My adventure starts with a red-eye flight departing from Newark, NJ at 11:55 pm on January 4th and arriving in Athens, Greece on January 5th, 4:10 pm local time. Luckily, thanks to COVID, I managed to get an inexpensive flight on Emirates, one of the best-rated and most comfortable airlines. I had my entire row to myself, like many others on the plane, and was able to lay down to sleep. As we approached Athens, I woke up and was greeted with golden fields under a warm sunset out my window.
As COVID had begun to spread on mainland Greece and on Ikaria, my supervisor asked me to quarantine in Athens for five days. Again, thanks to the pandemic, I was able to get an inexpensive hotel with a short walk from the Acropolis and a rooftop view of it.
I got my COVID booster the day I left for Greece, so I’ve had a cold since I got here. I was feeling under the weather today, so I only left the hotel to explore a little and take pictures in the morning, and then didn’t leave again until later that night in search of a snack. I wandered around the city and stumbled upon Little Kook, an adorable Christmas-themed coffee and patisserie shop. Though I didn’t go inside, there were plenty of pretty lights and decorations to enjoy outside. I sat in a wonderfully decorated alley and enjoyed a Hot White Chocolate with Mastic and Rose.
However, all is not idyllic as it would seem. Opposite of one of Little Kook’s Christmas storefronts is a similar scene to what you would see where I’m from in Philadelphia: a storefront with a security gate, covered in graffiti, with a homeless person sleeping in front of it. While it is easy to idealize other countries with all that is going on in ours, a lot of other countries have the same or worse issues as we do.
Needing an actual meal, I stopped at a grocery store and bought a seafood salad from the deli, some kind of berries that I couldn’t identify, and Lemon Pepsi, or Pepsi Twist (very American of me, I know). It was discontinued in the U.S. in 2006, so I was very excited to try it, and it lives up to the hype.
It rained for most of the day today, so I didn’t leave the hotel until night. This time, I explored the beautifully decorated Syntagma Square. It was named Syntagma, or “Constitution” in English, when Otto, the first King of Greece, granted a constitution after a military uprising in 1843. It is right across from the Old Royal Palace, which has housed Greece’s Parliament since 1934.
For dinner, I started with dessert and went to Lukamades, a chain restaurant that makes the popular Greek dessert (you guessed it) Lukamades: fried dough coated with honey and toppings. I got The Cretan, which was filled with mizithra cheese and topped with honey & sesame.
I then ate at a restaurant called Kalamaki, where I had a traditional Greek salad, grilled haloumi cheese, and veal souvlaki. Unlike in the U.S., real Greek salad is served with a large piece of feta cheese on top, and chopped cucumber, tomatoes, onion, green peppers, olives, olive oil, and oregano.
It was my last day at my hotel, so I decided to make the most of it. Every Sunday morning, Changing of the Guards takes place at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in front of Parliament. Unfortunately, as the weather wasn’t great, there was no formal march like they normally have. Instead, the soldiers were driven in on military jeeps. However, I was still able to see the traditional Evzones uniform, which is handmade with many symbols of Greek history.
I then took a stroll through the National Gardens. It houses a duck pond, a Children’s Library, various ruins and busts, and even a small Zoo!
My last stop was the Panathenaic Stadium or Kallimarmaro. It is the only stadium in the world built entirely of marble and was built in 330 B.C. for the Panathenaic Games. It hosted the Zappas Olympics in 1870 and 1875 and the opening and closing ceremonies of the first modern Olympics in 1896, as well as being the venue for 4 out of the 9 competitions.
Today, I checked out of my hotel and got a rapid COVID test before I finally got to meet my supervisor, Illias! Since our flight to the Island wasn’t until Wednesday, I stayed and him and his wife, Elektra, at their apartment in Athens. We ran some errands, including meeting their kids and grandkids and going to the market to buy fish for dinner.
Eager to introduce me to Greek food, Ilias showed me how to make the two kinds of fish we bought at the market: Spicara Smaris and Boop Boops (yes, that is the scientific name). We added flour, salt, and pepper to the bag and coated the fish before frying them in olive oil made from Ilias’s own olives. We ate them with bread from the bakery, feta and goat cheese, and wine. Later that night, we made herb tea by throwing a bunch of different dried herbs, such as sage, ironwort, thistle, and lemon verbena in a pot and boiling it, and I kid you not, it was the best tea I’ve ever had!
For my last day in Athens, we made a feast for dinner! We bought bread and tsoureki (a type of sweet bread) from the bakery and made pita, or vegetable pie, and melitzanosalata, or eggplant dip. We also had wine made by one of the neighbor’s brothers, and for dessert, we had figs dried with laurel, annis seeds, thornbury, and rosemary that Ilias had made.
Even before getting to the Island, I saw a lot of people not only making their own products, but sharing them with their family and friends. The honey we put in our tea was from Irini’s (my landlord in Ikaria) cousin, and Ilias, as well as having a supply of his own olive oil, was also brine-curing his own olives in his kitchen. This is a great practice, as you not only trust where your products are coming from, but it gives you a little independence from the market.