“Because every Persian should see Greece” was how I constantly found myself responding to the question, “why Greece?”
I first got familiar with Thessaloniki when I met Apollo. Back then I could not even pronounce the name of the city. It had too many consonants for my mouth. Yet I had two postcards bearing the simple sentence of “live your myth in Greece” pasted on my wall, both of which were handed to me by Apollo after his visits back home. Him being too lazy to post them from Thessaloniki itself, me being content with what some may have called lacking authenticity. I did not care. The postcards rested against my wall surrounded by postcards Parker had sent me a couple of years back while globetrotting with his backpack and camera. (Sam) Parker and mine’s friendship deserves a whole blog post on its own. One I shall get around to when he pays me a visit in Heidelberg, casting an end to the “we haven’t seen each other since 1997” spell.
I had been looking forward to this land. At the cost of being called ignorant, I will describe what my wild imagination had led me to believe Greece would be like. While I am flattered and baffled by the seemingly complimentary comment of “you look so exotic” and “ooh Neeluphar, that name sounds exotic”, I always believed Greece to be the most exotic place there must be. I romatincised it as a land frozen in time with their outlandish alphabet that was foreign enough to not understand yet familiar enough from high school Physics and endless hours of editing and proofreading my father’s students’ publications. I did not expect to see women in Grecian one shoulder dresses and gladiator heals (although I was tempted to buy a pair of pumps later into my trip), and I did not expect to be surprised at the sight of cell phones and technology. The Arch of Galerius situated in the heart of the city, well lit during the darker hours, was one of the elements that reassured you that this really was the Greece you had read about in middle school history books. Yet I daydreamed of a land of indigo nebulousness, and charming music. I wasn’t disappointed.
A week before our trip I knocked on Apollo’s door on a warm spring Saturday which had us starting the conversation with hopes of having as good a weather in Thessaloniki as the south of Germany was experiencing. Apollo was doubtful. The Thessalonikians had been complaining about a rainy spring this year. We parked ourselves behind his laptop, me a notepad resting on my lap having chosen from the tens of pens he had squeezed in a glass on his desk, him scrolling through webpages, showing me pictures while explaining, with great detail, in a manner you would expect from a historian and not an astrophysicist. I went home with two pages of places to go varying from museums and churches to shopping malls and restaurants. I was content. I had planned where we would go to the day. I’m a planaholic, what can I say? I blame it on my time in Germany.
Mahsa, a Persian friend who I met at SAP, was my travel buddy. Her long brown hair and light brown eyes resembles a certain Persianness, a feature I do not possess, leading to confused questions of “where are you exactly from?” and a string of guesses being blurted out before I correct them “Italian? Spanish? Ok, Latin American then. No? Greek perhaps?” Mahsa works on the same days as I do, allowing me to have a Persian conversation at student lunches while no one can understand what I am on about. Usually ending with her going for either a “but I liked this one” or “I told you he was weird”. Sometimes we let Aleks, a Bulgarian guy of 6 feet and a laughter that can be heard from tables away, in on our little conversations. And though he was initially doubtful whether he wanted to hear the “girly talks”, he is now in too deep. He knows too much to want to not know anymore.
We landed in Thessaloniki on a sunny Friday afternoon. Being considerate, with very simple and slow English we asked a taxi driver, who seemed to be in his fifties, to drive us to our hotel. Halfway into our ride he started speaking to us in fluent English about how we were lucky with the weather and how it had rained non stop for the last few days. First surprise. People speak good English in Thessaloniki. Nearly everyone. We arrived at the hotel, one that Apollo had helped us pick out, after driving through streets that could have easily been Tehran’s city centre where universities such as the University of Tehran and Sharif University are located, being told by the driver that this too was where many of Thessaloniki’s universities were situated. The hotel could not have been in a better place. With a clear view of the sea and the city centre at a three minute walk from our doorstep, we unpacked, rested and headed out into the city…
The city turned out to be three words; alive, hip and love-ridden. It’s a city of good looking men and well-dressed women, as I kept describing later to anyone who asked about the experience. The people were a whole new kind of inspiration for outfits, walking on the streets with heels I would break my neck had I walked my third step in, perfectly styled hair, infallible make-up and outfits that you could tell had their owners invest time in picking each item. Germans are many good things; drivers, thinkers, car makers, academics, politicians, beer drinkers. Well-dressed, they are not. They themselves pride in being practical in many a criterion, fashion included. It’s not even news to anyone anymore. A clerk at a shop in Thessoliniki, one I would call not only a salesperson but also a stylist if it were up to me to judge, came rushing to help Mahsa pick out the right top to wear under a dress that was exposing too much skin, asking us where we were travelling from if we were not Greek. “We live in Germany” we told her after we complimented how beautiful and well-dressed women were in that city. “Oh” was her response, tilting her head to the side “but you two are stylish” she said, stressing the first syllable of the last word while her arm carrying the white dress Mahsa had previously tried on stretched out our way. “We are Iranian” Mahsa told her. “Aaaah, that explains it.”
I previously have mentioned my love for accessories, rings and earrings earning a preference over wrist jewelry that usually slide off of my wrists or become uncomfortably wet after each hand wash or just plain cold against my wrist bone. I was in heaven on the streets of Thessaloniki, where men and women would open up suitcases that displayed a variety of some of the most beautiful handmade jewellery I have seen. Spirals, being favoured by the Greek designers, made their way from the suitcases onto my fingers and ears in forms of accessories. I walked away looking like a gypsy, running out of fingers and piercings, my purse nearly empty and my smile widened.
Apollo had arranged for two of his friends to meet us for a “night in the town” rendezvous. We were headed to the “Untere Straße” of Thessaloniki and we were not disappointed. The boys were on time, another trait I did not expect from Greeks, and led the way to their favourite bars and a club that they did not approve of, holding the belief that it was home to young drinkers and superficial clubbers passing their late twenties in their designer clothes and excessive jewellery and digital accessories. What surprised me most, even more than how gorgeously styled everyone looked, was the DJ’s loyalty to Greek music. No chart song was played and no one seemed to mind. Not even me and Mahsa, although she did mention a couple of times that the whole joy of going dancing is to be able to sing along. I disagreed. The night ended at 4 am for us, leaving the clubbers as they were, happy and tipsy with no intention of going home. We stepped out of the club to a sky exhibiting blue stars. The rainstorm was over and we could hope for another sunny day the following morning, with temperatures as comfortable as 25.
I came back to a curious Apollo asking me to provide him with impressions of his hometown. He devoured a plate of pasta while I, sipping on my vanilla milkshake in an Italian cafe/restaurant within walking distance of our building, gave him the details of what we did and how similar I found it to my own culture. We concluded that we have more in common than we have differences. (“Sometimes when I’m talking to you I catch myself thinking, why am I speaking to her in English and not in Greek. Then I remember you’re not Greek” he confessed.) A certain street snack we share is the grilled maize, skinned from its green leaves, grilled on an open fire and dipped into a bucket of salt water. The Greeks skip the soaking part and just add a few shakes of salt. We ended the evening with me declaring that I will be going back, crashing at his beach house, where swimming sunbathing and partying will be all I’ll do.
So my May travels started with Thessaloniki and will end with the Bodensee this weekend, where a barbecue, sunbathing by the lake and some clubbing with people in their early thirties (I know, but whatever) awaits.(Photos from the trip are up on my Photobucket page.)