Saturday, September 29, 2007


If you're headed to Greece, I would recommend a couple of nights in Athens to experience the choatic city atmosphere, but not much longer than that.

We stayed at the sleek, trendy Fresh Hotel, and loved it. The taxi drivers had a hard time finding it, despite it's central location, and if you read the cyberspace reviews you'll gather that it isn't in the best part of town. But you'll feel cool every moment you're inside.

The hotel has won various design awards, provides the all-important free business center with internet access and has a fantastic roof terrace bar/restaurant next to the small pool called the Air Lounge. It turned out to be quite a happening night spot for the wealthy locals, and you can even see the Acropolis all lit up -- beautiful. We enjoyed both lunch and dinner up there, plus several rounds of cocktails at all hours on the big comfy couches.

General observations/tips
The Acropolis -- take your own guide book, one that includes the Greek gods, or buy one before you climb up the steps. You won't get any information about what you're looking at once you're up there. In general, there is a decided lack of signage in Greece, even in the tourist destinations.

Maps -- If you have a map of the city, don't give it to my dad to read. He might walk you in the complete opposite direction you want to go, through the seediest streets, insisting all the while that the Acropolis is just in front of you.

Car rental -- Don't worry, no problem-lah! We bought a cheap single-sheet fold out map from the airport and zipped all over the south coast. Most road signs are in the Greek and Roman alphabets. We didn't drive in Athens because everything there was to see was in walking distance.

Always wear your sunscreen --

Elections -- If you happen to be in Greece on election day be prepared to get stuck in crazy traffic and cut off by random, unannounced road barriers. The city streets were one big huge party with people waving flags, blaring horns and mass-celebrating, despite only re-electing the same leader.

Restaurants -- Two recommendations for you:
As I mentioned, we had a lovely dinner in the Fresh Hotel, so that's at the top of my recommended restaurants. The food was delicious, the waiter was lovely and they gave us free booze!

My second recommendation is really not to be missed. The food is very slow, but the atmosphere is awesome. The manager of the restaurant (perhaps the owner?) is chatty and charming, but the real reason to visit this restaurant is the live music. There's a small stage which was filled by the most passionate, engaging and adorable Greek singer. He is a one man band with several harmonicas attached to his acoustic guitar and a tambourine strapped to his foot. He is awesome. He gave 100% of his energy for two hours straight, took a short break and then went back on for another set. He played tons of Greek songs as well as several Spanish ones. Yes, there was a rendition of La Bamba! I'm afraid I don't know the name of the restaurant in English, but it's located on a small Sari Street, just off the trendy "Ag. Anargyron" in the center of town. Here's a pic of the sign, and the singer. It's worth tracking down if you can...

Next blog: Santorini!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A three hour tour

Yes, the boat was gone, and the only person on board was about as far from a sailor as you could get. She was a Turkish sunbather, waiting for her friend to finish diving. All I could think of was how much I would be freaking out if I was in her situation.

There was much cursing and worrying, and we all began swimming to shore against the choppy waves. The boat driver had also been diving, but he had realized the problem much sooner than we had, hurried to shore and banged on house doors until someone leant him a phone. Now on the beach, the driver and the Good Samaritan watched through binoculars as two people: a diver and the Turkish girl's friend tried to swim out after the boat. It was probably half a mile from the shore, drifting farther and farther out of the bay.

After much insistent Greek over the phone, the boat driver finally got through to our instructor's partner who was back at the dive shop with another boat. Moments later, the other dive boat came racing across the water to the stranded boat, James Bond-style. The local watched through his binoculars and reported that the swimming divers had made it, and that the sunbather was being put into the rescue boat.

I didn't get to hear the sunbather's side of the story because she had to hurry off to dinner with her boss, but everything ended well. It turned out that though the anchor had been secured, the line to the boat had not been. The boat had meters and meters of line to let out and as we dived, it merrily did. It was a windy day and the boat picked up more and more speed as it floated, still anchored to the same rock. At some point, the boat pulled the anchor away from under the rock where it was wedged and then a bit later on, the anchor caught on something that it couldn't get loose from. The strength of the boat now moving at speed pulled the entire mooring mechanism out from the boat. Needless to say, the boat driver was a little upset. He said various words that I won't describe here.

In the end, the dive instructor took Neil and me out for dinner in an obscure Greek taverna, I think to apologize for us having to swim for shore.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Swimming with the fishes

Hi all! I'm writing this from our hotel near Anavyssos. I'm a bit sad that tomorrow is the last day of our vacation, but it's been wonderful. I've been compiling my diving blog, but figured that I'd post this first half of it now, to whet your appetites. I'm skipping over the first week in Athens and Santorini (some great stuff to tell you about those days) for now, but will write it up with pictures when I get home. Meanwhile, here's our first day and a half of diving...

Husband and I are qualifying for our PADI Advanced Open Water certification, one step up from our first level diving qualification. We had to do five dives to improve our diving skills, each with a different focus.

Day One (Saturday), Two Dives. Verdict afterwards: Knackered.

The winds off the coast of Anavyssos were unusually strong this morning so we couldn't do the first dive off the boat as planned. Instead we went to a nearby beach dubbed "lawyer beach" for the wealthy lawyers that live on it. It was an 8km drive away from the dive shop. We did a shore dive in order to complete our Fish Identification specialty course. We saw lots of different kinds of fish: wrasse, damsels, parrotfish -- we even saw a moray eel, and Neil spotted a Little Cuttlefish. A great refresher dive.

At about 4pm we went back out, this time on the boat. We were tempted by an exciting looking canyon that we were promised we would get to see on another day, but this dive was the Underwater Navigation skills course. Compasses, lubber lines, bezels, and all sorts of other things I don't properly understand. The location was a bit improvised because of strong currents, and we had to abandon our navigation exercise of swimming in a perfect square, using the compass. We ended up doing the rest of the dive as a fun dive, and intended to carry on with the navigation the next day.

I had forgotten how much effort diving is: hauling the tanks around, the actual swimming, the excitement and the stress. We were too tired to do anything at all in the evening. ZZZzzz.

Day Two (Sunday), Two Dives. Verdict afterwards: Amused.

Our first dive today was breath-taking. We did our course in "deep diving" which means anywhere below 40 feet (18 meters). We went to 55 feet (26 meters), descending down a wall. Looking up at about 20 meters was really awe-inspiring. It was sheer rock with beautiful coral dotted all down it. If you know SCUBA, you know that you can't spend long down at those kind of depths, so we came back up to about 30 feet and then went into a spectacular "canyon". Inside, the ceiling was covered in coral and it was thrilling to be surrounded by rock. But the best bit was turning around to come out of the canyon to see the clear blue nothing expanding out in front of you, framed by the coral-covered rock. Awesome.

The second dive was a bit more... interesting. This was the second try at our underwater navigation course as well as the first half of our peak performance buoyancy course.

The buoyancy part of the course is to help you control your body in the water. If you know SCUBA, you know that beginners (like me) sometimes have a hard time floating along smoothly, staying in one spot without furious arm paddling, and controlling their depth. This is all to do with neutral buoyancy. The idea is that you don't move unless you intend to -- often the weight (or lack thereof) of your equipment causes you to rise or fall uncontrollably. You are supposed to make gentle movements with you breath -- if you are truly neutrally buoyant, when you breathe in you will rise slightly in the water, and when you breathe out, you will sink slightly. We had to do an exercise where we lie flat on the sand, breathe in to rise and breathe out to sink, bobbing up and down at an angle to the sand. Neil got it quickly, but I needed a bit of help from the instructor who showed me that I shouldn't be shy about inflating my underwater life jacket to reach neutral buoyancy.

The navigation part of the dive went rather well, if I may say so. My square was spot on and I even managed the more difficult triangle. It seems lubber lines aren't so unfathomable to me. Then, the instructor sprang the ultimate challenge: he told Neil to lead us back to the boat. We'd come down from the boat almost 40 minutes ago and neither of us really knew where it was. But after a bit of consultation with each other, Neil set off in the general direction. It turned out that he was right but he was wrong as well.

As we swam, another Dive Master came down to our instructor and we began a rapid ascent (from a safe depth). There was something wrong. She pointed down at a strange line in the sand below us, and as we surfaced, it became clear... the boat was gone.


How's that for a cliff hanger? I'll be back with the rest of the story once we're back from Greece.

Love you all!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Happy Birthday Grandpa and Yassas (goodbye) in Greek

Yassas, all you sMOOchalicious readers. Husband and I are heading to Greece for twelve days with my parents.

The flight is at 6am tomorrow (ugh) and I'm feeling a bit under the weather. (Sneeze!) But I can't wait to get to the sunshine.

We're spending a few days in Athens, then going to Santorini, and then my parents fly back home. Husband and I stay on to do an advanced open water SCUBA diving course, just east of Athens.

So no blogs for a while, but I promise many pics and hilarious stories about us trying to navigate our tiny rental car around Greece on my return.

As for today's cultural activities: it was my mom's dad's 90th birthday today and we had a sixty-person strong family reunion.


I heard the Welsh national anthem sung for the first time in both English and Welsh. My grandpa was born in Wales to British parents, and came back to London when he was sixteen. There was even a rendition of Happy Birthday in Welsh. It was a wonderful, joyful and touching event. (Way to go Mom and Dad for organizing it!)

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Chainsaw Carving

For the last day of our bank holiday trip up to the Midlands (Sunday, August 26th) we went to the Tatton Park Country Show, specifically to see the chainsaw carving. We were definitely the odd couple out in not having a dog with us. I hope next time we will.

The chainsaw carving section was big, with each of the 25 carvers having their own fenced-off section to do their long-term pieces. The long-term competitions were: the "Combo Competition" which uses log diameters up to 2ft in two categories, chainsaw-only eight-hour carve or full-power thirteen-hour carve. I wish I knew more to explain exactly what that means. The other long-term competition is the "Classic Competition" which uses log diameteres up to 4ft and takes 21 hours (presumably these pieces are worked on for all three days of the country show). Here is a wide shot and a close up of one of the fenced-off areas and the detailed, beautiful sculptures they were making:

And here are two little clips of carvers at work in thier fenced-off areas. Some day, I'll have a time-lapse camera to show the whole transformation, because just one cut doesn't really do it justice. I can't remember who the first carver is, but the second is the Japanese competitor, Toshiyuki Nagai.

The carvers also had finished pieces on display that were to be auctioned later on in the day. I would have wanted to buy either of these (or the owl above), depending on how expensive they were, but don't have the space to display them in. Boo. Unfortunately, they didn't label who produced which of these pieces, so I can't link or give credit where credit is clearly due...

The event we came to see was the "Speed Carving" which is perfect for spectators. It's one big fenced-off area for all the participants. The carvers have 30 minutes to carve whatever they want, and then it gets auctioned at the end to those who watched it being created.

I have video of the beginning of the speed carving and it's such a shame that my camera doesn't do audio. The noise of them "starting their engines" was glorious. We saw two old ladies on the other side of the fence watching with their fingers plugged into thier ears. We all got covered in sawdust.

There was one American carver who carved his bear in fifteen minutes flat and had time left to go over to help another American who was carving an owl. But all the bear-carver was doing was carving a slot into the bottom end of the owl-carver's sturdy tree trunk. At first I thought he was turning it into a post box, but then we saw him slicing off two long, rectangular sheets of wood from one of the gigantic tree trunks that were laying about. When he started sizing up the rectangles against the slot he was carving out, we realized that the two carvers were working together to create a bench. One pole was a bear, one pole was an owl, and the rectangles were the bottom and back to the bench. In typical American fashion, they carved and burned "Have a nice day" into the back of the chair. Brilliant. Here's a clip of the two of them just as they are starting out...

And here's a pic of the finished product. Just enough room for two!

The speed carving yeilded at least three owls (one carved by the only female carver), three bears, and three horses (one of them like a knight chess piece three foot tall). The carver were picking the collectable themes. There were also more unique pieces like a guitar (done by an American) and a skull (smooth and accurate, almost like it was made of plastecine).

I loved the chainsaw carving demonstration, and though the announcer was quick to say "don't try this at home" I don't think I can resist. For those of you who know how klutzy I am, my husband has promised to supervise. Woohoo! This will depend on us having an actual backyard and, of course, owning a chainsaw...

Friday, September 07, 2007

Walking in the Peaks

We had 50% success with our walks in the Peak District.

The first walk was a twenty minute drive from Bakewell through beautiful and isolated countryside. Both of us would sorely like to move to the middle of nowhere and be surrounded by lots of green and very few people, but the trouble is that niggly thing of employment.

Ahem. Back to the walk.

Walk number one was to Thor's Cave.

"Thor's Cave is the most spectacular sight of the Manifold valley, dominating the central section of the valley. The rock in which it is set rears up out of the hillside like a giant fang with the cave entrance forming a hole in it ten metres in diameter, a sight which is clearly visible for several miles.

Excavations have shown that the cave was occupied as long as 10,000 years ago and this occupation probably continued until Roman or Saxon times, making it one of the oldest sites of human activity in the Peak. Stone tools and the remains of a range now extinct animals were found within the cave."

(above info from here.)

Thor's Cave is definitely a destination worth striving for, and strive we did. It took us an hour longer than the three hour estimate because we tried to improvise a shorter route the cave and failed. But we met a new friend along the way.

The second walk was the unsuccessful 50%. We didn't want to do a whole second walk as the first one tuckered us out, but we thought that we could begin the second one Neil had planned, find a nice spot to sit and read, and laze away the last few hours before we left the Peak District. However…

The path was often indiscernible, overgrown with weeds up to my elbows at some points. And the first half mile of it was by a quarry, lined with the above signs.

If you are American, you may not have heard of stinging nettle. Stinging nettle is the British version of poison ivy, and I was wearing Capri pants. Not only did I have to fight back the thorns, I also had to avoid this innocent-looking, heart-shaped, and unfortunately ankle-height plant.

We kept waiting for the fabulous vista or the bubbling stream to sit by. But by the time we realized that such a place was not on this map, we were too far in to turn back. And neither of us wanted to wade through the nettles again. So, there was no option but to finish the whole three hour walk.

The very last stretch was the worst with a narrow, muddy path through a nettle field. About twenty steps away from the clear break in the trees, I slipped and fell onto my backside right into a patch of nettles, which stung me even though my shirt. A true taste of the British countryside.

Then, to finish off the trek, as we left the forest of nettles, we passed a sign that read something like: this is a difficult path that we don't recommend you use.

And I wouldn't recommend it either.

The next post will be the chainsaw carving – with video!

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Glorious Sunshine

We drove 469 miles this past Bank Holiday three-day weekend from London to Bakewell (200 miles) to Knutsford (35.5 miles) to Leicester (92.5 miles) and then back to London (141.1 miles) – with a few little trips in between. We were up in the Peak District, in the Midlands of England and it just happened to be the only three days of summer we've had in England this year.

The village of Bakewell was beautiful.

We bought a traditional Bakewell Tart from one of the local shops to give to some friends we visited on our way home. A Bakewell Tart is basically a marzipan themed pie with a candied cherry in the middle of a layer of icing – definitely an acquired taste that I have not yet mastered. Husband loves it, though. But then he likes Battenburg (the most horrid British thing I have ever encountered).

Bakewell is very near to Chatsworth House, used in the recent Keira Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice. It was Mr. Darcy's home, and ever since I watched that movie I have wanted to see the sculpture room that they featured briefly – in particular, this sculpture, which fascinates and amazes me:

The cloth looks like transparent fabric, but of course it's marble. Astonishing.

We also were very impressed with the gardens. (Even more so than the gardens at Hampton Court!) There were so many different sections to explore, including a huge water feature full of naked, muddy children splashing around, a pinetum and a kitchen garden. There was also a little surprise sculpted garden… it was just like the inside of a house: tables, chairs, etc. Here's the couch bush.

Art was scattered around the gardens, and Sotheby's had just set up various pieces on display, including an out-of-place, massive sculpture of Kate Moss in a compromising position.

There were two pieces I was really keen on. The first you might have expected me to like…

And the second I caught sight of from inside the house and was captivated.

Chatsworth House was a wonderful day out, and I'm grateful to my hubby for whisking me up to the Peak District at the last minute.

I shall save our the second day – the Peak District walks – for a separate post. You'll just have to hang out a little longer for the chainsaw carving.

I'm Back!

I know, I've been slack at updating my blog (and calling all of you that I normally call). But I've got a good excuse. A few, in fact.

Firstly, just before the August bank holiday was my two year wedding anniversary, and I was away for the weekend. (More to come in future posts on that.)

Then, this past weekend we were down in Poole visiting family and friends as well as hosting our first-ever "party" in the form of a BBQ for my work friends.

In between it all, I've been responsible for co-editing (read: sorting papers for) a children's fiction writing contest. We've had 250 submissions, and it has been an epic task organizing them for the official judges. We had to send off the judging packets on Tuesday, and of course the photocopier broke when we were just about finished. Oh yes. It did.

I have absolutely loved working on this project, despite the mountains of adminstration. In my current job, I don't get to read anyone else's creativity -- everything I'm reading is based on a storyline we produce. So for this contest, each submission was a surprise. Some were delightful, others were not so. But I'm excited to be back involved with the evaluation of others' work and the search for fabulous stories and storytellers. It's something I got to do plenty of in my first publishing job, but not so much now.

Anyway, I hope you'll accept my apologies for neglecting my blog, and I'll busy myself putting together some pics of my exciting bank holiday trip. I'll leave you hanging with two words: chainsaw carving.