Month of Travel: Thessaloniki

The final installment of my month of travel series…this work trip took place at the end of January 2017.

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With a layover in Munich, I get plenty of airtime over the Alps. Yet the awesome sight does nothing to control the overpowering drowsiness I feel. Not even the piercing wails of two children prevent me from sleeping.
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I have heard so much about Thessaloniki’s beauty, but the city greets me with gray skies and rain. After checking in at the hotel and reading e-mails, I walk to orient myself.
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Along my loop, I stop at the Arch of Galerius, built in 297.
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Later, two work colleagues and I have dinner in the Ladadika area at Ρόδι & Μέλι. Through the window, three cats watch us and I finally get their picture when we leave.
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The next morning, I attend a ceremony at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki to commemorate a new fellowship program between my work and AUTH. Following a leisurely lunch at the faculty club, Keith and I — we the two happy Americans — receive a tour from Anna, a colleague and AUTH faculty member.
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We stop to marvel this gorgeous place, a rare historic building that is not a Roman monument, Byzantine church, or an Ottoman bath. Due to the 1917 fire, WWII, and a 1978 earthquake, much of the city center now looks like…
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this: concrete high rises, here with a view of a Roman theater at the forum.
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We continue our walk through small streets near Tossitsa, where shops sell antiques, used books, and carpets. Anna takes us through a covered walkway to a hidden courtyard filled with restaurant tables. For now, there are only two old men resting their feet, but I can imagine it being a popular spot to spend a warm evening.
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Here is an 1891 building that originally housed the Ottoman governor; now it is the Ministry of Macedonian and Thrace. The Ottoman occupation ended a little more than 100 years ago.
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More than once, someone told me to read Mark Mazower’s Salonica: City of Ghosts to prepare for the trip. I didn’t end up reading the heavy tome, but I can understand why Thessaloniki might be described as such. There are monuments to the past and to the city’s previous inhabitants everywhere. Of course I didn’t expect to find any  Romans, but I found other absences more eerie. The numerous Ottoman mosques indicate a rich Islamic past, but the 1923 population exchange program between Greek and Turkey forced the city’s Muslims to leave their homes (and the same for Christians living in Turkey). And while the city once boasted a robust Jewish population (for much of the 19th century, Jews comprised 50% of the city’s population, see Wikipedia), now only two synagogues remain. This one, built in 1927, survived WWII because the Red Cross occupied the building.
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In the evening, a large group of us walk again to Ladadika, this time for dinner at Ζύθος, which has an impressive list of Greek beers. I commit something of a faux pas by ordering a salad for my main course, but I’m an unapologetic vegetarian (χορτοφάγος). Following dinner, a smaller group sets out for Malt n’ Jazz, where a blues band takes the stage at 11pm for a fantastic set. Five of us dance happily to songs like “Born Under a Bad Sign”, “Down in Mexico”, and “I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow”.
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Staying out late dancing exacerbates the jet lag…big time. By the next morning I have barely slept and I can detect the unmistakable symptoms of a cold. I survive a morning meeting and then retreat for a nap. My plan to go to the Archaeological Museum is quite dashed by my exhaustion. Later Anna takes me and Keith for lunch at Αγιολί, where we sit upstairs overlooking the bay. In the afternoon, I  walk along the water to catch the sun and reset those circadian rhythms.
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Another great building!
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I perk up by the evening in time for a group interview before our lecture event at the Archaeological Museum.
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Did you think this was an academic panel? Surprise! I sing “I Fall to Pieces” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” as part of a discussion around the theme of “Disintegration and Reintegration” in ancient Greek poetry and the Greek bible. Read more at Classical Inquiries. Following the event, we have another big group dinner — some 15 of us — at a lovely, modern place with great murals, but I forgot to note the name.
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On Saturday, my last day in Thessaloniki, I walk all around town with three different guides. First, Anna takes me and Keith via taxi up to the Vlatadon Monastery with its amazing view.
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We listen to the rooster and watch the peacocks.
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Here is the 14th century Byzantine church that is part of the monastery.
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We then walk through the narrow streets of Ano Poli, a neighborhood that preserves the feel of the old Ottoman city.
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The city’s Byzantine walls still survive too.
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For better or worse, the Ano Poli district suffers from graffiti. This is my favorite picture from the trip.
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Another favorite image, which shows a quiet, pretty spot in Ano Poli — high up away from the congested shopping streets in the city center. As we get closer to the downtown area, we become vigilant about dog poo, which seems to plague certain streets.
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Anna takes us to Agios Dimitrios with its evocative crypt from the Roman period.
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Dimitrios is the patron saint of Thessaloniki and the University features the saint’s face on its seal.
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Next we visit the Rotunda. A Roman site that then became a church that then became a mosque with minaret that then became a museum.
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The city sometimes holds concerts inside. Patches of mosaic still survive…
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the City of Heaven
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and peacocks. The gold is so stunning in person.
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In the early afternoon, Keith and I head out for lunch with colleagues Christina and Evan, and graduate student Olga and her boyfriend. We pass the city’s modern cathedral.
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Olga takes us for falafel and gryos; she also makes sure we stop in a bakery to try these cream-filled pastries. Thessaloniki is a city of bakeries! Next time I visit I will make a more systematic tour. Thessaloniki is the foodie capital of Greece, like Lyon is in France, I hear.
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In the late afternoon, we meet Irini, who takes me and Keith for a relaxing walk and then a drive up to another part of Ano Poli near the Chain Tower, an old prison.
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The view is lovely and we see it both at sunset and then later at night after we three have had a snack at an atmospheric cafe strung with lights. Later still Keith and I have a delicious dinner at Ionos, where (unusually) everyone respects the smoking ban. We split a beet salad, as we have learned that salads are starters and for sharing, and I have a tasty mushroom pasta. We even receive free dessert!
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Once again I cannot sleep. I get up around 4am to shower and wait until it’s time to go to the airport. I have run out of travel tissues and stock up on toilet paper to blow my nose every time I visit a bathroom. It’s a rough, long journey home with yia-yias pushing me out of the way to get their luggage and excited families who shout Russian, but speak English. I try to sleep as much as possible. Here I am after arriving home and sleeping for 12 hours. Next time in Thessaloniki? I will keep to my East Coast rhythms; then I’ll be on a truly Greek schedule (waking hours noon to 4am) and will be able to take in all the nightlife and delights — music, drinks, salads, pastries — that this city by the bay offers.

Greece as Winter Wonderland

Last week I returned from a two-week tour of Greece. As neither student nor Greek-speaking administrator nor trip leader, I occupied the curious role as the bumbling program coordinator from another continent. Occasionally, I directed the videographer accompanying our group, but more often than not, I served as the noble tripod carrier.

I’d like to say that this was a trip of personal growth, but really it brought into relief all my limitations: my inability to adapt to situations where I have no control, my constant need for domesticity and order, and my plan to pack only practical clothing, which totally back fired for three reasons:

  1. I always feel like an idiot in white sneakers and a windbreaker that screams AMERICAN. However, I was delighted to be told that I had a Greek face on two occasions.
  2. Turns out what I packed wasn’t so practical anyway. What I needed was a proper winter coat and a totally waterproof ensemble. An extra pair of shoes wouldn’t have hurt either.
  3. Clothes are such an important part of identity making and projecting. It’s easy to forget who you are and want to be when wearing a 10-year-old gray fleece everyday.

So maybe this trip didn’t burst my bubble, but it certainly made me aware of it.

The trip was also such a humbling experience, because I got to observe the excellent work of a Greek colleague. With her help, I learned a little Modern Greek and got some insight into the perplexing Greek bureaucracy. Even with the right paperwork, you’ll always have to negotiate with somebody.

The whole time, I was secretly planning a return trip so I could enjoy the sites at a different pace. I especially want to revisit Crete, which totally blew me away with its natural beauty, delicious food, unusual tea, and spectacular white wines. No wonder the Minoan art is known for its depiction and celebration of the natural world.

Two last notes before I begin my photo-journal of the trip. We spent four nights in Crete, a night on an overnight ferry, four nights in the Peloponnese, and three nights in Athens. Our daily schedule looked something like this:

8:00 breakfast

8:30 departure

9:00-3:00 visit sites

4:00 lunch and free time

6:30 preview meeting

7:30 dinner

Now, to begin with Chania…