Monday, July 28, 2008

Greek Islands

Those of you who read this blog frequently know that R and I really enjoy traveling. The past 18 months in Europe have given us plenty of opportunities to do so. During this time we've had some very good trips. We've also had some great trips. And then there is our trip to the Greek islands.

I don't want to get too emotional on you and abuse my quota of flowery adjectives, so let's just say that the trip was nearly flawless. We had a great, great time.

The idea for the trip started about six months ago when R started to research boat companies. You see, we didn't want to just fly to an island and stay in a hotel or a villa. We wanted to sail the Greek islands. And, to do that, we needed a boat. After some exhaustive research, we "settled" on the Lagoon 420 Catamaran. It's a brand spanking new 45-foot beauty of a boat that comfortably sleeps nine people - eight passengers and a captain.



Now, a trip like this would not be nearly as fun with just R and I. To really enjoy (and afford) a trip like this we needed a good group of people to share the boat. So we reached out to our friends and found 3 couples that were more than happy to join us. Not everyone knew each other going in, but it turned out to be a perfect mix of people. Everyone had 2-3 very good friends on the boat and a few other people that they sort-of-kind-of knew before the trip started. There was enough of a connection so we all got along great. At the same time, had we all been best friends and known each other really well, there would have likely been little fights and quarrels that naturally happen when you are stuck in the same area with the same group of people for seven days. We had none of that.



We all met in Athens last Saturday and explored the very hot city in the morning before making our way to a nearby port. There we laid eyes on our beautiful boat for the first time. We were like kids at Christmas. We couldn't wait to jump on the boat and check it out. I was so excited that I was about to take a running start and attempt to jump the 4+ feet from the dock to the steps of the boat. Fortunately, a guy at the port pulled out a plank that we were able to cross. Had he been a minute late, there was a 50:50 chance I would have tried the jump, missed my landing, twisted my ankle and been miserable the whole trip. He came just in time.

The boat was much better than I had expected. I was worried that it would be too small for nine people to comfortably enjoy - but that was not the case at all. Each couple had their own room with a bed that was "big enough". We each had our own shower and our own bath. There was enough room in the front of the boat for everyone to lay out and there was enough room in the back of the boat for everyone to sit and eat. It was, in a word, perfect.

After hitting the local market for some food, water and beer our feet left solid land for the last time and we met our captain - George. I'm sure 95% of boat captains are generally solid dudes and show people a good time. But I can't imagine this trip without George. He was a born and raised Greek, right around our age and he had a fantastic personality. He liked the kind of music we liked, he ate every dinner with us, he told us stories (and laughed at ours) and hung out with us until all hours of the night. Maybe I'm being a bit biased here, but I can't say enough good things about George. He helped make the trip what it was. I'm thinking about hiring him to be my personal concierge every time I go on vacation. Who am I kidding... the guy probably makes more money than me, eats and sleeps for free six months out of the year and has to sail the Greek Islands for a living. Talk about the good life. I'll just consider myself lucky if the guy accepts my Facebook friend request.

Our agenda for the week was not set in stone. There were a couple of islands that we really wanted to hit but, other than that, we were going to play it by ear and let the wind take us where it may. And the wind did play a big role on the first day. The sea was rough. The big boat rocked from side to side and more than one person got sea sick (not me, thankfully). George said it was the worst day at sea he had experienced all year. Fortunately, Poseidon spared us the rest of the trip. Every day thereafter was smooth sailing all around.

So, what exactly did we do all day? Not much. But never have I enjoyed doing so little so much. Here was an average day for us...

- Wake up to the sound of George getting the boat ready on the dock and shouting "Ela, ela - let's go". I swear the Greeks use the word "ela" more than any other culture uses any other single word. I heard George and others say it hundreds of times throughout the day. I asked George what it meant and he told me it means "come on" or "let's go". That has to be a loose translation at best. I mean, they answer the phone by saying "ela". George seemed like a pretty calm and relaxed dude. I can't imagine he would start every conversation by saying "let's go". To paraphrase The Princess Bride... I do not think that word means what he thinks it means.

- I had the extremely important job of operating the boat anchor for the entire trip. So, right before we would take off, I would go to the front of the boat and pull up the anchor. The job was crucial and, if I do say so myself, I was really good at it. There was a remote control with two buttons on it: "Up" and Down". Not one time did I press the wrong button accidentally. I rocked that anchor.



- We would set sail to the island of our destination. Each trip was between 4 and 7 hours away. Or, as George would tell us when we asked, 15-20 minutes.

- Hang out on the boat sleeping, napping, reading, snacking, tanning, talking, drinking, navigating, etc. Not necessarily in that order. Weather was perfect. I could count the number of clouds I saw throughout the week on one hand. Literally.




- We would convince George to stop the boat at least once in the middle of the sea so we could jump out and cool off. For my money there is no better feeling in the world than swimming in the middle of a sea/ocean when land is nowhere in site. You never feel more alive or free. To experience this, picture yourself sitting in the chair in your 10x10 office for 8+ hours a day. Now, picture the exact opposite feeling.








- Drop anchor in a little bay for more swimming, frolicking, diving competitions and a little lunch on the boat.



- We would usually pull in to port around 4:00 PM and get out and explore the town a bit. R would take a ton of pictures of white buildings with blue shutters and roofs. Every house was white. One out of 50 houses had red shutters instead of blue. We assumed these were owned by communists.




- Hang out and watch the sunset. Everyone did this except me and my friend Gregg. We apparently don't like sunsets. Thank God neither one of us is trying to get a date on match.com. Our personal ads wouldn't attract many females. "Don't like sunsets, walks on the beach are overrated, ..."



- Shower and take care of other personal business. Showers had to be done in 60 seconds or less to conserve water. You would turn the shower on real fast and wet yourself, then turn the water off. Completely lather up from head to toe. Then turn the water back on and rinse off. Taking care of the other "business" was also an adventure. We had toilets but once you were done taking care of said business, you had to manually pump the waste away. I assume everything was just washed out to sea, but no one put on a snorkel mask and went below the boat mid-pump to verify this assumption. Toilet paper could not be pumped away and had to be thrown in the regular garbage. I learned an important trick because of this. If you consciously focus on having a clean poop while doing the deed, it actually works more often than not. I call it mind-over-fecal-matter.

- Go out for dinner on the town. Dinner was always family style and usually consisted of Greek salad, octopus, eggplant, white fish and a few other random appetizers mixed in. Greg M (who loyal readers might remember from the Oktoberfest blog post) was the king at ordering for the table. The food in general was very good, but not quite great. Some islands were better than others and we had one lobster spaghetti dish that was to die for. But at a couple of the places the octopus was too gamey and I didn't love the souvlaki. A few of us also choose to wash dinner down with a little ouzo, a few of us did not. I tried it a couple of times to impress Captain George, but didn't love it.



- Hit the bars/clubs for a night on the town. Bottle service in Paros and Mykonos. I have never been anywhere in my life where people stayed out so late. Many of our dinners ended well past midnight and the restaurants were still packed. If we left the bars before 3:00 AM - it felt like we were going home early. The clubs were more crowded at 4:00 AM than they were at 1:00 AM. I didn't have the energy to test the theory any later than that.



- Get back to the boat - maybe have a night cap on deck, maybe take a dive in the water to cool off, maybe have a contest to see what food we had on board wouldn't taste better once it was dipped in Nutella - then head to bed.

- Wake up the next morning to the sound of the boat pulling away. Rinse. Wash. Repeat.

If this itinerary doesn't sound that great to you, remember we were SAILING ON A BOAT AROUND THE F%$%ING GREEK ISLANDS! The trip rocked. Life is very, very good.



We hit 6 different islands during the week. Kea, Serifos, Paros, Mykonos, Delos, and Kythnos. We stayed on Mykonos for two days but our favorite island was Paros. Paros had the perfect vibe. It was small enough to be cozy but large enough to have a great bar/restaurant scene. We also had a VIP parking spot at the port - which was nice. To top things off, I helped save a stray Rottweiler from drowning at the port in the morning before taking off. My mom is proud.








Mykonos is by far the most famous of the bunch but we all thought it was a little too crowded and a little too spread out. It was the only island where we needed to rent a van. On all other islands we could just pull up the boat to the center of town and walk around as needed.

The trip was the perfect length. No one felt that it was too short. Yet, at the same time, when we got off the boat, it felt just right.

We finished off the vacation with a full 24 hours in Athens. We hiked up to the Acropolis. Ate some gyros. Hung out at the pool. Then we met captain George at for dinner at an area in Athens known as "The Gazi". In all of the international cities that I have visited, this was one of the coolest districts I can remember. All of the hippest restaurants and bars are surrounding a public square. Traffic is closed off so thousands and thousands of people are wandering the streets. It had a great vibe.



Like I said above - it was a special trip. My vocabulary is not large enough to describe the trip properly. Hopefully we'll have the opportunity to do something like it again in the future. But, for now, I'll be on a natural high for the next couple of weeks. Life is good.

Thanks to all of my crew mates for making the trip what it was. You know who you are. Thanks for organizing everything, thanks for taking care of the food, thanks for being the boat DJ, thanks for telling great stories, thanks for bringing the Tostitos, thanks for bringing the Captain (not George, Morgan), thanks for laughing at my jokes, thanks for having a name that Greeks can't pronounce(Flimsey?!?!)... thanks for EVERYTHING! Thanks to Trina at www.CharterWorld.com for setting everything up and answering our dozens of email inquiries. And, most importantly, thanks to Captain George. The best damn captain a group of New Yorkers lost at sea in Greek Islands could ever hope to have.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Summer in Europe Doesn't Suck

I've always said that I love living in New York 9 months out of the year. But it was a miserable place to be in the summer time. The heat gets trapped on the asphalt, it seems to reach 100% humidity every day, all of the garbage on the street starts to smell, it's too hot to walk any where and the subway is unbearable. Other than that, it's great.

Spending the summer in Prague, on the other hand, is much nicer. Although it can still get pretty darn hot here, the humidity rarely becomes a problem. And, if you are a fan of the outdoors, Prague has plenty of great options for you.

Last weekend is a perfect example. On Saturday I went on a nice 80 km bike ride with some Czech colleagues. We visited a place that's known as "Little America" or the "Czech Grand Canyon". (Picture below). It is about 1/1000th of the size of the real Grand Canyon - but a picturesque site nonetheless.



Here is an interesting side note to add to the ride. I like to pack up on carbs while biking, so I always carry plenty of food with me. And, one of my favorite things to eat on a bike ride is a Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich. I love them. But, apparently not everyone shares my affinity. The concept of a PB&J sandwich was absolutely foreign to the Czech guys that I was riding with. No one on the trip had ever tried one before and, when i offered them a bite, they wanted no part. I've probably had over 1000 PB&J sandwich's in my life - so this was hard for me to comprehend. But, this is part of what makes the world an interesting place to live - different cultures and, of course, different foods.


My excellent weekend adventure continued on Sunday with a nice 18 holes of golf. Although it was raining when we first woke up, my buddy convinced me to take the chance and ride out to the golf course while hoping for the best. He was right. The rain stopped right when he hit the first tee and didn't start again until we hit the 19th. The course was in great shape and didn't hold any water - so we had a great round of golf. (I have to point out that we went golfing with a French couple. After my experience the previous day, I had to ask about PB&J. The French guy said he had tried a Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich once - but never again)

Now I'm not saying these type of enjoyable weekends are impossible in Manhattan. But, the logistics are always a bit harder since you have to rent a car to go to the golf course or navigate your way through city streets to find a good bike riding lane. One of the unique things about Prague is that I can leave my house and within 5 km I feel like I am in the total country. It seems like you are back in time 100 years and you would never know that you are just a stone's throw away from a major European capital. It's great when you want to get away from the city.


And speaking of getting away, another great thing about living in Europe during the summer is the close proximity to beaches. We are just hours away from a flight to the Greek Islands to soak in the sun for a week. Then, next month, we'll be hitting the old country while visiting family and relaxing on the beaches of Sicily.

It's a good place to be in the summer.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Grundlsee, Austria

R, B and I headed down to Grundlsee, Austria for the long 4th of July weekend. After all, what better way to celebrate American independence than a 3 day weekend in Austria.

If you have never heard of Grundlsee, don't be ashamed. It's not a big town or even a famous one. I had never heard of it until a few weeks ago when a co-worker recommended it. We were looking to get away for a relaxing weekend and we heard the lake region in Austria was a scenic destination. We did a little bit of research, rented a car and made the five hour drive south to central Austria.

The trip started off in a rather negative way. The drive down was my third worst road trip of all time. Ten minutes after we got in the car the rain came. And not just a typical summer thunderstorm, but buckets and buckets of rain crashing onto the car. You could barely see 10 feet in front of you. The rain lasted for about 30 minutes and we thought we had seen the worst. But, we met up with an even more severe storm in Austria for the last two hours of the trip. It got so bad that I had to pull the car over and stop on the side of the road for a bit. But, thanks to some patient driving and the miracle known as GPS we made it to the house late Thursday night. (In case you are scoring at home, the worst drive ever was from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe during their worst snow storm in a decade. It was so bad all but one ski resort was closed the next day for having too much snow! The second worst drive was coming from Montreal to Cleveland after a horrible, horrible ice storm. But, that wasn't so bad. It was sitting in a car for 14 hours with my crazy ex-girlfriend that made it miserable)

When we woke up the next morning ,we had no idea what to expect from the town. We couldn't see anything during the horrible conditions at night and we had no idea where the lake was. Everything was brand new to us. It felt like Christmas morning. The first day was a bit overcast so we decided to go hiking in the mountains that surrounded the lake. It was a rather difficult hike straight up hill - but the views from up top were worth it once you got there. We spent the rest of the day just lounging around and doing a whole lot of nothing. I even took two naps. Any day is a good day when you can fit in two naps.

However, we were really looking forward to the next day when we had plans to hit the lake. Although our dog B is over 2 years old, he has really never had a chance to swim. There are some fountains, ponds and rivers in Prague, but none that are really great for swimming. We were 90% sure he could swim because, after all, he is a dog and that is what dogs do. But, he is also part pug and I know some pugs can't swim.

We took B to the lake to see what would happen. Unfortunately, the water was absolutely freezing! It was so cold it caused shrinkage on my dog - and he had his nuts cut off years ago. But we didn't come all of this way to let a little cold water deter us. After B made it obviously clear that he would only wade into the water until his belly touched - I did what any good father would do. I picked him up, walked about 20 feet into the lake and dropped him into the water just to see what would happen. Good news - B can swim! He doggie-paddled back to the beach as fast as he possibly could, turned around and gave me the loudest, most sincere "F you" bark he could possibly muster. After repeating this exercise another 3-4 times for my own enjoyment, I felt bad and gave him a break for the day. Pics of him swimming can be found below.

The rest of the weekend was spent just relaxing. Hiking, taking boats out on the lake, eating excellent Austrian food, reading and napping. Just a nice relaxing weekend.

Now, if you thought I could get through an entire blog post without mentioning sex or prostitution... you're dead wrong. It's not my fault. Sex sells and this blog doesn't pay for itself.

One of the best things about driving between the Czech Republic and Austria is the line of prostitutes that dot the highway. Apparently prostitution is illegal in Austria but is perfectly acceptable in the Czech Republic. So, as soon as you cross into Czech territory, you see a bunchof ladies in high heels and mini skirts lining the road.

We've made the drive in either direction about 4 times now and it never fails to disappoint. R and I are fascinated by this. We've seen as many as 15 along the highway on a nice summer day and as few as 2 last Sunday (I can only assume that the other 13 respected the Lord's day). I'm really curious about how the economics work on a busy day. If you are a "working" girl, do you want to be the first prostitute a truck driver sees? In the middle? Towards the end? What location is bound to turn the most tricks? Are looks more important than location? Is there any price elasticity between girls? Do they accept both Euros and Czech Krowns? How closely do they monitor the exchange rate? It's a fascinating socio-economic conundrum and needs to be studied. (And, before you think I am way out of line, best-selling Freakonomics author Steven Levitt spent two years studying Chicago prostitutes to answer these questions and more. So at least one other person in this world thinks like me.)

Now, here comes the best part. On the drive home, we wanted to get a picture of a working girl for our loyal blog readers. We were just hoping to get a shot of a girl standing at the side of the road. That's all I have ever seen. But, when it came time to take a picture, we were in luck. A girl was actually working and negotiating with a potential customer! This is nirvana for a wildlife photographer. It's like going an African safari and witnessing a kill.




Whether your are interested in the economic impact of prostitution on the Czech-Austrian border or not, I couldn't recommend Grundlsee any more. You'd be hard pressed to find a more beautiful spot in this world. Between the gorgeous mountains, the crystal clear lakes, the friendly people and the tasty food - it's an ideal place to get away for a few days or more.



Tuesday, July 01, 2008

June in Czech Republic

The month of June was unique for me. It was the first full month where I spent every single day in the Czech Republic. I didn't leave the country once.

It's not like we sat around and did nothing. My grandparents visited for a weekend. We went hiking in Cesky Raj. I was sick for 10 solid days. But, all of these events happened in the good ol' Czech Republic.

You may think that we are getting sick of traveling. Or the falling dollar has finally caught up to us. While the latter does in fact hurt, the former is not true at all. In fact, we have several really cool vacations planned for July and August that we are anxiously looking forward to. We leave for our next trip to Austria in 2 days.


P.S. In case you are counting at home, R spent the first week of this month in New York, so she doesn't share the same