiatus: a full teaching load, committee work, endless meetings, and publication deadlines don't leave one much time for random musings.

This Friday we are about to embark on another adventure crossing the Atlantic; once we land in Southampton, we make our way to Heathrow, where we will catch a flight to Santorini. Thus begins our two-week sojourn in Greece.

For me, this is the culmination of a 30-year-old fantasy. As an undergraduate at LMU, I was privileged to study theatre history with Katherine Free, a woman who proved enormously influential on my subsequent career. She was especially knowledgeable about ancient Greek theatre (in addition to Sanskrit drama, another specialty), and I have vivid memories of sitting in class and staring dreamy-eyed at slides of Epidaurus. Now, after all of this time, I too get to clamber around the stone seats and wander through the orchestra, imagining the performance of the choric passages of Aeschylus or the descent of Medea in the deus ex machina. I am beyond thrilled.

As for the QMII, we were sufficiently pleased to repeat the experiment: once again, we sail over and fly back. If our pocketbook (and frequent flyer miles) hold out, this may become an annual ritual. I have learned a few simple rules from our first voyage:

  • Order from the menu as though it's 1955: forget nouvelle anything
  • Work out or swim every single day (to offset said menu)
  • Skip some meals or just have a bit of fresh fruit and plain yoghurt
  • Get to the library fairly early in the morning to find a nice seat by one of the port holes
  • Take seasickness medicine at the first sign of distress: stoicism does not pay off in this instance
  • Be more open to attending seminars and talks: they might sound goofy, but often prove surprisingly good
More to come on Friday!