Ten random observations about Greece

While researching my travel series on Greece I noticed some interesting things that didn’t fit into any of the articles. Some of these observations may be obvious to those more familiar with Greece, but odd first impressions are one of the fun things about travel!

1. Flying low over the Aegean as we made our descent into Athens airport, I swear I saw dolphins playing in the blue waters. We were still high enough that they were only visible as dots, but there was a whole group of these dots appearing and reappearing in the water, as if they were coming up and diving. Has anyone else seen this?

2. Like many countries, Greece has a smoking ban in public buildings. It’s often ignored, especially in bars and cafes. Some places even have ash trays on the tables.

3. I always like hearing the local music, in my hotel I tuned into MAD TV, a music video station. I discovered lots of Greek stars I’d never heard of (is DEMY hot or what!?) and noticed a strange thing–cans of Red Bull appear in almost all their music videos. Even the lovely DEMY knocks one back in her latest video. Did Red Bull buy up Greek music or just MAD TV?

4. Greece is very visitor-friendly by having bilingual signs in all the touristy areas. This is a bit of a trap, however, because as soon as you get used to them and go someplace a bit out of the way, you’ll be staring at Greek-only signs.

5. Have no fear, you can always learn the Greek alphabet. Many of the letters are the same as our alphabet and you’re already familiar with some of the others. Learning the Greek alphabet takes less than an hour and you’ll discover so many words that are the same or close enough to English that the hour will be well spent.

6. Greek can still throw you some curve balls. For a while I thought “ne” meant “no” since it’s similar to so many other “no” words (nein, nyet, non). In fact it means yes.

7. Athens has a large and active Couchsurfing community. Get in touch before you go and they’ll show you some awesome nightlife!

8. Small Orthodox Christian shrines can be found everywhere. Some are the size of a mailbox with only room enough for a little icon and a candle. These are often found beside roads. Others are little buildings that can fit a dozen or so people. They’re tucked away wherever there’s room. Dealerships for these these ready-made churches look like mobile home lots.

9. I saw a lot of graffiti, especially in the smaller towns, that was actually advertising for local businesses. I’m not sure if the businesses themselves are tagging concrete bridges and blank walls or if it’s their loyal customers, but I suppose it’s a cheap way to advertise during times of financial cutbacks.

10. Speaking of graffiti, my neighborhood in Madrid is covered with the tag “farlopa”, which is slang for cocaine in Spanish. Walking through the Exarchia neighborhood in Athens one night I saw the “farlopa” tag. Same word, same style. I guess the tagger went on a road trip!

For something a bit more adventurous, check out my ten random observations about Ethiopia!

Adventures in Eating: How to Cook a Placenta

I’m not kidding. Welcome to placentophagy. There’s a theory that eating the afterbirth is good for various things, including post-partum depression. Just ask Tom Cruise. He reportedly did it after the birth of his daughter in 2006 and he’s perfectly sane, right? The word “placenta” comes from Latin, which translates to “flat cake.” And if you can’t handle eating a real one-wimp!-you can travel to Romania where they serve placinta, a flattened pastry stuffed with things like pumpkin.

But then there’s posthephagy. With the exception of certain fetish communities, I couldn’t find many places around the world that practice this. But there’s a precedent in the western world. Well, sort of.

Meet Agnes Blannbekin. This early-fourteenth-century Austrian lived as a beguine-a single woman who resided in an all-women’s home-and would spend her day going from church service to church service, having memorized the schedule of masses in every church in Vienna. We know this because a monk friend of hers wrote down a series of visions that Agnes claimed to have had. The writings were eventually published under the title Life and Revelations, and when it first hit the streets in 1731, it was an immediate scandal. Agnes’s criticism of the pope wasn’t too well received. Also, some of her daily devotional practices were strangely erotic. At the end of each mass, for example, she would partake in a practice that was apparently quite dear to her, making a beeline for the altar and showering it with an amount of amorous emotion and enthusiasm that would make modern Roman teenagers blush.But that wasn’t exactly what all the commotion was about when Life and Revelations hit the street. It was all about Chapter 37, titled “Regarding the Foreskin of Christ.” The chapter describes how the young Agnes would always cry on the feast day of the Circumcision, saddened by the first spillage of Christ’s blood. One particular year on January 1, Agnes, tearful and in mourning, began to wonder where the Holy Foreskin might have ended up. Suddenly, the inside of her mouth was overcome with a sweet sensation. She stuck out her tongue and there in the middle of it was “a little piece of skin alike the skin of an egg,” which she promptly swallowed. And then the sweetness came again and there was another piece of skin. She swallowed. And again, it came back and she swallowed again. This happened about a hundred times, until she was tempted to touch the piece of skin with her finger. When she tried, the piece of flesh began going down her throat on its own. So amplified was the sweetness her in mouth, all of Agnes’s limbs quivered and shook as they, too, were engulfed with the saccharine spirit of the Holy Foreskin.

Her confessor, the anonymous monk who scribbled down Agnes’s visions, wrote that Agnes was reluctant to talk about this particular revelation. But she did anyway, which excited him to no end: “I . . . was really very comforted that the Lord deigned to show Himself to a human being in such a way, and greatly desired to hear [about it].”

There’s no pastry-like item named for the foreskin. And you’re unlikely to find many recipes involving the prepuce. Well, there’s this. And we’ll drink to that.

[Photo credit: Sean in Japan]

Adventures in Eating: the Luther Burger

There are few reasons to go to Queens. That is, unless you enjoy things like food. One of the five New York City boroughs, Queens is actually the most ethnically diverse county in North America. Which means you can pretty much travel around the world with your taste buds in the matter of a couple subway rides. New York fooderati, for example, know that the best Thai can be found in Queens. Bohemian Hall not only serves up quality Czech pub grub, but the huge beer garden (holding up to 1000 drinkers) is the last remaining relic of Queens’ 300 or so pre-Prohibition beer gardens. Why go all the way to Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan when you can eat your way through Rego Park, otherwise known as “Regostan” because of its large Central Asian population.

But what lured me to Queens recently was something more decidedly American: a Luther Burger. Dig, if you will, the picture: one beef patty, two strips of bacon, and one slice of sharp cheddar cheese sandwiched between-wait for it-a glazed doughnut. Online reports claim this heavyweight tops out at 1,500 calories. And while the burger has popped up on menus here and there, my research indicated there’s only one place in New York City that has the Luther as part of its permanent menu: the four-month-old Crave Shack in Astoria, Queens.

The origin of the Luther Burger and the provenance of its name are murky. As the story goes, the burger is named after soul singer Luther Vandross, a diabetic and legendarily voracious eater. Some say Vandross even invented the burger when he didn’t have a traditional bun in his pantry.

The Crave Shack burger flipper was so excited, he gave me a high five at the register and then with more enthusiasm than I’ve ever seen for grilled meat, proceeded to create a Luther burger, which here is called a Donut Burger. As the burger, bacon, and two doughnut halves each cooked on the grill, he told me they sell about a baker’s dozen worth of Luthers on a daily basis. “A real Luther,” he said, “uses two doughnuts as a bun. We only use one and because we use turkey bacon”-this part of Astoria is heavily Muslim so they obey halal dietary restrictions-“our version has much fewer calories.” And by that, he means the burger here is about 650 calories. So why not, I thought, call it Luther Lite?

I have to confess I was a tad frightened to bite into the Luther, fearing within seven seconds my left arm would begin growing numb. But one small bite later I was not only still alive, but impressed. The sacharine of the doughnut overwhelmed the burger, but the combination of flavors-the savory greasy beef, the sharp cheddar, the smokiness of the bacon, and the maple syrup-like sweetness of the doughnut-went well together. I’m not going to eat a Luther Burger every day, but I’d eat it again. Maybe after I’ve recovered from my first heart attack.

No one at Crave Shack could tell me the true origins of the Luther Burger. We could just go ask Vandross himself, but unfortunately he died in 2005. The cause: a heart attack.