For the third year in a row, I hopped on a plane on New Year’s Eve and flew off to a different continent. Last year this time I went to the southern tip of Western Europe, namely Spain and Portugal, it was a great escape from NYC’s freezing winter. Greece, situated on the southern tip of eastern Europe, seemed like an obvious choice for this year. However, it was either bad luck, or Greece is just not as weather friendly in winter, for the 2 weeks I was there, the weather was mostly on par with NYC, a few degrees above freezing in Athens and Santorini, and right around freezing in Meteora, which is in Central Greece. Despite the cold, I did not get rained or snowed on, so I consider myself pretty lucky in that regard. I was also lucky that I did not get sick or get robbed on the trip (or on any of my previous trips), I met people who had to go into emergency rooms or had their $3000 camera stolen while traveling, that didn’t sound like fun.
I always try to learn the basics of the language of the country that I am traveling to, so I also spent the month beforehand trying to study Greek. But boy, Greek really is something else! It is vastly different from any Western European languages, which is the exposure I’ve had so far. In physics, we always use Greek letters to represent physical quantities, so I probably had a slight advantage over non-physicists. But once going beyond the alphabet, into the grammar and vocabulary, it is definitely the hardest language I have encountered so far. And it is also the first time that I realized how hard it must be for Westerners to learn Chinese! I can finally properly emphasize with people who struggle with learning a vastly different language from their mother tongue.
I divided my 2-week trip into 3 parts, first half is Athens, the second half is divided between Santorini and Meteora. It worked out pretty well, but given the low tourist season, I could have easily visited a 4th place. In hindsight, I would’ve enjoyed visiting Istanbul too, but I’ll save it for the future.
The Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum was definitely the highlight of my time in Athens. Having visited the museum the day before, climbing up to the Acropolis was a lot more exciting and rewarding. I finally made the connection that Greek theatre was originated in Greece, as I visited the first ever Greek theatre. It was such a spiritual experience to visit the place where philosophers like Plato walked and taught thousands of years ago. The Ancient Agora was another ancient ruin that I enjoyed visiting, as the cradle of democracy, there were ruins of buildings were senators and governors held meetings and decided the fates of all of the citizens.
The most memorable part of Santorini for me was the hike from Fira to Oia. It is 6.5 miles, and took me 3-3.5 hours. What made it memorable was that it was extremely cold and windy that day, and I was the only hiker on that journey. Yes, I hiked 3.5 hours in solitude! Did not encounter another tourist, only a few construction workers along the way. I was getting scared that there would be 2-5 strongly built man, and there was me by myself, looking little and fragile. But thank god nothing bad happened. Most of them ignored me, some would nod and greed me. In a wind speed of 26 mph, and a temperature of only a few degrees above zero, at one point I did get snowed on a bit. More times I felt like the wind was going to push me off of the mountain, and it did make me wobble a bit, but again thank god nothing terrible happened. Upon arrival in Oia, there was only one restaurant and one pastry shop open. I had some heavily overpriced, lukewarm dish, took some pictures around town, and took a bus to go back to Fira and buddle up to comfort my cold body and scared soul.
Meteora was a really nice stop, it is a body of mountains with monasteries built on top of them. The first monks arrived in the 1100s, and it is said that the building of the monasteries took 3-4 generations of monks, so a lot of them spent their lives building something and they never lived to see it built! I felt very grateful that they put in the hard work so now people can go up there on a taxi and take pictures. Upon visiting 2 of the still active monasteries, the Great Meteoro and the Varlaam, I was very intrigued to find out that they had their own kitchen, farm animals, gardens, and even wine cellars! Before 1920s, their main transportation of arriving at the top of the mountain was sitting in a rope basket, and it would take 2 monks half an hour, using a clever mechanical system to pull the basket up!
The economy of Greece is in fact not very optimistic. The infrastructure is probably the worst I have seen in all the European countries I have visited. For the same price, the hotel/hostel rooms are a lot smaller, shower water doesn’t usually reach a comfortable temperature, and when it does, it doesn’t last for too long. elevators are tiny and outdated. Buildings look dilapidated and don’t appear architecturally aesthetic compared to a lot of the other European countries. I talked to one guy working at the Acropolis, who’s main job is to prevent tourists from touching the marbles or venturing into anywhere they shouldn’t be. Turns out he has a masters degree in Business. One girl I talked to working at the reception of a tiny museum in Meteora, after learning that I am a physicist, her eyes glinted with joy and said she loved math and science and wanted to be a physicist too. But it was too hard to find a job as a physicist in Greece, so she studied economics. Even so, her daily job is to hand people museum tickets, which has nothing to do with her degree. It was really heart breaking for me to see young people suffer from underemployment like this. I really hope that Greece can rise up again like they once did thousands of years ago.
One of the most exciting aspects of traveling solo is the potential of the new friends I could meet. On my last day in Athens, I spontaneously decided to visit a nearby Island Aegina. As I was waiting for my ferry on the marina in Piraeus, a guy approached me, we chatted for 2 minutes, and he spontaneously decided he would like to join me on my visit to the island, he immediately purchased a ticket and then we spent a mostly delightful day touring this new place together. In Santorini, I met a guy on a bus. We had dinner together and we got along pretty well, so the next day we got together again and tour the southern end of the island Akrotiri, the red beach, and its surroundings. In Meteora, I met a women, again on a bus. We both share interests in art, history, and museum going. We spent 2 days together visiting monasteries, attending a Sunday mass, and visiting local museums. It was great meeting people from various backgrounds, and various parts of the world, and share an experience together. We may never see each other again, but I will always have the memory of feeling really close to someone for a day or two, even though we were almost complete strangers.
After successfully completing yet another travel adventure, I feel so recharged and am really to dive back into research, and continue my adventures in the lab!