Places I’ve Visited: Athens & Aegina, Greece


In late December, Kira and I met up in Greece for a combination reunion/vacation.  The trip wasn’t originally in our plans but Kira decided to use some of her semester break (she’s back in Chicago, studying for her Masters at the Institute of Design) to participate in a Birthright trip to Israel and we decided that that Israel was close enough to Albania to consider it “in the neighborhood.”

IMG_3083We had about 10 days together: four days in Athens; two days on Aegina, a nearby island; and about five days in Albania, where Kira had a chance to see life in Tirana first-hand. Because it poured rain nearly the entire time she was in Albania we decided not to take any of the side trips to historical sites that we had planned — Albanian roads and sidewalks are treacherous enough without adding driving rain, flooding and poor visibility to the mix.  Instead, we hung out at my apartment, watched a bunch of movies, wandered around Tirana and had coffees and dinners with Peace Corps Volunteers passing through Tirana as they returned from their own holiday trips.

In Athens we were able to get a quick introduction to the city and its history via an extended walking tour.  We saw several excavations, the changing of the guard in front of Parliament, Zeus’s temple and (of course) the Acropolis/Parthenon.  Between the complexity of both Greek history and Greek mythology, my head was spinning by the end of the tour and I haven’t retained much.  But, I enjoyed seeing the ancient artifacts, particularly those that have been preserved unexcavated. (see photo below of the see-through floor in and around the new Acropolis museum).

At the Acropolis museum, there are several places where a glass floor allows a glimpse of an ancient urban settlement.

By far the best part of the trip was simply walking around Athens with Kira.  We explored lots of winding side streets, discovered cute little plazas, did a bit of shopping and ate delicious Greek food.  I particularly welcomed the food aspect because, despite its proximity to Greece, Albanian cuisine lacks variety and often, flavor (salt is not a flavor!).  I think we had moussaka nearly every day that we were there. While in Athens we also (thanks to Facebook) discovered that my favorite language teacher from Pre-Service Training was in town and so we got together for dinner.  I was glad Kira had the opportunity to meet her and vice versa.

After a few days in Athens, we took the ferry to Aegina, a nearby island.  Other than the morning we ferried back to Athens, the weather was bad while we were there and that limited our explorations.  We spent New Year’s Eve on Aegina and then flew back to Tirana on New Year’s Day.

Before leaving for Greece I had emptied my refrigerator and ate up most of the food stored in the freezer.  When we returned to Tirana we discovered — much to our chagrin starvation — that most of the grocery stores and restaurants in Tirana were closed until January 5th.*  This year, because January 1st and 2nd fell on Saturday and Sunday, January 3rd and 4th became the official days off.  My experience up to that point had been that most stores and restaurants in Tirana are open on holidays so I completely underestimated the extent of the New Year’s shutdown, which spanned four days!  Kira had the chance to see many areas of Tirana as we wandered around looking for an open supermarket. One morning I went out to get bread and finally found one open bakery with a line out the door.  But, we took advantage of the situation by eating lots of roasted chestnuts, which are both abundant and extremely inexpensive.

*Digression about New Year’s in Albania:  During the Communist years (which Albanians pretty universally refer to as “the Hoxha time” because Enver Hoxha reigned supreme for 41 of the country’s 46-47 years of Communism), religion was banned and Christmas celebrations were off limits.  As a result, all of the late-in-the-year festivities got concentrated into New Year’s and New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day became BIG holidays in Albania — big enough that both January 1st and January 2nd are national holidays.  New Year’s is a time for families to come together and the main event is usually a big dinner at midnight on New Year’s Eve.  There are a number of traditional foods served at the meal including turkey, which (I hear) is quite expensive in Albania and Russian Salad, which (I hear) is a type of potato salad with (I hear) copious amounts of mayonnaise.  Copious amounts of fireworks are also in the post-midnight mix.

Once back in Tirana we exchanged Christmas gifts.  Kira surprised me by bringing some of our favorite Christmas decorations to help set the mood.  Having those reminders of Christmases in Chicago was probably the gift I appreciated the most.

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