Saturday, January 27, 2007


On January 2nd Paige and split from the pack and took off for Greece, catching the night train to Thessalonica. We arrived in time to catch a bus to Athens where we had dinner in view of a lit up and ancient Greek temple. I had expected Athens to be a dreary and polluted city (as I’d been told), but was actually really impressed by it. Our hotel turned out to be in a bad neighborhood (our cab driver tried to sell us a 44 magnum for protection—a joke?) but I still felt far safer then I do in Tbilisi during the day.

The next morning we caught a ferry to the island of Santorini, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my life. Santorini is a volcano that erupted 2,500 years ago and the town is essentially built on the edge of the crater looking out at the Mediterranean. Most nights we would sit in a café on the edge of the cliff and watch the sun set into the sea. It was absolutely spectacular. I can’t describe it.

Winter is not the tourist high season for Santorini so most of the hotels and restaurants are closed, but on the upside we practically had the whole island to ourselves. Our main company was a herd of stray dogs that escorted us everywhere. The locals seemed kind of frightened by them but not us. We had to get rabies vaccinations for Georgia so we were protected. But even without that, I’m now an expert in warding off aggressive stray dogs. I sought to prove this to Paige at one point when we came upon one stray that began barking at us aggressively from a distance. I bent down to pick up a rock and once I’d found one I turned to face the dog only to discover he was already upon us, eagerly trying to lick my hand.

We spent a week there, doing little more then sleep in late, drink filtered coffee, wander about the narrow alleyways, explore the island on foot and eat kebabs and baklava. We were particularly impressed with the warmth of the people, who worked long hours but were incredibly laid back and generous. Also, they kept giving us free stuff. “Here, have a bottle of wine. My husband makes it... Here are some scones for your coffee tomorrow... I’ll throw in a few more baklava... Desert, on the house.... Have some chocolate cake?”

I recommend Santorini.

Unfortunately all good things must end and we had to head back to Athens for our return flight. We spent the day there touring various ancient sites, including The Acropolis, which is the site of the Parthenon. A big deal I guess.

And it was really impressive, but it was overshadowed by a site much less ancient—the American restaurant chain T.G.I. Fridays. If you’ve eaten there in the states then you know it serves average burgers and steaks, absurdly named cocktails, and all in an atmosphere so fake and repugnant it borders on nauseating. The wait staff wears goofy suspenders littered with buttons, ridiculous hats, and if you’re unfortunate enough to be there on your birthday the whole staff gathers around your table and sings a peppy version of “Happy Birthday.” It’s despicable and appalling, a foul and disgusting tribute to the excessive and degenerate aspects of American culture... that is unless you’re a homesick American Peace Corps volunteer. If that’s the case then you will LOVE EACH AND EVERY ASPECT OF IT, right down to the Ghostbusters movie poster and license plates littering the wall. You will be more excited then when you went to Chucky Cheese the first time as a seven-year-old. To you, this will be like Disney Land on acid on Mars. This will be the home of all of your hopes and dreams. This will be your Never Never Land, a magical land of everything that Georgia isn’t and everything that Georgia doesn’t have.

I now know how Charlie felt when he first entered the Chocolate Factory with that golden ticket. TGIFridays is heaven on earth.

You want Buffalo wings? They serve them hot and fiery with blue cheese sauce.

Mozzarella sticks? They come seasoned and breaded with a side of marinara sauce, just like back home.

Potato skins with bacon and cheddar? Check.

Chicken quesadilla with salsa and guacamole? Check.

Steaks cooked to medium rare? Yep.

You want a gigantic goblet filled with a deluxe blended margarita? They can do that.

You want four of them, one right after another? Coming right up--although they do give you a dirty look. Does that judgmental glare deter you? No. No it does not. You relish each and every frosty sip. You sip long and lovingly until you give yourself a brain-freeze and IT WARMS YOUR VERY SOUL.

Nothing can spoil this. Not the stupid decorations on the wall. Not the snooty waiter who looks like a vampire. Not even Paige insisting on singing every single word to an entire Counting Crows song at the table—Why did she do that?

But regardless, nothing can top this. This is the pinnacle. This is the mountaintop. This is Shangri-La.

But then the next day you have to give it all up. You have to go to the airport and suffer through layovers and travel’s inevitable hiccups. You have to take the bus ride from hell and get stranded at the border aboard a bus full of very friendly Azeri’s who are probably lacking the correct travel documents. You have to abandon the bus and cross on foot. You end up getting back to site a day late, costing you a valuable future travel day. And then you have to wait for an hour and a half for no reason at the horrid bus station in Kutaisi before your mini bus driver will muster the energy to take you to your village. And once there you have to trudge up that long muddy street in the rain to your home.

For dinner you get a dish made from scraps off the head/face of a pig and suspended in a cube of gelatin. Cheek and brain and gristle and snout. This could be really bad. This could be soul destroying. After the culinary wonders you’ve just experienced this could be the nail in the coffin that sends you running back to America

“Mommy, I missed you.”

But the truth of the matter is this pig face in Jello actually tastes alright. The fact is there’s something wrong with you, some quirk or glitch that makes you okay with this. You sort of derive an odd satisfaction from this.

And luckily you’re happy to see your host family (who are really cool) and there’s a lot of laughter as you recount your past few weeks in your now deteriorated Georgian (not that it wasn’t awful before you left). But you manage to understand the latest village gossip from them.

And then you head up to your unheated and freezing cold room, climb into your sleeping bag and for the first time in the past few weeks your room isn’t uncomfortably hot. You’re not going to get up at 2am to search in vain for a shutoff valve on the radiator. You’re not going to complain that your room is an oven. Not now. Currently your room is a perfect and balmy 40 something degrees. So you lay shivering and comfy in bed thinking about some projects you’re excited to get started on in your community. “This isn’t so bad,” you admit to yourself, as the hail starts to pound the tin roof and the lightning and thunder rattles your windows. You pull your wool hat down over your ears, getting cozy and comfortable. There are lots of good things about being back in Georgia and you’re even a little excited to return to work and you’re definitely well rested and recharged.

But don’t think I’ve totally lost my mind. As I mentioned to Paige in the text message I sent her that first night back in site: “I wish we were still in Santorini.”

Best sunset in the whole world.


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