Monday, November 20, 2006

A Return to Greece - Island of Samos

Even before I knew I was moving to Italy last year, I knew where I’d be vacationing this summer: Greece. I really had no choice.

Greece was one of my husband’s early military assignments, and with the ink on our marriage certificate barely dry, it had been "our" first assignment as husband and wife. As such, it became the proving ground of my new and foreign life as a military spouse. Free-spirited, and with aspirations of my own, however,the role of military spouses wasn’t one I was sure I wanted to play. I fell into it all the same. At the same time, Greece in the 1980's, despite the exotic exuberance experienced by most travelers, was actually a dirty, disorganized, and sometimes dangerous place to live. I developed a distinct love/hate relationship with my new home.
Twenty years have since passed. In the meantime, we've had eight military moves (three of them overseas), three children, and one celiac diagnosis for me. My husband is currently counting the days until his military retirement. It was time to return to Greece. As the place where "we" began, I also knew that Greece was the place where a part of "me" had been lost. I needed to resolve the ambiguity I felt about Greece, and ultimately about the path I'd been following.

The original plan for our trip back to Greece was to make it a second honeymoon. It didn’t include taking our three boys. But with our military assignment to Italy came the loss of proximity to babysitting grandparents, causing us to reshuffle the cards and play a new hand. We came up with a two-week celebration of our family life and heritage that included some classic island-hopping travel, abundant beach time, a smattering of art and archaeology, familial connections, and a walk down memory lane.

The intricacies of such an itinerary were complicated, exceeding even our abilities as experienced independent travelers. Notorious for transportation strikes, a weather-dependent ferry schedule (the chief mode of travel between the islands), and many jobs filled on the basis of who you know rather than what you know, our journey required in-the-trenches expertise. We turned to Fantasy Travel, an Athens-based travel agency with English-speaking agents. All of our business was conducted via the Internet and e-mail, with ferry tickets and hotel vouchers hand-delivered in Greece. They also handle air travel, cruises, and package tours.

A direct flight took us from Venice to Athens, where thankfully we had two-and-a-half-hours before our Olympic Airlines flight to the island of Samos. At first glance, Athens’ shiny new airport resembled any other big city airport, with its array of designer name shops, duty free liquor stores, and eateries (with nothing gluten free). But the check-in process for our domestic flight took me straight back to the pandemoniac Athens I knew and loved to hate. There was nothing that resembled a line, no attempt to organize one, and no one working there who seemed to care. Talk from fellow passengers centered on this ineptitude, with a few even placing bets about who would get to the counter first.

To the airline’s credit, whenever there was an impending flight, personnel announced (in Greek only) that customers on that flight could by-pass the throng for immediate check-in; the crowd always went wild. My husband then deduced that it was possible for a shrewd traveler to never even wait in line, instead doing some duty free shopping, grabbing a bite to eat, and then showing up just in time to be called for the flight. I didn’t know whether to be amused or appalled at how quickly this innate Mediterranean mode moved to the forefront of his psyche. Did I mention he is of Greek descent?

My mother-in-law was born and raised on the island of Samos, an island that lies at the southern end of the northern Aegean islands. Our flight there was bumpy, as are many flights around the Aegean Sea due to the region’s ever-present winds. A few hours by ferry to the north is the island of Chios, the birthplace of my father-in-law. Both were children during the Nazi occupation of Greece and the even more tragic years of the Greek Civil War that followed. They were then among the masses that left Greece in the ensuing years, their families seeking better lives in America.

Recalling the story of my husband’s grandfather rowing a boat from Samos to Turkey, possibly to evacuate his family from Greece during the wars, my children gained a clearer picture of the world as it was then. They also understood the proximity of Greece to Turkey, themselves age-old enemies with still often-tense relations. Nevertheless, ferries now flow freely several times daily between the two countries, with travelers such as us using Samos as a base to visit the ancient archaeological site at Ephesus in Turkey. On a daytrip to this more exotic and foreign land, I employed the assistance of our Turkish tour guide to help me obtain a gluten free meal, and dined lavishly on a ground beef and eggplant stew, a side of cooked greens, and salad with a creamy yogurt dressing.

On Samos, we stayed at the Ino Village Hotel, located a 20-minute steep uphill walk from the island’s capital town of Vathi, also known as Samos Town. The trek was worth the view, which tumbled from the flower garden just beyond our ground floor balcony ledge, over red-tile rooftops and rocky beaches, to the waiting shimmering sea. Not once during our six nights stay did we close that balcony door, the cooling breeze liberating us from air conditioning, locked doors, and mistrust. It reminded me of my younger years, a time when the door to my family's house was never locked. If we weren’t home, friends could let themselves in to await our return, or perhaps just leave a jar of homemade pickles. Unlike my childhood home, though, the unlocked balcony door on Samos came with a nightly show, featuring a peach-colored Mediterranean sun tucking itself into bed. It was my cue to head out to dinner.

Dining in Greece is a late-night affair. On the night we met up with my husband’s godfather, who splits his retirement years between New York and Samos, he suggested we come to his house around 8:00 pm, and then proceed to dinner around 9:00 pm. I figured it must be the time-honored afternoon siestas and early evening coffee chasers that allowed Greeks to keep such hours, but the late dinners were rough for us.

Another adjustment for me, especially after living in Italy for the past year, was to be in a place not familiar with celiac disease. My mother-in-law, who worked for years for a gastroenterologist, once told me that celiac disease is not prevalent in the Greek blood line. A Greek uncle further elucidated that God would never punish Greeks with the inability to eat bread. Such fallible reasoning notwithstanding, celiac disease is relatively rare in Greece. Which meant I had to be extra vigilant when eating out.

Knowledge of Greek cuisine was my first line of defense. Having lived in Greece and being married to a Greek-American certainly were assets in this regard, but most restaurants have English versions of their menus with descriptions providing clues about a dish’s ingredients. After selecting one or two likely possibilities, I explained to the server that I had a “food allergy” that prevented me from eating bread, pasta, and foods made with flour. This account was followed up with a celiac card, containing all the necessary details written in Greek. The tricky part was the use of the word “celiac,” which in Greek also can mean “colic.” They often thought I couldn’t eat spicy foods.

Greek cooking is based on fresh seasonal produce, with restaurants offering hot and cold appetizers, salads, casseroles, oven-baked dishes, and grilled meats and seafood. One of my favorite appetizers was Tzatziki (yogurt and cucumber dip) that I ate with my gluten free crackers. Along with a Greek Salad it was often enough for lunch. Other times I enjoyed cold beet salads, cooked greens, giant beans, and plates of various cheeses. French Fries, a popular side dish in Greece, I ate with caution. While many restaurants had dedicated fryers, most used a frozen product that I could not determine to be safe. Another favorite appetizer, Saganaki (fried cheese), was sometimes prepared with a dusting of flour. After an explanation of my inability to eat it as such, I received a few offers of a pan prepared especially for me.

Traditional casserole dishes such as Pastichio (baked macaroni), Mousaka (made with a flour thickened cream sauce) Keftedes (meatballs made with bread crumbs), and Yiouvetsi (meat and noodles) were all off-limits. But I did eat oven-baked dishes such as Gemistes (stuffed peppers and tomatoes), Arni Psito (roast lamb), Kotopoulo Psito (baked chicken), and Patatestou Fourno (oven-browned potatoes). Stefatho (stewed beef) was also an option, as was grilled lamb chops, Souvlakia (shish-kebab), and fish dishes such as salmon and grilled calamari (but not fried).

As most Greeks in the service industry speak fluent English, I did not have to rely on my husband’s Greek language ability to state my celiac condition. On the other hand, I’ll admit that for the purpose of getting to the heart of the matter more quickly, and for better service, I often let him do the talking. This was true more so on Samos, where he was counted as one of their own, a diaspora, returning to his roots. He was also chastised for not teaching the language to his sons, fearful as the Greeks are about losing their heritage in their once homogenous but now ever-increasing multicultural society.

Despite concern about the recent influx of resident foreigners, Greece has always had a reputation for its hospitality and warm welcome of visitors. Our hotel was filled with Europeans travelers, whom we saw daily at the breakfast buffet. My favorite gluten free breakfast selection was the thick and creamy yaourti (Greek yogurt) that I topped with honey and sometimes fruit. This is not the thin tart stuff we know in the U.S. Hard-boiled eggs were also available, which I ate with gluten free bread I unnecessary brought from home.
Even without a known celiac population, the organic food store in the heart of town carried gluten free corn bread, pure corn flakes, brown rice cakes, corn cakes, wonderfully tasty chocolate covered rice cakes, gluten free crackers, rice pasta, and rice sticks from China. The shop is part of a chain that has stores on the mainland and several islands, including Mykonos and Santorini - the next desinations on our journey through Greece. (June 2006).
Story continued on next post: A Return to Greece - Island-Hopping Style

Helpful Information
Fantasy Travel
8, Xenofontos Str. (Syntagma Sq.)
105 57 Athens, Greece
http://www.fantasy.gr/

Ino Village Hotel
Samion Agoniston 69
Kalami, Samos-Samou, TK 83110 Greece
http://www.inovillage.gr/

Daily Excursions to Turkey, including ferry, transportation, and tour of Ephesus, costs 47 Euro per person (plus10 Euro port fee). Contact: ITSA Travel, http://www.itsatravel.com/.

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