By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Content Agency
What’s on the menu this busy Friday night in Athens?
A traditional menu says Katia lordanidou. An eggplant salad, fried cheese, Greek salad followed by stuffed tomatoes and peppers and a traditional dessert — mini fried donuts topped with honey and almonds.
But we aren’t in a trendy Athens restaurant. We’re in Katia lordanidou’s and her partner Thanos Nikopoulos’ apartment in the middle-class Byronus neighborhood east of the city center.
Before we arrived, we’d never met the couple, yet they were hosting us for dinner — a dinner we would help prepare in their small kitchen. Abercrombie & Kent, a tour company that offers family tours to Greece arranged our dinner.
Greece has now eased COVID-19 travel restrictions. It is no longer mandatory for arrivals to complete a passenger locator form. Individuals must still, however, show proof of full vaccination, recovery, or a negative PCR test result to enter.
And as we begin to travel again, many of us want to travel differently — connecting more with locals (like we did in Athens last year), traveling more sustainably, slowing down rather than rushing from historic ruin to museum.
Alternative Athens offers such local experiences as well as other tours, including special family activities. (Typically, about $104 per person). Tours by Locals is another respected company I’ve used that connects travelers with locals for various tours, including those designed for foodies (a gyros cooking class) and families (perhaps a day at the seaside).
Spyros Kagkas, a native Athenian, runs This is Athens With a Local, a volunteer program designed to connect tourists with those who live here for a free tour, whether you want to see a typical neighborhood, focus on food, architecture or what would be interesting for families. But these guides won’t take you to the Acropolis or a museum.
Instead, you might linger over coffee or a drink, sitting in a park while the kids play — perhaps for hours. Shopping in local markets, finding a favorite coffee house or ice cream spot is a reason why vacation rentals continue to be so popular as travelers, especially with kids, who not only want more space but also to settle into a neighborhood.
Kagkas takes us on a tour of the Pagkrati neighborhood where he lives — very hip, very urban, though there are retirees as well as parents with kids in strollers in the squares and parks and we do stop for a leisurely coffee.
You can also find such complimentary programs with the International Greeter Association in cities around the world, including London, New York, Paris, Chicago in nearly 40 countries. Just make sure to request a tour far in advance. Japan has a network of Goodwill Guides often led by students in Tokyo, Kyoto and other cities and historic sites who want to improve their English.
As travel destinations reopen, websites like EatWith.com can also connect you with locals for dinners or cooking classes in cities like Barcelona, London, New York, and Paris. In other cities, including Athens, you may be treated to a dinner ($76 per person) that’s been fished by the host’s family or eat a multi-course lunch in a home that is in one of Athens’ largest parks ($60 per person). Just make sure your kids will be welcome and they are prepared for the experience.
The idea is to get off the tourist track at least for an afternoon or evening. We got that at our boutique hotel, the family-owned St. George Lycabettus atop the famous Lycabettus hill with views of the Acropolis. In the posh neighborhood, cafes and restaurants are packed with locals at tables spilling out into the streets late in the evening.
We enjoyed the neighborhood away from tourist crowds and being welcomed like family. In fact, we were saved from getting ripped off by the taxi driver who brought us to the hotel by a longtime hotel employee who chastised the driver for trying to cheat us.
Last year, Greece was one of the first European countries to welcome back international visitors and locals hope that uptick will continue this season. Typically, those heading out to the famous islands or on a cruise, will spend a few days exploring Athens.
(Cruise with Greek-owned companies Celestyal Cruises and small-ship Variety Cruises, which can take you to “unexplored Greece”. Opt for a Windstar sailing yacht, as we did. The sailing yachts boast water platforms so you can swim right from the yacht. Sail your own boat, chartering from Clickandboat.com, which connects boat owners with those seeking a rental in the U.S. and countries like Greece.
When we arrived at Katia lordanidou and Thanos Nikopoulos’ apartment, she had already baked the eggplant. I got busy scooping out the flesh, chopping onions, garlic and parsley as Iordanidou drizzled olive oil, vinegar and salt. I told her in the New York suburbs, my mom and grandmother prepared eggplant salad similarly.
She explained she has grown up cooking with her grandmothers in Thessalonicki in northern Greece. In fact, we were using some tomatoes from their gardens that she had just brought back. “We cook what’s in season and what’s fresh,” she said.
Five million people live in and around Athens — half of the population of Greece, and they won’t go to the Acropolis, certainly not to the Plaka tourist shopping area, unless they are accompanying guests — just like New Yorkers wouldn’t go to the Statue of Liberty or those in St. Louis the Gateway Arch.
We chop, whisk and fry. Though we were strangers an hour before, we chat companionably, following the couple’s directions, sharing stories about the way we cook at home and how cooking together with our families is a cornerstone of family celebration, favorite movies and music. It helps that the couple are fluent in English.
As if dinner wasn’t enough, they offered us gifts — homemade jam Iordanidou’s dad has made, Greek pasta, oregano, sesame, candy.
We had brought a bottle of wine. Next time, I promise, I’ll bring a gift from home in Colorado. We invite them to visit.
Someday, they promise.
(For more Taking the Kids, visit www.takingthekids.com and also follow TakingTheKids on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments. The Kid’s Guide to Philadelphia, the 13th in the kid’s guide series, was published in 2020, with The Kid’s Guide to Camping coming in 2021.)
©2022 Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.