Greece 2011

Sunday, July 3rd, 2011 by

Serendipity: the occurrence of events in a happy or beneficial way

My recent trip to Greece was a veritable case study of serendipity. In fact, the coincidences were so stunning and joy inducing that even I (she of the fabulous life) was left in awe. Nearly every day was filled with wonder, adventure, art, history, music, food, friends and fun. I had learned a few weeks before traveling that I would be performing with Stevie Wonder for the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics. Aha! This could be my opportunity to take a break and rejuvenate myself! I’m a terrible workaholic and hadn’t taken a real vacation since 2005 when I went to Belize with a dear friend. Immediately, I requested an extension of my return flight so that I could take advantage of being on the other side of the planet in a country renowned for its beauty and culture. And thus the serendipity began…

Last year, I met a beautiful artist named Alexia Vassiliou, a singer from Greece who now lives in Los Angeles. She happened call me the day after I learned of my upcoming trip and was curious about my possibly performing with her in Greece. Unfortunately, our timing was off for performing together at that time, but Alexia was fundamental in aligning the stars so that I could have a fantastic time in her home country.

I arrived in Athens on Thursday morning, June 23 at 1:30am, after having spent 10 hours in Los Angeles on a lay over from San Francisco, flying for 11 hours to Zurich, and another 5 hour lay over before finally flying to Athens. Phew! My room did not have a view of the Acropolis, but the sight still managed to inspire pause. Naturally, having eaten my fill and made my requisite “yes, I’m here and I’m ok…no I don’t see any riots…yes, they have security in this hotel” phone calls, I drifted to sleep for a lovely nap before the 2:30pm lobby call for sound check. The weather was hot, but our outdoor performance stage was covered so that we could tolerate being outdoors for more than 10 minutes.

For this show, drummer Ronald Bruner, Jr., joined the band. Ronald is not just an amazingly talented drummer, but also quite hilarious. He kept everyone laughing with his quick wit and relentless humor. We never knew what he’d seize upon next!

Kallimarmaron Panathenaikon Stadium

Sound check was for the most part uneventful (except for my keyboard not being connected correctly at first, and the overhead sun-blocking fabric falling onto Ronald’s drum set – while he was sitting there), despite the sweltering heat. Afterwards, the band went to dinner together and enjoyed some delicious Greek fare. I discovered that a traditional Greek salad (a standard item for each of my meals while in Greece) has no lettuce! Who knew? After dinner, we headed back to the venue for a full rehearsal. Several thousand people were present for the rehearsal (mostly the volunteers and their families). No one had warned us that we’d be performing for a crowd, so it was a bit surprising. We played through a few songs and headed back to the hotel again. One of the volunteers for the Special Olympics told me that I should visit the roof of the hotel to see the view of the Acropolis, so I joined my band mates for a trip to the rooftop.

The view is stunning and fatigue or not, I didn’t want to miss it! I took a few photos, had a drink with the guys (yeah, plain water for me – the geek) and breathed in the night air while enjoying the sight of the Acropolis. Just before I was going to head to my room, the fabulous

Vanessa Williams and me

Vanessa Williams stepped out onto the roof top. At first, we were all a bit nervous about inviting her over to our sectional, but a couple of us finally spoke up and greeted her. She smiled, joined us and chatted with the band for over an hour. She is definitely one of the friendliest, most down-to-earth celebrities I’ve met. She’s brilliant, fascinating, funny, cool and ridiculously beautiful. I’ve always been a fan, but now she’s an inspiration!

On Friday morning, the entire group went sightseeing to the Acropolis Museum and the Acropolis. Amazing!

After sight-seeing, I joined Fausto and Errol on a trip into the Monstiraki neighborhood. Errol had learned of a sandal store, featuring custom shoes made by the “Poet Sandal Maker of Athens”. An easy trip, we hopped on the subway, rode 2 stops and then walked a couple of blocks to the store. I bought my first pair of custom made sandals, cut and glued together on my very own feet! They’re simple, but extremely comfortable.

The Poet Sandal Maker and me

After rehearsal, Fenia, who had been the guide assigned to work with the band, went with me to find a local restaurant for dinner. The guys in the band wanted burgers and other American food. Being the foodie that I am, I wanted to eat something delicious and authentically Greek. We ended up dining at a restaurant near the hotel and I had a delicious meal of grilled chicken on a skewer with roasted vegetables. Yummy!

As we walked back to the hotel, Fenia and I ran into a woman who introduced herself as Christina. Christina had been on her way to a fashion party on the rooftop and insisted that I join her. Granted, I’d been walking around all day in my shorts, tee shirt and sneakers (not exactly fashion presentable), but I think both Christina and I knew that if I went to my hotel room, I’d be going to sleep. So, casual gear and all, we went into the party. Christina is a journalist and has many friends in the fashion business. She introduced me to several of her friends and we all had a good time dancing and chatting. After about 90 minutes, I was burned out and bid everyone a good night. My pillow was calling…

I woke up too late for the free breakfast on Saturday (darn!), but had made arrangements to meet with Alexia’s friend, Nicos. Do you hear the sound of angels singing? Well, you should, because Nicos is a saint! I could not have asked for a better friend, guide, porter, dining companion, language instructor and translator!

Nicos met me in the hotel lobby and transported me to an authentic, traditional Greek restaurant called Thio Portes (two doors). We rode in a taxi into a neighborhood that was a bit rough (despite the heat, the taxi driver promptly rolled up the windows as we approached our destination). We exited the taxi and walked towards what looked like an abandoned building, and ducked down a steep flight of stairs into a dark, cool basement. There were 5 or so tables, each filled with patrons, and the fragrance of Greek spices in the air. We sat at a small table in a corner and waited for one of the larger tables to become available (about a 20 minute wait) before the chef would consider bringing us any food. At the table to our right, was a pair of Chinese tourists, cameras in tow. They finished their meal and promptly began snapping photos of the chef before continuing their journey. Finally, Nicos and I were seated at what had been their table.

Within minutes, the table was set and bread and water swiftly appeared before us. However, no menu was to be found. Nicos explained that we were to walk into the kitchen and tell the chef which of the prepared dishes we wanted to be served. We walked up to the stove and peeked into the pots, all of which were filled with food that smelled terrifically delicious. We decided upon Greek salad (of course!), potato and eggplant stew, grilled mackerel and thick sliced of grilled bread. After about 45 minutes, Nicos’ friends Jiula, Maria and Lita joined us. Our meal lasted for 2.5 delicious hours. As we enjoyed our extended meal, 2 tables crowded with mostly Greek men, who were drinking copious amounts of ouzo, entertained us with their enthusiastic renditions of traditional Greek songs. I wish I’d have had the thought to record them, but I was under such a blissful spell from my meal, I didn’t think of it. Opa! I did manage to ask the somewhat grumpy chef for a photo.

After a meal like that, all I could do was go back to the hotel and take a nap before getting dressed for the show. The performance was broadcast live with a terrific audience cheering us on! We performed 5 songs, including “That’s What Friends Are For” with Vanessa Williams. We didn’t stay to watch the remaining festivities, instead heading to dinner and dancing at a posh venue in Athens near the beach.

On Sunday morning, I woke up late and again missed breakfast. I needed the sleep more than I needed food. At noon, I met Nicos in the lobby and checked out of the hotel. Nicos insisted on carrying my luggage to the subway station, onto the train and into my hotel. Told you! A saint…his kindness nearly brought tears to my eyes. Nicos had found me another hotel, A for Athens, right in the heart of the Monastiraki district, literally around the corner from a convenient subway entrance. My original hotel charged €350 per night…um…I don’t think so! Restaurants and shopping were in abundance, the room was clean and quiet; and, best of all, the hotel was entirely smoke free! Just about everyone in Greece smokes, so this hotel was a welcome respite from tobacco, especially given how allergic I am. We planted my luggage in my new digs, and headed to lunch on a street along the train route. As we finished our meals, Nicos’ sister and cousin, both of whom share the name Eleni, joined us and we all headed on a walking tour of the ruins near Monastiraki. Ruins are everywhere in Greece!

The view from the 6th floor terrace
Me at the Acropolis

Modern buildings are erected in direct abutment to the ruins and the juxtaposition is mind-boggling. It must be amazing to have that level of direct access to one’s history. We ended up at the Acropolis (my 2nd visit), and again I felt an incredible surge of energy as I stood before the temples, scanned the landscape below and imagined who might have stood in the same spot 1,000 years ago. Exhausted after extensive walking in intense heat, I went to bed at 8pm and slept soundly.

I woke up early on Monday morning, repacked my suitcase and headed to the airport on the subway. Simple. Once in the airport waiting area, I checked my email for more details about where exactly I was going. Home? Not yet! A few days before I left for Greece, I had received an email message from my dear friend and college roommate, Persephone (not Greek, despite the name). She informed me that she would be on a Greek island during the week after Stevie’s performance. She was going to be participating in a Music / Alexander Technique seminar, and suggested that I join her there. As a matter of fact, I had been inquiring about Alexander Technique just a few days before she contacted me. Did I mention the word serendipity? On Sunday evening, I did an online search for a flight to Skiathos and a ferry to Skopelos. There were 2 flights available, 1 leaving town on Monday, and 1 returning on Thursday. There was 1 seat available on each of these flights, and I got them. Also, there was a massive general strike planned in Athens on Tuesday and Wednesday, which I’d be missing since I’d be on a Greek island. Awesome timing, non?

The only hitch: I had no idea where I was actually going in Skopelos. Persephone told me how to get there (flight and ferry), but never did send an actual address. Hm… So, there I sat in the airport waiting area. I boarded the plane, flew for about 20 minutes, and landed on Skiathos. I found my way to the ticket booth so that I could buy my ferry ticket. Apparently, there was no ferry leaving for another 5 hours because the airlines and ferry operators apparently don’t coordinate schedules (a ploy to get travelers to stay and shop in Skiathos, no doubt). I would get to Skopelos after dark, but how could I complain? I was on a Greek island! But what to do with this suitcase? Looking around, I noticed a couple from Hong Kong handing their luggage to a restaurant owner and sitting down to lunch. I followed suit. I lunched on a salad (not Greek this time) and then took a walk around the beautiful island.

I walked past a group of high school kids, sitting and holding music binders. A concert! Excited, I sat down and accepted a program from the young girl handing them out (fully in Greek, but the start time was clearly listed as 7:30pm). 7:30pm came and went. 7:45pm came and went. 8pm came and went. 8:15. Finally, at about 8:20pm, the director started speaking. My ferry was scheduled to depart at 9:45pm, so I wanted to be in place no later than 9pm to be sure I didn’t miss it. After all, who knew when the next would be? 8:40pm, the director was still talking…in Greek. No singing yet. Frustrated, I gave them until 8:50pm, and though they started to perform, the music was really slow and quiet. I had no patience left for gentle soft music, so I headed back to the restaurant and picked up my suitcase. I sat at the ferry dock, watching the sun descend behind the hills. Beautiful.

The ferry arrived on time, at 9:45pm. I boarded along with a mass of other people who appeared at the last minute (there were only 3 other people who sat and waited the 45 minutes with me). The ride was brief, maybe 15 minutes, which makes it all the more confusing as to why they didn’t run the ferry more often. I exited the ferry, still utterly unaware of where to go, hoping that Persephone would meet me at the dock in Skopelos. Car after car pulled up and took off with their expected guests. Finally, it was just me and the resident coast guard officer. He headed back to his office and I walked in the same direction. I almost walked into the office to ask him if he knew anything about a music seminar centered around Alexander Technique. Random question, I was aware, but worth a shot. However, my intuition told me to stay put, standing outside the office in the sliver of light from the nearby lamppost. I stood, happily enjoying the night air, not allowing myself to worry about being in a strange place after 10pm, unable to communicate with anyone, without a functioning phone. I was confident that everything would work out, as it always does. And suddenly I hear “Vicki?”; a group of women were walking past the lamppost, and one of them spotted me. Voila! Apparently, no one had any idea of when I would be arriving, and I hadn’t been on any of the earlier ferries. So Persephone and the group had all gone to dinner. They were leaving the restaurant on the way back to the hotel when they saw me. Awesome timing, again! After taking me to my “hotel” – a lovely building with no indication of address or title beyond the generic sign stating “Rooms”, Persephone walked me to a restaurant so I could get something to eat. Sleep was a pleasant and welcome treat.

I passed my days on Skopelos practicing yoga, playing piano, accompanying Persephone and Mary, a violist from the New York City Opera, had an Alexander Technique lesson with Criss, one of the multi-talented organizers of the seminar, sleeping, eating and enjoying the beach.

I woke up at 5:30am on Thursday morning in order to catch the ferry back to Skiathos. Criss and Persephone accompanied me to the dock, where I again encountered the couple from Hong Kong. We exited the ferry together in Skiathos, and after a short conversation agreed to catch a cab together back to the airport. We had to wait 4 hours for the flight, so we ate breakfast and passed the time by showing each other our photographs of the trip. They were on their honeymoon, and Greece was just one of their stops. At the airport, Martin (the new husband) wanted to venture out to the end of the runway, where the planes are close enough for people to stand and watch the take off from the roadside. I’d never seen a hazard sign with an airplane on it…and it was there for good reason! It’s completely insane to stand in the path of a jet blast. Martin’s wife and I took a photo and promptly returned to the airport, with Martin not far behind.

The flight back to Athens was uneventful, as was the trip on the subway back to the hotel. I had reserved the same room in the hotel, but when I arrived, they offered me an even better room at the same rate. Awesome! I decided to go to dinner alone and to spend the rest of the evening writing a song. After about an hour, I slipped into deep sleep.

A jackhammer woke me up on Friday morning just before 9am. I had the impulse to find a yoga class, so I did a quick search on my computer and found an Anusara class near the hotel. I threw on my workout clothes and jogged over to Bhavana Yoga Center, where I had a class with the founder, Konstantinos Charantiniotis. Konstantinos was kind enough to teach the class in English and is an excellent teacher (and quite easy on the eyes). I had a solid work out and then walked back to the hotel for breakfast. My dear friend René Decker, a brilliant musician and composer, was going to be arriving in Athens later in the day, and my next task was to find a recording studio. I posted a message online asking for help in finding a studio in Athens, and I garnered a heap of responses. Nicos managed to come up with a winner: One Way Recording in the neighborhood of Marusi. I contacted the owner, Patroklos, who gave me directions via train from Monastiraki to Marusi. Patroklos had lived in Los Angeles for many years, so his English is perfect.

I waited for René to arrive from the airport, and then once he was settled, we headed to the train station. Unfortunately, I decided to speak to a station attendant to confirm the directions to Marusi, and ended up on a train going the exact opposite direction. However, I didn’t realize my mistake until I’d already traveled 30 minutes the wrong way (thanks to there being stadiums on each end of the train line – I focused on the wrong one!). This was particularly disconcerting for me because I pride myself on my excellent sense of direction. I guess I was having an off day!

A very cool photo that René took of me on the way to Marusi

After a 90-minute travel fiasco, René and I made it to Marusi, where Pat met us at the station. We walked to his brand new studio and got right to work. I composed 2 tunes, one up-tempo and one ballad, both of which I really like. Fenia met us at the studio and the 4 of us went to dinner in town. The Greeks have a much more reasonable sense of restaurant patronage than restaurants here in California. On more than one occasion, I was able to have a delicious, healthy meal after midnight. When I’m home, slim are the quality dining options after 10pm. However, given that we didn’t finish dinner until nearly 1am, there were no trains available to take us back to the hotel. So, René and I hired a cab to get back to Monastiraki. For some reason, I didn’t sleep well Friday night. Maybe because I knew that my time in Greece was coming to an end.

On Saturday morning, I went back to the Bhavana Yoga Center and took a class with Georgia, who spoke only a moderate amount of English and therefore conducted the class in Greek. I didn’t have any problems though, since I can follow body movement very well. After class, I went back to the hotel, but found that the cleaning staff was making my room. So, I headed up to the terrace to bide my time by staring at the Acropolis. While there, I struck up a conversation with a Frenchman named Philippe, who was taking a few days off in Athens, and who happened to have also attended Stanford. René joined us and discovered that he and Philippe know a musician in common. What a small world! Once Nicos joined us, I headed to my room to get dressed while the gents chatted. Since it was my last day in Athens, I set the agenda: sightseeing, shopping, dinner and dancing.

I felt like a superstar with a fabulous entourage! René, Philippe, Nicos and I visited the Acropolis museum and the Acropolis (again!), but didn’t make it all the way to the top this time. Nonetheless, I once more felt that amazing surge of energy. Next, it was time for souvenir gathering. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m frugal (not cheap) but don’t like to buy a bunch of junk. I like to buy souvenirs for my loved ones that will be useful. Thanks again to Nicos, I found everything that I wanted at great prices! Back at the hotel, we all dressed for an evening out, met for drinks on the rooftop and then headed to dinner.

Nikos took me to where they serve the best Tabuleh salad in Athens!

A passing turtle!

Me and my entourage

Getting ready to hit the town!

Party the night away!
Sunrise and goodbye’s

By the time our meal arrived, there was a large group of people: me, René, Nicos, Philippe, Patroklos, Evi, Eleni, Christina and a friend of hers whose name I’ve forgotten. Once we finished dinner, everyone gathered their belongings and headed toward the neighborhood labeled “gassy” (named for being a district in which a former gas plant still stood). We danced; we talked, and tried to push through the flagging energy to watch the sunrise. At 7am, I hugged and kissed my entourage and jetted into the hotel to shower and pack. Once I sat in my cozy, business class seat, I was ready to doze off, and would have, except for the announcement by the pilot that another airplane had just broken down directly behind our airplane. Uh-oh. I had a connecting flight to catch in the USA. That announcement meant I had even less time to deal with customs and make it to my new gate. We sat…and sat…and sat. Finally, after over 90 minutes had passed, the other airplane was pulled out of the way and we took off. Well aware that I had a connecting flight, the flight attendants didn’t think I had any chance of making my flight. After landing, I exited the airplane and ran to customs. A massive line of travelers stood before me. Once in line, I pleaded with people in front of me, asking for permission to pass them, and all but one man happily pushed me along so that I could make my flight (boooooo to him!). I made it through customs easily and took off running again. I made it! And so did my luggage, because…my connecting flight had been delayed. Ah, serendipity.

This entry was posted on Sunday, July 3rd, 2011 at 10:24 pm and is filed under News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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