Walking around Sikia

When Sue and her sister were galavanting around Greece a few weeks ago, I took a couple of walks around the village with my camera. Nearing sunset, the light is usually great on the mountains but on at least one of these days, we had a heavy load of atmospheric dust, which produced a milky sky. These are the pick of the litter.

Walking around Sikia

This is a building on the beach that previously we had seen used only as a polling place.  Over the winter, it was substantially restored for use as a special needs school.  We passed by during the opening day ceremony and have since seen the class playing outside.  Not a bad place to go to school…

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There was still quite a bit of snow atop Mt. Parnassos (about 8000 ft.) at the end of March.  There’s still snow up there but it’s getting pretty threadbare.

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I love seeing the flowers on the beach.  They’re very fleeting, though.

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Someone put a fantastic coat of paint on this boat over the winter.

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This one and the next one were both shot in the Super Vivid setting of my camera in an effort to capture the hues of the sunset.

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This is a 20x zoom. I love the shape of this peak but it’s my photographic nemesis — it’s so far away that it always appears shrouded in haze.

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I like to take photos of the old, unrestored houses in Sikia because I’m afraid they’ll all be torn down some day.  I think the owner uses the top floor of this one as his beach house.

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This one, however, was nicely restored and it’s next door to the house in the previous photo.

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This ruin belonged to the last Turkish ruler in this area.  It now belongs to the Greek state.

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I’ve shot this one before but I liked the oars propped up in the middle this time.

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These trees are related to the Salt Cedar (tamarisk) tree we have in the States.   They flourish with their roots in salt water.

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That’s Mt. Ellikonas, about 13 miles away.  It had snow on it when we arrived in mid-March.

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Another “Super Vivid” photo.  Mt.  Gerania on the right.

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I shot the sunset from the old railroad bridge in back of the apartment.

I hope you enjoyed these snaps.  I had a good time shooting them.

Suddenly, it’s summer

Suddenly, it's summer

Peter Economides (http://petereconomides.com) posted this image this morning under the heading, “Just because it feels like summer today,” perfectly capturing our joy in the day, the warm breeze, and the glorious sea. Economides got our attention with this talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Chhn5oEmITs) about rebranding Greece which resonated with many people thinking about ways to respond to the current crisis .

In the last week, we’ve gone from highs of around 70 to highs of around 80, and the lingering clouds have been banished. Wednesday is May Day, a holiday, and Sunday is Pascha, and the mood here is Opa!

In addition, while we were sitting on the balcony getting our eyes open this morning, Susan spotted a pod of dolphins swimming west in the Gulf. There were 6 of them, beautiful to watch, and we took it as a sure sign of good times ahead.   Good-bye socks, farewell jeans, hello shorts, yiasou sandals!

addendum to A Trip to the Mani

I know food porn is supposed to be out now and we’re not supposed to be snapping photos of our meals but I still really like to look at food pix and I couldn’t resist grabbing a couple of shots of the breakfast served to us in our room at the B&B in Aeropoli.

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We ordered tea, OJ, plain yogurt, and Mani pitas.  Those are the Mani pitas on the right.  They are simply fried dough and they are outrageous.  The two little cups of honey and the cup of marmalade are for spooning over the pitas.  Which I did — both honey and marmalade.  The orange juice had just been squeezed from local oranges.

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Oh, and we asked for fruit with our yogurt.

We skipped lunches, spend the 3 days walking around, and I still gained a pound.  Worth it.

A Trip to the Mani

The Mani is the southernmost peninsula in the southernmost part of Greece.  It’s a stark, barren landscape of rock, sea, and sky and it is renowned throughout Greece for its harsh geography and fierce  inhabitants.  It’s also the home of Susan’s forebears, so we have a special affinity for the place.  We particularly like to visit in the early Spring when wildflowers pop from between the rocks and the gray, ashen hills are transformed into a vista one might expect to see in Ireland.  We drove down for a visit at the end of March, and put up at a sweet B&B in Areopoli.

Areopoli is the unofficial capital of the Mani.  Its name, city of Ares (the  god of war), refers to the city’s place as the starting point of the war of independence. On March 17, 1821, independence was declared in the square of the church of the Archangels in the center of Areopoli, and the Maniots immediately marched on the Ottoman garrison in Kalamata.  That garrison fell on March 23, and other parts of Greece joined the fight on March 25, now celebrated as Independence Day.  In the photo below, the view is down the main street of Areopoli, to the bell tower of the church of the Archangels.

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The bell tower:

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Looking back from beside the church to a peak called Arkoutholatsa (815 meters), which guards the city on the east:

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That night the full moon rose over that same peak:

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The next morning we drove north to visit the villages of Stoupa and Kardamyli, and buy some olive oil, sea salt, mountain tea, and other essentials that are just better in the Mani.  We stopped along the road to grab a couple of snaps of the wildflowers:

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The following morning, we drove south from Areopoli, heading down the eastern side of the peninsula.  Villages in the Mani tend to be sited either deep in valleys or up on ridges or hills.  I suspect the choice had to do with the perception of relative safety at the time the village was founded.   I believe this one is called Olimbies.

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This one is Spira, with the Gulf of Laconia beyond.

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Those 2 photos were taken from the village of Dimaristika which was once the center for Sue’s family.  This is the family’s war tower in Dimaristika:

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Looking back on Dimaristika from Lagia:

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We spent some time walking around Lagia, a pretty village where Sue’s great uncle went to school.  This is a nice example of a war tower, probably an early restoration:

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The archetypal Mani house, looks to be another older restoration:

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There was a large house next to the central church, which we took to be the rectory.  The next 3 photos were taken around that house.

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Looking back on Lagia:

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This is Porto Kayio, taken from the Venetian for “Bay of Quails”.  In the before times, quail were present in great numbers and they were netted and packed in salt for export.  It was here that we crossed the Mani peninsula to the western side and turned north for Areopoli.

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This is a church called Episkopi (12th century),  with the Tigani peninsula jutting into the Gulf of Messinia in the background.  We used a nearly identical photo for our Christmas card a few years back.

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A closer look at Tigani.  A Venetian or Frankish fortress was built on the raised portion at the end, guarded by 100 ft cliffs.  Foundations are all that’s left.

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While we were driving around looking for the road to Tigani, I grabbed this photo of Susan between two tower houses.

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A bit further up the coast, we stopped at the church of St. Barbara (1150 AD), near Erimos.  We’ve also used a photo – different angle – of this church for our Christmas card.

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This is an obviously ruined, presumably older church, in front of St. Barbara’s.  You can just make out some fresoes in the vault of the apse.  This is not a unique case in the Mani.

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Arriving back at the B&B, we took a walk in the fading daylight and I grabbed this snap of Omales, the  little settlement about a half-mile outside of Areopoli where we stayed.

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A lane in the Mani:

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Peeking into an olive groove in the gloaming:

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The light’s about gone but the tree’s still in bud, and the wildflowers run riot:

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We call this type of cactus a Mani Fig because the Maniots peel and eat the prickly fruit they bear.  This photo doesn’t give an adequate idea of the scale of these plants but standing along side them, they tower over me.

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From the patio of our room I grabbed this shot of the ruined house beyond.  The houses in Omales are slowly being restored.

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As I was taking that last photo this little guy flew out of the house and perched on that ruined wall attached to the center of the house.  It’s known as a Little Owl but we call it a Mani Owl because it’s the only place we’ve seen it.  And we’ve seen or heard it each time we’ve stayed at this B&B.  They’re only 9 – 11 inches tall and are indigenous to southern Europe and Asia.  It appears on all Euro coins minted in Greece.

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Aahhh…

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It’s sort of like waking up.  Or falling into a dream.  Or breaking the water’s surface and finding oneself in another world.  Or floating up from the depths and breaking into fresh, clear air.  That’s how it is.  Transiting the birth canal.  Getting in one of those giant cigar tubes with wings and getting out in not just another country but another world.  And here we are.  Aahhh…

It’s not just the flora and fauna, although they are quite different from what I know of the US.  And it’s not just the geography, although it’s the size of Alabama with more coastline than the entire US, 2500 islands, and the majority of the population living within sight of the sea.  And it’s not just the climate, which is extraordinarily temperate 10 months of the year — July and August  are the exceptions.  And it’s not just the food …I shouldn’t get started about the food.

It’s the people who make this a special place, welcoming, warm, generous, easy to be with.  I don’t know what it is exactly but it seems to stem from their deep connection to this place.  It’s as if they’re living in their great, great, great, great, great, great, etc. grandparents’ house.  They’ve always lived here, they know all there is to know about living here, they’re made up of these minerals, these waters, this sunlight, shaped by the climate and geography. They belong to the place. All of their neighbors do, too.  They are comfortable in themselves and in their land to an extent that we, with the possible exception of the indians, don’t know.

I think that easy way of being is a part of what makes it so pleasant to be here. The emphasis is on living life fully, on feeling life’s pains and pleasures completely, on the preeminence of family, on celebrating the good times and mourning the bad times.  Other issues take their place down the list.

Even now, with the country suffering through a deep economic depression from which it looks to be a long, slow slog to recovery, the spirit of Greece is irrepressible and effervescent.  (There’s an interesting comparison of Greece’s current depression and the US Great Depression here: Seen From Greece, Great Depression Looks Good .) Pensions have been cut in half, college graduates work in supermarkets for the equivalent of $7200/year, medicines and medical technology are in short supply, shopping streets are gap-toothed with closed stores, unfinished highways and railroads rust and grow weeds but…but the smiles are still quick and genuine,  families and friends still gather at every opportunity, and the Greeks remain possibly the world’s most welcoming, generous, and cheerful hosts.

Is that why it just feels good to be here?  Maybe it’s watching clouds scythe across the mountains, maybe it’s learning the moods of the sea, maybe it’s finding fields of wildflowers, orchards speckled with lemons,  poppies along the railroad tracks, wine from grapes called assyrtiko and agiorgitiko, produce from farms just over there…maybe, maybe.  But I think it’s because the Greeks have their priorities organized around what really matters, and because the sense of peace that comes from knowing the important stuff is well looked after infuses every aspect of life.  At least that’s what I think… peace, calm, happiness, love.  The world turned upside up.  Aahhh….

                          

Moonrise

Moonrise

With sunrise happening at unreasonable hours of the day, we’re really into moonrise. And we pay particular attention to the arrival of the first full moon of our time in Greece, and to the last. It feels almost like a greeting when we arrive, and nearly a leave-taking at the end of our stay.

Sunday at sunset we took a couple of lawn chairs, a bottle of good wine, and a couple of snacks down to the beach at sunset to greet the full moon. It was a still, cloudless day and the mountains went rose and then gray before the moon slid into view behind them. The moon had a harvest-theme thing going on and the smear of orange light reflecting across the water looked like a flame shooting from the sky.

We sat and watched it all until the moon went pale and the sky went dark, and then moved up to our balcony to finish the wine. This week has to do with taking stock, cleaning, storing, closing, covering, and planning for next year. When we finish, we’ll be on a plane.

This year, we were fortunate to have our coming and going marked by a couple of rare dolphin sightings. Until this April, we hadn’t seen a dolphin since the first few days of our first season here. That day, one of the builders drove up in the morning, said hello, and pointed out to sea, where we were dumbfounded to see a line of dolphins making their way across Sikia’s bay.

This year, within a week of arriving, we were sitting out on the balcony drinking a pot of morning tea when we saw a lone dolphin stitching a line east down the Gulf. Peering through binoculars, we watched it out of sight in the distance and judged it a good omen. Last Saturday at sunset, we were headed back to Sikia in the car and Susan spotted a line of dolphins, each jumping in the leader’s puddles, just as we crossed from Melissi into Sikia. We pulled to the curb and watched the show long enough for a swimmer to come near shore and yell to us to see if we needed anything. No thanks, we said, we’re just watching the dolphins.

Rain

Rain

At last, rain. Blessed rain. Quenching rain. Cool Rain. Long awaited, wished-for, dreamt-of, fantasized-about rain. Yesterday, a rotating system departed Italy’s boot heel and ventured across the Ionian Sea to Greece’s west coast. We had intermittent showers and a lightshow in the clouds. Our morning running ended in rain, and we invented excuses to go back outside to experience cool, wet air and cool, cool rain on our skin. Today, it rained all day. Complete cloud cover, rumbles of thunder, occasional gusts from the west, the temps drifting from the low 70s in the morning to mid 60s at sunset.

After the months of unblinking sun and flesh-melting heat, today’s weather seems weird. What would be a perfectly normal, if not mild, rainy day in the Mid-Atlantic is rendered fantastic, a psychedelic side-effect of having had our brains boiled daily from mid-June. The clouds traveling across the mountains before us blend their shades of gray with the sea, raindrops on the canopy leave us thinking of rainy nights in a tent, and we are absolved of having to do anything except enjoy it.

The Greek word for summer translates literally to “Good Weather.” I suspect this term originates back in the days when ships were propelled by ranks of oarsmen, and the unspoken suffix to “Good Weather” was “- for sailing.” Once the autumn winds began, a galley was at the mercy of the sea and could well find itself blown across the Mediterranean, like Odysseus. Wise seamen and admirals knew well that pushing the limits of the summer season was courting disaster. What I find a bit disconcerting is hearing Greeks at the end of August taking leave of each with the words, “Good Winter,” as if there are but two seasons, good weather and winter. Of course, there are Greek words for spring and fall, so I think the distinction is more likely between “Holiday season” and “Work/School season” than between “Summer” and “Winter.” It’s a state of mind, not meteorology. Maybe it’s because we’re wrapping up our fifth summer here but it makes perfect sense to me. Until we meet again at the water’s edge, it’s winter.

Ode to a Grecian Salad

Ode to a Grecian Salad

OK, it’s not an ode but it is a Grecian salad. Horiatiki, thy name alone inspires reverence and appetite. Horiatiki salata is the quintessential Greek salad, the salad that is ambrosia in the home country and an embarrassing, pale imitation in the US. “Horiatiki” means “village style,” which in turn means simple, fresh, unadorned. To make a good, true Horiatiki salad, the vegetables must be in season and very fresh, the feta must be Greek and served in a single large chunk, and the oil must be very good olive oil. An unwillingness to compromise on the vegetables means that Horiatiki is only available here in the summer which, mercifully, is quite long. The dreadful “Greek Salad” or “Village Salad” that one finds in most Greek restaurants in the US usually fails on all three counts: the tomatoes are either yellowy or hothouse, the feta is crumbled (a sign of uncertain quality), and the oil is cheap, if it’s not canola. And, if you see leafy green stuff (eg, lettuce) in your Horiatiki, well…your salad is beneath contempt.

Now, while I agree that a person whose skill in the kitchen is limited to taking something out of the freezer and putting it in the microwave should not be allowed to promulgate a recipe, my affection for Horiatiki (I’d have it twice a day if a certain someone would let me…) emboldens me to venture into that strange territory. Thanks to the cooperation and patient instruction of my better half, I offer the following pictorial on the proper, God-given, canonical method of preparing this simple, perfect dish.

First, go out to your garden and pick a fat, perfectly ripe tomato for each person. If your garden has failed or fails to exist, a good truck farmer can usually supply real fruit but beware the supermarket: plastic, flavorless tomatoes cannot be substituted. The green pepper should also be garden fresh and very mild, and the cucumber should be crisp and peeled. Mildness is also a virtue when it comes to the onion, which can easily overpower everything else. Some people (you know who you are) consider capers optional; I do not. I’ll get to the olives in a bit.

Cut the tomatoes into bite-sized chunks and put them in the salad bowl.

Season the tomatoes with sea salt and set aside. Peel and slice as much cucumber as you feel appropriate. Slice a small portion of the onion as thin as possible and cut the rings into quarters (90 degrees of arc for you scientific types). Slice the pepper as thin as the onion, and don’t leave your guests to deal with pepper rings: cut them up. Use enough pepper to serve as a heavy garnish (a quarter of the pepper).

When the tomatoes have had at least 5 minutes with the salt resting on them, layer on the cucumber, onion and pepper.

Olives are an area for personal expression. We like big, black olives from Kalamata (90 minutes south) but Greeks use a seemingly endless variety of local olives, so you can’t go wrong here. (Note for the record: olives have pits. Pitted olives are unacceptable. Also, olives stuffed with pimentos are best reserved for martinis.)

We like 4 or so olives per person but you’ll never get that many in a taverna, so add them as you’d like.

Sprinkle on a couple of teaspoons of capers.

If you don’t like capers for some odd reason, don’t eat them. But they give an extra dimension of flavor to the salad, and so should always be added.

Since you know your feta is of high quality, feel free to slice it into easily spooned slices, as we do, or do it the way all tavernas do and just lay a huge block artfully on top.

Now’s the time to add the olive oil. Needless to say, extra virgin is required, and your best olive oil should be reserved for your salads. (And ice cream, if you go there.)

Drizzle the olive oil liberally over the salad. For some of us (who shall remain nameless), the whole point of a Horiatiki salata is the creation of the amazing tomato juice/olive oil melanage in the bottom of the bowl, which can be best appreciated when soaked up with piece of really nice, crusty, fresh bread. So skimping on olive oil misses half the goodness.

Finally, sprinkle some dried oregano evenly over the entire bowl. I don’t know what kinds of dried oregano are available in the States but the kind we get here is wild oregano, gathered in the mountains and air dried.

Its taste is head-and-shoulders beyond the stuff in the McCormick’s jars, so if you can find some kind of dried oregano with an expressed provenance, give it a try. Add some freshly ground black pepper to finish the salata.

Your Horiatiki is now completed. I think it’s best when slightly chilled, so if you have a few minutes to hold it in the fridge, I’d do it. Regardless, when it’s time to eat, carry your Horiatiki to the table but do not mix it. If the feta is in a block, break it into pieces at the table and back away. Oriste, your Horiatiki is ready to serve. Serve it by spooning it up from the bottom — this way everyone will get all the layers, covered in olive oil.

On the matter of seconds: in Greek families it is accepted that everyone simply eats seconds out of the bowl, including swiping away at the olive oil with hunks of bread. If you’re dining with family or close friends, and this kind of communal dish is acceptable, it’s recommended for the intimacy it brings to meal. Otherwise, the traditional passing-of-the-bowl works just fine.

That’s it. Accept no substitutes. Consume outdoors if at all possible. A crisp white wine is a wonderful addition and a hoppy summer beer is sublime. And a tableside view of a Grecian sea is best of all.

Thanks to Andrew, who stands second to no man in his affection for Horiatiki, for suggesting this post.

Heat Wave

Heat Wave

We’re just finishing our 4th heat wave of the season. My recollection is that 2 is the usual number. The Greek meteorological service says July was the hottest in 110 years, and June was one of the hottest. I’m not sure how the meteorological service classifies a heat wave but it seems temps of 40 (104 F) or more on consecutive days does the trick. Our normal highs in July and August are 37-38 (99-101) so heat waves are not a huge departure but they seem to be just enough to make the heat unreasonable.

The combination of a sun that feels like a giant directed-energy weapon and the high air temperatures transfers a lot of  heat to virtually everything in the environment, turning the buildings, the roads, the trees, the dirt, even the seas into passive solar radiators. Walking around at night one experiences the unusual (for me) sensation of heat radiating from below.  And I can tell when I’m approaching the front wall of our building with my eyes closed.  This radiation from the environment keeps the nighttime temps relatively high, even in the absence of high humidity. The normal low is about 25 (75), and we haven’t seen a morning low below 22 (69-70) in 2 months.

The heat is one reason why we advise against visiting in July and August. This photo was shot about 3pm on August 27. The probe is 3 inches below the surface of the beach. I did the same measurement at the end of July and the temp was 105.  I recorded a water temp of 80-82 that day and, having left the probe on my beach towel while I swam, I observed a reading of 130 when I returned.  I shudder to think about the interior of the car in mid-afternoon.

Now, with the solstice 2 months past and August rolling to a close, we are looking forward to the return of the west wind, the occasional cloud overhead, and maybe a little cool, cool rain.

Apes and Bees

Apes and Bees

When Sue and I came to Europe on the Grand Tour in ‘72, these little 3-wheeled Piaggio Apes were ubiquitous in Italy and Greece. We had seen them nowhere else in Europe but they were clearly the go-to vehicle for plumbers, builders, craftsmen, and deliveries of all types in Italy. We assumed it was an Italian vehicle for Italians. But when we got to Greece we found exactly the same situation; a significant percentage of road traffic was comprised of these tiny, buzzy, flimsy contraptions. They have miniscule, single-cylinder 2-stroke engines that smoke like chimneys and propel the vehicle to a top speed of maybe 25 mph. And one look is all it takes to convince you Ralph Nader missed his target when he wrote Unsafe at Any Speed. My brother and his Navy pals on Crete referred to them as Souvlaki Wagons.

Fresh from university, after 4 years of Latin and 4 years of French, I looked at the swarms of these little rattletraps and wondered (to myself, mercifully), “Why do they call these things Apes? They want us to think they’re big and strong? That’s hilarious!” Obviously the laugh was on me for it was almost 4 decades later I suddenly realized that, of course, they hadn’t given the vehicle an English name, they gave it an Italian name, and that Ape is Italian (and Latin) for “bee.” And it’s a perfect name it: light, small, buzzy, and prone to travel in swarms.

These days, Apes are becoming as rare as apes in Greece but, because they apparently live forever, you do occasionally run into a hardy if superannuated soul piloting one these jobs around town. A toothless fishmonger in the next village sells fish from the back of a pungent example, and I spotted this one, apparently collecting recyclable trash, in central Athens.  They may be too slow for today’s roads and too uncomfortable for today’s Europeans but they were obviously well designed for their intended  purpose and era, which is rapidly drawing to a close.  My appreciation of the Ape ends there but whenever I see one it gives me fresh pause to consider just how much Greece has changed since 1972… and just how useful is a university education.