I arrived in Thessaloniki, Greece’s 2nd largest city, in early January. My arrival coincided with the Greek Orthodox holiday of Epiphany on January 6, which marks the end of the Christmas season. This meant that I got to celebrate Christmas yet again on my first day here!
Coffee cup on January 6
By chance, on my first morning, I stumbled upon the Orthodox Christmas tradition of a bunch men in Speedos diving into ice cold water to retrieve a crucifix that has been blessed by a priest. The man who gets the cross is supposed to have good luck for the coming year.
It was quite the event, judging by the number of people who crowded along the waterfront to watch.
The young men boarded a big ship, took lots of selfies of themselves as they prepared to dive, and a fleet of small rescue boats floated nearby, with medics and lifeguards ready to jump in if needed. Some of the elite of Thessaloniki watched from a yacht near the coast.
There was almost an hour of buildup and the action was over in about a minute. One minute they were on the boat, then very suddenly all the men were flailing about in the water. Just as suddenly, someone got the cross and everyone was clambering back on to the boats.
After the swimming event, the priest gave a blessing in the street and then there was a small parade as he made his way to a nearby church, escorted by the Greek military. The giant bells on the church were clanging and Greek women were shoving to get a chance to kiss the cross that the priest had blessed and I let myself get swept along with the crowd and absorb their joy.
It was a wonderful first day and after my Greek Epiphany experience, I wandered around, trying to get a feel for this new place.
Whereas Tirana felt like it was on its way up as a city, Thessaloniki definitely feels like it had its glory days already and is in a decline. It’s a beautiful city, in the way that old things are beautiful, and also in the way that discord and honesty has beauty. The people are very welcoming and friendly, but you can see that Greece’s economic crisis has impacted them greatly.
All over the city, there are high-end shops with prices marked way down
The city is built on a steep hill, with the remnants of an ancient Byzantine wall at the top and layers of houses and apartments cascading downwards. At the bottom of the hill is the Aegean Sea and the city’s most famous monument, the White Tower.
Interestingly, the city is covered in graffiti. And I don’t say “covered” lightly. Truly, most buildings are marked in some way Even in the most upscale part of town, you see this street artwork.
Everywhere in the city, you see ancient ruins and historically significant items. In fact, the government has been trying to build a metro system for more than 10 years (right now the public transit in the city is limited to buses), but each time they try to dig for it, they uncover more ruins. One Greek woman from Athens who stayed in our hostel said that when someone suggests something you never want to do, it has become a running joke to say,
“Oh yes, we’ll do that as soon as Thessaloniki gets its metro.”
One such site below the city, glimpsed through a wire fence
My favorite part of Thessaloniki is the waterfront.
This has been recently upgraded and features broad sidewalks bordering the water with places to sit and some modern sculptures alongside the ancient ones. The local people use this space a lot, and on weekends and evenings the area is full of Greek people out enjoying the water and vendors selling koulouria (a thin, bagel-type item covered in sesame seeds) and other pastries.
It is also a great place for running, and I got back into a solid running routine here. This was good and necessary to offset my other Thessaloniki pastime, which was sampling the baklava from a different bakery every day!
But the most meaningful part of my stay in Thessaloniki was that I had the opportunity to facilitate an English-learning conversation course for a group of men who are political refugees from Turkey. It was an honor to get to work with them.
It hasn’t been in the news as often lately, but Greece is still the landing point for hundreds of thousands of refugees each year.
There are many people living here who are seeking asylum – a legal status that will allow them to resettle in a new country because it is unsafe for them to return to their home country.
The group I worked with already had a pretty high English level, so we mostly practiced conversation – the most difficult part of learning any language. I taught them some idioms in English, like about the silver lining to a cloud and about crossing a bridge when you come to it (which it turns out, there is a similar idiom in Turkish – basically, don’t roll up your pants to cross the river before you get to the water). I also got to help with a women’s group that my friend facilitates and met some lovely women that way, two of whom graciously invited me to dinner at their houses even though they are refugees and new to the country.
I can’t tell you how amazing it was to eat home-cooked food after so many months on the road, eating out or eating cereal all the time!
I think we often want to think of people who are in a position of needing help as somehow fundamentally different from “us.” It’s an unconscious tendency to distance oneself, partly to protect ourselves from the idea of “that could be me.”
The thing that was so humbling working with these folks is that they are exactly like the people I know in the United States.
They are educated, they are informed, they are concerned about the world and their place in it. They are people who had high-level careers in Turkey, as educators and academics and engineers. Then suddenly their government turned against them because of their political beliefs, and their passports and assets were frozen, their jobs dismissed, and some were imprisoned. They had to flee for the safety of their families and now have to start all over again in this new country.
As I got to know them, I kept thinking, “wow, this could be me if I was born in a different country.” It’s just that America, despite its [many] shortcomings, is still based on freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of belief, freedom of the press; this all means that we cannot be punished for our political beliefs like these people were. The things we take for granted…
In my last week in Thessaloniki, I also connected with a large refugee assistance agency called Help Refugees. They are a British organization that acts as an umbrella, assisting lots of different agencies who work with refugees with funding and volunteers. It was a very informative experience, and I learned a lot. (Like, for instance, there are about 10,000 refugees currently in northern Greece, about half of whom are still in camps and half of whom have moved into housing.)
Map of all the refugee camps in Northern Greece
The work I did was remarkably similar to what I used to coordinate in my former job at HOPE, and it was fun and different to be on the other side – not coordinating but doing the small tasks that it takes to keep an organization like that running.
I spent a day helping in the giant Help Refugees warehouse, which receives donations from all over and provides supplies to more than 20 refugee camps and refugee centers in the area, and several days helping in the Soul Food kitchen, which is a low-budget operation that prepares lunch and dinner for hundreds of refugees each day. Some of the food is distributed through a community center and some of it is packaged for an outreach service that reminded me so much of HOPE outreach.
These experiences were so fulfilling (even though my hands smelled like onions for days after chopping pounds and pounds of them!).
This also reminded me that I wanted to volunteer on one of the Greek islands during this trip, to help with the new refugees who are just arriving on boats. So I went online and sent in an application to volunteer on Lesvos with an agency called Refugee Rescue, and I was accepted to help on their land crew for a few weeks. So I am starting that work this weekend – will certainly keep you updated on that experience!