Europe, it's good to see you again


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September 23rd 2009
Published: September 23rd 2009
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Jet lag does funny things to you. Wait, scratch that. Sleep deprivation does funny things to you. After a week where I only got one night of decent sleep, it was time to battle the dreaded jet lag. Actually, I shouldn't say dreaded. As long as I have the luxury of an extra day to sleep, I don't mind jet lag. It resets my sleep cycles, helps me to return to a normal sleeping schedule when I return home, and jerks me away from my night-owl habits because I'm too tired to keep awake. But it does funny things too. You'll think that you're quite lucid and awake, and then after a decent afternoon's sleep, you look back and feel that you were really in a fog after all. You'll get a phone call while half asleep, and later realize that you probably didn't make much sense. Jet lag shows up unexpectedly, as you're standing in a hotel lobby, waiting to check in, and suddenly feel it pressing on the top of your head. It wants you to sleep, so it will press on top of you until you lie down in a comfortable bed and do so - and by comfortable bed, I mean anything that you can stretch out on that comes with a pillow. Hours later, you may awaken and realize that the bed you thought was the "most comfortable bed I've ever slept in" is really quite firm, with scratchy shifting sheets. But jet lag made you love it.

At any rate, jet lag is a small price to pay for a return to Europe. I haven't been to Europe in a year and though I went many years of my life not visiting here at all, I've found that after a couple of trips a year for the last five years has created in me a call to return in recent months. Maybe more of an itchiness. A fond remembering of cold mornings spent walking around Wiesbaden and Wiesbaden-Biebrich while my cousin was at work, of cappuccinos on the tiny terrace of my Roman hotel, of the comfort of hearing a cacophony of languages spoken around me, of the familiar European police sirens speeding by at night. Fall is a beautiful time of year to visit Europe, so I think when the weather starts to change at home, Europe sings its siren song to me. This fall, our European Meeting brings me to the ancient city of Athens. I must admit that Athens was never on my travel list, though after seeing the Greek islands in movies, I have pictured myself floating away on a sailboat in the sapphire blue water set against the backdrop of sun-bleached buildings. But after falling in love with Rome last year, I would have loved to return there instead and certainly plan to in the future, though we don't repeat a city for our conferences in such a short period of time. So poor Athens was not a recipient of my excitement simply because it was not Rome. It also didn't help that I pictured it to be hot and humid - not the cool, crisp Europe that had been calling me back. Oh Athens, I am sorry to have doubted that I could enjoy a visit here.

Our journey started from JFK (blech), on Olympic Airlines. As we boarded the plane, it seemed to be less than full. My dad commented on this, and I wanted to shush him, as I'm very superstitious about saying out loud that a flight will not be full until the cabin doors have closed. Many times, I've sat in my seat and buckled my seatbelt, thinking this would ward off seatmates, only to have to unbuckle it and get up a few minutes later to let someone in. So now, when I get on a plane, I don't dare think that I might have more than one seat to myself and buckle up before the cabin doors are closing. But despite my superstition, the flight wasn't full, and I had an entire middle row to myself. It was great to have the extra room, but I still felt as if I had aged ten years by the time we got off the plane. It makes me wonder how there was ever a time that I got so excited about airline travel.

The flight was 9 hours 15 minutes, which actually went quickly thanks to napping, a good movie, and a couple of good books. It seemed that the flight attendants were not too happy to be there, as they crabbily handed out dinner and headsets and barely served drinks (always helpful when you're getting more and more dehydrated as you fly). We learned as the flight landed that it was one of Olympic's last flights between New York and Athens, so that explained their grouchiness a little. As the plane began to touch down, I glimpsed a big blue Ikea right out the window, and wondered if we'd accidentally landed at Newark instead.

A word on plane food - no matter what they do, I never seem to be able to stomach plane food. It's not that I get airsick, but my stomach is always a little nervous, let's say, about eating what they offer. As they came around to ask us whether we wanted turkey or tortellini, I thought, that's not even a question. Never choose sketchy meat if you can avoid it on a plane, and if you do, choose the beef and maybe leave it wrapped in lieu of the salad and roll. I had high hopes for the tortellini, but it was clear my stomach had other ideas. Unwrapping the hot meal always involves a little trepidation - will the smell nauseate me so much that I'll quickly have to cover it up and think only about plain food (instead of plane food - I couldn't resist)? Or can I manage a few bites? The tortellini looked promising, so I took one on my fork and chewed it. Okay, not bad. My second bite, I could tell there might be some garlic in there somewhere - not good. My stomach quivered nervously, so I opened a plain roll and the butter and ate that. I tried the tortellini again and after a couple more bites, realized I couldn't predict which ones had the briefest taste of garlic, which didn't mix well with the creamy sauce. So I decided to be done with that. I had a little more of a second roll and called it quits, as the salad had a big hunk of tuna salad on top of it - not for me. My stomach was much happier with the warm Pepsi they were handing out and my trusty candies. Breakfast was even worse, with a still-frozen croissant and cold meats. I was glad to finally be off the plane when we landed and disembarked!

After a lengthy line at passport control, I finally got my Greece stamp. No matter how silly it may seem, I still love getting stamps in my passport - it makes me feel very cosmopolitan. 18 countries in the last five years, and I still don't feel all that sophisticated of a traveler and think I may always feel this way. Despite it being annoying to have to wait for so long to get your passport stamped, at least it was enough time for the bags to come out (I always let out the breath I'm holding as they all arrive), which made the pickup and departure process a breeze. We found the contact that our events planner had arranged for us and as we stepped outside the terminal, I waited for the wall of humidity to envelop me. And waited. But nothing - it was delightfully cool and breezy - a beautiful day. If it can only stay like this throughout our visit, I will be happy - I never expected the weather in Greece to be anything but stifling! That's a good reminder to me to never have expectations when I'm traveling - they can stop me from really enjoying a trip.

As the driver sped expertly along the highways to the city, I was struck at how they looked much like American highways, only with Greek, as well as English, on the sign. I expected that a city as old as Athens would also be very modern, but it still surprised me to see how smoothly paved the roads were. I don't think the drive from south to north Jersey was as smooth. If there wasn't such a mountainous background and, of course, all the Greek signs, I might have thought we were still in America. I watched the scenery flash by, and hoped for a glimpse of the Acropolis, but we didn't see it, and shortly arrived at the Hotel Grande Bretagne.

I learned this morning from our events planners that the hotel is one of the oldest in Athens, about 135 years old. It was originally a private home, that was then home to the king before they built the palace that later became Parliament across the street. Just before the recent Olympics, they closed the hotel for two years to fully renovate it (shockingly, it didn't start out with a roof pool) and now it's one of the best properties in the city. It certainly is lovely, with high vaulted ceilings everywhere, giving the feeling of airy-ness, despite the small rooms. The decor is all very classical, which isn't my style, but suits both the hotel and the city, and you can feel the pride of the hotel in its home, as you see photos, maps and paintings of Athens throughout the lobby, hallways, and guest rooms.

Fortunately, they had one of those guest rooms ready for me right away, though my dad had to wait for a bit. I was feeling especially jet lagged this trip, and headed right to bed in, as I mentioned before, what felt like the most comfortable bed ever at the time. Usually, when I fly and am not in a row to myself, I picture how wonderful it will feel to stretch out in a bed on lovely cool sheets, to close my heavy lids and sink into sleep. My wants get very very basic when I'm stuck on a plane - good food and a comfortable bed (and time to sleep, of course). I slept on and off between phone calls and text messages for a delicious seven hours and then forced myself to get up for a little while and catch up on work, food, and preparation for today's meetings.

Shortly after I had ordered dinner and requested an ironing board, there was a soft ding of the doorbell. I navigated around the bed in the small room and rushed to the door just as housekeeping opened it. The older woman asked me if I wanted turn down service, which I said wasn't necessary, and whether I needed fresh towels, to which I answered that I hadn't used any. Introducing herself as the housekeeper for the fourth floor, she gripped my right wrist suddenly and turned my hand over. She pressed her closed fist over my hand and deposited three square chocolates into it, folding my fingers over to hold them before she departed for the night. She reminded me of a little Greek grandmother (which she likely is!), and for some reason, I didn't find the gesture strange at all.

As I waited for dinner, I checked out the view from my room. Just outside my window is a nasty-looking spike strip, designed to keep pigeons (and maybe would-be building-scaling prowlers) away. Although I appreciate the sentiment, it's fairly off-putting when you go to lean out the window to take in the view (or lack thereof in this case). Some hotels around the world boast a lovely view. For example, when we were in Istanbul two years ago, my room overlooked the Bosphorus and I could sit out there as the warm breeze wafted over me and listen to the call to prayer. It gave me the feeling that anything was possible. But other hotels just overlook other buildings. That's the case for my view here at the Grande Bretagne. It's not their fault of course, it's just that in a city, there isn't always room for a view. However, it makes me wonder, and this could be the jet lag talking - when you're so close to another building, it's easy to think about what goes on across the street (a la Rear Window). Is it another section of hotel, where you can see amorphous shapes moving behind the drapes? Is it an office-building, where you can tell by the office lights who's burning the midnight oil? I remember overlooking the Louvre in Paris and wondering what kinds of lovely work they were doing in those offices - discussing collections, restorations, seemingly all very romantic to me. I think I was the only person that actually liked our hotel in Paris, simply because it overlooked the Louvre and I was desperate to experience it. There were many free moments that I stood looking from my open window to the Louvre. Here, my view seems to be of an office-type building over a restaurant. The rooms all have window coverings that hide large, oddly shaped shadows which are entirely uninteresting. But perhaps that will change as the week unfolds.

I got back into bed for what I hoped was the night around 12:30 and quickly drifted into dreamland again. Unfortunately, I was awoken at 2:30 feeling very overheated and could not get back to sleep. I tossed and turned miserably, read a little of my book, ate some crackers, played a card game on my phone, and tossed and turned some more. Finally, I managed to fall asleep around 7 for about an hour before I had to get up for breakfast and meetings. Despite two cappuccinos, I could still lie down right now and sleep for hours. Jet lag is certainly dogging me this trip!

Even so, it was worth it to have breakfast at the hotel's restaurant this morning. It is on the top floor, open to the air and overlooking the city and the sea. I got to see the Acropolis for the first time, the Olympic stadium and wide expanse of buildings that is Athens. With a soft breeze wafting over our table, it was the perfect way to start the morning. The hotel has managed to arrange for our entire group to breakfast there every day, which, now that I think about it, will make it awfully difficult to get them to come to the meeting on time!

The two meetings I had this morning went very well, and I think the group is in for a lovely conference. I have one more meeting with our host firm in a little while, and then tonight, a dinner with the Board members who have arrived early. In between, I plan to rest my weary head for a bit and force myself to the gym for a run. Then tomorrow, the games officially begin with our Board Meeting at 2!

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23rd September 2009

Wonderful!
Lindsay, I truly enjoyed reading this, and wish I was right there with you! I wish you and your Dad an outstanding conference, and hope you have a little time to enjoy your surroundings. Thanks for being so descriptive as I could picture everything! Good luck this week! Nancy

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