For some strange reason, I had never had much desire to go to Greece. My friend Marcy, however, kept pushing me to come with her over a long weekend to Thessaloniki. She’d been wanting to go because her grandfather had grown up in, then worked at, the American Farm School there and she figured this would be a great opportunity to visit a place that had so much importance in her family. So I tagged along as her photodocumentarian, and we had a terrific time.
Thessaloniki is the second-largest city in Greece and the capital of the Macedonia region of northern Greece. I learned that Greeks are just as territorial, if not more, about the country of Macedonia as Bulgarians are – I was told that I should not tell anyone that I had traveled to “Macedonia”; a more proper way to say it would be to reference my trip to “Skopje and Ohrid,” those having been the cities that I visited. “Fyrom” (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) was also acceptable. The Macedonian Question is still a sensitive issue, and I saw more than one sticker slapped up that said, “Macedonia is Greece.” It’s been so interesting to live and travel in this area and really understand (or at least wrap my head around) the roots of Balkanization.
The road from the Bulgarian border, up until we were maybe 45 minutes from Thessaloniki, looked very much like Bulgaria and, er, Fyrom. We got into town at around 2:00 and, after getting some cash from the ATM and searching high and low and unsuccessfully for the number 10 bus that would take us where we wanted to go, we decided to go ahead and walk into the center, look for the tourist info center, and catch the number 10 later on down the line.
Well, lemme tell you, the tourist info center has moved at least twice in the past five years, and no one knew where it was, including the people down at the port authority parking lot who, when we waddled up in backpacks and said, “Hi, tourist information?” gave us a look of almost-sympathy and said, “No English! Tourist not here.” So after an hour or so of walking around in drizzle, we did what any good people would do and walked into the first bakery we saw. As we entered this humble shrine to wheat and sugar, the woman behind the counter was helping another customer, and when she saw us, she screeched into the back room, “Alexaaaander!” No result. A few moments later, she beckoned again, with the addition of something that I guess would translate as “Get your lazy butt out here!” because it led to the appearance of a flour-coated, pot-bellied, unshaven, rather slack-jawed young man clad in undershirt and apron who helped us to get some of these little bread boats filled with olives, tomatoes, and peppers. We strolled over to a cafe and washed them down with ouzo and spiked coffee. Cute waiter, free cookies! We sat and sipped and nibbled for a long while, and even then we left before other customers, who had gotten there long before us. Greeks, apparently, are pros at spending an afternoon in a cafe.
We got out to the Farm School and met up with Noah, PR kid extraordinaire, who helped us get settled in and did a rockstar job of showing us around for the next couple of days. We ate dinner at the school’s cafeteria, which we were warned against, but we figured we’d had worse and this was the closest place to eat. Note to self: when Greeks say the food is bad, that doesn’t mean the food is bad. We had a simple, yummy meal of green beans in tomato sauce, with a salad of lettuce and feta, of course dressed with olive oil. I’m sure that somewhere in Greece, truly bad food exists, but we never found any of it, and I reckon if you wanted some, you’d really have to look hard for it. After some oranges, wine, and conversation with Noah and Nancy, the school’s archivist, we headed off to bed, ready to tour the school in the morning then go back into town for the afternoon.
The next day we woke up to a nice breakfast of Farm School milk and eggs, with some halvah and the Greek version of Nutella, which is WAY better than what I now call “that Italian stuff.” Noah showed us around the school, where we peeked in on a welding class taught by a wonderful man who spoke very little English other than “Very hot! Don’t touch.” We followed directions well, and he let us fuse together two pieces of metal. Another thing ticked off my life’s to-do list: I have welded! We had our little Flashdance moment and moved on to the library, where we met up with Nancy, who gave us tea and pulled out boxes of letters from Marcy’s grandparents and great-grandparents about their lives and the early days of the school. The place has a tremendous history, both for the people who ran it, the students who attended it, and in Greece itself; so many people that we met at the school were really excited to meet Marcy, a descendant of the schools’ founders and early teachers. We stayed in the archives until lunchtime.
After more decent cafeteria food, we grabbed a bus for the 6-mile trip into Thessaloniki and its Contemporary Art Museum – good but not great – then moved on to the markets. They were nothing extraordinary, but really, are food markets ever dull? I try to hit them up in every city I visit, but maybe that’s just because I like taking pictures of produce. There’s also a great vital energy in outdoor markets, an openness towards being excited about the possibilities of the day’s kitchen. Seasons shift, foods shift, there’s always something to look forward to, and something to move on from – and you know you’ll be just as stoked to see it when it comes back next year. These baby zucchini were just in, and artichokes were starting up too. We stopped in a deli where I just wanted to get a couple of things for us to snack on later, but the woman behind the counter gave us samples of half the store and we were stuffed! Lots of stalls of feta, of course, from all over northern Greece. Piles of olives, dried herbs (these people buy oregano and rosemary practically by the kilo), a few mushrooms, shelves and shelves of olive oil, and significant meat and fish markets. Tons of squid, anchovies, and I think I even saw a catfish! Something with whiskers, at any rate. Being on the Aegean, we knew that I would have to pull out my “I’m vegetarian but I’ll eat a little fish” excuse to go to a seafood restaurant. The next day, in our strolls around town we passed one that looked just perfect, and after some more wandering without seeing a place that compared well enough, we backtracked to the best fish house ever.
I have no idea what it’s called, but its address is Nea Agora 70A, and the phone number is 2310/281-566, and you should go. Tomorrow. It’s at the south end of the fish market, a pricey-looking little bistro done in blues and greens. We sat at one of the outside tables, under the heat lamps, in well-sanded sea-green chairs that had fuzzy lapis-colored blankets on them in case you got cold. The menu was brought with reading glasses in varying strengths, should you need them, and guessing by the apparent chichiness of the place, we figured that whatever we would order would be in small, overpriced but delicious portions. So we got four appetizers and a big bottle of water and prepared ourselves for the possibility of needing a snack later. Well! Our food from the “appetizers and morsels” menu was enough to feed a small army. I ordered a sandwich with eggplant salad on flatbread, and it was so big I had to use knife and fork.
Marcy got the Boatman’s Soup, and at 10 euros, it was the most expensive thing we ordered – a monster bowl of vegetable-laden broth that came with no less than 3 fish on the side, for her to debone and add to the soup.
Then we had a cheese wrapped in foil with peppers, tomato, herbs, and olive oil – grilled…
…and a custardy gratin of sole, crawfish tails, and red bell pepper.
When we groaned in the last bite, an hour and a half later, and asked for the bill, the waiter nodded and brought out… wait for it… free booze! A rose liqueur that was a little syrupy but hey: free booze. Tasty free booze. Then (then!) someone else came by and brought us some hot towels for our hands, and after another few minutes she said, “OK, would you like the bill now?” We nodded, blissfully.
The aftermath. Poor shrimpy. (Marcy took this photo.)
After lunch, we meandered our way back up to the train station and headed north, headed home.
So! Let’s summarize. Greece: good. Thessaloniki: good. Fish in Thessaloniki: drool.