Greece Is The Word

If you’re somebody who has been saving for retirement and investing your savings in the financial markets, here’s a bit of friendly advice:  don’t check the markets today, or for that matter all of this week.  You’ll just be depressed.

The problem is Greece.  It defaulted on its repayment of loans from the International Monetary Fund last week, and yesterday its voters overwhelmingly rejected a referendum that would have imposed strict austerity measures.  Greece’s finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, who had opposed the austerity measures — he once said that “austerity is like trying to extract milk from a sick cow by whipping it” — then resigned with a flourish, saying that the referendum result would “stay in history as a unique moment when a small European nation rose up against debt-bondage.”

“Debt bondage”?  That’s a good one!  Try it on your bank the next time your mortgage or car payment comes due.

The problem for Greece is that there is no alternative to repaying its debts.  Greece is paying the piper for electing bad leaders who didn’t recognize the inevitable crash that was coming from constant borrowing to pay for a broken economic and pension system.  After defaulting on its IMF loan, Greece really has nowhere to turn for cash.  Who is going to loan money to an impoverished country where the citizens apparently don’t recognize their obligation to repay their debts?

All of this would be a valuable economic lesson in unsustainable borrowing if Greece were just going down the tubes by itself.  The problem is that Greece is part of the European Union, and its problems therefore are Eurozone problems.  Now European leaders need to figure out whether they have Greece exit the EU — not exactly a ringing endorsement of EU political and financial stability — or extend still more credit to the Greeks, which probably isn’t going to sit well with voters in Germany and other prudently managed EU countries who wonder why they are picking up the tab for Greece’s problems.

All of which loops back to affect those of us who have saved and invested.  Financial markets hate uncertainty, and the Greek crisis has now become uncertain to the nth degree.  Today we’ll be seeing news coverage of closed Greek banks, crowds in the streets trying to find cash, and frowning finance ministers going to meetings in ornate European buildings — not exactly scenes that speak of financial stability.  So even though the Greek problem has nothing to do with the U.S., in our global economic system our financial markets will be affected just the same.

It will be a wild ride until the Greek problem is finally resolved, and there really is only one solution:  Greece will need to leave the EU, issue its own currency, and witness the worst hyperinflation seen in Europe in decades.  After its economic system crashes and its elderly citizens see their savings eaten up by inflation, maybe the Greeks will recognize that some austerity and continuing “debt bondage” really wasn’t so bad.

Last Visit To The Louvre

Today Richard, Russell and I visited the Louvre. I think it will probably be my last visit. If you’ve been to the Louvre, you may understand what I mean. If you’ve never been there, you won’t. You’ll read the guidebooks, and they will tell you that you absolutely must visit the Louvre, and you will go — because you absolutely must visit the Louvre if you come to Paris. I’m betting, though, that you probably won’t enjoy it.

Today we bypassed the long line for tickets because we had a museum pass, which is crucial — otherwise, you could wait for an hour or more just to get a chance to buy a ticket. Once inside, we headed to the wing of the museum that houses the Mona Lisa and thousands of other paintings from the Renaissance. When you get to the room that houses Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, prepare for a scrum. The room is a wild melee of people elbowing to get close to the painting and taking “selfies.” It’s not a positive reflection of humanity, and it’s simply impossible to enjoy the painting in anything approaching quiet contemplation. The experiences in front of the other famous items at the Louvre, like Venus de Milo, are similarly unpleasant mob scenes.

It’s hard to get away from the crowds, and it’s hard to appreciate the artwork when any movement is likely to insert you into a picture taken by another tourist. And there really is too much to see — room after room after room of Egyptian antiquities, or Roman statues, or Greek busts. I found myself thinking that, if I were an Egyptian visitor, I’d be upset that my cultural heritage has been taken and warehoused in faraway Paris, in a place where countless riches from other countries are on display.

005If you want to focus on one area, such as Flemish and Dutch paintings, you could fill an entire day. And be prepared to walk through room after room of hundreds of Madonna and child and Biblical paintings, still life paintings of gutted animal carcasses, landscapes and sea paintings, arranged in rooms where dozens of pieces are on display cheek by jowl and even the ceilings are painted masterpieces. It’s just too much. At the end of our visit I searched for a room that was quiet and suited for enjoying art, and found a room of beautiful medieval tapestries that would have been worth a separate visit if they had been located in virtually any other museum in the world. In the Louvre, however, they are an afterthought — as the picture included with this post indicates.

After a few hours we departed, having walked for miles on marble floors until our feet ached and our necks were tied in knots, and I swore that I had had enough of clustering, clamoring tourists, and walls crammed with paintings, and bustling guides. I think this will be my last visit to the Louvre.

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2012 (V)

Our friends in Greece need all of our moral support these days.  What better way to show our backing than by adding a traditional Greek cookie to the holiday mix?  And any cookies that asks the baker to insert whole cloves and then later remove them sound interesting.

Greek Holiday Cookies

Ingredients:  1 cup butter, softened; 1/2 cup granulated sugar; 1 egg; 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, 1/2 teaspoon brandy extract; 2 1/2 cups flour; 1 teaspoon baking powder; 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves; 1/4 teaspoon salt; whole cloves; confectioners’ sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  In a large bowl, beat butter, granulated sugar, egg, vanilla, and brandy extract until light and fluffy.  Add flour, baking powder, ground cloves and salt.  Beat on low speed until a soft dough forms.

Shape dough by heaping teaspoonfuls into crescents.  Arrange the cookies 2 inches apart on baking sheets.  Press two whole cloves into the ends of each cookie.

Bake 10 minutes or until set.  Cool cookies on baking sheet for one minute before transferring to cooling racks.  Dust with confectioners’ sugar while still warm.  Remove whole cloves before serving.

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2012

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2012 (II)

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2012 (III)

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2012 (IV)

Why I’m Voting For Mitt Romney And Paul Ryan

On Tuesday, I’ll walk in to the polling booth at the church in New Albany where we vote and touch the screen for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.  I recognize that that decision won’t come as much of a surprise for loyal readers of our family blog.  I think it’s only fair to explain why, if only to add one more person’s perspective to the national conversation about this election.

In my view, the most important issue confronting our country is our federal deficit and national debt — the latter of which has passed the $16 trillion mark.  I care about other issues, of course, but I view our debt as the most fundamental issue of all because it involves basic concepts of national sovereignty.  Our debt is so large, and has existed for so long, that we tend to think of it as a kind of abstraction . . . but every dollar of that debt is a real obligation of our country, reflected in an instrument sold by the U.S. treasury to a willing buyer who will be paid a specified interest rate.  With each additional bit of borrowing, we give those people from whom we are borrowing leverage that may allow them to dictate terms — at first, the terms of the debt instruments, by insisting on higher interest payments, and then eventually the terms of how our government operates, by dictating whether we need to adopt austerity measures in how our country operates if we hope to obtain additional loans.  At that point, our national sovereignty is at stake.

We know this to be the case, because over the past few years we have seen it occur in Iceland and Ireland, and in Greece and Portugal.  Those countries borrowed irresponsibly and saw the interest rates on their debt instruments rise as investors became increasingly concerned that the debts might not be repaid and demanded higher rates as the price for accepting that risk.  And, ultimately, outside forces — the International Monetary Fund, European Union bankers, and others — went to each of those formerly sovereign nations and told them what they needed to do if they hoped to continue to borrow money.  Those governments accepted the conditions and agreed to the austerity measures imposed by outsiders because they had no choice.

I don’t want to see that happen here — yet, over the last four years, we have seen the United States move down that very same path, with annual trillion-dollar deficits that have taken our total debt past the unimaginable sum of $16 trillion.  We also passed a significant milestone on that road to perdition when our national credit rating was downgraded.  I don’t think that downgrade has received the attention it deserves.  Imagine!  Credit rating agencies presuming to raise questions about the credit of the leader of the free world, a country so stable that its currency gave rise to the now-antiquated phrase “sound as a dollar.”  But the ratings agencies are so presumptuous, and we are kidding ourselves if we think our many lenders aren’t also carefully considering our credit-worthiness.

I don’t want to wake up one morning and see that our political leaders are having to dance to the tune called by teams of grey-suited bankers from the IMF, or China, or Germany.  If that happens — and if we continue to rack up trillion-dollar annual deficits, it inevitably will — we shouldn’t kid ourselves about what it would mean.  Does anyone think federal funding of NPR or contraceptives, to identify only two of the issues being discussed during this campaign, would survive under the austerity measures forced upon us by creditors?  Does anyone think the bankers would hesitate to require fundamental changes in entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare?  Does anyone think our country could continue to function as a world leader, and a force for good, as a debtor nation struggling to deal with its overwhelming credit problems?

I recognize this is a dire scenario, and some believe it just can’t happen here.  My response is to look at what has happened in Europe, to countries that have just been ahead of us on the irresponsible fiscal policy curve.  Their experience shows, I think, that it can happen here — and it will, if we don’t do something about it.  I’m too proud of this country and what it has accomplished to let that happen without trying to change course.

I don’t think President Obama places a high priority on grappling with our deficit and debt problems.  He’s talked about them, but his actions speak louder than his words.  He continues to propose budgets that would result in trillion-dollar debts for years into the future, and continues to propose the creation of new federal agencies and federal programs as the solution for every problem.  He hasn’t used the bully pulpit of the presidency to encourage Congress to act.  I’ve seen nothing from President Obama to indicate that his performance over the next four years on this crucial issue of national sovereignty would be any different than his performance over the past four years.

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, on the other hand, do focus on the issue of our deficit and our debt and have proposed approaches.  I think they understand the fundamental nature of the problem and would make working with Congress to address the issues in a meaningful way their top priority.  I want someone in the White House who will tackle the debt problem, not let us drift into catastrophe.  That’s why I’m voting for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.

Saving The Trevi Fountain

If you’ve been to Rome, you’ve likely seen the Trevi Fountain.  It is a magnificent attraction, with its depiction of Neptune and sea horses and other sea creatures atop craggy rocks.  When we visited Rome during a very hot summer some years ago, the Trevi Fountain was a delightful place to sit, enjoy the spray of the cool water, and appreciate the beauty while taking a break from sightseeing.

Unfortunately, the Trevi Fountain is badly in need of repair.  Earlier this year, some pieces of the 250-year-old fountain — commissioned by one of those civic-minded Popes, Clement XII — broke off.  Fortunately, an Italian mineral water company, Acqua Claudia, has agreed to foot the $250,000 cost of the immediately needed restorations.  Whether funding will be located for the more long-term repair work on the fountain that is desperately needed is another question.

The condition of the Trevi Fountain is  symptomatic of a larger problem in countries with significant cultural sites.  Italy, Greece, and Spain, to name just a few, are terribly cash-strapped.  It’s hard to believe that such countries, which reap huge economic benefits from tourism, would neglect the sites that attract those tourists in the first place, but paying to maintain crumbling monuments, old buildings, fountains, and churches, is pushing budgets to the limit.

I hope that other companies step up, as Acqua Claudia has, to help the Italian government maintain Italy’s many irreplaceable architectural and artistic landmarks.  Generations to come should have the chance to see the Trevi Fountain in all its glory, rather than a heap of dust and rubble.

Adverse To Austerity

Elections have occurred in Greece, France, and Italy in the past few days, and voters have cast their ballots against the austerity measures that were imposed to try to put a brake on the European debt crisis and, in Greece and France, have thrown out the governments that agreed to those measures.

In France, the flamboyant Nikolas Sarkozy was replaced by a Socialist, Francois Hollande, who says he seeks an alternative to austerity and vows to increase taxes and spending.  In Greece, voters deserted the parties that had dominated the political landscape for decades and splintered their support among a broad range of parties, including the disturbingly neo-Nazi “Golden Dawn”.  The same trends were seen in local elections in Italy.

No one should be surprised by these results.  Austerity is hard; Europeans are soft.  They’ve become accustomed to rich benefits, lots of vacation time, a short work week, and generous pensions that allow them to retire at an early age.  The problem is that their lifestyle has been financed by debt, and now people are only willing to lend them more if they agree to actions that will bring their fiscal house in order.  The fact that Greek voters and French voters don’t like the austerity doesn’t change that result.  Why would you want to lend money to someone who hasn’t shown the responsibility or willpower necessary to pay you back?

This likely means that the Eurozone concept will fail.  Appeals for continental unity only go so far, and hardworking and thrifty German and Dutch voters aren’t going to support the unrestrained spending of the Greek and Italian and Portuguese governments forever.  The Euro will end as a unified currency, the responsible northern European countries will return to their highly valued local currencies, and the southern European countries will slink back to their devalued and debased drachmas and lire, look around for new saps to loan them money with no hope of being repaid, and find there are no takers.  At that point, the current days of “austerity” might begin to look pretty good, in retrospect.

There’s a lesson in here somewhere for America.

 

It’s Their Loss

A recent study reported that fewer nations are modeling their constitutions on the U.S. Constitution.  In the ’60s and ’70s, new constitutions were patterned on the American version, but that apparently is no longer the case.

The explanation for this trend is that our Constitution is miserly when it comes to guaranteeing “rights.”  Popular “rights” found in other constitutions, but not ours, include women’s rights, the right to work, the right to education, and the right to strike or unionize.  On the other hand, our Constitution provides for the right to keep and bear arms, whereas most modern constitutions do not.

The implication of the study is that our Constitution is somehow passe.  In the “rights race,” we’re falling behind!  We’re not keeping up with modern trends followed by enlightened nations everywhere!

Is anyone really troubled by this?  Ours was the first true written constitution, and it has served us well.  Other nations have them because our form of government has served as a model.  But there is a big difference between writing words on paper and actually living up to the concepts they express.  History shows that lofty ideals often are written in the otherwise ignored “constitutions” of repressive regimes.

Let’s not forget, either, that our Constitution was designed to sketch our government, its officers, and its functioning in broad strokes, allowing for flexibility and development over time.  In contrast, the “constitutions” described in the study sound more like statute books that leave little room for creativity and the need to respond to unexpected circumstances — like a crappy economy that interferes with the “right to work.”  The Greek Constitution, for example, includes “right to work” provisions.  How’s that working out for Greeks these days?

So, I don’t care if our Constitution has fallen out of favor with the camp followers who are drafting constitutions these days.  I’ll listen when their so-called “constitutions” have endured for 225 years, survived a civil war, and allowed their countries to become the most prosperous, democratic countries on Earth.

Europe Is Still There, And Its Problems Are Getting Worse

In America, we have the ability to just ignore the rest of the world now and then.  When the news from abroad is too depressing, we turn it off and focus on more interesting American things instead, like a celebrity scandal or  the new iPhone or a weirdly viral YouTube video.

I think most Americans have tuned out the debt crisis in Europe.  It has been going on forever.  There’s no end in sight.  Lots of different, faraway countries are involved. The Europeans appear to be dealing with it.  So why should we care?  Look, a squirrel!

On Friday Standard & Poor’s cut the credit ratings for the debt issued by nine European countries.  France, Europe’s second-largest economy, lost its AAA status, Italy’s debt is now rated the same as that of Kazakhstan, and Portugal’s debt is down to junk bond status.  Even worse, it looks like Greece won’t be able to reach agreement with its creditors, which would mean that the latest Eurozone effort to address the Greek debt crisis would fail and Greece would be facing default and bankruptcy in March.

In the modern world, the economies of countries are connected in countless ways.  We sell lots of good and services to Europe; if its economies crash, those markets vanish and American businesses will suffer.  American banks, mutual funds, and investors have purchased the sovereign debt of European countries and would experience huge losses in the event of defaults.  And, of course, Europe’s current predicament is just a peek at America’s likely future if we don’t deal promptly with our governmental debt problems.  European countries that are saddled with enormous debt are now at the mercy of ratings agencies, creditors, and faceless bureaucrats at the International Monetary Fund.

So, we can be distracted if we choose — but Europe is still there, and its problems are, too.  They may be our problems soon, if we don’t start paying attention.

Giving Thanks For Our Political Leaders

This Thanksgiving week, I’d like to give special thanks for our political leaders.  At this time of national challenge, we are blessed with a political class whose spirit of self-sacrifice, personal courage, and intestinal fortitude compare favorably to those of our Pilgrim Fathers and the Signers of the Declaration of Independence.

I’m thankful for politicians who haven’t let the need to reassure nervous financial markets or the selfish concerns of Americans whose retirement savings accounts will be depleted by wild stock market plunges distract them from their crucial campaigning and fundraising.

I’m thankful for the President and Members of Congress who wisely decided to discard old-fashioned political processes and delegate all deficit reduction efforts to a “supercommittee.”

I’m thankful for the members of the “supercommittee” who rolled up their sleeves and had a few meetings and hearings before calling it quits.

I’m thankful for the far-sighted Democrats and Republicans who had the courage to accept a decrease in our national credit rating in order to stand up to the unreasonable expectations of the ratings agencies.

I’m thankful for the Members of Congress whose intuitive understanding of economics is so great that they have been able to increase their personal fortunes while serving the public good.

I’m thankful for a bold President who recognizes that the most crucial question to be answered when addressing any important issue is how to ensure that others will be held strictly accountable for the ultimate failure.

I’m thankful for those perceptive Democrats and Republicans who have finally come to realize that most Americans want to shrug off the weighty mantle of global leadership and be more like Greece.

Finally, I’m thankful for those enlightened political leaders who recognize that every single federal program, every single federal job, and every single federal tax exemption, deduction, and loophole is absolutely essential to the future of our Republic and cannot possibly be eliminated or changed in any way.

With leaders such as these, is there any doubt that our great nation can squarely meet and overcome whatever challenges might confront us?  The turkey is going to taste especially good this year.

It’s All Greek To Me

Every day brings a new twist to the Greek/Eurozone debt drama.  It’s as confusing and quick-moving as a whirling Greek folk dance.  One day it’s general euphoria because another bailout deal has been struck.  The next day it’s back down in the dumps because the markets question whether the bailout will work.

The most recent outlook change is stunningly abrupt, even when judged against by the roller-coaster turnabouts that have characterized the ongoing European solvency crisis.  The decision by Greece’s prime minister to put the new round of austerity measures up for approval by referendum has shocked other European governments and put the latest deal in peril, causing markets around the world to plummet.

People are afraid that the Greeks won’t approve of the deal because they don’t like the austerity measures that have been imposed on them already.  No kidding!  So far as I can tell, the Greeks have borrowed to the hilt to finance a lavish, benefits-rich lifestyle that has been effectively underwritten by the Germans and the rest of thrifty Europe.  The Greek grasshopper just wants the German ant to save it, again, from the ravages of the approaching winter.

Although I don’t sympathize with the Greeks, who created their own predicament, isn’t the European response to the notion of a referendum a bit . . . awkward?  A plebiscite is in the finest traditions of democratic government, — which was invented in Greece, after all.  Is having a referendum really such a bad idea, when the alternative is to have unpopular austerity measures shoved down the unwilling throats of the Greek people, who are likely to respond with general strikes, work stoppages, and riots that will just make the situation that much worse?   Why not let the Greek people have their say?

Uh Oh (Again)

The news from Europe has not been good for some time now — but today may be a turning point into even more negative territory.  As the United States enjoyed the Labor Day holiday, equity markets across Europe plunged by an average of 4 percentGermany’s DAX took the hardest hit, falling by more than 5 percent.

It’s not hard to understand why European investors are troubled.  Greece, Spain, and Portugal all are struggling with serious debt problems, and recently Italy, one of Europe’s biggest economies, also has tumbled into distressed territory.  In the meantime, the large, more solvent northern European countries — particularly Germany — have had to prop up their profligate southern European partners.  Germany’s financial support of free-spending Eurozone countries hasn’t gone down well with German voters, who delivered a stinging rebuke to the ruling party in regional elections.

Interestingly, some political leaders in Germany and elsewhere seem to see the ongoing problems as a reason for an even closer political and economic union between the nations of Europe — whereas European citizens, in contrast, appear to be yearning for more control over the destinies of their own countries.  The depths of the Eurozone debt problems are not yet fully understood, and analysts wonder how much worthless debt is held by European banks and whether the piecemeal bailout efforts will ever staunch the outflow of investor confidence.  Given all of these circumstances, it’s not hard to foresee more hard times ahead in the Eurozone.

Eurotrip 2011: Palermo

After finally checking into our hostel in Palermo, Bryanna and I indulged in a meal at a nearby restaurant. I think my excitement over being in Italy and my exhaustion from the journey made me forget my usual obsession with spending as little money as possible. I spent eleven euros on a pizza and a beer, including five euros just for the beer. Afterwards, I was disgusted with myself. Five euros for a beer? I could have bought three meals of street food for that.

I restored my miser cred at the grocery store after the meal, buying the usual cheap backpacker staples: baguettes, bananas, carrots, cheese, and cans of tuna.

As I mentioned in my last post, our hostel, the Youth Hostel Baia del Corallo, was far from Palermo’s center, in the much less hectic Sferracavallo neighborhood on the shore of the Mediterranean. Although I didn’t like having to take an hour-long bus ride to get to the city (or longer, depending on how long it took for the buses to come), Sferracavallo had a lot to offer, with a good selection of stores and restaurants, and a nice boardwalk. The hostel itself was right on the shore, with an excellent view of the bay.

I’m glad I met Bryanna on the train, because there weren’t many other people in the hostel to hang out with. My roommate was a Spanish fellow who wasn’t very talkative. Bryanna had her room to herself most of the time.

I just gave the hostel a good review on hostelworld.com. They didn’t make me pay for the first night’s reservation I missed, even though they could have according to the contract. However, the breakfast they offered was horrible – a fluffy little croissant, some crackers, a tiny bit of jelly, and coffee. It was obvious they wanted to be able to advertise that they provided breakfast, then they did it as cheaply as possible.

A street in downtown Palermo.

After getting settled and getting a good night’s rest, I finally had the presence of mind to make some observations about Italy. My first thought was that Italy has the highest density of charm in the world.  In my post about Athens, I remarked that nearly all the buildings were 20th-century concrete-and-stucco moderns that were nevertheless made beautiful by the human inhabitants. Italian cities are different: the buildings don’t need to be beautified, because they were built with artistic flourish. The average apartment building in Palermo was constructed in the 18th or 19th century (according to my estimate) in a distinctive Italian style, with styled columns, curved iron rails on the balconies, and marble busts and statues sticking out of the corners. Any one of these buildings would be a marvel in most cities, but in Italy they are commonplace.

Also, there seems to be a beautiful Renaissance-style church on every block, with a brilliant design and examples of superb craftmanship that lose their power when surrounded by other equally brilliant buildings.

A 17th-century church in Palermo.

Due to centuries of Muslim occupation, many of the oldest buildings in Palermo have a unique hybrid style. On Tuesday, Bryanna and I visited one of these, the San Cataldo church. Built in the 12th century as a monastery, the church is so humble that it’s hard to find among the larger buildings next to it. I had trouble taking a good picture because most of the front is blocked by a tree. The red Islamic-style domes are striking, however, and there are beautiful Byzantine mosaics and a serene garden inside.

Chiesa di San Cataldo.

Near the Chiesa di San Cataldo is the Pallazzo dei Normanni, a.k.a Norman Palace, which was built during Sicily’s occupation by the Normans. On one side of the palace are statues that seem to depict the vanquished former Muslim rulers of the city. A few blocks away from the palace, there is a cathedral built by the Norman rulers that is also in the Arab-Norman-Byzantine style. Unlike the other churchs we visited in Palermo, it is modestly decorated inside, with very little gold and very few paintings and mosaics. Whether this was an artistic decision or an economic measure, I don’t know, but in my opinion it gave the church a more spiritual air.

Part of the Pallazzo dei Normanni.

Palermo's cathedral.

On Wednesday, Bryanna and I went to the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo. Walking through the hallways with corpses of citizens of Palermo hanging from the walls, I wished I had read more about the site beforehand. Why would anyone want to be put in such a position after dying – standing with their jaw agape, looking as if their skeleton could collapse at any moment, with flakes of skin curling off their skull? It seemed to be the opposite of the normal human desire to be in a position of rest after the end of life. According to Wikipedia, the catacombs began as a tradition of mummifying monks, and later became a status symbol among the people of Palermo.  I wonder if it would have been such a status symbol if they knew that their skeletons would be gawked at by tourists a hundred years later.

That afternoon, we took a bus to the top of the Monte Pellegrino, where the sunshine and the excellent view of Palermo helped us shake off the morbid vibes we got from the catacombs. At the top of the mountain, there was a church built into a cave.

The church at the top of Monte Pellegrino.

People spoke less English in Palermo than in Greece, which I liked, strangely. I studied a little Italian about six years ago, so I could communicate simple ideas like “when does bus 101 arrive” and “how much for a beer?” It felt nice when an Italian word that I wasn’t even aware I knew came out of my mouth. The lack of English speakers in Palermo might be due to the fact that there aren’t many tourists there. We saw very few fellow tourists during our time in Palermo, especially outside of the hostel. Indeed, there were only a few hostels to choose from, compared to dozens in cities like Athens, Istanbul and Rome. If you’re looking for an Italian city that has not yet been made into a tourist theme park, Palermo is a good place to go.

Eurotrip 2011:  The Journey to Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul

Eurotrip 2011: The Journey to Palermo

Traveling is never as easy as you think it will be. While planning my trip on my laptop at home, I imagined that my journey from Athens to Palermo, Sicily, would consist of a night on a ferry and two moderately long train rides. I expected it to take about a day. Instead, it took more than two days – the longest duration of travel I’ve endured in my life.

The day before leaving Athens, I learned that no train goes directly from there to Patras, due to cuts made by the bankrupt Greek government. To travel between the two cities by train requires a few transfers. Despite this, I decided to take a train rather than a bus, thanks to bad memories from a Greyhound trip I took a few years ago. I activated my Eurail pass and got a ticket. At the time of my train’s departure, however, two trains arrived on opposite sides of the platform, and not knowing which one I was supposed to take (my ticket didn’t specify), I went back into the station and reserved a bus ticket for a few hours later (thanks to my Eurail pass, all the tickets were free). I was worried that I would miss the ferry, but the actually-very-comfortable bus ride took only three hours, getting me to Patras with time to spare.

The ferry arrived in Bari at 11 AM, two and a half hours later than it was supposed to. After finding the train station there, I learned that Bari is not a well-connected city in the Italian train network. The earliest I could get to Palermo was 10:40 AM the next morning, after taking an intercity train to Bonaventi, a regional train all the way up to Naples, and, finally, another intercity train to Palermo. I had a reservation at a hostel in Palermo for that night, so this news frustrated me. Instead of sleeping on a mattress, I had to spend my night sitting down in a tiny compartment with four other guys. We all agreed to lay our feet on the seats across from us, and the guy across from me, who looked like Kurt Vonnegut, put his pillow on my foot.

The journey wasn’t all disappointment and frustration, though. While traveling from Bonaventi to Naples, a group of Italian girls practiced their English with me. Before getting off the train, they gave me a memento to remember them by: a bracelet with images of Mary and Jesus. They asked for a memento from me, so I gave them the book I had just finished. Later, they friended me on facebook.

On the train to Palermo I was in the same car as a fellow American backpacker and recent college graduate named Bryanna. Her trip thus far was remarkably similar to mine: she started in Istanbul, went to Athens, spent time on a Greek island (Corfu), and was heading to Palermo. She decided to upgrade to a sleeper car, but we pledged to be friends in Palermo.

My trip also included the “pleasure” of a two and a half hour layover in Naples. As soon as I walked out of the train station there, I could tell that the city had major problems. There were mountains of garbage everywhere (according to Bryanna, there’s some sort of dispute over who should clean it up), and the buildings – which are actually beautiful, architecturally – were smeared with graffiti. The traffic around the Piazza Garibaldi was ferocious, even by Italian standards. Someone needs to clean up that city.

Bryanna decided to stay at the same hostel as me because she didn’t have a reservation anywhere. After arriving in Palermo, we spent four hours finding the place, which was on the outskirts of the city. We misunderstood the woman at the information desk outside the station; when she said the hostel was an hour-long bus ride away, we thought she said it was an hour-long walk away, so we tried to walk there, thinking it would be a nice introduction to the city. A few sweaty hours later, we realized our mistake. After making many inquiries and committing many more errors, we found the right bus. We arrived at the hostel in the early afternoon.

Yet, we got there during siesta time, so we couldn’t get through the gate. While we were waiting, a big group of Italian high schoolers arrived. When the gates opened, they ditched us in line at the check-in desk, in true Italian fashion (I will outline the good qualities of the Italians in a later post).

I learned some lessons from this travel experience. First: leave plenty of flexibility in your travel schedule to allow yourself to make mistakes. I thought I had left myself flexibility, but it was not nearly enough. Second: stay a long time in each place you visit – I suggest a week – rather than moving around a lot, to avoid the stress of traveling altogether. You get a deeper experience in each city that way, anyways.

Eurotrip 2011:  Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul

Eurotrip 2011: Santorini and Athens

A view of Piraeus (Athens' port) from my ferry to Santorini.

I spent a lot of my time in Santorini thinking about the weather, or more precisely, trying to reconcile myself with it. I decided that the best way to describe the weather there was “rude.” The low temperatures and lack of sunshine were tolerable, but I found the constant wind offensive. Whenever I left my room, it felt like someone was pushing against me.

I stayed at Santorini Breeze Studios in Perissa, a small town on the island. Frankly, Perissa isn’t very charming. Most of its buildings are stand-alone stucco hostels haphazardly built along winding, often unpaved roads. Many of the buildings are not finished, showing exposed concrete and steel wires. There’s a small main street with a few bakeries and supermarkets and ATV rental stores.

I arrived in Santorini near the end of the off season, so there was almost no one around. Perissa seemed like a ghost town, especially with the wind, which created a constant background noise of rustling leaves and banging doors. For most of my stay, I was one of only three guests at my hostel, and I was the only guest on the last night. However, I would rather be in Santorini during this time than during the on season, when, from what I’ve heard, the island is packed with American tourists taking excursions from their cruise ships.

I still enjoyed my time in Santorini, thanks to another positive hostel experience. The hostel was run by Mike, an American who moved from Detroit to Santorini to run it right before the 2004 Olympics. I’d say he made a smart move. Mike was your typical easygoing island guy, like Jimmy Buffett. His hostel usually isn’t open this time of year, but he forgot to mark it as closed on hostelworld.com, so when he started getting reservations he figured he might as well keep it open.

My first two nights on the island, I shared a room with two Australian guys named Daniel and Nick. They were supposed to leave for Crete the day I arrived, but the winds were so strong that no ferries could leave the island. They spent the rest of their stay watching BBC News, and one day they bought a steak and cooked it. On their last night, we got really excited because one of them saw an advertisement for Braveheart on the local channel. The ad was in Greek, but he thought it said that Braveheart was showing at 9 that night. The idea of watching an entertaining movie in English while laying in our beds seemed a magnificent luxury to us, but when 9 came around Braveheart did not air. Instead, the channel showed a city council meaning. We were horribly disappointed.

Ancient Thera

On my first day, I hiked up a mountain to see the ruins of the ancient city of Thera, struggling against winds that sometimes seemed about to topple me over. I was impressed by the ruins; other than those of Pompeii, they were the most intact ruins of an ancient town I’ve seen. They were especially impressive because of their high altitude. With the wind stinging my face, I kept thinking, “how could people live up here?” But if I visited the ruins in better weather I would probably have been thinking “what a beautiful place for a town.”

The next day, Mike drove me to Fira, a pretty town that sits on the edge of a cliff. According to Mike, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie bought a house there after it served as the location for a scene in one of the Tomb Raider movies. The sun courteously decided to shine that afternoon, complementing the town’s blue and white color scheme. I hiked to a rock outcropping to take some pictures, and a few stray dogs followed me.

Fira

I flew back to Athens the next evening, but before I left I made sure to drink a few Mythos beers on the black volcanic beaches in Perissa while listening to the new Kanye West album.

It felt great returning to the Pagration Youth Hostel in Athens and seeing familiar faces there. Although I managed to have a decent time in Santorini, I wished I had stayed with the gang at the hostel. I spent one more full day there, which I mostly spent figuring out a way to get to Patras in time for my ferry to Italy. I found the time to visit the National Archeological Museum, however, which displays lots of prehistoric artifacts and Mycenean pottery and art, as well as a large collection of ancient Greek sculpture. Their collection includes the famous Mask of Agamemnon.

To my surprise, the museum had an entire room devoted to art and pottery from ancient Thera, which was founded as part of the Minoan civilization that originated on Crete. Entire wall paintings remain intact from an ancient palace there. The paintings, usually of nature scenes, are colorful and abstract, reminding me of the paintings of Henri Rousseau.

A Theran wall painting.

I also found time to have a few final Mythoses and conversations with my friends at the hostel. When I left on Saturday morning, I felt depressed. I had spent so much time in Athens that I sort of had a life there. I tried to alleviate my sadness by turning it into a hope that I would have similarly happy experiences in the cities to come.

Eurotrip 2011:  Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul

Eurotrip 2011: Athens

On the bus ride from the airport to downtown Athens, I admired the bright Greek countryside, which reminded me of west Texas. Then we entered Athens and the landscape changed to that of a dense, chaotic city. Now that I’ve been here a week, it’s hard for me to believe that such a calm environment is only a few miles away.

A typical street in Athens.

Athens makes Istanbul look like a tranquil Midwestern suburb. Apart from the Acropolis and a few parks scattered here and there, the city is packed with three-to-seven-story apartment buildings. There are no gaps in the buildings to see landmarks through, so it’s easy to get lost. The sidewalks are so thin that you often have to walk on the edge of the street to avoid people. Cars are parked bumper-to-bumper along the curb, sometimes in two layers, and usually blocking crosswalks. The traffic is merciless; on my first day, I witnessed a car accident, and I was almost hit while crossing the street yesterday, though I was obeying the walk signal. Speaking of walk signals, there’s no flashing transition between “walk” and “don’t walk”, which has caused me a lot of consternation. Yet, despite these annoyances, or maybe because of them, Athens comes off as a happy, pleasant city.

The ubiquitous apartment buildings obviously weren’t designed with much concern for their appearance, but I think they help give Athens its happy vibe. They are usually covered in stucco painted eggshell white or a light pastel color, which makes Athens bright and glimmering in the sunshine. There are balconies on every floor that are overflowing with plants and often have clothes drying in them. I like how the presence of so many people has turned these bland, utilitarian structures into ones that are visually buzzing with human life.

While traveling from Istanbul to Athens, I became worried, wondering, “what if Istanbul was an unusually good experience? What if there happened to be people I got along with in my hostel there, but now I’ll be with people I don’t jive with?” However, I liked my hostel in Athens more than the one in Istanbul, and I became better friends with my fellow guests. I stayed at the Pagration Youth Hostel in the Pagrati district, about a half hour walk from the Acropolis.

I was friendly with some people I met in Istanbul, having lots of interesting conversations, but I never truly became friends with them. In Athens, I developed close friendships with most of the guys who shared my six-bed dorm room – friendships of the inside-joke, get-acquainted-with-each-others’-foibles, fill-a-certain-role-in-the-group variety.

The first guy I met was Chris, and 18-year-old from Bath, England, who is traveling around Europe and the Middle East before starting college, or uni as he calls it. He left for Egypt yesterday. Also in the room was Tery, nicknamed Tery the Lion. Tery is a balding, middle-aged Greek who is rather funny. Halfway through the week, I was looking at a bulletin board in the TV room with old pictures of former guests hanging out in the hostel, and I noticed that Tery was in many of the pictures, even though they appeared to be many years old. It reminded me of the end of the Shining, when the camera zooms in on a picture of a party from a hundred years ago with Jack Nicholson in it and you realize his character was a ghost that haunted the hotel. However, the explanation for Tery’s presence in the photos was more prosaic. He travels around Greece all year for his job, which involves distributing pamphlets or something, and he always stays at the Pagration hostel while in Athens, so he has been there many times over the years.

I shared a bunk with an Austrian dude named Clarence who is riding a motorcycle from his hometown to India, traveling through Saudi Arabia to get there. He left for Turkey in the middle of the week. There was also Paul, a former Navy man. In a series of debates we had over my stay, Paul gradually revealed his bizarre belief system. Despite being American, he labels himself a Monarchist. He has a fanatic love for the British monarchy, especially Henry VIII. If you say anything bad about a British monarch, he stares intensely into your eyes and tells you you’re committing treason. Last night we all went to a bar and Paul bought everyone Ouzo, a vile form of alcohol that tastes like black licorice and is responsible for the hangover I’m nursing right now.

The Pagration hostel is much nicer than the one I stayed in in Istanbul; if I rewrote my post about Istanbul now, I would probably give a harsher opinion of that hostel. The management at Pagration would never force me into a worse room than I reserved, like they did at my hostel in Istanbul. There are noise restrictions that make sleeping more pleasant. Like Athens itself, the hostel has a dense human presence. There are pictures, posters, and handmade signs everywhere. It is a tradition for guests to write their favorite quotes on masking tape (such as “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans – John Lennon”) and stick it to the wall of the kitchen.

However, the hostel doesn’t offer free breakfast, there’s no computer, and you have to pay fifty cents for hot water in the shower, which particularly irks me. The hot water only lasts seven minutes – not quite long enough for a comfortable shower, in my opinion. Trust me, you do not want the hot water to stop unexpectedly. I didn’t have a fifty cent coin when I arrived, so I used the cold water for the first shower. The water was so cold that I could only bring myself to wash my hair and my armpits with it, and it gave me brain freeze.

A few days into my stay, I learned that you can buy a delicious gyro – juicy chunks of chicken or pork in a pita, with tomatoes, lettuce, french fries, onions, and whatever the gyro sauce is – for only 1.5-2 euros. I’ve been eating at least one gyro a day ever since. It sure feels good to have one of those gyros in your stomach.

The Parthenon on the acropolis.

The first sight I visited was the acropolis. Despite all the abuse the Parthenon has endured over the years from neglect and invading Turks, it is still awesome in the original sense of the word. Most of it has collapsed, but it still appears firm due to its thick, bulging columns. Unfortunately, the acropolis was crowded with tourists, although I went on a weekday. It was impossible to walk a few yards without walking into someone’s picture. I tried to sit on the outskirts so I could contemplate what I was seeing, but someone came up to ask if I could take their picture. So instead I contemplated the fact that people take too many pictures. It seemed to me that many of the people at the acropolis that day saw it mostly on their cameras’ digital screens. I noticed lots of people filming videos of the buildings, zooming in on details. What is the point of doing this? You can find detailed pictures of those buildings on the internet.

The next day I went to the recently opened Acropolis Museum, which is in a beautiful, sleek modern building. Inside, there was a great collection of ancient Greek pottery and sculpture from prehistoric days to the late Roman empire, including many that were formerly in the Parthenon. The museum was cleverly designed to offer views of the nearby acropolis, so that you could glance at it while reading about it. I would recommend going to this museum before the acropolis, because it gives you a good understanding of its history and the purposes of the buildings.

The view from the hill of Lycabettus.

Yesterday, I was walking around the city when I decided to see if it was possible to climb a steep hill a half mile away from the acropolis. Indeed, there was a trail going to the top, and when I arrived there I was rewarded with one of the most spectacular views I’ve ever seen of a city. Athens sprawls for miles in every direction, stopped only by the sea and the mountains, and it seems to consist of the same dense white apartment buildings all the way to the end. Yet, the acropolis still occupies a prominent place in the midst of all the modern buildings.

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul