Grocery lists, to-do-lists, best-seller lists, must-see-lists. Lists of favorite places, lists of attractions, lists of museums. The only list that is special to me, Marsha, is a word list. This is mine on Athens.
If you were ever a tourist coming to California, and in your plans, you were most excited about a visit to Fresno, you should plan a stop in Velos, Greece. Like Fresno, it’s a perfectly fine place. It’s also a pretty regular place. That’s why I felt I should go shopping for ordinary things there.
In countries that are foreign to me, I adore shopping for those everyday items people buy in their weekly – or daily – trips to the local market. Try buying ketchup in Ukraine, or pretzels in Moldova, or hair conditioner in Romania. Those are the real adventures in traveling, and that was what I wanted from Velos.
The first thing we did, though, was walk. Along the broad pedestrian harbour path with restaurants filling up for lunch. Then over a small footbridge and out along the jetty that gave a perfect view of the city. We passed fishermen playing their lines in an effort to coax out some lunch. Every ten feet or so there was a nub sticking out from the top of the concrete wall, with fishing line wound around the nub. No one brought poles to this place. They would just walk out when they needed some fish, attach their bait, inch the line into the water and fiddle around until the fish bit. Everyone we saw, it seemed, had a plastic bag filled with something tied into a smaller plastic bag – olives, a thick relish, an oily round cheese – with a one-liter plastic bottle of a purplish liquid sticking out from the top of the bag. I wanted that liquid.
Maybe it was because I hadn’t been able to take away that luxurious coffee-ouzo liqueur from Santorini. Maybe it was simple curiosity. Everyone had something I didn’t and I wanted to find out what. I had not known that Greece was famous for wine, so I ventured a guess: it must be some grape-like juice, something local that everyone puts on the table at lunchtime.
We walked from the jetty into a residential area, past the big supermarket, past the touristy shops, past the restaurants. It took some time, but I finally found the smallest, oldest neighborhood market. Burlap bags filled with items you could use for a home-cooked meal – dry beans, dried tomatoes, peppers – filled the doorway. As we walked inside, the shopkeeper looked up, and though he said nothing, I noticed his anxious expression. What could he possibly offer two foreigners on a shopping spree three blocks from where they should be walking?
I poked around for awhile. The writing on the products intrigued me. I tried figuring out several items, and couldn’t. The poor fellow seemed to be getting more nervous and his expression neared panic. Was that goat cheese and cow’s milk? I suppose I could have asked. I’ve found hand motions can be effective. But that defeats my purpose. I like to figure it out myself, or at least just experience the store the way everybody else does. I scooted around pretending I knew what I was doing. The store clerk helped a Velosian while keeping his eyes on me and Stanley, who was also getting nervous. Finally, in the corner, I found a display of the one-liter bottles everyone was buying. Several labels confounded me. I tried to sound out the names, but Greek Cyrillic to American English with an interesting side trip into fraternity-sorority letters can be confounding. The only thing I truly understood was the drawing of grapes and grape leaves that coiled around the letters I could not decipher. With a confidence I had no right to, I selected one bottle and walked it two feet to the clerk. The clerk said something; Stanley, the money man, paid. We smiled our thanks and began to leave the store. The clerk seemed to be thinking over an important thought, then raised his hand and said “Have a good day” in Greek-sounding English, with a big grin on his face.
We placed our bags and wallets on the scanner as we re-entered the ship. There are rules against bringing food items, liquor and probably firearms onto ships, so everything is searched, including us as we stepped through the people scanner. No one said a thing about the plastic container with some kind of liquid. Who puts an alcoholic beverage into used-looking plastic? I placed it into our fridge in the room, and later that day, poured myself a glass. It was then I learned that everyone in Velos, Greece drinks a flavorful sweet wine with their lunch. Opa!
Moral of the story in three parts: never intend to smuggle; never smuggle anything in the smuggling capitals of the world; but do, on every trip, smuggle something.
…Or so it seemed as I anticipated our arrival at Santorini, Greece. When a place is so iconic, it’s hard to have a fresh viewpoint. I imagined donkeys and white-washed trails, a sparkling see-through blue ocean, white-washed stucco houses. Townspeople might wear red kerchief scarves standing next to clean white walls. I had my sunglasses ready, because, with all the blinding white-wash, I would need them.
As our smallish ship made its way into the crater-formed harbour, we passed a tiny hillside village. From the distance, it looked like a snow storm had landed atop a parched cliff above a warm sea. On this mini island, residents can walk from one village to another. That simple fact, that you did not need a car, a bus, nor even a donkey, to visit a neighboring town made me respect the differences between where I live, and where I was visiting. An island of walkers. Maybe movies have to focus on fictional romance or adventure to keep the viewing public interested. For me, though, in real life, walking, simple walking, is all Santorini needed to offer.
And so, once we got onshore, we took a stroll: up the cliff side with the donkeys, down the narrow tourist streets, around the nearly discarded post office. A few simple blocks toward the center of the island, we found a view to the opposite shore. Small streets (because, even though there were cars, who really needed them?) and bright houses, brilliant flowers against white walls, stonework, stucco and pathways. We got away from the crowds and walked more.
Then we went shopping for ouzo. Back home, I have a Greek friend who once, for ten minutes, tried to teach me to drink alcohol. Atop her dining room cabinet, she had an array of bottles that told me how little I knew about the variety in drink choices. I begged her not to pour me ouzo. I swore to her that it would never get past my nose. She chose porto for me, so I could sip and be as responsible as she is while drinking. But I was in Greece now, not just with a Greek friend. It seemed a ritual that I should do – buy ouzo, perhaps even drink some.
Stanley was surprisingly motivated. It’s funny how vacations change you. We bellied-up to a fancy Spirits store like it wasn’t the first time in our lives we had done such a thing. The store clerk offered us tastes of several Santorini wines. How gracious she was, and what delicious wines she selected. Then she brought out the ouzo. It was what I had come for, so it shouldn’t have terrified me. But there is something about ouzo that makes me call for retreat. Its smell: that oily, too-sweet, will-clean-and-polish-your-oak-furniture aroma brings about an instinct for survival. Run away, and run fast, my instincts told me. But did I mention the clerk was also compassionate? Immediately, she switched the bottle with a coffee-and-ouzo mixture. Made only on Santorini, she said, pouring us samples. Best thing I’ve ever sipped in my life. Better even than porto. She assured us that we could order online from home, and we made plans for becoming habitual sippers. Happy with future fun, and tired from walking, we went back to the ship.
But since then, we have never been able to find to the store’s website, and never seen this elixir advertised anywhere else. I had to wonder if this coffee-ouzo was fictional like all the movies had been. We should have bought some there, and tried to smuggle it onboard our ship, hoping that it would surivive outside the island of its birth. I am very surprisingly good at smuggling things onboard, and I will prove it in Velos, Greece.
Next up: Velos, Marsha’s smuggling capital of the world