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My Big Fat Greek Vacation: A Pregnant Woman's Athens Food Odyssey

My Big Fat Greek Vacation: A Pregnant Woman's Athens Food Odyssey
Amany Ali Shawky

ATHENS — We were staying in the downtown area close to Athens' Kotzia Square, walking distance from the local fish market, the hardware market and local spice vendors. So a fishy mist weighs down the air, mingled with the opulent, nostalgic aroma of mastic (a resin used in the manufacturing of ouzo and mastika, a local brandy).

"Remind me to buy mastika for mom. She uses it for rice pudding and soups," I shout to my husband as we try to cross the congested two-way street, a mission that would become increasingly tedious as the days went by.

I was 27 weeks pregnant when we went on our "babymoon" to Greece. It was one last voyage as "me" before I became the mother of Sultan, or Adam, or Souvlaki (kebab) — my husband's newest addition to our quirky baby name list.

At this point, eating was the only thing I could do with ease. I was always hungry, and everything else seemed out of reach — for a pregnant woman anyway. Drinking, swimming, parading on the beach, sunbathing and shopping all became activities that raised question marks in the eyes of the masses. "But this is a small!" the sales lady at Attica Department Store protested as I tried to buy a summer dress.

"Food, food it is," I tell myself as I finally settle on this trip's obsession, and bid my sightseeing plans goodbye.

Before the trip, I had read about Greece's bleak economic saga, and I was both sympathetic and concerned, coming from a place undergoing its own historically charged moment. But on arrival, I found that the tourism industry was stubbornly persevering.

And so I too chose to stubbornly pursue my mission, which in my case meant keeping the gates of bliss open with a steady schedule of gastronomic feats — despite the familiar bad traffic and the many discomforts of traveling while pregnant.

Sacred eating experience

The old tavern of Psaras in the heart of Plaka has been delighting foodies since the late 19th century. As my husband consulted Google Maps on our first walk in Athens, I enjoyed getting semi-lost in the narrow alleys of the old market, tracing the white stone steps that lead to food heaven. Wooden tables, white tablecloths and middle-aged, white-haired, mustachioed waiters welcome customers upon arrival.

Psaras Tavern in Athens' Plaka neighborhood — Photo: Amany Ali Shawky

The menu is succinct: Aegean specialties, mostly fish. I opt for Greek salad and fried octopus croquette as an hors d'oeuvre (which brings my husband disturbing memories of the grilled octopus leg I inhaled whole in Santorini days before). Seafood pasta is the main dish of choice.

The food is downright voluptuous, but its delivery is so simple that the meal is more of a sacred experience than a profane one. I swallow big chunks of cucumber and tomato delicately scented with thyme, with the zing of capers, the earthiness of excellent olive oil and the pungent, milky flavors of dense blocks of feta cheese washing over my palette immediately thereafter. Next, I pry open the mussels in my tagliatelle, releasing their garlicky, fresh juices into their succulent bath of tomato sauce.

I'm wiping my lips, sated, when I notice a waiter exiting the kitchen with a plate of watermelon and feta. I don't know who passed the habit to whom, but it seems the Greeks share the summery, thirst-quenching sweet-and-sour treat of Egyptians. Hallelujah!

Our next Greek infatuation, after the seafood, turned out to be gyros. What could go wrong with pillows of soft, pudgy bread cuddling juicy, shredded meats deeply slathered in nutmeg, cumin and sumac, and nestled with seasoned onions and chopped tomato? Nothing, it turns out. Although both typically Greek and cousin to the Arab shawerma, some say this "opa" of aroma and texture is originally Turkish — yet another case of uncertain food paternity.

If I ever find myself anxious or feeling left out as a pregnant woman on summer vacation, one gyro and a generous serving of watermelon and feta brings me back home. There's a reason why: On every corner of Monastiraki Square you can spot northerners with a fat gyro dripping tzatziki sauce on their "I ♥ Greece" shirts. It's an instant source of comfort.

Home away from home

There's something soulful about staying in the heart of a city. Although we were temporarily lured by the freshness of the upscale Athenian suburb Glyfada, downtown possessed the aromas and hues of the gods. We spent most of our time immersing ourselves in the hustle and bustle of the flea market, fighting for space with shoppers on Ermou Street, and constantly inhaling the delightful smell of souvlaki (hence the proposed name for our future son).

The street vendors, old bars and stuffed vine leaves are all obvious reminders of Egypt, but it's really the special, tarnished grandeur of Athens, its particular sweet melancholy, that makes it feel like home away from home.

The center's most colorful point is Brettos, the chromatic bar and distillery of the old market. In 1909, Michael Brettos made his first bottles of mint, cherry and mastic liqueur here, using a secret family recipe for premium-quality brandy and ouzo. But despite its historical importance, the place remains humble, and the friendliness of the staff makes Brettos a staple in our daily routine in Athens.

Every corner holds a surprise. Aside from the ceiling-high display of colorful, back-lit liqueur bottles — which draws in tourists like moths to flame — ancient wooden counters, old alcohol ads, moldy barrels of brandy and a hand-made ouzo distillery all help create an anachronistic charm.

As I sip on my luscious cocktail of grenadine, banana, pineapple, kiwi and orange, I skim through the 12-page menu full of flavors. Mastika liqueur seems the most intriguing. Unlike other blends, the mastic-infused drink is blandly colorless, yet grand, aromatic, deep and very smooth.

Looking up from the menu, I deeply breathe in a bewildering smell of old downtown bars in Alexandria. Just as Sting was an Englishman in New York, I am a pregnant woman in a bar, and I like it.

I ♥ Greece.

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In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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