If first impressions really lasted, then I would have left Thessaloniki almost as soon as I arrived. I guess it was always going to be tough to follow on from my Macedonian experience. I was genuinely sad to leave Skopje and had toyed with the idea of staying even longer, but enough was enough. It was time to get back to the task at hand. I made my arrangements with the refugee organisations I wanted to volunteer with in Northern Greece and I got on yet another bus.
I didn’t help myself. The day before leaving Skopje, I was determined to get to the Millenium Cross at the top of Mount Vodno outside the city. The cross may not look like much from a distance, but it’s 66m high – that’s almost twice the height of Christ The Redeemer in Rio. The climb up is killer. The climb down is worse. So, by the time I got off my bus in Greece the following day, my legs were like jelly and could barely support me, never mind the added bags and baggage. I was more than tired. The hostel I had booked was not well located and involved a pretty rough uphill climb to the old town that would take me about 40 minutes. I couldn’t face it. I got a taxi.
Cue bad impression number 1.
I’m no stranger to scheming taxi drivers. I’ve visited and lived in some of the dodgiest hot spots for it and consider myself a reasonably savvy traveller, so before I got in the car, I checked for the usual things. Was he running a meter? Did he know my destination? I showed him the pin in google maps. No problem! What I didn’t check, however, was if he could give Robert DeNiro a run for his money in the psychotic taxi driver department.
We had barely left the bus station when he began twirling his rosary beads (or whatever equivelant he had). Gradually, the beads came closer and closer to my face. Grinning like the complete freak that he obviously was, he drove down the middle of streets with oncoming traffic, swerved for no reason and drove in the opposite direction of my hostel. I squirmed and shifted, mostly to avoid the rosary beads, and double checked my Google Maps. I asked him why he was going the wrong way. He suddenly spoke no English, but hairpinned it back in a direction that Google approved of. The rosary beads swung within a couple of inches of my face and he began chewing his lip and laughing a strange little laugh. I pictured my death. Strangulation by rosary beads. I clutched the door handle, budged a little to the right and felt sick. I was going to have to tell him to stop. I was going to have to get out. I consulted the map on my phone again. Thank God for GPS. The hostel wasn’t too far away. I could walk. My legs would be just fine.
“I’ll be ok from here.” I told him.
He ignored me and drove faster, flying through little cobbled side streets. (Pedestrian?) I clutched the door handle, but this time it was to steady myself from the bumps and the surprise twists. He continued to ignored me, but the beads had stopped flicking into my face now. Instead, they were wrapped around white knuckles that clutched the steering wheel. His eyes were focused firmly ahead. We swivelled to the right and lurched forward down the tiniest, darkest street yet. The lighting was sparse enough to be spooky.
I was freaking out.
“Stop the car,” I said more firmly.
The car came to an abrupt stop.
“Is ok,” replied one of his other personalities, “we’re here.”
I looked around the narrow street of shuttered, residential buildings. What was he talking about? But the car had stopped and I was taking advantage of that. I quickly stumbled out of the taxi and saw a man leaning over a balcony above. I called to him and told him the name of my hostel. Did he know where it was?
“Ruth?” He asked. It was a moment from the twilight zone. What was going on? “Welcome.”
The taxi driver was standing beside me.
“Is here.” He told me. A little sign, hidden behind a parked car, showed the name of the hostel. I looked at my google maps and saw that it was alright. I had made it. I wasn’t dead. I threw money at the taxi driver, now the picture of sanity, and grabbed my bag.
Legs buckling beneath me, laden down with bags, I climbed the 20 or so steps at the side of the building to the main door of the hostel, while its grinning, nodding owner stood at the top and watched me. Not once did he offer to help. Oh, the things I felt like saying to him. I held my tongue. What was the point? I had barely even arrived and already I was looking forward to getting out of Thessaloniki.
The second day really wasn’t any better. My legs were stinging in the way that I thought only a sever case of sunburn stings, all pain and discomfort and irritation. Mixed with the aching of muscles, I was the grumpiest I can remember being since this trip began. I had two small tasks I needed to do that day that turned into missions of epic proportion:
- Get to an ATM
- Pick up some essentials from the Supermarket.
Easy, right? I’d normally have both done before I’d give it a second thought.
Not in Greece.
The ATM and the Supermarket were both pretty far away, in opposite directions. The location of my hostel became a source of real annoyance as I had to manoeuvre steep hills and countless steps to get anywhere simple in the old town of Thessaloniki. As if the hills and steps weren’t enough of a challenge, the simple task of walking down the street was nightmarish. The footpaths were jammed with people walking so slowly they may as well be stationary. Even with malfunctioning legs, I was Speedy Gonzalez by comparison. Weaving in and out around them is fine until you come across a group, all plodding along or stopped for a chat, blocking up the path. They are oblivious to other people and the only way to get around them is to step out onto the narrow, windy roads where the crazy taxi drivers of this world lurk, just waiting to mow you down. (The terrifying driving was, I learned, not isolated to my trip to the hostel and I’ve tended to stick to walking since then).
With my missions finally completed, my tired legs carried me back to the hostel where I could cocoon myself and pretend that today wasn’t happening. Tomorrow would be better, I told myself.
And it was.
It seemed that my experience of Thessaloniki improved in direct proportion to my recovering legs. I discovered that there was an International Documentary Festival happening in the city, which cheered me up and went straight onto my ‘to do’ list.
Each day got a little better and when I found a flat a few days later and moved in with two really lovely volunteers also working with refugees, things really started to look up. I began my voluntary work with Help Refugees a few days after arriving in Thessaloniki .
With my legs back to normal and a new sense of purpose, I quickly forgot the bum start to my new city and got excited about the possibilities ahead. Spring was springing in Thessaloniki and I was determined to make the most of it.