Friday, October 5, 2018

Know Thyself

Happiness depends on ourselves. -Aristotle

The beauty of not making a plan in Athens is what you discover along the way. Starting out in the evening to find a cozy spot to have dinner, we made turn after turn, winding our way past shops and eateries - the creamery adjacent to the pie shop was an especially appealing duo - crowded with humanity.

All my needs in one convenient location.

Like Goldilocks, it was a matter of finding just the right place to dine, but the pleasure was in what we found along the way. Passing a dancewear store, I glanced in to see a strapping man in jeans and t-shirt trying on a stiff, white tutu, the kind that comes straight out from the body at the waist. A solicitous-looking saleswoman was checking the fit and speaking to him.

Let's put it this way, he did not have a dancer's body, yet he appeared intent on making sure he had the right tutu. Random, yes, but oddly satisfying also.

Further on, we came upon what looked like a small stone church in the middle of a square surrounded by retail and construction and vowed to return in daylight to learn its story.

After checking out menus at several different places and rejecting each one for various reasons - too American, too loud, too similar to places we'd been - our "this one is just right" moment arrived when we came to Kouzina Kouzina, as much for its modern Greek cuisine as for the look of the place. Located next to a hair salon complete with barber pole, it had tables framed by wide doors open to the night and tables out front on the sidewalk. Inside, a curved staircase went up and down while pots and pans hung over a small counter inside.

Our first thought was that the feel of the place was a decidedly family vibe.

After moving from an outside table dramatically slanted because of the uneven street it was resting on, we settled in at the adjacent table just inside the open door with a picaresque view of the arches of a pale yellow church across the way. Before long, an Asian couple sat down at that same table, looked at each other, got up to find another and became our new best friends upon learning we'd done the same.

It was easy to decide on Vogiatzi Winery's PGI Velvento, a well-balanced blend of Chardonnay, Malvasi and  Asyrtiko, as we talked through the many-paged menu with our handsome young server.

Little did we realize just how much cheese was in our future.

His recommendations and our appetites combined to bring plate after plate to the table, beginning with a winning salad of spinach and arugula,, sun-dried tomatoes, dried figs and Galomizithra cheese in a grape molasses dressing. The round of the soft, fresh sheep's milk cheese, which tasted like a second cousin to Ricotta, was almost as wide as the plate and a good half inch thick. Obscene.

Sweet peppers stuffed with Cretan goat cheese were an interesting combination of spicy and sweet, leaving me to wonder why only sweet got billing on the menu. The six little peppers were not only stuffed with cheese, but resting on a bed of, you guessed it, a half inch of goat cheese.

The handmade pie of the day turned out to be chicken and as I worked it down to mere shards of flaky, buttery crust, it occurred to me what a (savory) pie hound I've been this week. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Mr. Wright was all about Manti, traditional Greek ravioli stuffed with spiced beef and served with yogurt sauce (but then again, what isn't served with some form of yogurt here?) that our server had assured us were lighter than the Cyprian meatballs. Considering there were 15 ravioli, light is a relative term.

But to give the manti credit, there was no cheese involved, so there was that. With notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, rosemary and the usual savory spices, they were so good that even Mr. Wright couldn't resist an observation. "This tastes like Greece." And this from the man who considers food fuel.

The French women nearest to us (at the lopsided table twice rejected) had also ordered manti and we watched as they swooned over the aromas of what we knew was fabulous.

Love is a serious mental disease. - Plato

I'll be the first to admit that I haven't done my duty sampling Greek desserts, but not being a fan of honey severely restricts the Venn diagram of what they do and what I like. At least, that was my rationalization for ordering a dark chocolate mousse with a blackberry jam topping to accompany a small bottle of Matapeaah Ouzo from the menu of six Ouzo choices.

Made on the island of Lesbos, it was our server's favorite and who am I to override a local?

Besides, everyone knows that ouzo is just absinthe without the wormwood and it's no secret that I love my absinthe. With the bottle and two slender liqueur glasses came a small silver ice bucket and tongues because who wants to drink Ouzo without making it louche?

Absinthe (and Ouzo) pros know it's all about the cloudiness setting in because that's when the green fairy arrives. And let me assure you, the Ouzo fairy showed up with bells on.

All I know is that I know nothing. - Socrates

Today was devoted to retracing our steps to last night's architectural discoveries, taking us past the dancewear store (tutus still hanging, but closed, so no men trying them on inside) where the little stone church stood in the middle of the square, uncomfortably close (for me, anyway) to the mercantile madness of the nearby H & M.

The Holy Church of  Kapnikarea had been built in the 11th century on the site of an ancient temple to Athena and was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It's always about worshiping women, isn't it? What was fascinating to me was that the murals inside hadn't been painted until the early 20th century and then touched up in 1955 by a famous Greek artist.

Standing outside next to a Brit reading the signage about the church, I was captured by the poetic explanation of the deterioration of the murals: "When decay is unavoidable, melancholy is drifted into oblivion," only to hear him turn to his wife seated a few feet away on the low stone wall and read her the same line.

Never have I read such poetry on American signage.

Walking toward the Tower of the Winds, a clocktower in the Roman Agora, a man greeted us, saying, "Hello, Romeo and Juliet!" and smiling broadly before pointing to a nearby place and saying there would be a reggae dance party there tonight and we should come if we liked to dance.

Busting a quick move, he concluded I liked to dance. "Come!" he implored. "African music!"

We'll see. For now, it was on to admire what can only be called the first weather station- constructed in the second century - with sundials, a wind vane and a water clock inside that used water coming down from the Acropolis.

Okay, okay, enough with the science.

What captured me was not only the eight friezes showing various wind deities such as the north wind (an old man blowing a conch shell) and the east wind (holding a basket filled with fruit), but the various states of decay caused by the weather coming from those directions. Who wouldn't expect that the northeasterly wind frieze is in far worse shape than the southeasterly?

C'mon, any daily walker could have guessed that.

The other antiquities taking up the large, irregular area - the Gate of Athena, a line of ancient columns where people posed for selfies - gave a sense of what a bustling place the Agora had been in its time.

After walking the perimeter from outside the fence as well so I could see all the friezes from an elevated point, we moseyed down to Hadrian's Library, which after the Agora seemed fairly simple. Most impressive was a mostly complete wall with Corinthian columns that somehow still stood intact.

Walking about today, we couldn't help but notice that the streets were a bit less crowded than they've been all week, which seems strange for a Friday but suited us just fine. Coming on a whitewashed restaurant patio on a prime corner not all that far from our apartment, we scored a table next to an Aussie family with a toddler eagerly digging into a platter of fries.

Kosmikoni had been on that spot since 1966 when the owners had opened using the wife's recipes and was now in the hands of their children, although the older gentleman walking around the patio checking on every table could have easily been Pops. If a customer needed an answer, he was right there. If they were ready to order, he took it without writing anything down.

A quartet - tambourine, accordion, upright bass and sax - showed up to provide lunching music before passing the tambourine for contributions. People stopped mid-bite to pull out phones and watch through tiny screens. No comment.

My gyro arrived deconstructed and enormous, half the platter covered in shaved meat and the rest offering up wedges of tomato, piles of sliced onions, tzatziki and pita bread. Mr. Wright's kebabs had all the same accouterments minus the tzatziki. It was enough food for an army and we were just two hungry mouths, but we did our best.

All I know is how dubiously our server looked at the mound of chicken still left on my plate when he came to clear, probably thinking that there were starving children in the Agora or something like that.

Life must be lived as a play. - Plato

And Juliet's play is currently running in Athens. Like Aristotle said, it's up to me.


  1. “Little did we realize just how much cheese was in our future.”

    That would be a great opening line for a novel.

    I'm loving reading your travel adventures.

  2. It would, wouldn't it? So glad you're finding my adventures a good read, Professor! It's a lot of fun on my end, too...