A Grecian Love Affair

I am sitting now at the River Café in Florence, overlooking the Ponte Santa Trinita Bridge, ticking away at my laptop as I recall my Spring Break. A woman strung in pearls wearing Louis Vuitton shades sits behind me, eating shrimp spaghetti. She eats it delicately, so as to not stain her creamy Chanel blouse. Last week I was also eating shrimp spaghetti, but it was in a restaurant overrun with stray kittens darting anxiously between the legs of donkeys trotting by. The exhausted host would shoo them away every ten minutes, but sooner or later they’d all be back, lounging atop the frayed wicker chairs in the lazy sun. Greece was like this in a way: beautifully disorganized. Time is not a concept there. Italy has a relaxed approach to the clock, yes, but in Greece the days seemed to last forever. Minutes would melt into hours slowly like honey dripping from the spoon.

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Honey will always remind me of Greece. Honey on fruit, honey on frozen yogurt, honey on everything. On our second day here, my roommate and I cozied up at an empty seaside restaurant, (everything was empty this time of year) for some souvlaki. After our meal, the old woman who owned the place came round with a tray brandishing two glistening dishes of homemade vanilla ice cream, drizzled with honey and topped with fresh strawberries. I was beside myself as I ate both, secretly thankful that my roommate was a picky eater.
This was a common occurrence whenever we dined out in Greece: receiving free ice cream after our meal. Just when we thought we couldn’t eat another bite, one of the wait staff would peal up to our table, setting down creamy deserts. “A present!” they would say.

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Athens took me by surprise. It had a hometown feel with an ancient twist. The city center is compacted into Monastiraki Square, the touristic hub of the city. Everything is within walking distance: the Acropolis, the metro, markets, bars, restaurants—it’s all easy. Any restaurant in Athens, (or Greece, for that matter) will serve you amazing food. The locals and tourists all eat in the same restaurants; there are no tourist traps when it comes to food. I was never remotely disappointed with anything I ate in this country; the food is just that good. You can actually get a Gyro for a Euro in some places. I averaged three a day, mostly.

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Grecians are a happy people. They are proud of their country and its deeply rooted history. Any Athenian will happily stop whatever they are doing to tell you about the history of the Acropolis—like our cab driver, Andrea. On our way to the airport, he gave us a well-rehearsed tour of the city. He told us that, by Athenian law, no building could be built as tall as the Acropolis, or even match it by 50 feet for that matter due to cultural preservation laws. In true Greek fashion, Andrea insisted on dropping us off at the airport cafè near our gate so we could relax before our flight.
“Americans are always so stressed about time. So, now I give you two options: I can either drop you off at your gate, or I can drop you off at the coffee-house 100 meters away so you can relax like a true Greek. Sip coffee. Do nothing. No worries. Just relax.”

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After weaving the crowded narrow streets of Athens for the weekend, my roommate and I spent the rest of the week browsing the island of Santorini.  Now, this island runs specifically off of tourism which meant when we arrived in the off-season it was nearly empty which meant I was elated. After all the crowds I’ve braved over the last few months, a black sand beach all to me, myself, and my hammock was a breath of fresh salty air. A car was rented and I would drive aimlessly for hours, stopping off the gravel road to plop down on a flowery cliff and watch the hazy sunset over the caldera, not a tourist for miles. I didn’t witness a single selfie stick for 7 days straight, and I can’t tell you how deeply I appreciated that. We took a cruise the first day through the crescent of the caldera, where we swam in the hot springs. During March the Sea of Crete was cold, but not as cold as Lake Michigan on the hottest day of summer.  We ate a seafood diner prepared fresh on board and bonded with other members of the cruise, all of whom hailed from different corners of the globe.

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On a clear bright day I hiked the hill of Ancient Thera, located atop the highest peak in Santorini. It is an empowering feeling to do a climb alone. When I made it to the top, I realized it was the first time I had been truly alone in months. I savored it like a spoonful of honey, sunning in silence until a Filipino couple joined me 5 minutes later. We discussed how great Greece was in the off-season because we could all actually enjoy the view. It was in this moment I promptly gave in to impulse and asked them to take my picture.

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Most nights I would take my hammock down to the beach and sway under the stars, letting the tide lull me to sleep. I could do things like this and feel safe.  Crime is very rare on such a small and intimate island.

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What I enjoyed most about Greece was the absolute leisure of it. While most of our friends hopped from country to country, we bed down Greece in static. There was no rush. I was able to sleep in everyday and we had no schedule. Everyday I would make time to watch the sunset and sneak in a glass of Santorini’s famous sweet red wine. I relaxed, as Andrea would say. I have never fallen in love with a country and it’s people so quickly, (Italy being the only exception, obviously).

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I will never forget the unbridled happiness this country brought me.  I’ll never forget the smell of saltwater in my hair or walking along black sand beaches, the crunch of smooth pebbles between my toes. I’ll never forget the tanned smiles of all the friendly Grecians who helped us read cryptic menus in smoke-filled restaurants or the seafood I ate, so fresh I could still taste the sea salt.  I will always remember sunsets and honey.

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Until next time,

-Rachel Horvath

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