Tuesday, July 30, 2013

I Heart Hiking

Hiking is not hiking without cows.
Why, you might ask, do I heart hiking so much? It's one of my favorite things to do in the world. If I could eat, sing and write while hiking, I'd be in Heaven. Wait. I sometimes do indeed do all these things while hiking. And juggle too. Not really. But wow: I'm in Heaven.

Sadly, there's a little spur in Paradise. The joint just below the big toe on my left foot is swollen. At first--after consulting Dr. Google--I thought I had gout. With me, disease is much like traveling: I never know anything about it before I actually have it. The possibility of having gout scared me, but then my (real human) doctor told me I didn't. He prescribed insoles--very expensive insoles, which I hope my insurance will pay for. Are they working? Who knows. The maker of said golden insoles said it was too late to correct my problem. Yay. So why the expensive insoles? As I'm writing this, there's a report on German TV telling how useless insoles are. Spooky, right?

The best trail marker yet. Like a cowpat.
In the last few days, we've hiked up four mountains. We're not climbers, just walkers. We walk fast and rhythmically. We don't take many breaks. We don't talk much unless Robert the Unemployed Mountain Goat Groomer has an exciting new business idea to nag me with, at which point I simply walk faster and more rhythmically. He usually shuts up--except for the panting.

The silence of the forest clears the head and makes room for new thoughts, new story ideas, imagined conversations. The heat clears the pores.

"I have forgotten my towel again," says Robert the Unemployed Mountain Goat Groomer. The sweat is streaming down his face; his clothes are drenched in sweat. Think panic attack or one of those antiperspirant commercials where sweat is gushing, spewing, spraying from the guy's armpits.

I speed up, hit an unattainable pace.

"Chris!" I hear behind me but don't turn. "Help . . . me."

The rhythm of hiking helps the mind to order its thoughts. It's like zen or chewing gum, or both. One of the stories I've been working on in the last few weeks deals with delicate themes that I haven't quite worked out yet, but hiking allows the characters to interact with one another while I push myself up this steep path, my pace as measured as a squeaky new metronome set to Presto!

"Help . . . me."

It's steeper than it looks. Really.
It's almost as if my characters are trotting along with me. And suddenly something clicks and I know how the story will end. Of course I won't know if this works until I get home and put metaphorical pen to paper. Often, the brilliant idea my characters give me while hiking turns out to be crap by the time I get home. What can you do?

"Heh . . . heh . . . help me."

Hiking is also my time to think about relationships. Yes, I know this is sort of icky, but we all need to think about our relationships more because--"

"Chris."

"--the people we love, the ones closest to us, the ones who stick by us through thick and thin and everything in between, the ones who climb every--"

"Chri--"

"--mountain with us need us. They need us to listen, to be good listeners." I reach the top of the steep path and take in the scenery. I take a long, satisfying breath and glance back down the hill. Robert the Unemployed Mountain Goat Groomer has apparently decided to take a nap about halfway up. Bless his heart. I let him sleep and continue up the path. And as I do, enjoy these views of the various mountains we hiked up in the last few days. They're all in Bavaria and Austria. 






At the top, we always enjoy a bit of balance in the way of wine or beer and some high caloric food, calories usually based on the altitude difference we've hiked (in the latest case 1200 meters). Life is all about balance. Keep this in mind as you're gazing at the last photo above.

I must be off,
Christopher

_______________________________________________________

Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's award-winning fiction and non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly's Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Prime Number Magazine, The Best of Every Day Fiction, Pure Slush, Bootsnall Travel and Chicken Soup for the Soul. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize twice. He is the managing editor of the daily litzine Metazen. Recently, Allen--along with editors Michelle Elvy and Linda Simoni-Wastila--hosted Flash Mob 2013 in celebration of International Flash Fiction Day. 






  



Saturday, July 27, 2013

Rhodes and AIDA -- The Colossus and the Colossal

We're nearing the end of our cruise of the Aegean and Black Seas. We are all a little weepy. We could go on and on and on with the cruise. We've heard rumors of an 80-day cruise, and we're seriously considering it...until we come to our senses, remembering that we sort of have jobs.

There are so many reasons for our silly love of AIDA, the great food and good wine not the least of them. The excellent food on board keeps lots of folks--mostly German but also German-speaking Europeans--sailing away with AIDA. The events and activities on board provide something for everyone. But now I'm beginning to sound like an AIDA commercial.

The cat alley of Rhodes
Oh what the hell. Why should you go on an AIDA cruise? Because these ships go to the most interesting places, provide active excursions like bike tours and hiking, and the atmosphere on board is relaxed, lively and young. All sorts of people go on AIDA cruises, from kids to grannies. AIDA's slogan is "Hier ist das Lächeln zu Hause" loosely translated as The smile lives here. And it does. I smiled a lot more than usual, and I'm a fairly goofy person already.

So, at the last port before heading back to Antalya, Turkey, we decide to spend the morning exploring the old town of Rhodes but to be back on board for lunch, to scrape our plates clean another time before it all ends and we have to go back to eating peas out of a can at home. This is the plan. Remember this.

We walk to the old town, just a hundred meters away from the ship, early enough for me to take a few pictures without the thousands and thousands of tourists who will glut the town later on. In general, the old town has been well maintained. Lots of euros have been pumped into the island by the European Union. There are, however, spots here and there where rubbish has collected and also a very stinky alley occupied by dozens of cats. Here are a few nice views of this town...





The Street of Knights, Rhodes


Tourists flock to The Knight's Street, or the Street of Knights, or the Avenue of the Knights. It's the best kept tourist attraction on the island. The information on the walls tells how the street changed when it changed hands between Muslims and Christians. We joke that in 1000 years there will be an addition to this information:

In the year 2019, the Americans bought the street and installed a Starbucks on every corner.

When (I assume) we're finished strolling around the old town, Juan the Puerto Rican Darts Champion sees someone carrying a Zara bag.

"Where did you get that?" he asks the man.

"At Zara?" It is indeed a fairly stupid question.

"Yes, yes, but where is Zara?" A better question.

The man points us toward the shop. At this point, I hope that Juan the Puerto Rican Darts Champion will get his Zara fix quickly and we'll make it back on board the ship for lunch. I'm hungry.  But after Zara comes H&M, Lacoste, Tommy Hilfiger, Pull&Bear, Desigual (OK, I actually want to go into this one) and one shop for women that I let Juan the Puerto Rican Darts Champion spend 10 minutes in before he realizes there's no men's section. He then decides to stop at every shop selling watches. When I remind him how awful I am when I'm hungry, he reminds me that I've taken an apple from the fruit bar on the ship.

Fresh Fruit All Day Long

We make it back on board to catch the tale end of lunch, which is not a pretty image. I know.

Here are a few more (prettier) images of the AIDA cruise to wrap up this segment on our cruise through the Aegean and Black Seas....

We were here every day. Really.

Excellent singers in the AIDA show ensemble

The view from our table. That's our favorite waiter in the background.

The passageway to the Anytime Bar

The last performace was based on fairy tales.



I almost forgot! I promised to show you the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. And here it is....on the back of a bus. Oviously, archeologists were looking in the wrong place. I was almost run over by a car while taking this picture. Oops. 



The Colossus of Rhodes?


Next time, we're going hiking. We're going to get contemplative and sweaty.

I must be off,
Christopher

_________________________________________________________

Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's award-winning fiction and non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly's Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Prime Number Magazine, The Best of Every Day Fiction, Pure Slush, Bootsnall Travel and Chicken Soup for the Soul. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize twice. He is the managing editor of the daily litzine Metazen. Recently, Allen--along with editors Michelle Elvy and Linda Simoni-Wastila--hosted Flash Mob 2013 in celebration of International Flash Fiction Day.   




Thursday, July 25, 2013

Samos -- Almost Turkey

Our boat from the hills above the Old Town of Samos
Just to prove that I have other qualities besides adorableness, I'm going to gloat a bit now about my sense of geography. Or maybe my sense of intuition. You decide.

I've just come back from the AIDA breakfast buffet with my usual quark and fruit when I notice we're tooling along the coast of an island and a big one at that.

"This must be Samos," I say.

George Louis the Book Binder's Assistant laughs. "We are not expected to dock at Samos for another two hours. This is certainly not Samos."

"But this feels like Samos."

"Have you been to Samos?"

"No. Would that make a difference?"

"Obviously."

"I'll bet you a thousand euros that this is Samos." Warning: I never honor my bets.

"Done."

I trot down to reception.

"Excuse me," I say in German (AIDA is a German cruise line) to the German receptionist.

"Ja?" she says.

"Is that Samos out there?" I point out the window at the hills drifting by at 15 knots.

"Hmmm. Honestly, I don't know much about what goes on out there. I mostly know about stuff in here like the Hugo Boss sale in the AIDA shop. I once saw a dolphin on my break."

"I don't know what to do with that comment."

"The map is over there."

The map indeed indicates that we are tooling along the coast of--wait for it--Samos. Ha. I'm theoretically 1000 euros richer although George Louis the Book Binder's Assistant rarely honors his bets either.

Samos is a cat's jump away from the coast of Turkey. Did you know that? One point six kilometers. What does this mean? Well, the cigarette section in the port's duty free shop is popular. That's what that means.

As we pull into the harbor of the Old Town of Samos, an overwhelmingly beautiful little harbor, film music starts booming through the deck speakers. It's dramatic. It's moving. I get teary, and just about the second I start sobbing, one of the other passengers starts a conversation with me. He wants to know what I do for a living. "I cry," I say, "obviously. I'm a professional weeper. At funerals." He's fascinated.

Blue Chair Restaruant
We arrive two hours early in Samos, which gives us two extra hours on the island. We rent a car for 45 euros plus 15 more for the insurance that pays for everything even if you drive off a cliff. There are a lot of cliffs. There's also a temple devoted to the Goddess Hera--or rather there WAS a temple devoted to Hera; now there's a column. One. Column. And you have to pay to see it.

Instead (of course), we drive to the sea town of Pythagoreio and end up having a cider at a pub/restaurant run by a delightful person from New Zealand. I learn from her that Whangarei is prounounced Fangeray. Stupidly, I don't take any photos of the pub and leave without writing down its name. Just look for the All Blacks flags.

Next, we drive into the mountains to the little town of Vourliotes. In our guidebook on Samos, it's described as "worth seeing because it's maintained its character." Driving into the town, we spot the typical Greek restaurants where the tourists are herded into, fed a four-course meal with mediocre wine and herded back to the bus--all in about 45 minutes. We drive past these, deeper and deeper into the village.

A Great Greek Salad
Actually, there's not much deeper and deeper to the village. At the point where you can't drive any farther, you'll need to back up and park in the little parking lot just a few meters behind you. Then walk back to where the "road" becomes too narrow for cars and go right, then left--and now you are at the little restaurant Blue Chairs.

It's in a quaint courtyard with lots of grapevines and quirky, childlike wall art. The service isn't great, and the wine isn't anywhere near great, but the homegrown tomatoes on the Greek salad were the best tomatoes I've had in a long long time. It was worth the wait. The wine wasn't.  All the food going to other tables looked very good.

The wine on board the ship is much better, by the way. Lunch and dinner aboard AIDA cruises include wine, and it's so wonderfully adequate that almost no one buys the expensive bottles of wine trotted out by the waiters. On a humorous note, our favorite waiter on the cruise called our red wine our vitamins when he poured, crying "Vee-tah-mee-nah" every time. It's become a permanent part of our life now.


Next time, I'm going to take you to Rhodes and show you once and for all the Colossus, which I--Explorer Extraordinaire!--have discovered when all the archeologists failed.

To continue with I Must Be Off! A-Z, go to T is for Tenerife.

I must be off,
Christopher

___________________________________________________________

Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's award-winning fiction and non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly's Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Prime Number Magazine, The Best of Every Day Fiction, Pure Slush, Bootsnall Travel and Chicken Soup for the Soul. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize twice. He is the managing editor of the daily litzine Metazen. Recently, Allen--along with editors Michelle Elvy and Linda Simoni-Wastila--hosted Flash Mob 2013 in celebration of International Flash Fiction Day. 

  


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

City Hopping -- Odessa, Ukraine

The port of Odessa
The first thing you'll notice about Odessa if you reach the city from the port is that it's industrial; the second thing you'll notice is the Potemkin Stairs. The third thing you'll notice if you choose to take the funicular instead of walking up the 192 steps--lazy--is that they don't take euros and they are not very nice about it--which I guess is the fourth thing.

But Oscar the Owl Impersonator does not usually take нет for an answer.

"We're not leaving," he tells the funicular attendant. "Who, who."

The attendant gibbers on in Russian, but each time she comes up for air, Oscar the Owl Impersonator says, "We're not leaving" and holds out the euros."Who, who."

Actually, I don't end up riding the funicular. Oscar and his mom in the wheelchair do, but I take the 192 steps. And I do it two at a time, which means it was more like 466 steps, right? Long climb short, I'm treated like a hero at the top by all the lazy funicular riders.

"How many steps were there?" one man asks.

"I have no idea," I reply.

He looks at me as if I'm a fool for not counting. "There are supposed to be 192."

"Well," I say, "I took them two at a time, sometimes three, and I'm not out of breath as you can clearly see."

"You're my hero," he says. "Because you can rhyme."

"I know."

Did you know that the Potemkin Stairs were originally called the Boulevard Steps, the Giant Staircase or the Richelieu Steps but are officially called the Primorsky Stairs? And how snoring is this information? Goodness. Very. But did you know that the stairs were constructed so that only the landings are visible from the top and the steps themselves only from the bottom? And that there were originally 200 steps? But that eight steps were lost when the harbor was renovated? Not snoring anymore, are you?

Now there's a huge awful road between the harbor and the steps.

Moving on up to the city of Odessa . . .

We decided simply to have a walk around the old town and eavesdrop on the guided tours we stumbled upon. This, by the way, is a great way to save money. The trick is to get close enough to hear the guide without actually looking as if you belong to the group. I've found that if you sit on a bench right behind the guide and pretend to be talking on a cellphone, you'll go completely unnoticed. If no bench is available, just stand directly behind the guide, back to back.

Though on the surface it might seem so, Odessa is not really made for wheelchairs. The streets are in dire need of repair, and then there are cobblestones. If you have a reduced-mobility person in your group, make sure to have their vertebrae checked before the trip. You wouldn't want them to have a slipped disc just because Odessa can't be bothered to have even sidewalks.

At least the old city has kept most of its old Russian charm. Catherine the Great wanted a port on the Black Sea, so she founded Odessa in 1794. I wonder why she didn't name it Cathy? Here are a few impressions of a city whose name should be Cathy...




No idea what connection Proust has to Odessa. Maybe someone just likes him?


Next time, I'm going to take you to the island of Samos in Greece and the best tomatoes I've had in a long long time.

To continue with I Must Be Off! A-Z, go to P is for Porto.

I must be off,
Christopher

_______________________________________________________

Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's award-winning fiction and non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly's Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Prime Number Magazine, The Best of Every Day Fiction, Pure Slush, Bootsnall Travel and Chicken Soup for the Soul. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize twice. He is the managing editor of the daily litzine Metazen. Recently, Allen--along with editors Michelle Elvy and Linda Simoni-Wastila--hosted Flash Mob 2013 in celebration of International Flash Fiction Day. 






Saturday, July 20, 2013

Y'all ever Heard of Yalta?

The harbor and the buses . . . about ten feet from the ship.
After Sochi, where we had to be schlepped into the port in tenders from the cruise ship due to all the 2014 Winter Olympics Potemkin spiffing up, we were pleasantly surprised to get a parking place practically on the promenade in Yalta, Ukraine. Did you see Speed 2? I think it was Speed 2. It might have been Speed 13. The one where Sandra Bullock and Jason Patric can't stop the cruise ship until it plows through the port into the houses? That one? That didn't happen, but our ship was an overwhelming presence in the harbor.

Having never been to Ukraine, we booked a bus tour with a guide. I'm going to call her Irena, although that's not her name. I was sitting in the first row (just like all through elementary and high school), so every time Irena said something she thought was funny or the least bit interesting, she would turn around and expect a reaction from me--because I'm naturally attentive and adorable. At first I'd smile and occasionally give her the thumbs-up, but then I'd anticipate the turn and conveniently turn toward the window and pretend to be taking a picture...of the side of a house, a guardrail, a cloud.

If you're adorable yourself, you'll know that being so has its drawbacks. Big eyes and a dopy smile can be misleading. While, granted, I don't know much about, say, trigonometry, I am not ignorant of world affairs. Damien the French Chess Champion's Hairdresser regularly--REGULARLY--forces me to watch black-and-white documentaries. I'm watching one right now as I write this. I've seen every documentary ever made about the former GDR--ask me anything, go ahead (Neimand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten.)--and every documentary about World War II and the Weimar Republic. As long as it's in black and white, we have to watch it. I'm sure I've seen documentaries about the Yalta Conference. The picture of Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt is nothing new to me. I know why they got together; I just didn't remember where.

"So, um, Yalta," I said to Damien the French Chess Champion's Hairdresser as we were staring down at the tiny buses from the ship's deck.

"You have no idea where you are, do you?"

"I didn't say that."

"You're in Ukraine."

"Thank you. When did we stop saying The Ukraine?"

"1991." Damien the French Chess Champion's Hairdresser did not say this, but it's true. Independence for Ukraine also freed it from its definite article, which etymologically speaking suggested it was on the outskirts of Russia. 

Damien the French Chess Champion's Hairdresser tells me that the Livadia Palace, the venue for the Yalta Conference, was renovated to make it more wheelchair friendly for President Roosevelt. Well, we had a person in a wheelchair, and she had to climb a few stairs. What happened, Livadia? Maybe Franklin didn't have to use the upstairs bathroom? Was it exciting to be in the same room where such an important horse-trading session occurred? I don't know. I took a picture of the chair Churchill sat in just in case I developed more interest later.

I'm sure Irena told us what the next stop on the itinerary was, but I understood only every fourth or fifth word she said. It was as if when she didn't know a word she said gihrgblah, so she'd say, "Next stop very pretty important gihrgblah . . . gihrgblah. On right you see, um, gihrgblah." Since our return, I've Googled all the gihrgblahs on the tour, though.

The next gihrglbah was the Vorontsov Palace, where Winston Churchill slept during the Yalta Conference. Maybe due to its Scottish architecture? It has been beautifully preserved, mainly because Hitler promised it to one of his officers. Here are a few impressions of this place, including the most adorable sleeping lion:



Unfortunately, we did not have time to explore the town when we got back to the harbor. We were expected on board, and we were sailing away within thirty minutes. AIDA plays Enya's "Orinoco Flow" (or "Sail Away" as I have called it for the last year) every time they leave a port. If you don't like this song, you probably need to jump overboard; the song is piped through all the speakers on the ship, so there's no escaping it. If you've grown to love the song, as I have, you'll want to be on deck singing (the wrong lyrics), adding harmonies, hugging your new AIDA buddies, exchanging Facebook handles. OK, I'm sick. I need a support group.



I must be off,
Christopher

To continue with I Must Be Off! A-Z, go to Z is for Zillertal.
______________________________________________________

Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's award-winning fiction and non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly's Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Prime Number Magazine, The Best of Every Day Fiction, Pure Slush, Bootsnall Travel and Chicken Soup for the Soul. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize twice. He is the managing editor of the daily litzine Metazen. Recently, Allen--along with editors Michelle Elvy and Linda Simoni-Wastila--hosted Flash Mob 2013 in celebration of International Flash Fiction Day. 


  







Friday, July 19, 2013

Winners of the First Annual I Must Be Off! Travel Essay Contest

First of all, thank you to everyone who entered your work in this competition. Your essays have taken me and my readers to far-flung and thought-provoking places--from Savar to Scotland, from Cairns to Cambodia, from Madeira to Matheran. They've challenged us to see the world from fresh angles, and I'm proud to have all of the top essays published here at I Must Be Off!

Many of the top pieces will receive Dorothee Lang and Smitha Murthy's unusual, epistolary travel book Worlds Apart. This is such a well-written and profound book about travel, China, India, Germany and life lessons in general. It is also about a very cool accidental friendship. I hope those of you who win this book enjoy it as much as I have.

Choosing the top twenty essays from the 87 sent in, many in the last few hours before the submissions deadline, was not so difficult; but I have lost a bit of sleep choosing the top two. One reason I decided to give two top prizes was because I knew there would be drastically different interpretations of the "travel" essay. And indeed, I Must Be Off! received so many different styles of writing--informative, humorous, reflective, academic, just plain fun, etc--that selecting only two is actually no fun at all. But it must be done.



___________________

The WINNERS of the First Annual  
I Must Be Off! 
Travel Essay Competition:
(in no particular order) 


by Hannah Thompson-Yates


God's Own Country
by Saahil Acharya




Highly Commended: 
(in no particular order)


by Romi Grossberg


A Month in the Life of Bangladesh
by Paola Fornari


by Foster Trecost

by Rishita Dey

Kurigram to Dhaka by Night
by Rilla Norslund



Again, thank you to all the writers who participated in the competition. If your work has found a home here at I Must Be Off! please know that it is loved.  

I must be off,
Christopher

___________________________________________________________________

Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's award-winning fiction and non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly's Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Prime Number Magazine, The Best of Every Day Fiction, Pure Slush, Bootsnall Travel and Chicken Soup for the Soul. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize twice. He is the managing editor of the daily litzine Metazen. Recently, Allen--along with editors Michelle Elvy and Linda Simoni-Wastila--hosted Flash Mob 2013 in celebration of International Flash Fiction Day. 


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

God on the Rocks -- a Visit to The Metéora

One of 6 remaining monasteries at The Metéora
She introduces herself jokingly as the Jungfrau Maria (the Virgin Mary), and the tour group--the one waiting for our tour group to remove itself from the cooler, inner area of the chapel--laughs boisterously. Her name is Maria, an informative guide who speaks fluent German, and also one who doesn't shy away from talking about religion as well as the current crisis in Greece.

Maria, our tour guide
Our trip from the port of Thessaloniki to the rock monasteries of The Metéora takes about two and a half hours, past Mount Olympus and through the town of Larissa, the capital of the region Thessaly. Maria speaks generously about the simple Greek person's problems and the causes, in her opinion, of the financial crisis in Greece. About thirty minutes into her talk, I begin to feel uncomfortable. I know there are people on the bus who wish she'd change the subject to something more touristy, something happy, something mythological maybe. Maybe I'm wrong about this, though. The bus is full of German tourists, who tend to be a bit more serious and interested in politics than your average Anglotourist. I turn to check out the reactions my fellow touries. Most are asleep.

Mt. Olympus speeding by through the bus window
As we pass Mount Olympus, Maria tells stories of Zeus hiding his kids in his head and in his calf, of his exploits and his sexual escapades. She tells a couple stories about his jealous wife, Hera. Interestingly and ickily, Hera is also Zeus's sister. Maria's stories are much more interesting than the backdrop of Mount Olympus, which the ancient Greeks thought was the highest point on Earth. Boy, were they wrong.

As we drive through the city of Larissa, I keep seeing graffiti screaming MONSTERS! and I at first think this must be a message to the politicians about this mismanagement of the country, maybe a message to the Germans. HOMELESS is also scrawled everywhere, so I think my guess could be on the money. But then I see MONSTERS! in connection to a(nother) football team. Yesterday, at the Greek restaurant near my home in Munich, our waiter--who's from Larissa--confirmed that Monsters is a football team--but I think HOMELESS probably isn't.

As the UNESCO World Heritage site The Metéora appears on the horizon a few miles ahead, Maria turns to the group and says, "I know what you're thinking: 'We drove all this way for those rocks?!!'" The group laughs. "Just wait," she says. "You'll see."

Caves of the ascetic, hermit monks at The Metéora
And we certainly do. Metéora means "suspended in the air" and the remaining six of more than 20 monasteries built on these sandstone pillars are feats of engineering and contruction. The monks who built these monasteries, however, weren't the first inhabitants of Metéora. A community (ironically) of ascetic, hermit monks lived in the cutouts and fissures in the rocks as early as the 9th century. From the looks of these caves, I can only assume these monks began to feel a bit crowded. The last thing a hermit wants is neighbors, right? I don't know. I like my peace and quiet. I wonder if they had rules about playing loud music and grilling. And I'm almost positive they kept building higher so they wouldn't get peed on by their neighbors.

Around the late 11th century, simple monastic structures began popping up (and up and up) atop these rock formations. I'm told (by Maria) that there were more than 24 monasteries here. Most remain only as ruins now, but six have survived. We visited two. At the Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron, pictured directly below, pilgrims and monks were raised and lowered by a rope and a basket for centuries where the newer-looking balcony is on the left. The rope was replaced only when 'The Lord let it break', which meant people risked death accessing the monastery. We took the steps.

The steps here are a modern addition of course.





At the bottom, just above the trees is the ruins of a monastery built on a narrow ledge.

Sadly, a great deal of the artwork inside the monasteries has fallen to the brutality of time, war and robbers. Taking photos inside the monasteries isn't allowed, but I took these outside where it is allowed....




I'm not the best at remembering facts and dates and people's names, but I have a very good head for a statement well put. As we are standing in the cool, inner chapel of the Monastery of Saint Stephen, Maria stops telling us about the iconic art on the walls and says, "You know, it doesn't really matter if you are Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant--we all pray to the same God. Or even if you don't believe in God at all. Everyone should be able to live as he sees fit. And that's what really matters."

The cynic in me tries to convince me statements like this are said to assure a good tip in the end, but I resist. I hum a pleasant tune to block out the cynic.

Maria's statement reminds me that we in the Western World live in a time of great tolerance, that despite isolated instances of hate and bigotry we actually do widely respect/tolerate one another. The overwhelming majority of us will never be tortured because we believe or don't believe the doctrine of one religion or the other. Still, we could all be more tolerant of other people's beliefs, or as I so quite often: We could all be nicer.

Due to the heightened irritation in Greece with the policies of the European Union, I assume, and specifically the leadership of Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel, we--a busful of German tourists--had a police escort during our trip to The Metéora--which is sad. Maybe there were threats we were blissfully unaware of? I hope the situation in Greece improves quickly, that employment increases, and that life returns to normal soon.

Next time, I'm going to take you to Yalta, Ukraine and show you the most adorable sleeping lion.

To continue with I Must Be Off! A-Z, go to H is for Hamburg.


I must be off,
Christopher

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Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's award-winning fiction and non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly's Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Prime Number Magazine, The Best of Every Day Fiction, Pure Slush, Bootsnall Travel and Chicken Soup for the Soul. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize twice. He is the managing editor of the daily litzine Metazen. Recently, Allen--along with editors Michelle Elvy and Linda Simoni-Wastila--hosted Flash Mob 2013 in celebration of International Flash Fiction Day.