Shameful it seemed, booking a single night in Thessaloniki, flying out the following day, relegating a city of history and significance to barely more than a transit stop.
How could one day do it justice?
We’d spent time in Greece before; my mom’s an educator who leads students on academic tours overseas, and Ted and I each chaperoned on occasion, visiting historically significant sites like Delphi, the Lion’s Gate at Mycenae, the amphitheater at Epidaurus, the Acropolis, and charming islands off the Peloponnese.
Too, my great-grandpa Xenophone Tringas immigrated to the United States near the turn of the 20th century, and I’d accompanied extended family members in 2006 to visit his little village of Istiaia on the Greek Island of Evia.
Memories of table wine lasting far into the night…of tangling my feet in the left-right-lefts of Greek dance…of finding my favorite silver and moonstone worry beads in a little shop on Hydra and my chunky amber necklace on a neighboring isle…of stepping foot with grandparents, parents, brothers, and cousins on the same front porch that my great-grandpa knew as a boy…these memories all nagged my spirit: “No, 24 hours will seem shallow by comparison. There’s not enough time to appreciate the place or make worthwhile memories that will live up to the past.”
Undaunted by constraints of time, the classic trifecta of food, atmosphere, and connection with people delivered in vivid memory-making fashion.
First, we sat down for dinner at a spot in comfortable walking distance from our hotel. (Poor guy; I’m always taking pictures of Ted eating.)
The meal came after a let down at a nasty little coffee shop down the road from the hotel. By nasty, I really mean cute-looking, with a friendly owner and a nice sidewalk table, and horribly disappointing brew and baklava. (It’s very, very hard to be satisfied with baklava when your Greek cousin is a professional baker. Miss you, Andrea!)
Dinner was destined to be an improvement.
We sat outdoors, enjoying the anonymity of being new in town and the careless ease of unplanned hours. Greek characters on the newsprint made me smile as favorites of pork, lamb, and Mediterranean veggies made their way from menu to table.
The pitcher of house red invited a flood of memories…of “γεια μας!” and nicknaming “Papou Demetri,” of laughing at underage cousins “cheersing” with coca-cola and sneaking sips of the tame red stuff on the side.
This time, though, the cup filled-in for communion, and our memories are of making amends for snaps on the road, seeking a little start-over moment and a chance to re-group.
“Get along among yourselves, each of you doing your part… Gently encourage the stragglers, and reach out for the exhausted, pulling them to their feet. Be patient with each person, attentive to individual needs. And be careful that when you get on each other’s nerves you don’t snap at each other. Look for the best in each other, and always do your best to bring it out.
Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live.”
–1 Thessalonians Chapter Five, The Message
An evening meal and heart-to-heart to sweetened our associations with the city of 1&2 Thessalonians, then…an arm in arm walk to the waterfront and sunset stroll from the Thessaloniki Yacht Club to the White Tower and back again, watching people, watching ships, and watching the sun go down.
The following morning, I left my camera behind. And it’s a shame because some of the very best Thessaloniki moments came around midday, under the blazing hot sun, and I wish you could see the visuals.
But I’ll share the bones and let your imagination put flesh and color and sunshine into place.
A White Tower, a green dress, Freddo the right way, and the best souvlaki ever.
The vast, strange network of online voices wove another semi-serendipitous travel connection: maybe a week before we arrived in Greece, Twitter friend and Greek national @rkrystalli tweeted sentimental goodbyes to her recent home in Jerusalem and updates on her coming flight to Greece. I wished her well and later learned that she’d be arriving in her original hometown of Thessaloniki just a day or two before us.
A few Twitter DMs. A promise of interesting conversation. A date and time and can’t miss landmark: “The White Tower is the emblem of the city – very easy to find. I will be wearing a long green dress. See you soon, I cannot wait!” she said, in 140 characters or less.
Of course, travelers and pilgrims, voyagers and pioneers alike have been setting out and crossing paths for season upon season upon season, but this is an amazing present age – the way exchanging electronic notes ushers digital relationships into real-life meetings and the sharing of lives.
We stood near the Tower and saw her weave her way toward us, through the intersection: ankle-length, breezy green summer dress making a summertime statement. Another layer between Twitterverse and reality stripped away.
Our smiles and handshakes met, and her sunglasses shifted up to reveal deep, kind eyes with a twinkle and a hint of coming stories. She’d been away for years, but this was her hometown, and she still knew the best spots for shade, iced coffee, and souvlaki sandwiches to make tastebuds sing. We were more than happy to follow.
With that, three strangers walked toward a spot for refreshments and conversation, and two hours later split company, changed for the better by the sharing of lives.
You see, Roxanne is an infectiously optimistic “development specialist in conflict & post conflict zones.” Her studies took her to Boston, and her work has pulled her in to the struggles, strife, effort, and hope in Latin America, East Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East where she specializes in the effects of war and conflict on women.
Sitting around a table, under the shade awning just a stone’s throw from the harbor, we blended into the throngs of students, jobless workers, and travelers biding midweek time at the cafes, yet our conversation buzzed with topics of unconventional life choices, unsquelched dreams, and unknown horizons. We drank our freddos “the right way” – slowly, slowly. Rush was banned from the table.
Ted and I both loved hearing Roxanne’s examples of finding the beauty of person-to-person hope and transformation even in the midst of macro-scale chaos. Yes, the world’s enormous problems continue being enormous. Yes, the tugs and wars and the harsh, cruel facts continue ripping hearts apart. Yes, these countries repeat sames songs and second verses far too often, and burnout is high among those who desire to see and work toward change.
But if we each remain wisely, carefully engaged, and if we each give and show compassion and each listen and learn in our own spheres of influence, then joy and success in restoration may be found on the life-to-life level.
Refreshing and inspiring.
Like the freddo. And like the two euro souvlaki sandwich she introduced us to before parting ways.
I’d tell you the name of the souvlaki shop, but if it’s escaped Lonely Planet this far and this long, then I’ll do my best to honor the secret shared by our hostess. Without pictures, I’d say the identity’s pretty safe.
So, there you have it.
Justice done in a day’s visit to Greece.
Perhaps not sightseeing during family holiday tours to Greece or following traces of ancient history and family roots, but a 24 hour experience of tasty food and drink, lovely scenes within walking distance of our hotel, and, thanks to Twitter, kindhearted new connections celebrating history-makers and hopeful vision for the future.
Oh me of little faith. When will I learn?
No step on this journey ever goes wasted.
This post is part of a series on our “Choose Your Own Adventure” travel through Eastern Europe: Croatia through Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, Greece, and Cyprus on to Lebanon. Otherwise known as “junior high geography songs come to life.”