…And Odysseus Was Recognized By His Faithful Hound

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For me, leaving for a trip and returning from a trip are two completely different experiences. On the flight to my destination, there’s excitement, anticipation, planning and hope that my days will be well spent. I don’t mind the labors of the journey because I know that relaxation and exploration are in my future. The second that my trip is over and I start the long journey back, I feel a mix of sadness and weariness over the return flight, but above all, there’s a single fixed thought in my brain: HOME.
For the hermit-types like myself, home is the place where batteries are recharged and peace is found. Plus, I miss our furry kiddos like crazy and even though I’m not supposed to admit it, there’s one in particular that Parker and I both were looking forward to seeing.
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When I walked into the house and turned to look for Payton, he meowed and leaped at me…well, as much of leap as my bionic kitty can manage with his bulk. As I sat down and stroked his soft grey fur and listened to him purr, a single quote entered my mind.
…and Odysseus was recognized by his faithful hound.
I’m not sure if Homer would have included the bond between human and dog to extend to one-eyed bionic cats, but I understood his sentiments exactly. Payton would have recognized me and waited for me regardless of how long I was away. And since we were together again, all was well in the universe.
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Of course, not to be outdone, Parker wanted to share his toys with Payton (as you can see in the pictures above). Payton, always the good sport, sat and happily dealt with the ministrations. His people were back and for that, he would happily serve as a prop for a game of cars and blocks.

Things I’ll Miss…

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Today, we’re flying home on a jet plane across the Atlantic. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I was ready to go home, but leaving here is always bittersweet. Among the things I’ll miss are beautiful ocean views everywhere I look and a sense that things are today exactly as they were two hundred years ago.

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I’ll miss walking out and picking whatever herbs I need. Dill, lavender, oregano, mint and chamomile (which Parker is picking below) grow wild all over the mountain and it’s just a matter of knowing where to look.
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I’ll miss the knowledge that I had my parents strong and whole for another year. I’m all too aware that mortality and vitality are precious things.
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I’ll miss staying on the balcony long after the sunset, not wanting to miss the last vestiges of color as the day gives way to night.
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I’ll miss the goats and sheep that roam in herds and the shepherds that follow them. The sound of the bells around their necks is as part of the landscape as the chirping of the birds and the rustling leaves.
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But I know that God willing, there will always be next year. The next 11 months will pass by in a blur of classes, research and family, but when I’m standing on the deck of the ferry boat next May, it will be as if I’d never left. That’s the magic of this place.

It’s Raining…Apricots

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About six years ago, my dad planted three fruit trees on the lower terrace of our house – cherry, pear and apricot. They were tiny little things barely taller than my knee, but they were planted with the promise to one day bear all of the fruit that we would need. This year, the apricot tree delivered. Big time.

Every morning, Parker and my dad take the stairs down to the terrace to see how many apricots had ripened the night before. Thus far, they’ve come back every day with a bag like this.
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Their daily ritual then involves washing and picking the ripest ones. For whatever reason, I’ve earned the privilege of getting first pick. Perhaps it’s because I’ll do the appropriate amount of ooh-ing and aah-ing over the deliciousness of the fruit. Don’t get me wrong, my exclamations are entirely warranted. I have never had better tasting fruit in my life.
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It is with a ridiculous amount of anticipation that I return home on Monday to our house in North Carolina. We call it the Orchard House for good reason – pretty soon, there will be blueberries, blackberries, kiwi, cherries and pears a plenty in our orchard. For an urbanite such as myself, the thought of living off of the land seems like a dream instead of a possible reality.
Now, I just need the Irishman to take up fishing and buy a couple of chickens and we’ll be well on our way towards grocery store liberation.

The Road Less Traveled

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As a general rule, my driving is usually limited to the island. That’s primarily due to the fact that Greeks on the mainland (well, most Europeans) consider the lines in the road simply a recommendation. Dotted lines, double lines, curves with zero visibility…all places where passing is completely acceptable. Driving in the shoulder? Sure, why not. You see, as an uptight American driver, it drives me crazy when people drive on the line or expect me to take a 120 degree curve at 50 miles an hour in our top-heavy Jeep.

But I digress. Last week, we opted to drive across the country instead of flying because there are so many places that I’d never been in all of my years here. That meant that in order to see the Greek countryside, I was going to have to take my turn holding my own against the Greek drivers. So, I popped a couple of tranquilizers and gave it a whirl. Just kidding, folks. Truly, once I got over my own cultural shortcomings and stopped being shocked at daredevil driving maneuver, it was a beautiful drive, especially on the new EU funded highways.

First, we passed Mount Olympus. Yes, THE Mount Olympus, from where the ancient Gods ruled the mortal world. I heard that you can hike up to the peak and that is definitely on my future to-do list. Any takers?

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There were so many gorgeous vistas that I couldn’t stop to photograph (since we were basically on a cliff), but when there was space to pull over, I would stop and snap the picture like this one of the River Venetiko.

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Then, I would hop back in the car and off we’d go. A couple of times, we would take a detour to a place that my parents had heard of, but never been to, like the village of Kastoria.

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The town of 80,000 inhabitants circles two natural lakes, a rarity in Greece. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant on the water, but we didn’t stay long since it looked like rain was on the horizon. Boy was it ever. An hour after we left, we drove right into a hailstorm.

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What’s worse, the cars in front of us sped to an overpass to protect their cars…and blocked the road. Yes, you read that correctly. They lined their cars up side by side from guard rail to shoulder and no one could pass. We had to wait in the road (getting pelted with grape-sized hail) until enough people behind us laid on their horns and bullied the others into clearing a lane to pass. The hail was so loud that Parker took cover underneath my scarf. Poor little guy.

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Eventually though, we cleared the storm and made our way home several hours later. Our poor Jeep has dozens of small dents on the hood. Scars from taking the road less traveled.

Meteora: The Gates of Heaven

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Almost a decade ago, I took a road trip to the Grand Canyon. Even though I had seen pictures of the deep valleys, I wasn’t prepared for the awe-inspiring site. As I caught my first glimpse of the vast expanse, I had a visceral reaction feeling simultaneously insignificant in the grand scheme of things, yet comfortable that humanity fit into the natural order of the world. I tell you this because the same thing happened upon my first sighting of Meteora, which is almost a Grand Canyon in reverse.

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Huge sandstone pillars shoot up thousands of feet into the sky. They are so immense and beautiful that it doesn’t seem real.

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Apparently, 30 million years ago, the plains of Thessaly (where Meteora is located) were submerged under the ocean and these rock formations were created.

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It’s no wonder that the first inhabitants of the Meteora were hermits who chose to live in natural caves in the rocks in order to be closer to God.

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I can completely see the appeal. If there’s a holier place on this earth, I have yet to experience it. The calm magnificence of the rock formation is almost palpable.

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The first monasteries were built in the 11th century and at the height of the monastic community (16th century), there were 24 monasteries. Currently, there are only 6 still in operation, but these are still quite impressive.

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We drove up the mountainside, but prior to access via paved road (in the last 30 years or so), the only way to get to the monasteries was by walking up and then using retractable ladders. With the violent history of the region (with invasions by Franks, Serbs, Catalans, Albanians and Turks), the inaccessible nature of the monasteries was practical. There was this entertaining depiction of a German soldier were plunged to his death as he tried to climb the rocks in order to place a Nazi flag at the top. It was, naturally, divine intervention.

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We personally visited two of the monasteries currently in operation. The first was Grand Meteoron, which is accessible by 200 or so steps.

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As you can see by the sign, women could only be admitted if they were in dresses with shoulders covered (hence my scarf in all of the pictures). I didn’t see any monks during our visit, but there were a number of private areas where visitors could not go.

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There were also a number of Holy cats. They seemed well fed and well cared for (not the norm here) and there was even a fat, little 3-legged kitty who clearly got extra helpings at the dinner table.

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Even though the monks currently have a more modern kitchen, they kept the only one in its original condition (very enterprising of the church). They also had the old cellar and other previously functional rooms necessary for the day to day operations.

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The vistas were breathtaking.

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The next monastery we visited was Saint Stephen.

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This monastery did not require a cardio workout to get in. You just had to cross a small bridge over a deep (1000 foot) ravine.

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I was surprised to see that this was a women’s monastery (or so I’m assuming by all of the nuns that I saw). In fact, it actually looked more feminine. There were a number of lovely gardens and there were feminine details, such as lace curtains. Grand Meteron felt much more utilitarian.

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After visiting the Meteora, this site has been bumped up to the top of my “must see” list of things in Greece. Perhaps it’s that I’ve been to the Parthenon dozens of times, but to me, these monasteries were far more impressive.

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If I didn’t have to be a nun to gain entrance (they would surely kick me out for my language alone in the first 24 hours), I could certainly live there. The setting suits my hermit-like nature to a “T.”

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Thermopyles: The Battle of 300

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I would like to state for the record that visiting the battlegrounds of Thermopyles might just be one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. It’s difficult not to be impressed by the magnitude of what occurred on that spot. It’s also difficult to not constantly think of scenes from the movie 300. I fought an overwhelming urge to scream “THIS…IS…SPARTA!” Of course, there wouldn’t have been anyone there to hear me other than Parker and my parents and since they already know I’m slightly eccentric, they probably wouldn’t have thought anything of it.
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Contrary to the landscape of 480 B.C., the current location of Thermopyles is nowhere near the ocean. With the shifting landscape, the sea is now miles away and the battlegrounds are located immediately next to a busy highway. The impassable mountains, however, as exactly as they were at the time of the battle.
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There is an impressive (and sizeable) monument to King Leonidas, the Spartan king who lead the 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians against the invading Persian army. They decided to fight for their freedom instead of submit to foreign rule. I get goosebumps every time I think about the guts it took to make that decision.
Under the statue of King Leonidas are these famous words (translation to follow):
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You see, when the Persians asked the defenders to give up their arms, Leonidas responded with the phrase, “Come and get them!” (More goosebumps.)

On the hill of Kolonos (behind where the 3-day fight occurred), an epitaph was placed to honor the dead soldiers that states, “You stranger, go to Lakedaimonians and let them know that we lie here, faithful to our laws.”

My hero worship certainly explains why for years, I was desperate to trace my lineage back to the warriors or Sparta instead of the intellectuals of Troy. I’m sorry ancestors, but it’s true. If you overlook the small little detail of mass genocide (they methodically bred out the weak genes), the Spartans were seriously cool.

Parthenon

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This morning, I dragged my dear parents out of bed prior to 7am to make the drive into downtown Athens before we left town. I was determined to beat the 98 degree weather and get a picture of Parker at the Acropolis. They whined, they argued, they tried to weasel out of making the stressful drive and the hot 1000 step trek up to the summit, but I prevailed. In short, we went. We climbed. We dehydrated. Mission accomplished. Here’s the evidence from the trip and you know what? These pictures make it all worth the effort.
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(The new Acropolis Museum as seen from the Parthenon)
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(The urban mass of Athens sprawled behind Parker)

And look! Sensible shoes. I tell ya, I get brighter by the day.
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