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Christmas in Athens

 Who goes to Greece for Christmas?


December Lunch at Byzantino in the Plaka

 Preparation and Coercion

Who goes to Greece for Christmas? My family and I went, and we were not the only foreign faces we saw during the month we spent there from Christmas day until we left on January 24th in what was the coldest winter in history. How cold? Well it did snow for three solid days and it was the most snow in recorded history but if that is as cold as it gets I will trade North Carolina for Athens anytime. The Athenians acted as if they were cold and were certainly dressed for it but if you ask me it was just an excuse to wear the fashionable winterware that was available at the new shops that sell outdoor gear and camping equipment. But by my standards Athens in the winter is like New England in the spring and the late spring at that.

Supposedly January is the rainy season and it did rain. I know it rained because I would wake up in the morning and the streets were wet or I would come out of a taverna and water would be running down the drains. So it did rain but it never actually rained on me. Maybe I was just lucky or maybe the Greek Gods are very careful about who they rain on. Either way the raincoat I had bought at Townsend-Bertrand for $50 the day before I left was never used for its purpose though it did come in handy on the ferryboat trip to Kea where it was a little cooler at sea than it was in the city.

Some people said that it is silly to go to Athens for the Christmas Holidays. They said Christmas is not really celebrated in Greece and on New Years all people do is sit around and play cards. I really must disagree. The Christmas holidays in Athens were the most Christmasy I have ever had and New Years was better than the 4th of July in Philadelphia or Washington DC.

Convincing my daughter that we would have just as good a time in Athens as we would in NC where she was sure to get gifts from every member of our extended family was not easy. First I told her we could celebrate Christmas on the 23rd and she could get her presents 2 days early. That didn't really enthuse her. Then I told her she would get gifts from her old Aunt Poppy and her aunt Pam and that raised her eyebrows but not enough to tell me it was OK to book the flight. Then I tried my Santa strategy. "You know, Amarandi, we will be on the airplane on Christmas eve so you know what that means?" She looked interested. "Greece is 6 hours ahead so while it is day in America it is night in Greece so if we look out the window we may see Santa passing us going in the other direction after he is done giving presents to all the kids in Europe."

That did it. She agreed to go and I booked the tickets. Then, two days before we left they caught Richard Reid trying to light his shoes on a flight from Paris and suddenly I was afraid to go. It seemed like Christmas Eve would be such an inviting target for a terrorist. But I knew I could not turn back. So I went to the healthfood store and bought a bottle of kava-kava. After the first dose I knew that not only could I happily get on the plane but I had also found the cure for the angst that fills me anytime I have to do anything out of the ordinary. I was ready for my Christmas holiday in Athens.

 Arrival on Christmas Day

If you have ever flown on Christmas eve you will know what a great experience it is. The airports are empty and even with the heightened threat of terrorism there were no lines to speak of. The flight was not completely full and we could stretch out and even my daughter gave up on looking for Santa and slept for most of the trip.

We arrived to a sunny Athens on Christmas day and our pal George the Famous Taxi Driver waiting for us at the gate to drive us into the city. When you arrive in Athens from the USA you usually get there between 10am and noon and if you are like me you have spent the last 10 hours wishing you were anywhere else but on a plane, even if it means waking up back in North Carolina. But when I get to Athens a transformation comes over me and it does not matter if I have not slept or how uncomfortable I have been. George tells us the latest news of Greece and drops us off at the Attalos where we stay everytime we come. We greet our friends Sakis, Kosta and Maria at the front desk and go up to our rooms which always looks like our rooms no matter what side of the hotel or what floor and in a strange way feels like home. We get two rooms. I get one and Andrea and Amarandi share the other so I can work into the wee hours of the morning without bothering anyone. Well that is partially the reason. Actually it makes me feel like I am not married and less claustrophobic. After a shower we are out the door and into a taxi headed for Kypseli where Andrea's 90 year old aunt lives. Then after exchanging gifts we are off to two more parties before finally fading by about 9pm from all the food, wine and conversation. Who says the Greeks don't celebrate Christmas?

Unlike the USA. Christmas does not end on the 26th of December. In Athens it goes on and on. Syntagma square has a giant christmas tree made of lights with no wood or pine needles. The whole square is full of people and the most mottley looking Santa's I have ever seen. They are all skinny with their beards falling off, revealing unshaven Albanian-looking faces beneath. Each Santa has a pony that stands about three feet tall and they are charging 2000 drachma to let your child sit on it and take a photo. Amarandi seems troubled by this scene because up until this moment she believed with all her heart in Santa. Who were these guys? They certainly were not elves and they did not seem jolly at all. The opposite really. She wanted to sit on a pony but two thousand drachma is a little steep and who knows where the money would end up?

Every night there was a concert in the square with the grand finale New Year's Eve when many of Greece's biggest stars performed. Ermou street, which is only for pedestrians, had a carnival season atmosphere with dozens of street musicians, chestnut sellers, mimes and a hundred thousand shoppers. The stores are packed with people and I had to wonder what it had been like before Christmas. Athens is adorned with Christmas lights. The displays are simple and beautiful. A common motif is a fishing boat because St Nicholas is a saint associated with the sea. The way we have manger scenes they have fishing boats, though there were a couple manger scenes in Syntagma and in the City Hall square by the Athens market that seemed to draw a crowd of people and pigeons every day.

Along with the various forms of entertainment set up by the Athens government to keep the mood celebratory it seemed like every night there was something else going on socially. We went to a different taverna each evening and they were all packed with festive people until two or three in the morning. Where did the story that the Greeks don't celebrate Christmas come from anyway? On Friday and Saturday night Psiri was jammed with people and Athinas street had cars parked up and down the sidewalk. I opened my soundproof doors at the Attalos hotel and was shocked to see a traffic jam at five oclock in the morning!

I love Athens.

 New Years

New Years Eve was especially fun and as usual we were not sure of what we were going to do until we actually did it. After going to a small party at a friend's house in the Plaka we met up with Dorian Kokas, famous archaeologist Theresa Mitsopoulou, my friend Tony from Sifnos and a few people who had used my website that I met at the Attalos and we went to the Saita Bakaliariko (fried codfish restaurant) in a basement on Kydatheneon street in the Plaka where we drank kilos of wine from the barrel and all got to know each other. At midnight we went out into the street to watch the fireworks display which were impressive by any standards. The night was warm enough so that we didn't even need our coats and when the bells of all the churches chimed to announce the new year we hugged everyone in sight, friends, shop owners, tourists and wandering Athenians. Then we went back downstairs into the restaurant and finished our meals and continued drinking. When our group broke up around two we walked back to the hotel, passing bars where hundreds of people had spilled out onto the pavement and giant speakers were playing reggae and salsa music. When we got back to the room the phone rang. "Who could that be at this hour?" It was Dorian out of breath with excitiment. "I am in Syntagma! There are the best bands in Greece and a lazer light show and a million people! Come down here it's incredible!" We turned on the TV and there it was.
"Sorry Dorian. We are gonna stay in our rooms and watch it from here."

 2002 and the Euro

The weather stayed nice for the next few days. Not the famous Days of Halkiones which can last from 2 weeks to a month or more during the Greek 'winter' and seem more like spring or summer, but pretty nice anyway with highs in the upper sixties and sunshine broken up by an occasional cloud though rarely a sprinkle of rain. I took advantage of the weather to go to Sounion and take some photos while Andrea and Amarandi did what they like to do, which is research for Andrea's up and coming website on where to shop in Athens. The research consists of buying everything on sale in every store they go into and Amarandi happily wearing whatever she has convinced her mother to buy her for the few weeks it takes her to outgrow or get tired of it. The January sales in Athens bring everybody to the center and you can probably pay for your trip from America on the money you save buying Italian and European clothes and shoes on Ermou street. I am more of a temple on the mount kind of person and Sounion was absolutely beautiful that day though I missed out on some terrific bargains I am sure. Anyway I much prefer to shop by myself since going shopping with Andrea makes me feel like I am ten years old and shopping with my mom. While my friend Ana and I drove back from Sounion to a fantastic sunset, Andrea and Amarandi were recovering in the Attalos from their shopping and gathering strength for whatever festivities were in store for us that evening.

Usually I get back to the hotel around 8pm and try to catch up on answering my e-mail while the girls watch TV, read or Amarandi works on the report she is working on for Tom Mazarakis at Greece-Travel Phones entitled "Why I Should Have My Own Cell Phone". It has become something of an obsession for her. I can understand the practical reasons for us letting her have a cell phone like every child and adult in the country has. We can always find her if she gets lost. But I can't understand
her reasons. She only has 2 friends in Greece. How long can she talk to them? There are games you can play and maybe that is the main reason she wants one. She uses mine and plays a game called Snake. It uses up my batteries really quickly and then my phone is useless until it is recharged. I was against her getting the phone and Tom understood this and so gave her the task of writing a 10 page report on the subject, thinking that it would be a difficult task for a nine year old and she would soon lose interest. But she hasn't. She wants a phone and she is going to work at getting one. I guess I should be proud but when I see young girls totally lost in their cell phones, oblivious to the world around them as they punch in text messages and secret codes I pray to the all powerful god of high-tech to please spare my daughter.

Just after 8 my phone starts ringing as one after another everyone I know in Athens asks me what is going on tonight. Usually Ana calls first and I know that she is going to sit home and answer emails that she gets for her Villa Rentals while she half watches the shows like "Friends" and "Survivor" that are on Greek TV. If it sounds like fun she may join us but usually only on weekends. Tom is up for a night out every night but only when his wife lets him which is less and less frequent since the boys went back to the USA for college. Dorian has to be begged or enticed with the possibility of romance with fictitious beautiful tourist girls that are joining us for dinner. Then there are friends we meet in the hotel or people who just happen to call that night and usually what happens is we have anywhere from three to fifteen people joining us for dinner at a local taverna. The conversation can go from being philosophical to festive depending on the number of people and the amount of wine drunk.

This year the new year also brought in a change of currency. The Euro made its debut on New Year's day and for the next couple weeks no transaction was simple as people tried to grasp the differences in the old and new curency. For us it was easy because the Euro was so close to the dollar, about ninetyone cents. But for many of the Greeks it was very confusing as it would be for anyone whohad to suddenly change currencies after 150 years of the drachma. For weeks leading up to the change there were people selling calculators on every block in all styles. There were the simple plastic calculators for the working class and the silver and gold plated calculators for the wealthy. Amarandi got several for Chistmas. For awhile I was paying in Euro and getting change in drachma. It was about 5 days until I actually got euros in change and gradually the drachmas began disappearing. People exclaimed how the eros made everything more expensive but I think it was just that with the drachma you became immune to the large numbers. 17000 drachma for dinner for a small group of us seemed ok but 57 euros seemed like a lot. Gradually we got used to it. The people who really benefitted from the auro were the street musicians. We used to give them fifty drachma which came to about nineteen cents. Now we were giving half a euro, simply out of habit and they were practically tripling their take. That's OK. Nobody works harder than the street musicians of Athens.

 Breaking Plates

The night after New years we went to out favorite taverna. The upstairs was full and there was a party downstairs but there were a couple extra tables if we did not mind sharing the room with what looked like a bunch of sportswriters or an over-the-hill soccer team. They had control of the music and were playing their own CDs at top volume and after a little while the least tolerant of our group began to excuse themselves and go home. But gradually the music got under control and little by little our partying friends began dancing, first one at a time then in pairs and soon in scattered groups all over the room. As they got more drunk plates began breaking as their friends encouraged the dancers. Women from our table began joining them and even Andrea was pulled from her chair and thrust to the front of a line of dancers where she led them stumbling through the debris which was mounting on the floor as more plates were smashed and tables turned over. There was a three-hundred pound man with his shirt off dancing on the table and another with a glass on his head and a cigarette dangling from his lips, dancing with our friend Kelly in a scene that looked like Marilyin Monroe filling in for Melina Mercouri. One of our new friends who was a visitor to Greece asked Tom about the plate-breaking.

Tom explained "This is a way of expressing your emotion, your passion or what the Greeks call Kefi. This used to be very common in the tavernas and clubs but now it is illegal and people throw flowers instead, which is much nicer if you think about it."
"Well if it is against the law how come these people are doing it? Aren't they afriad they will get arrested?"
"Afraid of who? Who is gonna arrest them? These guys are all cops!"

Sure enough it was the local precinct having their New Years party since they all had to work New Years Eve because of the festivities.

 The Great Blizzard of 2002

The next day the blizzard hit. The day started out nice and then got rainy and a little windy. I called my friend Corinne who lived up the road about three miles in Psyhiko. "I just managed to get home before the blizzard hit!" she told me. What blizzard? It was a little drizzly downtown but to call it even a rainstorm, much less a blizzard would be a stretch. "Yes they are quite hysterical on the radio, telling people to stay in their houses." I assumed that meant Corinne was not coming out with us since apparently there was a blizzard somewhere in between Syntagma square and Psihiko. That did not stop us from going to Psiri where it was surprisingly quiet. The only people walking around were people from the neighborhood and all the restaurants and cafes were empty. When we got back to the room and turned on the TV sure enough there were snowplows driving around and newscasters outside reporting from the snowfilled streets just outside of the center of Athens.

The following day we woke up to snow covered city. Amarandi ran up to the roof of the Attalos where there was a few inches of snow. The Acropolis and Mount Lykavettos were both covered in white and we could barely contain our excitement as we headed out to drink our coffee and play in the snow. Though there was only the finest covering of snowy dust or dusty snow on Athinas street, on the Acropolis it was several inches deep. The site was closed but many people from the surrounding area had come up on the mountain to play in the snow. And it was still snowing and continued to snow for two more days.

The day after that we woke up and there was no snow on the streets. It had not been cleared and it was still snowing quite hard but some process of heat inversion or who knows what was making the snow melt as soon as it touched the concrete. Amarandi was mad. She wanted to play in the snow. I didn't. Walking around the day before taking pictures of a white Athens was enough snow fun for me. But I took pity on my daughter and we announced to Andrea we were going out to find snow and marched up to Syntagma. The snow was falling much harder here and was sticking a little bit more. The giant light structure that looked like a Christmas tree was still in the square and so were some of the degenerate Santas and their mini-ponies and I was the most Christmacy scene I had witnessed in the last 20 years. But still not enough snow to have any fun with so we got on the metro and took it a few stops up to the National Defense Building, Greece's Pentagon.

When we got off the train and came up the escalator we were astounded. There was at least a foot of snow. It was as if we had gotten on the train in Athens and gotten off in Salsburg, Austria or the North Pole. There were hundreds of people, mostly young, throwing snow and romping around. Amarandi and I wandered around Holargos, throwing snowballs at each other and taking pictures. We decided to walk back to the center of Athens and see if there is a certain line where there is no snow. We cut through different neighborhoods and all of them were snowed under with giant lumps on both sides of the street that we knew were cars. Gradually the snow was less deep and by the time we reached the Hilton there was less than an inch and we decided to take the metro the rest of the way back to the hotel.

 The Miracle

As the day approached that we would have to go back to the USA and begin our miserable working lives again I began to get uneasy. The thought of waking up every morning at 6:30 am to take Amarandi to school and then coming back to my little office to answer e-mail questions from people who were on their way to Greece was really depressing.

Then a miracle happened. Walking home from the Plaka Andrea felt a sharp pain in her ear. The next day she was so sick that Mr Zissis, the owner of the Attalos, begged me to take her to the hospital. Andrea did not want to go. She wanted a private ear, nise and throat specialist. I called George at Fantasy and Aliki at Dolphin and they each knew one they said was great. We chose the one who copuld see us the soonest. When we got to his office he looked into Andrea's ear (cigarette dangling out of his mouth) and told us she had a small puncture. He prescribed a couple remedies and told her to rest. "What about flying?" I asked cautiously.
"Impossible", he said. "Not for at least 8 days".

For Andrea this was not the same good news as it was for me. But the hotel was comfortable. The TV had plenty of movies and CNN and she had lots of books to keep her company. Within a couple days she was well enough to come out with us for lunch and soon after for dinners at the tavernas and ouzeries in Psiri. But she could not fly until it healed completely and when the 8 days had passed and we returned to the doctor he examined her again and gave her one more week which we made the most of.

 The End of the Holiday

I think the last two weeks of the trip were the best for me because they were like a gift. We went to Aegina and took a taxi all over the island taking pictures. We went to the island of Kea where Andrea has a house and brought some friends who were visiting Greece and had not been to an island. A Greek island in winter, especially a traditional one like Kea is a magical, mystical experience. It is so green, because the winter is the rainy season, and so quiet because there are no tourists on motorbikes. The locals that stay during the winter are all doing their winter things and you could be back in the last century except for the televisions in the cafeneons. The boat trip may be a little chilly especially on the return journey when the sun is starting to set but all the ferries have indoor lounges where you can read the paper, play cards, talk or just people watch.

Hotel Attalos, AthensOf course all good things must come to an end but the last week we hit a spell of wonderfully warm weather that made winter seem like spring. We went to the beach in Loutsa and had lunch in a fish taverna on the sea. We visited the Athens Zoological Park, the second largest collection of birds in the world, and many of them quite happy to see us. The last full day I took a trip with Dennis, the son of George the Famous Taxi Driver, from Athens to Delphi, Galaxidi, Nafpaktos and then across the Gulf of Corinth on the Rio-Antirion ferry to Patras and back to Athens on the highway that goes along the norhern coast of the Peloponessos. Naturally the day we went to the airport was the most beautiful day of all, as it often is when I leave.

So in response to the people who want to know if Greece is a good place to visit for the holidays I have to answer
YES!

Chances are the weather will be good. If it gets cold or rains that only makes the many tavernas, ouzeries and cafes seem that much warmer. Sitting in a small cafe in Psiri or the Plaka with a glass of rakimelo (raki and honey) with snow or rain falling on the quiet streets outside I am as content as a person can be.

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