Monday, March 14, 2022

The Night Elli Danced Again

 Elli danced one night last week. 

It was then that I knew our world was righting itself. 

We are returning to normal, real normal, not new normal.

Elli danced last week

Elli, is Elisavet Nikoloudi, who runs Elli's Restaurant in our fishing village in Greece's Peloponnese.  Everyone for miles around knows her -- and most everyone has eaten many times at her place in Agios Nikolaos. Every houseguest we've ever had has been introduced to her culinary skills early on in their visit. Most have asked to return again before their visit ended.

A Time to Dance Again

In the pre-pandemic world Elli would feature local musicians once a week and her restaurant would fill with the sound of all that makes traditional Greek dining such a magical experience: music, clapping, singing and dancing. At some point in the evening a particular song would prompt her to put down her serving tray, raise her arms, snap her fingers and start twirling around the room - to the delight of all.

Elli hasn't danced like that for a long time as result of Covid and its lockdowns and restrictions on businesses and behaviors. In fact it hasn't been very many weeks ago, that while restaurants and tavernas were again operating, they weren't even allowed to play recorded music, let alone to offer live music.  

A Time to Celebrate

But Greece, like the rest of the world, is slowly lifting restrictions. The Greek government has allowed us to quit wearing masks outdoors and when we walk inside restaurants. We've been able to sit inside for some time now, but music had been banned and masks required. 

That Time in Between Normals

Eating from Elli's during lockdown

Elli's was one of a handful of businesses that remained open for 'paketo' as take out food is called here. The government allowed businesses to provide food and drink but nothing to be consumed on premises. The photo above was taken in March 2020 - shortly after businesses were shutting down normal operations, as lockdown was introduced, and before masks were mandatory. Instead of reading her extensive menu, we would call in advance and see what Elli had cooked that day, place an order and pick it up -  it was just a bit different eating it on a seawall along the parking lot.

Our last U.S. visitors dined at the side of the sea in a parking lot

Little did we know that as lockdown got stricter, even this wouldn't be allowed. Paketos were taken home and eaten there. Gatherings of friends in private homes was also forbidden. 

We've had several sets of new expats arrive during this on-again, off-again lockdown period. Sometimes for a month or so we'd have a few freedoms and then they'd tighten up again.  On the occasions we were allowed to get together, we found ourselves sounding like old-timers as we reminisced about how it 'used to be' before Covid. 

'There was life and music and happiness in this rural corner of the Messinias region. . .', we begin, as we'd tell stories of:

Aris and Dora masked up Easter Saturday night

Aris and Dora Christeas hosting a full moon party at their Vesuvius Restaurant each month on the night the moon was its fullest. Tables were full of diners waiting for the globe to rise over the Taygetos Mountain range. There were fireworks, food and dancing into the night.

Vesuvius Restaurant in Agios Nikolaos

For a time they resumed the parties last year. We are certain they will be featured again when the eatery opens for this season. 

Julia and Bill hosting events again at Hades

Julia and Bill, down the street at Hades Bar, hosted special events that filled the tavernas interior and outside patio. Special dinners, art festivals and fund-raisers.  And then with Covid restrictions, it became one of the few places serving food and drink 'paketos'. 

Easter dinner came from Hades during our Covid year

An annual fundraiser for The Marti Fund, a spay and neuter program for homeless animals, took place at Hades each spring - with the exception of  'that Covid year'. The event is back this year on April 16th promising to be even bigger and better. 

Gregg (right) gives a Greek coffee lesson to our U.S. friend Greg

Freda, Gregg and Kathy at Gregg's Plateia held special buffet dinners each week as well as being the meeting place for the once-a-week gathering of talented ladies called the 'Stitch n Bitch' handiwork group. And they filled their place on other days with Scrabble competitions.  
Gregg's during Covid lockdown

They were shuttered during the long Covid restrictions but have reopened with gusto and special meal nights have already returned to their schedule.

The Real Normal

Pantazi Beach soon will welcome tourists again

We in the expat community are back to planning for visitors and houseguests. Pre-departure testing is no longer required for vaccinated travelers.  The Passenger Locator Form is soon to be history. The first non-stop Delta Airlines flight from the United States for the season arrived this last week in Athens. Two flights from Germany arrived in Kalamata. 

Restaurants are opening early

Restaurants are opening up earlier than their usual Easter Weekend kickoff this year. The number of caravans and over-landers (RV's to those of us from the States) continue to arrive, stay and depart with regularity.

The Greek tourist authorities just announced that Royal Caribbean cruise line will be running winter cruises from Athens beginning in 2023 - the anticipated itinerary being ports of call in Cyprus, Israel and Egypt.

The Elephant in the Room

The elephant's name is Ukraine. Since my last post, A War in the Neighborhood, I have been asked by readers about whether we feel safe being in Greece.  

I can assure you that life is going on as normal here - in fact, better than it has been for the last two years.  Costs are high, but they were higher than normal before the conflict began and can't be blamed entirely on the unrest. Gas in the village hit $9.75US a gallon this week, food prices have been higher than normal since long before the conflict in Ukraine.  

Back to Bologna . . .soon?

We are not cowering in our homes fearing fallout (both literally and figuratively) from the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.  Speaking for the two of us, we are not at all thinking of packing up and leaving. . .well, except for another trip to Italy that we plan to take in the near future.

But each traveler must determine their own level of comfort. Afar Magazine ran an excellent article this last week on the topic of the safety of travel in Europe - it wasn't a Pollyanna sugar-coated enticement to travel  nor was it Chicken Little screaming that the sky was falling.  I encourage you to follow the link and read the article if you have concerns about travel to Europe.  

Again we thank you for the time you've spent with us today. Safe travels to you and yours whereever they take you~ Hope you will join us soon for another travel tale. . .bring some friends with you!

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Saturday, March 5, 2022

A War in the Neighborhood

 'It isn't in our backyard, but it is certainly in the neighborhood,' wrote a fellow expat on Facebook of the invasion of Ukraine. He and his wife live in Prague, capitol of the Czech Republic. We used to live a few miles apart back in the Seattle suburbs.

Digital Art from Ukraine (details below)

Another expat friend and former Kirkland resident, now living in Switzerland, observed that being where we all find ourselves now 'gives us a different perspective than when we were 'home' [in the States]'. 

A different perspective of war from this side of the sea

They both nailed it.  We definitely have a different perspective than if we were all still some 8,000 miles away. Actually, it is amazing that we have so many expat friends from our old stomping ground on this side of the sea. Each of us willingly made the choice to leave all that we knew for the unknowns of a new country and culture. This week I think, "What a luxury, that word 'choice'?". 

We chose to leave our homes, friends and family behind unlike those forced to flee Ukraine this week. 

In Prague helping to meet basic needs

Our friends in Prague are helping with the Ukraine refugee relocation effort there. Many are arriving with nothing more than a small bag of belongings.. The numbers are mind-boggling: 5,000 a day, some 30,000 arrivals in the last week. The volunteers are scrambling to find accommodations both for refugees and to provide basic necessities.

Volunteers await arriving refugees at the Prague train station 

The phrase, 'all the comforts of home', comes to mind as I look around our Greek Stone House on the Hill.  We've brought so many items with us and have purchased the remainder of items necessary to make this house a home. Again, a luxury of choice unlike those who were so abruptly uprooted from their homes by the Russian invasion. 

In Greece the numbers of arriving Ukrainians last week were just over 1,000.  We know more are coming and efforts are underway to welcome and accommodate them. Throughout Europe authorities are racing to reduce red tape while volunteers meet, greet and try to ease these displaced persons into temporary housing. 

Collection drive in Mani poster 

Fundraising and collection drives are underway - even in our sparsely-populated slice of rural Greece. Just this morning I noted a collection drive notice and collection bin at our local supermarket. 

In The Neighborhood

Ukraine is to the northeast of Greece

The direct line distance between Greece and Ukraine is 1,276 km, or 793 miles. However the real travel distance is just over 1,668 km or 1,036.7 miles.  For those back in the States, it would be like living in Washington State and having a war break out in California.

Military ship off the coast of Ukraine 2014

Our media reports that Greek armed forces are on full alert. They also report a significant number of warships - both American and Russian fleets - are sailing a wider area of the Mediterranean. 

With restrictions finally being eased by authorities for travelers to Greece, there had been a feeling of optimism about this year's tourism bringing the lagging sector out of the doldrums caused by the pandemic. However, Russian tourists account for a large number of visitors to Greece. Estimates were for 303,843 inbound seats from Russia to Greece in the next six months.
I am reading more and more comments on Facebook Travel pages from those in the U.S. who are again rethinking travel plans to anywhere in Europe while this conflict continues.
Tourism is going to be impacted.. . but to what degree remains to be seen.

Meanwhile life goes on as Normal

Serene sunsets at Costa Navarino this week

However dire the headlines right now, I want to assure you that life is continuing quite normally around here.  The Scout and I just returned from a two night stay at the Costa Navarino luxury resort to the northwest of us and the place was full of golfers - European golfers, not just Greek locals.  The first two flights of the season - both from Germany -- landed a week ago at the Kalamata Airport and we suspect a large number of our fellow guests had been on those flights.

Almond trees are in bloom

Afraid we aren't real sympathetic to those in the States fretting about possible price increases at the pump as a  result of the invasion. Here we are paying $8US a gallon in the city and closer to $9 a gallon here in the village.  And that isn't because of the invasion - it is what we have been paying for some time.  We are braced for increases.

Wildflowers are in bloom

Our electric bills are so ridiculously high -- thanks to the European energy crisis, not the conflict - that we also brace ourselves for the shock of what we will find when opening the bill.  In January we had a 600 euro bill, nearly $700US for a couple of months.  (On that topic we are using the fireplace and oil furnace much more than our electric heat/AC units.)

Kalamata ready for visitors

The villages and Kalamata are opening up for the season with all the fun and fanfare that comes with spring.  Restaurants and tavernas closed for the winter are getting spruced up with new paint and new fixtures.  We are heading into Lent here with Clean Monday celebrations after having celebrated Carnivale last week.  Greek authorities are removing the 'mask-up' mandate when outside and they anticipate having - finally, after two years  - 'normal' Easter celebrations. 

And for those travelers coming this way, rejoice:  the pesky Passenger Locator Form, is on its way out!

Yet, Lest We Forget

Last year's ferry trip on the Mediterranean Sea

Yesterday the BBC, British Broadcasting Corporation, announced it has returned to old fashioned short-wave radios as a means of reaching Ukrainians who are cut off from normal sources of news.  Four hours each day of news will be broadcast in English over short-wave frequencies that can be heard on cheap devices in Kyiv and parts of Russia.  The announcement couldn't help but make one think of World War II and the role short-wave radio played then.

Victims skulls - memorial Chora Sfakia

We live in an area of Greece that has known conflict and blood-shed brought on by attempts of outside forces to rule this area through the ages. The memories and horrors of invasions - from the time of the Venetians and the Ottomans to the Germans and Italians during World War II - remain vivid here.  The significance of what is happening to Ukraine is sadly all too real for so many. 

Before I close this week, I want to mention the artwork used in the blog opening is a digital piece created by a Ukrainian artist that was purchased by a friend from Etsy Shop.  Purchases provide money to those in Ukraine and the art being digital is available immediately to the purchaser. The photos from Prague are from posts by Cheryl and Chip Kimball, our friends from Kirkland. Anyone wanting more information on their efforts there, please contact us and we will put you in touch.

Safe travels to you all and thanks for the time you spent with us this week.  Our tales and travels will continue and hope to see you back here for the next installment~

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Wednesday, February 23, 2022

The Expat World~ Expanding or Ending

'I am impressed the way you two were able to end your world back in the States and embrace expat life,' observed a new expat friend in Greece. He was pondering the pros and cons of  'leaving it all behind' for a life here.

Agios Nikolaos, our expanded world

'Expat life didn't bring that world to an end. It has simply expanded it!' we assured him. 

In recent months we've had similar conversations with a number of  Americans who are contemplating a move from one world to another, specifically from the United States to Greece. While their questions are many and varied the one common uncertainty for them is leaving all that is known for all that is pretty much unknown. The heart might be saying 'take the leap' but the head is thinking of logistics and loss.

American expats who have expanded their worlds

' What things do you miss? What do you enjoy? How do you fill our days? Are you glad you are here?' they ask us.

Their questions have made me stop and think about our world and how it seems to be working for us, and others we know, who've also decided to expand our worlds.  

Letting Go, Not Leaving

As expats we are planted in two worlds

The first and maybe the biggest concern about expat life is: how do you shift gears and leave one world to embrace an adventure in another?  I do believe it is really is a matter of letting go, loosening the grip but not altogether leaving that world 'back there'.
Arrow points to Our Stone House on the Hill in very rural Greece

We let go of a conventional suburban lifestyle in America's Pacific Northwest for one not quite so conventional in the rural Peloponnese, a half a world away. It takes a good two days to travel between our old and new worlds but I can assure those who ask, I feel very much a part of both. 

Letting go, not leaving that old life meant storing memories

Uprooting ourselves from our life in Washington State -- cleaning out accumulations of 'stuff' and selling our long-time home -- brought on the same angst that others have experienced when moving to a new home. Any one who's done it - including me -  will tell you there is always a bit of fear about letting go of the known for something new. . no matter how excited you are about the new. 

Olive harvest ~a new adventure of this expat life

We'd eased ourselves into this 'foot-in-two-worlds life' by saying we'd give the Greek adventure 'five years'. If it wasn't a fit, we'd return to the old life satisfied in knowing we had at least given it a try. 

We said that when we bought the Greek house, now eight years ago. We said it again when we applied for our first residency permit five years ago. We've just begun the application process for another three-year residency. 

Learning new ways of food shopping in our expanded world

In moving to Greece, we haven't given up our US citizenship. Nor have we become Greek citizens. We have simply been granted a permit to live full-time in Greece. The first permit was for two years, then it can be renewed in three-year increments (if we continue to meet the requirements set forth by the Greek government.) We didn't opt for the much touted Golden Visa, which sets a 250,000-euro threshold for investment in Greek property in exchange for a five-year visa. And buying property is not a requirement of residency, many expats in our area rent their homes. 

Note: This is different than the way our British friends apply and the length of their permits. . .so if you are researching permits make sure you are researching one that will apply to you. 

The Expanded World

New friends in my expanded world

My heart swells when I think of our new expanded world: all the friends we have made since moving to Greece, both expat and Greek. All the adventures, experiences and travels we've had. It contracts to think of all these wonderful experiences we'd have never had, and people we'd never have met had we stayed within the confines of that suburban US world. 

Greek and expat friends celebrate Easter Saturday night

We were asked the other day if we had much of an expat community where we live. And we certainly do! We are getting a total multicultural immersion as our expat friends hail from Britain, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Turkey and Singapore. . .just to name a few. And there are more than two dozen Americans now living in our little slice of Greece.

Expat Christmas lunch 2019 - multi-culture at its best

I think  one of the best Christmas's we've ever had was with a gathering of expats at a buffet lunch hosted by Swedish friends who live a short distance from us. Each expat brought a traditional holiday food from their country. What a fabulous and varied feast we enjoyed with a fabulous and varied bunch of people! 

Expats in Mani from France, America and England 

In the big cities, like Athens and Thessaloniki, there are formal expat organizations designed to help expats meet other expats. Here we have no need for such things. All it takes is a few trips to the village for coffee or wine. Because here you always speak a greeting or nod to others at nearby tables.  It doesn't take long for a bit of conversation to follow the next few times you see each other, and then, in many cases, a friendship isn't far behind.

The Old World

Keeping in touch with long-time friends - both sets have been to Mani

The truth is that it takes a bit of effort to remain a part of our old world when we are 10 hours ahead of it.  It takes some juggling and scheduling to communicate face-to-face or by phone. Written communication works 24/7. 

We've learned that those friends and family who want to keep us a part of their worlds do and many of those folks have even come to Greece to see our world first-hand. Thankfully with Covid rules easing, we may have even more come visit!

Decades-long friendship going strong in both worlds

The internet has made expanding our old world easier.  While we are enjoying new friends here we still have strong ties with those we have known for years 'back there'. There is nothing better than finding an email filled with chit-chat in the inbox. Or a Messenger note that simply says, 'thinking of you' or comment on a FB post. 

FB Messenger and Skype provide us the ability to make phone calls or video chats and we use them often.  And I have to tell you that those conversations keep us a part of the old world - sometimes better than when we were living in it! 

In Hawaii - now WhatsApp brings us face-to-face twice a month

My Hawaii walking buddies (one from the U.S. and one from Canada) and I haven't been physically together for nearly three years, but thanks to WhatsApp we see each other for visits twice a month and have done so since our last walk together on O'ahu.

Now to keep from sounding like Pollyanna about this expat life, I need to admit that we've lost touch with some friends. And it can happen whether they live a few miles or a few thousand miles away. Some we will hear from infrequently. Others will tell us they 'think of us often'.  And even that is better than being gone and forgotten!  

When the Worlds Converge

New friends from the Seattle area help harvest our new world olives.

Something we didn't expect was to be meeting new friends from the old world because of some Greek connection. Twice last year we had the pleasure of meeting and then becoming friends with people from Washington State whom we would never have met had we not moved to Greece.  

We met in Manson and they visited us in our Greek world

One set hails from the Seattle suburbs and another set from Manson, where we have our second home. Both couples were coming to Greece and made it a point to visit us!   It reminded us that there really is a convergence zone of our two worlds - the old one hasn't ended by any means, it just keeps getting bigger and better! !

That's it from the expats living in The Stone House on the Hill for this time around.  We hope this finds you enjoying your world and those who make it special.  Welcome to our new subscribers and thanks to you all for the time you've spent with us today in our ever-expanding world. Hope to see you back again, soon!

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Friday, February 11, 2022

Italy: A Bag Full of Memories

It probably looks like a purple purse to you. 

Actually, in certain light, it appears Indigo blue. At night it looks black..

No matter the color, it is far more than a purse to me: it is a bag of Italian memories.

I am certain that many of you reading this have in your possession something purchased during your travels that at the time you handed over your payment, you questioned your sensibility in buying it. Then, after you got home, you realized it might be one of your most favored treasures all because of the memories that it holds. If so, you will understand the tale I am about to tell. . .

'Travel-Shopping' in Europe

Window shopping - a favorite past time of ours

Those of you who travel light with carry-on bags may not understand our philosophy about travel and shopping. In fact one of the big pluses about living in the European Union is our ability to shop in other countries without thinking about whether the USDA  (US Department of Agriculture) or Customs will allow this or that item to be brought back.  That means we not only check bags, we take large, partially-filled suitcases as we plan to fill them with food, wine, and other useable and consumable items that we can't find in Greece, the country where we make our expat home. We were like kids planning a trip to a candy store when we began planning our Italy trip. 

Prosecco and limoncello display - store window in Venice

It would be a food and wine shopping extravaganza. In addition, we'd decided we might look for Italian leather shoes. Because the straps of my fake-leather backpack purse were falling apart, I  said I might also look for an Italian leather purse as well.  

So many pastas from which to choose

I am still not quite sure when that 'might look for' became an outright quest, but it did - and sadly for The Scout, it hit early and it hit hard.  I was inexplicably driven to find a purse. But just not any purse, it had to be the 'just right' purse. (all of you using purses understand that statement). 

So many shops and temptations in Bologna

It had to be: reasonably priced (under 50 euros), large enough to carry my wallet, sunglasses as well as The Scout's. Thanks to Covid, it needed to have room for the packets of hand wipes, masks, and the documents we must carry to show proof of vaccination. . .both CDC card and passport are required. And I am a writer, so there needed to be room for pens and notebook. The more outside pockets, the better. Zipper closures, a must. In a perfect world it would work as both purse and backpack. . .and preferably be a nice muted tone, suitable for all seasons.  

The Quest Began

Our Italian souvenirs

We had no problem finding the food items we wanted nor the books, shoes, and wine as evidenced by the photo above of our treasures.  But the purse, that was another matter.  And it wasn't for lack of choices as there were stores selling 'real Italian leather' purses on every block, sometimes two or three stores side-by-side! In some stores the products looked like leather and some didn't. I began using our down time in the hotel to research leather - how to know it, buy it, not be scammed by fake products. . .and I was stunned at all there is to know about leather.  

And more purses. . .

I'll spare you the details, but in short: There is the feel and the smell and the look and the color, to consider. Then there were the grades of leather, ranging from man-made cheap to off-the-charts expensive.  

Finding The Purse

Purses and more purses

As we roamed the streets of Bologna, my search was casual and began to pick up steam by the time we got to Verona. At least once during every outing, I'd ask The Scout to wait 'just a minute', which to his credit, he did without complaining.  I'd emerge from the store announcing the bags were too big, too small, wrong color . . .or style. . . or price.  My quest intensified.

Italian leather purses. . .everywhere!

As our stay in Venice was nearing its end, I decided that my old bag would just have to serve me awhile longer. Then as we returned to our hotelon our almost last day, there was a purple. . . or was it blue. . . or black purse in a shop window caught my eye. 'This will be the last shop, I promise,'  I told The Scout.  The shop keeper retrieved the purse from window display, then pointed out its features: a backpack or shoulder bag, visible and secret outside pockets, It was cavernous. It came with guarantees and it smelled and felt like real leather. And it was on sale! Down from 150 euros to 49 euros -- it met all my requirements but one: it was purple and there were no other colors in that style.

Shopping in Venice along canals

So I asked myself, who really needs a sensible purse in a muted color these days?  And now with my purse on my shoulder and my favorite red leather gloves, I look like a member of The Red Hat Society. Back in the 1990's The Red Hats were everywhere it seemed. Groups of women across America celebrating their age (they had to be 50 years of age and older) - maybe flaunting their age --  by wearing outrageous red hats and purple attire to lunches and events.

Red Hat Society would approve

Much to The Scout's relief, I announce quite often these days, 'I love my purse!'. . .but I think I love even more, the memories it holds of our trip to Italy and the adventures we had in finding it!

That's it for this week. Hope to see you back again soon. Welcome to our new subscribers and followers and as always thanks for your time and wishes for safe travels. Hope you'll take a minute to tell us about those treasures you've found on your travels in either the comments below or shoot us an email!

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