Travel has a way of putting things into perspective. There’s something about getting away from home for a while that allows one to look at home in a different way.
Yet I know a lot of people enjoy it when returning travelers share photographs and all of that jazz. I’ve posted some photos on Instagram, so you can check that out if you’d like. What I can do here is provide a little more insight and hit some of the highlights of the trip. Later, I’ll write up more of an analysis, but for now, enjoy the pics.
We went to the small village in northern Greece where my wife’s parents are from. It’s idyllic, if a bit empty. This is because, given the lack of economic opportunity in Greece, so many have left for England, Germany, Australia, Canada, and yes, the United States, mostly LA or central Massachusetts.
It’s a gorgeous spot near a massive lake called Kerkini. The lake stretches far and wide through the northwest section of the state of Serron; here, it’s ringed by olive tree groves planted along the mountainside.
The northern mountains mark the border with Bulgaria. There are some that are snowcapped year round, which is a rather majestic sight.
The village is close to other, larger towns that have managed to avoid the depopulation blues plaguing it. One such village, where we have some family, could even be classified as “bustling”: There are coffee shops, restaurants, retailers, travel agents, attorneys, pharmacies, and an open-aid bazaar every Friday.
And about a half-hour’s drive is the city of Serres, the capital of this particular state. Series is a sprawling city with no buildings taller than about six stories, but full of shops and restaurants and food merchants and lovely pedestrian-only areas; it’s very easy to spend the day just walking around with no particular plan.
We spent a lot of time in the bigger towns and cities, as you can imagine, but the village, though empty, proved to be my son’s favorite place.
Why? It had a playground. And even better, there tended to be kids there quite often. After siesta time, sure, but from 4:00 to 8:00, there were usually a dozen or so friendly children ready to play with my son, even though they spoke spotty English and him (and me) spotty Greek.
There’s Nothing More Sad than a Run-down Playground
I don’t know why, but the sight of broken-down playground equipment, no matter how much it’s still being used, makes me sad. It’s a weird, wistful sort of lament for childhood innocence. See, kids will make a game out of anything because they don’t know any better. To a child, a playground–any playground–is a magical arena for adventure. Even if it’s a bit shabby.
The fact that kids don’t know any better is one of the most wonderful things about them. Kids rely on adults, after all, for pretty much everything. Including playground upkeep.
And even when we don’t deserve their life, kids give it to us anyway. Even when playground equipment is allowed to fall into disrepair. I suppose this is why broken-down playgrounds make me so sad.
All You Do In This Place is Eat and Drink
The stereotype is true. While we did have a wedding to attend, and did get to travel to some nice places in the countryside, much of our day was spent eating and drinking, beverages both caffeinated and alcoholic.
I’m not complaining, really. I was there on vacation, and the food really does taste better there. And since it’s all food I’m familiar with, it was an idea situation (save for the weight I put back on while there. Oops).
This area is Greece is famous for its sausage–it’s a bit saltier than regular loukaniko, in thinner links, and it isn’t flavored with orange peel like they do it in southern Greece where my family is from–but I was there for the bougatsa.
Bougatsa is similar to spanakopita (spinach pie) and tyropitsa(cheese pie), but it’s made with fewer layers of fillo dough and is filled with a sweet cream of a custard-like consistency and dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar. As for the taste, imagine heaven.
I hadn’t had this stuff since my last trip to the area nearly a decade ago–I couldn’t find any in Athens, and if it’s here in the U.S., then its location remains a mystery to me.
And there’s also the drink. In addition to coffee, there is retsina–a white wine with a slight pine flavor, ouzo–a spirit made from grapes and flavored with anise (think: licorice), and my personal favorite, tsiporo–another spirit made of grapes, but think moonshine; the best stuff is usually handmade.
My favorite thing about tsiporo is that, for whatever reason, it doesn’t make me drunk.
Okay, that’s a little hyperbolic, and it makes me sound like I’m a big drinker. I’m not. But in Greece, you just…drink with your meal. No one gets sloppy or totally plastered (it’s considered incredibly gauche and is frowned upon), but drinking is a social thing.
As is smoking. Cigars aren’t a big thing there, but everyone smokes cigarettes like they’re going out of style. Hell, I had a cigarette for the first time in my life. And though I smoked it cigar-style (I didn’t inhale), I’m going to try not to make a habit of it.
No, for real though, my favorite thing about the food and drink in Greece is that it’s so fresh. “Farm-to-table” isn’t a trend there because just about everything is farm-to-table by default.
It cannot be said enough: Food in Greece is better than in the States. Sorry, but it’s true. It’s mostly grilled meat, seafood, vegetables, with limited starches and a whole lot of bread.
And don’t get me stared on the deserts.
But there’s one thing I discovered, one thing I found amidst the three-hour coffee dates and the endless meals.
That’s right: I found peanut butter. In Europe.
And yes, it brought a tiny, though manly, tear to my American eye.
Next time: More about what I actually did.
And check out my Instagram here.