If you ever happen to find yourself spending some of your very important and hard-earned vacation time in Thessaloniki, the capital of Greek Macedonia and the country’s second largest city by population, there are a number of details to which you will become privy about Greek culture that will forever change how you perceive this Southern European Republic and its population. For instance, you will learn that although there has been a strict law effective from 1st September 2010 banning smoking and the consumption of tobacco products by other means, in all working places, transportation stations, in taxis and passenger ships, as well as in all enclosed public places including restaurants, night clubs, etc., without any exception, that very few people pay any mind to this piece of legislature. If you choose to visit any local and respectable bar or cafe, it is almost guaranteed that someone will be burning tobacco in one form or other in there, somewhere. We paid a brief visit to a hospital while we were on our trip and I half expected to find the doctors enjoying a cigarette or two while tending the wards.
The Greeks do not like to see a person go hungry and they will continue feeding you until you 1) can no longer move, or 2) fall asleep right there at the lunch table – this is no joke, and please bear in mind that while you are eating lunch you will also be consuming large amounts of their highly alcoholic national drink, Ouzo, and the eventuality of a table-side dose of narcolepsy is an entire likelihood. Heading into the late afternoon, the heat and humidity are almost unbearable and you will just want to drink wine and nap until sundown, after which you will be all but commanded to eat even more utterly delicious food. The Greeks enjoy life and understand that sitting on a balcony on a warm late-Spring afternoon and watching the world slowly turn is one of life’s simple but immense pleasures. The seafood there is magnificent and the locals know it. You will note the surprisingly high number of wild dogs and disease ridden cats that freely roam the city streets and village lanes, and if you are eating outdoors, you will almost definitely end up throwing a significant portion of your meal to those desperate creatures. You will walk through one of the city’s many busy markets on a Tuesday afternoon and wonder if anyone in this country actually enjoys a position of gainful and consistent employment that they should be attending at this hour.
The Greeks are a superstitious people and you will not have to look far to find a quack or hocus pocus salesperson will promise to read your future in return for a modest monetary donation made in their direction. These people are thieves and liars and are not to be trusted. They make their living off drama and unhappiness and you should never believe a word they tell you. I am informed that this phenomenon is a drip down from Greece’s more Eastern neighbours (i.e. Turkey) and apparently there is still a spot of bad blood between them.
Greece feels just as Byron described it and on a warm afternoon on the Mediterranean, eating a grilled squid that was caught in the body of water located three feet from your chair, you can understand why he was prepared to die for this place. If you take a brief drive East of the city towards Halkidiki, the landscape opens up before you and the Gods make themselves known to the sensitive among us over every mountain. Talk to the locals and they will tell you where to eat. Don’t drink the Mythos until you are sure you’re ready for the heavy stuff and be willing to spend the extra money for the good feta. It makes all the difference. If at all possible, get a local to do all your driving. They play by a very different version of the rules of the road here. Additionally, should you choose to tour the city by personal vehicle, you should do so under the expectation that any time you pull-up curb side for any amount of time and at any time of day then you will most probably get your ride surrounded, trapped and rendered immobile because in Greece,it is perfectly acceptable to use the middle of the road as a semi-permanent parking space as and when any a driver sees fit. All the stereotypes about the driving in this part of Europe are sadly quite true.
Herself lived here for 25 years and so she was able to take us to some of the region’s most breathtaking areas. We only had three days but such a short amount of time was more than enough to inspire an obsession for this place within me. I could write so much about this part of the world, there are volumes of novels that could be written about lunch. Instead I’ll keep it brief with the hope of inspiring in you the desire to go there and see for yourself. We’ll be back a few more times before the year is through and I’m already getting excited about the idea of a retirement spent writing on my Greek apartment’s balcony, overlooking the bay with a cigar between my fingers and a glass of Raki to keep me warm until breakfast. You will love Thessaloniki but you won’t know why. Σαν τη Χαλκιδική δεν έχει