Monthly Archives: May 2014

Part 6: Traveling while trans


If you look at the photos from our first trip to Greece, you see two children. One, the shorter, has longer hair often pulled back in a ponytail and is frequently carrying a Beanie Baby cat. The taller of the two has shorter hair, only down to the bottom of the jaw. The days of them being mistaken for twins are gone, but there is certainly a family resemblance.


The Year of the Haircut.

When I think back to this trip, I remember being held up by customs officials in three different countries as they compared me to the photo in my passport. I didn’t know it then, but the stares were only going to get worse until I got a new passport in 2003.

Incredibly, my grandparents never mentioned the haircut when they saw me. Well, at least to me. If they said anything to Mom or Dad, I’ve never known about it. Aunt Lil, who travelled with us, told me that it looked awesome, reinforcing why she was one of my favorite relatives.

For the most part, the rest of the trip was uneventful, except for our trip to the beach. With my short haircut and skinny build, I probably could have gotten away with running around in swim trunks. But no, I wore a blue one-piece swimsuit. This was the first time that I can recall being in public and feeling people’s eyes on me, questioning my appearance and trying to figure out my gender.


This trip, we not only spent time in Athens but in London, as well. In the year and a half since I’d gotten my hair cut, I was starting to get used to being mistaken for a little boy, but this was the first time that strangers would address me with either male or female pronouns. I distinctly remember visiting a bookstore in London. The aisles were rather narrow, and a woman said, “Excuse me young man,” so I moved aside to let her pass. Not two minutes later, a shopkeeper approached me and asked, “D’you need help finding anything, miss?” Thankfully, my parents didn’t hear either of these exchanges; they tended to “correct” people who used masculine pronouns when referring to me.


In some ways, this was one of the toughest years of travel for me.

I mentioned previously that I went to the British Isles for three weeks as part of a People to People Student Ambassador delegation, a group of about thirty teenagers. Most of us were from the Pittsburgh area, but once overseas a group of six from eastern PA and New Jersey joined us. I was the youngest in the group at only thirteen years old; everyone else was fourteen. Those of us in the Pittsburgh contingent met several times in the months prior to the trip, so by the time the plane took off everyone knew to call me CJ and didn’t question my gender (at least when I was in earshot). During the trip, it became a source of much amusement when people we met would mis-gender me. Well, amusing for my friends, anyway; I would laugh, but inwardly I cringed for not having the courage to stand up for myself.

In Athens that year, things with my parents were a little tense, especially with Mom. Looking back though, I don’t know if this was typically teen drama, issues over how I looked and acted, or just my reaction to having spent so much time away from home.


Four years, four trips, four more bouts with gender dysphoria in a different country. By this time, Mom clued in to the fact that people often saw me as a boy, and she was quick to correct anyone who mis-gendered me in her earshot. She also got on my case about shaving my armpits and legs prior to and during the trips, saying that it would make Grandpa happy. I honestly don’t know what he thought, because he never mentioned any such preferences to me. I hated shaving, because it increased my feelings of dysphoria.

Out on the streets, I could feel the stares of the shop owners, waiters, and other pedestrians. As at home, I avoided public restrooms at all costs, because I didn’t want to deal with the inevitable questions that followed. Even so, random people would ask if I was a boy or a girl. Fortunately, I was good at pretending to ignore them, especially when they would ask the question in Greek. Oh yes, I learned what that question sounded like in another language! Some of the more persistent individuals would switch to English if I didn’t respond to their first question. I have a distinct memory of one of these experiences: The family and I were seated in the coffee shop in the hotel lobby, chatting with the grandparents. Two women, probably not much younger than Yiayia, were seated nearby. At some point during the visit, I became aware of their scrutiny of me. When my family got up to return to our rooms, I had to pass by them to help Yiayia from her seat. One of the woman tried to get my attention by addressing me first in Greek, then English. I didn’t acknowledge her, and fortunately, thankfully, she didn’t insist.


While I didn’t know it at the time, this would be the last trip where I saw Grandpa. Like every year prior, he greeted me with a hug and a smile, and I never saw that smile waver while we visited. If he ever had questions about my appearance, he never asked me. Once more, out in public people assumed I was a boy, and Mom continued to “correct” them.


For the first time, the entire family didn’t travel together. Mom and I went to Greece in May, while Dad and L went later in the summer. Athens felt very different that year, mainly because Grandpa was no longer there. The flat suddenly seemed larger and quieter with only Yiayia there.

Both in Athens and then in London (where we spent a few days), there was the usual tension between Mom and I. I remember being lectured repeatedly on proper dress and manners for our theatre outings in London’s West End. Given how frequently we attended the theatre at home, I was a little irked by this, especially as, once again, Mom was trying to make me look feminine.


Tension with Mom was at an all-time high this trip. I had come out to her and Dad as a boy late the previous year, and to say that she was unhappy would be a gross understatement. Aunt S and my cousin J travelled with us, and like me they were appalled at the way Mom spoke with and treated me. I was lectured repeatedly both before and during the trip on what was appropriate to wear (sports bras instead of binders), and there was yet another battle over shaving my legs.

Some of my favorite memories of this trip are of when my cousin and I would go off by ourselves in the city. No one looked twice, and on more than one occasion we were called “sirs”.


My first trip overseas by myself started off rather hilariously. My younger sister, L, generously drove me to the airport, and kept me company in the line at the check-in desk. On reaching the desk, I gave my passport and receipt to the attendant, who then promptly turned to my sister and asked, “Do you want an unaccompanied minor tag for him?” To which my sister indignantly replied, “Excuse me, I am not his mother!” Being the helpful brother that I am, I was too busy holding in my laughter to say anything in my own defense. This was especially difficult when the clerk’s face went bright red as he stammered an apology and got to work printing my boarding passes. I managed to keep my face reasonably straight while answering the usual litany of questions, and as the clerk finally handed over my documents, he apologized again. As we walked towards the security checkpoint, I was grinning like a fool: Even after he opened my passport, which was marked “F”, he still called me “sir”. Being the awesome sister that she is, L knew exactly why I was smiling, and, while still annoyed at being taken for my mother, told me, “See? I bet you don’t get called a girl once.”

And she was right! Since I was traveling by myself, I didn’t have to argue with anyone about shaving my legs, and could wear my binders without getting an earful. Sure enough, not once on the trip did anyone refer to me using feminine pronouns or “ma’am” or “miss”.  The only issue I encountered was that I had to censor myself during my conversations with Yiayia, as I had not yet come out to her. While I was reasonably certain that she would love me regardless, the fact of the matter was that she was born and raised in a time and place of which I had little knowledge (early 20th century Alexandria, Egypt), and I truthfully didn’t know what her reaction would be. Plus, if I told her and she didn’t take it well, I knew that I would get an earful from Mom, who at this time still thought I was making a poor life choice. So as much as it pained me, I stayed in the closet for another year.


This year’s trip was delightful for two reasons: I was traveling with L, and I finally talked to Yiayia.

In the year since my previous visit, Mom had finally come around, and with her and Dad’s support I began hormone therapy and got my name legally changed. The new name meant another new passport, but I was more than okay with this; no more customs officials asking questions about why I had a girl’s name. Right around the time of the name change, I wrote a special letter to Yiayia, explaining everything. With my permission, Mom and Aunt S both read the letter before I sent it because I wanted to make sure that I had written in a way that was easy to understand. To my immense surprise and relief, I received a reply about a month later. (Even though I write on a monthly basis, Yiayia rarely replies because it is difficult for her to hold a pen steady.) In the letter, she reminded me how much she loves me and said how proud she was of me and that she couldn’t wait to see me that summer.

L is notorious for how late she sleeps in, so my morning visits with Yiayia were often just the two of us. We had several conversations about my Transition, allowing her to ask any and all questions that she had and me to reply with what I felt comfortable. As she reminded me several times, she was happy to see me happy. For this reason, this visit holds a special place in my heart.


My new passport this year finally had the correct gender designation on it. Once again, I traveled alone, but this year I added another country to the itinerary.

After spending a few days in Athens, I flew to Switzerland, where I stayed for a week with Her and her family. Who is She? Oh, just the girl I had a crush on for four years (at this point, it had only been two). While She requested that we stay just friends, we have always had a very easy relationship, and I was glad of the chance to get to see where she grew up. Almost from the day we met, She has known that I am transgender, and it has never been a barrier. Actually, I have always found Her extremely easy to talk to, about Transition or anything else. That week that I spent with Her and her family remains one of my favorite memories.


For the first time since I was ten, I didn’t make it overseas. These two years brought my two surgeries, and traveling was out of the question.


Of course, I’ve written five other posts about this year’s trip. I was more than a little apprehensive about traveling with the parents again, especially Mom, but my fears proved to be unfounded. As Dad pointed out when I raised my concerns with him before we went, the biggest source of tension on the last trip we took together, my status as trans, is no longer an issue.

Seeing Yiayia again was well worth the long plane ride. She made a point of telling me how much she likes my beard, which is new since I last saw her. She also once again reminded me how proud she is of me and how much she loves me.

Being out on the streets in Athens is no longer the nerve-wracking experience it once was. As at home, I am now visibly male, and so there are no more awkward questions or looks from passers-by. I even used public restrooms several times, with much less apprehension than I do at home; European architecture means that the stalls in public bathrooms are essentially little rooms in and of themselves, with floor to ceiling walls and no gaps around the doors.

While I may be back in the States, my adventures are just beginning. As I mentioned in a previous post, I have secured a teaching job in Alaska. It’s a good thing I like a challenge, because this one promises to be a doozy. Thankfully, I have the experience of 16 years of travel to see me through.


Part 5: Going home

14 May 2014

It is the night before I leave Athens. Yiayia came over to the hotel this evening, and we had dinner in the cafe downstairs. I have just come back from walking her home. She gave me a big hug and kiss good-bye. “Take care of yourself,” she admonished me in her accented English. I assured her that I will, and hugged her once more for good measure. With my new job, I don’t know when I will get to see her again. Ah well, such is life. Now it is time to pack, for I certainly won’t have time tomorrow morning; the taxi is picking me up at 4 a.m.


With two young children, the parents decided that it would be easier to not attempt to make the journey home in one day. Instead, arrangements were made to spend the night at a hotel in London. This meant that we didn’t have to be at the airport until later in the day, so we still ate breakfast with the grandparents and then they accompanied us back to the hotel to keep us company while we waited for the taxi to the airport.

We stayed at the hotel at the Gatwick airport, all four of us in one room. The trans-Atlantic flight was uneventful, and I was very glad to arrive home to my cat and my bed.


Once more, we stayed overnight in London, but this time Mom found a cheaper hotel away from the airport. In the coming years, we would stay here four more times.


Since we spent a week in London this year, Mom made arrangements for us to fly from Athens to Heathrow. From there, we took the train to Paddington Station, located only a couple of blocks from our hotel. Since our flight home was out of Gatwick, we had to take the bus to Victoria Station, which has train service to that airport.


With the discontinuation of the Pittsburgh-London route, we had to find a new way to get to Greece this year. This also meant that, coming home, we would be making the trip in one day. Neither my sister or I were too excited to get up at three o’ clock in the morning on the day of departure. I remember the taxi ride to the airport as a blur of light and sound, and I remember being surprised at how busy the city was at that hour.


I only stayed in Athens for a few days this year, and then went to Switzerland to visit with a college friend and her family. I took advantage of the fact that my flight from Athens didn’t leave until the afternoon to have a good visit with Yiayia that morning, and actually took the Metro to the airport rather than shell out for a cab.

Of course, my friend and her father drove me to the airport for my flight home. Riding anywhere with a good friend is a great experience, and I relished the opportunity to spend just a little more time with her, since I didn’t know when I would see her again.

15 May 2014

Miraculously, I wake up when my phone alarm goes off at 3:30. Two minutes later, the wake up call from the front desk comes through.

The taxi is already waiting downstairs. Most of the other cars we see during the drive are other taxis, likely also headed for the airport. In a very short time, we have pulled up to the Departure door.

Inside, I find that things have caught up with the US: You now check in at an electronic kiosk to get your boarding pass, then proceed to the counter to drop off any checked luggage. Something else new: I only have to check in for the first flight, and I only get one boarding pass.

At this hour, very few shops in the airport are open. A large poster proclaims that the McDonald’s upstairs is open 24 hours. Thankfully, I have a box breakfast from the hotel, so I am spared trying to choke down fast food so early in the morning.

Once I’ve finished breakfast, I head to the gate, figuring it is better to be early. In fact, I am so early that they haven’t even opened the security checkpoint.


I’ve never really had trouble going through airport security. By the time I was a senior in high school, I had figured out several tricks to make it easier, such as not carrying too much in my pockets and not wearing a belt. Much to my mother’s dismay, I often wear a baseball hat. Since I have to take this off to go through security, it becomes a lovely little hold-all for the contents of my pockets. This trip, I must have accidentally brushed against the metal detector, because a guard guided me off to the side and went over me with a wand. No big deal, and soon I was collecting my bag and on my way.


It’s a good thing I’m one of the first people through the checkpoint once it opens, because they have questions about my hormones, since the bottle of gel is over the required three-ounce size. Fortunately, I did my homework before leaving the States. “It is my medicine,” I tell the guard when she asks me to show her the bottle. “I have a letter from my doctor.” I haven’t needed it so far this trip, but this time she wants to see it. Not even a minute later, she wishes me a pleasant trip and sends me on my way.

At the gate, there is an announcement that our departure will be delayed, but that they will board on schedule. Once on board, the captain takes over the intercom and explains that there is an air-traffic control strike at Paris. I have to laugh, because for a number of years my family encountered strikes at the Athens airport. It seems fitting somehow that now I have to deal with one at Paris. Ah well, at least I’m not in danger of missing my flight to Pittsburgh.


Thinking back, I don’t recall ever having any problems with layovers on the return trip, although some of those connections were a bit tight. Really, the worst layover happened on the way to Athens just after I graduated high school.

It sounded like a nice, easy route: Pittsburgh to Atlanta to Athens. Mother Nature had other ideas, however. A tropical storm shut down the Atlanta airport while we were en route, and by the time our plane was allowed to land the flight to Athens had left without us. Somehow, Dad managed to find seats for the four of us on another flight that left that night. When Mom asked where we were headed, he calmly replied, “Tel Aviv. We’ll catch a flight to Athens from there.”

The flight to Tel Aviv was quiet and relaxing; the layover at Tel Aviv, not so much. As you might imagine, there are rather strict security measures at that airport, both for incoming and outgoing passengers. We were met at the end of the jetway by two security guards who quickly hustled us off to go through these procedures. I am not kidding: There was a security guard there for each of us. They went through our bags, asked us questions, and then hustled us to the gate where our flight to Athens was waiting. It was definitely one of the more bizarre moments in my years of travel.


The transatlantic flight is uneventful. I spend time reading, watching a few movies, and writing another chapter of my latest fanfiction piece. As we approach the States, the usual customs forms are handed out. I have to help the two college students sitting next to me with theirs, since this is their first trip out of the country.

Even though it’s overcast and raining, the pilot lands with little trouble. Customs takes little time, and I’m standing at the baggage claim, watching for my duffel. Just as I pull it off, I feel a hand on my shoulder and turn to find Mom smiling at me. She gives me a quick hug. “Come on,” she tells me. “The car is this way.”

And I am home.

Part 4: Visits with the grandparents

12 May 2014

Mom and Dad leave for the airport in the wee hours of the morning; by the time I wake up they should be in the air en route to Paris. I call Yiayia after breakfast to see if she wants company. “Embro?” she answers the phone.

“Y’assou Yiayia. CJ etho,” I reply.

“You are coming over?”

“I am on my way,” I assure her. Within five minutes I am standing in front of the building, ringing her doorbell. Bzzzzz! I open the door and slide inside, making sure to push it closed securely behind me; there have apparently been problems with people sneaking in who don’t live there. Six flights of stairs later, I reach the seventh floor to find that Yiayia already has the door open, waiting for me.


This was the fifth trip, and the first time that the grandparents did not meet us at either the airport or the hotel. When we arrived, we stayed at the hotel only long enough to put our suitcases in our rooms and call the flat to make sure that we were welcome.

By now I suspected that once he buzzed us in Grandpa would wait with his eye pressed to the peephole in the front door, waiting to see us step off the elevator. In any event, I had barely finished knocking on the door when he opened it and said, “We don’t want any.” But his blue eyes were twinkling, and this time he didn’t even pretend to close the door before throwing it the whole way open and pulling me into a hug.


I was not very surprised this year to discover that I was now taller than Yiayia, but I was surprised to find that I had grown enough that the top of my head was now past Grandpa’s shoulder. He noticed too, making some comment about I had apparently been put on a rack and stretched.

Rather than sit out on the patio, we now gathered in the living room. A small air-conditioning unit had been installed the previous year, although since this trip was made in June we didn’t use it quite as much as we would have needed to later in the summer.

Conversations between the six of us varied in topic. When L and I were younger, I don’t really recall paying much attention to “adult” conversation, only really tuning in when something concerned me directly or if Grandpa started telling stories about Mom and her sisters when they were children. Now, as a teen, I became a more active participant. The living room was (and still is) set up centered on the coffee table. As you enter the room, this table is just off to your left, directly in front of the couch which is pushed up against the wall. Matching armchairs sit at either end. Across the table from the couch, with a walking path in between, are two more armchairs. Grandpa’s chair was the armchair located at the “head” of the coffee table; from here he could see the entire room, including the TV set up on the wall opposite the couch. Seating for the rest of us varied based on who was talking to whom. Whoever was speaking with Grandpa got that end of the couch or dragged the armchair on his right closer to him. Everyone else may start out in one place but would often move around as the conversation continued.

That summer, the conversation centered on two topics: the upcoming Olympics and the ongoing European Cup championship. In the evenings, we would actually turn on the TV and eat dinner while watching the big match of the day. Excitement was high in the city, as the Greek team was performing much better than expected. In the flat in the evenings, the games gave Grandpa an excuse to tease Mom about the fact that she continued to play soccer “at [her] age”. Mom was usually too wrapped up in the match to care much about these comments. I’m not typically one for watching sports, or playing them, but I didn’t mind watching the matches because it was fun to do it with family. The night that Greece played in the finals, we had the balcony door open to let in the fresh air. When the Greeks won, the city exploded with noise.


Although she avoided it for the first year after his death, Yiayia now sits in what I still think of as “Grandpa’s chair”. I walk around the coffee table until I can sit on the end of the couch nearest her. Her hearing is definitely worse than when I was last here, but she is still not sure if she wants to get hearing aids. On the one hand, she has a friend who loves his. On the other hand, Grandpa went through three pairs of the things and was never really happy with any of them.

Last night, I was a little worried if I would be able to converse easily with her now that the parents have left. Mom tends to dominate the conversation when she is there, so I haven’t really had much chance to speak with Yiayia about a topic of my choosing yet.

I was worrying for nothing. She has more questions about my new job, and I try to answer them as best I can. We also talk about the state of education both in the US and in Greece, and I tell some of my funnier stories from my time in a classroom. She then regales me with stories of when she was growing up in Egypt. It is good to see her smile and hear her laugh.

I stay for about an hour before saying that I want to get going. Before she will let me leave, I have to promise to come again this evening. I promise, and after a hug and kiss I am headed for the elevator.

Originally, I planned out six blog posts for while I was here in Athens, each centered around an aspect of the trip. However, life doesn’t always go as planned, and so here is a seventh post to announce a big change in my life:

I have secured a teaching job for the 2014-15 school year! In rural Alaska!

I first interviewed with a representative of this district when I attended the annual teacher job fair in March. We had a good conversation, and he told me that I would likely hear from someone in four to six weeks. As I half-expected, I got an e-mail from the district’s head of personnel the day that I arrived in Greece, wondering if I would be available for a phone or Skype interview. Score one for modern technology: Despite the eleven-hour time difference and the fact that this district is in southwestern Alaska, in the course of two days I had two Skype interviews, one each with the head of personnel and with the principal of the building where I will be working. Less than forty-eight hours after the second interview, I received a formal job offer via e-mail.

On the one hand, I am super excited about this. I’ve been looking to get back into education, and the age of the students I will be working with (a mixed 3rd/4th grade classroom) is right in my ideal range. It is also nice to know that I don’t have to put up with people at my current job for too much longer.

On the other hand, I’m nervous, and a little bit scared. It’s been almost two years since I last set foot in a classroom, so I’m worried about finding my “teaching legs” again. Most of my nerves, though, stem from the fact that I, a twenty-something transman, will be moving to an almost middle-of-nowhere village in rural Alaska. Unfortunately, I need to plan on living stealth until I know more about my fellow educators and the villagers, which is not going to be fun. Hopefully, though, that won’t have to last for too long.

Look on the bright side: My blog entries are about to become a lot more interesting!

Part 3: Sightseeing in the city

10 May 2014

If you say the word “Greece” to most people, they picture the Acropolis of Athens. For some reason, many people also assume that this is the highest point in the city. It is not. That title belongs to Mt Lykavittos. At just over 900 feet tall, it is not much of a “mountain”, but compared to the rest of the city it is gigantic. (For comparison, the Acropolis is only 490 feet high.) Today, I will be hiking up to the top, accompanied by Dad.


While my first visit to Lykavittos wasn’t until our third or fourth trip to Athens, Mom and Dad made a parents-only visit on our second trip. (My sister and I returned to the hotel with our Aunt Lil, who was traveling with us.) After looking over the map, Mom found a street that went about two-thirds of the way up the hill to the station for the funicular train, which would take them the rest of the way. However, when they reached the street, the parents discovered that it was actually stairs, so rather than walking along a sidewalk they climbed flight after flight of stairs. Based on this experience, the first time that they took my sister and I to the hill they hired a cab to drive us to the funicular station.


I had been back to Lykavittos several times in the intervening years, but on this, my first trip alone, I decided that I wanted to try hiking the whole way up. My initial plan was to take the Metro to Syntagma and proceed from there. The universe apparently had other plans: I learned from hotel staff that there was a transportation workers’ strike that day, so no Metro and no buses. Being the stubborn individual that I am, I decided that I would walk the whole way instead, and so I did.

I was definitely breathing a little heavily by the time I reached the top of the hill, but it was worth it. I had forgotten just how green the hiking trail was; it was a good antidote to the dust, grey, and brown of the rest of the city. As I looked out over the city, snapping pictures, I made a promise to myself: Any future visits would involve hiking Lykavittos.


Dad didn’t bat an eye when I told him that I planned on walking the whole way. We keep a nice, steady pace, and it feels like only a few minutes have passed when we climb the last stair and make for the hiking trail. “That’s a lot easier than I remember,” I comment, and Dad laughs. We’ve had similar discussions before: It’s amazing how much of a difference the testosterone has made in my body in the last five years. Between that and my exercise regimen, I am barely breathing hard.

We take our time going up the trail, stopping frequently to admire the view. Of course, the view from the trail is nothing compared to the view from the top. As we walk out to the observation point, the whole city is at our feet. Directly across from us to the south is the Acropolis and the New Acropolis Museum.


For this first year, Mom arranged for us to visit the Acropolis through a bus tour. My sister and I were easily the youngest on the bus, but the guide and other tourists were very nice and made sure that we always had a spot near the front of the group so that we could see everything. While that year we only say the physical ruins, in later years my family made a point of visiting the little museum that stood at the top of the hill, housing artifacts for cleaning and protection from the elements.


Ten years after our first visit to the Acropolis, not too much has changed at the site itself. The construction equipment used by the restoration project moves around every year; some section of the Parthenon is always hidden by scaffolding. I think I was in high school when I came up with the game of counting how many languages I hear being spoken at the site. Aunt S jokes that she is going to write a book called, “Inappropriate Footwear of the Acropolis”, chronicling the poor judgement shown by half of the tourists, namely the ladies that opt to wear stiletto heels when visiting a place where the ground is uneven, slick marble.


This was my first trip alone. After years of seeing the site with family, it felt very strange to go to the top of the hill by myself. I had to ask a fellow tourist to take my picture in the “traditional” spot on the east side of the temple. The big excitement this year was the opening of the New Acropolis Museum at the base of the hill. Among other advantages, such as vastly increased storage and display space, the new museum boasts Plexiglas floors that allow visitors to watch the ongoing excavation of the ruins beneath the building. The plan is that once excavations are complete, tourists will be allowed to walk through the area.


Using my knowledge of the city, I can pick out many more cultural landmarks from up here than the average tourist.To the left of the New Acropolis Museum I can see Hadrian’s Arch and the Temple of Olympian Zeus. I walk to the right, and can find the National Archaeological Museum, home of quite possibly my favorite statue in Athens: The Jockey of Artemision. Mom, Dad and I visited there just yesterday. I can also make out our hotel, and I think I can see the building where Yiayia lives, although I can’t be certain. Eventually, I stop identifying things and just enjoy the view. Not much longer after that, Dad and I begin making our way back down the hill so that we don’t miss meeting up with Mom at the Benaki Museum.


This summer was in some ways the hardest trip I made. I spent three weeks in the British Isles as part of a People to People Student Ambassador group. I was home for barely a week before the whole family packed up and returned to Athens. I’d suffered from homesickness during the People to People trip, and it only intensified in Athens, even though I had my family with me.

I mention this because this was the first year we went to the Benaki Museum, and at the time I didn’t like it. Well, that’s not entirely true: I enjoyed the traditional costumes on display, and one case had examples of the different types of helmets worn by Greek warriors. Other than that, I thought it was a big waste of time.


It’s amazing how much our moods are affected by things like travel and lack of sleep. A couple of years after that first visit, Mom insisted that we return to the Benaki, and to my great surprise I found out that it was a lot better than I remembered. Housed in the Benakis family mansion, the museum started out as merely a display of the family’s collection of Islamic and Byzantine artifacts. Of course, nowadays the museum has many more things on display, from pottery to the costumes to two entire rooms whose walls are made of carved wood.

Once Mom joins Dad and I, we spend a happy couple of hours revisiting our favorite pieces and discovering new treasures. This year, the museum is apparently celebrating 35 years of educational workshops. To commemorate the occasion, they have hung examples of children’s artwork on the wires that fill the center of the back staircase, creating a five-floor high exhibit of the types of programs the museum does. As a former museum educator, this has to be my favorite piece this year.

After we finish browsing the museum, we head for the “shopping district” of Monastiraki and Plaka. Mom wants to finish souvenir shopping today (she and Dad leave on the 12th), but I convince them to stop for lunch at one of the open-air tavernas before we get too far into the shop-lined streets. Tavernas like this one are all over the place, often back-to-back: An interior kitchen across the way or next to a large outdoor seating area, typically covered by awnings or umbrellas. The maitre’d’s of these establishments stand by the edge of their respective restaurant’s territory, cajoling passerby to stop in for a meal, a snack, or a drink. The menus at these places are also rather similar, although there can be different translations of the same dish (each menu is printed in Greek and English). The translations sometimes make us laugh: For a long time, there was a taverna that advertised vegetarian pizza with bacon.

Lunch is very laid back. Dad and I read the books we have brought along, while Mom people-watches. We also discuss what souvenirs she is still looking for, and what if anything else she and Dad want to do before they leave. I make a case for the Jewish Museum, which they agree could be fun to do tomorrow. Once we are done with the meal, it is time to plunge into the mass of humanity among the shops.

I truthfully don’t know how to best describe Monastiraki and Plaka. Some banners that hang above the streets refer to it as a flea-market, but that is not the whole picture. Dozens of shops are pressed side by side, ranging from high-end jewelry and clothing shops to places that sell what can best be described as “schlok”. T-shirt shops abound, yet there are also several stores that sell hand-made olive wood products. Individuals who do not have a physical store set their wares on little tables or against an empty wall. Though several of the streets are supposed to be pedestrian-only zones, you still have to watch out for the occasional motor bike or scooter zipping through. There are several grocers that sell items marketed to the tourists, but also a couple of actual mini-supermarkets. Many shops sell some mixture of shirts, pottery, and bronze or brass sculpture. In short, it is a wonderful, crazy place to visit.

Within a couple of hours, all three of us are satisfied that we have found everything we need. (While I am here until the 15th, I figured that it could not hurt to finish my shopping, too.) Mom and Dad want to take the Metro back, but I decide to walk back to the hotel. Mom wants to take a nap before we go to Yiayia’s for dinner, so I agree that I will call their room around a quarter of six. And so ends another fine day in the city of Athens.

Part 2: Outside of the city

8 May 2014

We aren’t going to visit Yiayia this morning, because Mom has made arrangements with a tour company for a driver to pick us up at the hotel and take us to two sites outside of the city. I’m sort of looking forward to the experience, as after visiting Athens so many times I feel that there is very little left in the city for me to discover. We only wait in the hotel lobby for ten minutes before a young man, probably no more than ten years older than me, walks in. Mom approaches him, and sure enough, he is our driver. He introduces himself as Dmitri, and we quickly pile into the mini-van he has brought. And just like that, we are headed for the port city of Piraeus.


When we first made this trip, I don’t think anyone realized that it would become a yearly thing. Mom may have hoped, but she never mentioned it to my sister and me. Actually, the mantra of that first trip seemed to be, “We don’t know if we’ll ever be here again, so let’s do as much as we can.” Towards that end, we didn’t spend the entire two weeks in the city. At least once we took the Metro (subway) to Piraeus and caught a hydrofoil out to the island of Aegina to spend the day at the beach. We also took an overnight bus tour to Delphi, home of the legendary Oracle of Apollo, situated in the mountains. Of all of the sites we visited on that trip, the town of Delphi was my favorite.


It’s been four years since I was last in Piraeus, and that last trip was made via Metro. It is very different to approach it from the highway. When he learns that we have never driven to the town, Dmitri makes a point of exiting the highway early and driving us through some of the different neighborhoods, so that we can get a proper appreciation for the place. I recognize the area near the docks where the Metro station is located, but the rest is new to me. Several minutes later, we pull up in front of the National Maritime Museum, a building that has become something of a family joke.

You see, in all of the years we’ve been traveling to Greece, the only place Dad has ever suggested visiting is this museum. Given that his family is the one with the cottage on the lake and his father, my grandfather, is a boater at heart, this isn’t too surprising. So when Dad first suggested the museum three or four years ago, Mom readily agreed. However, the first two years that they tried to visit, they could not locate the building. The third year, my sister managed to find the place, but it was closed. So finally this year Mom arranged for the car and driver to take us here. As we enter, it is plainly obvious that the museum does not have access to the same resources as places like the National Archaeological Museum or the New Acropolis Museum. The building is one long hallway, lined with naval uniforms, parts of ships, and model ships, many displayed in old-fashioned wood and glass cases. Aside from a tour group of about twenty, my family are the only ones in the place. We spend a half-hour or so looking over things before heading back to the car. Next up: A drive along the coastal road up to the ruins at Sounion.


By this, our fifth trip, it was understood that we would continue to make the effort to come to Athens for as long as the grandparents were around. Even so, Mom made a concentrated effort for us to see as many cultural sites as possible, both in and out of the city. We had already made a return trip to Delphi, so this trip Mom booked us on another bus tour, this one a two-night affair, which hit the towns of Epidaurus, Mycenae, and Nafplion, with a stop at Corinth on the way out of Athens.


I have yet to see any places in Greece that I would term “ugly”. Even so, the drive along the coast has to be one of the most beautiful things we have done. It’s about twenty-five minutes to get to Sounion, and Dmitri keeps up a steady patter about the little villages we pass through and the history of the place. I’m impressed; when we told him how many times we have visited the country I could see that he was a little stunned, and maybe a touch concerned that he didn’t have anything new to tell us. He is doing fine, however, and we make a point of telling him so.

The Temple of Poseidon at Sounion stands on top of a cliff, immediately above the Aegean Sea. Actually, the temple is part of the myth about the origin of the sea’s name. Aegeus was the king of Athens who had to send twelve youths to King Minos of Crete to be sacrificed to the famous Minotaur. Aegeus’s son, Theseus, offered to go kill the monster and put a stop to this practice. Aegeus agreed, but told his son, “If you are successful, raise the white sails on the ship on your return.” Of course, Theseus defeated the Minotaur, but he forgot to replace the black sails with the white ones. Aegeus, standing at the temple, saw the black sails and in his grief committed suicide by throwing himself into the sea.

As we clamber out of the car and approach the temple, Mom and Dad exclaim over how different things are since their last visit thirty years ago, and I can’t help but laugh. It’s amazing how we expect things to be the same, even though we know that that can’t be so. Dad pays at the ticket booth, and we start up the path to the temple itself.

While the Parthenon is made of marble, the Temple of Poseidon is constructed of limestone. Even so, it is in pretty good shape for a building over two thousand years old. Like the Parthenon, there is a rope surrounding the building to prevent people from going inside. However, you can get much closer to this building. Once I get over my awe of the temple, I turn to take in the view of the sea, and what a view!

Later, once we are all done at the temple, the parents and I go to explore the other promontory of the cliff. I find a little trail that leads to a shelf of rock, where I find the best view of the day. Finally, about an hour after we arrived, we pile back into Dmitri’s car and head back to the city. I know that the point of coming to Athens is to visit Yiayia, but every once in a while, it is good to leave the city.

Part 1: Arrival

5 May 2014

Since the flight is run by Air France, the announcement is made three times, in three different languages. First, French, of which I catch about every third word. Then, English. “Ladies and gentlemen we are beginning our final approach into Athens. Please make sure that your seat is upright and your tray table stowed.” Third, Greek. This last is a recording; apparently no members of the flight crew speak the native language.

I look out the window, but get barely a glimpse of the city before we descend into the clouds. Fine by me. While I normally enjoy watching take off and landing, right now I’m feeling loopy from the effects of jet lag. Instead, I close my eyes, and let memory wash over me.


My first trip to Greece was not my first time on an airplane, but up until that point I had never travelled further than from Pittsburgh to Boston, at least by air. We had visited Toronto twice, but those were road trips, and back then you didn’t even need a passport to go across the US-Canada border.

That first trans-Atlantic flight was made via British Airways, on their then-daily run from Pittsburgh to London Gatwick. For a wide-eyed ten-year-old, it was quite an experience. The flight crew were all extremely polite, and seemed charmed by me and my seven-year-old sister. Coloring books and crayons were provided, and they even allowed Dad and us the opportunity to go up front to the cockpit and meet the pilot and co-pilot.

I don’t remember sleeping at all on that plane, probably due to excitement. I vaguely remember how it felt to look out of the window and see another country for the first time: The Thames was plainly visible, but I recall thinking that, initially, it looked very much like home. Of course, as we got closer I realized that the cars were driving on the wrong side of the road….

Compared to Pittsburgh International, Gatwick was HUGE. We had enough time to find a restaurant that served food which my sister and I would eat, food that tasted somewhat like we were used to, and then changed terminals to catch the next plane.

Landing at Athens that first time was like going back in time. The airport had no jetways; planes landed and then rolling staircases were pushed into position for passengers to debark. Buses waited at the bottom to take passengers to the terminal. It was mid-morning, but already it was hot. Inside was not much better, and was hazy with cigarette smoke. Mom led the way through customs, using Greek learned via teach-yourself cassette tapes. Luggage was finally claimed, and when we finally made it into the terminal proper we discovered that Grandpa and Grandma had come to greet us, bringing little presents for my sister and I. As Mom now jokes, they seemed to have eyes only for the two of us, while Mom and Dad were left to deal with the bags….


There is a bump, and the plane has landed. I open my eyes to see the scenery flashing past. As the plane slows and taxis to the jetway, I take a moment to admire the “new” airport. In all, I only flew in and out of the old airport three times, because the current one opened for business in 2001. Once stopped at the gate, I take a moment to turn my phone back on. It has to think for a moment, but then it connects with the local network and I receive a message about how to make calls, what calls and texts and data will cost, and where to call if I should need assistance. My seat is further forward than my parents’, so I am the first to debark, saying a quick “merci” to the crew on my way out the door.

I don’t remember much of the old airport anymore, but I do remember that all of the signs were in Greek. If you were lucky, there were pictures. Not so here: All signs are in Greek and English, with pictograms to help get the point across. Since we are flying in from another EU country, we don’t have to go through customs. As we walk, the familiar ding-dong, like some gigantic door bell, heralds announcements, made both in Greek and English. Suitcases are retrieved, and the three of us head for the taxi queue.


When we first started traveling to Athens, the taxi ride to or from the airport was almost as exciting as the flight itself. Local roads varied by condition, and many of the taxi drivers were, as Grandpa once put it, “training for the Indy 500”. Then there was the price: Much haggling was involved, and you had to look sharp to make sure that you were not being charged an outrageous amount of drachma. Cabbies may or may not have spoken English and may or may not have admitted to it. As much as Mom worried about them coming out to the airport, I suspect she was secretly pleased to have Grandma along for those first couple of years: Cabbies didn’t give a native nearly as much trouble.


As the cab pulls onto the highway, I examine the scenery. It’s greener than I remember. Then again, it’s May. By July and August, it will brown out due to heat and dust. The architecture is a mix of modern and what I think of as “classic” Greek: white walls, red terra cotta roofs. Even once we enter the city proper, this still holds true, although the modern buildings predominate. It’s not long before the driver pulls up in front of the Park Hotel. Once inside, my family is greeted by the desk staff as friends; we’ve been staying here for over a decade.


The first two years we came overseas, we stayed at a different hotel: the Museum Hotel. Located five blocks from my grandparents’ flat, it was best described by my mother as a “grade Z” hotel. The furniture was so basic that the drawers didn’t have backs, and in the bathrooms the shower area merely consisted of a raised section of tile on the floor, no curtain. The mattresses felt as if they were made of rocks, and there was a bed my parents dubbed the “sarcophagus” because when one lay in it, one could not roll onto one’s side. The elevators were of an older European style; that is, hand operated, hinged doors on each floor, with no door on the elevator itself. It wasn’t uncommon for the elevator to stop an inch or two above or below the floor. No air conditioning, but each room had a small balcony and a ventilated metal door that could be pulled into position to let in air but not too much light. The hotel dumpsters were located across the street, and were emptied every night some time between midnight and one in the morning. There was no breakfast room; instead, we bought cereal and milk at a little grocery store midway between the hotel and the flat and had breakfast with the grandparents each morning.


When we started staying at the Park, my sister and I felt that we’d died and gone to heaven. Air conditioning! Beds with soft mattresses! A rooftop pool! Breakfast at the hotel!

In those days, the Park was decorated in a very European motif, with touches of local Greek culture here and there. There was the main entrance, which let you into the coffee shop/cafe area, but a smaller side door led directly to the lobby where the front desk was located. White marble floors in the lobby, vast mirrors on the walls. Where there wasn’t a mirror, there was coral-colored wallpaper, and brass trim in Greek key designs all around. This color scheme was found throughout the building: A slightly darker carpet covered the floors in the hallways and rooms, but the same wallpaper could be found in all hallways.


I still expect all of these things to be the same, but they are not. The hotel has been bought and sold several times, and now is part of the Radisson chain. What was the coffee shop and cafe is now the main lobby, while the old lobby has been chopped in half to allow for the creation of a conference center. Faux tree trunks stand in the lobby, and the ceiling has been redone to give the appearance of a starry night sky. Up on the floors with the rooms, dark green carpeting has been laid down, and the light fixtures have been replaced, too. At least the rooms look basically the same.

We are in our rooms just long enough to set down our bags and call Yiayia (Greek for “grandmother”; pronounced YA’ya). She is eagerly expecting us, and tells us to come on over. It’s only two blocks to the flat, and in no time she is buzzing us in. The closet-sized European elevator was replaced a few years ago with a closet-sized “modern” elevator, although the manual doors on each floor remain. It’s a bit of a squeeze to get three adults in, but we make it work. When we get out, Yiayia is waiting for us with an open door.


When we were younger, Mom or Dad had to lift my sister or I up to reach the buzzer, and opening the front door took a bit of work. When we’d arrive on their floor, we’d knock on the door. Half the time, we’d hear knocking from the other side. The other half, Grandpa would open the door, say, “We don’t want any,” and pretend to close the door in our faces. Then he’d open the door wide and give us each a hug before we could get inside, where Grandma would be waiting to also hug us. (I’m ashamed to say that I was in high school or college before it occurred to me that it would probably mean a lot to her to address her using her native language.) The flat was not air-conditioned then, so Mom or Dad would head out onto the balcony to lower the awning and we’d all gather outside to visit.


As I knocked on the flat’s door, I still expected Grandpa to respond. Instead, Yiayia opened the door and enfolded me in a hug, trying her hardest not to cry. I knew exactly how she felt: This was my first visit since Grandpa passed away, and I couldn’t help but feel he’d walk out of the bedroom or kitchen at any moment, exclaiming over how I’d grown. Instead, I held Yiayia, who I had passed in height about four years previously, and was suddenly aware of just how old she was.


Yiayia’s eyes light up when she sees me, and her smile is wide. “Ahhh!” she exclaims, folding her arms around me. I gladly return the hug, careful not to squeeze too hard. This is only my second visit since I started hormone therapy and she feels thin enough under my arms that I worry about hurting her. But her hug is strong, and she looks so much better than my last visit two years ago. Finally she lets me go, and motions me inside. And I feel like I’ve come home.


More to follow in the coming days!