Getting out of the car by the highway exit and hugging my environmentalist drivers goodbye, I have to admit the way the sun throws it’s light at the white towerblocks that stagger down the mountain to the sparkling sea below is, indeed, beautiful.
I’m staying in the anarchist occupation in the centre of the city. It’s very punk and a far cry from the tranquility of the forest, but the people are friendly and welcoming. At the forest occupation and the squat in Thessaloniki there were more women than men. Here, it’s the reverse and I have a hard time adjusting to what I interpret as a macho energy. I ask one of the women how she finds living there, but she doesn’t understand what I mean and seems offended that I think her friends are macho. I try to reassure her that I like them, just find them a bit… well… macho. I can’t think of another word that expresses what I mean. Thesaurus anyone?
I spend a day exploring the old city by foot, walking the narrow steep and twisting streets. I pay the €2 entrance fee to the castle and make the most of my money by picnicing on the castle walls, looking down over the city and out into the Aegean.
My evenings are spent at the steki – an autonomous bar with a small bookshop, library and a couple of computers in the back room. It doesn’t really get busy until after my bedtime, but I manage occasional conversations – notably one with a Greek anarchist, who after hearing that the anarchist scene in the UK is a lot more environmentally oriented, tells me – “We don’t need environmentalism – we have anarchism!” Sigh.
Two full days and three nights in Kavala feel like enough. I say goodbye to the anarcho-punks and find a bus out of town to a good hitching spot.
This time my lifts don’t tell me I’m going to a beautiful city. In fact they suggest I go to Xanthi instead. But I’m not going to Komotini to look at the city, I’m going purely for the purpose of meeting a Couchsurfing host named Patrick.
I found Patrick’s profile way back when I was first in Athens and have been looking forward to meeting him. I’m not disappointed. As a long-term traveller I have grown to appreciate the beauty of feeling at home somewhere, and that is just how I feel with Patrick – right from the moment he greets me at the cafe in Komotini’s main square.
Komotini isn’t beautiful, but it has character. The city is half-Greek, half Turkish. There’s a mosque next to the church, elderly people mutter in Turkish together, and I notice nargiles and Turkish chai glasses in shop windows for the first time.
Unfortunately, I only get two days with Patrick, but he leaves me his key along with his good faith when he goes to Thessaloniki Film Festival for the weekend and I lock up carefully for him when I leave the following day. It’s time to leave Greece at last…
It’s an easy walk to the edge of the city and I raise my thumb to the passing cars. One stops and takes me to the edge of Alexandropouli. He’s half Greek, half Turkish. There’s something about him I don’t like, but it’s not that he’s threatening or a bad ride. I figure it out when he tells me his job – as well as the restaurant he owns, he makes a living by transporting cattle from Greece to Turkey for slaughter. Eighty cattle, three times per week and he also hunts rabbits with his dog. I ask if he loves his dog. He smiles and says yes, he loves his dog. I tell him I’m a vegetarian, but he doesn’t seem to hear me.
My next ride is a German man, who takes me up to the border. He’s not going across himself, so I walk to the window where the border guard is and ask what to do. He says I can’t walk across on foot or I’ll be shot, so I hang around until a car arrives. This man is Georgian and speaks no English, but I’m a dab hand at improvised sign language - walking fingers and mimed shooting explain that I need a lift over the border. We both get back in his car.
Driving over the infamous Evros River, I think of all the lives lost by desperate people attempting to cross in the opposite direction.
The Turkish border greets me with red flag waving. I wave goodbye to the Georgian and stand in line to get my visa. €15 buy me 90 days in Turkey and I wait for my host to collect me from the nearby small town where he lives.
I found my host on CS. I chose him because I wanted to stay somewhere smaller before going to Istanbul, and because he’s into cycling and environmentalism, so I figured we would get along. He’s nice enough. We eat together and talk a while. He’s organised some pojects around a lake nearby for cyclists and birdwatchers, which is nice. Unfortunately he later tells me what his “real” job is: he’s a border guard. What can I say? He might as well have told me he’s a Nazi. “It’s just a job,” he says. Yes, that’s what they all say.
I wake in the morning to the sight of my full-commando-military-attired host on his way out to work. He’ staying out all night, so I have the place to myself until I leave.
If Komotini isn’t beautiful, then Ipsala certainly isn’t. Anyway it’s raining and I have period cramps so I’m not tempted to exlore much. I manage a little walk around in the rain and buy a bit of food. It’s daunting being in a new country with zero language, zero cultural awareness and even zero currency until I manage to get directions to a bank by miming inserting my cash card into a bank machine (my hand) in a shop.
I also freak myself out a bit by reading the Safety Hitchhiking Guide to Turkey for girls and decide that it might be better to get a bus to Istanbul and learn a bit of Turkish before starting my hitchhiking adventures in this new country.
It takes three hours and two lifts to hitch from Volos to Thessaloniki – Greece’s second largest city. My second lift is two twenty-something girls who’ve clearly never considered picking up a hitchhiker before. I approach them at a service station and convince them to take me, despite their hesitation – “Wait… you’re backpacking Europe… alone?” They can hardly believe it. “But aren’t you afraid?” People always ask the same things.
I’m staying at Terra Incognita, a squat near the centre. I find my way there with the help of a map and call my contact D, who meets me at the door and helps me clamber over the dog barricade of wooden pallets halfway up the stairs. I’m sleeping in the guest room and have my pick of four large double bunk-beds. Everything is clean, neat and welcoming. I meet my other new squat-mates in the kitchen – M, ML, B and Yoyo, a German traveler who’s been staying a couple of months already, awaiting friends who went home for Christmas and never returned. Amazingly I’m not the only vegan in the house – Yoyo and D are too. In fact, B is the only meat-eater.
The “P.P.P.” (my nickname for him) arrives later that night. He’s a Punk from Poland, and he’s almost always Pissed. He’s my room-mate for the next three nights and he snores like a bulldozer. Our politics, although both “Anarchist” are extremely different. He’s from the “I’m an anarchist so I’ll do whatever I want” school of thinking, where I’m more of the “I’m an anarchist so I take responsibility for my own actions and how they affect others” school. Still, he’s a nice enough guy.
There’s also a dog and two cats, seperated by the aformentioned dog barricade, lest fighting begin. By far the most interesting furry character though is “The Frog”, a stray cat who spends literally all of his time outside the kitchen window making strange rrrreeeagh noises. He’s named for this and the way he leans around the corner and rotates his neck to look inside. A very creepy cat.
“Are you by any chance Couchsurfers?” I’ve rushed down to the White Tower after reading on the Thessaloniki CS Group that there’s a picnic happening. “Hey, aren’t you Jo?” asks a girl at the back of the circle. “Um… yes!?” “Do you want something to eat…wait, you’re vegan aren’t you – take one of these!” She hands me a beetroot and lettuce sandwich and I sit down next to her. It turns out this is Evgenia’s best friend. I stayed with Evgenia in Athens and it seems she’s been bigging me up to her friend in Thessaloniki. Thanks Evgenia!
Sebastien and Jon are two more travelers at the picnic, hitching their way to Egypt. When the picnic ends I take them and their sitar-playing Cypriot host to my favourite steki (social centre), the Migrant’s Place on Ermou, for 50c coffee and €1 beers. Here we discuss traveling, politics, spirituality and conspiracy theories until their eyelids are drooping – these guys have been traveling almost non-stop. Tomorrow they’re hitching to Istanbul.
It’s my first shift at the Hunger Strike, now on it’s 29th day. The shift is 2-8pm and involves sitting in the reception area of the Labour Centre with six other people – reading, chatting and playing backgammon. There are also three people upstairs attending to the hunger strikers, we are just the back-up. Within an hour a man has fainted and been hospitalised. They bring him down from the 7th floor in the elevator in a wheelchair. We stand to each side watching as he’s wheeled through us and out the door to the waiting ambulance, followed by a girl with a video camera. It’s upsetting to watch.
Half an hour later another ambulance arrives. I detected a change in atmosphere but couldn’t understand what people were saying. Now I understand. People make way to the side as before and the elevator reveals another gaunt unconscious man, strapped into a wheelchair. There’s trouble getting this one out and several people struggle with the wheelchair, which is lodged behind part of the lift. Tension is rising, but eventually he’s lifted into another chair and wheeled away. There are tears in several eyes this time.
4:30pm, another ambulance arrives. Again a man is brought down in the lift. I’ve been speaking to a friendly girl with good English, but now she goes with him to the hospital.
5pm. Another collapse. People aren’t speaking with me so much. Tension and tiredness perhaps? I read my “Learn Greek” book to keep myself occupied.
6:45pm. I’m talking to an Iraqi man who has come in to ask… what? For help? It’s unclear what he wants or thinks we can do. He asks to speak with the men upstairs and I try to explain the situation to him – these men have not eaten for 29 days. No – nothing. Yes, ok – water, some sugar and salt, but that’s it. They are risking their lives (killing themselves?) to get papers. What on earth makes you think they can give you papers? He eventually seems to understand and I’m told it’s ok to take him up, so we take the lift to the 7th floor where the hunger strikers are. A doctor is taking blood pressure in one room, men lie thin and exhausted in blankets in another with a television. A couple of men walk around slowly or sit with glasses of water. I want to speak with them myself, but questioning my own motives keep me from doing so. Why is it I really want to speak with these men? It seems somehow self-indulgent, like tourism.
We go back down and I buy the Iraqi man a coffee from the bar. He’s telling me he lives in a house with no water or electricity. I resist telling him he’s comparatively lucky. This man is suffering, that others suffer more doesn’t make him suffer less. He asks for my phone number and I give it to him. He never calls.
23rd February, another General Strike. I go to the demonstration with Yoyo. It’s good to be with someone else, looking out for one another. The demonstration is very large – it’s impossible to tell how large. We’re somewhere in the middle and neither end is in sight. We march down main streets, past shuttered banks and supermarkets, which people try to open with crowbars. A classic moment: marching past a supermarket with a cash point outside, a man in a mask with a sledgehammer waits patiently in line while a woman gets money out, then goes in and smashes it to the crowd’s applause. The woman walks off with her money as though nothing unusual has happened.
Despite elevated heart-rates, nerves on fire, some running and the faint whiff of teargas, we come out unscathed. Police attempt to break the demonstration a number of times, but it holds up until the end. I don’t even need to use my Mallox.
The hunger strike supporters are doing an awareness-raising action at Kamara. I arrive late to discover music playing and fliers on the floor, but only two people left. They point me down the road to the bus stop where I find the others fly-postering buses. It goes like this… the bus comes and a few people jump in front to stop it moving. One person gets on the bus and distributes flyers to those inside, while a girl sloshes glue onto the outside of the bus with a big broom and others run in with posters. There’s also a guy writing “solidarity with the hunger strikers” in marker pen on the back of the bus – apart from one bus, which leaves too quickly reading “solidarity with the hung”. Genius. Some of the bus drivers have evidently heard about this in advance of arriving and try to avoid us – but people run at the bus, stand in front of it, yell “MALAKA! MALAKA!” (Greece’s main swearword) and even move plastic barricades in the way of the bus. When everyone’s finished someone shouts “ENDAXI!” (ok) and everyone moves aside to allow the bus to pass. Few buses escape without posters and those that do have a liberal helping of glue sloshed over them anyway.
I arrive at the Rotonda after a hurried make-up session and some clothes grabbed from the ‘free shop’ outside my bedroom. Fortunately, my lateness and the general habit of Greeks to start everything 1-2 hours later than stated synchronise and I arrive just as the procession is beginning. I find the Zombie Geisha, Zombie Nurse and other general zombies from the squat amidst the zombie crowd, stick a plastic bone in my mouth and begin groaning. Tonight is ‘Zombie Riot’. Once again I find myself thinking, you couldn’t get away with this in England! as people fill the streets – moaning, screaming, rolling over cars, stopping all traffic and covering everything from ancient statues to banks, supermarkets and fast food restaurants with fake blood. The slo-mo rioting zombies march the streets for a good hour before retiring to the Polytechnic University, covering that in blood also and proceeding to drink their way through a hell of a lot of beer and spirits amidst live rockabilly bands.
Despite these few exciting sounding ventures, my time in Thessaloniki can mostly be remembered as a lot of time on the computer, an unshakeable feeling of tiredness, cold weather and a lot of coffee. Mostly I’ve been writing, reading blogs and only venturing out occasionlly – mostly to the Migrant’s Place steki, or just to the shops or a walk around.
One particularly epic and interesting walk takes me up into the small old streets that twist up the mountain. Here houses are older and shabbier, some almost shacks. I feel it has more character than the standard white blocks with balconies in the city centre. There’s a castle at the top where I find a party of tourists with a guide. We look at one another curiously, travellers from different worlds.
I’m intening to have “goodbye Thessaloniki” drinks with the few friends I’ve made on my last night. Jon, who never made it to Egypt and came back to Thessaloniki after being turned away at the Syrian border, texts to say he’s in hospital with a broken foot. I go to the Migrant’s Place, hoping to see my friend Iovanna – a slightly eccentric 50-something year old woman from Rhodes who lives in a storage room – but she’s not there. All the Terra people are preparing for a concert at Biologica, another steki on the East part of town. There are so many stekis I never visited and one is on the way home – Iskra. I decide to pay them a visit and have a nice political discussion with the guy behind the bar – until he hears I’m vegan and reels away from me as though I’ve shot him in the chest. We talk a while more and I feel it’s time to leave when his girlfriend comes and stands behind him with her hands firmly on his shoulders.
On my way home I pass by the Labour Centre and pop in for the end of the Hunger Strike Support Group’s nightly meeting. These tend to be epic and I find it best to just pop in at the end for a translated summary. Now I hear they’ve spent three hours discussing what to do next. Nobody seems to know and people are still throwing in suggestions. I teach my translator the phrase “clutching at straws”, bid her luck and leave. I’m going to the forest tomorrow and I may not have internet access for a couple of weeks, but she says I can text her for updates. Fingers crossed.
Anthony and I wait as directed in the coffee bar in Agios Nikolaos, where Camil arrives shortly to pick us up. This is really a stroke of luck – a lift out of Trahila followed by another one all the way to Kalamata with friends of the community (see last post). Camil has a dentist appointment in town. He drops us on his way and we cross the city on foot. It’s a beautiful day.
After a few short lifts we get a long one – all the way to Patras with a Greek truck driver, Yiannis. The only catch is we have a couple of stops for an hour or two each to load and unload the truck. We take the opportunity to walk around and eat the bread, oranges and olive oil we brought with us. I have a two litre bottle of the oil we harvested: my last piece of Trahila. Yiannis comes over with a lettuce from his cargo and a couple of bottles of water for us. He’s not a talkative guy, but he’s obviously generous.
We arrive on the outskirts of Patras around 9pm. Anthony jumps out of the truck to give me a squeeze goodbye. He’s going to continue with our driver all night to Thessaloniki – a little more synchronicity for him.
After some faffing about with buses I get to the centre of town and meet Sma, who’s borrowed a bike from the guys she’s staying with, and we walk together to their flat.
Our hosts are a Greek guy whose name I can’t seem to pronounce and Tony, a Spanish guy who used to be an Erasmus student. They each have their own rooms and keep to themselves mostly, so it’s hardcore internet time for Sma and I who also get our own room and wifi connection. She’s been here almost a week already.
Walking around the following day, the first thing I notice is the migrants. There are people everywhere, especially down by the harbour – lined up along the fences staring longingly at the boats to Italy. It’s easy for me to connect with migrants here, I just need to walk around. I guess I must stand out a lot with my reddish-blonde hair, anarcho-hippy-punk attire and obvious lack of Greekness. I meet a man from Nigeria named Shaggy who, like most other migrants here, wants to go to Italy. Not allowed to stay and not allowed to leave either – the situation in Patras reminds me a lot of Calais. Shaggy asks for my phone number. I’m reluctant at first, but give it to him. He’s going to Athens for a day, but wants to call me when he gets back. I tell him sure he can call me and we can meet up, but in no way is he to think of this as anything other than friendship… EVER! He says of course, no… but he never calls. Was I too harsh?
It’s an interesting exercise to walk about in a meditative state, be aware of how all this attention brings a fear up in me, an urge to close down and erect boundaries. I concentrate on breathing, relaxing, opening to it as much as I can, but it’s hard.
Walking up the big steps to the castle, I’m followed by a sly looking man. He’s looking at me in a way I don’t like and it makes me impatient so that I turn to him and demand “what!?!” He smiles and slinks back to his friends, but one of them comes over. I’m not happy about this, but the man is much politer than his friend. “May I sit with you?” he asks. I reluctantly agree and he sits and chats with me a while. This man is polite, unintrusive and his eyes have a sparkle. His name is the Moroccan version of ‘Jesus’, so I take to calling him that instead. We discuss migrant problems, languages – of which he speaks a few – and the country he has come from, which he obviously loves. I ask why he came here – “It’s a big story!” Ah yes, it always is. He doesn’t want to tell me and I don’t push. Jesus tells me in the two months since he arrived, I’m the second (presumably non-sans papiers migrant) who has spoken with him. There’s a lot of racism here. Like all the others, Jesus doesn’t want to stay here, he wants to go to Italy – then up to Belgium, to England, to Canada… it’s a big dream. This guy has confidence, more than most others. I wonder if it will see him through.
Sma and I go to meet a girl I found on CS, an anarcha-hippy like me. Silena takes us to a squatted social centre, Perasma (“passage”), then to a Greek bar with live music where we drink “Rakomelo” – flaming hot sweet alcohol, with her friend Christos.
The squats here seem more open than in Athens. We go to the weekly Kafeneio (cafe) in Perasma, and another in Maragopouleio – the squatted house, recently evicted and then re-occupied. We go to the latter with Yorgo, another CSer who Sma stayed with last time she was here. He’s been hosting her winter boots and coat ever since.
I meet Jesus again two days later in Persma. He’s with some friends and I go over to say ‘hi’ and invite him to sit with us. I’m with Yorgo and some other “comrades” (they use that word a lot here) from the other squat. One guy, Dimitris, persuades me that I absolutely have to go and listen to Rebetiko music in another cafe. Jesus and his overly-smiley friend come with us. The friend is constantly looking at me, flashing his teeth. I feel uncomfortable, but smile back. Jesus himself is as respectful as before.
I laughed when Dimitris said I’d be out half the night – I’m usually in bed by midnight. But he’s right and it’s 5am by the time I get in the door, waking Sma who was already asleep. How did time fly? Maybe something to do with the kiss I shared with a Greek comrade, my first in three months.
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