goes to Greece for Christmas?
December Lunch at Byzantino in the Plaka
Preparation and Coercion
|Who goes to Greece for Christmas? My family and I went, and we were not the only foreign faces
we saw during the month we spent there from Christmas day until we left on January 24th in what was the coldest
winter in history. How cold? Well it did snow for three solid days and it was the most snow in recorded history
but if that is as cold as it gets I will trade North Carolina for Athens anytime. The Athenians acted as if they
were cold and were certainly dressed for it but if you ask me it was just an excuse to wear the fashionable winterware
that was available at the new shops that sell outdoor gear and camping equipment. But by my standards Athens in
the winter is like New England in the spring and the late spring at that.
Supposedly January is the rainy season and it did rain. I know it rained because I would wake up in the morning
and the streets were wet or I would come out of a taverna and water would be running down the drains. So it did
rain but it never actually rained on me. Maybe I was just lucky or maybe the Greek Gods are very careful about
who they rain on. Either way the raincoat I had bought at Townsend-Bertrand for $50 the day before I left was never
used for its purpose though it did come in handy on the ferryboat trip to Kea where it was a little cooler at sea
than it was in the city.
Some people said that it is silly to go to Athens for the Christmas Holidays. They said Christmas is not really
celebrated in Greece and on New Years all people do is sit around and play cards. I really must disagree. The Christmas
holidays in Athens were the most Christmasy I have ever had and New Years was better than the 4th of July in Philadelphia
or Washington DC.
Convincing my daughter that we would have just as good a time in Athens as we would in NC where she was sure to
get gifts from every member of our extended family was not easy. First I told her we could celebrate Christmas
on the 23rd and she could get her presents 2 days early. That didn't really enthuse her. Then I told her she would
get gifts from her old Aunt Poppy and her aunt Pam and that raised her eyebrows but not enough to tell me it was
OK to book the flight. Then I tried my Santa strategy. "You know, Amarandi, we will be on the airplane on
Christmas eve so you know what that means?" She looked interested. "Greece is 6 hours ahead so while
it is day in America it is night in Greece so if we look out the window we may see Santa passing us going in the
other direction after he is done giving presents to all the kids in Europe."
That did it. She agreed to go and I booked the tickets. Then, two days before we left they caught Richard Reid
trying to light his shoes on a flight from Paris and suddenly I was afraid to go. It seemed like Christmas Eve
would be such an inviting target for a terrorist. But I knew I could not turn back. So I went to the healthfood
store and bought a bottle of kava-kava. After the first dose I knew that not only could I happily get on the plane
but I had also found the cure for the angst that fills me anytime I have to do anything out of the ordinary. I
was ready for my Christmas holiday in Athens.
Arrival on Christmas Day
you have ever flown on Christmas eve you will know what a great experience it is. The airports are empty and even
with the heightened threat of terrorism there were no lines to speak of. The flight was not completely full and
we could stretch out and even my daughter gave up on looking for Santa and slept for most of the trip.
We arrived to a sunny Athens on Christmas day and our pal George the Famous Taxi Driver waiting for us at the gate
to drive us into the city. When you arrive in Athens from the USA you usually get there between 10am and noon and
if you are like me you have spent the last 10 hours wishing you were anywhere else but on a plane, even if it means
waking up back in North Carolina. But when I get to Athens a transformation comes over me and it does not matter
if I have not slept or how uncomfortable I have been. George tells us the latest news of Greece and drops us off
at the Attalos where we stay everytime we come. We greet our friends Sakis, Kosta and Maria at the front desk and
go up to our rooms which always looks like our rooms no matter what side of the hotel or what floor and in a strange
way feels like home. We get two rooms. I get one and Andrea and Amarandi share the other so I can work into the
wee hours of the morning without bothering anyone. Well that is partially the reason. Actually it makes me feel
like I am not married and less claustrophobic. After a shower we are out the door and into a taxi headed for Kypseli
where Andrea's 90 year old aunt lives. Then after exchanging gifts we are off to two more parties before finally
fading by about 9pm from all the food, wine and conversation. Who says the Greeks don't celebrate Christmas?
Unlike the USA. Christmas does not end on the 26th of December. In Athens it goes on and on. Syntagma square has
a giant christmas tree made of lights with no wood or pine needles. The whole square is full of people and the
most mottley looking Santa's I have ever seen. They are all skinny with their beards falling off, revealing unshaven
Albanian-looking faces beneath. Each Santa has a pony that stands about three feet tall and they are charging 2000
drachma to let your child sit on it and take a photo. Amarandi seems troubled by this scene because up until this
moment she believed with all her heart in Santa. Who were these guys? They certainly were not elves and they did
not seem jolly at all. The opposite really. She wanted to sit on a pony but two thousand drachma is a little steep
and who knows where the money would end up?
Every night there was a concert in the square with the grand finale New Year's Eve when many of Greece's biggest
stars performed. Ermou street, which is only for pedestrians, had a carnival season atmosphere with dozens of street
musicians, chestnut sellers, mimes and a hundred thousand shoppers. The stores are packed with people and I had
to wonder what it had been like before Christmas. Athens is adorned with Christmas lights. The displays are simple
and beautiful. A common motif is a fishing boat because St Nicholas is a saint associated with the sea. The way
we have manger scenes they have fishing boats, though there were a couple manger scenes in Syntagma and in the
City Hall square by the Athens market that seemed to draw a crowd of people and pigeons every day.
Along with the various forms of entertainment set up by the Athens government to keep the mood celebratory it seemed
like every night there was something else going on socially. We went to a different taverna each evening and they
were all packed with festive people until two or three in the morning. Where did the story that the Greeks don't
celebrate Christmas come from anyway? On Friday and Saturday night Psiri was jammed with people and Athinas street
had cars parked up and down the sidewalk. I opened my soundproof doors at the Attalos hotel and was shocked to
see a traffic jam at five oclock in the morning!
I love Athens.
Years Eve was especially fun and as usual we were not sure of what we were going to do until we actually did it.
After going to a small party at a friend's house in the Plaka we met up with Dorian Kokas, famous archaeologist
Theresa Mitsopoulou, my friend Tony from Sifnos and a few people who had used my website that I met at the Attalos
and we went to the Saita Bakaliariko (fried codfish restaurant) in a basement on Kydatheneon street in the Plaka
where we drank kilos of wine from the barrel and all got to know each other. At midnight we went out into the street
to watch the fireworks display which were impressive by any standards. The night was warm enough so that we didn't
even need our coats and when the bells of all the churches chimed to announce the new year we hugged everyone in
sight, friends, shop owners, tourists and wandering Athenians. Then we went back downstairs into the restaurant
and finished our meals and continued drinking. When our group broke up around two we walked back to the hotel,
passing bars where hundreds of people had spilled out onto the pavement and giant speakers were playing reggae
and salsa music. When we got back to the room the phone rang. "Who could that be at this hour?" It was
Dorian out of breath with excitiment. "I am in Syntagma! There are the best bands in Greece and a lazer light
show and a million people! Come down here it's incredible!" We turned on the TV and there it was.
"Sorry Dorian. We are gonna stay in our rooms and watch it from here."
2002 and the Euro
weather stayed nice for the next few days. Not the famous Days of Halkiones which can last from 2 weeks to a month or more during the Greek 'winter' and seem more like spring
or summer, but pretty nice anyway with highs in the upper sixties and sunshine broken up by an occasional cloud
though rarely a sprinkle of rain. I took advantage of the weather to go to Sounion and take some photos while Andrea
and Amarandi did what they like to do, which is research for Andrea's up and coming website on where to shop in
Athens. The research consists of buying everything on sale in every store they go into and Amarandi happily wearing
whatever she has convinced her mother to buy her for the few weeks it takes her to outgrow or get tired of it.
The January sales in Athens bring everybody to the center and you can probably pay for your trip from America on
the money you save buying Italian and European clothes and shoes on Ermou street. I am more of a temple on the mount kind of person and Sounion was absolutely beautiful
that day though I missed out on some terrific bargains I am sure. Anyway I much prefer to shop by myself since
going shopping with Andrea makes me feel like I am ten years old and shopping with my mom. While my friend Ana
and I drove back from Sounion to a fantastic sunset, Andrea and Amarandi were recovering in the Attalos from their
shopping and gathering strength for whatever festivities were in store for us that evening.
Usually I get back to the hotel around 8pm and try to catch up on answering my e-mail while the girls watch TV,
read or Amarandi works on the report she is working on for Tom Mazarakis at Greece-Travel Phones entitled "Why
I Should Have My Own Cell Phone". It has become something of an obsession for her. I can understand the practical
reasons for us letting her have a cell phone like every child and adult in the country has. We can always find
her if she gets lost. But I can't understand her reasons.
She only has 2 friends in Greece. How long can she talk to them? There are games you can play and maybe that is
the main reason she wants one. She uses mine and plays a game called Snake. It uses up my batteries really quickly
and then my phone is useless until it is recharged. I was against her getting the phone and Tom understood this
and so gave her the task of writing a 10 page report on the subject, thinking that it would be a difficult task
for a nine year old and she would soon lose interest. But she hasn't. She wants a phone and she is going to work
at getting one. I guess I should be proud but when I see young girls totally lost in their cell phones, oblivious
to the world around them as they punch in text messages and secret codes I pray to the all powerful god of high-tech
to please spare my daughter.
Just after 8 my phone starts ringing as one after another everyone I know in Athens asks me what is going on tonight.
Usually Ana calls first and I know that she is going to sit home and answer emails that she gets for her Villa
Rentals while she half watches the shows like "Friends" and "Survivor" that are on Greek TV.
If it sounds like fun she may join us but usually only on weekends. Tom is up for a night out every night but only
when his wife lets him which is less and less frequent since the boys went back to the USA for college. Dorian
has to be begged or enticed with the possibility of romance with fictitious beautiful tourist girls that are joining
us for dinner. Then there are friends we meet in the hotel or people who just happen to call that night and usually
what happens is we have anywhere from three to fifteen people joining us for dinner at a local taverna. The conversation
can go from being philosophical to festive depending on the number of people and the amount of wine drunk.
This year the new year also brought in a change of currency. The Euro made its debut on New Year's day and for
the next couple weeks no transaction was simple as people tried to grasp the differences in the old and new curency.
For us it was easy because the Euro was so close to the dollar, about ninetyone cents. But for many of the Greeks
it was very confusing as it would be for anyone whohad to suddenly change currencies after 150 years of the drachma.
For weeks leading up to the change there were people selling calculators on every block in all styles. There were
the simple plastic calculators for the working class and the silver and gold plated calculators for the wealthy.
Amarandi got several for Chistmas. For awhile I was paying in Euro and getting change in drachma. It was about
5 days until I actually got euros in change and gradually the drachmas began disappearing. People exclaimed how
the eros made everything more expensive but I think it was just that with the drachma you became immune to the
large numbers. 17000 drachma for dinner for a small group of us seemed ok but 57 euros seemed like a lot. Gradually
we got used to it. The people who really benefitted from the auro were the street musicians. We used to give them
fifty drachma which came to about nineteen cents. Now we were giving half a euro, simply out of habit and they
were practically tripling their take. That's OK. Nobody works harder than the street musicians of Athens.
night after New years we went to out favorite taverna. The upstairs was full and there was a party downstairs but
there were a couple extra tables if we did not mind sharing the room with what looked like a bunch of sportswriters
or an over-the-hill soccer team. They had control of the music and were playing their own CDs at top volume and
after a little while the least tolerant of our group began to excuse themselves and go home. But gradually the
music got under control and little by little our partying friends began dancing, first one at a time then in pairs
and soon in scattered groups all over the room. As they got more drunk plates began breaking as their friends encouraged
the dancers. Women from our table began joining them and even Andrea was pulled from her chair and thrust to the
front of a line of dancers where she led them stumbling through the debris which was mounting on the floor as more
plates were smashed and tables turned over. There was a three-hundred pound man with his shirt off dancing on the
table and another with a glass on his head and a cigarette dangling from his lips, dancing with our friend Kelly
in a scene that looked like Marilyin Monroe filling in for Melina Mercouri. One of our new friends who was a visitor
to Greece asked Tom about the plate-breaking.
Tom explained "This is a way of expressing your emotion, your passion or what the Greeks call Kefi. This used
to be very common in the tavernas and clubs but now it is illegal and people throw flowers instead, which is much
nicer if you think about it."
"Well if it is against the law how come these people are doing it? Aren't they afriad they will get arrested?"
"Afraid of who? Who is gonna arrest them? These guys are all cops!"
Sure enough it was the local precinct having their New Years party since they all had to work New Years Eve because
of the festivities.
The Great Blizzard of 2002
next day the blizzard hit. The day started out nice and then got rainy and a little windy. I called my friend Corinne
who lived up the road about three miles in Psyhiko. "I just managed to get home before the blizzard hit!"
she told me. What blizzard? It was a little drizzly downtown but to call it even a rainstorm, much less a blizzard
would be a stretch. "Yes they are quite hysterical on the radio, telling people to stay in their houses."
I assumed that meant Corinne was not coming out with us since apparently there was a blizzard somewhere in between
Syntagma square and Psihiko. That did not stop us from going to Psiri where it was surprisingly quiet. The only
people walking around were people from the neighborhood and all the restaurants and cafes were empty. When we got
back to the room and turned on the TV sure enough there were snowplows driving around and newscasters outside reporting
from the snowfilled streets just outside of the center of Athens.
The following day we woke up to snow covered city. Amarandi ran up to the roof of the Attalos where there was a
few inches of snow. The Acropolis and Mount Lykavettos were both covered in white and we could barely contain our
excitement as we headed out to drink our coffee and play in the snow. Though there was only the finest covering
of snowy dust or dusty snow on Athinas street, on the Acropolis it was several inches deep. The site was closed
but many people from the surrounding area had come up on the mountain to play in the snow. And it was still snowing
and continued to snow for two more days.
The day after that we woke up and there was no snow on the streets. It had not been cleared and it was still snowing
quite hard but some process of heat inversion or who knows what was making the snow melt as soon as it touched
the concrete. Amarandi was mad. She wanted to play in the snow. I didn't. Walking around the day before taking
pictures of a white Athens was enough snow fun for me. But I took pity on my daughter and we announced to Andrea
we were going out to find snow and marched up to Syntagma. The snow was falling much harder here and was sticking
a little bit more. The giant light structure that looked like a Christmas tree was still in the square and so were
some of the degenerate Santas and their mini-ponies and I was the most Christmacy scene I had witnessed in the
last 20 years. But still not enough snow to have any fun with so we got on the metro and took it a few stops up
to the National Defense Building, Greece's Pentagon.
When we got off the train and came up the escalator we were astounded. There was at least a foot of snow. It was
as if we had gotten on the train in Athens and gotten off in Salsburg, Austria or the North Pole. There were hundreds
of people, mostly young, throwing snow and romping around. Amarandi and I wandered around Holargos, throwing snowballs
at each other and taking pictures. We decided to walk back to the center of Athens and see if there is a certain
line where there is no snow. We cut through different neighborhoods and all of them were snowed under with giant
lumps on both sides of the street that we knew were cars. Gradually the snow was less deep and by the time we reached
the Hilton there was less than an inch and we decided to take the metro the rest of the way back to the hotel.
the day approached that we would have to go back to the USA and begin our miserable working lives again I began
to get uneasy. The thought of waking up every morning at 6:30 am to take Amarandi to school and then coming back
to my little office to answer e-mail questions from people who were on their way to Greece was really depressing.
Then a miracle happened. Walking home from the Plaka Andrea felt a sharp pain in her ear. The next day she was
so sick that Mr Zissis, the owner of the Attalos, begged me to take her to the hospital. Andrea did not want to
go. She wanted a private ear, nise and throat specialist. I called George at Fantasy and Aliki at Dolphin and they
each knew one they said was great. We chose the one who copuld see us the soonest. When we got to his office he
looked into Andrea's ear (cigarette dangling out of his mouth) and told us she had a small puncture. He prescribed
a couple remedies and told her to rest. "What about flying?" I asked cautiously.
"Impossible", he said. "Not for at least 8 days".
For Andrea this was not the same good news as it was for me. But the hotel was comfortable. The TV had plenty of
movies and CNN and she had lots of books to keep her company. Within a couple days she was well enough to come
out with us for lunch and soon after for dinners at the tavernas and ouzeries in Psiri. But she could not fly until
it healed completely and when the 8 days had passed and we returned to the doctor he examined her again and gave
her one more week which we made the most of.
The End of the Holiday
think the last two weeks of the trip were the best for me because they were like a gift. We went to Aegina and
took a taxi all over the island taking pictures. We went to the island of Kea where Andrea has a house and brought
some friends who were visiting Greece and had not been to an island. A Greek island in winter, especially a traditional
one like Kea is a magical, mystical experience. It is so green, because the winter is the rainy season, and so
quiet because there are no tourists on motorbikes. The locals that stay during the winter are all doing their winter
things and you could be back in the last century except for the televisions in the cafeneons. The boat trip may
be a little chilly especially on the return journey when the sun is starting to set but all the ferries have indoor
lounges where you can read the paper, play cards, talk or just people watch.
Of course all good things must come to an end but the last week we hit a spell of wonderfully warm weather that
made winter seem like spring. We went to the beach in Loutsa and had lunch in a fish taverna on the sea. We visited
the Athens Zoological Park, the second largest collection of birds in the world, and many of them quite happy to
see us. The last full day I took a trip with Dennis, the son of George the Famous Taxi Driver, from Athens to Delphi,
Galaxidi, Nafpaktos and then across the Gulf of Corinth on the Rio-Antirion ferry to Patras and back to Athens
on the highway that goes along the norhern coast of the Peloponessos. Naturally the day we went to the airport
was the most beautiful day of all, as it often is when I leave.
So in response to the people who want to know if Greece is a good place to visit for the holidays I have to answer
Chances are the weather will be good. If it gets cold or rains that only makes the many tavernas, ouzeries and
cafes seem that much warmer. Sitting in a small cafe in Psiri or the Plaka with a glass of rakimelo (raki and honey)
with snow or rain falling on the quiet streets outside I am as content as a person can be.
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