Friday, August 08, 2014

From Beograd to Athena

As any good Greek tale begins, one should start in medias res.  But I don't know which middle to begin in.  Here I am stuck in the middle with Athena.

I find myself in Athens for some much-needed, much earned vacation.  I have been running hard since March.  From India to Holland to Bosnia to Serbia to Venezuela to India to Brazil to Serbia to Greece.  It has been a long, convoluted and wonderful road that I have traversed, and it has left me frayed.

I can scarcely start beginning to describe the wonderful, incredible program I had in Serbia, and how much I came to love that country and those beautiful people. It was wonderful and meaningful, exhausting and challenging.  After Belgrade, we had a mini-NL Academy in the gem of a city that is Novi Sad, and I can do no justice to summarize it or the return to Belgrade so I simply, sadly must move on.

All I can do is start with the morning.  I woke up in the early dawn to check myself out of my regal room in the Hotel Rezime Crown.  I had sent the NL Team Serbia off the morning prior at the crack of dawn, much to all's chagrin. I returned by car with Alexsander, the owner of the shuttle service that had sped our team to the airport.  We spoke of all that had been lost with Yugoslavia.  He spoke of the loss of humanism in the Balkans.  "Before," he said, "we had things, we got by and money was not the object of life. Now we cheat and cut throats for nothing.  It was not like this in the old days."

I returned to catch some much-needed sleep.  I woke up late in the morning, and treated myself to a much-needed massage.  Even the masseuse commented on how much stress I was carrying in my back.

Anshul and I met Ivana and Marija for a late lunch in Zemun, a historical area connected to greater Belgrade
Zemun is known for its fish restaurants sitting on the river Sava.  We sat out in the tranquil restaurant Saran, and tried to put the whole experience in perspective.

In a lovely, slow lunch, we ate domestic Serbian cream cheese covered in chopped chive and olive oil with fresh bread.  I sipped rakije and rose as I ate scrumptious crispy grilled perch.  We were joined by Serge--a famous Serbian actor who is a friend of Ivana.  Serge had lived in LA and NY, and we spoke of the craziness of Lalaland.  He was amazed that I lived in LA for 2 years without a car.  The day wasted away in a slow fashion that I hadn't enjoyed in a long while.

Later that night, after I had dropped off the last of my charges, I stood outside my hotel with Clare- the Embassy intern who I helped convert from security to PD.  The street symphony played Beethoven's Ode to Joy, and I conducted the symphony with my fingers as I marveled that I was now DONE.

For dinner, I grabbed a slice of my favorite pizza from a place called Fresco.  They make a slice called "Verde" with mushrooms, a dollop of pavalka (thick Serbian sour cream) and a black olive sitting on the creamy goodness.

I turned in early for my morning departure and out of shear exhaustion.

I awoke early the next morning and wandered the empty streets of Belgrade, looking for espresso as I munched my bread stuffed with soft cheese.  I bade goodbye to the lovely hotel staff.  I always find it such a compliment when folks who work in transient professions take to you.  One dear friend at the hotel went as far as to give me a gift-- the masterful "Bridge over the Drina"  by Ivo Andric.  I was touched.

I departed the hotel, and found a grey Mercedes waiting to ferry me to the airport.  Alexsander had liked me so much, he sent me his luxury car for transport.  I sat in the back of the grey Mercedes as we burned through the city covered in grey fog and sped to the airport.

I cleared the ticket counter and customs, and killed time drinking espresso and the last of my rakije as I waited to depart my dear Serbia.

We flew out of the grey and into the blue horizon.  I slept for a while, and woke up to work on a new grant I am pitching.  I have vacation coming, but not on vacation quite yet.

We flew over the azure of the seas that line Greece.  We descended past fields of verdant grey, green olive groves, and I felt that wonderful nervousness that I get when arriving to a new place, a new adventure.

I cleared customs, grabbed my things and figured out my way to the bus to the center of the city.  I stared out the window at the vast Greek horizon that seemed to stretch forever.  The azure of the skies was as rich as the azure of the seas, as the bug fat Greek clouds floated overhead.  I passed a fortuitous sign that heralded my arrival: a sign pointing the way to Μαρκοπούλου (Marco Polo)..

The bus sped through the outskirts into the city.  I began trying to size up the differences between greater Athens and greater Belgrade.  While greater Belgrade looks old Soviet, greater Athens looks liked suburban California.

We finally reached the Syntagma Square and I hopped a short cab ride to my apartment.  I met my landlady Eurdyice, who did not speak much English but enough to get me settled.  The studio was small--not even the size of my bathroom in Belgrade. But it was fine, with a nice lil terrace.  I settled in, and had a small battle with two cockroaches in the cupboard below the hotplate that were large enough to be Greek hoplite soldiers.

After settling in, I went to grab some lunch at a nearby student district.  There I found the best gyro of my life.  The chicken was succulent; the tomatoes and onions crisp; the tzatziki smooth and creamy.  And the pita, wow.  It was practically a fried bread in the form of a pita.  It was incredible.  With my mouth full, I gave the waitress a big thumbg up, and she just smiled and said thanks in Greek.

After a much-needed nap, I went out wandering down the main street Pattison.  I suffered a bit through culture shock, as I missed my dear Belgrade.

But I rallied at a small restaurant, where i drank ouzo and ate small grilled sardines swimming in oil with crusty Greek bread.  I listened to the Greek patrons speak a language that struck me as an something sounding like an unintelligible Castilian Spanish.  That gravely Mediterranean voz from the throat, coated with the Mediterranean winds and too many cigarettes.

And what happened to all the gorgeous women?  Don't get me wrong, I have seen some beautiful Greek girls that Artemis has blessed.  I have seen a number of beautiful Greek girls with their hair ribbed in braids that remind me of statues of Antiquity.  But the shear number of gorgeous women that Serbia offered is just not here.  So it goes

I walked back for a bit, but was tired so I went to catch the bus.  I bought a ticket from a Pakistani clerk at a newspaper stand. His eyes lit up when I thanked him in Urdu.

But alas, I caught the wrong bus and it turned a different direction.  I hopped off, and snuck my way on the next correct bus.  I turned in and slept late.

So begins  My Big Fat Greek Vacation!  

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