When we arrived in Thessaloniki, I felt a pull to stay, and not just leave immediately to Istanbul. There are no international trains to or from Thessaloniki ever since last March, when the “troubles” began. We took the bus and with the help of an androgynous young Greek with halitosis, got off on a main drag. I was tempted to stay here; everything was grittier, the people were younger, and it’s Greece’s second largest city.
I looked at the hotels lining the dark pulsing boulevard. “If I can get a hotel for thirty euro a night, we stay, if not, we go.” Anthony agreed. The concierge had me name my price, which was still ten euro too low. He suggested I try across the street for a place that might be dirty, without any breakfast.
We walked back to the bus stop. Every minute buses pulled up and people got on. We got on the old bus with wooden seats and rode the few blocks to the train station. There was an ominous sign in the international line we couldn’t understand so Anthony went to the information desk to ascertain the meaning. I asked a young man in a blue velvet coat, a singing woman who might have been his sister and their mother.
There were only buses to Istanbul, which you could catch at a travel agency outside the station, which they would lead us to as soon as they saw their mother off. That was kind, but we could go on our own. But it was on their way. And as soon as we told them how we had just arrived in Theassaloniki and didn’t have money for a hotel, the woman, Eliftheria, which means Liberty in Greek, asked why we hadn’t couchsurfed. Well we hadn’t been sure we were even going to come to Thessaloniki. She could host us, as long as her husband agreed.
We walked to the station, bought our tickets for the next night and walked back to her house. Simon in the blue coat was a friend, a student who wants to be head of the Metropolitan Opera. A couple watched I, Robot on Eliftheria’s couch. Soon another couple came over. Eliftheria’s husband Tassos made us eggs with friend potatoes and a piece of bread. After not having anything substantial since noon it was a feast. He joined us on the couch and when he couldn’t remember the English word for something, hummed and twitched his mouth left and right underneath his black beard. Simon laughed. Eliftheria asked questions and we digressed, working back to the point eventually. We stayed up late talking about the point of art and criticism. Tassos said that you’re truly an artist when you have shame for your work–when you can be embarrassed about it and want to produce the best to give to people.
Eliftheria offered us a special tea, which I hoped would be some kind of hallucinogenic. But it was a leaf which I couldn’t place the smell of, which still bothers me, and it was soothing. I was surprised the party didn’t involve any alcohol–not that I needed it, it’s just that no one was drinking and I was the first one to hit the hay. Our room was pink with framed puzzles on the walls. Eliftheria tucked us in, showed me some of her Dungeons and Dragons, printed me a handout to learn the Greek alphabet, and promised we would meet at 1030 the next morning.
We went to a local pastry shop downtown for cream and cheese filled filo dough pastries and drip coffee, and discussed alcoholic and sexual repression in the U.S. When the conversation moved into politics Simon said that cleaning ladies who worked at the ministry indeed used to make 50,000 euro a year. But now even Tassos had taken a hit at his job as a computer programmer at the university.
Then the profligacy wasn’t overblown, a notion which was further reinforced when we saw Thessaloniki’s brand new City Hall; the continuation of their billion euro metro line; and the free meal we and the couple of thousand other “students” ate at the public (and free) Macedonia University.
The city is beautiful, as we were shown by our tour guide on the cultural bus number 50. We took an hour long loop of the city, passing all the major Byzantine churches, and asking our tour guide pertinent questions about the Ottoman occupation, which began in 1430 and ended in 1912. Eliftheria already knew him from the previous CouchSurfing tours she had led, and he seemed to like us so much that he offered to give us a tour of the Agia Sophia and the Ioannino Catacombs at five.
With a lot of afternoon left, we went to the University cafeteria for a free lunch upon Simon’s suggestion. It is written into the Greek Constitution that education is free and equal for all, which means that all of it is public. Private universities aren’t even recognized, so that when the University of Sheffield partners with a private Greek school, the diploma isn’t as good as one from Macedonia University. I like the idea of a free lunch for students, but I was surprised that even with budget cuts, about a thousand plus kids could line up for spaghetti, apples and cabbage salad.
I watched the late adolescents with too much makeup move awkwardly, eat with gusto and talk somewhat self-consciously. Whenever someone dropped something the entire hall exploded with applause. Then we walked across the street to sample more of the student life, checking out the library and grafittied amphitheater. Each discipline has its own library, which I also found odd. One of the university stoas had kicked out glass panes and long brick hallways. Students gathered there every Friday to party.
We walked back to the City Center to meet Dmitrius for a private tour around the Agia Sophia, a seventh-century Byzantine church. We learned about the distinction between the Orthodox and Catholic churches, about New Rome and the patriarchates of Constantinople (which got me really excited to visit Istanbul), and about the importance of Thessalonika as a second city, first to Pela, then to Constantinople, then to Athens. Paul came here and wrote some letters (Thessalonians) and the early Christian architecture, halfway between the rectangular basilicas and the higher domes of the cross churches, is really special.
But we had to change our tickets by eight o clock and it was already seven. We had bought the tickets for Istanbul for tonight, but we wanted to stay an extra night for our clothes to dry. So Eliftheria and Simon left for a “meeting” and we went with Dmitrius to one of the city’s best souvlaki joints for skewered meat and cheese, french fries and tomato and onion doused with lemon and oregano. We were just starting to get comfortable, talking about the diminishing presence of Greek communities in cities such as New York, when I realized we had to go if we wanted to switch our tickets.
We got on the wrong bus, got off, got on the right one, and managed to find our way back to the house with five minutes to eight. I was pretty sure that we weren’t going to make it, that we’d have to carry our wet clothes in a bag and get ready for an adventure, but when I presented our tickets to the bus-guy he said, “Sure, one moment.” That was it. It was easy; we’d have the night to relax and hang out, dry our clothes and rest for the next day.
On the way to the market to buy cereal for the morning, Anthony stopped in the middle of the road and picked money off the ground. He was broke–he was waiting for his tax return on Wednesday, which is another great reason we chose to couch surf for the next day–and he found a fifty Euro note! But when he took it out of his pocket, hands shaking, it was too plasticky. We turned it over. It was a flyer. “We should throw rocks at the business of whoever did this.” And with our two close calls, we took it as a sign not to worry about money or Istanbul, and just get some cereal and cookies and a good night of sleep to prepare us for tomorrow’s big journey.
We woke up late and took our time getting ready. Simon was passed out on the couch and Eliftheria’s rooster-crowing alarm clock went off twice before we told her we were leaving for the State Museum of Contemporary Art. Most of the work had been the collection of a Russian named Costakis, a diplomat’s driver who got mixed in with artists after the war and started collecting. We saw Malevichs, Popovas and other members of the Russian avant garde art scene side by side with contemporary Greek artists commissioned by the state. The art was clearer than most of the work we see in Bushwick. Beside some of Malevich’s mystical compositions of squares and circles was a large spray-painted composition by an Athenian artist with all the symbols of minimalism, but the human error and imprecision valued by our post postmodern era, in which the visibility of the artist is most valued.
We got a little lost before blackriding downtown to a souvlaki joint near one of the markets. All the men in the store were getting drunk on white wine, and the cook passed out delicious lamb sausages. We had pork with french fries thrown on top, a real feast for 2.50. Then we ordered Greek coffee and tried to decide on a hostel in Istanbul which was incredibly difficult since all of them are fairly inexpensive and vary only slightly. We’re staying at the Bada Bing, a name which I really couldn’t turn down, for $11 a night. We bought Eliftheria a potted plant, Anthony mailed some postcards and we went home, where Eliftheria had prepared dinner.
She had stayed up so late cooking bread, cake and other Greek delicacies. We had a hot bean dish with onion, feta drizzled with olive oil and oregano, tomato and red onion salad, and her fresh bread. For desert we had more Greek coffee, preserved grapes and pear, biscuits and pound cake, while we watched a movie released in English by the title, A Touch of Spice.
We walked to the bus and forgot the wine and bread Eliftheria had said we should take. Oh well. But seven minutes after we had said our goodbyes, she popped back into the doubledecker out of breath and handed us a bag, wished us well.
Thessaloniki’s a beautiful place, the best second city I’ve ever known. It doesn’t presume to be more than it is–a regional capital with a lot of history, natural beauty, and kind warm people. I knew when I arrived I would like it; our adventure here illustrates the beauty of travel, you go where you need to, and Thessaloniki’s is certainly worth visiting.