Thursday, May 29, 2008

Day 109 – Auréle got his driving license!

The grand event today is that Auréle got his driving license! I went with him to DMV, left him there under a light rain (not the best conditions for taking your driving test), and when I came back an hour later I found him grinning from ear to ear :) He was so excited driving back to his workplace, with the radio finally turned on and the infamous “L” removed from the back of the car (the “L” stands for “Looser”, and all rooky drivers have to have it prominently displayed on the back of the car while learning how to drive). Alas, I depart Genéve at a good time, because this is no longer a safe city for the pedestrian!

Auréle works way out on the northwest of Genéve, and I went with him because I wanted to visit the famous CERN (Centre Europenne de la Recherche Nuclaire). They are one of the foremost research centers for particle and quantum physics, and their main tools are two enormous cyclotron rings excavated deep into the ground (and by enormous I mean that the rings have several kilometers in diameter). Of course they don’t let any yahoo wander through the facilities, but they have a nice museum with the history of research at CERN, and “simple” explanations of what high energy particle physics is all about. I say “simple” because in reality I didn’t understand half of what they were trying to explain :(

Here is a interesting family fact: I have told you about the “boys” and what they do, but I don’t think I have told you what the “girls” are doing. Tina has just started a job with one of the posh hotels in Genéve, as assistant manager of procurement; she thinks she would like to make a career in the hospitality industry, so she is very excited about her work. Elizabeth works as manager of a travel agency, but I haven’t had enough chances to talk with her about the details. Nura is right now taking a brutal set of final exams toward completion of her major in International Relations. The way they do it here, many of the schools offer their exams at the same time and in the same place, a huge concert hall where as many as a 1,000 students take the exam together. They mix them up, so you may be taking your own exam in Economics while the person to your left is taking her exam in Geology and the person to your right is taking his exam in Sociology (still, with 1,000 bodies I don’t see how a few monitors can keep their eye on everybody). There are 8 exams in this round for Nura, and she has to take them on consecutive days, including Saturday. She is a very good student, but as you can imagine she has been looking frazzled over the last few days. And Jennifer? I most confess that until last night I didn’t have the foggiest idea what she did for a living, but took the opportunity to ask when Alexis dropped by for a quick round of ping-pong. It turns out she is the anchorwomen for the newscasts of the local TV station! Sure enough, I turned on the TV and there she was, all professional, introducing the news. Pretty cool job, isn’t it?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Day 108 – Nothing to report

Work, work, … arghh! I need to get out of the house for a while.

I have made a long walk through the gardens of Genéve. My time here is coming to an end, so it felt a bit like saying goodbye to this friendly city, which has received me with open arms.

Here is a view of the chateau of Eaux Vives, and of its “little garden”. The aristocracy of Genéve certainly knew how to live.

Here are views of the Church of the Holy Trinity. The modern design has been the talk of the town since it was built, and the inside is hypercool. I apologize for the fuzzy picture, but it will give you an idea of the very simple altar and the slat windows. In each of the windows is a see through photo of a galaxy or cluster of stars, so you get the impression of being suspended in the middle of the universe.

A couple more views of the green corners of Genéve, which manages to be both a cosmopolitan city and a beautiful place.

Day 107 – Nothing to report

Work, work, work. This is bad. I made the mistake of starting the review of some of the chapters I have written, and I got caught into tinkering with two chapters, so I now have three dismembered chapters.

Day 106 – Nothing to report

Work, work, work.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Day 105 (Sunday May 25) – The second half of the move

Cloudy but with patches of blue sky. Will it be a sunny or rainy day? It didn’t matter, really, because today was going to be the true move, and we were going to start really early (that means 11:30 am here). I was shocked when I learned that we were going to get straight to work, rather than starting with another huge lunch. Yvette really meant business this time!

We got to her former house to start packing clothes, and books, and house stuff, and of course it took longer than anyone would have expected. You see, we had lots of packers, but only one decision taker. But all things must come to the end, and around 4 pm we departed with a van bursting at the seams, in direction Plainpalais, where the new apartment is located.

I don’t have a good picture of the apartment, but I can tell you it is small but very cute. It is in a great part of town, within a block of the big plaza of Plainpalais, which you can see at the end of the street in the photograph I took from the small balcony. I am of course inside the apartment, but you can see from the buildings in the photograph the style of buildings in this part of town.

As I said yesterday, the apartment is in the fifth floor (or the fourth floor if you count like the Europeans and Mexicans do). It has one roomy bedroom and a roomy living room, a small kitchen and small foyer, and a comfortable bathroom. The balcony is off from the kitchen, and with one of the red chairs will be a great place to enjoy morning coffee. The whole apartment has old-fashioned tall ceilings, and has been newly painted with an eggshell color. Yvette plans to decorate it with bright contrasting colors, starting with the bright red chairs and couch, so when all is said and done it will be hypercool!

Today, everybody was there. To remind you, Yvette has four sons (from older to younger): Alexis, Loïc, Auréle, and Tristán. Alexis works as a journalist for the big weekly newspaper Le Matin Dimanche; Loïc works as manager of several restaurants in Geneva; Auréle is doing an apprenticeship with a company that organizes big events (right now the big one is the European soccer match, Euro 2008, which will be played in June in Switzerland and Austria); and Tristán is an audiovisual artist, working mainly in publicity and marketing. Everyone of the “boys” (all of them are strapping young men) has a sweetheart: Alexis and Jennifer, Loïc and Tina, Auréle and Nura, and Tristán and Elizabeth. Yvette has also “adopted” Eleanor and her two kids, Louis and Aude, and also had the invaluable help of her former neighbor Mark. As you can well imagine it was quite a large crowd who joined in the toast to wish her much happiness in her new digs :)

Here are a few photos of the merry occasion. Let’s start with Tristán and his wife Elizabeth:
Loïc and Tina
Aude, Yvette, Alexis, Eleanor, and Louis
And finally, starting from the top left, Alexis, Elizabeth, Auréle, Aude, Yvette, Louis, Eleanor, Loïc, Tina, and Tristán in the front.

Moving and starting over is hard, but it is clear that Yvette drew much fortitude and joy from the company of her family, particularly because they are so closely knit. They all like each other, and love to spend time together, so I am sure the new apartment in Plainpalais will be the center of reunion for many years to come. And to prove my point, on the spot the famished crew decided to go have fondue at Café du Soleil. Here is one last picture of the happy company. From bottom left clockwise: Eleanor, Yvette, Tristán, Jennifer, Alexis, Elizabeth, Auréle, Tina and Loïc.

Day 104 – The first half of the move

Rainy day. I managed to complete several hours of work before Auréle and I headed for the quartier of Carouge, to meet the crowd. Carouge is a very quaint part of town—well known for its farmers market, restaurants, and boutiques—so I thought it was a funny meeting place, but I had not counted on the fact that strenuous labor could not get started without preliminary restoration! So once again we sat down to a delicious and pretty hefty lunch, and it was probably not until 2 pm that we got into the rented moving van to start collecting moving boxes, buying bright red chairs, and picking up random items that Yvette had stored at the houses of Loïc and Alexis. We dropped the first load at the porch of the building where the new apartment is located, leaving Auréle behind to move them in, and Yvette, Loïc, Tina and myself went to Interio (a very nice furniture store on the style of Ikea) to buy the bed and a few side tables. Yvette was lucky in that she found furniture she liked that was on stock, so by 6 pm we were all loaded and ready to roll. Ah, but by that time it was time to restore our forces again, so before doing any further work we had to go to the local bar to drink a little something and wait for Auréle and Nura.

Finally came the time for the heavy work (around 7 pm). The good news was that Yvette’s new apartment was not in the sixth floor. The bad news was that it is in the fifth floor and there is no elevator. Fortunately many hands make light work, and with some huffing and puffing we soon had the boxes up. Loïc had brought his bag of tools, so while he put together the tables, Auréle and I put together the bed, and the women folk started unpacking and putting away the stuff.

When we finished the apartment still looked empty, so Yvette had to explain that she had ordered the kitchen (which will be redone, with integrated sink, cabinets, stove, and refrigerator), armoirs, couch, table, etc., but the delivery would still take a couple of weeks. Poor thing, she is going to have to live with a half house for some time to come!

Day 103 – Back to Genève

Mikki and I woke up at about 3 am, and by 4 am had said our goodbyes to good Giorgo and were headed for Athens airport. We got there about 6:30 am, Mikki took the metro to the train station (she is in a backpacking tour of Europe and was headed for Sofia, Bulgaria), and I went through the fastest check-in ever, and waited and waited for my 10 am flight. The flight took four hours (but there is one hour time difference), so by noon I was in Genève, and by 1 pm I was home in Route de Ferney.

I did the laundry, worked for a while, and was glad to abandon my labors when Auréle got home and invited me to join Yvette, Tina, Loïc and himself for dinner. We went to a little bistro, Au Coin du Bar, and had a fabulous dinner. First we were invited down to the cave, to select our wine (we must have looked disreputable, because we were invited to the “normal” cave, where the wine bottles went from $50 to $150, but opening doors we found the cave du patron, where I saw nothing under $200 a bottle). Back on the bistro we started with cute entrees (paté de fois gras in a lemon sauce for me) and lots of merry conversation, followed by the main course. I had thinly sliced, almost raw, duck in a pecan sauce that was to die for. Finally came dessert: I unwisely chose crème brulé, which was very good but not as good as Dawn’s (what can I say, I am spoiled :)

The whole pleasant evening had no purpose beyond the traditional dining out on Friday, but we finally got to business and discussed the weekend plans: We were moving Yvette into her new apartment, and the labor force had to be coordinated. Me, being me, assumed we were starting at 7 am, so I was a little surprised when the meeting was set for noon (you see, allowance had to be made for the fact that the young generation still had many Friday night things to do before going back home).

Day 102 – Olympia and Kalamata

Mikki, Giorgo and I piled unto the car early in the morning and headed across the mountains to the famous site of Olympia (not to be confused with Mount Olympus, which is in northern Greece and too far for me to visit). It was a pleasant drive, but Mikki got a little car sick, so it was with happy relief that we got to Olympia around 10:30 am. The site is absolutely fantastic! It is all I have ever thought ancient Greece would be, with the rolling hills, the colorful sky with beautiful clouds, the vast olive orchards, and the spirit of the thousands of inhabitants and visiting athletes that made it one of the most famous cities of the ancient world.

Here is a picture of the temple where the Olympic fire was lighted every four years from 796 BC to 394 AD (abolished again by the prude emperor Theodosius as being a clear mark of paganism). Olympia was again the site of the first of the modern Olympic games in 1870 AD. Going back to the temple, this is where the famous sitting statue of Zeus Olympic—one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—was created by the sculptor Phidias circa 430 BC (the statue, which stood 15 m tall and was made of precious wood, marble, gold, and precious stones was destroyed in the 5th century AD).

It was very cool to go through the portal of the stadium, and to stand in the place where the competitions were held.

The competitions included racing, disk and javelin throw, boxing, and chariot racing, and throughout the city there were statues of Nike, the goddess of victory, and bass reliefs celebrating the triumphs of one athlete or another. Here is a bass relief celebrating the Labors of Hercules, who was himself a celebrated Olympic athlete.

The image of the fallen columns of the temple of Zeus Olympic gave me some food for thought. If the archaeologists have preserved their original position, it seems to me that all toppled in the same direction, which makes me think that an earthquake might have had a hand on the destruction of the temple.

The museum of the site is absolutely fantastic, and it would take forever to talk about all the beautiful pieces on display. Two displays deserve special mention, however: The first one is the display of the frontispiece of the temple of Zeus, which includes over 20 exquisite statues, the biggest of which is good four meters in height. To judge from this ensemble the whole complex must have been indeed magnificent.

The second is the statue of Hermes, the messenger of the gods, in the act of bringing the baby Dionysos to the Nymphs (circa 330 BC).

Finally, here is a photo for my amigo Gustavo, who has a faiblesse for bovines.

The visit to Olympia was at the same time too short and too long, so our plans to go visit another site farther south were thwarted by the Greek schedule. Instead we decided to go to Kalamata, world famous for its olives and olive oil (Auréle had asked me to bring back some olives, so I figured they should come from the best place). By the time we reached the outskirts of the city we were getting pretty hungry, so Giorgo was in charge of finding a good place to have a late lunch. “Stop”, he said suddenly, pointing to a little hole in the wall that looked more like a butchery than a restaurant. With unerring instinct he had spotted a place specializing in roasted pig, a Greek delicacy. Indeed, the patron wakes up at the wee hours of the morning, spits a pig and roasts it over an open fire, and by lunch time he has the whole masterpiece on display, for folks to come and buy big chunks (again by the kilogram) to take home. He was very gracious and arranged a small table for us, created a great Greek salad (cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, and onions topped by thick slices of feta cheese soaked in olive oil and oregano), and brought in yet another steaming mound of delicious roasted pig. I have died and gone to heaven!

As a city Kalamata doesn’t have much to offer, so after walking along the beach and buying olives we headed north toward Tripoli. This took us through the main area of last year’s summer fires. It was heartbreaking. Thousands of square kilometers of olive orchards and native forests have been destroyed. Naturally the green grass and flowers have come back, but this makes the image of the black trunks of the death trees all the more poignant. Only in one case I saw a landowner going through the painful task of cutting down the death trees, in preparation for a new planting next fall. Since it takes several years before a tree is in full production, the impact of the 2007 fire will be felt throughout Greece for at least 10 years. Very sad indeed.

My time in Greece is coming to an end, so to say goodbye I went for a long walk in the hills behind Luká. It was a long and beautiful walk, and I even saw a very pretty fox (she came out of the trees running in my direction, made a sudden start when she saw me, and with a bound disappeared through the undergrowth). This is truly a beautiful country, and I couldn’t help but thinking that I wouldn’t mind living here.

Day 101 – The Oracle of Delphi

Early next morning I went to look for a cup of coffee, which I found in a tiny restaurant managed by a pleasant older man. With signs I managed to order my coffee, and was quietly sipping it when the old man started making conversation. We went through the routine of trying to find a common language, and with great happiness found out that we had French in common! He had studied it as a young man in the school, and still had enough recollection for us to hold a conversation. I learned that he was 65 years old, had two daughters and a son, and four grandchildren. I also learned that last summer there had been an big fire throughout the Peleponese (I had already seen signs), that many olive groves had been destroyed, and that the production of olive oil was only a small portion of normal. This has caused tremendous argument, because the producers are exporting all their production (Greek oil is famous and commands high prices in the international market), so to meet domestic needs Greece is now importing cooking oil from Ukraine! People are incensed!

More slow driving through fabulous mountains, but I finally made it to the Oracle of Delphi around 2 pm. Unfortunately for me, archaeologic sites in Greece have the annoying practice of opening only from 8 am to 3 pm, so I had to rush my visit through this amazing site, and didn’t have a chance of visiting the museum. Still, I was able to feel the magic of the place, which like so many later monasteries drapes the southwestern slopes of Mount Parnassus. The temple of Apollo was considered by the Greeks to be the center of the world, and hence the source of the wisdom of the gods (though from what I overheard from a tour guide the oracle was susceptible to follow the political wishes of generous patrons). It is also famous because every four years athletes from all Greece would gather to participate in the Pythian Games. Delphi was founded (presumably by Apollo himself in the 8th century BC, was sacked by Nero in 66 AD, was reconstructed by the Romans, and was finally “closed” by Theodosius in 395 AD.

I spent the rest of the day getting back to Luká, where I made it in good time for dinner. While I was gone Mikki, the niece of Giorgo, had arrived and was in train of preparing a delicious Greek salad (with vegetables bought from the store of cousin Nikki). Giorgo, however, had further plans for dinner, and after a short while he told me that we were going to eat some lamb and watch the match between Manchester and Chelsea. So we trudged up the street to a taberna, where we had some more Greek salad, a yummy dish of lamb lungs and liver, a kilogram of roasted lamb (yes, it is sold by weight, and came as a mountain of steaming ribs and chops), and one carafe after the other of the wine of the house. We were the only “costumers”, so after bringing in the dishes the patron pulled in a chair, poured himself a glass of wine, and sat to watch the game with us. His dad arrived five minutes later, sat at the table, and we joined the brotherhood of soccer fans the world over to discuss every move of what turned out to be a very good game.

Day 100 – A trip to the north

Giorgo has invited me to make his house my center of operations, but I wanted to go north, so I said goodbye to him for a couple of days, intent on exploring a little of mainland Greece. It was a simple day, in which I drove a lot through incredible mountains. I had always imagined Greece as gentle, rolling hills, but in reality it is a very mountainous country, with Alpine-like valleys and towering peaks. This makes for very windy, slow roads, and for an attractive setting for the hundreds of monasteries that perch in impossible ways at the base of the cliffs. I visited the monastery of Megalopolis in a very curious way: I had been following a bus full of kids and all of a sudden I found myself in the parking lot of the monastery. There was no indication anywhere that this was a touristic stop, but all the kids and a few teachers started heading for the entrance, so I did likewise. A stern bearded priest “welcomed” the group with a neutral stare and, since no one told me otherwise, I followed the group through a guided visit (all in Greek) of the main church and the grotto behind the monastery.

At some point I had to get out of the Peleponese and cross the Gulf of Corinth, through a most beautiful bridge (later I found out that it has claims at being the longest suspended bridge in the world). Very neat, but very expensive, at $15 toll each way.

I followed the west coast all the way to the Gulf of Ambrakikos, looking for a place to camp for the night, but to no avail. I did find a few camping outfits, but all were closed until June 1, so with all my honors I had to go back to Amfilohia, where I found a small hotel to spend the night. Here is a picture of the look outside my window.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Day 99 – I step into the world of Zorba The Greek

It was 4:30 am, and we were still a good hour from Pyreus, when I met Giorgo. Me, I had slept like a baby on deck, but he had been walking around all night pulling his suitcase behind him. Giorgo is a Greek American who is trying to get settled near Tripoli, in the ancestral homestead. We fell into easy conversation and, since I was heading for Tripoli and I had a car, I offered him a ride. He was very grateful, and in return offered to guide me through Korinth (the same Corinth of the letters of Paul to the Corinthians) and Mycanae (the same Mycenae from which Agamemnon led the army that lay siege to Troy, and for whose king Hercules performed his twelve heroic labors).

We had a great time, with me being the visiting scholar and Giorgo being a new Zorba, enchanted with showing me the beauties of the Peleponese (the big peninsula that looks like a hand pointing down, south of the Gulf of Corinth). We started by stopping at the Corinth Canal, which joins the Aegean Sea with the Gulf of Corinth (itself a gulf of the Ionian Sea).

From there we went to Korinth, which is absolutely amazing. Korinth was continuously occupied from about 800 BC to historic times, so it is an incredible collage of Greek, Roman, and Bizantine architecture. A spring assured the prosperity of the ancient city, with easy access to the ports in both the Gulf of Corinth and the Aegean.

Our next stop was Mycanae, which was overrun by tourists. It was a mountain fortress and a military power, and in the Age of Bronze was probably the dominant culture through southern Greece. The Myceneans reportedly had the Cyclops build their city, which one can almost believe looking at the enormous rocks used for the ramparts (like in Machu Picchu, the giant blocks are carefully carved to fit tightly together, without the use of mortar).
By this time Giorgo was falling asleep, so we headed toward his home, in the small village of Luká, near Tripoli. By this time I had been invited to make his home my base of operations, and in typical Greek fashion Giorgo was a most gracious host. He fixed a delicious late lunch of Greek salad and thick slices of feta cheese, coated with egg and flour, which were first fried in olive oil and finally flambé in brandy. Probably a direct hit to the ticker, but absolutely delicious!
Giorgo fell sleep after that, but not before giving me instructions to go have a cup of coffee in the house just down the hill, where Thia Ghoni, a little old Yaya, managed a tiny restaurant. So I dutifully did as told, and for a half hour stepped out of the set of Zorba The Greek to step into the set of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. First of all, I am totally unsure how to introduce myself to Greeks (outside of the generic kalimera, or good day), but because the phonetics of Greek is so similar to that of Spanish my first instinct is to speak in Spanish. The middle-age lady at the restaurant looked at me like I had come from another planet, called something to someone in the back, and the little place exploded with four generations! The task of dealing with the foreigner fell unto one of the aunts, who in heavily accented English said hello and asked me who I was. “I am a friend of Giorgo, who lives in the next house up.” She reflected for a moment “Giorgo? Giorgo?” she said as she searched her memory. “Ah, little Giorgo, from America! I am his aunt, but I haven’t seen him for years.” She reported her findings to the crowd, and all of a sudden I was surrounded by young and old, nieces and aunts, nephews and uncles, who settled comfortably to receive the latest news from the family in America. I of course could give no details, so I fell into my usual routine of telling them about Mexico. They were fascinated, and clearly eager to communicate, so I had to accept a cup of Greek coffee and converse at length with the crowd through the good offices of my gracious interpreter. It was so cool!

The afternoon was still young, so I headed toward Nafplio, a charming port city on the Aegean. The town is dominated by a medieval castle high on the cliff, so I had to dutifully climb the 999 steps to get a breathtaking view of the village. Afterward I wandered through the lively narrow streets, and for the first time had a chance of entering a Greek Orthodox church (most are kept under lock and key except for the time of the services). The Greek Orthodox are great believers in icons and gilded decorations, and in entering this church for the first time I understood why: As soon as you step in you are “inside” a holy place, where all your senses are “kidnapped” into spiritual contemplation.

On the way back I felt like a kid in a candy store, because every few kilometers there is a sign directing you to the ancient temple of such and such, the city of this or that, or (the one I couldn’t resist) the Mycenean dam of Tiryns. This structure is more a diversion dike than a dam, and it is not easy to see after 2,500 years of erosion, but it was awe inspiring contemplating a great engineering work of antiquity.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Day 98 – More Santorini

When I got up in the morning I found out that the dog was still there. The very friendly gardener pointed toward the dog, laughed, and said something incomprehensible in Greek. I thought he said that the dog was waiting for breakfast, so I gave him a few pieces of bread, but he showed absolutely no interest. Instead, when I went for a morning walk he faithfully followed me around. Eventually it was time for me to leave, so I said goodbye to the friendly animal, who simply turned around as if he had satisfactorily completed his tour guide duties. Nice, isn’t it?

I made a couple of touristic stops in charming little towns, on my way to the main village in the island, Fira. This where the big museum of Akrotiri is located, and I just had to get it out of my system. It was really very nice, and although I would have loved to see the site itself, the reproductions of frescos and mosaic floors did much to impress me with the finesse of the great Minoan culture. Fira is, again, a beautifully tended village with endless opportunities for tourists to dispense large amounts of money, and I confess I was tempted by a beautiful reproduction of one of the frescos, which would look great in the library :)

Later I went down to the old port, down an interminable series of switchbacks. The views of the island of Tholos (a small basaltic shield volcano that grew after the collapse of the caldera, and was last active in the 1920’s) and the very lively bay were spectacular. This is the port where the cruise ships drop anchor, so there is a very lively buzz of tourists (however, the main tourist tsunami will not start until the beginning of June, so I didn’t have to beat them off with a stick, but besides a couple of nice looking restaurants there is nothing of particular interest (but I bought a hat there). After half an hour I started the long ascent, only to be overhauled by long trains of mules transporting lazy tourists to the main city. Half an hour later the empty train came back, clopping down in happy abandonment without a muleteer accompanying them; apparently the mules are so well trained that there is no need to guide them on their up and down voyages.

I had a couple of hours to kill before it was time to embark, so I went for a lazy drive through the vineyards. Santorini claims a tradition of good wine making, with small but high quality production, but I was puzzled by what seemed to me a very peculiar type of husbandry. Instead of letting the vines “stand”, supporting the weight of the bunches with stakes and wire, here the vines form a low bush that to my untrained eyes seems to simply “spill” unto the ground. Actually, close inspection showed that the main trunk has been trained to form a type of “nest”, inside which the bunches of grapes are shielded from the ocean breeze (I only learned the purpose of the “nest” after I visited the Wine Museum maintained by one of the oldest wineries). Next time you are looking for a sweet dessert wine try the Vin Santo of Santorini!

At about 6 pm I made my work down to the commercial port, fed my little car into the belly of one of the enormous ferries, and thoroughly enjoyed myself looking at the loading of huge trucks and the coming and going of people in the port.

Alas, all good things must come to the end, and eventually we said goodbye to Santorini, heading into the sunset toward the mainland.