When we finally arrived in Meteora, we took a cab to Saint Georgio’s Villa, a small bed-and-breakfast-like establishment on the edge of a village called Kastraki, which lies at the bottom of the mountains in Meteora. Kastraki is the smaller of two villages at the base of the mountains; the other is called Kalambaka.

Last minute, we were able to get ourselves a couple of spots on a sunset tour of Meteora. In fact, we turned out to be the only people on the tour and, since it was a very cloudy day, viewing the sunset was unlikely.

As I learned on the tour, Meteora, which roughly translates to “floating in the air,” is famous for its mountainous rock formations and for the Greek Orthodox Christian monasteries that sit atop them. The best modern theories say that the entirety of Meteora was under water, the bottom of a sea. The mountains stand where the delta of a river used to be, as evidenced by the composite of materials in the sandstone deposits that form the mountains. Of course, the Greeks have their own mythological tale of how these mountains came to be: long ago, the Gods of Mount Olympus fought a terrible war against their forebears, the Titans. The fight flattened the earth, creating the large level plane that is the valley in which Kastraki and Kalambaka sit. As is written in the mythology, the Titans lost the battle and many of the fallen Titans turned into stone. The mountains at Meteora are thus the fossils of ancient Titans.

Our tour took us high into mountains to view the monasteries and nunneries built there. There are 6 of them that can be visited, and one of them has as few as 3 monks inside. The view from the top of the mountains is incredible—you can see out for many, many miles and here, unlike, Athens, the rooftops are quite beautiful. There seems to be some sort of village ordinance requiring people to build their houses only so high and to have a distinct red roof that looks very Spanish, but which must be Greek. The monasteries and nunneries themselves are made of course stone, but are build almost as extensions of the mountains themselves. The tour guide told informed us that building materials for the monasteries used to be carried by mule or on foot from across the valley. Some of these monasteries took more than a hundred years to build.

Since we got into Meteora so late, only one nunnery was still open for visiting hours. Unfortunately I cannot remember its name. Upon entering a monastery or nunnery, women are expected to dress modestly so they give out shawls and skirts at the entrance. Women must wear a skirt even if they are wearing long pants. Men, on the other hand, can walk in wearing a T-shirt and shorts… rather sexist and nonsensical if you ask me, but I don’t make the rules.

One of the monasteries, which we didn’t get to visit the inside of today, is called The Holy Trinity. Apparently this monastery was used to film parts of James Bond For Your Eyes Only (which, I can’t remember having seen before). This monastery sits out alone on a rock that looks very much like an island. Apparently there are steps that snake down the side of one rock several stories and back up the other. The entire climb just to get to the monastery is supposed to take over an hour.

We stopped for many photos along the way, and had a chance to see most of the monasteries from the outside. Tomorrow, when they’re open, we’ll likely see many of them from the inside as well. As expected, there was no real sunset because of the clouds, but we nevertheless hung out on a nice rocky outcrop which would have had a nice view of the sunset. Mom got it in her head that she was on top of the world, and wanted to stop and meditate for a little while.

Having given up on the sunset, we went to dinner in the town at a quaint little restaurant called Restaurant Meteora which was recommended by our tour guide. “It’s been owned and run by the same family for 4 generations!” he had said, proudly. The food wasn’t half bad, either! I ordered some sort of lamb roast that came with baked potatoes. I also asked our waiter what his favorite Greek beer on the menu was and ordered an Alfa beer. Lamb was tasty, beer was just alright—kind of like the Greek version of Heineken.

Off to an early bed tonight, and on to the insides of the monasteries tomorrow before we take the train to Delphi!

I’m a little bit behind on chronicling my travels. Looking back on my pictures, it’s hard for me to believe how short a time it’s been. I had a mild sense of disorientation when I realized a few days ago that I had completely lost track of what day of the week it was. I love how when I travel I measure time in days instead of weeks. Everything happens so quickly, but I get to live so in the moment that it all feels so wonderfully slow.

Today was our last day in Athens. We all woke up pretty late and didn’t get out until after noon. There wasn’t really much of a plan for the day. Sure, there were probably other sights to see, but we chose to spend the bulk of our day wandering the streets of Athens getting (just a little) purposefully lost in the sea of street vendors. The streets were thin and the crowds thick, but just like always there were so many things to see, and so many things to experience even without our explicitly trying to.

They sell all kinds of interesting things here: chess boards with colored Greek or Roman pieces; helmets, breastplates, shields, and daggers made in Spartan style; bronze figurines of different kinds of ancient Greek warriors; miniature statues of the old Greek gods and goddesses; pots painted in the ancient Greek style; cutting boards, spoons, and other cookware hand-cut from olive wood (I admit I was rather tempted by some of these). One store had a Satyros alcohol brand that came in a little glass container of a satyr with a giant penis (I believe the satyrs are mythical mischief and trouble makers?). I briefly considered bringing one of these home as a gag souvenir-gift for a friend, but reconsidered when I realized the satyr would likely be dismembered in transit. There were also a few stores that had some fun T-shirts that caught my eye like one that said, “Oedipus the ORIGINAL Mother Fucker.” However, since being flooded by free startup T-shirts while studying computer science at Stanford, I’m still trying to phase T-shirts out of my typical wardrobe.

Yet just as in any area heavily visited by tourists, many of the shops even two or three doors down from each other seem to sell the exact same things. I’ve always wondered how such stores expect to make money—if nobody differentiates their products, do they all just throw caution to the wind and hope for the best? Doesn’t seem like a particularly smart business plan, but I suppose most Greek street vendors don’t have MBA’s and are just doing what they know how to eke out a living.

When we stopped for lunch, I, still determined to try the most authentic or most outlandish foods possible, ordered a glass of ouzo (yes, day drinking… when in Greece?), some Greek-style coffee, and some beef souvlaki from a quaint little restaurant in the middle of the street market. Similar to the souvenir shops that line the streets, most of the restaurants don’t seem to do a particularly good job of differentiating themselves either.

Ouzo is a traditional Greek drink that is somehow made from licorice. It’s definitely a hard alcohol, likely sitting between 40% and 50% alcohol by volume. Those who know me well know that licorice is among the few foods that I don’t generally put in my mouth willingly. Suffice to say I found ouzo thoroughly disgusting and declined to finish the glass. Still happy to have experienced it though.

Someone explained Greek-style coffee to me at some point, and I’ve unfortunately forgotten the details but it has to do with adding the coffee grounds back into the coffee. Consequently, the coffee has a gritty texture and a bit of an earthy taste. This drink I actually quite like!

The beef souvlaki was not so impressive. It was basically steak bits seasoned with salt, pepper, and a little bit of thyme cooked on a skewer until well done (!). Then they served it to me on a plate without the skewer and on a bed of french fries of all things. I think I could have cooked better beef for myself in my sleep and, believe it or not, could probably have done a better job with presenting the food (the current joke is that, while I’m a halfway decent chef, my food rarely looks as appetizing as it ends up tasting).

As we roamed the markets, we came across a place called Doctor Fish where patrons pay 10€ to put their feet in tanks full of little fish that massage feet by nipping at them. Kristen had heard of such places and was very vocal about wanting to try it so we all bought 10 minutes. I think I can safely say even on day 3 that this will be the most unorthodox experience I will have during my entire time in Greece (though I fully expect this to be topped when I get to Asia). Having little fish nipping at your feet is a tad creepy at first, then it tickles, then, if you let yourself relax, it’s kind of interesting. My mother did not let herself relax. I’m pretty sure she spent the entire 10 minutes shrieking and squealing about how much it tickled, how strange it was, and how she’d be pretty happy to be done now.

As the sun started dipping beneath the clouds, we attempted to follow it westward searching for a good place to watch it as it set. We failed to find such a place amidst the densely clustered buildings, but we did pass by an interesting set of ruins (the origins of which I have no clue) and through a sort of town square where one vendor was selling, of all things, bottle openers attached to giant wooden… dildos? Strange things are sold in strange places. I have no more words for this.

As we continued walking, many of the shops began closing as if after sundown they would all turn back into pumpkins. Or, rather, after sundown they all turned back into sketchy graffiti-riddled alleyways and cramped corridors. I’ve so far been surprised by the amount of graffiti I’ve encountered in Greece, but I was even more surprised by how quickly a quaint, almost picturesque, street market turned itself into a setting from a murder mystery once the vendors retreated, lowering graffiti shields over their shops.

But Greece is the kind of place where something somewhere is always open, so we quickly found ourselves back in a nice part of town. We stopped for dinner at a restaurant in Athens called Kotili and I had the best meal I’ve had in Greece so far. The ambience was nice, there was live Greek music, and the food was marvelous. I was going to try my hand at souvlaki again when the server pointed me towards a different lamb dish on the menu. I have no idea what it was called, but it seemed to be some sort of braised lamb with a Greek cheese on top (the same cheese they use for saganaki?). The meat was super tender and almost melted off the bones and I felt bad for eating gelato before dinner because as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t finish the lamb if I had tried.

After dinner, we wandered around a little bit trying to find a good view of the Acropolis since we knew it would be lit up at night. Once we found one, we journeyed home early since we’ll have to be awake early tomorrow to catch a long train ride to Meteora.

Today started bright and early at 9am with healthy servings of jet lag and groans. A shot of espresso as we walked through the streets of early morning Athens helped take the edge off.

First order of business for our first full day in Greece was visiting a travel agency to finish booking a few things that we couldn’t do online like getting tickets for the ferry to San Torini. This unfortunately meant a few hours in a travel agent’s office, but Kristen and I got to wander around and walk while our parents took care of business.

The first thing that struck me about daytime Greece was the prevalence of motorcycles! Everywhere we walked the sidewalk would be lined with parked motorcycles. On the roads, we mostly saw buses, taxis, and motorcycles with the occasional ordinary car.

This entire complex had maybe one shop still in business!

This entire complex had maybe one shop still in business!

The next thing that struck me about walking around in Greece was how many shops were closed. I hadn’t heard much about the financial crisis in Greece before coming to the country, but apparently Greece needs to negotiate terms with the EU by Monday or declare bankruptcy (or something like that, I haven’t been paying full attention). As if to emphasize the economic hardship Greece is feeling, we would walk entire city blocks that had nothing but closed down stores.

Another thing I found interesting was that Athens is fairly clean and litter free despite not having very many public trashcans for people to throw things away in. Maybe cleanliness and order is somehow ingrained in the culture?

Anyway, as we walked along just trying to get lost and explore I learned that people in Greece have no fear. Navigating the city streets can thus be a bit terrifying as cars whiz by and pedestrians waltz through the streets as if the timing were choreographed to fit between traffic. At one point, Kristen and I needed to cross the street and there was an old Greek man getting ready to cross at the same point. We figured we’d be able to follow the old Greek man and just cross when he crossed. Nope. Old Greek man strolls out into the street perfectly in time to walk behind a taxi that had just passed and skip in front of an oncoming bus before reaching the other side. We didn’t have the guts to follow where he led and instead just looked on in surprise as we tried to locate the nearest cross walk.

We turned a corner and found this rather interesting building with traditional Greek architecture calling to us from the end.

We turned a corner and found this rather interesting building with traditional Greek architecture calling to us from the end.

Roaming around Athens was amazing! I think one of my favorite things about Europe is being able to walk through a seemingly normal city street then turn a random corner and be wowed by history or culture or architecture. In Greece, walking around randomly had us running into old greek ruins thousands of years old or beautifully architected buildings made in their image.

I think one of my other favorite things about traveling is immersing myself in a culture. For me, this usually means getting lost a little bit to experience things that are off the beaten path. It usually means trying something new at every meal–either something I’ve never seen before, something I can only get in this country, or something uniquely done very well in this country. (I am honestly terrified that I will gain a ridiculous amount of weight while abroad because I absolutely love trying new foods.) It also means learning a new language. (I love learning languages! I’m still disappointed I haven’t mastered a second language to fluency, but that’s probably because I keep getting distracted by new ones to learn!)

Usually before every trip I spend some time teaching myself the language of the country I am about to visit. Most of the time I’m starting from scratch, so I don’t even come close to being conversational in the language let alone fluent. But usually I’m able to learn just enough to start picking up little tidbits of people’s conversations and understanding street signs. The real fun comes when I’ve learned enough to start passively learning more as I wander the streets of a new city :).

Unfortunately, since I’m also visiting Taiwan and Japan very soon and I have studied Chinese and Japanese before, I spent most of my time before this Greece trip learning Asian languages. I figured learning 3 languages at the same time might be a bit too much. Since Greek uses a fairly different alphabet, I realized today just how much I take for granted being able to read and pronounce the words I’m seeing even if I don’t know what they mean. In fact, for learning new languages I think the ability to even just pronounce a language is more empowering than one would think.

So today I set myself to learning the Greek alphabet so that I could pronounce the words on street signs and restaurant menus. Greek pronunciation is very similar to what you might expect based on the names of the letters in its alphabet. There are, however, a few letters which are pronounced very differently in Greek than we have been taught in math classes in the States. For example, we typically pronounce “H” as “eta” (eight-a) back home, but in Greek this letter is pronounced “ita” (eat-a). My pronunciation still isn’t perfect–there are some vowel combinations I still don’t get and I always forget that “P” is pronounced with an “r” sound (for “rho”)–but now that I can sound out words I’m realizing that Greek isn’t a particularly hard language! There is a large psychological barrier in needing to learn a new alphabet just to pronounce a language, but many Greek words are very, very similar to their English counterparts. For example, tomato is ντοματα (pronounced ntomata) in Greek. In fact, now that I can pronounce it and am developing an ear for it, Greek actually sounds and works like a lot of other romance languages (in particular, I feel like Greek sounds a little bit like Spanish).

Anyway, after a few excursions from the travel agency (we checked back every so often to see if the parents were done), many newly picked up words, and a couple of snacks, we were finally ready to head to lunch as a family. My parents found this vegetarian/vegan place called Avocado about a half mile away from the Acropolis. Much to my chagrin this place featured no traditional Greek foods, and nothing that I couldn’t particularly find in other countries :(. Lunch was therefore not particularly memorable or worth talking about today. I’m realizing now that if my parents have their way, I won’t get to enjoy any of the amazing foods in Greece!

The BEST baklava I have ever had. How do they make each piece look so perfect?!

The BEST baklava I have ever had. How do they make each piece look so perfect?!

After lunch at Avocado, we slowly made our way up to the Acropolis, our main point of interest for the day. Along the way, we stopped at a shop selling baklava and bought a few different pieces. This baklava was literally to die for. I tried making baklava a few months ago and many of friends said they thought it was very good except that the layers needed to stick together better. Today I learned that they have all lied to me. My baklava was nothing, nothing compared to this baklava. I’m not even sure where to start putting my finger on the differences… perfect texture, explosion of sweet honey-filled flavor, and just a hint of… feta? Anyway, this shop also sold chocolate baklava which is also friggin’ amazing.

Greek graffiti! I wonder what it says...

Greek graffiti! I wonder what it says…

There’s a surprising amount of graffiti in Athens and, as we made our way upwards through cute narrow alleyways, we often found ourselves confronted with colorful displays of a more modern kind of art. I wish my ability to read Greek were a bit better so I could actually understand what some of these things say.

When we finally reached the Acropolis, we found that it was quite a hike to reach the top of the hill where the Parthenon, the Propylaia, and the other buildings lie.

View of the Parthenon from the Propylaia.

View of the Parthenon from the Propylaia.

I was disappointed to find that I couldn’t walk through the columns of the Parthenon, but was nevertheless in awe of its great figure.

The view from the top of the Acropolis was breathtaking–a complete panoramic view of Athens. Remembering similar scenes from my time in Paris last winter, I have to say that the city skyline in Paris is made even more beautiful by having a fairly uniform and kind of antiquated architecture about it.

View of Athens from the Acropolis.

View of Athens from the Acropolis.

Modern buildings in Athens by contrast give the viewer very little sense that this is a city that has stood for thousands and thousands of years.

After the Acropolis, we visited the Acropolis museum. Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed and we were all also hitting a low from sleep deprivation. We walked through the museum, but didn’t linger for very long at the exhibits. I’ve never quite enjoyed seeing Greek statues and engravings in a museum setting as much as seeing them in their natural context.

The beach at Voula, just after sunset.

The beach at Voula, just after sunset.

Finally, we returned to Voula, the district on the outskirts of Athens where we are staying. We quickly changed into swimsuits and walked down to the nearest beach, hoping to catch the sunset on the water. Regrettably, the sun was already lost behind the clouds by the time we reached the beach. Kristen and I nevertheless tested the waters. They were warm and the water was shallow quite a ways out. Even without the sun, we could see that the water was a beautiful light turquoise blue!

The menu at SouvlaKing.

The menu at SouvlaKing.

After the beach, we walked to a nearby Greek food stop called SouvlaKing. It wasn’t a particularly grand or memorable place, but we chose it because they had a decent website which featured a menu entirely in Greek with no English translation (I took this as a good sign of authenticity :P). The food was decent–I ordered some kababs stuffed with yogurt–but it was a fairly ordinary food operation which didn’t quite qualify for the label of “sit-down restaurant.” Maybe not the best choice of food.

Dad was still hungry after SouvlaKing, so we headed to a second dinner in a much nicer location.

McFarland red beer!

McFarland red beer!

This restaurant was situated on the side of a beautiful lake right beneath a sheer cliffside which reflected itself very clearly in the still water. It was quite a sight! At this restaurant, I had my first “red beer.” (I’m still not sure what makes it special, but it wasn’t terrible by any means.)

Quite an eventful day! We’re staying in Athens through tomorrow before taking traveling to other places in Greece early Sunday morning. Looking forward to what’s in store!

Today after countless hazily remembered hours on airplanes and in airports, I fulfilled my lifelong desire to visit Greece! I grew up reading books about Greek and Roman mythology and fell so in love with the tales that I decided to study Latin for 4 years in middle school and high school. Having read the Aeneid in Latin and having studied The Odyssey in school, I’ve always wanted to travel to Greece where I imagined that the culture, history, and mythology described in those works would come alive.

My family and I are vacationing in Greece for about two weeks–the first family vacation we have had in a very long time since. I’ve decided to keep a travel journal of my adventures here.

Our first flight leg was to Houston, where our connecting flight was delayed a full hour. Our next leg was to Munich, where we missed our connection due to that delay and had to wait several hours for the next flight to Athens. I had been determined to sleep at the proper time to get a full night’s sleep on Athens time, but failed to grab more than 4 hours worth of edgy winks on the plane. Little naps throughout the day have helped keep me energized, but jet lagged despite my best efforts.

A layover in Munich isn't complete without breakfast and German beer!

A layover in Munich isn’t complete without breakfast and German beer!

In Munich I had my first European meal of the trip! I found a little German place and quickly recognized Leberkäse, a bologna-like meat that I fell in love with during my very brief stay in Berlin two Spring Break’s ago. Pairing that with an interesting-looking dessert and a German beer (which, much to my disappointment, turned out to taste a lot like Bud Light) I headed eagerly to the register to pay for my feast. Unsurprisingly, it put me right to sleep afterwards.

First glimpses of Greece from above!

First glimpses of Greece from above!

Before I knew it, we were boarding our next flight to Athens. Despite several espressos and a few mochas, I succumbed to the urge to take a “20 minute” nap on the plane as we pushed off from the gate. When I awoke, there were only 20 minutes left in the flight… close enough.

Once we landed in Athens, we took a taxi to an apartment about 30 minutes away. Our route was disappointingly dreary, but I was grateful for a hot shower and a nice place to stay once we arrived.

A view of the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion

A view of the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion

Two of my mother’s coworkers in Greece welcomed us by driving us 40 minutes to the ruins of the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion. We drove along the Greek coast the entire way as the sun set behind the hills in the background. We arrived too late to watch the sunset from the temple or to go into the protected area of the temple, but the drive and the view nearby were breathtaking by themselves.

Our bottle of Tsipouro--my first sip of Greek spirits.

Our bottle of Tsipouro–my first sip of Greek spirits.

We stopped for dinner at Ilias Fish Tavern, situated on a cliff just beneath the temple. The sun had already set, but we could imagine the beautiful scene the sun’s rays would have cast on the small bay beneath us. We had all kinds of interesting Greek food: marinated sardines, saganaki (fried cheese, which is sometimes served on fire at flashy Greek restaurants back home), tsipouro (a pomace brandy which tastes a lot like vodka), fava beans, eggplant hummus, Greek greens and salads, and a couple of grilled fish served with a delectable olive oil sauce.

Over dinner, my mother’s coworkers told us some of the mythology behind the Temple of Poseidon in Athens. In mythical times, Athens paid annual tribute to the Minoans by sending young boys and young girls to be eaten by the infamous Minotaur. To put an end to this, Theseus, son of King Aegeus, went along with the tribute with the intention of killing the Minotaur. Upon return, Theseus and his sailors were instructed to hoist a white sail if they had succeeded in slaying the Minotaur or a black sail if they had not. Despite his victory, Theseus forgot to hoist the white sail and sailed home with a black sail raised. Upon seeing the sail, King Aegeus flung himself off a high cliff into the sea out of grief. The sea has since carried his name: the Aegean Sea. The Temple of Poseidon was erected to honor King Aegeus and mark the site of his suicide.

All-in-all, despite jet lag it’s been a pretty awesome start to an exciting adventure in Greece :). Looking forward to more tomorrow!

Efficient productivity is a hard game to master, and I’ve played with almost every to-do list and task management software out there in pursuit of a system that can keep me on task and productive with minimal overhead.

One system that I’ve been playing with for awhile now, and which has received a lot of attention particularly amongst the entrepreneurial crowd in Silicon Valley, is David Allen’s Getting Things Done. David Allen’s promise of “mind like water” is alluring and his system is comprehensive and well thought out.

However, after several months of being on and off of Getting Things Done, I’ve come to the conclusion that one size does not fit all. And it makes sense that one size does not fit all, since it’s very rare in life that anything truly is. A one size fits all mentality fails to recognize the ways in which we are all different and fails to play to our individual strengths while avoiding our weaknesses.

That’s not to say that David Allen’s system isn’t a great place to start. I highly encourage anyone and everyone to read his book if only because it forces one to think about productivity habits and analyze certain behaviors or habits that may get in the way of efficiently getting things done. Simply thinking about how one does work can often lead to great ideas to streamline the process. David Allen also has a number of very nifty tricks and ideas that many people can incorporate directly into a system that feels more familiar or right to them.

Yesterday I was using a piece of software called Nirvana HQ in order to manage my tasks in a method that is as close to Getting Things Done as possible. In search of a Getting Things Done compliant system that I like, I’ve also tried FireTask and ZenDone.

Today I have made the switch to Todoist, a task management tool that has a multitude of integrations and works on nearly every platform. In bouncing around to different platforms, I’ve learned a lot about the things I do and don’t like in each one. For example, I love that Todoist lets me add comment-style notes to my tasks because I like leaving timestamped chunks of information for myself to refer back to as I make progress on things or as statuses change. I also love how clean and simple Todoist’s design is, which makes it a real pleasure to use. In fact, for me the two most important things to evaluate in any new tool are: 1) does it have the features necessary for me to organize my tasks the way I like and 2) does it look and feel good enough that I will get excited to use it. Because after all, it’s very easy and quite common to forget about the tool and to stop using it for periods of time. If it’s not fun to use or it gets in your way somehow, chances are it’s not going to be used for very long.

Todoist is not designed with GTD specifically in mind. However, the system I use is no longer 100% GTD, either! However, here are some of the things that I have learned from GTD that can easily be plugged into any system:

  • Collect every task in an inbox. I find it’s best to get these things out of my head and recorded somewhere so I don’t have to spend anymore energy remembering or stressing out that I might have forgotten something. This means making sure I always have a way of placing something in my inbox, even when I’m on the go. (Todoist’s mobile apps make this easy and kind of fun.)
  • Keep a physical inbox as well as a virtual one. When I don’t have a physical inbox, I end up spending a lot of time looking around for the things I need to take action on. I’d rather spend more of my time doing and less of my time looking.
  • Collect even tasks that I might not do for a very long time! Having a list of things that I’ll do “someday, maybe” helps me to keep track of them so I can decide to take action on them if/when it becomes appropriate.
  • Break tasks down as much as possible. If I present myself with a task that is nebulous and where the next action is unclear, I tend to avoid it. It’s worth taking the time upfront when processing my inbox to decide what the next thing to do is so that when I’m actually in the flow of things I can just do it.