Fickle are the emotional meanderings of solo travel, and touching down in Greece after almost two days of frustration elevated my spirits substantially. I had only to get to the station to catch the next train to Skopje, and after talking to a security guard, had only to find a bus to take me there. Outside, a double-length city bus is waiting, and as I get on as the only occupant, I ask the driver if this goes to the train station. He smiles and gives half a head nod. I am not confident.
“Train station?,” I ask again. He downgrades the smile to a befuddled grin, adds a shoulder shrug and does away with the half head nod. I try my limited German: “Bahnhoff?” Again, same response. Eff it; it’s late and I am tired. I open my hand to reveal a stack of change, the first of many times I entrust my money to the honesty of strangers, and he gives the universal hand-and-arm signal, that touching of pockets usually reserved for able-bodied beggars and methadone addled youth that says “sorry, no change.” It is my turn to shrug and half-smile, and I take my seat for my own private ride to the I’ll know it when I see it Thessaloniki train station.
For the first ten minutes, I am alone. But the airport is on one side of the second biggest city in Greece, the train station on the other, and two a.m. on a Sunday morning in any big city can quickly turn into a side-show. There are the typical black leggings and mini skirts, plus face piercings and fake leather jackets, faux-hawks and vodka residue emanating from twenty-something pores. Admittedly, this is just a single, long stretch of road in a big city, but she is not pretty. Graffiti is the theme of choice, and it blankets the square, angry stanchions holding up building after building of six- to eight-storey cut-out structures on either side of this main drag. It is a bit shabby, I suppose, to personify a stanchion, but if you saw them you would think that building is mad at something. Through the windows and opened doors of the bus I see a man driving his moped the wrong way down the narrow sidewalk; a giant dog lays sprawled in front of a store entryway, guarding it through intimidation more than skill; a young man and woman, she a midget and arguably a cross dressing one at that, board the bus at one stop and get off at the very next. The city outside the window goes by in stops and starts; nothing on this road seems to be built outside of the 1970’s and they are a blur of geometrical, unspirited grayness. Even the dilapidated government buildings look more Disney Land Haunted Mansion than Foundation of Democracy.
It turns out I do not, in fact, know the train station when I see it, and the bus driver unhappily stops a block and a half past my stop after I muscle my way to the front of the bus to tap him on the shoulder. It is nearly 3 a.m., and the train station, battered and dirty, is not open. Dated font Greek block letters above the entrance doors foreboding, a few homeless men and apparently at least one other early traveler, she with an old hardside suitcase, gather under the overhang and out of the wind and chill. In front there is a plastic-blanketed shop selling snacks and porn, the man behind the narrow sliding plexiglass window confirms for me that this is the train station. I ask if I can catch a train to Macedonia from here.
“Yugoslavia?,” he bellows. He is portly and bearded; an unkempt but kind face. “No,” I answer, clearly missing my cue, “Skopje.”
“Skopje is in Yugoslavia,” he says sternly, though I have no doubt he understands my intent. He is giving me a lesson. “This is Macedonia.”
Though we stand (he sits) in current day Greece, this was once Macedon, home of Alexander the Great and the kingdom of one of the greatest empires to ever govern the earth. Greeks are justifiably proud of their history – Herodotus, perhaps the father of history, was from here – and so me calling Macedonia “Macedonia” has touched a nerve. The new Macedonia, or the more geeky “FYROM” (the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) has been a country only since 1991, and the Greeks, or more specifically the Macedonian Greeks, are not happy about it. I buy a beer, an Amstel Light tallboy, exchange introductions, and then ask Tasos about Kosovo.
“Yugoslavia?,” I ask. He answers yes.
And Bosnia? “Yugoslavia.”
“Montenegro?” He looks at me over the top of his glasses. “Yugoslavia.”
I ask where Alexander the Great was from, and he answers “that goes without saying.”
I laugh, crack open my beer, dig my fleece cap and gloves out of my backpack, pull them on tight, and look over the newspapers. I have noticed, in the short time I’ve been in Greece, that all the anglicized versions of Greek words look to me like some variant of “Vasili Tasikos,” prior to five minutes ago the only Greek guy I knew. I drink my beer quickly and buy another, again holding out a palm of coins to Tasos and letting him take what he needs. I stand next to the ice cream refrigerator, cold but out of the wind so warmer than anywhere else. A homeless guy and I share a 10 meter cheers over our Amstel Lights. There is warmth in unity. I pepper Tasos with questions until he finally, during a pause, says “Jack, come inside and get warm.”
Tasos Vouvolis – he says his last name means buffalo – has been working here at his uncle’s shop for almost ten years. He is also a plumber, but says business is not always good, so works here on weekends. His English is good, his voice the temper of an ascetic rather than a non-native speaker reaching for words. Tasos talks about the Greek economy; his concerns that because Macedonia has unfairly taken the name Macedonia (Tasos prefers they left it to history), who knows what else they will take; about Gypsies; about America and our wars. A man buys a porno mag, Tasos first puts it in a clear bag but then switches to a non-transparent black bag because the man “is shy.” He comments softly on each customer: he is a country boy, he is a methadone addict, he is a taxi driver, he doesn’t know what he is. I count the different number of cigarettes Tasos has for sale, and come up with 267. He teaches me “neasa kala” as a farewell – be good, be well – I teach him “keep it real.” It matters not that I never talk like this; “keep it real” will leave Tasos in good stead whether he travels to America or sits here for the next ten years and talks with the occasional American. I run across the street to buy Tasos and I a snack. I do not know how Europeans continue to get away with putting a fleshy pink hot dog in a croissant and calling it a breakfast pastry. Tasos serves me Russian tea, and then it is 5:30 a.m. and the train station doors open and though I am already feeling only goodness, the opening of doors has lifted me. I am on my way.
I count six people waiting for the Thessaloniki to Belgrade train, though I will get off in Skopje, Macedonia. The train waits for us, so covered in graffiti I mistake it for scrap, cars waiting to be cannibalized for other, functioning trains. An official looking man directs me to stop taking pictures and then tells me this is the train to Skopje. It is a rolling museum, urban modern art on the outside and communist bloc remnant in. But it is clean, and empty, and I can sprawl out in the darkness facing forward, my shoeless feet resting on the seats in front of me, marking the beginning of the rows of seats facing towards me, ambidexterity on rails.
I drift in and out of sleep, I am a moderate insomniac despite, or because of, two bedless days on my feet and closing my eyes only on airport and airplane seats. I wake to slivers of sunlight coming in through the right hand windows, cypress trees outlined against a rising sun. A man comes through the train to ask us for our papers, and as I begin to shuffle through my back pack he lazily throws his left hand at me, letting me know not to worry about it. He is a universal bureaucrat, not a greenhorn looking to make his name but a man beaten down by years of repetition and nepotist supervision, he is a casual participant in the process. He does not need my ticket; he practically regrets his authority. I am clearly a foreigner and a paying customer, and there is no reason I would be sneaking into his country when his experience says I should be sneaking out. At the lonely Macedonia border I spy a Nirvana poster and hope it is both the literal and the figurative.
Two hours later I deboard in Skopje, and a man immediately accosts me and offers a taxi. He says he was a translator for the Americans and KFOR for ten years. I tell him I would rather walk, that I like the feeling of a pack on my back in an unfamiliar city. He asks if I need a hotel, I tell him eventually, and he says he is not familiar with the Hotel Eventually. This is, I think, a good beginning.