A Detour to Greece

A secret walkway down to a rocky beach

A secret walkway down to a rocky beach

One of the benefits of serving in the Peace Corps is being able to explore places that you might otherwise never have had the opportunity to visit. Prior to moving to Macedonia, the extent of my international travels included a trip to Vancouver, BC and a short study abroad experience in Florence, Italy.  Due to Macedonia’s location, it is (relatively) easy to travel to neighboring countries over the weekend.  This still boggles my mind.  The ease with which my Washington, DC friends and I would plan weekend camping trips in the Shenandoah or Dolly Sods in WV is the same way that my fellow volunteers and I now plan trips to Albania or Kosovo. Actually, it is perhaps even easier as I am not driving my old car, which constantly threatened to deteriorate or spontaneously combust at the slightest provocation – such as steep hills or winding roads.

Last week, one of my friends and I took a bus from Skopje (the capital of Macedonia) to Thessaloniki, Greece.  From there, we caught another bus to the transfer bus station for Halkidiki, which contains the “three fingers”.  My impression is that the first finger, Kassandra, is known as the “party” finger; the middle finger (ahem), Sithonia, is the quieter one known for its natural beauty; the third finger, Athos, is home to a large monastic community in the southern portion, with some towns sprinkled to the north.  We decided to stay on Sithonia in Neos Marmaras, a quiet, family-friendly town located on the western portion of Sithonia.  It should be noted that we did not realize that we would be staying in an area primarily frequented by families on vacation – nothing against vacationing families, but we did appear as anomalies (twenty-something, single women literally floating in a sea of small children and their parents).  I was also struck by the fact that most of the tourists appeared to be from the Balkans – I thought that I heard a good amount of Macedonian and Serbian spoken.

The beautiful sea

The beautiful sea

We were interested in traveling to Mt. Athos to visit the oldest surviving monastic community in the world, one which is a self-governing republic.  After a bit of research, we quickly realized that this would be impossible.  Women are not permitted to visit the monasteries, and there are very strict rules and procedures governing the admittance of male visitors.  For those that are permitted to visit, it seems that they are granted a window into a world that is tied to traditions and an ascetic lifestyle that lie beyond the reach (and perhaps comprehension) of those of us who live in the modern world.

On the beach

On the beach

We enjoyed four days of lazy mornings, days spent on the beach and swimming in the sea (yes, the water is that crystal clear), and evenings spent strolling through town and partaking in delicious Greek food and wine.  We came across retsina wine – I will be honest and say that I did not like it the first time that I tried it. However, after learning from one of our waiters the unique ingredient that contributes to the wine’s flavor (retsina is a white wine made with pine resin), I found myself appreciating the wine more.

As we spent most of our time at the beach, unplugged from the rest of the world, we would not have known about the many momentous events occurring around the world had I not idly turned on the TV one day.  We learned that the U.S. Supreme Court had legalized gay marriage, and also learned of the terrorist attack in Tunisia – an attack that took place at a beach that looked very similar to the one that we were visiting.  It was a surreal combination of news, one an example of a tremendous step forward in recognizing the human right to formalize an expression of love – the other demonstrating a calculated and intentional extinguishment of innocent human life. It did not escape me that only geography separated us from those who were attacked in Tunisia, and it felt strange to be following a pattern that the victims of the attack had likely expected to follow – to relax on the beach, to go for an evening stroll, to enjoy a meal with friends or family.  My heart goes out to the victims,their families and friends.

On Saturday, the day that we left Greece, we saw long lines trailing outside of every ATM. Unintentionally, we happened to visit Greece immediately prior to the expiration of the bailout program that the country has been relying on.  Upon doing a bit of research, I realized that many Greeks were attempting to withdraw as much funds as possible prior to limits being placed upon the amount of withdrawals (as of Sunday, ATM withdrawals were limited to 60 euro a day).  The prime minister of Greece is currently in tense discussions with the European Central Bank, and Macedonia has asked its banks to pull money out of Greece.

European Vacation!

Hungarian Parliament

Hungarian Parliament

 

Unlike the squirm-inducing hilarity of the Griswalds European Vacation, my European vacation was like an amazing dream. Fate manifested a sign of things to come in the form of not one but two “good luck” bird dropping  incidents on the date of my departure, August 9th.  Lucky me!  Seriously.

I shall have to plant myself under heavily bird-trafficked areas in the future, if I owe the loveliness of my vacation to these two “gifts.”  I will not go into too much detail, except to say that I had a wonderful time with three of my best friends in some pretty awesome places – Budapest – where we danced with a caveman to the Bloody Beetroots, a show which did, as our new French acquaintances promised, “rip our faces off”; bathed in the largest medicinal bath in Europe (and got our mint sauna on); and joined the other young tourists to explore the city’s ruin bars – Vienna – where we walked off our significant sacher tort, coffee, dumpling and beer intake while enjoying the beautiful architecture and history of Austria’s capital – and, Prague – a city filled with interesting, ancient urban legends of a golem, a pagan fire that could not be extinguished, a princess prophet, statues coming life to catch those seeking to steal from the church (I am kicking myself for not buying a book highlighting these, plus 74 other fascinating tales, at the Strahov Monastery); and a city that is also home to the beautiful astronomical clock and is the capital of a country with one of the largest atheist populations in Europe (and perhaps the world, depending on your source).

These are three amazing cities, and I do them a disservice with my short descriptions.  I hope that you will have the opportunity to visit them yourself, or that you have already had the chance to do so.

I also visited Italy to attend the wedding of my friend, Bridie, to her Italian fiancee (now husband), Francesco.  They are a lovely couple, and the wedding could not have been more beautiful.  I was fortunate to have chosen, rather randomly *ok, actually because the hotel was a bit cheaper than others and I have a small budget* to stay in Certaldo Alto, which is the ancient part of the city.  It was well worth the extra walk or funicular ride, for the amazing view and ambiance.  The ceremony was held in a church dating from the 12th century (imagine how many people have been married in it!) in the Tuscan countryside.  The officiating priest was excellent and warm, and managed to maintain a perfect balance of seriousness with humor for the ceremony.  I also loved the sprinkling of references to philosophy and Bruce Springsteen he added to his comments.  I also had the opportunity to spend time with some of Bridie’s co-workers (old and new) and friends from Northside Social, one of my favorite coffee shops, which is also home / place of work for some very awesome people.

I also ran around Rome a bit on my own, picking up new friends as I went, and also getting my first Dottor Fish pedicure.  Wow.  What an amazing trip.