Saturday, August 22, 2009

International Day

We began the day with lunch at T.G.I. Friday's in northern Athens. There's something a bit jarring about eating a burger and fries in a restaurant filled with Americana but not hearing a word of English spoken among other patrons.

We then went to the mall to watch Inglourious Basterds, of which almost half is unfortunately in French or German. Although I could understand most of the German (Hitler screaming at Nazi officers usually doesn't require translation anyway), but the French (with Greek subtitles) was entirely incomprehensible for me. The English and German portions were interesting enough, in my opinion (despite Brad Pitt's bizarre and rather distracting attempt at a Southern accent), to warrant a second viewing in the U.S. with English subtitles. 

After the movie, we took a cab to Lycabettus, the highest hill in Athens, for dinner with Manolis' family. We rode a funicular to the top, where we had an outdoor table with a stunning view at the restaurant Orizontes. The grilled fish, prepared simply in the traditional Greek style with lemon juice and olive oil, was particularly superb. Three hours, several courses, and many pounds later, we returned home for an epic game of Spades (Themistocles is an excellent partner).

The next morning, after a final frappé at the airport, I boarded my plane to return to the States, wrapping up an amazing four days in Athens.

Friday, August 21, 2009


metro sign

We spent Thursday morning hiking up and exploring the Acropolis, a large, flat-topped rock in central Athens and the site of monuments such as the Parthenon, Propylaea, Temple of Athena Nike, Erechtheum, and Theater of Dionysus. 

Afterwards, we walked to the new Acropolis Museum (opened June of this year). 

The building, located at the base of the Acropolis hill, is a fascinating meeting point of old and new: the entrance, for example, mirrors the pillars of the Propylaea on the Acropolis, and the top floor of the museum, despite its modern lines and crisp glass fixtures, is rotated to be parallel to the Parthenon. Another nod to the past is the scattered, non-linear layout of the exhibits, intended to reflect the structure of the traditional agora.

Also interesting is the none too subtle message to the British Museum, which currently the Elgin Marbles (originally decorations on the Parthenon temple): the Acropolis museum juxtaposes the weathered originals it owns with bright, white plaster copies of the Elgin Marbles. 

In the evening, we had ouzo platters in Thissio for dinner and then headed to Glyfada for the night. My favorite stop was probably the Balux House Project, a seaside lounge/bar designed to resemble a beach house. Each room (porch, kitchen, library, etc.) is quite comfortable has its own unique atmosphere. We also stopped by a few other nice spots along the beach before heading back to Kifissia. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Panathinaikos FC vs. Madrid

An important UEFA Champions League soccer match between Panathinaikos FC and Madrid took place Tuesday night at the Olympic Stadium in Athens. Although we were unable to score tickets, we took the metro to the stadium about an hour before the game started to witness the electric atmosphere. 

The most unexpected spectacle for me occurred even before we arrived there, when the entire subway car, almost all wearing green to show support for the local team, spontaneously began singing a rousing anthem (which I later found out is extremely vulgar—probably enough to guarantee prompt arrest in the U.S.). We then rushed back to Manolis’s house to cheer for Panathinaikos and scarf down some (The Tipara = awesomeness.)

the boys eat pizza...

...the kitties get caviar

Astir Beach

After driving Carina to the airport Wednesday morning, Manolis, Alex and I headed to the Astir Hotel beach. Although my Greek companions insisted that Astir could not compare to the beaches of Aegean islands, the crystal-clear water and refreshing summer breeze made for a half day of seaside bliss. (It certainly helped that there was a beachfront Starbucks serving fresh-squeezed OJ and that I had brought along a copy of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (nothing like reading about the American Deep South on a Greek beach).

On the way home, we stopped at a traditional restaurant where I was subjected to kokoretsi (lamb intestines stuffed with liver—actually, much tastier than expected), accompanied by fried zucchini, lamp chops, and honey yogurt.

too hungry to take a picture before starting—
here's the aftermath

Downtown Athens

Constitution Square
After lunch on Tuesday, we took the metro to Constitution Square, the site of the Greek Parliament building (formerly the royal residence).

the boys

On the other side of the square, I made a life-changing discovery: the frappé. Although I was a bit skeptical when I heard that it is made using instant coffee, this Greek specialty is unlike any coffee drink I had tried before (in a delicious way). A handheld blending stick* is used to create a rich, dense coffee foam, over which is poured cold water, ice, and milk.

liquid happiness

*Manolis’s mother very kindly located two new blending sticks for me to take back to America, so if you live in either Houston or New Haven, feel free to ask me anytime to make you a Greek-style frappé.

University of Athens
We then walked through the nearby campus of the University of Athens (where Manolis attended medical school for a year before deciding to transfer to Yale).

the main campus

the flag of Athens

One unhappy observation confirmed while walking through downtown Athens is that there is a lot of graffiti. Unlike many other cities I’ve visited, even those with self-identified graffiti problems, the vandalism in Athens is not restricted to rough neighborhoods or small back alleys; during my short stay in Athens, I saw gang signs, anarchist symbols, and political slogans on commuter trains, subway station walls, storefronts of upscale shops, and street corners along the city’s busiest boulevards.

Manolis and Alex explained that this phenomenon is an outgrowth of the sometimes violent tradition of public demonstrations and the (ab)use of democratic rights (as evidenced by the crippling riots of 2008), especially among Greek college students. Interestingly, because Greek universities were the sites of clashes between the government and students during Greece’s democratic movement only a few decades ago, police officers are still not allowed to enter college campuses.

National Archaeological Museum
Our next stop was the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, where we viewed the many Greek cultural treasures on display.

the Thessalonian points the way to his home

(We headed to Kifissia instead, where we had gyros delivered for dinner and battled four-on-one with a bat that somehow flew in, likely violating numerous PETA regulations in the process.)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Bacon bits (Houston > Athens)

Despite bacon bits and a crying baby, I arrived safely with my sanity intact at Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport in Athens on Tuesday morning.

Although I try to be open-minded about food, I fail to understand the appeal of bacon bits. (My brother vehemently disagrees, as do the food critics who seem to automatically rank higher all dishes containing any bacon products.) Perhaps my aversion to bacon bits stems from the trauma I experienced in third grade when I thought it was severely uncool to bring packed lunches to school; cafeteria food often included baked potatoes topped with butter and bacon bits. Without a doubt, those small, dry, bright red chips were not related to any part of any pig.

Furthermore, as other bacon bits-bashers can certainly relate to, those buggers are really difficult to remove. For example, tracking down and picking out bacon bits from a salad is a time- and labor-intensive project, even after which there may be a few pieces lurking beneath an innocent-looking spinach leaf or cucumber slice-cum-accomplice.

After Manolis, Alex, and I took a train from the airport to Manolis's house in Kifissia, a northern suburb of Athens, to drop off my bags, we picked up Carina and headed to a nearby cafe. Fortunately, lunch did not involve any bacon bits whatsoever.

Monday, August 17, 2009

H-town Weekend

Highlights (in chronological order):
  • grandmothers' houses
  • Stephen eating cake
  • unpacking
  • Fish tacos
  • The Departed, Cruel Intentions 2, There Will Be Blood
  • squash with Dad and Michael
  • Tallowood
  • sushi
  • Voss Creamery with Scott and David
  • watching Y. E. Yang beast at Hazeltine
  • galbi-jjim
  • walnut pastries with Emily, Lauren, Patrick
  • packing*
*Now that I'm over jet lag, I'm leaving for the airport in an hour for a few days in Athens with Manolis and Alex (should be back Saturday)!

Friday, August 14, 2009


After more than two months, I'm finally home again!

Just watched (on the flight):
Good Will Hunting, Chocolat, and The Edukators (Die Fetten Jahre Sind Vorbei)
  • Actually, I didn't quite complete watching Good Will Hunting; the entertainment systems were powered off about five minutes before I could finish.
  • Dear Chocolat, I had never imagined that a film about a chocolaterie could be so serious.
  • Watching your movie also made me realize that I haven't had real chocolate for nine weeks.
  • Dear Pirates of the Caribbean, Johnny Depp makes a much more convincing pirate when eyeshadow isn't covering half his face.
Jet lag is fun. Any ideas what I should do at 5:12 a.m.?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Seoul > Houston

Much too quickly, my time this summer in one of my favorite cities has ended, with too many people still unmet and too many places not visited. Here's a sincere apology to those I thought I'd have the chance to see more of this summer but was unable to.

On a completely different note, walking this morning through Incheon International Airport (repeatedly ranked among the best airports in the world) made me ponder the elements that, in my opinion, can make a transportation hub a pleasant stop rather than a necessary burden for travelers.

Pleasant architecture
(no complaints against natural light or hardwood flooring)

Enough comfortable seats for passengers to rest/wait

Interesting cultural activities/exhibits

Convenient facilities to snooze/relax/clean up

Large, clear, well-placed signs
(e.g. information, departure schedules)

  • Shops customers are actually glad to enter and browse
  • Logical floor plans
  • Free, ubiquitous, high-speed internet
  • Friendly and courteous airport staff
Dear JFK/IAH, for the sake of your travelers, I fully advocate plagiarism.
. . .

Goodbye, Seoul!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Korea, Day 五

The Phillipians who witnessed the contents of my frequent, late-night delivery orders from Yama know that I very much enjoy teriyaki eel. Unfortunately, I had a simultaneously glorious and heartbreaking epiphany today: not all eel is created equal. (Actually I'm realizing that hardly anything is, but that's another conversation.)

After another trip to the Hyundai Department Store at Mok-dong, my grandma, mother, and I went upstairs to visit an aunt at the Hyperion. (Yes, it is fairly common in Seoul to have 15-story malls with five levels of underground parking and 30 more stories of condos above.) After watching a slideshow of my cousin's wedding photos from last month, the four of us headed to a nearby eel house my aunt recommended.

There, we ordered eight full-sized eels, which a friendly waitress expertly grilled at our table. Below are a few conclusions from this experience:
  • Thankfully, there are restaurants in the world that order live eel they keep in clean tanks.
  • Not all eel is served with overpoweringly sweet teriyaki sauce—half of ours today were in a light herb marinade and the rest were sprinkled with sea salt.
  • Rice and takuan are excellent companions of eel. So are black sesame porridge, fresh peppers, doenjang stew, chilled seaweed soup, kimchi, grilled mushrooms, and iced plum tea.
The only phrase that comes to mind at the moment to describe this situation is the Korean expression "입 버리다". Literally, it means "to throw away the mouth," but the phrase is often used to indicate that something was tasty enough to permanently raise your standards for that dish/cuisine/restaurant, (suggesting that your previous "mouth" for that food was discarded).

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Korea, Day 四

Unfortunately, still not feeling great.

Fortunately, had some acupuncture this morning that cleared up my system.

Fortunately, listening to:
"Cold Water" by Damien Rice. (Appropriately, it was pouring outside almost all day.)

Fortunately, I spent most of my time indoors at Lotte Department Store in Myeong-dong.

Consumed today (in chronological order):
  • abalone porridge and clementines (home)
  • cappuccino (Konditorei in Hongdae)
  • potato soup and seafood pasta (Nolita's)
  • sweet red bean pastry and grapefruit juice (Lotte)
  • spicy noodle stir-fry (Lotte)
  • fruit and French toast (Hongdae)
Also, after dinner my mom and I headed to Daehang-no, an area famous for Marronnier Park and the surrounding galleries and theaters. There, we almost collapsed laughing while watching 라이어 (Liar), Part I. If you understand any Korean and you haven't seen the Liar comedy plays yet, I wholeheartedly recommend you go next time you're in Seoul.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Korea, Day 三

Unfortunately, I feel really awful today.

Fortunately, lunch at the Hilton with my grandmother and her swim team friends did wonders for my system.

Fortunately, I saw a doctor today who made me a batch of hanyak (think personally customized multivitamins based on traditional Korean ingredients).

Fortunately, I took a long, hot bath in green tea.

Unfortunately, my grandmother just poured me a generous glass of homemade maesil (Asian plum) wine and insisted that I drink up to expedite my recovery.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Korea, Day 二

I was on international television today.*

After a quick breakfast of mocha rolls, steamed pumpkin, peaches, and dates, we drove to Yoido Full Gospel Church, where my grandmother serves as an elder. Although "church" describes the function and mission of Yoido Full Gospel, a more accurate term would be "city": with 850,000 members, it represents the world's largest religious congregation (confirmed by the Guinness Book). To put that figure in perspective, here are a few observations and pictures from this morning:
  • an enormous sanctuary, educational facitilies, and offices on an island in central Seoul
  • 171 associate pastors and 356 lay pastors
  • *private television studio for live broadcasts around the world
  • conductor and full-sized orchestra pit
  • music engineers
  • hymns/texts projected on a large screen in Korean, English, Japanese, Chinese
  • 12-story building with a chapel for different school grade levels on each floor
  • numerous satellite campuses
  • translators' boxes and headphones providing simultaneous translation in nine languages, including English, German, Spanish, Arabic, and Russian
  • alternately, there's an entire separate sanctuary reserved for English worship services


After the service, we headed to an aunt's sundubu (spicy tofu stew) and barbeque restaurant to meet my great-uncle and various aunts, uncles, and cousins for lunch. Grilled pork ribs, onion salad, kimchi, fried zucchini, crabcakes, pickled radish, lettuce wraps, and black sesame rice cakes made for a delicious feast. Just when I solemnly accepted the fact that my stomach was about to burst, my aunt presented several platters of Korean grapes and melons.

To work off all those calories, we headed to the Hyundai Department Store in Mok-dong. After a few hours of shopping, we headed to the food court for gimbap, sweet potato fries, mushroom salad, chicken burritos, and fresh-squeezed apple juice.

(89735584 + 89735584 = 2 x 89735584)

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Korea, Day 一

I lost zero pounds today.

My grandmother and mother picked me up at Incheon International Airport, from where we headed to Gangnam for my urgently-needed haircut. When we arrived, we were greeted by refreshing glasses of iced maesil (Asian plum) tea. The stylist then removed what felt like five pounds of hair.

Afterwards, we drove a few minutes to 부산 아구찜 (Busan Agujjim) in Sinsa-dong for dinner. As its name suggests, the restaurant is well-known for its agujjim, a blazingly spicy fish (blackmouth angler) stew originally from the southeastern province of Gyeongsang. The stew was accompanied by two contrasting soups—hot crab meat and roe soup and dongchimi, a chilled, palate-clearing radish soup. We also ordered rice cakes, steamed cabbage, and fresh peppers (as if my eyes weren't watering enough already).

On the way home, we stopped by Tous Les Jours, a French-Asian bakery chain popular for its innovative recipes. (Incidentally, they've recently been expanding in the U.S.; there's a location in the H-Mart on I-10 in West Houston.) I selected a few slices of sweet potato-cream bread, which I enjoyed while catching up on the news (completely uncensored for the first time in two months).
5 - 5 = 0

Friday, August 7, 2009

Beijing > Seoul

I’m currently sitting in front of my gate at the Beijing airport, waiting for my flight to Incheon.

Even until a few weeks ago, I was wondering how I’d get through the grueling eight-week Duke Study in China language program; somehow it’s already over. After our final exams yesterday, we had our closing ceremony with teachers, language partners, host families, and fellow students. Everything went swimmingly until a picture slideshow presentation accompanied by emotional Chinese pop music resulted in an unexpected intense waterworks show, mostly by the teachers. 我会想念你们!

Things I won’t miss (in no particular order):
  • memorizing characters at 6:30 a.m.
  • pollution
  • soup in plastic bags
  • just about everything related to transportation
  • everyone assuming I’m a deaf/retarded local
  • public urination (children and drunk businessmen)
  • traffic
  • shoddy manufacturing
  • government censorship
  • 1 RMB cent coins (approx. $.0015) that nobody accepts
  • service
Things I will miss:
  • teachers
  • friends
  • host parents
  • jiaozi stands
  • Peking duck
  • Wu taitai
  • KTV (karaoke)
  • artificial currency devaluation
  • recap sessions
  • Gao mama’s tomato-egg-pea-thing
  • blueberry creamsicles
  • unbelievably cute dogs
Reasons I'm excited for Korea:
  • service
  • icy naengmyeon noodles
  • Korean barbeque
  • boutiques
  • good coffee
  • conglomerate-owned department stores
  • haircut
  • street food
  • sushi
  • the renovated Gwanghwamun Plaza
  • (Unfortunately, life will now be ten times more expensive.)

DSIC, 再见! Thanks for a great eight weeks!

And thanks again to the Light Fellowship at Yale for providing the support and resources that made possible my study in China this summer!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Bicycle kingdom

Spotted on bicycles in Beijing: adults, students, children, animals, street food, books, groceries, trash, furniture, custodial supplies, and other bicycles.

Frogger (China version)

I tried to describe in an earlier post the dangers of navigating through Beijing traffic. According to a DSIC teacher, the main difference compared to most countries is that pedestrians in China must always yield to vehicles, not the other way around.
  1. With all due respect, I respectfully disagree: the main difference appears to be national eyesight issues exacerbated by testosterone overproduction.
  2. I’m still not sure where bicycles*/animals/mopeds/carriages/food carts fit into this system.
*Next post: “Bicycle kingdom”

But since a picture’s worth a thousand words:
(Don’t think about how many honks/near death experiences these required.)

NBA China

(一) I’ve see Rockets jerseys more often in Beijing than in Houston.

(二) According to a recent New York Times article, “as many people play basketball in China—an estimated 300 million—as live in the United States.”

China, especially its male teenagers, loves basketball. Further confirming this was my visit today to NBA China’s offices, where I joined Michael, a Taiwanese friend interning there this summer, for his lunch break. We chatted about his work and the incredible growth of NBA China and then caught up over dumplings, crab roe fried rice, and mochi. I haven’t seen much of Michael since middle school; the time spent recapping the past five years of our lives flew by.

NBA China

Listening to:
“Aaron & Maria", American Analog Set