Tavli – aka, backgammon

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One of my favourite games ever is a game called “tavli” in Greece, best known as “backgammon” in English-speaking countries. The origins of the game are a little unclear – but it is one of the oldest board games, and its predecessors seem to have been invented around 3000 – 3500 BC! These days it is fairly popular in Greece, but nowhere near as popular as in Turkey. I still haven’t been to Iran, where it is likely to have originated from!

Now Dave has been here for four months now, and we never really had a chance to sit down and play. But since summer has finally arrived, I thought it was about time to show him one of my favourite summer pastimes (apart from snorkelling).

So there we were, sitting in an outdoors cafe in Athens, playing “portes” (which is the one of the four games played widely in Greece, and it’s the variation that you can find online).

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I must say, he proved to be a competitive opponent, and we played for a couple of hours.

Now, I’ve been playing this game since I was about 4 or 5. So, 36 years of experience couldn’t be matched, and I won my first drinks this year!

…there will be more to come, as it’s a great game to play on Greek beaches πŸ™‚

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My first “real” tour outside Athens… or, how I lost two kilos in a day

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As many of you know, in 2012, after coming back from my long trip in Latin America, I decided to work in the tourism industry. I realised that my greatest passion is showing people “the Real Greece”. I like showing visitors what I like (and some things I don’t necessarily like) about “the real” Athens and Greece. The whole concept is to make people feel like locals for a few hours, or a few days – though it’s probably impossible to avoid all tourist sights and activities.

So I got involved with a few alternative tourism companies, like Alternative Tours of Athens, Dopios and, most importantly, Circle Adventures – we’ve done about 25 tours with the latter and going strong! I also launched “Real Greek Experiences” to offer travel advice and walking tours in Athens – website coming soon.

I’ve done many walking tours in Athens now – it’s something I will never get tired of, as there is always something new to see, and I simply can’t get enough of people’s reactions when I help them discover the hidden corners of Athens or a dish / dessert / drink that they wouldn’t know how to ask for. However, I hadn’t really thought of organising tours outside Athens – other than with / for my lovely English boyfriend.

But, a few days ago, I had an offer from another company to take three people to the Peloponnese. Rather short notice. Including archaeological sites. And lots of driving. And a rather tight schedule to places I hadn’t been for years.

Yikes.

My lovely English boyfriend is not only a writer and a blogger, but also an driver (an exceptional one, too). So it was just natural to ask him to drive us there – and as he loves a challenge, and a road trip, he didn’t hesitate one minute. It was also natural (well, half-natural) to ask my father to lend us his BMW, though I hesitated a lot before asking – that was something I had never done before!

But there you go, if you don’t ask you don’t get, and we did. Besides, renting a car proved to be a lot more difficult than we had originally thought – lots of tricks and hidden costs there!

So there we were, driving the BMW on our way to collect the clients, and needless to say I was nervous. When were the temples in Olympia built? Where did we have to turn after Tripoli? Who had designed that temple whose name I couldn’t remember? Having a GPS that doesn’t work in English wasn’t exactly helpful either (my lovely English boyfriend hasn’t managed to grasp our complicated language quite yet).

Tell you what, these were the loveliest people ever. An American couple from New Orleans, and one of their four daughters, with plenty of interesting stories to share and lots of questions about Greece! Within 10 minutes I had forgotten all my initial stress, and was enjoying the ride!

After driving around a lovely highway, a scenic route by the coast, and among several village houses, we arrived at the Ancient Site of Olympia. For those who like ancient Greece and are interested in archaeology, this site is an absolute must-see. Lots of history, amazing landscape, and rather few tourists…

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On the next day we started off by stopping on the beach at Kyparissia area. This, in my opinion, is one of the loveliest beaches in Greece, and possibly the longest one. There was noone else there, and I would have loved to go for a swim – but I’ll have to wait for July, when we’ll be back in the Peloponnese!

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Then we went on to visit a winery. This was not just ANY winery, it was Kalogris winery, in Kapsias village near Tripoli. It’s a family winery run by super-friendly people – they make about 11.000 bottles of wine per year, and two of them are named after the daughters, Kiriaki and Tatiani! We got to taste everything, while listening to rock’n’roll music – needless to say we all bought a few bottles, which we had to cram under our seats as the boot was completely full πŸ™‚ Obviously the driver had to pass on that one – so I owe him one…

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Our next stop was the first capital of modern Greece, Nafplion. Arguably the prettiest city in Greece (my other preferences include Ioannina and Chania), but also one of the most touristy ones, Nafplio sits on the coast and it’s a mix of beautifully restored houses, elegant touristy shops, blue sea and nice little cafes. Given the Venetians stayed here for a while, it also has a somewhat italian atmosphere. And lovely Italian icecream! We also found a weird church where, for the first time in my life, I saw an icon of the Holy Spirit (a dove) as well as an icon of God…

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Our last stop was the Ancient site of Corinth. After Olympia, I found this one to be less elegant and less interesting, but it might have been because I was getting tired. I did, however, manage to get a pic with my lovely boyfriend, who I guess I can call Dave from now on πŸ˜›

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Note: I’m standing on my toes. Those northern Europeans are tall!

After visiting Corinth, it was time to go back home. But first we had to take our lovely guests to their hotel in the middle of nowhere, and then return the car to my parents, while trying to squeeze our stories from two days in about a half hour as we were both knackered.

Weight next day: 49.9 kilos! All that stress and running around came with a price! Time for more ice-cream!

I loved this trip, and I can’t wait for more to come!

Couchsurfing – the end of an era?

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I know the posts on this blog are getting more and more irrelevant to each other – that’s the good thing about having a personal blog, you can write whatever you want!

So today I would like to write my collected thoughts on my favourite hospitality exchange website – couchsurfing or CS.

I joined CS in early 2006, a few months after coming back from the UK, and I got hooked very quickly. This website offered me many things at once: the chance to travel, the chance to meet foreigners (something I had liked since childhood), the chance to meet like-minded people in my own city, and the chance to organise various events.

Since 2006, I opened my home to many, many people (I guess it might be around 200… don’t know!), I stayed with over 100 people in Greece and abroad and I organised, or helped organise, several meetings / parties / events / picnics / weekends away etc. I became a so-called “Ambassador” and I felt like I had a lot of responsibilities, and, let’s be honest about it, that I actually had an important role somewhere. CS became a big part of my life, and quite often (= almost always) I planned the rest of my life around it. My close friends who were not on CS complained that they didn’t see me very often. Let alone my family.

In 2012, I took a year off to go to Latin America – I’ve written a few things about it here – and I used CS extensively to stay with people, meet people, plan short trips, ask for information. I travelled for a few months, and when I eventually came back to Greece I discovered, to my surprise, that I wasn’t so interested in hosting people anymore. I was not even interested in meeting people, or organising meetings… What had changed?

Had I actually grown up or grown tired of meeting too many people? Well – several months on the road can offer you a new perspective of life, but I doubt that one year of travelling can change your perception so drastically, especially if your life afterwards is essentially the same routine as before. And I don’t think that “a year older” is too significant.

Was it that the website had changed a lot? This, to me, was a huge part of the reason why I wasn’t (and still am not) too eager to use it. On top of the fact that CS is a company these days, and it’s still thriving on volunteers’ work. However, hosting and meeting people per se has nothing to do with a website interface change.

Was it that the new “generation” of Couchsurfers was different? This is only an assumption, given I don’t really meet many CSers these days, but I tend to think that people these days use CS more as a way to spend no money and less as a way to connect with other people. I do hope I’m wrong here! I won’t go into whether people use CS for dating / hooking up – I guess all of us did at some point, even if it wasn’t our original intention. I do hope, however, that hooking up is not everyone’s main interest these days…

Was it that I joined AirBnB? Actually I don’t think so, as I’ve turned down dozens of AirBnB people, and only hosted four! I found hosting CSers a lot more relaxing, and a lot more interesting, as some AirBnB people just want a room and minimal interaction, and that’s really not my style!

Was it that I had decided that I want to make a living by offering alternative tours to foreigners? This is something I started doing in 2013, and I’m now offering several alternative tours of Athens with a few different companies. I wouldn’t say that “business is thriving”, but I was never too business-minded anyway. In fact I find it more pleasant to show people around for free, than to have paying clients, as the latter will probably have expectations, and it can be somehow stressful. But it’s probably affected my willingness to show people around.

Going one level deeper…

Thinking about my life a few years back, I am realising that the time spent with CSers was, to a certain extent, filling up my free time – perhaps it was even occupying my mind in ways that I couldn’t really see at the time. The more you do in your everyday life, the less time you have to think (this is probably why my friends and colleagues who have full-time jobs and children seem to have less time for abstract, seemingly pointless conversations). I’m not saying everyone is like that, and I’m not saying I’m having abstract, seemingly pointless conversations everyday – but it’s something I enjoy doing, and it needs time to think.

Getting to the point now, those of you who have been to my flat, or have stayed with me, might recognise this little tree below…

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This is a Christmas tree made of post-it notes, that I made one Christmas a few years ago, when I was too lazy to decorate a proper tree. All post-it notes were blank to begin with… and then I had this idea of asking people to write a little note before they left my home.

So, on my door, I’ve got messages from people who we are in touch with very often (my good friends Mutsumi and Duygu being two of them!), messages from people I’ve lost touch with but would love to see again, messages from people that I don’t even remember anymore (sorry!), and perhaps a couple of messages from people that I really, really don’t want to talk to anymore πŸ˜›

So this tree has been on my door for ages.

And now it’s time for it to go, and leave space for new things, because the longer you think about and live in the past, the harder it becomes to move forward πŸ™‚

Plus, I am not living on my own anymore, and, to paraphrase a famous phrase, different times call for different measures – (those ancient Greeks are everywhere)!

I’m not saying my boyfriend and I will never host again. Time will tell. But I prefer to spend my time with people I know already, and get to know them better. And the new “tree” on our door will look a little different!

Graffiti in Athens

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It’s about time I wrote something about graffiti in Athens. There have been so many cool articles about it already, that it seems kind of redundant – yet, I felt like writing something about a new and very controversial graffiti which appeared on the Polytechnic University recently.

Just to give a brief background, the graffiti scene in Athens has become bigger and bigger in recent years. As I have met a few graffiti artists in Athens, I feel a little closer to the whole scene. But it’s not like graffiti is a new thing – far from it. There was graffiti in ancient times, and apparently graffiti was used in the 1930s to convey secret messages. After all, the word “graffiti” comes from a Greek word…

In my personal opinion, modern graffiti is a great addition to urbanscapes. It adds colour to the city, and gives an artistic touch. That said, not all graffiti is nice, and not all graffiti artists are talented. I personally dislike the so called “tagging”, irrespective of the message it conveys – obviously some mottos are clever, but still I don’t like what I personally classify as a smudge. Besides, much of the tagging is all about the person’s name, and I personally can’t see how this could convey an important message.

When the news broke out about a huge graffiti that covered the Polytechnic University, I knew that was something I had to go and see. Before going, I read a few articles with different people’s opinions – some people liked it, some people hated it.

And there I was, standing in front of it. Woah!

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My first reactions – big, ugly, a “smudge”, “how the hell did they make it”.

My later reactions… Well – it’s not like I am an expert on social movement media. BUT, although I can clearly see the signification of such a massive graffiti on one of the most important buildings of Athens’ modern history (we are talking about the Polytechnic University after all!), I disagree with this particular building being “vandalised”. Plus, this “smudge” would have looked much better on a different type of building – like a word-down building falling to pieces. But then… the “message” wouldn’t have been the same.

For some academic views, you can check out pages 408-412 of this report πŸ™‚

Time flies…

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…when you are having a good time.

So, my fella has been in Athens for a month now… wow!

Within this month I have tried a lot of new cooking, especially using new “things” (whose names I don’t necessarily know).

I have also managed to show him a bit of Athens (but the weather has been bad, on the whole, which has been our excuse for lazying around).

We still don’t have a picture together – that should be amended soon πŸ˜›

We are never too old…

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A couple of weeks have passed since my English boyfriend moved in. Things are going surprisingly well, all things considered (my OCD, the fact that Greeks and English have different cleaning standards, the fact that I’ve never lived with someone before apart from flatmates, the fact that he wants a cuppa every morning etc etc).

So we (well, I) thought it would be nice to go meet my parents, who were obviously quite eager to meet him.

Now my parents have only met two of my boyfriends, and the last one was around 2002, so it’s not something I do everyday – more like once every decade. And it’s a thing that makes me slightly nervous – and obviously now there was an extra difficulty, my bloke doesn’t speak Greek (despite my huuuuuuuuuge efforts) and I don’t think he will in the foreseeable future (though his accent is pretty good).

We watched “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” before we went to visit – not that my family is a lot like that, but still I thought it would be a funny movie to watch together. In retrospect, we should really have watched it afterwards. Oh well.

So there we were, on our way to “Meet the Parents”, wondering if it was too late to turn around and pretend we were sick, we had a flat tire or something similar. But in the end we got there.

To be honest, it’s been a while since I had seen mom and dad so happy. I guess all parents want their children to be happy, which is fair enough and quite cool.

So we had some green tea, to begin with, and then some of my mom’s tiropita and spanakopita – you can’t really go to a Greek parents’ house and not leave with a full stomach. That was followed by some red wine… and lots of talking about nothing and everything – weather, family, sports, travelling and so on.

But that was not all.

As some of you know, I have a grandma. She will be 99 next month, and is a little blind and a little deaf (but her mind still works fine). So I asked her if she wanted to meet him. She hesitated at first, as “she wasn’t dressed up”… but in the end curiosity won, and she decided she wants to meet him.

So I thought… why don’t I teach her how to say “γΡια σου” (= hello) in English.

She initially found the thought amusing, but she gave it a go. After three or four efforts, she got it right. “Hello” – with a Greek accent, but it was absolutely crystal clear.

So they met, and she was smiling the whole time.

And then, when we were leaving, she asked me how to say “αντίο (goodbye) πŸ™‚

We are never too old to try new things!

P.S. Meeting the parents was not too bad after all πŸ™‚

New year, new decisions, new life

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Hello everyone (I believe there are about two people, at least, who still follow my blog)…

If you are reading this you probably know who I am, and a little bit about me. You know that I used to live in London, and you know that I used to be very active on a hospitality exchange website called Couchsurfing (if you’ve never heard about it, you probably come from some faraway planet), and that all this interaction with foreigners and travellers made me want to travel the world. Which I did for a few years, planning short trips to (mostly) European countries, and meeting new interesting people, tasting lots of nice food, and “expanding my horizons”, as they say.

In July 2011 I met a guy, from Brazil. Yes, a guy. I’ve never written anything about him in public, and I won’t really start now, but well, it was someone I met (on couchsurfing, not surprisingly), hosted and decided to meet again. He said he wanted to meet again, so we started thinking about it a little more seriously.

Now Brazil had always been extremely high on my list of places to go to, and – in retrospect – that guy gave me an excuse to actually take the decision. So I asked for a year off work, I gave my home keys to my cousin, I did all the necessary vaccinations, I bought a book about Latin America, I booked a return ticket to / from Rio De Janeiro… and then, three weeks before I was planning to fly to Brazil, the guy announced that he was no longer in love and didn’t think this would work.

Panic. Disappointment. That feeling of emptiness. Friends (especially Spyros) advising me to stay at home and travel at some other point.

Yet… I already had the tickets and the year off work, and was sort of prepared for that… so, I thought to myself, it’s now or never.

When I arrived in Brazil I was in the worst possible mood. The fear of the unknown, the feeling of rejection, the heart-broken situation, the idea of being so far away from home, all these were rather scary – though, on the upside, I was getting to go to new places, meet new people etc etc. There were lovely moments, but also shitty moments. Those five months in Latin America, followed by a couple of months in Europe, were really strange times. Apart from new places, new foods and new languages, I also discovered new emotions, new limits and new ways to push the limits. I discovered new reactions and new ways of thinking – and all that, at the not-so-tender age of 38…

When I started this blog, it was meant to be strictly a travel blog – and it worked, for a couple of months. I managed to write a lot about my three months in Brazil, in December 2011 – February 2012. Then I went on to Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Cuba… and there were always heaps of other things to do – like trying to buy a new camera in Argentina (not as straightforward as you might think), trying to get rid of the altitude sickness in Bolivia, trying to decide where to go next while in Peru, and trying to find an internet connection (not a decent one, just ANY one) in Cuba. That was all in spring 2012. In those five months I met hundreds of people, made a few new friends, saw many lovely places, and, above all, concluded once again that the world is not too bad after all, and not everyone’s out there to get us. People are people, and in my experience they will want to help you, talk to you, get to know you (ok in some countries they may want to get to know you a little better), but overall they are not out there to harm you.

And then I went to London for a while. I spent a month squatting my good friend Pete’s floor – I don’t know what I would have done without this guy, I owe him eternal thanks, and he is welcome to Athens anytime he gets his hands on a passport – I just hope I’ll be alive then.

And then it was a couple of months in Greece – one month on Crete, where I’m going to move when I grow up, and another month just travelling around, meeting friends etc. But I realised I still had some time left until the end of my year off… so I followed a couple of Brazilian (again!) guys to the Middle East. We went to Jordan, Israel and Egypt – some great landscapes, heaps of sand and dust, lots of fun (comparing Brazilian and Middle-Eastern attitudes could fill up a whole book), and lots of disappointment, or should I say melancholy – even depression??? – upon realising that the year off would be over very soon, and that I would have to go back to work.

So there I was, on 2 January 2013 – back to work, different office, slightly different conditions, bored to death of people who couldn’t stress enough the importance of having “a job” during the crisis in Greece. While I respect that opinion (and I’m still in the same job anyway), I still thought that there has to be something more than that.

And then two things happened, which changed my life a lot.

In October 2013, a Canadian company called Circle Adventures approached me and asked me to do alternative tours of Athens for them. I jumped at the idea, and started researching possible routes and possible places to take tourists. Obviously I already had lots of experience, because of Couchsurfing and some other tours I had done in the past, but this was a much bigger thing. In the next few months, I literally woke up and went to bed with just one thing on my mind: I am a tour guide! Even part-time, but yes, I can call myself a tour-guide. Within 2014 we had about 20 tours, and we are hoping to have more in 2015.

And then… in October 2014, I organised a couple of tours for bloggers who came to Athens for the TBex conference. While the tours were interesting (if not slightly stressful) and I learnt a lot from them, the most important thing that happened there was… that I met someone. A foreigner, of course, and needless to say a traveller… but from a country I’m a little more familiar with this time. Yep, that would be England. An Engish guy, with an English accent, who likes English tea and beer (any beer, not just English beer), who can plan a few days ahead like the English do (actually he likes planning!) and who, although he hadn’t planned to move to Greece, is now happily living in Greece and discovering Athens… with me.

This is from our first day at the supermarket together. Needless to say, that was a bit of a shock for me as we were actually looking at TV screens, and everyone who knows me knows how much I hate the concept of a TV πŸ™‚

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Then again… how is it possible to cuddle watching a movie if there is no screen? This has yet to be discovered…

For all I know, this has been one of the happiest three months of my life, and I know this sounds like an exaggeration – but hey, deep down inside I’m still Greek πŸ™‚