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Archive for June, 2010

I’m 29.  The island got electricity during my lifetime.  It likes to remind us of this periodically.  We went without internet, phone, and fax for three days.  Luckily (in the middle of a fierce heat wave) we got to keep our electricity (i.e., air conditioning).  So I spent the last three days with no connection to the outside world at all.  That means something entirely different when you live on a small island that is already very cut off from the rest of the world.

Yesterday I spent the whole day (9:30am until 5:00pm) teaching my friend Anna how to make bread.  We made bread out of cornmeal, whole wheat flour & seeds, and white flour.  Then our husbands showed up to eat most of it.  It was a very nice way to spend a day.  I love baking bread, and I’m surprisingly good at it, considering that I did it for the very first time about 18 months ago.

The day before that, we watched the World Cup game in which Greece won over Nigeria.  It was a very exciting game, and I really got into it (yesterday, when the USA was robbed of our victory against Algeria, I kept falling asleep, and in fact slept from the point that it was 0-1 Algeria until I was awakened by the screeching commentators complaining about the final score of 2-2 (when it should have been 3-2 USA).   But I really got excited about the Greece game, because Greece actually cares about soccer/football, whereas the USA does not.  (Example:  I have 500 Facebook friends, the vast majority of whom are Americans, and only 2 of them posted anything related to the World Cup game in which the USA very legitimately should have been pissed off.  If the same thing had happened to the Greek team, they’d STILL be screaming about it.)

The day before the Greece game, we went for a night swim in the sea.  We’re in the midst of the first annual heat wave, and the sea is still hot at night.  The water was so warm, in fact, that even I just ran right in and swam, whereas I normally spend half an hour inching my way into the water.

But our big news, aside from being cut off from the world, winning a Big Game, baking lots of bread (and chocolate chip cookies), and swimming in the sea, is that we are on the strictest budget I have ever seen.  Starting on June 16, when we were hit by yet another round of salary cuts (at this point it’s gotten so entirely ridiculous, we are resigned to the fact that my husband’s salary will keep decreasing over time, despite his increasing experience, service, and so on), and facing the reality of moving (expensive) and a number of other upcoming expenses, I sat down with the facts and figures and wrote up a budget.

It started as a yearly budget:  this is what we make, this is what we most likely will spend over the course of a year.

Then it turned into a monthly budget:  this is what we know we make this month, these are the expenses we expect to have this month.

Now it’s a weekly budget:  this is what we have in the bank right this minute, this is how many bottles of non-poisonous water and how many cucumbers we think we can scrape by on this week.

To put things into perspective, it’s now Day Four of The Budget, and so far, for all things (everything from food to gas to medicine to whatever else people spend their money on), we have spent €18.18, of which €12 was for bottled water, and the rest was for tomatoes, three packets of yeast, and lemons.  And we’re hoping we don’t have to spend anything else this week.  Fingers crossed that we can make it through an entire week on less than €20 for everything, because we have a bill next week for €200.

As long as “nothing happens,” and we eat lightly cooked beans (the bottled water won’t last long enough to cook them more than lightly) and the bread Anna gave us from our baking spree yesterday, we should be able to finish out the week without buying anything else except 1 L of milk.  Fingers crossed, because the one thing we absolutely refuse to do is to borrow money (credit card, bank, parents, etc.).  We are going to get by on €20/week living in one of the most expensive places in the entire world.  Because that’s what a small island that uses the Euro in a country with serious economic problems and high inflation and no subsidies for small islands is.

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I love Mexican and Tex-Mex food. I grew up in the US, where it’s one of the most popular cuisines. But in Greece, Mexican food (which is almost always Tex-Mex actually) is viewed with suspicion. There are a few “gourmet Mexican” restaurants in Athens and its suburbs, like this one, but most Mexican places cater to tourists from western Europe, not to Mexicans.   In the larger supermarkets in Athens and the other cities, you can find El Paso taco sauce, tortillas, and canned jalapenos, and I’ve even found really good specialty salsa in Athens.

Here on the island… nothing.  Not only is there no Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurant, but there are no Mexican ingredients in the markets here.  I just wanted a burrito, for goodness sake.

Luckily, I had brought a jar of jalapenos from Athens.  I used wheat flour, baking powder, salt, olive oil, canned red beans (dried are not sold on the island), white rice, tomatoes, onions, parsley (cilantro is not sold here either), half of a fresh peach, powdered lime juice (limes are available but extremely overpriced), garlic, cumin, nonfat plain Greek yogurt, and milk to make lunch today:

– wheat flour tortillas (they came out shaped like amoebas, but they tasted terrific)
– red beans
– dry Mexican rice
– peach pico de gallo
– plain yogurt

Ta da!!  (you have to imagine the yogurt, I couldn’t fit it in the frame.)

Mexican lunch!

If I lived in the US, this meal would have taken about 5 minutes, instead of 3 hours, and I could have had refried beans, some kind of cheese (feta didn’t really seem to go…), and real sour cream. All things I probably don’t really need to be eating, now that I think of it.

It was so much better than it would have been if I had used purchased stuff in the US. Even – dare I say it – than if I had gone to a Tex-Mex restaurant in the part of the US where I grew up (nowhere near Mexico!).

I’m starting to learn that most “international” foods are created out of pretty simple ingredients. I’ll never be able to make some things here, but with patience and ingenuity (remember my nonexistent cooking equipment?) many things I had pretty much given up on can be made right at home on this little speck.

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Lunch with a view

Somewhere around 5am this morning I woke up when my husband came to bed. He was not very good company yesterday after Greece lost 0-2 to South Korea in the World Cup. I saw bits of the game and it looked like they weren’t playing very well. Worthy of a comment, but not much more, in my opinion, but my poor dear was pretty upset about it and ended up with a headache that got worse and worse. He took some headache medicine containing caffeine, and thus the 5am bedtime.

So while he slept away the morning, I cooked. I made homemade fat-free tzatziki, homemade almost fat-free hummus, and homemade pita bread. It was my first time making pita bread, and it was a success. Since my main goal is to save money, and this made enough food for two people for an entire day, I tallied up the whole thing and it came to just about €1.70 including some carrots, not including water.

Lunch

This is pretty much what my life looks like these days. I spend about 2 hours every day reading recipes online, trying to find things I can make with what I already have on hand, or with things that I can buy very cheaply, another 4 to 6 hours cooking every day, plenty of time cleaning (mainly the kitchen) and doing laundry, and the rest of my time I spend at the beach or walking around the island alone, with my husband, or with friends.

It’s not a particularly modern lifestyle, but it suits me since it’s only for two more weeks. After that, everything changes dramatically and I will be in a city of 6 million people and it will be hot and I will be exhausted and cranky. I’m enjoying this while it lasts.

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Today is Saturday, I spent the morning making homemade focaccia while my husband did the laundry and the floors.  We had the amazingly delicious focaccia with garlic-olive oil dipping sauce, and a Greek salad for lunch, after which I did the dishes and put the clothes on the line.  Sounds pretty normal so far, right? And then my husband went absolutely freaking nuts.  He is having something resembling epileptic fits.  It’s because Greece is playing their first game in the World Cup 2010 in South Africa, against South Korea.

I knew he would watch the game – he even watched the Mexico/South Africa and Uruguay/Somebody Else games last night – but I didn’t realize he would take it all so seriously!  This only happens every four years, and four years ago, Greece wasn’t in the World Cup, so this is the first time I’m seeing this reaction.

I’m going to post the focaccia recipe, because we thought it was really delicious.  This is not a food blog, and I’m not going to start taking photos of everything I cook, but it’s something to do instead of pretending to follow the game.

Caramelized Onion and Olive Focaccia

I got the original idea from here and also here, but after reading this article, I decided to use this recipe here and alter it as seemed appropriate.

Ingredients

240 gr (2 cups) white all-purpose flour
1 cup warm water, divided
1 packet (7-8 gr) active dry yeast
1 tsp white sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 tbsp and 1 tsp olive oil, divided
5 whole Kalamata olives
2 tbsp dried rosemary
1 tbsp dried thyme
2 medium red onions

Instructions

1. Heat the water very briefly in a tea kettle (or, if not using bottled water, just use warm tap water) and pour 1/2 cup water into a mixing bowl.

2. Sprinkle the yeast over the top of the water, followed by the sugar. Let sit for 10 minutes. The yeast should foam up. If it doesn’t, throw it away and buy fresh yeast.

3. Add the flour to the water and mix well; start adding the water bit by bit as you mix it until it reaches a moist but not overly sticky consistency.

4. Flour your kneading surface. Put the dough onto the surface and start kneading it. It doesn’t need to be kneaded very long. I usually knead bread dough for 10 minutes, and the recipe called for 1 minute; I did it for more like 5 minutes and it came out great. I ended up having to add a bit more flour as it was too wet; the original recipe never specifies how much water the recipe is supposed to use, so I overestimated.

5. Shape into a ball. Wash and dry your mixing bowl well. Put 1 tsp of olive oil into the bowl and coat the sides well. Put the dough ball into the bowl, rolling it around so it is coated lightly in oil on all sides. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and then drape a kitchen towel over the top. Leave the bowl in a warm spot. Note the time, because in 45 minutes, we will come back to the dough. Preheat your oven to 245 degrees Celsius.

6. Turn on your burner to medium heat with a largish saucepan on it. Clean and slice two medium red onions. The slices should be about 1/8″ thick (normal onion slices) and all about the same thickness. At this point, add 1 tbsp olive oil to the saucepan. Separate the rings. Once the oil is hot enough to make a piece of onion sizzle, add all the onions to the saucepan.

7. Stir the onions well so that they are all coated in olive oil. Stir slowly but more or less continuously for a few minutes. Then you can stir every 30 seconds or so (but for 10-20 seconds each time) until the onions turn golden.

8. Lower the heat a little to one tick below medium, and continue stirring the onions. It took mine about 25 minutes to caramelize so don’t rush them – it’s worth the wait. Withdraw them from the heat when they are brown but not burned. Put them on a plate, so they don’t continue to cook in the pot.

6. 45 minutes after the dough started rising, check on it: it should have doubled. Mine more than doubled, but it had a much wetter consistency than bread dough; it turned out great so I guess that’s how it’s supposed to be.

7. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Put the doubled dough ball onto the cookie sheet. Gently press out the air while also pushing the dough so that it spreads over the cookie sheet. Mine ended up pretty thin (about 1/4″). All the recipes say to brush with olive oil at this point – I didn’t, and it was great, and it saved some calories, but I suspect it would be worth doing, and next time I probably will. Cover with plastic wrap and wait 15 minutes.

8. Slice the Kalamata olives, removing the pit, into small pieces (about 8 pieces per olive).

9. After 15 minutes, uncover the cookie sheet and, using your fingertip, press “dimples” into the dough every inch or so over its surface.

10. Sprinkle the rosemary and thyme over the dough. Then spread the onions and sprinkle the olive pieces over the dough.

11. Put the cookie sheet on a low rack in the oven and bake for 15 minutes.

12. To serve, cut into long, slender pieces. I made a garlic olive oil dipping sauce which went perfectly with it.

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Since I’ve been to about sixteen thousand “destinations” in Greece, I thought I’d make a regular blog feature out of writing little travel articles about places I’ve been, with photos and recommendations. Who knows, maybe they’ll encourage someone to come check them out 🙂

Today: Milos, a medium-sized island in the Cycladic archipelago (the same one that includes Santorini and Mykonos), which is not very touristy (although it is very busy indeed in August) and is downright frighteningly beautiful.

Why should I go?

Milos is unspoiled, just as beautiful if not more so than the completely spoiled Santorini, has some of the nicest beaches in the country, has an excellent archaeological museum, several good archaeological sites, and a charming capital that’s perfect for wandering.

How do I get there?

Milos has an airport that gets flights from Athens, usually about once per day (Olympic Air).  There are usually several highspeed and slow ferries per day in the summer, and at least one per day in the winter.  All the boats leave from Peiraias harbor.

Where should I stay?

There are three main places to stay:  the port town of Adamantas, the capital town of Plaka and its neighboring Tripiti, and the beach town of Pollonia.  I’d recommend either of the first two, especially Plaka.  Pollonia is far away from everything and although there is a nice beach there, it’s not as beautiful as several of the other beaches.

Adamantas

The port town has lots of restaurants, hotels, cafes, and shops.  Almost all ships dock here, the airport is nearby, and there are taxi stands and buses here in town.  This is probably the easiest place to stay, but it’s not the most beautiful.

Plaka

Plaka is where the archaeological museum, the Early Christian catacombs, the site of Ancient Milos, and lots of good restaurants and shops are located.  It’s also the most beautiful village on the island.  My recommendation for a place to eat is Archontoula, near the bus turn-around.

A street in Plaka.

An old Plaka house.

Archaeological Sites

The most important one, and the one you just can’t miss if you go to Milos, is the Bronze Age site of Phylakopi.   Built of volcanic stone, Phylakopi was the ancient center of obsidian production.  Obsidian (volcanic glass) was the best available material for cutting, so was sold all over the ancient Mediterranean world.  This allowed Phylakopi to develop into an important trading center, and the Archaeological Museum in Plaka has lots of examples of obsidian cutting tools, pottery, figurines, and other finds from the site.  It’s located near the beautiful Papafranga beach, so a visit to the one can easily include the other.

Phylakopi looking toward the sea.

A wall of volcanic stone.

Other important sites include the ancient theater of Milos (below Plaka) and the Early Christian catacombs (nearby).

Museums

There are three museums on the island but I’ve only been to two of them.  I didn’t go to the Ecclesiastical Museum as that’s not really my thing.  The Archaeological Museum in Plaka, though small, is one of the best local museums in the entire country (thanks to the finds from Phylakopi).  In case you’re wondering, it has a plaster cast of the statue of Aphrodite found on the island (the Venus di Milo) which is in the Louvre.

The Milos Minerological Museum in Adamantas is wonderful.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from this museum but it was a great surprise.  There are great teaching exhibitions on the life of miners and on the minerals themselves (the island, being volcanic, is full of them).  When I visited, there was also a great temporary exhibition on shells of the Mediterranean, which is now closed; and there’s a tiny bookstore that has some good stuff in it.

Rock formation in Milos.

Beaches

Milos’ biggest tourist draw is the beaches; they are beautiful… I’m not much of a beach person myself, but I’ll just post some photos from Papafranga to give you an idea.

Rock channel at Papafranga with hidden beach.

The water at Papafranga.

A popular way to get to many of the more remote beaches is by going on a one-day boat trip around the island, which stops at the really spectacular beaches.  This is possible in the summer in good weather (low wind).

When should I go?

The best time to go is May, June, September, and October, which holds true for most of the islands, because in the winter months, many of the hotels and rooms to rent are closed; and in July and August, prices are much, much higher for everything, and there are too many people around.

How much will it cost?

In May, June, September, or October, from Athens, ferry tickets about €15 per person, hotel about €35 for a double room, food about €20 for a restaurant meal for two people.   Four nights on the island, including hotel and ferry tickets and food, for two people, about €300 if you throw a few gyros in there and don’t eat at fancy restaurants twice a day.

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I cook a lot here. Not just because I’m trying to use up all the stuff in the cupboard, or because it’s cheaper, or because I am an eager-to-please newlywed, but because I genuinely enjoy it. My mother was a great creator of food – I can’t call her just a cook, since most of her dishes started with a seed catalog. I have always been inspired to cook well because of her, and to start every dish as far back as possible: it’s better to make a pizza at home on purchased dough than to buy a pizza ready-made; it’s better to make the dough from flour than to buy dough; it’s better to have grown the toppings in your garden than to use storebought; it’s better to have milled the wheat yourself than to buy flour; it’s better to have grown the wheat than to have bought it… you can keep this game going for a long time.

I have no hopes of actually growing and milling wheat, but I would like, at least, to make the dough and grow the toppings, at some point in my life. For now, since I don’t have a garden of my own, I have to be satisfied with making the dough.

Just in the past week, I’ve made the following completely from scratch:

– thyme-scented French bread
– chocolate chip cookies
– basil-infused orzo pasta
– basil-infused castellane pasta
– whole wheat fettucine
– whole wheat w/ honey pizza dough
– Mexican rice
– Chinese egg-fried whole grain rice
– feta-sesame saganaki
– black-eyed pea salad
– hummus from dried chickpeas

… and more. It may not sound that impressive, and maybe it isn’t, but I’m impressed with myself for doing it for two reasons:

1) This whole year, since September, I didn’t have a kitchen. I didn’t even have a microwave. I had a sink, a knife, and a cutting board, but no source of heat.

2) The kitchen that I cook in is small. Most people claim to have small kitchens, even people who manifestly do not. But I do, honestly. Today when I made the chocolate chip cookies, I didn’t have enough space to put the cookie sheet down, so I had to do it on the bed. My refrigerator is so small that it doesn’t have a freezer. My oven is so small that its stovetop only has two burners and the oven part is not much larger than an American toaster-oven.

I have a double sink for some reason, whoever designed the kitchen thought it made sense, but it doesn’t, because there’s no counter space as a result. Everything I do in the kitchen (unless I do it in the bed, which is not rare), I do by balancing a cutting board on the divider that separates the two sink sections, and working on the cutting board. The cutting board regularly flips to one side or the other, very often sending my food flying into the sink.

As for cupboard space… I store the water on the living room floor, and most of the dried goods like beans, rice, sugar are in jars lined up here and there.

What about equipment, you ask? Aside from the aforementioned refrigerator-sans-freezer, glorified toaster-oven / hot plate, and cutting board, I have one functional knife, a digital kitchen scale (one of my prized possessions), a Zyliss garlic press (another prized poss.), a colander, a large pot, a 9″ frying pan, and a tea kettle / hotpot.

There is no coffee maker, no food processor or blender, no microwave, no freezer (I just have to bring that up again), no garbage disposal, no toaster, no grill, no dishwasher (ha!).

The entire counter space consists of 3″ of space between the sink and the oven on the right, and 3″ of space between the sink and the wall on the other side. That’s it. So I work by balancing my cutting board on the sink divider, and with this setup, I cook two meals from scratch every day.

I do sometimes need some flat space, so I have a table that I temporarily steal when I need to roll out pasta dough or knead bread dough.

My mother has complained for decades about her kitchen: too small, bad appliances, not enough light, not enough air, old countertops, etc. But the truth is that you don’t need space or equipment to cook from scratch. In fact, I think that’s the real secret: the REAL “from scratch” stuff doesn’t call for equipment at all. If your great-grandmother made it, think about what she would have used. And the results are astounding. Everything I cook makes my husband very, very happy. I started a notebook to write down recipes that he loves, and I’ve been writing them at a rate of two per day for a while now.

It’s not all rosy, though. Almost my most common expression is “I want a kitchen!” Because the oven is balanced on top of the mini-fridge and the air vent is positioned directly above the oven, there’s so little space between the stove top and the air vent thingy that I can barely fit my pot on the stove. Stirring with a wooden spoon is tough, and forget about pouring anything into the pot. If I have beans ready to go into the pot, for example, instead of pouring them in with the pot on the stove, I remove the pot from the stove, balance it precariously on the sink divider, pour the beans in, and transfer it back to the stove.

My mother would say that I’m lucky because a small kitchen is easier to keep clean. I think this is true, but I really wouldn’t mind cleaning a massive kitchen – that would be a trade-off I’d be willing to make.

One of our closest friend-couples on the island own a gorgeous little house in the capital village (heh) of the island, which they renovated themselves. Their kitchen is gorgeous. We went there for dinner tonight (I brought the chocolate chip cookies) and when I came in, I just stood in the kitchen and watched her cook. She asked me what I was doing, and I said “I’m enjoying my jealousy.”

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I’m American.  As an American who spent 11 years learning Greek and doing everything else humanly possible to flee the United States permanently, “my fellow Americans” don’t usually think of me as a particularly patriotic specimen, and they’d be right.  But just because I spend my time in the US whining about how much better things are in Greece (even when that’s blatantly not true), it doesn’t make me any less American.  Because you either are, or you aren’t.  I have a US passport, I was born in Washington, DC, and I pay taxes to the IRS.

I much prefer living in Greece.  I didn’t do this for any other reason than that I like it here.  But there are a few things that I genuinely miss.  Some of them can be sent over or brought over in a suitcase, some of them I just have to live without.  I decided to come up with a list of them, for your amusement.  Ask yourself:  could I live without these things?

-Ziploc bags. All sizes and varieties. They are not sold in this country.

-Saccharin sweetener. I can’t use aspartame (which we do have here), because I lack the enzyme to detect its sweetness (or something like that), and saccharin, the oldest and most harmless of sweeteners, is classed as an illegal carcinogen here.

-Cellophane / plastic wrap. Yes, you can buy it here, but it’s crap. It sticks to itself when you don’t want it to. It’s like the plastic wrap we had in the US 20 years ago, that always left you with a weird feeling of angst and struggle.

-Tampons. Again, they are available, although they only represent about 2% of the “feminine care products” in any typical store’s selection (the 98% being made up of the old pantyliner thingies that we American girls have been shunning for at least two decades). The ones they sell here are the really old kind and are yucky.

-Fake maple syrup. You can get real maple syrup (it’s expensive, though) but sometimes I just want the fake low-sugar / low-calorie kind.

-Whole-berry cranberry sauce. I think I might start to cry if I don’t just move on.

-All those over-priced but low calorie and easy to prepare premade foods like VitaMuffins, BocaBurgers, and so on. I can’t even buy a frozen veggie burger here. I may need to get my mom’s 35-step veggie burger recipe.

-Bagels. Especially raisin bagels, but really, any bagels. They started selling chive and onion cream cheese and now I just put that on bread or crackers and pretend I’m eating an everything bagel with chive and onion cream cheese, and it’s okay.

-One-piece swimsuits. I had a severe sunburn on my stomach a few years ago, and that, combined with my surgery scars from this spring, make me happier covering up my midsection on the beach. But one-piece swimsuits, or even two-piece swimsuits with any kind of boob support, are not sold here. However, your triangle bikini needs will be met, and then some.

-Naked ginger. This is now almost impossible to find in the US as well, so I may have to give up on it. It is crystallized ginger without the sugar crystals, and is my favorite thing ever. Sob.

-More stuff: barbecue sauce, horseradish, sugar free stuff of all kinds, flavor extracts aside from vanilla.

Wow, I miss a lot of food items.

Things I miss that can’t be packed in a suitcase:

-Being able to flush toilet paper down the toilet. This is an annoying problem in Greece. You can’t actually flush the paper. You’re supposed to throw it in the trash. That means you have to take out the bathroom trash on a pretty much constant basis, and it’s also kind of gross. I’m totally used to it, but I wouldn’t say no if they said I could start flushing the stuff.

-Customer service. The whole idea of “the customer is always or at least sometimes right”. The concept of returning something you bought and decided you don’t want (even if you don’t have an extremely good reason).

-Buying things online. This has failed to take off in Greece, for unknown reasons, and I miss it. I miss Amazon so much. And it would be nice to be able to reserve a train ticket on the internet, instead of having to go to the train station.

-Lack of bureaucracy. Not until you’ve lived through the Greek bureaucracy (or died trying) do you have a concept of what it means to say “Greek red tape.” The US doesn’t have a bureaucracy at all (at least, not that we come into contact with as citizens), and a life lived without red tape is such blissful ignorance. I miss those days of changing my address with little more fanfare than a 20-second visit to the USPS website, or getting health insurance in under 3 weeks and visits with 17 different government officials.

-Items on sale. Things are always on sale in the US. Don’t believe me? Go to a place like Kohl’s or Best Buy. Look around. Chances are, almost everything in the store is marked down. In Greece, nothing is ever on sale, with the exception of an end-of-season sell-off in January and August for a limited time when they get rid of old stuff no one wants. At grocery stores, instead of finding your shampoo on sale, it will likely be bundled with a free conditioner bottle. What if you don’t want that conditioner? Too bad.

-Caffeine-free Diet Coke, Ginger Ale, and any other caffeine-free beverage. I’m allergic to caffeine, sort of. It makes me sick, but it doesn’t make me die. So when I go out and want something other than bottled water or tap water, I have to order … soda water. Because that’s all there is. I could get fresh squeezed orange juice but that shit is expensive here. I miss diet ginger ale and caffeine free diet coke and crystal light lemonade. It’s not realistic to pack things like this so I can’t consider this importable.

-Gyms for people who like to work out. Before I got really sick in 2008, I used to be involved in the sport of powerlifting, which meant I spent hours every day lifting weights. Now all my muscles have turned into flab from not being able to work out, but that’s for a different post. I have belonged to three gyms in Greece, and they all more or less sucked. The equipment is mediocre, the staff is trained up to the standard of about 1995, and the regulars are no better. I’ve never seen a power cage in Greece (that’s a weightlifting thing that weightlifting people like).

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