Goodbye, Mad Scientist…

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As I have mentioned more than once in my main blog, 2020 has been a hell of a year for a lot of people. Between us, Bill and I have lost three loved ones in less than two months. I lost a cousin and a different cousin’s spouse. Bill lost his father. My cousin and Bill’s dad both died in November. Last night, we found out that we also lost a good friend in a guy we have been calling the “Mad Scientist” since 2008.

I found out about the Mad Scientist’s death by chance last night, as I was looking up his Greek restaurant, Agais, in Entringen, Baden-Württemberg, a place where Bill and I enjoyed many meals and lots of wine. It was where I tried retsina for the first time, and learned to enjoy t’zatziki, a yogurt and cucumber sauce much beloved by anyone who enjoys Greek food. It was also where I learned the Greek word “γιαμας” (pronounced “giamas”), which is roughly equivalent to the English expression, “cheers”.

I became a late convert to Greek cuisine, having tasted it for the first time in Vaihingen (a part of Stuttgart near Patch Barracks) at a little place called Taverna Faros. Taverna Faros had wonderful food, and we ate there a bunch of times during our first six weeks in Germany back in 2007. At the time, we were living in the Vaihinger Hof, a rather crappy but cheap hotel located in Vaihingen, which, over the years, has hosted many people moving to Stuttgart. I’m not sure the Vaihinger Hof is still open these days, since Air BnB has provided alternatives to living in hotels. But we were there for six weeks, and got very familiar with the restaurants in Vaihingen, since there were no kitchen facilities at the Vaihinger Hof.

Taverna Faros was where I tried dorade and gyros for the first time. Unfortunately, the proprietor was rather abruptly forced to shut down because he allegedly didn’t pay his taxes. The place where Taverna Faros once was is now known as The Auld Rogue. It’s a very popular Irish pub, and if you explore this blog, you’ll see that Bill and I visited there many times when we lived near Stuttgart from 2014-2018. Every time I went in there, I remembered that it was once a Greek place, and later became a disco, which we never visited.

Anyway, in the fall of 2007, after six weeks in the rather dirty but lovingly staffed hotel, we finally found a house in a little town called Pfäffingen. It was just a few miles west of the great city, Tübingen. Agais is located in a little village called Entringen, which we frequently drove through on our way to the military installations in the Stuttgart area. It was about 2 kilometers north of Pfäffingen.

Since I had recently discovered a love for Greek food, I told Bill I wanted to try Agais. We kept passing it every time we had to go to Patch or Panzer Barracks, and I was very curious about the food. So one night, we stopped in for dinner. It was probably in 2008, since we moved to our house in November 2007 and it took us awhile to get acquainted with the area. I remember when we walked in, there was no one there. But then a smiling Greek guy with wild, curly dark hair appeared.

Our old friend.

At first, he thought I was Greek. If you were to see me in person, you might be as baffled as I was by that. I’m short, blonde, and very buxom, with blue eyes. Personally, I think I look very Celtic, which stands to reason, since my people were mostly from the British Isles. But the Mad Scientist initially spoke Greek to me. When I reacted with a baffled expression, he realized we are Americans and switched to English. He welcomed us heartily, and we sat down at what would become our usual booth (the only one in his restaurant, actually). He turned on Greek music– from Zorba the Greek. The walls, painted white and bright blue, were covered with personal mementos.

I remember after enjoying our first nice meal at Agais, I told the proprietor that I thought we’d be regulars. He said, “I think you should.” When we got home that night, Bill said the guy reminded him of a “Mad Scientist”. So that’s what we’ve called him ever since. His wife, Renate, is German and cooks the food.

Of course, the Mad Scientist had a name. I think he went by the name John in Germany, but I found out last night his real name was Ioannis. He was born December 27, 1938 and died on November 9, 2020, just one day after we lost Bill’s dad. I don’t know what ended John’s life, but in recent years, I did notice that he was not as vibrant as he once was. I don’t know for certain, but I suspected that he might have had a stroke during the five years we were out of Germany. I say this because when we first met him in 2008, he spoke perfect English. When we saw him again for the first time, back in 2014, he struggled to speak English and, in fact, may have even had some trouble with German, which he’d also previously spoken perfectly.

During our first two years in Germany, we stopped by Agais many times. We also brought visitors there. Those first couple of years, John was quite healthy. He told us that he used to work in Canada as an engineer. He moved there with his first wife, whom I think was Greek. Their marriage broke up, so he married a German woman, who brought him to Germany to live. That marriage broke up, and he married another German woman, the one we know as Renate. They had a son who, during our first tour, was attending the university in Tübingen. Sometimes, we’d see him in the restaurant, helping out. He looked a lot like his dad, complete with the wild, curly black hair.

Although I’ve had Greek food I’ve liked better, Bill and I loved to visit Agais because we could always count on an entertaining evening. John loved to chat about all subjects, and we’d talk about everything from American politics to Greek/Turkish relations. He learned how we liked our food, and we could always count on getting pistachio nuts and candy at the end of the meal, as well as ouzo. John was also famous for giving out eucalyptus drops, which will clear out your sinuses and are great to have around whenever you’re sick with a cold or the flu. I carried them around in my purse for years after we moved the first time.

In 2009, we had to leave Germany a year earlier than we expected. We never got the chance to say goodbye to John and his wife. I always regretted that, since they’d shown us such a good time when we were in Germany the first time. The five years we were back in the States, I thought about them a lot.

Just before we moved, they had opened up a “vacation apartment”. It still operates today. I remember on one of the last visits we had before we moved “home”, we happened to dine there at the same time John and his wife were hosting several obnoxious German couples. I wrote about that incident when it happened and the story can be found on this blog. The short version is, these couples were staying in Entringen and had been dining at Agais all week. They had sort of taken over John’s restaurant, dictating which music he should play, and running him ragged. I noticed they were casting derisive looks at Bill and me.

I understood much less German then than I do now, but I could tell at least one of them was making fun of us. And we also heard them disparaging the Swiss. When they finally left, John asked us if we understood what they were saying. Bill said we hadn’t. Chuckling wickedly, John said, “Those people have been here all week for marriage counseling. They’re here in a last ditch effort not to get divorced!” Apparently, there is or was a marriage counselor in Entringen of some renown, and the annoying jerks at the table near us were there to receive services.

When Barack Obama got elected, I remember John was excited. He said he was glad to see a black man in the White House. Then he added, “But I think he might get shot.” We were shocked at the time, but given the fact that John was an older man who had lived through the Kennedy administration and watched America from afar, I could kind of see where he might have gotten that impression. Fortunately, Mr. Obama survived his time as our president.

In September 2014, Bill and I finally visited our old friend again. We walked into his restaurant, and it was unusually busy. His wife saw us and recognized us immediately, giving us a huge grin and a welcome. It took John a couple of minutes, but then his eyes widened and he smiled and said, “You are back in Germany!” It was at about that time that we realized that he was not the same man he was in 2009. But we made a point of visiting him occasionally when we were living in Jettingen, which was probably a 15-20 minute drive from where he was.

I wish we’d had a chance to see him once more before we left the Stuttgart area about two years ago. I would have liked to have been able to say goodbye. Unfortunately, we never got around to it. The last time we saw him was in September 2018. I noticed that over the years, the portion sizes were smaller and the prices were a bit higher. And he’d stopped handing out pistachios. I don’t think it was necessarily because he was trying to be stingy. I think business had gotten rough for him, especially after he got sick (and he did confirm that he was sick for awhile). But his English did improve, even if it wasn’t as fluent as it once was. And we still loved to visit his restaurant, remember old times, and make new memories.

It looks like his wife is carrying on with the restaurant and apartment, although Germany is now back in lockdown mode until at least next month. On their Web site, it says they’re doing some renovation work. I hope she can keep the place going during these tough times.

Agais is the one place that bridged our two stints near Stuttgart. It’s the one constant of both time periods, a place where we were always warmly welcomed. A lot of the restaurants we used to love to visit during our first stint went defunct long ago, but not Agais. And we could always count on John and Renate to show us a nice time. I will always remember the “Mad Scientist” fondly. He was a very good man.

Repost of Rome Cabs review… and need a ride in Athens?

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I’m reposting these reviews because I notice people are often wondering about private taxi services in Rome and Athens… Both of these services are excellent and get my whole-hearted endorsement! Since Epinions is going away, I wanted to make sure I saved these reviews.

Need a ride in Rome?

 May 24, 2013 (Updated May 24, 2013) 
Review by    in Hotels & Travel
Rated a Very Helpful Review
  • User Rating:Excellent

  • How informative was your tour? 
  • Transportation quality: 
  • Knowledge of tour guide(s): 
  • How strenuous was your tour? 

Pros:Excellent drivers.  Safe, prompt, courteous.

Cons:You have to pay in cash.  Pricey, but worth it.

The Bottom Line:RomeCabs will get you where you’re going in style and comfort.

My husband Bill and I needed a ride from our Roman hotel room to Civitavecchia, the pier where we would be catching our cruise on SeaDream I.  I frequent Cruise Critic and, in particular, the messageboard for SeaDream I cruisers.  When I asked about the best way to get to the ship, several regular posters recommended RomeCabs.  Indeed, RomeCabs is currently ranked #1 of 449 activities in Rome.

Not just a taxi service…

We used RomeCabs just to get to the pier, but RomeCabs can also arrange tours with a driver and a tour guide.  Checking their Web site, I see that they have a wide variety of tours available to places in and around Rome and Tuscany, as well as along the western coastline.  Looking back on our two nights in Rome, I kind of wonder if maybe we should have booked a tour with RomeCabs.  We tend to be lazy about getting out and seeing things.

Besides tours and transfers, RomeCabs also offers different levels of service.  For instance, if you book a VIP transfer from the Rome airport, you will get a mini-tour of Rome.  Your driver will speak English and can tell you historical facts about the best known monuments of Rome.  If you don’t book a VIP transfer, you will still have an excellent driver, but he may not speak English.

Booking

RomeCabs has a handy form on their Web site.  You choose your date of departure, destination, number of people, and time of service.    When you enter that information, you’re given a quote of how much it will cost.  The prices include Italy’s VAT and toll charges.  Our trip from the Relais Orso hotel to Civitavecchia cost 130 euros, which was to be paid in cash the day of service.  Once I booked, I got a confirmation email.  The day before the service, I got a reminder email to let them know if our plans had changed.

Our experience

I booked our service for 1:00pm on May 11th.  Our driver, Marco, showed up a little early and easily spotted us.  I guess it was because we looked like we were expecting him.  Marco drove a small Mercedes van, which was very clean and tidy, and he spoke excellent English.  As he drove us out of Rome, he was careful to point out some of the sights.  He also mentioned his company’s high ratings on TripAdvisor, which I told him I had already noticed.

RomeCabs’ drivers have a special permit, which allows them to drive right up to the ships in Civitavecchia.  That’s an advantage over regular cabs, which have to drop you off outside the gate.  Marco drove us right to the tent where SeaDream was set up.  He helped us with our bags and it was literally minutes later that we were on the ship.  Bill tipped him well, which I’m sure he appreciated.

Overall

We had an excellent experience with RomeCabs and wouldn’t hesitate to book with them again.   Marco was prompt, courteous, safe, and obviously knows Rome very well.  His vehicle was clean and pleasant and it was very convenient to be driven right up to the ship, rather than having to schlep our bags.  Yes, the service is pricey, but I thought it was worth every euro.  If you need a ride in Rome, I highly recommend checking out RomeCabs.

For more information: www.romecabs.com

Recommend this product? Yes

Best Suited For: Couples
Tour length: One Hour
Tour type: Individual

Very reliable taxi service in Athens…

May 25, 2013
Review by    in Hotels & Travel

Rated a Very Helpful Review
  • User Rating:Excellent

  • Knowledge of tour guide(s): 
  • Transportation quality: 

Pros:Prompt, professional, clean and safe cabs.  You can pre-pay online.

Cons:None.

The Bottom Line:StarGroup Taxi Services is excellent and priced very reasonably.  I wholeheartedly recommend them if you need transportation in Athens.

A friend of mine who had sailed on SeaDream I with me in November 2011 tipped me off to StarGroup Taxi Services when I told him I needed to find transportation from the pier to our hotel in Athens and to the Athens airport.  He said StarGroup Taxi Sevices was very reliable and reasonably priced.  Having used their services twice in the last week, I have to agree with my cruising friend.

Booking

Booking was no problem at all.  StarGroup Taxi Services has a Web site which lists all its services and prices.  I needed a taxi to take me and my husband Bill from the Piraeus Port last Saturday and a taxi to get us from our hotel to the airport.  StarGroup Taxi Services charges  25 euros to get from the port to any Athens hotel.  They charge 50 euros to get from Athens to the airport.  I requested both transfers online and paid for them via PayPal, then got my husband to print out the vouchers.  The total cost for both trips was a little over $100, which was a lot less than what SeaDream was charging people who booked through them.

Our experiences in the cab(s)

We had two different drivers.  Both spoke excellent English and seemed very proud of their city.  One driver made a point of telling us that Athens is very safe, though we needed to watch out for the Romanian street people who try to scam tourists.  Both drivers pointed out places of interest and told us a little about Athens.  Both were on time and courteous. And both times, the yellow Mercedes cabs they drove were spotlessly clean, well-maintained, and safe.  Bill tipped generously and it appeared that both drivers were pleasantly surprised; they didn’t seem to be expecting a gratuity.

We did not use StarGroup Taxi Services for tours, but if we ever go back to Athens and have a couple of days to kill, I would not hesitate to hire them for that purpose.  They had reasonable prices and were set up to accept prepayment, plus they were very prompt and professional.  A number of different tours are available, including ones that are designed for kids.

Overall

If you need a taxi service in Athens, I would definitely recommend StarGroup Taxi Services.  They are very good at what they do and they won’t rip you off.

For more information:  http://www.stargroup.gr/index.html

Recommend this product? Yes

Best Suited For: Couples
Tour type: Individual

Greek art!

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When Bill and I were in Athens last month, we purchased a couple of new paintings from an art store.  The man who ran the store was Australian but had Greek heritage.  His store was loaded with canvases, a lot of which were kind of stereotypical Greek settings.  There were lots of paintings of Mykonos, Santorini. and scenes from places in Athens.  My eyes were drawn to one painting in particular, which caught my eye the minute we walked into the store.  It was hanging on the wall and depicted a bunch of Greek men sitting around smoking, holding court, with the Acropolis in the background.  Yeah, it was kind of stereotypical, but I did actually see a lot of Greek men doing this sort of thing…

And then my eyes landed on a much bigger painting that was a whole lot more interesting…  I knew Bill would love it.  It was unsigned and apparently done by an anonymous Greek art student.  I decided we had to have it.  The shop owner was desperate for a sale.  He originally priced the first painting at 250 euros and the second at 85 euros.  But he eventually came down to offering both for 230 euros.  We did not haggle with him.  He haggled with himself.  It was very odd.

Anyway, we had them both framed and they look great…

We’ll hang them in our new home.  No sense putting more nail holes in this one.

The flight home… seat recliners, carry on space hogs, the Beagle Brigade and the TSA…

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StarGroup Taxi Services picked us up promptly at 8:30am.  I had been a little nervous about the timing, since the cab driver who had taken us to the hotel mentioned that Athens has a lot of traffic in the morning.  Having once lived in the DC and Atlanta areas, my husband and I have seen some serious traffic snarls.  We wondered if three hours was enough time, since we had no idea what Athens’ traffic really looks like.  We asked the hotel clerk about it and she said we wouldn’t have a problem making it on time for our 11:25am flight if we left at 8:30am.  She added with a smile that we’d even have time for coffee.

I want to reiterate that StarGroup Taxi Services did a great job.  I would definitely recommend them to anyone who needs a taxi in Athens.  Our driver even fetched a luggage trolley for us and loaded our bags onto it.

We dropped off our bags at US Airways, then set about finding our gate.  Security wasn’t difficult at all in Athens, though we did have to go through additional screening at the gate because we were headed to America.  I wasn’t looking forward to the flight, since it was scheduled to be about eleven hours.  I haven’t been to eastern Asia, so that was the longest non-stop flight I’ve ever taken in my life.  When I was booking the flight, I gave thought to using a different airline and breaking it up, possibly staying overnight in Paris or Amsterdam.  But in the end, US Airways offered the best prices and the most direct route home.  Besides, if I’m going to spend the night in a European city, I want to actually be able to see it.

Our flight was slightly delayed, but it turned out the headwinds were favorable, which meant we might shave a little time off the total flying time anyway.  I was glad for that.  Like many people, I find flying to be a pretty miserable experience these days.  From the terrible food to the cramped seats to the fact that a lot of folks just don’t care about anyone but themselves, long haul flights on most carriers are the pits, especially if you’re flying in coach.  As it turned out, our flight wasn’t completely full.  A couple of people even got the entire middle rows to themselves.  There was no such luck for Bill and me, though.  As we made our way to seats 20A and 20B, we found some guy already sitting there.

“Excuse me, you’re in my seat.” I said.

The guy looked at his ticket and realized he had overshot his seat, which was 19B.  He moved, but then as Bill was trying to stow our carry on baggage, he decided to get involved.  He said, “I want to make sure there’s enough room for my wife’s bags.”  Obviously, the fact that Bill also has a wife with one carry on bag was irrelevant to him.  Fortunately, since the flight wasn’t totally packed, we found space in the bin across the aisle.  When Bill and I fly, we often don’t bring on carry on bags, mainly because as a servicemember, he can often check bags for free.  But on long haul flights, I like to have a bag with me, just in case something happens with the checked luggage.

Flying out of Greece…

The guy’s wife turned out to be a very slim and pretty blonde I noticed at the gate.  She looked like she was quite a bit younger than he was.  Later, we heard them say they had just gotten married.  As soon as the plane was in the air, they both reclined their seats as far back as they could and stayed that way until we landed in Philadelphia.  In fact, when the announcement was made that people needed to return their seats to the upright position, these two had to be reminded personally.  I also noticed that the guy gave me a dirty look when I sneezed or coughed.  It’s not like I could help it.

I know the issue of seat reclining is controversial.  Personally, I’m in the camp that is against it in coach, because it really does take space away from the people sitting behind you.  I never recline my seat, even on long haul flights, because I don’t find that it makes me that much more comfortable and I empathize with the people who have to sit behind me.  At the same time, I know that some people are more comfortable when they can recline.  I think that’s okay, as long as people are considerate about it.  I have short legs, so the leg space isn’t usually a huge issue, but reclining does make it hard to use the tray table or stand up to go to the bathroom.  I find that a lot of times, if you have to steady yourself by grabbing on to the seat in front of you as you’re standing up, some seat recliners get a bit pissy.  In any case, while I realize that the seats recline and people have the “right” to recline if they want to, I also think it’s very inconsiderate to recline all the way for the whole flight, especially when people are trying to eat.  I ended up with a really nasty charley horse at one point that took several minutes minutes to abate thanks to these two.  By the time we landed, I was feeling pretty agitated.  It’s amazing how quickly my own sense of decency can erode when people are very inconsiderate to me.

I was so excited ten hours later when I spotted land below…

Once we landed in Philly, we quickly got through passport control and customs with no issues.  While we were waiting to pick up our bags, the Beagle Brigade came through to check peoples’ luggage for agricultural products.  Since Bill and I rescue beagles and didn’t have any contraband produce, we welcomed the sight of the adorable little hound doing her job.  It so happened the lady standing next to us had packed an apple in her bag.  The beagle made a beeline for her bag and sniffed it thoroughly, then sat down.  She looked up at the woman as if to say, “Sorry, you’re busted!”  The dog’s handler was very pleasant and professional, unlike the jerky TSA agent I later encountered on yet another security check.

Bill and I were in line, waiting to go through security again.  It was very hot, and I was tired, hungry, thirsty, and cranky.  I don’t remember saying anything that inflammatory.  I was just exhausted and generally crabby and probably looked pissed off.  Next thing I know, a TSA agent snapped, “Are you okay, Ma’am?”  His tone struck me as rather belligerent.  I shot back that I needed a drink… then clarified that I wanted lemonade, ice water, or chocolate milk.  I wasn’t about to get into trouble for being drunk when I hadn’t had a drop to drink.  😉

Frankly, that TSA agent really annoyed me.  I know the TSA is supposed to be about keeping things secure, but there’s no need to deliberately screw with people, especially when they’re jet lagged.  Air travel is undignified enough without hostile TSA agents harassing travelers and provoking them to respond angrily.  The experience was unpleasant enough to make me wonder if I really wanted to endure air travel again anytime soon.  Sadly, we do have to fly to Texas soon to find our next home.

After we cleared security, we stopped by Vino Volo.  Vino Volo is a wine tasting bar.  Back in June 2011, Bill and I spent a very nice hour in one at the otherwise unpleasant Newark Airport.  The one we visited in Philly was just a kiosk and not nearly as nice.  I ordered a sandwich that was supposed to have melted Brie on it.  The Brie was cold, so I gave it to Bill.  We did enjoy tasting a few wines and even met a really nice lady from Texas who gave us some tips on where to look for our next home when we move in a few weeks.

The flight to RDU was very full, but it was only an hour.  I fell asleep at some point after takeoff.  Bill woke me up for a cup of water.  That probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do!  We got home at about 9:30 or so…  I was very irritated, but glad the travel day was finally over.  We are considering going to Ireland on our next trip, but maybe it would be smarter to stay stateside and go somewhere we can drive to… or maybe just book a transatlantic cruise!  I’ve been wanting to do that anyway.

Even the beautiful views from above makes me hesitate to book another long haul flight…

 
Virgin America Airlines and Method came up with a handy video to remind people about courtesy…

Athens… days 2 and 3

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I know we should have made a point of visiting all the museums and ancient historical sites in Athens.  I think by the time we got to Athens, we were just really exhausted by all we had seen in two weeks.  Vacations are supposed to be about relaxing, though, and we’re not at all like Clark W. Griswold when we take trips.  We really enjoy just being together, so that’s pretty much what we do when we go on trips.  If we feel moved to go to a museum, we go.  If we don’t, we don’t.  I like to people watch when I travel.  I can get just as much out of sitting on a park bench watching people interact as I can moving from exhibit to exhibit in a museum.

On our second day in Athens, we did actually look at a few of the ancient sites… the ones that didn’t involve hill climbing, anyway.  We also saw some very entertaining street performers.  There was one guy playing jazz saxophone and several young guys dancing on a street corner.  We saw yet another one of those performers in heavy costume, sitting as still as a statue.  The statue performers don’t interest me that much, with the exception of the guys who do the invisible man acts.  But after you’ve seen a couple of those guys, even they become less interesting.  I do wonder how they can stand being so still, especially when it’s hot outside.

Dancers near the Acropolis…

Ancient stuff…

Eating

We stopped at lunch at one place and I had an unfortunate vantage point of seeing the woman behind the counter who was preparing the food.  I noticed she picked up fries with her hand and caught her eating behind the counter.  When my gyros arrived at barely room temperature, I got kind of nervous and remembered all the food handlers’ courses I had to take when I was working in restaurants.  Then I remembered the epidemiology course I took when I was studying public health.  It occurred to me how much it would suck to have food poisoning while on the plane back to the States, so I ate very sparingly and hoped for the best.  Luckily, I didn’t get sick.  😉  The rest of the afternoon, we wandered more around the city, running the gauntlet of aggressive restaurant hawkers looking for customers.

View of the Acropolis from the Peacock Restaurant and a juicy steak!

 

Later that evening, we had dinner at the hotel’s Peacock restaurant, which offers a great view of the Acropolis.  The food was very good and plenty hot, but I got just as big of a kick from the hilarious bartender, who was cracking jokes the whole time.  I had the opportunity to play with my camera’s settings and got some interesting shots of the sunset.

Scamming

On day three, I got accosted by an old Romanian woman who was trying to force me to take some roses from her.  When I declined to take them, she insisted, telling me they were free.  When that didn’t work, she said I looked like Angelina Jolie.  Talk about ridiculous.  I finally shouted “No!” and moved away from her.  I later found out about a common scam some people do in European cities in which they try to give you something, telling you it’s “free”.  Then, when you do take whatever it is they’re offering, they claim you robbed them and demand money.  No thanks.

Kidding

Day three is also when we picked up most of our souvenirs.  I usually like to buy a mug and a magnet when I go places.  I’m running out of room for the mugs, but my refrigerator still has plenty of room for more magnets.  I went into one very touristy shop when the proprietor beckoned me inside.  I found a couple of magnets as well as some very pretty tiles.  As we were paying, the proprietor joked about the price, giving us a much higher price than what we actually owed.  Then he laughed at my suddenly shocked expression.  It was at that point that I noticed that some Greeks apparently like to kid a lot, especially when money is involved.  That kidding happened several times when we were in Athens.

Haggling

Another thing I noticed is that Greeks like to haggle.  But when we bought stuff, they haggled against themselves.  For instance, when I bought my blue opal and silver necklace, the lady named a price, then immediately lowered it by about ten percent.  I never said a word about the cost… I just hesitated slightly.  The same thing happened when we bought art in Athens.  I spotted a really interesting painting and expressed interest in it.  The shopkeeper priced the painting at 85 euros, then immediately lowered the price to 75 euros.  When I liked another painting, he priced it by itself at 250 euros, but then ended up giving me the first painting and the second for a total of 230 euros.  They are keen to cut a deal, but they don’t seem to ask tourists to haggle…  they do it for you!

We did sort of get scammed… but not in a really bad way.  On our last full day in Athens, we were lured into an outdoor cafe.  I was looking at the dorada, which is a tasty but expensive fish prepared in Greece.  I was also looking at more pedestrian menu choices.  The proprietor came over and took the menus from us before I had actually made up my mind, basically deciding for me that I wanted fish.  Bill was also looking at something cheaper, but the guy offered him lamb.  He thought he had decided on lamb, but it turned out the proprietor ordered fish for him too.  So we both had expensive fish for lunch… and lunch took about two-and-a-half hours!

Yummy fava and salad…


The fabulous fish we were tricked into ordering…

Bill tries to figure out the bill written in Greek…

That night, we came back to the hotel and I heard Kate Bush playing over the sound system.  I’m a big fan of Kate Bush’s music and mentioned it.  The desk clerk and I shared a moment over that, since she was also a fan.  I’m always excited when I run into someone who likes Kate Bush… she can be kind of an acquired taste for some people.

Cats!

The sun was setting as I took this with my new camera.

I think I would have enjoyed this museum…

Crazy graffiti! 

Greek street music!

 
 

Welcome to Athens… now get lost!

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After our cab dropped us off and we dropped our bags, Bill and I wandered around Athens for a few hours.  Our hotel happened to be very close to the Acropolis.  Even better, it was close to the Acropolis metro station, which turned out to be a very lucky thing.  We started walking into the shopping district near our hotel and bumped into a few SeaDream folks who were no doubt killing time in Athens.

We stopped for lunch at a nice looking restaurant.  When we sat down, the outside area was practically deserted.  We had our pick of tables.  I ordered souvlaki again, because I can’t get enough of it as well as some water and Mythos beer.  We were waiting for our food and listening to cheesy Greek pop when suddenly an enormous swarm of people descended on the cafe like locusts.

It turned out another huge cruise ship was in town and these folks were part of a large tour group led there by a guide.  They all had little numbers stuck to their chests, identifying them as Costa cruisers.

I also noticed a small group sitting two tables away.  An older lady was with them; we’d seen her in the port.  I think she was a tour guide.  So obviously, I have a knack for picking restaurants where tour guides frequent.

When our food arrived, I noticed the vegetables that came with mine had mushrooms in it.  I passed the veggies to Bill and watched with amusement as the hardworking waitstaff handled the sudden crowd.

Bill just before the big crowd hit…

 

I would have expected to see a tampon machine or a condom dispenser in the restaurant’s bathroom… but this place was selling Flashdent, which is supposed to be used on your teeth.

After lunch, Bill and I wandered around some more and somehow got way off the beaten path.  It was hot outside and I needed a WC.  I looked around, but didn’t see the Acropolis anywhere.  Suddenly, I was very nervous.  I have a really good sense of direction and rarely get lost, but I was feeling a little lost in Athens on that first afternoon.

Rugs!

We were starting to get lost at this point…

We finally passed Syntagma and I spotted a metro station.  I suggested to Bill that we go inside and find the Acropolis station.  It turned out we were only two stops away, though we did have to change trains after the first stop.  I was very impressed by Athens’ metro.  It only has two lines, but it was very clean and easy to figure out, unlike the metros I’ve used in Milan and Paris.

Once we got off at the Acropolis station, we easily found the hotel and went up to our room, which was a comfortable standard room.  I immediately took a great shower.  Seriously, the best thing about our hotel room in Greece was the shower, which heated up quickly and had excellent water pressure.  I was in a much better mood after freshening up.

 

The bed.

 
 

Got to love a disinfected toilet.


Nice view? 

After resting for awhile, we ventured back out in the Athens sunshine and eventually stopped for dinner at an outdoor cafe, where there was a trio of musicians entertaining everyone with jazz.

Bill was looking for a good dinner, but I was craving orange juice…  This place had it freshly squeezed!  I bet that’s heavenly in the dead of summer.

Once the musicians moved on, a bunch of motorcyclists drove past with black balloons tied to their bikes.  We found out they were protesting something.

The waiter asked where we were from.  I said, “America.”  He gave me a funny look that said, “No kidding…”  We clarified for him, even though in a couple of months, we won’t be North Carolinians anymore.  I enjoyed a very nice fish dish…

I think it’s hard to go hungry in Athens.

Hadrian’s Arch…

I was wearing shorts, so I didn’t feel right about entering the holy place…

Disembarkation… and going to Athens!

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Upon waking the morning of May 18th, 2013, I knew it was time to move on from SeaDream I.  I’m always ambivalent on the last morning of a cruise.  I have never had a bad cruise.  Even our first cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Vision of the Seas was a great time.  But I do have a tendency to get seasick and as much as I love SeaDream and its amazing staffers, there does come a time when I’m ready to get off the ship.

We met some very nice people on our cruise.  I always find SeaDream cruises interesting anyway, because they are very intimate as cruises go.  You will run into just about everyone at least a couple of times over the course of a week.  Some people will be friendly and some will be aloof.  One thing is for certain, though.  You will see just about everyone everyday and it’s both easy and fascinating to observe everybody.

Bill and I are somewhat unusual in that Bill is in the Army.  I have yet to meet another active duty servicemember on a SeaDream cruise, though we have met a few folks who had served at one time.  Although Bill works with some people who would probably be right at home on a SeaDream cruise, I think a lot of servicemembers opt for mainstream lines because they are more affordable and offer a lot of kid friendly activities.

Some people are very bold when they find out what Bill does, though.  In the past, we have actually been asked how we can afford to cruise on SeaDream.  Frankly, until a few years ago, cruising on SeaDream would have been out of the question for us.  I don’t have a full time job and for the first few years of our marriage, we were recovering from Bill’s first marriage, which had left him in dire financial straits.

To be totally honest, things really turned around for us when Bill was deployed to Iraq back in 2007.  While he was gone, we got extra pay.  For the six months he was gone, I made a commitment to paying down debt.  Then we moved to Germany for two years, where we also got paid extra.  That allowed us to pay down more debt, plus we only had one car when we were in Europe.  Bill is a senior lieutenant colonel, which is a pretty decently paid job.  The truth is, though, we have to plan very carefully and save up for our vacations.  The Army gives Bill plenty of leave, but our trips are still precious to us because it takes work, commitment, and cooperation to make them happen.

Check out all the big ships!

I went up on deck on that last morning, noticing how huge Piraeus is and how many large ships were docked nearby.  Right behind us was one of the Seabourn triplets.  Across the way was a Windstar ship.  The enormous Ruby Princess was parked behind the cruise terminal and actually looked like it was part of the building.

We enjoyed a nice breakfast, waited on by Mikee and Brian.  I remember telling Brian that I really admire all the SeaDream staff members for being able to work so hard for so long.  I told Brian that I had once waited tables in a busy restaurant. I pretty much hated the job itself and looked forward to going home at the end of each shift.  I have a low tolerance for very demanding people and, knowing that, admire people who can handle difficult customers without breaking a sweat.  Not that I noticed any really difficult passengers on our cruise.  For the most part, people on our voyage seemed pretty relaxed.

People who work on ships can’t just go home when things get rough.  They have to cooperate with each other.  SeaDream’s staff make cooperation look effortless.  I never once saw anyone looking disgruntled or unhappy.  They all had genuine smiles on their faces and most of them seemed to take a lot of pleasure in coddling their guests.  I thanked Brian for all he did and he rewarded me with a beautiful smile and a big hug.

I hate to see the pool with the net over it…

I made the mistake of booking our cab for 10:30, so Bill and I waited in the salon for awhile.  While we were in there, Rose started arranging flowers and setting up tables for the next group, which would be embarking at 2:00pm that afternoon.  When we finally left the ship, it was like we were saying goodbye to some wonderful friends.

Sniff, sniff… goodbye again, SeaDream I.  See you next time!

Going to Athens…

At the stroke of 10:30am, our cab driver from Star Group Taxi Services arrived to take us into the city.  I had booked this cab on the advice of a fellow SeaDreamer we met on our November 2011 cruise.  The suggestion turned out to be a good one, as the cabbie had a very clean Mercedes taxi, was friendly,  and made a point of telling us about Athens.  He told us that Athens is a very safe city, but you have to watch out for petty thieves.  In particular, he warned us about Romanians and Nigerians who try to scam tourists.  Bill and I had run into these folks on other occasions.

When we lived in Germany, we used to get visits at our home from Romanians looking for work.  The French couple we met in Florence also spoke of being bothered by street people in their home country, though they had never been visited by them at home.  Before I even got to Greece, friends were telling me to watch my purse and wear a moneybelt.  I let Bill handle that!

Our cab driver dropped us off at Hera Hotel, a small boutique hotel I found on Jetsetter.com.  It was still early, so our room wasn’t ready.  Lots of people were in the process of checking in and checking out, so the foyer was crowded with bags.  We left ours under a large table and went for a walk that ended up getting us a little bit lost.

More on Athens with my next post!

Hera Hotel

The last full day of our SeaDream cruise… Santorini!

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Santorini, Greece is one of those places you hear about whenever someone brings up Greece as a potential vacation destination.  I had seen it profiled on Samantha Brown’s Passport to Europe and figured it would be a really interesting place.  And it was… but not for the reasons I expected it to be.

We’ve got company…  The Spanish ship is in the distance, while Costa Magica is closeby.

Mikee, one of SeaDream’s finest waiters, waited on Bill and me at breakfast.  Bill and I had noticed two other ships in port with us; a Spanish cruise ship that appeared to be a bit of a budget line based on its size and lack of balconies, and Costa Magica, a huge mainstream cruise ship.  Mikee shook his head and said, “Boy, those cable cars are gonna be working extra hard this morning.”  We later found out that the Spanish ship was carrying about 1700 people, while Costa Magica had about 2200.

It didn’t really register with Bill or me what Mikee was really saying, nor did we even think that maybe we should wait awhile before venturing ashore.  After breakfast, we got dressed and headed for the tender, provided by a local service.  The boat was very large and I was still coughing a lot.  I hoped I wouldn’t hurl on our way to the port.  The tender seemed to take forever to get us to dry land and once we were there, it was wall to wall people.  The line to get up the mountainside to visit Santorini stretched long.  Thankfully, there was a public WC available.  Much to my surprise, the WC was technically free, though there was a tip box prominently displayed.

Headed for the line…

Donkey rides

Standing in line…

Quite a few people opted to ride one of the hard working donkeys up the mountain, though I didn’t see anyone from SeaDream doing that.  I spent most of my childhood showing horses and was once quite the equestrienne, but I am now at a point in my life at which I feel sorry for any beast of burden that has to carry me, especially uphill.  We also could have walked, but the stout hike to Anacapri squelched any desire I might have had to walk uphill.  In the interest of being humane, Bill and I got in line for the cable cars.  It took about 45 minutes until we were in a car with four other people from Spain.  One of the women was obviously very nervous and buried her face in her hands.  Some Spanish folks in a car ahead of us had turned their ride into a party and were rocking back and forth, which made our car rock.  They sang and cheered, turning the ride into a little fiesta.  The Spanish lady expressed disbelief that they were singing when she was clearly scared shitless.

This ass was prominently displayed in the cable car station at the top of the mountain…

Crowded streets!

A few minutes later, we got off the cable car and were suddenly thrust into a tourist madhouse.  Santorini’s narrow streets were packed with people!  It was very unpleasant to try to walk around, so we ducked into a “fish spa”.  Santorini has quite a few fish spas, actually, and I had been wanting to try one.  At ten euros each for ten minutes, Bill and I could sit in chairs with our feet in fish tanks full of toothless doctor fish, which would exfoliate our rough feet by eating off the dead skin.  It sounds kind of like a gross thing to do and, in fact, I did later read that there are some minor health risks associated with this treatment.  But I was dying of curiosity anyway, so we did it.  A lady who spoke Italian washed our feet and put plastic booties on them, then led us to side by side tanks.  We dipped our feet in the water and the fish went to town.  Ten minutes later, our feet were surprisingly soft.  I noticed a sign that said all over body treatments were also available.  Yikes!

Feeding the fishies!  This was actually kind of fun and tickled a bit.  So far, I’ve seen no evidence of ill effect after having let these fish exfoliate my feet.

We found a side alley that led to “Main Street”, where we could see evidence of life outside the tourist hordes.  Bill found an ATM, but wasn’t able to get any cash from it.  After a little while, I got sick of fighting the crowds.  Just as we were about to make our way back to the cable cars, we were lured into a restaurant with promises of cold beer.  We were the only people in there when we sat down, so we decided to have lunch, which turned out to be delicious.  When Bill and I lived in Germany, we used to love going out for Greek food.  We hadn’t found anything similar to the experience since moving back to the States.  That lunch in Santorini kicked off several days of yummy Greek eating.

We had a nice, leisurely meal and were very well taken care of by the restaurant’s proprietor, who brought out a complimentary round of local wine for us as we paid the check.  As we walked out of the restaurant, I noticed that the streets were a lot quieter.  It seemed all the folks from the big cruise ships had left, since their ships were departing in the early afternoon.  The difference was amazing!

I stopped by a jewelry store and bought myself a beautiful blue opal and silver necklace as if in celebration.

New bling.

Bye fellow cruisers!

The view on the way down.

Before dinner that evening, we gathered in the dining salon to hear Captain Smorawski’s closing speech.  He told us about how many nautical miles we traveled, how much fuel we’d burned, and most importantly, how much booze we consumed.  Then he presented our favorite sommelier Pablo an award for being employee of the month.  Like most of the rest of us, Pablo would be disembarking in Athens and going home for his scheduled two month break.

Pablo wins cash!

Dinner that night was very interesting, since three of my courses came from the raw menu.  I don’t usually go for healthy food, as evidenced by my zaftig figure.  But something about the menu made me decide I wanted to try some of the raw stuff that night.  I was glad I did, since all three courses were delicious.  Jose was our waiter, which always makes me happy.

The Ginger Spritzer was very refreshing and delicious!

I followed it with The Glow, a slightly spicy raw cocktail…

I went with something cooked for the main course…  Duck!

Raw panna cotta… This one didn’t look like a boob!

Pablo had an easy time convincing my husband to purchase this reasonably priced and very delicious wine…  He had been wanting to try this particular variety for some time.  It was worth the purchase!

The last night is always bittersweet and we spent ours in the piano bar, of course.  Our last song was “Bohemian Rhapsody”.  I didn’t end up pre-booking another cruise this time, mainly because Bill and I don’t know what the future holds as he finishes his Army career and we are interested in trying barging in France or Ireland.  But I feel very certain we’ll be back to SeaDream as soon as possible.

Stay tuned for my disembarkation post and travels in Athens.

It’s always sad to see the luggage mats again…

Day 6 of our SeaDream cruise… Itea (Delphi) and the Corinth Canal…

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Itea

Nat Green had told us that Itea had really beautiful, calm waters.  Sadly, the clouds were out on May 16th, which made it hard to see how beautiful the water really was.  SeaDream stopped in Itea, Greece, to let passengers who wanted to see Delphi take a tour.  Bill and I opted to just walk around the port for awhile.  I heard later that Delphi was a fairly strenuous stop that involved a lot of climbing stairs.

Itea didn’t seem like a very exciting town, though I did see what I would consider “stereotypical” Greek scenes.  There were orange trees and flowering bushes everywhere, and old men sat at cafes holding court, drinking coffee, and smoking.  Bill and I passed a butcher shop and I happened to see a pig’s head hanging in the window.  He didn’t notice until I said, “Oh my God!”

Orange you glad we’re in Greece?

We walked by one coffee shop that smelled absolutely heavenly.  I was tempted to go inside for a cup of coffee, but instead, we went to a gift shop where several SeaDream passengers appeared to be on a shopping spree.  At this point in the trip, I was being pretty restrained about shopping.  I did see some beautiful plates and tiles that I coveted, but somehow I managed to stop myself from buying them… in Itea, at least.

These beautiful bushes were everywhere.

 

Pig head!

The proprietors of the gift shop were pretty funny, though.  As a few of the SeaDream ladies picked out pieces of silver jewelry, one of the store’s owners said, “God bless America.  You can stay here all day!”

The postcards in Itea were very interesting.  I’m not sure what Bill is reacting to…

On the tender back to the yacht…

I left the store with a Greek cookbook, two compact discs, and a little icon to go in my shadow box at home.  My shopping urge temporarily satisfied, we went back to the ship where we lazed around in the hot tub and the TOY Bar until it was time to pass through the Corinth Canal.  Job kept me supplied with mimosas and Manuel kept me in stitches with stories about life as a bartender on SeaDream I.

Getting ready to party through the Corinth Canal!

I must say, SeaDream made going through the canal pretty special.  They put out plenty of hors d’oeuvres and passed around small glasses of ouzo as we made our way through.  There was live music at the front of the yacht.  Some folks were smart enough to go to deck five, which was a lot less crowded than the TOY Bar was.  If your goal is to get great pictures and see a lot, I would recommend not hanging out near the TOY Bar.  As for Bill and me, we had a great time listening to the music, toasting with ouzo, and getting to know some of the people we had met in the piano bar the night before.

Me and Bill and a new friend!

 
 

That evening was the degustation menu dinner.  We did ours with a wine pairing and Pablo the sommelier explained the different wines he paired with each course.  We had the marvelous Jose waiting on us; he is one of my favorite SeaDream personalities because he has a beautiful, genuine smile and seems intent on making his guests happy.  When Jose noticed me not eating the foie gras, he took the liberty of bringing me a salad from the alternate menu which was much more to my liking.

Dinner and wine pairing begin…

A sweet ending…

The piano bar was fun on Thursday night, especially when the whole bar joined me in a rousing rendition of “Thank You For The Music” by ABBA.

 George at the piano

 

Cats!

Day 5 of our SeaDream cruise… Greece!

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I was very excited when I woke up on Wednesday, May 15th.  We were in Fiskardo, Greece.  It was my very first time in Greece, though I have been to many other European countries.  I’d been waiting years to cross Greece off the bucket list.  As it turned out Fiskardo was a delightful stop.  Bill and I both really enjoyed it for its picturesque beauty and almost eerie calm and quiet.  Seriously, after having spent days in busy Italian cities and ports, Fiskardo seemed like an oasis of tranquility.

The Greek flag is flown…

Views around Fiskardo…

The little port town was very tourist oriented, with lots of restaurants and shops.  Bill and I walked past them and up some steps near a church.  We walked a little ways on a road that ran by the church and a children’s playground and soon found ourselves at a tiny little beach with clear blue water.

Cute little beach with frigid water!

I couldn’t resist stepping into the water.  Thankfully, I had my water sandals on, because the beach was a bit rocky.  The water was also very cold.

We walked around some more in the little town and Bill said he could totally see renting an apartment in Fiskardo and just enjoying the serenity of the place.  It was very pretty and peaceful, despite all the foreign tourists who were being accommodated.

After we had explored the little town, we went back to the yacht and enjoyed plenty of cocktails, including a couple of Manuel’s amazing mojitos, as well as the Champagne and Caviar Splash.  That was the first time I’d ever done the Splash in Europe, where they are held on deck 3 instead of on a beach.  I have to admit, I much prefer the less crowded conditions of the beach for the Splash.

There’s nothing like one of Manuel’s mojitos and a Bali bed…

The Splash!

Musicians playing some groovy music…

Protein overload.

Later that evening, we dined on deck four with Nat Green, SeaDream’s new cruise director.  He gave us some interesting perspectives about SeaDream, as well as a little dirt on the possible plans for a new ship.  He also let us know that those who will be on the upcoming Black Sea cruise leaving today will get a special treat that he helped arrange.  I don’t want to spoil the surprise for those lucky folks… and I hope Nat is able to pull it off.

After dinner there was a dessert extravaganza.  I went down to the table laden with beautiful, rich desserts and the chef insisted that I take a huge piece of candy that was used as a garnish (and is occasionally used to make little dishes for SeaDream’s desserts).

Desserts!

I was also able to make it to the piano bar on Wednesday night and my voice was mostly back to normal.  That turned out to be kind of a cool evening, since one of the passengers played a few songs at the piano and was quite the virtuoso!  George was a very good sport about giving up his spot for a few minutes.  I met a charming couple from Northern Ireland and really started to realize how music bonds people.

I was basically starting to feel better by the time we made it to Fiskardo.  It was a good time to get over the worst of my cold.

 Clearly beautiful water…

Charming village!