Friday, May 31, 2013

A blast from the past...

For some reason this afternoon, I decided to look up a haunt I used to know about when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Armenia.  During training, we were introduced to a restaurant in Yerevan owned by an Armenian-American named Gerard.  It was called The Chicken Coop.  Gerard also owned a small upscale food store that carried a few odds and ends that Americans would most likely be interested in.

For some reason, I thought of The Chicken Coop today.  I only ate there one time during the entire two years I lived in Armenia.  But I wondered if it was still operational.  I looked it up on Google and didn't really find anything about the restaurant that suggested that it was still open.  But I did find a photo that mentioned it.  I clicked on the photo and suddenly found myself looking at a whole gallery of pictures taken by a man who had served in the Peace Corps with me.  The pictures were posted in 2008 and it doesn't look like he still maintains the album.

As I looked at the photos, I was suddenly transported back in time about 18 years.  In fact, today is an anniversary of sorts.  On May 31, 1995, the 32 people in my Peace Corps training group boarded a United Airlines flight to Paris, France, where we would spend the whole day waiting for a 7:30 flight  to Yerevan, Armenia.  Since Armenia is two hours ahead of Paris, we would be landing in Yerevan in the middle of the night.  As I recall, it took many hours for us to get out of the airport.  The public restrooms were filthy and disgusting and the place was poorly lit because there was little electricity back then.

I remember how the group that came before us, A-2, showed up at the airport to say hello to us.  I think they gave us drinks and snacks as we passed through.  Seems to me we were headed to Hotel Armenia just as the sun was rising.  We had breakfast there and a meeting, then went to our rooms on the "old side" of the hotel.  I think I slept all day and regained consciousness sometime that evening.  The next day, we had another meeting and then got shuffled off to our host families.  I remember my name was the first one called when we were getting our host families.

I was 22 years old then... and would be turning 23 about three weeks later.  It was my first big adventure and really quite a daring thing to be doing.  Back then, I was quite a mess and probably had no business going to Armenia.  But I got through the 27 month commitment in one piece and came back profoundly depressed, yet stronger than I was before.  I learned a lot during that time.  Being in the Peace Corps made me braver and awoke the travel bug that I was probably born with.

I wish I could say that I was an exemplary Volunteer or that I joined for altruistic reasons.  I joined the Peace Corps mostly because I wanted to break out of the life I was in at the time.  I was actually very surprised the Peace Corps accepted me, since I didn't have a particularly exciting resume at the time.  I went to an average college and wasn't involved in that much service work.  I'd had average grades in college, too.  Maybe it was because my sister was also a PCV at one time.  My overachieving sister had also been a Volunteer, back in the 1980s.  She went to Morocco and the proceeded to embark upon a successful career working for an non-profit organization.  I thought maybe I was headed in the same direction, but fate intervened.  

Looking at Zach's photos, I learned that one of the Peace Corps Volunteers who served in A-5-- they had come two years after my group-- died in a car accident just as she was on her way to start a new job in Nigeria.  She'd done her time in Armenia, plus worked there for three more years.  I'm ashamed to say that I barely remember her, though she apparently did some really great things for the people of Armenia.  What a tragedy that she lost her life so young.  She sounds like a remarkable young woman.

I pulled down my own photo albums, which are full of a lot of pictures that aren't as artistic as Zach's are.  In a way, those photos are kind of painful to look at.  It was an exciting time and I learned and grew a lot, but I was really depressed and unsure of myself back then.  I don't think I really lived up to my potential.  I can't say it was wasted time... but I'm sure the time I put in there could have been more wisely spent.  I wish I had spent my time there being more productive than I ultimately was.  I did accomplish some things, though, and I can honestly say that the Peace Corps affected my life in a profound way.

I still talk to some of the people I knew at that time in my life, but it all seems kind of like a dream now. I mean, the years have flown by very quickly and it seems like yesterday... and yet it also seems like a lifetime ago, almost like it never happened.

The group that had survived up until four months before our service ended...  I was really ready to go home by then.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Old airline ads...

I often like to entertain myself by watching old commercials on YouTube.  Some of the funniest old ads are the ones that were done by the airlines before the industry went down the tubes and terrorism cast a pall of fear over everything.  I took my very first plane ride in 1975.  I don't remember it because I was only three years old.  I bet it was more exciting for everyone to fly in those days.  We were flying to England, which I'm sure was even more exciting than your average, everyday flight was.

The earliest flight I actually remember taking was in January 1978, when my parents took me with them to Tunisia, where they were going to celebrate New Year's.  I don't remember the flight down, but I do remember coming home.  We flew Pan Am and I got a coloring book, little plastic wings, and other goodies.  I think someone gave me too much candy, too, because I distinctly remember getting airsick.

I also remember flying back to the States in the late spring of 1978.  We flew into Dulles, since my parents were planning to settle in the Washington, DC area first.  I remember seeing the signs that said "No Smoking" for some reason...  and being on the tram going back to the airport.  That was the last time I flew anywhere until 1995, when I joined the Peace Corps and went to Armenia to live for two years.  Even back then, I remember air travel not being that bad... at least the flight from Dulles to Paris wasn't bad.  I remember drinking a mini bottle of Bailey's Irish Cream after dinner that they gave us free.  I don't remember the last time I saw a mini-bottle on a flight.

Anyway, here are a few ads I found the other night...  Some of the concepts that came out in the 70s are mind boggling.  I can't imagine an airline of today operating a pub.  I really missed out on the fun years of air travel, didn't I?

Hooters of the skies?

Lobster?  And toilets like home?

I like how the commencement speaker calls the new flight attendants "girls".

This one is totally 80s...

More Hooters...

I dunno.  I flew Continental in 2011 and was profoundly disappointed.

Is she really sewing on a button?

Boo hoo?

Here are ads showcasing Continential's "pub"...

Actor Bob Fuller pitches United's DC-10... complete with lounge!

"Nancy" the stewardess prepares for her first day of work in the "free world"...

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Post travel depression...

Believe it or not, I was actually looking forward to coming home from our latest trip.  After a few days away, I start to miss my dogs and the comforts of home.  I am notoriously terrible about traveling with too much stuff, so I get tired of hauling heavy bags.  I miss being able to do laundry when I need to.  I also miss my computer, since I write almost every day and an iPad isn't so good for that.  I know I could invest in a laptop, but I actually prefer writing on a desktop computer.  I may buy a laptop, though, just so I'll have it for travel.

Every trip, especially the ones that last longer than a week, has its stresses.  When we went to Scotland, the stress was dealing with our dog, MacGregor, who had a spinal tumor that suddenly got very bad when we were away.  We dealt with lots of frantic emails from the pet resort where he and Zane were being boarded and a call home to our vet.  We otherwise had a wonderful time, but it was tough being away while MacGregor was dealing with that... and even tougher when we got home and realized that we would have to put him down.

During this trip, we didn't have any issues with our dogs.  They both came through the experience just fine.  Our main stress this time was dealing with being sick, on the rag, and/or injured.  I guess we should have expected the sickness, since it seems like every time we go to Europe, one of us gets sick.  Bill usually gets it before I do, then passes it to me.  This time, I was the one who got it.  I thought maybe I was dealing with allergies at first, since I was sneezing a lot when we were in Rome and it seemed like everyone around us was, too.  It makes sense, I guess.  We pick up the germs we haven't been exposed to.

Another stressor about traveling is dealing with other people.  I spend most of my time alone because we live in the country and I don't work outside the home.  Most days, Bill is the only other person I see.  So I worry that my social skills have eroded.  Also, I'm just not used to being around people all the time anymore, so I tend to be hypersensitive about some things.  On the other hand, I am a bit of an extravert, so being around people can also be energizing.  But I do find that by the end of the trip, I'm ready to go back under my rock where there's peace and quiet and nothing I say or do offends anyone.  And likewise, nothing anyone else says or does offends me...  ;-)  While most people can't live the type of hermit existence I do, it is a relatively drama free way to be-- unless you count online drama.

The last few days at home have been kind of difficult, mainly because of online drama.  I've gotten it from several different sources over several different issues.  It's about reached a critical mass, to the point at which I'm considering unplugging the Internet for awhile.  Last night, I was actually feeling kind of depressed and wondering if I really wanted to book another cruise.  Don't get me wrong.  I loved being on SeaDream again and seeing some of the marvelous folks who make that cruise line what it is.  It's just that there's all this drama that comes from disrupting life to go on a trip.  There's drama at home, drama online, and drama involving the people you interact with during your trip...  I sit here and rerun all the things through my mind and wonder if it's all worth it.  But then, once all the drama inevitably blows over, I find myself wanting to go somewhere else.  

Perhaps the reason the post travel depression has been so acute this time is that the last two years have been pretty travel intense.  In November of 2011, we went on a SeaDream cruise in the southern Caribbean.  Then, in May of 2012, we took our very first military hop and ended up in Germany, Austria, and Luxembourg.  We had a fantastic time, but it was truly "seat of your pants" travel in that we had to make all our plans at the last minute and be very flexible.  Then in November 2012, we went to Scotland, which was a trip that I had been planning and anticipating for a long time, only to follow up with our most recent trip to Italy and Greece.  Interspersed with all of those trips have been shorter domestic trips.  That's a lot of transatlantic and international travel... and a lot to absorb if you're used to being alone and are not a particularly laid back person.

Anyway, things are getting back to normal now... sort of.  We still have the big move looming ahead, which means another trip is in the works before the big road trip from North Carolina to Texas.  

Monday, May 27, 2013

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

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

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...

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.


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.


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.


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.


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!

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.  

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...