A Good Evening in Greece

While Midwesterners are enjoying lunch hour, the Southerners are perhaps reclining into afternoon naps. A long way away, the Greeks are out to dinner. It is ten o’clock and tonight I am Greek, too. It is my first meal in Athens and the evening begins with moussakka. Our host, Pantelis–a relative of my parter, Alex–has ordered a full set of traditional Greek fare to welcome us to his city. The flaky crust of moussakka is layered with cheese, eggplant, tomato, lamb, and a dozen spices. Pantelis slices two grand wedges out of the pan and hands one each to me and Alex. He takes a very small portion for himself and points at our plates with his knife.

“Please, please. Eat up! Enjoy. I am not so hungry tonight.” He waits for us to eat first, then takes a bite and shrugs. “It is good. Not the best, but good.”

I eat mine in three chomps and grab another slice. I’ve had moussakka once before at Alex’s house. His grandfather brings lunch over every Saturday, reliable as a clock. His moussakka is dry and flaky–in a good quick-hot food kind of way. His grandfather called it peasant food. But this is a step above.

It is obvious we’re in an upper-scale restaurant–the type with no prices on the menu. We are seated on the top floor with a view of the light-bright Parthenon. Sensual music from the singer below us wafts up the stairs. I am comfortable and getting ever more so with each refill of my wine glass. I start to reach for a piece of bread, but Pantelis recommends I wait for the next dish. It is a plate of rich eggplant slices, dripping with olive oil and deeply spiced. I dig in with enthusiasm. This Greek man probably thinks I’m devilishly unmannered.

The waiter arrives with another dish filled with tiny pieces of a fish-like substance floating in brine.

Pantelis introduces it, “Ah, this is the insides of those–how do you call it–the black spiked things in the sea. Anyway it is good for–how do you say it–good for sex.”

“Aphrodisiac?” I raise my eyebrows.

“Yes, an aphrodisiac. I don’t like it very much. It tastes like how the sea smells.”

I try it. It tastes exactly how the sea smells.

We sip our wine and say nothing for a bit. I look over at Alex. A few strands of hair are caught in his mouth and he is ungracefully trying to remove them with fishy fingers. I smile at him and pull the hair away. He looks at me, grins, and wipes his hands on his napkin.

The next dish is souvlaki–crispy, yet juicy. I can tell Pantelis likes this one, he keeps offering it to us, insisting we have more and more. By the time the roast lamb arrives, I’m pleasantly full. Pantelis tops off our glasses of wine and smiles. Between large bites, I ask him what he does for a living.

“Me? Oh, I am an engineer. That is how I learned English. I went to school in New York, undergrad and graduate. I lived in Brooklyn and then I came home to work for Heineken.” He says it like it’s no big deal. I struggle to imagine moving to Brooklyn without knowing English–or studying engineering at all, for that matter. He explains further. His job entails a moderate amount of travel and he tells us of the beautiful countries far north of us and the coldness of the British.

“The British, I don’t like them–and I am not a racist!” As a temporary citizen of England, I’m intrigued.

“They think they are better than everyone else–the empire, you know–and they are no fun.” I understand his point, but I can also think of counter arguments. Considering the present dining situation, I add ‘bad food’ to his list of complaints.

As we finish the second bottle of wine, Pantelis offers to order a third bottle. Alex and I almost agree, but then shake our hazy heads and decline. Pantelis insists on ordering desserts. I am not sure I can walk with all the additional food weight I’ve just put on, but I try some anyway. To finish, Pantelis snaps his fingers at the waiter and orders a Greek after dinner drink make from a gum tree.

“Good for the digestion.” Alex’s other relatives have already mentioned almonds, yogurt, and soymilk–all which are also ‘good for the digestion’.

The waiter returns with three tiny glasses. We sip them. My whole mouth feels like an icy lemon tree. Cold and sharp. Pantelis nods his head at us.

“It is good, I think, to see the world. To see that other people’s pain is the same as yours. To know other people die and live and have jobs just like you. I am glad you are doing this.” He says it factually. There is nothing to be embarrassed about. And suddenly this is not just someone else’s relative being kind. It is not just requisite hospitality, something authentically Greek. It is something wise and real from one person to two young ones. And I am honored.

The bill comes. Alex and I have plotted beforehand about how to offer to pay for ourselves. I slide sixty euro across the table.

“What is this? A joke? Not a funny joke. Put it away and I will forget about the whole thing.”

I put the money away and don’t know what to do with my face. I want to laugh, but not at him. Alex squeezes my hand under the table. Pantelis’ hospitality is unlike anything else.

 

Orvieto

I remember myself on the train, destined for another hastily chosen town outside of Rome. Three of us gather our things and squash into seats. The glass reflects our eyes dancing over the expanding countryside. Someone is turning a crank to move the scenery forward. It chugs and whirls. We leave behind dusty buildings, sagging with ’70s construction dreams; cloudy poufs of bushes; the nay-saying sheep that lounge about.

Luke is water-coloring the world–the blushing sky, the wet earth. I fall asleep and dream of oceans swimming by. The unintelligible announcer speaks out. We mumble and shake our heads awake. The station is deserted, empty of chattering Italians.

Funicular fun! We ride it to the top. We are rising up, we are there. We cross the street and arrive at the city wall. Look over the edge, smiles all around. Big sighs. A castle and wispy roads evaporating into the hills–hills! rolling like thick laughs over the land. Time to explore.

Down the wrong road, but it’s never wrong, just different. Private flowers, chipped metal gates, zippy cars, tucked houses all on the tip of the mountain. The edge reveals a burst of valley, vibrant and alive.

Town arrives and with it people, shops, signs, cameras, hotels, alleys. The carpenter’s workshop, filled with amber cutting smells. Rounded wooden cups, fitting so well in my hand. Stained glass and leather. Pottery and lace. Cured boar meat and the towering woman butcher. Gelato, gelato.

Lunch on the duomo steps. The cathedral is high, straight backed, and striped–like a zebra, like the fat on bacon. Like the prosciutto in my panino, made by a skinny Italian grandmother. Two beers, two panini, six euro. Grand.

Time to tour the underground caves. Up steps, down steps, down down. The ghost echo of homing pigeons, the hundreds of carved nests. Eerie fake light. A crack in the wall reveals our perch–halfway down a cliff, a cliff that hosts a thousand neon flowers.

Down, down the mountain we go into the setting rays. Empty station, empty train. We fall asleep, head upon shoulder. Back to the dirty twinkle of Rome.

Tuck In!

Exactly how to order a sandwich in Oxford:

1. Study hard (or hardly study) at the library all morning. Bike to the throbbing heart that is the Alternative Tuck Shop on Holywell Street. Squeeze through the doors as customers simultaneously fight their way out, clutching prized sandwiches wrapped in white paper.

2. Return the cashier’s friendly greeting (“All right there madam?”) with a shy “hi” and queue up. Stare at the array of ingredients, arranged like ice cream flavors behind glass windows. Examine the menu, despite knowing what you will order. Finger the exact change in your pocket. Order: Mexican Tortilla Wrap (be excited: it’s the closest thing to Mexican food around).

3. Watch and wait. Ponder the lives of the sandwich-making men: where are they from? Do they make sandwiches for their lovers? Their fast flying hands flawlessly flip panini, cappuccinos, bagels, and money past a long row of salivating customers. They are friendly machines, taking three and four orders at a time, barely glancing at their hands, full smiles all day.

4. Move up in line towards the register. Entertain the idea of ordering a strawberry jam doughnut as you amble past them. Reject the idea. Pay 2.65. Mourn decision to forgo jam doughnut. Peek out of the closet-sized shop and watch patrons add themselves to the long queue, ready to beg for double espressos or a quick lunch munch.

5. Confirm your order as the cashier doles out fresh-ready sandwiches. “Mexican Tortilla Wrap? Extra jalepenos? (pronounced tortilla, not tortiya; jalepeno, not halepeno). Delight in his peculiar accent. It is as if his voice has absorbed the many spices and ingredients surrounding him. Stare at the dessert display case–cranberry white chocolate muffins, flapjacks, walnut brownies, pecan pie slices.

6. Struggle out of the store on cue: “That’s great, madam. Cheers.” Walk approximately half a block to Holywell Music Hall. Sit on the grass, unwrap and enjoy. Stew in bittersweet homesickness for Mexican food (even the poorly executed American kind).

7. Repeat as necessary. Become an embarrassingly regular customer. Wave back to the cashier when he spots you strolling past.

Roman Rhythm

The other day, I reunited with my roommates from Rome to watch some film footage of our travels through Italy. The screen flashed moving images of St. Peter’s and the coliseum, Villa Borghese and all that good stuff, but in between those traditional settings were chaotic snippets of street musicians.

In Rome they are everywhere –in piazzas, on street corners, on the steps of churches: accordion players, trumpeters, a pan pipe player, upright bassists, violinists, clarinetists, singers, keyboard players, guitarists, even a nose-flutist—musicians everywhere, some grand, some awful, some awful drunk.

Amongst my favorites was the down and dirty terrible trumpeter, who played the same damn song every day from his perch on the Ponte Sisto. His depressing lack of improvement over the weeks was somehow…inspiring. More than once I thought he was going to fly backwards into the Tiber with his soulful back-bending trumpet pull. He didn’t, he just kept playing that same song.

Another favorite of mine was the upright bassist and accordion player couple in Santa Maria in Trastevere. He pounded and pulled those strings and she pushed and pressed, and their swinging sing song music hopped around the piazza, gathering regular crowds. Once, a man in a black fedora passed by them, then backtracked and pulled out his clarinet. He tapped his foot a few times then joined right in.

Or there was the accordion player near the bus station. He played in a suit, standing very straight, with a nostalgic look on his face. Bus riders flitted past him blindly, but he remained unruffled, dreaming in music notes.

When the street musicians have all gone to sleep, the rest of the Romans make their own music. Outside of our apartment was a constant battery of partying Italians crooning and howling. Someone got a hold of a fog horn once. At 5am. I stuck my head out of the window to people-watch as a regular pastime. A band of British cricket players once passed from bar to bar booming their repertoire of drinking songs and downing a glassful before moving on.

I never once saw a concert in Rome, maybe I missed out. Maybe not.

A Downstream Day

This is a punt. Punt!It is a boat that you rent and float in side by side with the ducks downriver.

The day I first went punting, Ashley and I went shopping for snacks first–tiny individual wheels of cheese, malt vinegar and sea salt crisps, a bottle of cheap red wine, and sour gummies called Tangfastics (which would become our tiny saviors as the term went on). Life was good.tangfastic

We met Max and Jim at the punt house next to the river. Max brought a guitar and a carton of juice. The ducks were macking as we loaded our goods onto the punt and unsteadily rocked into our seats.

Max took the helm, propelling us into the Cherwell. Jim steered with the paddle, Ashley cracked open the cheese, and I strummed the guitar. It was thrilling to glide through the water nearly level with it, gazing at ducks floating past, feathery white flowers wandering through the air, the sun rippling between leaves and glancing off the water.

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Max was an excellent punter, skilled at both pushing us forward and steering us (something with which I had trouble). We floated past St. Catherine’s and the playing fields and made our way to University Parks. As steerer, Jim’s job was to alternate paddling on either side of the punt. For some reason the ducks really loved Jim and, when he pretended to whack them with the paddle to get them out of the way, he actually hit one really hard. That duck was pissed, but Jim had no further trouble steering.

The duck population increased as we glided through the entrance to the Parks. We were surrounded by the sound of people and delighted children throwing bread at the ducks. Our punt flowed past a mini-waterfall and entered full sunlight. What a beautiful day it was. To our left was lapping water and to our right was a group of grey geese protecting their goslings. And then there was a swan.

Ashley and I were admiring how lovely it was when it came way too close. I went digging around for my camera and when I looked up I was face to face with a very large swan head. Those suckers are A LOT bigger than they look. And meaner. It wanted my face for lunch. A struggle ensued, Max distracted it while Ashley sort of half tried to smack it away. Her bravery was rewarded, the swan turned away from me and toward her. We fed it the rest of our crisps and Jim prepared to whack another species of water fowl with the steering paddle. Some idiot children started throwing bread at it and it swam away. Yay!

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The next challenge was to transfer the punt over the rollers to get it over Mesopotamia, the dry bit of land in the middle of the river. This took lots of grunting and heaving, but eventually the punt soared over the rollers and dipped into the river again. We hopped in, bid the swan goodbye and punted away.

It was my turn to punt. The river was a lot deeper and it was slightly difficult to manage the punt pole, which is about three times as tall as I am. I managed not to abandon the pole in the mud or get it stuck in the trees. It was a lot calmer on this side of the river and we punted onwards for about a half an hour. We were somewhere near Magdalen College by the time we turned around. We could hear joggers thumping on the towpath behind the trees lining the river and passed houses nestled in the banks. Slowly we made our way home.

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A Journey’s End (Part 2)

After a wonderful afternoon at the Turf Tavern, I spent the early part of the evening packing the contents of my tiny room in the company of my friend, Ashley. Around 7:30 we met up with a few British friends to grab a final Irish type pub dinner together. It was there I discovered that yes, British beer is served slightly warmer than in America because they offered regular Guinness and extra cold Guinness, which tasted much better than the former. As I sipped this, Paul, in his wonderful Welsh accent, asked us if we had ever heard of those “your ma-ma jokes” back in America. Seeing as I am a horrible abuser of adding the “your mom” line to everything, this was particularly funny (maybe just for me). After dinner we walked around, joking, balancing on curbs and pushing each other off, playing tag, swinging around street lights, laughing.

We decided it was a night for dancing and went to Park End, a street dotted with clubs. Inside the club, Paul, being a serious law student, struck up a conversation about politics with Ashley while Nick and I people watched. As the club filled up, we entered the dance floor. The club was huge with multiple dance floors on different levels. I was less enthusiastic until we found the “cheese” music–60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s music. From “Build Me Up Buttercup” to “Livin’ On A Prayer,” it was the best of the worst and preppy Oxford white-boy dancing overwhelmed the room. As the night continued, we were joined by many more friends. Between “I Will Survive” and “Cotton Eye Joe” some drunkard pushed me. Next thing I knew I was trying to break up a fight between the pusher and my defender, all of us encircled by dancers. Whew. We returned to dancing and I watched for a glorious three minutes as Paul passionately mouthed the words to “Barbie Girl”.

After four hours of dancing, we left the club with steam escaping from our bodies and our ears ringing. I plucked bits of broken beer bottles out of my shoe soles before walking with the group back towards college. As part of the post-Park End routine, a stop at the famous Hassan’s was required. Hassan’s is a heaven of kebabs and chip butties (french fries on a baguette), chili sauce and garlic mayonnaise. The drunk-hungry ordered kebabs and finally we returned to our college, grabbed some water and said our goodbye/goodnights. After removing my shoes, I fell asleep.

In the morning I finished packing and went to say goodbye to my friends. I met up with an American friend, Max, and we had our last breakfast together in hall. On my way to find some other friends, I crossed paths with Mark, a cheery Brit from Liverpool who sobbed goodbye on my shoulder–many of his best friends are Americans who studied there the whole year. I bid the ducks farewell on my way to the bus stop. Ashley, Nick, Rachel and I strolled along together carrying my things. We popped into Queen’s Lane Coffee House for a final sip of tea. With my suitcases piled around me, I watched Ashley munch her customary fried egg on toast and gaped at Nick scarfing down a messy combination of toast, eggs, and beans. Rachel devoured a salad. Everyone seemed to be hungry but me. I just had my last cup of rose hip tea. Then–time to go. Multiple repeat hugs, cheek kisses, au revoirs, waves, last hugs, blown kisses, smiles, laughs, sad faces, more waves, the bus pulling away, gone. Bye Oxford.

A Journey’s End (Part 1)

My last day in Oxford began with an interview. At 10:30 I collected a  video camera, a notebook, and a pen and headed to Regent’s Park College to interview Dr. Pamela Sue Anderson, a prestigious philosopher at Oxford. I first met Pamela at a Critical Theory and Spiritual Practice graduate seminar which was focusing on the writings of Michelle Le Doeufff variously paired with other philosophers (i.e.: Heidegger, Irigaray, Arendt). Dr. Anderson immediately impressed me with her brilliance, excitement, and compassion. After the last seminar of the series, Dr. Anderson kindly invited the students to join her and the other tutors for dinner in the hall at the faculty table. I of course accepted and had the pleasure of pre-dinner tea, delicious food, champagne and chocolates and more tea for dessert–oh, and wonderful conversation!

On the day of the interview Dr. Anderson came to collect me at college reception. She led me to the Senior Common Room, where faculty snack on tea and biscuits in leather chairs around a fireplace. We chatted about my travels and being away from home while I poured myself some tea (she chose coffee and I made a mental note to cross the tea or coffee question off my list). Then we walked past the dining hall and up the winding stairs and through two locked doors (the kind that need big ancient keys to open) to her office. I set up my equipment and began. The interview lasted about an hour. It’s good that I go into interviews with few expectations, because they generally tend to be blown out the window. Dr. Anderson was insightful about a number of issues–mostly surrounding the life of the woman academic at Oxford. I won’t go into much detail here; you can find out more by watching my documentary, which I will be editing this summer. Suffice it to say I was again impressed with Dr. Anderson’s accomplishments and her experiences, particularly at such a traditional institution.

After the interview, I left a bit overwhelmed with information and decided to grab some lunch. I ordered a Greek salad pita at a sandwich shop around the corner. Their first question was, of course, “with butter, mayonnaise, or both?” Oh, England. After a moment of disgusted silence on my part, I replied, “neither”. Next on my list was trashing, an Oxford post-exam tradition. It involves covering students in eggs, flour, feathers, champagne, glitter, silly string, face paint, etc. as they emerge from their three-hour long exams. I have some hilarious pictures of this that I’ll post later. I was on my way to meet another visiting student to celebrate the end of his exam. Normally visiting students don’t take exams, but he was an unfortunate exception. I only brought champagne–for drinking, not dousing–because he was borrowing his clothes. Students taking exams must wear proper subfusc or else risk being fined or barred from taking their exam. Finally he finished and we headed happily to the Turf Tavern to celebrate.

The Turf is famous for many things, one being the place where Bill Clinton allegedly didn’t inhale a certain something. I will certainly miss the turf. From birthday celebrations to open mic nights, or just stopping by for a friendly pint, it’s a great place to go. It’s situated at the end of a winding alley, completely hidden from the street. When we walked in it was about 2pm and filled with celebrating students, subfusc in stages of disarray, champagne spilling everywhere, red carnations squashed, still pinned on chests signaling final exams. We were greeted by friends with gaping smiles and soon found ourselves in the midst of a cheery bunch of music students singing My Heart Will Go On. I did my best to surreptitiously catch this on camera. When I left, I had been kissed by two strangers, sprayed with champagne, ketchup and vinegar–from a food fight–and had a good number of laughs.

Hello again!

Hello fellow art people! I am speaking now from the United States of America. Why is this noteworthy? Because I have just returned after five months abroad spent in the lovely countries of England, Italy, and Greece. Although I’ve done a horrible job writing to the world via this blog about my experiences, I now promise to convey at least ten stories over the next month. My next two entries will be about my last 24 hours in Oxford, and boy they were exciting

Athens!

Athens!

The Sounds of Rome

Of the past 20 days I have spent 10 in Rome, four in Athens, and six on the Greek island Hydra. Oxford seems like a distant dream, home feels somehow within reach. Writing about Rome is daunting. I am constantly distracted by Rome itself. As I sit here on the Piazza outside my friend’s apartment, I hear the ever-present trumpeter who hangs out on the Ponte Sisto. He sits on the concrete ledge, closes his eyes, and plays the same song over and over again. He never seems to improve. I hear him in the shower, on walks, when I eat lunch, and munch gelato. I’m surprised others put up with him, yet they also continue to haunt the Ponte Sisto. There’s the guy with the beer bottle attached to his palm, another who paints pop art–yesterday it was Obama and Marilyn Monroe, a tall man selling knock-off purses. All are accompanied by dogs–big and heavy on thick leashes, usually found napping. It rained yesterday and the bridge was empty. It looked so naked without its patrons.

The other day at the market in Porta Portese, we were assaulted by racks of knock off Louis Vitton, Pradis, Fendis. I used my best death grip on my own purse since the market is an excellent place for thieves. I was a salmon swimming against men and women in swishy workout pants, t-shirts with lewd messages, tight leather, hair dripping with gel (Finally! This is where all the badly dressed Romans go). Moans of disbelief rang out as shoppers haggled with sellers. “Nononono noo-Oh-oh”. To the left shirts and scarves fluttering enticingly, to the right long row of stalls contained stovetop coffee makers, cheap dishes and pans.

At the intersection of two huge avenues of delightful junk people were circling around–wait for it–Bird Man. We pushed through the crowd (Ok, you must know that is a joke, Romans will always push harder than you and better and you will always be left in the back, angry, peering under someone’s elbow), and found ourselves staring at a very interesting creature. His arms were wide open and he was arguing with a stall owner over his proximity to the man’s stall. The gathering crowd was interfering with business. Bird man threw his arms down, pulled his bucket of junk back two feet and prepared to perform. He breathed in deep and placed a beaked cap on his head. It did little to tame his long wild hair radiating in all directions. His boots and knees were covered in bells, his toes were circled with tambourines and the street floor was covered with horns and sound-making gadgets of all kinds. There were toys and trinkets, blow-up hammers and furry play spiders. While I surveyed the scene, he sat down, picked up his multi colored accordion and commenced playing. The music was carnival, accompanied by short trills and whistles from Bird Man’s mouth. The catchy tune livened the crowd who clapped and danced and jittered. The end of the song provoked a happy fall of coins into his hat. Even the polizia gathered around amused. It was far better than anything for sale.

From Five Hours in the Future

Greetings students, friends, and fellow world wanderers!

My name is Deborah, I’m a junior studying philosophy abroad at St. Catherine’s College–part of the University of Oxford. I’ll be here until July. Oxford is in England–the land of tomahtoes, mates, blokes, football played primarily with feet, and bangers and mash… I’ve been here for 52 days, that’s 7.42 weeks and 1.7-ish months. I’ve learned a lot so far and part of my purpose on this blog is to write about what I’ve learned.

Living in another country means you feel like an idiot much of the time. Never have I been so conscious of my nationality, nor have I ever felt like hiding it–until now. Nor did I know knackered is another word for tired, trollied means drunk, or that pants (or knickers!) refer underwear, but hey! C’est la vie. With each day, I learn a little more about life here in Oxford, England, the UK, and Europe. Each day I feel a little more at home, but be it 300 miles or 3,497 miles away, I’m not home and that is exciting.

A beautiful and historic place to walk, with all due respect.

Cemetery on St. Cross Road, a beautiful and historic place.