Decompressing: a reflection on my time in Greece

It has been a whirlwind these last few weeks.  Literally and physically my mind is half a world away from school and finally the repetitive cycle of class and homework has been broken. Though, out of habit, I do find myself checking my email for homework updates.  I have not posted before this because it would have been a disservice to the places I’ve visited and the people I have met to write about my experiences before letting my surroundings and sink in and letting my mind quite from the semester before.  For those of you who do not know me (or neglected to fully read the title of this article) I am in Greece, a country that  is beautiful as it is gritty, an insoluble mixture of history, catastrophe and perseverance.  In total I am here for a little under a month, the focus of my experience is on agriculture and sustainability in the developed world.  I have traveled to Nicaragua and I have seen the efforts of farmers and conservation activist there.  It is hard work in developing nations to balance a respect for the natural world while trying to make a living.  I wanted to see what is was like in heavily developed countries.

My trip will bring me to three different countries in Southern Europe, Greece, Italy and finally Spain where I will be attending the University of Almeria for a month.  So armed with only my backpack I started off in Athens.  I spent the first few days exploring the city and doing some cite seeing.  It is incredible to be surrounded by that kind of history, the remains of those structures are still awe inspiring hundreds of years later.  But outside of the tourist attractions something else grabs your attention in Athens.  The city is dirty, covered in graffiti, historical buildings are crumbling due to neglect and though it could be considered an ugly city it is still quite beautiful in its modern decay.  Flying into Athens reminded me of looking at a black and white photos of the favelas in Brazil.

I quickly learned that there is no logical way to travel though the streets of Athens.  I would say that I spent about 90% of my time in that city lost but it was a great city to be lost in.  In hopes of gaining better bearings and to learn more about the food culture of Athens I took a tour.  A group of about eight of us met in the central square across the street from the Greek grave of the unknown solider.  The tour took about four hours, took us to several different neighborhoods and provided us with some good information about the history of Athens.  Greeks are big espresso drinkers and the tour started out with their ‘national’ coffee beverage, Greek coffee.  Greek coffee is more of less exactly the same as Turkish coffee but due to conflicts between Greece and Turkey in the 1900’s (and before) all things that that were ‘Turkish’ became “Greek’ about thirty year ago.  Without going into a play by play of what I saw, I would say that Greek food, though diverse, follows a few guidelines: authenticity, craftsmanship and local production.

People care about where their olive oil comes from and if their neighbors canned their tomatoes.  Athens contains about half the population of Greece and most people that live in Athens have immigrated to the city from another part of the country.  Our guide promoted this idea that Greeks wanted to be reminded of their homes  when they cooked and because many don’t have the opourtunity to visit their families often.  Food becomes their connection back to their villages and roots.  Apart from home cooking we also learned about several unique products that Greece manufactures.  One particular product is called metexa, it is sap collected from a bush that grows only on one island in Greece.   You can consume it in many ways the most popular are either chewing it as a gum or drinking the liquor they create out of it.  It tastes like pine needles smell, not unpleasant and it has been shown to have a variety of oral and digestive benefits.

Finally one of my favorite parts of the food tour was an explaination of a curious Greek street staple.  Athens is not a very green city, it does not have many plants with the exception of citrus trees.   There are orange trees (and other orange citrus fruits) everywhere.  They all produce fruit, though I can’t say I tried any of it.  It would be like walking through New York and having an apple tree in place of every street lamp.  Our guide explained that in the past during difficult times people would grow orange and other fruit trees in the streets to feed themselves and provide supplemental nutrition to their families.

My time in Athens was short, five busy days went by very quickly.  Next I headed to Crete, starting in the east and moving west I met many great people and visited a few farms.   That however is a story for a later post.  Athens is the great mixing pot of Grecce, bringing together all the food and cultural traditions from the surrounding areas.

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