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Apokreas: Carnival Season in Greece
Matt's Greek Mardi Gras Journal

Apokreas in KeaOne winter we decided to go to Athens in the way-low season to experience Carnival, or Apokreas. It had been about 30 years since I was last in Greece during this period and I had fond memories of having confetti thrown in my mouth, being beaten with plastic bats that squeaked, and being stuck in crowds of people moving at a snails pace up the steps on Mnisicleous Street in the Plaka.

I had two problems though. I was overweight and needed to go on a diet before I reached the point of no-return, and I needed to stop drinking before my family bound and gagged me and sent me to rehab. I had no doubt that I could do both, but could I do both at a time and place where all anyone is doing is eating and drinking? It is one thing going in the summer and having a little wine with dinner. But Apokreas is celebrated during the last two weeks before lent and in Greece it is an excuse to do it all before giving it all up for forty days until being saved by Jesus at Easter.

I can tell you that the thought of exercising self-control during Apokreas seemed somewhat possible while I was sitting in my office in North Carolina, booking our tickets that were extra cheap, because who wants to go to Greece during February? But as the day of our trip grew closer I began to give up any thought of practicing abstinence and I became more excited about the trip. I, like my friends in Greece, would take part in this orgy of food, wine and parties and then give it all up on Clean Monday when all of Athens goes to the nearest field and flies kites in a rite of mass innocence.

Thursday Feb 23rd: Tsichno Pempti

Acropolis from Hotel Electra PalaceOur flight to Greece was full. The previous weeks I had paid close attention to the weather in Athens. While we in the southeastern US were having the warmest winter since the age of the dinosaurs, in Greece it was the coldest winter ever. But the forecast for the dates of our trip looked like the light at the end of the tunnel and we landed on a partly cloudy day in Athens, the temperature in the upper fifties when the sun was shining and the lower fifties when it wasn't. George from Fantasy Travel had booked us into the Electra Palace for the first 4 nights. Normally we stay at the Hotel Attalos. We know everyone there and it is close to Psiri where we hang out, but I figure that since I am supposed to be a 'travel writer' I should stay at some other hotels so I can at least have an opinion based on personal experience and since George likes me to stay at the best hotels so I will write about them and people will then want to stay there, why not stay at the best hotel in the Plaka? When they found out who I was they upgraded us to a suite. But the people who were in it and were supposed to be out by noon, were still in the room (Americans of course) so we had to hang out and familiarize ourselves with the lobby and the staff and the free International Herald Tribunes on the table. When they finally told us our room was ready we had pretty much run out of things to entertain ourselves with. It was worth the wait. We had a terrific view of the Acropolis, giant twin beds, a living room and two televisions. (We only used one). There was also a table with a phone that had a connection for my laptop. (There was high-speed DSL in the lobby for 17 euros a day- The Attalos is free!)

We spend the afternoon wandering around Athens looking for the Apokreas events that were listed in the Kathimerini English language newspaper but it seemed every time we found a venue they were either sweeping up the confetti or getting ready for a show that looked like it was hours away from starting. In the Central Market they were bringing in truckloads of meat for Tsichno Pempti.

Taverna Saita, Plaka, Athens, GreeceTsichno-Pempti  means 'Smoke-Thursday'. This is the night when customarily everyone goes out to a taverna and eats grilled meats. All the restaurants are full and you need to make a reservation if you want a seat. The idea is that you begin to taper off on your meat-eating so that when you totally stop on Clean Monday it is not such a shock to your system, not that going from being a carnivore is a shock as much as something that most carnivores just don't feel like doing. Of course nobody really cuts down and the people are eating meat right up to the last minute of the last Sunday before lent, but it is a great excuse to go out, just like Saint Patrick's day and Cinquo de Mayo are a great excuse for college students to get really drunk even if they are not Irish or Hispanic. We went to Saita, my favorite restaurant in the Plaka. It is in a basement and along with bacaliaro (fried codfish) which is their specialty, they had plenty of dishes tis skaras, or 'from the grill'. We were joined at a big table by our closest friends in Athens and it was as if we were just continuing where we had left off last August and had not spent the last 6 months in North Carolina. The wine from the barrels kept on coming and except for a couple clowns at the next table it was just a typical night in the Plaka for us.

Friday Feb 24th

Acropolis during a sandstormThe following day we were a little groggy waking up. I made it to the breakfast room a minute before closing and they stayed open form Andrea. Outside Athens was being blanketed by a thin layer of  sand from the Sahara, carried over the Mediterranean by a southern wind called the Sirocco. You could barely see the Acropolis from our room. I spent part of the day walking around and the remainder resting in my room, reading, dozing off and answering my e-mail. I was conserving my energy because that night I had to go to my high school's 60th Anniversary gala at the Grande Bretagne and having paid 80 euros a ticket I wanted to make sure I got my money's worth of fun. Of course once I got there I only saw two or three people that I actually knew. I would have to say the high point of the evening was having dinner and seeing the yearbook photos of my friends and family projected on the wall. Nicholas Gage, the author of 'Eleni', was the guest speaker and while he had written a terrific speech which clearly annoyed the guys in tuxedos smoking big smelly cigars at the next table, he was not the most inspiring public-speaker. Still he was a lot better than the president of the School Board who sounded like he had practiced by lip-synching to some Tony Robbins tapes. I sat at a table with Mr Ammerman, my high school principal but there were so many speeches and loud music that we barely got to speak to each other. Plus we were pretty jet-lagged and were only able to keep going by accepting every glass of pink champagne that came our way. By 2:30 am we'd had enough and walked back to the Electra Palace where the Society of the People of Spetses were having their annual party in the basement, with a few stragglers dancing the zembekiko while their wives waited patiently to go home, their children asleep on their laps.

Saturday Feb 25th

Angelos the Ouzo man of PlakaSaturday I spend the morning with Ana Kamais looking for sunscreen. You would think that a country that advertises 300 plus days of sun in a year would always have sunscreen on the shelves, especially at the Hondos Center, a giant store that is like an American drug store without the drugs. We asked all the girls and they all told us the same thing, that it was not time for the summer products yet, even though outside the sun was shining. Finally in a hidden corner on the third floor we found a bottle and I was able to return to the streets and brave the sun's harmful rays. I remember being a child and drawing pictures of the sun, rays of gold emanating from a happy face. Like other things in my life Mr Happy Sun at turned into a dangerous enemy, (along with food, alcohol and sex). Ana and I listened to the street musicians and watched street theater on Ermou Street before going to visit Adrianou Street's new King of Ouzo, the one and only Angelos who used to have a jewelry store.

Carnival masks in the PlakaThat night most of our friends from the night before were too tired to come out with us again. All except for George who even after working until 10pm at Fantasy Travel, answering e-mail, is never too tired to eat and drink with us. So once again we went back to Saita, drank a couple kilos of wine and made friends with everyone at the tables around us.  The streets of the Plaka were full of people, throwing confetti and hitting us on the heads with their squeaky bats. There was a live band playing in the square and children in costume were everywhere. Finally we had seen enough and were beginning to run out of gas. We headed back to the Electra Palace and like good little children were in our beds by 4am after stopping in the basement where the Society of the People of Ipirus were having their annual party, dancing around to the bagpipes that were made from the skin of a goat.

Sunday Feb 26th

Apokreas in the PlakaSunday, of course is always a big day in Athens, especially when the weather is warm and sunny. I woke up early. Well not early enough since the breakfast room closed at 10:30am but earlier than Andrea and early enough to get a table at the Oinas Cafe in the Plaka where I could watch all the families with their kids dressed as cowboys, Indians, Spidermen, Zorros and princesses walk down Kydatheneon Street. Today was the day of the big Carnival Parade in the district of Moschaton, a few stops away on the metro. I had a date with Aliki and Kostas from Dolphin Hellas at Koufonissi, one of my favorite seafood restaurants, in Kalithea (now closed so don't bother looking for it). We dined on fresh clams, smoked herring, homemade tarama salata, fried gavros (anchovies), kalamarakia and media saganaki (mussels baked with cheese and tomato sauce), while drinking very watered down ouzo (so I would be in good shape for whatever we would do that evening). Our primary entertainment was their new born daughter. In fact she was the entertainment for several nearby tables. That is one of the great things about Greece. In the USA there is almost a fear of bringing a new born child into a restaurant, as if it is going to be a big hassle. In Greece babies get so much attention that the parents can eat their meals while the neighbors entertain the baby with smiles and sounds.

Moschaton Carnival Clean-upBy four pm I knew that if I really wanted to be a responsible travel journalist I needed to find the metro and get to Moschaton for the Apokras festivities. That was also the reason I did not drink a lot of ouzo during lunch, and perhaps the reason lunch had lasted so long since I had to drink two or three watered-down ouzos to equal one normal ouzo. So because of this I arrived in Moschaton at the same time as the street-cleaners who were sweeping up a sea of confetti and streamers. There was still some music being played at the church and on one of the streets were lined stands selling everything from bootleg CDs to funny heads in cups that would grow hair (or so they claimed). It was pretty depressing to come away with photos of garbage trucks instead of  the Brazilian dancers in G-strings that I had seen on TV earlier that day. But at least I had managed to get there.

Nikos at Platia Iroon, Psiri, AthensThat night we went to Platia Iroon with Niko and Carolina and some of their friends. They had made reservations and Nikos, the owner of the restaurant had given us a table of honor right next to the musicians. For those who have not been to Platia Iroon, it is a restaurant in Psiri that not only has good, inexpensive food, but unlike the other Psiri establishments,  which play amplified laika and rembetika, usually a singer, bouzouki player and a drum machine, the band here plays acoustically and only the traditional songs. Nikos, the owner joins in on bouzouki every night and often there are musicians at other tables who take part. Sunday was our last night at the Electra Palace and Monday we would be moving to the Hotel Attalos, the closest hotel to Psiri and that first night at Platia Iroon was the first of many.

Monday Feb 27th

John Lee at the Hotel AttalosToday we moved to the Hotel Attalos. It took awhile to get a taxi and of course when we said we were just going to the Attalos they were confused. Why would someone take a taxi with all their luggage from the Electra Palace to the Attalos? Did they get bad news from home that all their money had been lost in a failed pyramid scheme? Did the stock market collapse? It would be like going from the Plaza Hotel in NY to the Airport Holiday Inn. But for us the Hotel Attalos was home. The Electra Palace was a great treat (and it was free). But at the Attalos even the cleaning ladies greet us by name in the morning. And for all its pomp there is nobody at the Electra Palace like Mr. John Lee (photo), the world's greatest night desk man at the Attalos. Or like Sakis who for yet another year has put off buying his own hotel in Zakynthos to stay at the front desk of the Attalos. Or like Lazarus who will stand on a narrow board 6 stories up happily welding a drain pipe while we can't even bare to watch him for fear that he will fall. The Electra Palace was nice but the Attalos is home. "Let me show you something" said Mr Zissis, the owner, and took me to the library on the second floor. "Free DSL Internet. Please only 20 minutes so the next person can use it", said the sign on the computer.

"Not only that" said Mr Zissis, "but if you have a laptop you can get free wireless in this room". I shook my head sadly. Not because I am against free wireless at the Hotel Attalos but because the last thing I did when I left the states was remove my wireless card because I did not think I would need it in Greece.

Elias at his souvlaki shopMy cell phone rang. It was Elias from Swift rent-a-car. "Matthew. You have to come to my new restaurant in Agia Zoni." Elias with a restaurant? I know Elias likes to eat and he knows good restaurants but he rents cars. What is he doing with a restaurant? We have to check it out so Andrea and I take our familiar walk from the Hotel Attalos, down Athinas Street, past Omonia Square, past the National Museum, past Green Park and finally to Foikinos Negri, a former avenue that has been turned into a park with cafes and restaurants on each side. A couple blocks up is Agia Zoni, another pedestrian street and on the left is Elias at his new restaurant which is actually a souvlaki shop with a couple tables outside. It is a warm sunny day and we put the two tables together and send out a text message to a few of our friends by cell phone. Within 20 minutes it is a small party with wine, salad, sausages, grilled peppers, and souvlakia. I even order a souvlaki which I have not done in years. 

Matt, souvlaki"You must try our Nistisimo Souvlaki" Elias tells us. Nistisimo is what you eat during lent. It has to be something bloodless like squid, or shrimp, or octopus. A few minutes later he comes out with a souvlaki for Andrea, who is vegetarian. Instead of meat it is filled with fried baby squid. It tastes pretty good. "We are a simple souvlaki shop now but we are changing every day!" Elias says proudly. "On weekends we roast an entire lamb or a pig!" This is my kind of place. An entire roast pig turning on the spit while me and Elias and a few of our closest friends at a table on the street, rembetika music playing, people walking by and smiling.

"We can bring Fantasy George here," I tell him. George's favorite pastime (besides answering e-mail) is to go to a restaurant and pick out the biggest, freshest, most beautiful whole fish and have it grilled. At Elias souvlaki shop we have the grill and right across the street is a fresh fish market.

"No problem." says Elias. "We will grill anything and George will save thousands of euros a year!"

(Don't go looking for it. The Souvlaki shop was a disaster for Elias and it went out of business But Elias' souvlaki shop got me back on the road to eating souvlakia again).

Tutti a tavola, Italian restaurant Athens, GreeceThat night Tony calls. He was planning to go to Sifnos to renovate his bar but the boat that was supposed to go today left yesterday and the boat that was supposed to go tomorrow left today but before he knew it was leaving which meant he had to wait until Wednesday to go. We were invited to our friend Claudio's Italian restaurant in Halandri; Tutti A Tavola. We take the metro to Tony's apartment in Ambelokipi where he lives with Kelly, a jazz singer from Tulsa who has been living in Greece for several years. They show us their slides of Cuba and Jamaica. The Jamaica photos look like a bunch of people drunk and stoned on the beach but Cuba has these big wide streets of Havana with old American cars from the sixties. "What are the restaurants like?" I ask. There are none. So much for Cuba. Andrea gets critical. "All you think about is food". But I disagree. It is not just food. If it were I would stay home and make gourmet meals for myself. It is the whole package. The food, the wine, the people at the table, the conversation, the people at the tables around you, the possibility of making friends, interacting with the waiters. This is what makes Greece fun. This is one of the main reasons I choose to take my vacations here and why I love Athens. Like today for instance we went to Elias little hole-in-the-wall souvlaki shop and it turned into a party that lasted the afternoon. I am not a club guy. I can't stand being somewhere I have to shout over the music to be heard. I am not a dancer.  I am not even a kalofages (epicurean). Once the wine and conversation is flowing I am happy with grilled bread and tarama salata. But I know that when we get together with our friends and their friends and whoever happens to be in our little group that night, that even if the next day Tony says "I did not really like the food at that place...", I know he will add ".... but we had fun!"

Tutti A Tavola was fun too and the food was amazing. We got there pretty late on a Monday night and there were only a few tables left and by the time we finished we were the only table and were joined by Claudio, the chef and the waiter. Andrea later called it the best meal of the trip. We caught a cab on Leoforos Kifissias and were greeted at the Attalos by John, the night porter, who was waiting for us, the last guests to come home that night. It was only 3am.

Tuesday Feb 28th

Paul HellanderBig day today. I have a meeting with Paul Hellander. Who? You don't know Paul Hellander? Paul Hellander is the God of Greek travel writers, the primary writer for Lonely Planet Guides to Greece, Cyprus, Crete, their Greek phrase book and a couple dozen other countries. 10 years before he and David Willet, another Lonely Planet writer who now works for Rick Steves, had e-mailed me. I told them I was coming to Athens and we agreed to meet at the Byzantino Restaurant at noon, but I was not arriving until the following day so the two of them got drunker and drunker and began cursing me and devising terrible tortures for me when I did show up. By the time I did come David was nursing a terrible hangover and Paul was too, though he was on a flight to Melbourne.

David and I became friends and now at last I am meeting Paul, who of course wants to pick up where we left off, or where he left off and I didn't show up, at Byzantino in the Plaka. Noon is a bit early for a man with a schedule as busy as mine so I drank one sip to every glass he drank, but by 4pm I was close to where he was and we had discussed everything under the sun. Paul speaks Greek like a Greek, whereas I am Greek and speak Greek like a Greek-American whose parents did not pay him enough attention and used Greek as their secret language. Paul had to go visit his family in Pireaus but said that he would try to catch up with us that evening for some more Apokreas escapades. Sure enough, that night while we are drinking Baba Tzim ouzo at Elvis Costello's in Psiri, Paul shows up at our secret hideaway like the seasoned explorer he is and joins the party, raising the fun level a notch or two. Andrea and our friend Ana realize that with two insane characters like Paul and I, no good can come of this evening, and leave us to our own devices. After buying the rest of the small bottles of Baba Tzim on the rack and I bring Paul to Platia Iroon where Nikos is jamming with the musicians but stops to direct us to a table right in front of them. Next to us is a beautiful blonde singer from a nightclub, out with her boyfriend who happens to be a guitarist, and they join the band from their table. Paul is taking photos from every possible angle with his super-camera with the Harley-Davidson telephoto, while I sit at the table and take a hundred pictures to get one good one, as is my style. We finally leave Platia Iroon at around 4am but by now we are so inspired that I decide I want to do an ekdromi (excursion) the following day. We call George the Famous Taxi Driver, who says he has no customers and would love to go for a ride. Where do we want to go? Delphi? Nafplio? An overnight to Meteora? We can decide tomorrow.

Wednesday March 1st

George's taxiAnother in a series of beautiful sunny days, more like spring than February. Could these be the Alkyonis? Andrea wants to go to Nafplio. I want to go to Evia. Its my website so I win. Traffic looks heavy on Athinas with all the meat trucks going to the market trying to keep up with the demand as the Athenians try to get their fill before midnight on Sunday when it will all come to an end until Easter. We walk up to the Grande Bretagne and meet George there to make it easier for him. For some reason I am not feeling my best but once we are on the road and passing the mountains that are green with grass I start to feel like a kid on holiday without his parents, only in a good way.

Halkida, Evia, GreeceWe cross the suspension bridge to Halkida, Evia about an hour out of Athens and then circle back to see the town. Halkida looks like a suburb of Athens with apartment buildings, traffic and lots of people going about their daily business. There are two bridges that connect the island to the mainland, one the suspension bridge we crossed on, and the old bridge which crosses the channel at it's narrowest point, which is about 40 yards across. The most interesting thing is the current that runs through there which apparently changes direction once a day. It is a swift current too and a guy is kayaking in it like he is white-water rafting. The Halkida side has a long pedestrian walkway along the waterfront that is lined with cafes, restaurants and fast-food joints. Halkida looks like a nice place to live. It is not that far from Athens, it is on the sea, and you have all of Evia to explore.

Old Bridge Halkida EviaWe set out to begin our exploration but the day which was so warm and sunny in Athens is cloudy and looks threatening. This won't be a great day for pictures, but finding a cozy little fish restaurant where I can drink ouzo with the security of knowing that I have a responsible designated driver in George. We follow the coast down through Vasiliko, Malakonta and Eretria where my friend Katya lives. I call her on my cell. She is in Athens. I ask her to recommend a nice little seafood place and she tells us about a small village on the Aegean side called Kalamos. We had been hoping to get as far as Kimi where the ferry to Skyros leaves from. Skyros is famous for their carnival festivities, the famous goat dancers, and since I was in Greece to write about Apokreas, if I was not going to be a responsible enough journalist and go to Skyros, I should at least go to the last spot I could get to before Skyros and wave to the ferry boat as it departs. But even that seemed too challenging. The distances were longer then we had estimated, the roads more narrow, it was getting late and we were getting hungry.

George the Famous Taxi DriverAs we got closer to the quiet little port of Kalamos I began to think rationally about what we were doing and the advice Katya had given us. First of all I put myself in the position of being an owner of a small taverna in a remote little village during the month of February. Why would I have fresh fish? Who was going to come to eat in my little restaurant out in the middle of nowhere on a dreary winters day? When the village fisherman came in with his catch why would I buy fish for a restaurant that was not likely to see any customers? If anything there might be a couple frozen kefalo in the freezer, or maybe a box of California squid. It is one thing finding a little out of the way place in the summer when people are exploring the coast in cars, bikes and boats. But the place to eat now would be in one of those little towns we had passed miles back. When we got to Kalymos it was worse than I had feared. It was empty. Nothing was open. Not even a periptero to buy cigarettes or gum. There were some wild looking stray cats, and a stream of water running through the village cutting it in two. We had to jump from stone to stone to cross the street. It was a beautiful little village and probably a prize to stumble upon in the summer when the houses and rental rooms would be full of people and the fish tavernas too. But for us it was a long way to drive to take a photo of George and Andrea standing by the sea.

Thodoris Fish TavernaIt took about three quarters of an hour to get back to the village of Amarynthos on the bay facing the mainland. We liked the name of this town. Our daughter's name is Amarandi, like the town, which means eternal. It seemed like a good omen and there was a line of fish tavernas and mezodopoulions on the waterfront. We picked one. The right one as it turned out. O Thodoris is a Psarotaverna-ouzerie which means it is a fish restaurant with mezedes, which as anyone who has read my website knows, are the snacks you eat with ouzo. Thodoris, the owner-waiter-chef, (along with his wife) is a former professional soccer player who speaks enough English and knows what a good Psarotaverna-ouzerie should be. We had a couple orders of fresh clams on the half-shell, home made tarama-salata, fried kotsomoures (like barbounia-red mullet but cheaper), fresh fried squid, grilled octopus, and fresh bread toasted on the grill. I can truly say finding this place made the whole wasted trip to Kalymos worth it. We sat by the sea, the only people in the restaurant, as Thodoris brought us the food two or three small plates at a time. Even George was filled with the spirit enough to allow himself a small glass of ouzo.

Eretria, Evia, GreeceWe followed the road back to Eretria where there was a ferry every half an hour to Oropos on the mainland. I wandered around and took photos until the ship came. George and Andrea napped in the car while I went to the top deck and relished the joy I feel when I am on a boat. The light was amazing as the sun began to break through the clouds. Mount Dirfys in Evia was covered in snow, while Eretria was bathed in sunlight. I felt like I had not done what I had set out to do but still the day seemed like a success. And as icing on the cake my cell phone rang and it was my daughter calling from the states. I know what happiness feels like.

That night we went out to dinner with George the Famous Taxi Driver and his family. We wanted to go to Vari for the psistarias, which we assumed would be jumping, but we took pity on Andrea and found a place in Voula that had meat and vegetarian dishes. It was the quietest evening of the trip but even so we managed to drink a couple litres of wine. It might have been more wild but we chose to sit in the taverna's quiet front room instead of in the back room with the belly dancers and the band.

Thursday March 2nd

Apokreas at Platia Iroon, PsiriAndrea and I were walking down Pondrossou Street in Monastiraki when we passed a couple walking in the opposite direction. As we passed them Andrea turned around as did the guy, and they both stared at each other. It was her old boyfriend Van Hoyt. He had moved to Greece from San Francisco where he had been an artist for the last twenty years or so. He and his wife joined us at Platia Iroon that evening. Tony joins us as well. The streets of Psiri are getting more festive as the final weekend approaches. More and more people are in costume and navigating through the crowds can be difficult, especially for women who seem to be more of a target for the people throwing confetti and hitting with the squeaking  plastic hammers. More of a target than a 250 pound guy like me at least. We decide to take advantage of the nice weather and go to Kea for the day on Saturday.

Friday March 3rd

Apokreas in AhensThe Plaka is insane during these final days of Apokreas. There are thousands of people in the streets. Noise. Confetti. Music, squeaky plastic hammers. It is funny that we go to Plaka and then try to find the quietest place which is probably Taverna Saita. I think we are starting to tire. But Kea will a relief and we can gather our strength for the last night of Apokreas. Plus Andrea's dad had a heart attack yesterday. But he seems OK today, at least for a guy who just had a heart attack so we probably won't allow that to keep us fromg having more fun. But the craziest thing are the hats that Andrea has bought us to wear out at night. Her's is a chicken with dangling feet and mine is some kind of Medusa with leopard-skin tentacles with evil-eyes at the end of each one. I am too horrified to wear it out of the hotel room but Andrea takes them with us everywhere we go and gets our friends to wear them with her.

Saturday March 4th

Mezedes in LavrionWe are picked up at the Hotel Attalos by George the Famous Taxi Driver, along with Van Hoyt and his wife who take us up on our invitation to come to Kea. All along the way gypsies are selling kites for Clean Monday, when all of Athens will be flying them from every park or open space in the city. We get to Lavrion and meet our friend Stephen Richter who is the skipper-owner of the sailing yacht Caraya 2. There is a small ouzerie in the fish market that serves nice mezedes. The atmosphere is very festive and there are a lot of people in the ouzeri on this sunny Saturday morning and I am excited to be here, to be going on a boat and to be going to Kea. I am like a kid in a candy store. We order the breakfast style ouzo and meze so as not to interfere with whatever eating we will do once we get to the island.

KeaThe ferry trip is calm. I go to the front of the boat where there is no wind for some reason. Kea looks greener than I have ever seen it. It looks like Ireland. The island is full of people like its Easter or Agios Pnevmatos weekend. We get off the boat and rent a car to drive to our village. We sit in the platia for lunch at Yiannis and Nikos the waiter is surprised to see us. "Of all the people who have come to Kea this weekend, the people I never imagined would be here are you two." he tells us. We order a big plate of paidakia and the local red wine from Orchos. There is no better feeling than to be on a Greek island on a warm sunny day in February with a belly full of wine and lamb-chops. If there is a heaven I hope they have red wine from Orchos and paidakia.

Troy with Brad PittThe Hoyts decide to go back to Athens but we stay in Kea. We have the keys to Andrea's father's house which is well heated and has a nice collection of videos. Once the sun goes down it gets cold enough to pass for winter. We put on Troy, with Brad Pitt and cannot believe how terrible it is. Talk about loosely-based on a book. No wonder they did not dare call it The Iliad. Every classics professor on earth would have filed a lawsuit. Finally we can stand the stupidity no longer and go out to the Apothiki Taverna in the port where we meet Andrea's cousin and his girlfriend. The whole room is filled with smoke but nobody is smoking as much as they are, finishing one and starting another continuously until I feel like I have smoked a pack myself. By the time we get back to the house I am feeling on the edge of a cold or flu. But I have two more days until I get back on a plane and fly to the states where I can be as sick as I want. I need to hold on for a couple more days and I have the tools to fight it, echinasia, vitamin C and a will to see this project through to its conclusion.

Sunday March 5th

Carnival in KeaThis is the final day of Apokreas. There is a carnival parade in the village so we drive up there. We greet people as we walk up the hill to the main square. Everybody is surprised to see us. We have an hour before the parade begins so we leave the village and walk towards the 6th Century BC lion statue which the island is famous for. The wildflowers are everywhere and the grasses and plants which are dried up in the summer are alive and well in February. By the time we get back to the square the parade is over and the party has begun. All the children from the schools are in costumes. Some are dressed like the black and white cows, which the island is known for. Some are dresses like strawberries which will be ripe soon. Some people are carrying a big swan with H5 N1 written on it, the pallbearers wearing surgical masks. There are kids dressed up as garbage, holding a sign begging the town government to keep the sea clean. There are giant telephones which symbolize the Vodephone phone-bugging scandal. Latin music is being played full blast and everyone is dancing. Who would have guessed that the wildest party during Apokreas would be in Kea? Even Rolando, who owns my favorite restaurant which is only open in the summer, has come. This is the best part of the trip.

Andrea and I have lunch at Yiannis in the Piazza and then go back to the port to return the car and get on the ferry. We still have one night to go.

Cafe Evi in PsiriThe final night of Apokreas and to be honest we are a little burnt out. But nothing a few glasses of Babatzim ouzo won't fix. Plus Andrea's sister has arrived from New York so we have someone new to add to our parea (social group). We brave the crowds in Psiri and make our way to Elvis Costello's (Cafe Evi) fill up on mezedes and then the girls get tired and go home. It is just me and Tony. We look at each other. What do you want to do? Go to a bar? For what purpose? Chase women? We are both hopelessly entwined with woman who would have no problem disemboweling us if they even suspected we had cheated on them so that is out. Walk around the streets some more? What will we see that we have not seen already? We decide just to go home and call it a night despite this being the last night of Apokreas and the last night we can have fun without it being a sin. "You know, we are getting old". Tony says as we part.

Monday March 6th Clean Monday

Clean Monday in Greece, Kathari defteraThe weather which has been beautiful our whole trip is supposed to change today. Rain and storms are in the forecast. But when we go out on the balcony it looks pretty good to me and when we get to the ancient Agora there is a number of people on Areopagos flying kites and the sun is shining. The wind is blowing fiercely and only the most adept are able to control their kites long enough to get them above tree level. There are crashed kites everywhere decorating the trees, telephone wires and even the historic monuments. We cut through the ancient Agora and walk up Areopagos hill. Families are having picnics in the green grass beneath the pine trees. On Apostoli Pavlou, the large pedestrian avenue, there is a sea of people and venders selling the flat unleavened bread which the Orthodox eat on Clean Monday. Others are selling cotton candy which has no religious significance. We climb Philipappou and then down the other side where there is a concert of traditional music played through big amps that you can hear for miles. I walk down to where Adrianou street borders the ancient agora and the metro tracks and meet Tony, Kelly and Dorian for lunch. I had vowed to not drink or eat meat until Easter, in return for God not letting me get sick until I get home to my cable TV. But the lure of the ouzo is too strong when combined with a big seafood pikilea of  squid, mussels, salmon, tarama and assorted cheeses. Lunch stretches on and on and when night falls we leave our table in Monastiraki to go to Psiri to continue somewhere indoors. We get to Ouzerie Naxos which looks inviting and as the night goes on more of our friends join us for our last evening in Greece.

Tuesday March 6th

Athens-Pireaus from the airWe have a flight at noon. Andrea goes home early the night before for several hours to pack which is her nature. I wake up, have a coffee across the street, come back and pack in ten minutes. Another beautiful day. Where is this storm? We are picked up by Christos, one of George's drivers, my favorite in fact. When we get to the airport we are surprised at how few people are there. We get in a very short line at the Delta desk and in two minutes are rid of our bags and have our tickets in hand. On the plane there are so few of us that we can each have a row of 4 seats. As we take off and pass over Athens there are a few clouds, and then suddenly the Peloponessos disappears under a solid gray mass. I go to my row of seats and put on my noise cancellation headphones and doze my way back to the USA. That night an enormous storm hits Athens and the weather gets cold and miserable.

Epilogue

Matt in KeaMaybe it is not right to say it but sometimes I feel blessed. But before I start counting my blessings lets look at my travel-writer scorecard and see how I did on this trip to Greece. I didn't make it to Moschaton for the Carnival festivities and parade but I did see the street cleaners sweeping up the confetti and a few stragglers and gypsies. I did not go to see the Goat dancers of Skyros but I almost got to the port of Kimi where I would have taken the ferry had I gone to Skyros. Certainly I should get points for that. I did not make it to Patras for their carnival, but I did have dinner with my sister-in-law the night before she went there for the ICOMOS Convention (even though it began after the last day of carnival.) Most of my nights in Athens were spent in out of the way tavernas and ouzeries escaping from the crowds rather than joining them. But I had a lot of great meals and conversations, made some new friends and I had my first souvlaki in years. So I would say that by my standards it was a pretty successful trip. To make the whole trip even more special I got the flu when I returned to America and did not drink for two weeks! I like to think that God helped me give up alcohol for lent, working in the strange way he often does.

As for next year, will I return to Greece for Apokreas and try to do those things that I would have done if I was really the type of travel journalist I am supposed to be? Well, it's a damn good reason to go again, and if I am not successful there is always the year after that.

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