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.