Tuesday, May 29, 2007

My Greek Class - The Final Week

My friend and classmate Alexandros (a Greek-German) took this photo of our Greek class about 6 months ago. He subsequently dropped out of the class, but he came back for a visit today and gave out this photo as a present. He takes some great photos. I showed him the little I know about “blogging” and he set up his own blog here. (It’s got great photos of his travels around Greek, but the stories are in German.)

Anyway, this is the final week of Greek class! The big test is on Saturday morning and then that’s it! I’ll never speak Greek again! ( ;

(Or at least I won’t study grammar for awhile.)

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Our Yard - CURRENT Pictures

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Finally, current pictures. I don’t call them “AFTER” photos, because we still have a lot of work we’d like to do. A lot of the ground looks pretty barren now, because the things we’ve planted haven’t come up yet. So, I’ll have to post some more pictures in a few months.

The top photo is taken from the Lillies’ yard. Their apartment is in the right background of the photo, and ours on the left. In between are the tomato and pepper plants.

The second photo is also taken from the Lillies’ yard as you walk on the sidewalk into our section. To the left is a second pathway we made. We used bricks to line the walkway and the gravel that was sitting in the middle of our yard as the filler. (Pelagia used a hand-sieve on all the gravel to separate out the sand.)

The middle pathway is the one that runs across all three of the apartments on this level, and the right path breaks off to go up to our back porch. On the far left, along the gravel path, you see a wicker chair which Pelagia found and fixed up. Just this side of the chair (not in the photo) are some cucumbers I planted.

The third photo is taken from the far end of the yard, back across our yard and toward the Lillies. You see our porch and then the Lillies’ porch behind that.

The bottom photo is of the middle of our yard. We are waiting on some wild flower seeds to bloom in here, so it looks pretty barren now. Pelagia constructed the small brick podium in the middle. In the background, you can barely make out a small, charcoal grill that the Lillies gave us, and a plastic table with two chairs and an umbrella that we found.

For a few more photos I took today, click here.

Our Yard - April 'Working' Photos

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Around the beginning of April, as we finally came out of winter, we began working on the yard. Here are a couple pictures of our initial work. The top one is of us working to put in a stone path.

The second one is of us working in the connecting yard of our neighbors, the Lillies. James had surgery on his hand and was unable to get his vegetables planted in time, so we volunteered. He supplied all the materials, we supplied the work, and now we’ll share the bounty – which includes tomatoes, peppers, and squash. We hope to have tomatoes in just a few weeks – hopefully, by the time my parents come for a visit on June 18.

Our Yard - BEFORE Pictures

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Sorry for the inactivity on the blog recently. Nothing much exciting is happening here. I’m trudging my way to the end of Greek class, which is this week. Our big exam is next Saturday, June 2, and I can’t WAIT for this to be over!

When I say that not much exciting is happening, this is true. But on the other hand, I’ve been reflecting recently on how much I’ve learned about Orthodoxy just by living here. Maybe I’ll write a post about this some time, but for now I can only say that I think I didn’t really understand anything about Orthodoxy before coming here. It has taken some time to adjust to the differences between the Orthodoxy in the US and here, but the benefits are beyond words. I’ll have to leave it at that for now, since this post is supposed to be about our yard.

Thanks to former resident Jesse Philo (who lived in this apartment circa 2001?) for the request to see the yard.

The photos you see in this post are from when we first arrived back in August 2006. The yard was almost entirely weeds, except for the places where trash was being stored for some unknown reason (along with about 10 big bags of gravel which appear to have been sitting in the yard for several years – Jesse, can you comment on this?).

To orient you, our yard is accessible from our back porch. We are the ground-floor apartment, with about 5 stories above us. Technically, we are not considered ground floor, but rather the sub-basement. You see, the building is built into a hill, and the front of the building accesses the road, two stories above.

Originally, our level of apartments was not intended for human habitation, but rather storage. In Greece, apartment buildings are frequently constructed through a partnership of an architect, an engineer, and a constructor, who then divide up the apartments among themselves to rent or give to their children, etc. This floor was designed as storage, as I said, but at the last second, the constructor secretly abandoned the plans and made them more apartments, which he then kept for himself. Ah, Greece! ( ;

Anyway, this is all good news for us, because since we’re considered a sub-basement, the rent is abnormally cheap for an area as nice as Panorama. We’re VERY fortunate to have this apartment.

Well, on with the yard photos…

Thursday, May 17, 2007

A Greek Bus Ride

Hold on for a ride on the Thessaloniki bus system!

In this video I took today, you'll get a taste of what I have to look forward to two hours every day – one hour in from Panorama and one hour back home.
Let me narrate the video for you.

It’s about 1:30 PM, and I’m coming from the student cafeteria (which gives us free lunch…unfortunately, ‘free’ is about the only good thing I can say about it…).

As I crossed the street to get to the bus stop, I walked by quite an accident. A taxi hit another pedestrian making that crossing a few minutes before (his windshield was shattered), and a crowd had gathered around the injured man. In the video, you can see the ambulance which has just arrived, and the crowd immediately behind it. Meanwhile, traffic goes on its merry way and, of course, the police are nowhere to be seen (maybe they’re on strike today, or maybe it’s just too hot, or too near the afternoon siesta).

Anyway, I’m at the bus stop near the cafeteria and I’m eagerly waiting for the bus, ready to pounce as soon as it arrives.

You see, there’s a certain art to getting the bus. First, you have to survey the situation. There are three doors – I never go to the front door, because there are proportionally less seats there. So that leaves the middle or back. I generally prefer the back, because I think it has the highest density of seats, but if it’s more crowded, I will take the middle. So the first thing is to survey the situation on the bus, and see how packed the middle and back are. Next, and really simultaneously, you have to survey your competition. Where is everyone else getting on? While the crowd usually surges immediately for the closest opening door, I prefer to hang back and look for a hole. This is exactly what you see me do in the video. The bus comes – I check the middle and back door. People are jammed right up against the doors in both places, so it doesn’t matter. But the majority of my competitors went for the middle, so you see me flank out and take a run at the back. Fortunately, today, there were actually a whole 8 or 9 square inches for me to occupy.

Once I got in – being careful to avoid getting smashed in the door, which is not infrequent – I then look for the closest ticket-punching box. I spot the orange cube, but – of course – bodies are pressed all around it. After a moment of showing my ticket and intention, people squirm this way and that and manage to open up a couple inches for me to snake my arm through and punch the ticket. This accomplished, I can now “relax” and “enjoy” the ride to Panorama, complete with oppressive heat and stifling lack of air (the Greeks are deathly afraid that moving air will give them pneumonia) – and let’s not forget the disturbing body odor which, unfortunately, the video just can’t capture.

Now I should mention that this was a fairly average bus ride. I’ve been on buses that are MUCH MORE crowded, if you can believe it. I’ve seen the doors actually UNABLE to close because of the mass of humanity – and the solution was NOT for someone to get off, but simply to push and shove until the doors were physically able to close (on someone).

In Japan, or so I’ve heard, some buses have, in addition to the driver, a second employee (wearing white gloves) whose job is to actually pack people into the bus. I checked on YouTube for some evidence of this, and I didn’t see anything, so I’m skeptical. In fact, I laugh – yes, laugh! – at what those videos claimed were “packed” buses. Why, I saw people with a good 9 inches of personal space left to them! If we were only so lucky!

Push play...

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Greek Parking

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At last, yesterday I was inspired to begin my expose on Greek Parking.

Our Greek class took a field trip down to the Byzantine Museum and afterwards some of us walked to the Leski (the free student cafeteria) for lunch.

The photos you see are of us walking there along a major road – well, actually, ON a major road, because the sidewalk was full of parked cars.

Unfortunately, this is the norm rather than the exception.

Like most Greek cities (urban planning? what’s that?), there was precious little forethought on the effects of automobile proliferation, etc. To be fair, these ancient cities have a host of challenges not shared by those in AmericaOmaha, for instance, probably doesn’t have 2000-year old Roman ruins.

Still, the situation here is desperate, particularly with regard to everything related to cars.

Even as little as 20 years ago (so we’ve been told), the situation was quite different. Relatively few people had cars, because you had to have enough money to pay for the whole car right off the bat.

Everything changed, though, with the recent introduction of credit cards and installment plans with usurious interest rates. Now, everyone has a car – and staggering debt.

Meanwhile, the city never caught up with the explosion of cars. Traffic is terrible (like many big cities), but parking is a particularly interesting issue.

The idea of parking lots is almost completely foreign here – such places are just now springing up within the last couple years. Of course, there are legal, designated parking places along the curbs on many streets, just as in other cities. However, these are not nearly enough.

The narrow streets have signs which sternly warn that “Parking is Forbidden,” or even – more hilariously – “Parking is Strictly Forbidden.” (As with smoking, to merely say that it is forbidden means absolutely nothing. To say it is strictly (lit. austerely) forbidden means that a Greek may think about it for 2 seconds before smoking or parking there anyway.

So, first you have the legal parking spaces along big streets. Then you have the illegal parking along narrow streets (which usually turns two-lane streets into one-lane) and double-parking next to the legal parking. Double-parking is so common place that I actually see triple-parking.

Finally, you have the sidewalks (lit. foot-road). When our Greek teacher was first explaining this word to us, I said, “Oh! You mean the place where all the cars park?” The really funny part was that she said, “Yes, exactly!” without realizing that I was making a joke.

The sidewalks are now so jam-packed full of parked cars that pedestrians are forced to walk in traffic in most places. Now this wouldn’t be nearly so bad if the law here, as in many countries, gave pedestrians the right of way (considering they generally weigh about a ton less than their competitors coming at them at 50 mph), but no. Here, as we tell our visitors, the pedestrian only has the right to get out of the way.

The general rule of thumb for parking is simply: Will my car fit without getting damaged? There is no thought for where it is in relation to others’ needs, etc.

We talked about this situation in our Greek class one time, and when I and some Western Europeans suggested having the traffic police actually issue parking tickets, or maybe even tow someone, the teacher laughed out loud. I have yet to see a parking ticket or a car towed.

In the top photo, you see three of my classmates (from Romania, Russia and Palestine) forced off the sidewalk to make room for the parked cars.

The second photo shows the line of cars on the sidewalk to the left.

The third photo shows a major sidewalk inside the university. (It’s so wide, NOT for parking, but because this university is one of the biggest in all Europe with 95,000-100,000 students). Of course, cars are parked even here. I’ve actually been walking there and had a car beep at me to pass – on the sidewalk!!

The bottom photo shows cars parked in a ‘strictly forbidden’ bus stop area – and then double-parked on top of that.

In spite of all this, it all somehow works (as with everything here!). The Greeks just don’t seem obsessed, as we are in the West, with imposing rationality on every aspect of society.

This is something that I have come to appreciate, because this is the ancient culture that was the seedbed for Christianity and, frankly, I think Orthodox Christianity makes much more sense within its native culture.

I think the Western mind (both secular and Christian) has been influenced by the neo-Aristotelian idea that one approaches immortality (or God) through rationality. The underlying assumption for society is that the more rational and efficient we make it, the more perfect (in religious terms, God-like) it will be.

The Greek mind is simply not influenced by this line of thought, especially inasmuch as, religiously, it has led to enormous and fundamental differences in the Eastern and Western approaches to Christianity (see St Gregory Palamas vs Barlaam for starters).

Friday, May 04, 2007


As I’ve mentioned before, Pelagia has been working quite a lot for a lady from the local parish here, Marianna, in repainting her house, doing odd jobs, etc. This woman has been very kind to both of us and especially Pelagia.

Her husband is a businessman and also serves as an honorary consulate to Croatia (He’s not Croatian at all, so I’m not really sure what it means. It seems to be something equivalent to big business people in America serving on ‘boards’ of non-profits.). Anyway, about a month ago, there was a big photo exhibit here in Thessaloniki of a famous Croatian photographer (many of his photos of Croatia were very nice), and we were invited along with our neighbors, the Lillies. So we made an appearance and the hired photographer for the event took this photo of us with Marianna.

Pelagia just finished repainting a big section of her house today (I helped finish), and Marianna gave her this photo that was taken. I thought it might be nice to post it so you can see one of the many good-hearted people God has put in our lives here.

On another note, our friend Rob has finally finished his video of our trip to Patmos. The last day, our departure, is now available here. He is also putting all 5 days together into a 28-minute DVD, which will be available for sale here on this blog in the coming weeks (ok, just kidding – it probably wasn’t that popular, but it will be nice for us to have the DVD).