Macedonia, the 1st. (Not to be confused with the country)

18 Dec

A hop, skip, and a jump.  I’m not really sure how anybody ever gets anywhere farther than about 2ft tops on just a hop a skip and a jump, but I do know how people get to many places on an overnight train, the common day equivalent.  I’ve had varying experiences with overnight trains, each one promising a new ordeal, and this past weekend was no exception.  With a train departing for Thessaloniki, a city in Northern Greece, at 11:59pm on Friday, I got out of work, headed to the train station and booked a ticket, rushed back to my house to shower and pack (taking time to buy snacks at Carrefour of course), and returned to the train station with about 25 minutes to spare.  The train ride wasn’t that bad, despite the blinding fluorescent lights staying on for the duration of the trip, trying to sleep in the standard seat with my head lodged against the cold window, and an omniscient Greek voice reporting over the loudspeaker periodically.  Nonetheless, we arrived in Thessaloniki at 6am, just in time to settle into Chris’s aunt’s cozy apartment for a nice 4 hour nap.

Chris is half-Greek on his mother’s side, and still has family living in Greece today.  His mother grew up in Thessaloniki, and his aunt (Thia Olga — Thia being the Greek word for Aunt) graciously opened her home to 4 of us for the weekend.  His other aunt (Thia Dora) lives part-time in Thessaloniki and part-time in San Francisco, so the two sisters stayed in one apartment and left the other to us.  They were the nicest, sweetest hosts, not only welcoming us to their city and family, but embracing us and really showing us the true meaning of Greek hospitality.  Southerners ain’t got nothing on this pair.  They cooked an extensive meal for us one day, treated us to a never-ending dinner another evening, and smothered us with hugs and kisses every chance they got.

Small boat docked at the boardwalk

Because of our elegant overnight form of traveling, we had two full days to explore Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece and the capital of the Macedonian region.  Chris has been visiting the city his entire life, and served as a wonderful tour guide.  Thessaloniki lies on the Thermaic Gulf, and has a pleasant boardwalk offering pedestrians and bikers alike a gorgeous stroll and seaside view of the coastal town.  We walked along the boardwalk and headed toward the White Tower, a now-museum that was built by the Ottomans and used as a prison and site for mass-executions during the Ottoman rule.  According to the information panel out front, it has had many different names throughout its existence, but received its most recent name “The White Tower” after being whitewashed by a prisoner in exchange for his freedom.  The Tower now serves as a museum featuring the history of Thessaloniki, with different exhibits sprinkled throughout the winding stairway you must climb in order to get to the brilliant view atop the Tower.  Unfortunately for us, the entire museum was in Greek, but considering we used our Teacher ID’s to pretend we were Greek high school students (requiring us to remain silent with the exception of a “neh” (yes) and “efharisto” (thank you) here and there) and gain free admission, we didn’t really mind.  Besides, the exhibits still had plenty of pictures and artifacts and interactive media, so we could (kind of) grasp what was going on.  At the very least, we acted like we knew what was up, so the museum-goers around us must have thought we were seriously educating ourselves.  Being mistaken for Greek in exchange for being utterly confused?  I’ll take it.

One especially interesting exhibit featured the Jews of Thessaloniki.  Greece used to have a large Jewish population, concentrated in Thessaloniki.  After the Spanish Inquisition, Jews fled and sought asylum in Greece for centuries, erecting synagogues and integrating themselves nicely into Greek culture and everyday life.  By the late 19th century, Jews accounted for almost 60% of Thessaloniki’s population.  Unfortunately, Hitler and his army of Nazis exterminated about 96% of the city’s Jews, and these synagogues, along with about 1000 living people, are all that’s now left of this once thriving community.

View of the White Tower from a distance

On a lighter note, later that day we walked to Eleftherias Square, a central hub in the city for coffee, food, shopping, and just spending time with friends.  I cannot stress how much time in a day a Greek person spends sitting at a coffee shop doing nothing with their buddies.  No wonder “Friends” is so successful here.  Eleftherias Square was happening.  More than happening.  Coffee shop after coffee shop, young person after young person, trendy outfit after trendy outfit, cigarette after cigarette.  This was the place to be.  Nevermind that it was cold and the seating was outdoors, the cafes do have heat lamps after all.  It seemed that anybody who was anybody was hanging out here, and Mr. Greek LA himself, dark shades and V-neck shirt included, sat us at our little white couches.  I wasn’t sure if I was in Northern Greece or serving as an extra in Entourage, but I liked it.  We sat and enjoyed our coffee (or rather, I enjoyed my hot chocolate), and then we ventured off to do some shopping until it was time to meet the Thia duo for dinner.

The meal was delicious on all accounts, but one thing I will always remember fondly about it?  The fish was being served, yet there was no room on the table for the plates.  So Thia Olga took the plate of fish from the waiter/owner/old Greek man who kept shoveling us food so he could clear away empty dishes, and held it above the table, right in front of my face.  This normally wouldn’t be so bad, if not for the fact that in many tavernas in Greece, this joint included, fish is prepared whole and fried.  So I had multiple large fish heads, teeth bared and eyes staring, directly in my line of vision, about 3 inches away from my head.  Needless to say, it was a delightful experience.  (The fish was good, by the way, once you decapitated it, sliced it down the middle, and took out the spine.  YUM)

That night we went dancing.  Yes, turns out people in Greece do actually dance.  A lot.  Yes, I know what you’re thinking.  Greek people have a reputation for getting wild and doing traditional dances and throwing plates (which, by the way, is illegal in most places now, and where it’s not, you have to pay a hefty fee for the soon-to-be-smashed china).  Go to a modern club or bar filled with young people however, and you will see everyone standing.  Still.  Talking.  We got some recommendations on places to go and set out for nightlife Thessaloniki-style.  They played everything from MJ and 80’s rock to Euro-trash club music to Elvis to the Grease soundtrack to Ricky Martin (we lived the vida loca twice, to be precise).  Clearly, because I’ve been having hot flashes since the age of 12, I had to continually go to the bathroom to cool myself with a damp towel.  But I digress.  We Americans owned that dance floor for a good 4 hours, and left ready for a well-deserved night’s sleep.  One issue with the place?  I don’t want to bash their top-notch DJ skills, but we requested Single Ladies a solid 7 times, and they chose to play Ricky Martin instead?  Really?

Christmas decoration in Eleftherias Square

The next day we ventured to the museums, hitting up the National Archeological Museum, a great museum with really wonderful exhibits on ancient Macedonia.  The museum houses a skeleton of a woman complete with eyebrows and full head of hair, a reconstructed living room of an ancient home, skulls of some of the first known humans to walk upright, and walls upon walls of colorful glass and its different uses throughout time.

After the museum, we took a 1 euro bus tour of the city, giving us a chance to see all the major sites of Thessaloniki within an hour’s time.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t very interactive (recorded voices addressed the different places we passed), and we never got off the bus, so that 1 euro more accurately paid for me to dose off and on for 60 minutes.  Oh well.  Thessaloniki isn’t that far from Athens, and it’s supposed to be beautiful in the Spring, so I’m sure I’ll be back.

Statue of Alexander the Great along the coast

By 11pm that night we were back on the train headed towards Athens.  I was seated in a different car from the other three, and had the pleasure of being seated with a snorer and a gum-smacker.  The couple across from me were deaf and talking through sign language, which I thought was really cool.  I wondered if sign language is different in Greek than it is in English.  I think the man might have been only partially deaf, but I’m not sure.  Either way, at around 3am, while the woman was fast asleep, I couldn’t help but envy her, just a little bit.  I mean, the snoring was REALLY loud.  At the golden hour of 5:45am we returned to Athens, and a metro, bus, and walk away (hop, skip and jump’s cousins) I was back in my bed for a 2 hour nap, with just enough time to be 25 minutes late to work.

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One Response to “Macedonia, the 1st. (Not to be confused with the country)”

  1. G & G December 18, 2009 at 6:43 pm #

    Hi: Allyson:

    What an interesting and learning article. We are going get on Wikipedia to discover what this city is all about.

    Looking forward to seeing you soon.

    Kisses, Grandmom Evie

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