Saturday, December 20, 2003

There's No Place Like Home For The Holidays

There are only five days until Christmas. It should feel like Christmas, but it doesn’t. Not yet. Not for me. On Monday, though, I expect that all to change. On Monday, I will be home for the holidays. Right now I’m just trying to pass the time until I head to the airport and spend almost a day in transit to the one place where Christmas really feels like Christmas.

I can’t imagine spending Christmas anywhere except at home. I’ve been trying so hard to get in the holiday spirit here, but the effort has been largely unsuccessful. Despite decorating our house, playing Christmas carols (or more often, singing them), and going on day long shopping trips, I’m just not feeling it. There is a Christmas village set up in Syntagma square, which tricks me into the mood for a few moments. A large Christmas tree is surrounded by gingerbread looking houses where confections are sold, and long lines of people wait for a ride on the carousel, which seems to go dangerously fast. At night, especially when a hint of cold is in the air, it almost feels like Christmas.

But the illusion doesn’t last long. There are simply too many things here which don’t jive with my version of Christmas. The decorated palm trees, the relatively mild weather, the fact that not one Santa I’ve seen here has had a real beard and that without fail they are 100 lbs too thin. Christmas here isn’t nearly as big of a deal as it is in America. Of course, since the country is 99% Greek Orthodox, they do celebrate it as a religious holiday, but there is little emphasis on it being a holiday centered around tradition and togetherness. The Greeks spend much more energy celebrating New Year’s, when St. Vassilis brings them gifts. Santa Claus is nothing more than a Western import…along with much of their means of celebrating the Christmas holiday. Unlike in Germany where Christmas is absolutely authentic, most holiday goods here amount to nothing more than cheap imported junk.

Yet it’s not just the shortcomings of Greece, which put a damper on my holiday spirit. I’ve felt the same way in Germany and in Texas. It never feels like Christmas until I am home. I am a Christmas traditionalist. Christmas to me means certain very specific things, and without those things, it doesn’t seem like Christmas. Christmas is…decorating the Christmas trees with my family while Christmas music plays in the background; making batches and batches of Christmas cookies and candies; watching “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” with the whole family; driving around and looking at Christmas lights all over town; having my dad’s family over for a Christmas Eve brisket dinner; going to Midnight Mass; leaving out cookies and a note for Santa and a carrot for Rudolph; crowding into one room with my brothers to sleep so that no one can wake up without the others; sitting at the top of the stairs with my brothers right after we wake up and having our picture taken; opening the Santa Claus gifts, then the stocking gifts/family gift, and finally the gifts we bought each other all before anyone even considers eating breakfast; having my grandparents and now my aunt come over in the morning for more gift exchanging; going to my dad’s parents for Christmas lunch; going to my mom’s parents (and now my mom’s sister’s or brother’s) for Christmas dinner; coming home and playing with Christmas gifts until wee hours of the morning.
This, and this alone, is Christmas. I can’t imagine it any other way. I don’t want to imagine it any other way. That it might change when I get married or have kids is an idea I’m not willing to accept. It’s hard enough for me that I’m missing some of the pre-Christmas preparation. Missing Christmas itself would be completely unacceptable. I’m going home on Monday, and I can’t wait. Then, and only then, will it really begin to feel a lot like Christmas.

P.S. If any family members are reading, I have a proposal. Since we are having Christmas at Charlie’s house and since Charlie’s house is so close to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, don’t you think we should stop by and see if we can take a picture on the steps? Wouldn’t that be fun?

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let it Snow!

It’s snowing here in Athens. I woke up this morning to a light grey sky splotched with dark grey clouds that were gently releasing the tiniest flakes of snow. The snowflakes fell slowly, each the lead ballerina in its own short glorious dance. During the course of my first period class, the snow picked up in intensity, with clouds of snow swirling in the wind. The flakes are noticeable, but not sizable. They cling to your coat, your hair, and your eyelashes, but they leave nothing but a lingering wetness on the ground. The snow will probably end soon, and by this evening or tomorrow, this morning’s magic will be nothing but a dreamlike memory. But for now, there is snow in Athens, defying the begonias blooming on my front porch and the patches of bright green grass that are appearing for the first time since I’ve been here, declaring loudly that yes, even here in Athens, there is a Christmas.

Friday, December 12, 2003


I just typed a long blog and it disappeared. It claims to have saved it, but I have no idea where. I can't seem to find it. Fortunately, it wasn't a long story or anything, but simply some random thoughts. I'm frustrated and annoyed right now, so my random thoughts are going to be pared down to what Matthew refers to as talking points. Perhaps I'll elaborate later if I still find the thoughts interesting in a day or two.

---At the Monastiraki Flea Market last weekend, D, Kate and I could have bought a quarter for 2 euros. A man was selling old coins and among them we found a quarter. We asked the guy how much he would sell it for, not telling him what it was of course. He studied it for a while, and then declared that while most of the coins were only 1 euro 50 cent, this one was 2 euro. We found that to be pretty funny. Especially considering the fact that the dollar isn't worth crap nowadays. Even funnier was the fact that the guy across from him was selling a dildo. It was laid out on his blanket, not in any sort of package, right between some old doorknobs and a bucket of tools. It was quite the flea market.

---There's a kid at the elementary school who claims to be James Bond, Jr. He's a really funny kid. We met one day while I was typing at the computer and he kept whispering, "Close the computer." (They say close when they mean turn off.) All the while, of course, he was acting as if he had no idea who was saying this. (Hmm, Dad, remind you of anyone you know???). I see him all the time now, and he always runs up and gives me a big high five. I like him. He's funny.

---I'm not a very good English major. A lot of the other Teaching Fellows were either English or Literature majors, and they are much better fits for it than me. They like Byron and the Romantics. They can name and discuss all the literary periods. They have read Beowoulf, Canterbury Tales, The Iliad, The Odyssey and other such books in their entirety...and sometimes for fun. I, on the other hand, can make no such claims. While discussing this, Darrell made a very good observation. He said that he thinks that I don't so much like literature as I like stories. Excellent point. I don't really appreciate a lot of the things I'm supposed to as an English major. I don't want to discuss the literary merit of any work, and I'm not particularly interested in analyzing it. All I want is a good story. I want something that makes me turn the pages, that grabs my attention and my imagination, that is enjoyable to read. I want stories, not literature.

Monday, December 08, 2003

It's A Circus Out There

Going to Ermou Street, the main street in downtown Athens, is much like going to the circus. To begin with, there are performers everywhere. One of the most popular acts is the statue act. People dress up and paint their bodies and stand perfectly still on top of boxes or other platforms in a variety of poses, acting as if they are statues. The really good ones make you look twice or even three times before you're convinced that they are actually alive. People stand and gawk, and when the occasional person throws a coin into the box at the performer's foot, the performer comes alive for a short moment, usually doing nothing more than artistically waving their hand, blowing a kiss, or elaborately curtseying. Every week I see the same performers, and I can't help but wonder how one comes to do this. Do they stand at home in front of mirrors for hours on end practicing being as still as possible? Do they really make much money this way? I can't imagine that they do, but there must be some reason they continue doing it.

Aside from the statue people, there are performers who are a bit more lively. There's usually at least one person playing the guitar and singing. Occasionally there are groups of people performing together. Yesterday, for instance, there were three men dressed in full Native American regalia, singing, dancing and beating their drums in the middle of the street. They drew quite the crowd. And there's always a few old men pushing carts that have big wheels which you turn with a handcrank and from which music emerges. They push the carts up and down the streets, cranking out the music, occasionally singing, more often that not making strange chanting noises. This usually attracts my attention the most, perhaps because I don't really understand it. I wonder if the men constructed the carts themselves and it's considered an art form, or if I'm supposed to reward them with money simply for turning a crank and pushing a cart all over town.

And then to make the circus complete there are tons of people selling things. I can buy scarves, rip-off purses, balloons filled with flour with faces drawn on them, balloon animal kits, flowers, and a variety of other novelties that change on a weekly basis. Plus there is food: popcorn, roasted chestnuts, roasted corn on the cob, pistachios, cotton candy, coconut.

It's a real honest-to-God circus. It doesn't matter one bit that every store on the entire street is closed on Sunday...Ermou Street is still packed. It's something to see, and every week there's something new and exciting. Maybe next time there will be elephants and a flying trapeze. I can hardly wait.

Friday, December 05, 2003

Ich Liebe Deutschland

On Tuesday, I returned from a little holiday trip to Germany. Most of the time I stayed with my friend Laura in the area near Ramstein Air Force Base, but I also spent one night in Cologne with another friend from my time studying abroad in Freiburg, Jeff Ellis. I had a great weekend. I didn't do any crazy sightseeing tours, running from one must-see site to another (I did enough of that the year I was there), but instead I relaxed and enjoyed the country I got to know quite well two years ago.

I really like Germany. As soon as my flight took off and the flight attendants came on the intercom speaking German, I felt comfortable. After living for three months in a country whose language I don't speak, hearing a language I knew was refreshing. It was amazing how suddenly German, which I studied long and hard to learn, seemed so natural and easy. Stepping off the plane, it was almost, but not quite, like being home. Germany is a comfortable place for me.

I'd never really thought about it before, but I think there are certain places that are just right for certain people. I enjoy Greece, but I never feel completely in sync with it. The chaos irks me. I'm not a huge fan of taking long naps in the afternoon in order to go out at 3am and stay out all night. I don't like the fact that the bus that is scheduled to come at 1pm might come at 12:45, might come at 1:15, or might not come at all. I definitely hate the pollution and general lack of concern for the environment. Greece is a great place to live for a year...a great place to vacation...but it's not somewhere I could ever imagine living.

In all honesty, I'll probably live most of my life in the United States. This is what I want. But I could live in Germany. In Germany I feel more at home than I do in any other place besides home. I know how things work, and beyond that, I like how things work. I love the efficiency, the order, the respect for the environment, the political consciousness, the desire to do quality work. I feel like it's a very real place, and a place where I myself can be real, can be who I am.

I spent some time considering whether this was simply a condition of the fact that I had lived in Germany for a year, and that maybe I'd feel the same way about Greece after a year, but I don't think that's the case. As proof, I offer Houston. I lived in Houston for three years, but never really grew attached to it. I would never live there again. Houston and I simply don't mesh. Yes, there are places that can grow on you, but there are also places where you just feel like you're in the right place.

If you've never been to Germany, you should go. It might not be right for you. But it might be. And there's plenty to do there, so it will turn out to be a good trip either way. Instead of rambling on and on about the place, I'll just offer up some of the things I really like about it. If you go, I'm sure you'll come up with some more.

1. The way it's really really dark at night. So dark that you almost can't see your hand in front of your face...and therefore you can see millions of stars.
2. The way that there are woods and nature everywhere. The towns interrupt nature, instead of nature interrupting towns.
3. The bakeries...mmmmm. So much good stuff, it's impossible to choose.
4. The Christmas markets. Germany knows how to do Christmas right. It looks like Christmas, smells like Christmas, feels like Christmas, and tastes like Christmas. Try some gluehwein. Have some chocolate covered strawberries. Buy a hand carved nativity. Take a ride on the merry-go-round.
5. The way that people in stores ask after you've made a selection, "Nach einen Wuensch?" Literally this means, "Another wish?" It's as if they are little fairy godmothers who will grant you whatever wish you choose.
6. The Altstadt (old town). The downtown section of almost every town is almost completely pedestrianized. You can walk up and down the cobbled streets, window shopping, snacking, talking without fear of getting run over.
7. The sense of history. The towns are really well preserved. History is alive in Germany. There's a bit of pride, a bit of embarrassment, a bit of apology, a bit of protectiveness.