How to Visit Greece on a Budget (and other ways to fail when you try)

Well, friends – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again –  no adventure is any good without a little misadventure, and based on that standard, this trip was one for the books.

This Grecian dream first became a reality when I was enjoying one of my favorite pastimes during a lunch break – looking up flights ok Kayak – and I noticed dirt cheap flights out of DC to Athens. I immediately called Bryant three times, causing him to step out of a meeting because he was afraid it was an “emergency” (it was), and we ended up booking the tickets after taking a few days to think about it.

I should now mention that these cheap tickets were with Russian airline Aeroflot, and that our layovers were in Moscow. When we bought the flights, we had a 2 hour layover on the way there, making our travel time about 14 hours (great for US to Greece). On the way back, however, we had a 17 hour layover in Moscow. We were actually really excited about this, thinking we’d be able to see some of Moscow – the Kremlin, Mummy Lenin, etc. – a city we’d likely never visit again.

Let’s start from here.

STEP 1: Buy cheap flights through Vayama with seemingly terrible layovers in the wrong name.

About a month after we booked,  I realized I’d booked the flight in my maiden name, then sent my passport off to be renewed in my married name. This is a big, bad problem…it’s not easy to change your name without paying tons of fees. Just ask Adam West.

After realizing that, our flight from Moscow to Athens was cancelled,  making our layover 11 hours instead of 2.

We then realized that Vayama, the online booking agent we used by Kayak’s recommendation, was completely useless in helping us navigate these changes, and I spent hours on the phone over the period of a month getting a different answer from every person I talked to. Cheers! Don’t use Vayama. Ever.

About a month before the trip, I was finally sent confirmation that I could get on the plane – which was a little nerve wracking.

STEP 2: Make the most of a long layover.

I always imagined Russia to look very bleak and grey, and maybe that’s still true for Moscow proper, but I was surprised how green and forested the outskirts of Moscow were from the air. It was actually quite lovely. The airport (SVO) was also nice. We complained about our cancelled flight and resulting layover at the Aeroflot desk, and 10 minutes later we were following a tall, blonde speed walker who handed us off to a mustached lady who let us to a charter bus. A whole charter bus for four of us…

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We drove right across the runway to a security gate and were taken to a nearby hotel, where we checked in, were escorted to a floor with a security guard, and left to rest. I keep referring to this as “house arrest” because the security guard was there to keep us IN, not to keep others OUT. But the room was simple and clean and we slept a full eight hours and were given a free meal before being escorted back to our charter bus, this time full of foreigners like us.

STEP 3: Accidentally book the best hotel/hotel room Athens has to offer.

Upon arriving in Athens from Moscow, we caught the very last train of the night from the airport into town. A sudden concern for our own well-being after sitting on a airplane for so long inspired us to carry our luggage up six flights of stairs instead of taking the teeny refrigerator-sized elevator up. When we finally threw our stuff down in the room we were ready. to. crash.

UNTIL…we realized we had a private balcony with this view:

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Hmmmm wat? I booked this hotel thinking it was barely not a hostel, but it was actually the greatest. The Acropolis is a sight to see, especially lit up at night, just looming 512′ over the rest of the town. Bryant and I jumped up and down on the balcony, before heading to the rooftop garden to enjoy the view. Heading to Athens anytime soon? I can’t recommend A for Athens enough.

STEP 4: Only spend one day in Athens.

Once the sun rose on our beautiful view, you could see the abundance of graffiti and trash that covers Athens. I wonder what Athens would look like had spray paint not been invented? Hard to say. We headed to the Acropolis first thing after breakfast on the rooftop garden of our hotel, as we’d heard it gets very crowded in the early afternoon.

People have been building and destroying things on the Acropolis since the FIFTH CENTURY B.C. – let that sit for a minute. The views from the top of the ‘crop (TM) were beautiful – Athens just seems to go on forever.

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We arrived thinking we’d be able to take a self-guided tour but were surprised that few artifacts/structures had so much as a plaque telling what we were looking at. I left feeling like a failure who needed to take a class in Greek history, or at least watch a documentary. I imagined Plato giving me a chastising glance at my lack of historical appreciation for what I was seeing. But then things started to look like this:

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So we got the heck outta dodge.

We walked around the old town the rest of the day, through a bunch of flea markets and shops and the National Gardens. I bought a new purse and Bryant fell down some stairs and spilled his coffee all over himself. All in a day’s work. We got some gyros for two euro and watched the sun go down on a Greek rap battle from our hotel balcony.

If you’re a regular gal like me and are spending a week in Greece, not an aimless backpacker with an affinity for Greek history, don’t spend more than a day in Athens. We enjoyed our day, but I don’t know what we would’ve done with another one.

STEP 4: Ryanair to Santorini

When heading to Santorini, Ryanair, one of the dirt cheap airlines in Europe (I once flew across Spain for 12 euro), is the way to go. Flights from Athens to Santorini are only about 45 minutes and only marginally more expensive than a ferry, which will take you 5-8 hours. Ferries are a great option for getting from island to island, but fly from the mainland to Santorini.

STEP 5: Pick your village

I consulted Santorini Dave to determine that Oia was our place. You should too: http://santorinidave.com/

STEP 6: Air BnB

I am a huge fan of Air B&B, and it’s gotten so popular you can find a place pretty much anywhere these days. Air B&B is a website that allows anyone to rent a shared room, private room, or whole place out to travelers. I’ve had several great experiences with this service, and you get a lot more bang for your buck than you would at a hotel. We stayed at an incredible villa in Oia, the “postcard” town on the island. If you’ve seen the pictures of whitewashed houses stacked on top of each other, they were probably taken in Oia. We stayed at the Villa Marina, and it was perfect. So perfect, in fact, that there were constant crowds at the entry gate to our place trying to take pictures.

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STEP 8: Splurge wisely

Here’s how we ate well and had a blast without spending tons of money:

FOOD: We packed quite a few snacks in our backpacks (cheddar bunnies, cliff bars, etc.) so we wouldn’t feel the need to buy snacks in the airport or on the island. We also went grocery shopping on our first day and bought some basic items so we didn’t have to eat out each meal. Instead of splurging on every meal, we ate a lot affordable and delicious crepes and splurged on a few meals here and there. Our BEST meal on the island (maybe our best meal ever?) was at Roka, our second-best at  The Red Bicycle, and we also paid an outrageous price for some fresh-as-it-gets scorpion fish at Katina. Our favorite breakfast/dessert place was Melenio Café – unreal fruit and yogurt parfaits and good coffee for breakfast, endless amazing desserts for after dinner.

FUN: Renting four-wheelers is a must – you can drive them all over the island and spend days exploring the other villages and beaches. Take these (sort of) trusty steeds to the lighthouse for some spectacular views, to Perissa to drive along the beach, and park in Fira to explore.

One thing to note about Santorini is that it’s not a “beach” place – there are several beaches, but they aren’t what you’d expect. The Red beach and White beach can barely be called beaches (my humble opinion), and the black beach (Perissa) is pretty great except for the fact that the sand is black and will blister your feet – flip flops are a must! If I were you and you were me, we’d spend a day at Perissa and skip the others. Amoudi Bay in Oia is the best place for swimming, but is more like what we’d call a swimming hole in the states. All rocks, platforms/cliffs/rocks to jump off of, etc. The water is gorgeous and crystal clear, but very chilly even into June when we went.

Here’s Bryant doing a gainer at Amoudi Bay. He lived.

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Our big fun splurge was a sunset catamaran cruise that included snorkeling, dinner, and a stop at the hot springs (skip these, they are lukewarm at best and will ruin your bathing suit). That was easily one of my favorite days, and I’d recommend it to anyone visiting the island. There are many companies offering this type of cruise for similar prices.

Our catamaran captain Ilia. Best friends.
Our catamaran captain Ilia. Best friends.

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Finally, I’ll end this post with the donkey rides. You may have seen movies that were set in Greece, and seen people gracefully ride a donkey sidesaddle to their quaint accommodation. This is a lie.

First, the donkeys are mules, and the rides are only available from Amoudi Bay up to a residential area in Oia. It’s strictly a touristy thing. The day before we took our mule ride, we watched from our balcony as a mule spooked and took off up the hill with a girl as she screamed “STOP” over and over in the most blood-curdling voice I’ve ever heard. I think she will be scarred for life.

But, since we are decent horseback riders and it was only 5 euro, we decided to do it anyway. It was hilariously miserable – our mules jostled each other like a group of preteen boys trying to win a three-legged race all the way up the hill, dragging our legs on rocks and running into each other the entire time. The pinnacle of suffering came when another mule turned the corner in front of me, stopped, and pooped DIRECTLY on my thigh. DIRECTLY ON THERE. I think my face in the photo below just says it all. Bryant and I will probably laugh about this experience fifty years from now. It was terrible and everyone should do it.

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If you made it through all 1,882 words of this – I commend you.

 

How We Rest

When getting to know people, one of my favorite questions to ask is, “What is your favorite place on earth?” When I try to answer this question myself, I tend to think of moments in time rather than locations – rounding Camps Bay in an open-top bus as the sun sets; waking up on June 23rd to hop a plane to Mexico; driving country roads with my Dad in his convertible and blasting the instrumental version of Eleanor Rigby – I savor these memories with tenderness and joy. But a specific place?
If you were to ask my husband the question, “What is your favorite place?” he’d respond “EDISTO BEACH” loudly, and with conviction. He’s been making memories at a family house on the sound side of this quiet island since he was a kid, and his enthusiasm for everything about it is unmatched. We took last Friday off and headed south for the long weekend, and one of the friends who joined us happens to be a talented photographer – thanks Sarah Pascutti for the images!

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Seeing my husband’s unbridled joy at sitting on the dock for hours in ratty shorts and a straw hat, catching blue crabs and “living off the land”, made me thoughtful about the rest that he needs, and how rest looks different for each of us.

I used to think of rest as the antithesis of work –  doing nothing. So I’d do my best to have a restful “lazy day” by laying on the couch and watching TV. At the end of a day like this, instead of feeling refreshed and whole, I’d be stir crazy and on the brink of an identity crisis.  I realize that some of you may be thinking my dream is to spend a Saturday on the couch, and that is ok. I enjoy inactivity in short spurts, but I’ve had to realize that long periods of inactivity do not rejuvenate me.

Rest, rather than being the antithesis of work, is about freedom. As Tim Keller puts it,

God liberated his people when they were slaves in Egypt, and in Deuteronomy 5:12–15, God ties the Sabbath to freedom from slavery. Anyone who overworks is really a slave. Anyone who cannot rest from work is a slave—to a need for success, to a materialistic culture, to exploitative employers, to parental expectations, or to all of the above. These slave masters will abuse you if you are not disciplined in the practice of Sabbath rest. Sabbath is a declaration of freedom.

Bryant’s demeanor while we were at Edisto is the best example of rest as a “declaration of freedom” that I can think of. Those who have visited that island with him know that he is free there – enthusiastic, energetic, and, at the end of the day, exhausted. He comes alive and brings the rest of us along with him. As our friend Hannah put it, “I wish we could just bottle (this version of Bryant) up!”

Ironically, the more physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted I am, the harder it is for me to do the things that actually make me feel rested. As mentioned above, long periods of mindless inactivity do not make me feel free, and do not make me come alive. They make me feel like a slave to laziness, to indifference, to next episode playing in 12 seconds… It’s less about turning off my brain, and more about feeding my soul the right things.

For me, as someone who does not “downshift casually”, rest is an act of will – something that I have to prepare for and then intentionally carry out.

Most people mistakenly believe that all you have to do to stop working is not work. The inventors of the Sabbath understood that it was a much more complicated undertaking…The rules did not exist to torture the faithful. They were meant to communicate the insight that interrupting the ceaseless round of striving requires a surprisingly strenuous act of will, one that has to be bolstered by habit as well as by social sanction (Tim Keller).

Prayer is rest. Reading is rest. Writing is rest. Taking a canoe trip across the lake with Bryant is rest.  Quiet conversation with soul-friends is rest. Taking a walk with my Mom is rest. Meditating (I’m terrible at this) is rest. Even exercise can be rest. This is how God restores my soul, grounds me, and reminds me of his goodness in the Psalm 23 sense:

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul.

When tuning out means tuning in.

If you’re a 20-something and you’re on Facebook (is that redundant?) it’s likely that you’ve laid eyes on a dozen or more links that read something like this:

– 20 Things 20-Somethings Don’t Get

– 50 Things All 20-Somethings Should Know

– 10 Most Important Lessons for 20-Something Workers

This list goes on and on. These lists exist because there is demand for them, and therefore, the supply rises to meet me and my peers who are, as the internet seems to define us, wanderlust-y idealists who are facing unmet expectations.

This may be true of some of us. This may be true of a lot of us. I’ve read a lot of articles like these and will readily admit that they often contain great advice. I welcome advice. But I’m starting to have a problem with all these articles, and here’s why:

You are, I am, we are – unique individuals with a unique story. As young people who are largely inexperienced, we need all the advice and help we can get. However, I  begin to worry when we allow strangers who know nothing about us and nothing about our stories heavily influence our decisions. As Christians, God asks us to work hard (Colossians 3:23),  and to seek counsel from “many advisers”(Proverbs 15:22), but 2 Corinthians 5:7 also reminds us that we are to “walk by faith, not by sight.”

If we gather anything from reading about some of the Bible’s most compelling characters, we see that God often leads his followers down crazy, unexpected roads. He works in what seem to us to be strange, even nonsensical ways. But God is in the business of redeeming stories. One great example is Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his own brothers as a young child. That’s a rough start. God ends up using Joseph to save all of Israel and Egypt from a horrible famine (see: Genesis chapters 30-50). That’s a good ending.

So am I saying that horrible circumstances (i.e. being sold into slavery) means that you’re on the fast track to be second in command in Egypt? No. I’m saying that YOU DON’T KNOW – that you can’t predict the future – and that it would be unwise to find a false sense of security and a hollow sense of worth in how well  your story fits nicely into the “20-Something To-Do Box.”

You are a unique individual with a unique story. Censor this internet advice through that lens. If you don’t make it to the 20 places to travel in your 20s and all that jazz, you are not defined by what you have or have not done. Sometimes we have too many voices in our head and it makes it impossible to think clearly, know what we actually want, and hear from God. Lots of good , well-meaning advice can lead to confusion and indecision.

What if tuning in really means tuning out – tuning out all the expectations of who we’re supposed to be as defined by our culture, the media…anyone who is not God. Seek counsel, but seek it from those who know you and your heart, your skills, your abilities, and your dreams. Have real dialogue with people you trust. Work hard. Read your Bible, soak in what God says is true. Seek a meaningful life that takes into account family, friends, career, and spirituality.

“I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?”
― C.S. Lewis

Finally…a D.C. update.

I came in at 7:30 this morning (work starts at 8:30) to try to start a blog about the crazy adventure my summer has already been. My laptop charger broke just before I came to D.C. and I am too cheap to buy a new one, so my computer has been dead for around a month now…typical.

Let me start from the beginning.

I moved up to Washington, D.C. on June 2nd. I drove up by myself and on my way in had lunch with good ol’ Colin in Falls Church, VA. We reminisced (we always reminisce) on our middle and high school days and the crazy reality that he’s about to get married and that we’re both living and working in the big city this summer. I remember our 9th grade conversations about going to Georgetown and Pepperdine, law school and the military, marriage and family – remembering those times makes it sweet and surreal to be where I am now. I am so thankful.

As you can imagine, it’s difficult for me to know where to start. I always feel like the best version of myself when I have the opportunity to dive into a new opportunity headfirst, and I’ve been so energized by all the new people, places, and things to explore. I have been going at about 100 mph since the day I got here. Here are some highlights!

The family I live with, the Hannigans, moved here from Chicago less than a year ago. They are wonderful, brave, generous people. They have a one year old daughter named Talitha who IS the HAPPIEST BABY God has created so far. I love playing with her and sometimes she cries when I leave, which makes me feel loved. Thanks baby! I am rarely home (if you know me, that is no surprise!) but I love spending time with them when I get the chance.

I have been spending most of my time in the Capitol Hill district. It’s right across the river from where I live, and there are a lot of good restaurants, parks, the National’s Stadium, a trapeze school (?????), and friends nearby. The first week here, my dear friend Laura invited me to an intern Bible study at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. I can honestly say that now, two weeks later, I am as excited about being a part of that church as I am about being a part of IJM. The community is amazing, the level of reverence for God and his word are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and I am so challenged and encouraged by the people. The friends I’ve made in this study are my D.C. A-team…we have shared so many laughs and adventures already.

In 2 1/2 weeks, here’s what I/we’ve been able to accomplish:

– Sunrise at the Lincoln Memorial

– National Cathedral, Botanical Gardens, National Archives, National Gallery of Art, Arlington Cemetary, Union Station

– Lobbying for Anti-trafficking legislation on Capitol Hill

– Exploring Georgetown, paddleboarding on the riverfront, and riding bikes along the Potomac, jazz in the park, fancy fondu restaurant (thanks Bryant!)

– Monument tour after dark

– Nationals baseball game

In other news, my parents came to visit this week (Sunday-Thursday) and totaled their car on their way to meet me for lunch on Monday. They were unhurt and thankfully I had already planned to take a day off to explore with them, so I was able to pick them up from where they were towed. They are resilient people and didn’t let it ruin their week.  I loved having them here.

As far as things go with my internship, I am incredibly blessed. I think I’m going to write a separate blog on IJM, but here are the facts surrounding my time here:

I am one of 24 summer interns working at Headquarters and am enjoying getting to know my brilliant, competent, FUNNY coworkers. The atmosphere of the office is very unique in that it is professional – full business suit every day – and the work expectation is excellence, but everyone is so warm, kind, and inviting. I’ve heard the life and coming-to-faith stories of nearly all of the executive staff members and have had the opportunity to seek wisdom on everything from career to relationship advice in our workplace conversations. The only downside to this office is that I’m going to get spoiled by the intentionality and support of the people…everywhere else is going to look so uninviting compared to this place!! 🙂

I hope this suffices as a decent update for those of you who are wondering what I’m up to. Please pray for continued strength, focus, and surrender as I continue to grow accustomed to this place.

MB