Unexpectedly Arabic: al-Episode أ

Ending up in Greece in the first place was a bit of a surprise to say the least, but consulting threw me another curveball at 8:30 on Wednesday morning. As I’d already finished what I set out to do, how about going to Abu Dhabi instead — today? Well, umm, err, why not?

So I spent the morning trying to figure out how to get there, booking flights and hotels and packing up and checking out two nights ahead of schedule. There were no sensible flight connections from Athens to Abu Dhabi, but I could take a direct flight to Dubai in the evening and cover the remaining 170 km by taxi. The travel agent offered a choice between Olympic, one of Europe’s worst airlines, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy for years with Greece flouting EU rules to subsidize it while unable to find a buyer; and Emirates, one of the world’s best airlines, with enough awards and devoted passengers to make Singapore Airlines quake. It didn’t take too long to decide. (And the Olympic flight, with a Kuwait stopover, would’ve taken longer.)

I took the train out to the airport (“next stop: Pallini”), checked in for my flight, gasped when I saw yet another passport queue of Olympic proportions but was relieved to find it fast-moving, and once through embarked on my perennial pre-flight entertainment ritual of “Find the Power Socket”. After my iPod was juiced up, they started boarding and, smiled in by Emirates stewardesses wearing as much makeup as the Singapore Girls but topped off with pillbox hats and poofy token veils, I navigated to my seat in this B777-300ER. (Incidentally, Emirates’ business class seats look absolutely amazing, but that’ll have to wait for another day.)

First impression: people flying Emirates don’t have just Louis Vuitton handbags, but Louis Vuitton luggage. Second impression: pretty tight seat pitch. Not unusually bad, but by no means generous, and reclining the seat makes it slide forward, reducing the pitch even more. The seat lottery had given me an end aisle, next to the toilets (d’oh), but with nobody behind. This was an advantage, because Emirates’ “ice” entertainment system uses a touchscreen, which means people poking at your headrest when they want to change the channel. (Well, the controller does have a dinky joypad as a substitute, but it’s, well, dinky.) That’s pretty much it as far as negatives go, as the system is otherwise amazing: 500 (!) channels of movies, TV programs and audio, with a nice big screen and a very responsive, high-res interface that slaughters poor old KrisWorld. The handset is in the seat in front, not by your side, which makes it oh so much easier to tweak volumes and channels, and stops you from pressing the wrong buttons by accident to boot. The only downside was that the selection loaded was so un-edgy it hurt: not a single movie I was particularly interested in seeing, no comedy that would qualify as even mildly racy, not even a single DJ mix. Well, at least they had “Best of Ayumi Hamasaki” and the latest by the Chemical Brothers — and there’s another feature that just sold me onto EK for my next long-haul flight: free power sockets for every other seat, even in economy!

Getting permission to leave Elefterios Venizelos took a while, but once in flight dinner, somewhat oddly called “lunch” despite being served at 7 PM, was served. This was pretty impressive: we were handed menus, and while this reduced to “lamb or fish?” when the service actually came around, the actual meal was a cut above the usual: a little plate of Greek mezze, a Greek salad (yay, feta!), and “Perch cooked in spetsiota sauce” which was, well, white fish in tomato sauce. It all looked great though, because — and I know this will sound stupid, but it’s true — the containers were all jauntily sail-shaped or triangular instead of square. Of such small touches is pizzazz made. Dessert was a honey-soaked pastry, the only Arabic-feeling thing on the menu (although the menu claimed that it, too, was Greek) and an on-your-pillow-in-good-hotels piece of chocolate. I was little disappointed/surprised not to have an Arab meal option, but it was still pretty impressive to have a menu so localized for a single destination, and overall it was definitely among the best economy meals I’ve had anywhere.

Dubai Airport is a giant construction site, and we were treated to a long bus journey from the plane with not one, but two stops: one for transiting passengers, the second for those terminating their journey in Dubai. Alas, midnight is peak hour at DXB and there was another long passport queue waiting, but at least this time I’d had the foresight to visit the loo first and 45 minutes passed fairly painlessly. My bag was waiting in the pile next to the conveyor belt, I grabbed a sliver of dirham from an ATM and headed to the taxi queue for my onward journey.

The next 150 km were almost hallucinatory. First lengthwise through the even more fast construction site of Dubai itself, past the towering spire of Burj Dubai, the billowing sail of the Burj al-Arab, the Chinese temples of the Ibn Battuta Mall, and kilometer after kilometer after kilometer of the elevated Dubai Metro track. Eventually, though, the buildings petered out and it was just a ten-lane highway slicing through the desert. An eerie tan light as the streetlamps were filtered through the sandy air, an occasional roar from the left lane as Emiratis speeded past in their tinted-window SUVs at 250 km/h, and at almost every intersection the bulbous, cephalopod figure of an oversized mosque, floodlit green and topped with red lights in the minarets staring out into the desert like eyes. Warning signs posted by the side of the road proclaimed: “Beware of road surprises”.

There are three Hiltons in Abu Dhabi, and the second one my driver took me to was the right one. (Later it turned out that, locationwise, I should’ve booked the first one after all.) After an effortless checkin, I crashed into an opulently huge bed at 3 AM, wondering what awaited me next morning.

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Erratically Hellenic: Epeisodion δ

Alas, my time in Greece was cut short, so instead of a full-fledged epeisodion this will only be a capsule summary of the two places I had time to visit.

Detail of the Parthenon Restaurants in the Plaka

In the end, I quite liked Athens. It’s a bustling Mediterranean city, not quite as terminally hip as Barcelona but definitely getting there, and the contrasts kept things interesting: the modern technoparks of the northern suburbs where the office was, the gritty port town of Piraeus, the restored neoclassical buildings of Plaka and their smoky tavernas and the ultrahip bars of Thissio just a short stroll away… and towering above it all the 2500-year ruins atop the Acropolis. I’d been there as a kid, and I remembered precisely two things: it was bloody hot, and it was a long hike to the top. Some twenty-odd years later, both statements remained true, and even in notionally off-season September the place was packed with tourists (and scaffolding).

Full picture set: http://jpatokal.iki.fi/photo/travel/Greece/Athens/

Aegean Sea off Spilia, Hydra Patriotic house in Hydra

On my solitary Sunday, I took the advice of a local colleague and headed off by ferry to Hydra, the third-closest Saronic Gulf island to Athens. My pictures do it no justice: on this sunny, breezy late summer day, it was gorgeous. Blue sky, clear waters, blindingly white houses, cobble-stoned streets with no cars, seaside cafes serving up frappes, topless women suntanning on the rocks… I spent half a day just walking around, and loved it.

Full picture set: http://jpatokal.iki.fi/photo/travel/Greece/Hydra/

Erratically Hellenic: Epeisodion β

My first night in Athens, I set off on a quixotic quest for a quintessentially Greek food: souvlaki. I do this more often than I should, fixating on something that I think should be representative of local cuisine and usually finding out after hours of searching that, in fact, it’s out of season or, worse yet, totally out of fashion. My hotel was on the edge of Exarcheia, the district best known as the home of the Athens Polytechnion, a famous hotbed of student anarchism and, indeed, riot police and communist graffiti are still to this day a major feature — so you’d think cheap, greasy fare like souvlaki should sell well. But as I walked around and around, I found little ouzeris, English pubs, not a few pizza places, a large number of cafes, countless pastry shops and even a lost-looking organic juice stall — but absolutely zero souvlatzidikos. Eventually, I conceded defeat and had my dinner at Goody’s, an ubiquitous (and pretty tasty) Greek fast food chain that at least offered a decent horiatiki salata and a “Pita Pita” sandwich, which, as it turns out, was souvlaki in all but name.

So what is souvlaki, anyway? It’s a word of confused meaning, as even in Greece, it can mean either lamb meat grilled on a skewer, or grilled pork wrapped in pita bread (aka gyros, and almost but not quite the same as doner kebab). “Pita”, incidentally, is another of those words that means something entirely different in Greek than in the rest of the world. Quite frankly, I’m still not sure what it means, except that it seems to cover everything except those flat pocket things. The “pita” used to wrap a souvlaki is indeed flat, but a bit puffy and entirely unpocketed; the “pita” of a spanakopita (spinach and cheese pastry) is deep-fried and flaky; and the “pita” of a milopita at McDonalds is exactly identical to McD’s apple pies, a mysterious combination of starch, grease and scalding innards.

A few days later, having gathered some souvlaki scuttlebutt, I ventured down to Monastiraki and its famous trio of souvlaki joints: Thanasis, Savvas and Bairaktaris. A mecca of pork they may be, but these days Mitropoleos street is smack dab in the heart of tourist central, and the evil threesome have figured out how to maximize their profits: if you sit down and take a look at the menu, souvlaki portions start at an outrageous 9 euros, and they all involve platters with salad and french fries. Not listed on the menu, but needless to say far more popular among the Greeks, is the real souvlaki which has to be ordered as a “souvlaki sandwich”: they’re made on the fly, served in a greasy wrap of paper for take away only, and cost a far more reasonable 1,70 euros a shot. Tzatzikilicious!

One thing that really surprised me was the pastry shop phenomenon. Every day on my way from work, I walked south one block and east two blocks from the Metro station to my hotel. Within these six city blocks of possible routes there were, without exaggeration, at least 20 places to load up on pastries: at least a dozen cafes with big pastry shelves, half a dozen dedicated pastry shops with just a little heated-up counter, and few old guys sitting on the street with tables piled high with sesame rings. I sampled one almost every day, never choosing the same place or same thing twice, and while they all pretty much looked the same from the outside the variation in tastes and textures was astounding. I even found out that it’s possible to screw up spanakopita: one chain cafe offered terrible triangles with sour, vinegary mash inside, while the independent little shop that made its own used precisely the same ingredients and managed to make the feta, spinach and crumbly crust dance in perfect harmony.

Greek salad (horiatiki) Moussaka

Probably the best meal of my trip, though, was at a little restaurant on Hydra. The island is inundated by tourists and all the restaurants there cater squarely to them — for example, nearly all the much-advertised seafood is in fact imported frozen from far away — so, not being in the mood to chew on defrosted kalamari, I picked a small joint that had Greek diners and reasonably priced non-fish meals, and opted for a moussaka and Greek salad. And, well, damn. Half an egglant reduced to a pulpy mess on the inside, a layer of mince and tomato, a drizzle of cheese… I’m drooling as I write this! And the salad, too, was simplicity itself: a bed of cucumber, tomato, bell pepper, onion and kalamata olives, a single big chunk of feta, a sprinkle of oregano and (very) generous slathering of olive oil on top. No wonder every Greek seems to walk around with a spare tire…

Erratically Hellenic: Epeisodion α

Unfortunately, my flight landed half an hour too early. Dawn was breaking as we descended, but the islands of the Aegean were only visible as dark blobs speckled with the occasional lighthouse, and before I knew it we had touched down at Eleftherios Venizelos International, Athens.

Investments in airports are often justified by the importance of making a good impression on visitors, and no expense had been spared in constructing this modern edifice in time for the Olympics, which explains why lots of expenses were in the process of being spared afterwards. On this Monday morning, bright and early at 6:30 AM, my Singapore Airlines 777, a Thai 777 and an Air Canada 767 had landed near-simultaneously, disgorging in the region of eight hundred (800) passengers into passport control, which was staffed by two (2) people. As the hall filled with a random jostle of people, the queue soon backed up the escalator from the gate area, without so much as a line divider or any indication of which of the four lit-up booths were actually staffed. Did I mention that there were no toilets in the entire area? Nearly two hours of waiting later I had my passport cursorily glanced at and thrown back to me, and I dashed for the toilets, sadistically positioned right behind the passport control booths. I picked up a local SIM card plus the first of many deep-fried feta-laden pastries to come, and then emerged into the cool morning air, blinking in the strong Aegean sun, and proceeded to queue a little more for a taxi. Welcome to Greece!

It’s been well over 20 years since I last set foot in the country (although surely a visit to Cyprus some five years back almost counts?) and I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I suspect most Europeans harbor the same somewhat paradoxical (παράδοξος paradoxos, “aside thought”) attitude to Greece that I did. On one hand, nobody can dispute the country’s role as the cradle of European civilization, and anybody who’s had an even remotely technical education already has a grasp on the intricacies of the Greek alphabet (αλφάβητος alfabetos) and a fairly firm grounding on Greek etymology (ἐτυμολογία etymologia, “true word”). On the other hand, it’s been several thousand years since those glory days, and Greece was until recently the poorest country in the EU, best known for goat cheese, women with luxuriant moustaches and a vast capacity for absorbing EU money.

Needless to say, reality was somewhere between those two extremes. For one thing, all the women in Greece seem to have blonde hair these days, and instead of moustaches I couldn’t help noticing that “callipygian” is still a Greek word. (Living for five years in Flatland will do that to you.) Most taxi drivers still looked like they pulled double shifts as sheep herders or seamen, with stubble, ratty sweaters and cigarettes permanently suspended from their mouths, but the taxis themselves would have qualified as “limousines” in Singapore and came equipped with GPS pathfinders that the cabbies deftly operated with one hand while swerving through Athens traffic. The Athens metro is also positively spiffy-keen, although the Proastiakos suburban trains, which I’ve been taking every day to get to work, seem to exhibit a disturbing tendency of arriving at any time except that specified in the schedule and always departing to Athens from the platform marked “To Airport” or vica versa.

Early fall, though, is a great time to be in Greece. The air is dry and breezy, nights are cool, days are warm, making both mornings and evenings just perfect. On a balmy Tuesday evening, I headed to Monastiraki with two colleagues, opted for an outdoor seat at a taverna without views of the floodlit Parthenon (this instantly halves the price) and dug into a gigantic (Γίγαντες gigantes) platter of meze, complete with some of the best octopus I’ve had anywhere, with a bottle of ouzo to lubricate it all. Total price here in the heart of the tourist zone? €30 for three. I could get used to this.

Erratically Hellenic, yet Unexpectedly Arabic: Index

An index of a miniature odyssey through Greece (Athens, Hydra) and the United Arab Emirates (Dubai, Abu Dhabi).

Detail of the Parthenon Greek salad (horiatiki)

Erratically Hellenic: Epeisodion α

Arrival in Athens

Erratically Hellenic: Epeisodion β

The quixotic quest for souvlaki

Erratically Hellenic: Epeisodion γ

It’s all Greek to me

Erratically Hellenic: Epeisodion δ

Capsules of Athens and Hydra

Causeway to Marina Mall Inside the Emirates Palace

Unexpectedly Arabic: al-Episode أ

Emirates to Dubai and onward to Abu Dhabi

Unexpectedly Arabic: al-Episode ﺏ

Abu Dhabi in general and during Ramadan in particular