Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Day 2: Living Next Door to Alice

Funny how sometimes you roam far and wide and then find what you want on your own doorstep.

Oh, hang on a mo, that’s not really what Living Next Door to Alice is about, is it? Ah, sod it.

Anyway, I slept in quite dramatically this morning and didn’t manage to get up until 11.00 which constitutes a minor miracle for me.

When I lived in Ioannina back in the distant past I got into the habit of nipping out early in the morning before it got too hot and getting a loaf and a sheep’s milk yoghurt and coming back for a breakfast of Greek coffee, yoghurt with honey and bread and butter.

Starting every day with a wonder taste combination.

The only problem this morning was…no bread; my cinema/supermarket last night hadn’t had any and all the other bread shops I passed on the way back were closed.

I went out to do a cursory search for a loaf without going down too many highly sloped streets…found nothing, so came back to the wonder breakfast without bread. Still 90% wonderful.

My plan for the day was a kind of mixed thing. I needed to find a bread shop nearby and I thought I would combine this with a walk down to the station to check the train times and then stroll along in search of estiatoria and Internet hot spots where I could get online with my laptop and see what was happening in the world.

Something I learned long ago from John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charlie” is that you need an aim if you are going to explore a city; it doesn’t matter if it’s totally unrealistic or useless but it lends your exploring a structure and purpose: hence, train times, estiatoria and hot spots.

I wandered down a different way from the flat and round the fourth or fifth corner found a bread shop. “Right, get bread there on return”.

I used to think Thessaloniki was Athens without the Ancient Monuments but that’s a bit unfair. Much more than an Athenian, Periclean, Akropolean feeling, it has its own Byzantine character, not so much marble columns and temples as brick arches and domed churches. Realising this has also made me realise that Ioannina, which provided me with my first taste of Greece and so painted my basic picture of the country, is neither Periclean nor Byzantine but, at the considerable risk of shocking and insulting any Greek readers, actually more Turkish than Greek. When I lived there the churches still had minarets harking back to the relatively recent Turkish occupation and they were invariably topped off, perhaps deliberately disrespectfully, with storks’ nests.

I suppose there are lots of little things in Thessaloniki which go together to give this Byzantine impression …the churches themselves of course snuggled down between the great, chaotic blocks of flats with their air-conditioners hanging out of every window, the names of the streets, Saint This and Saint That, the icon shops and so on.

What all Greek cities I know have in common though are the smells. I must someday try and work out what the more obscure ones are, but the smell of coffee, sweets and grilled meat are ubiquitous and wonderfully evocative.

Strolling down to the station there is one familiar, typically Greek smell after another; it made me wonder whether I could navigate by nose alone…you certainly couldn’t navigate by ear alone as there is a constant background clattering and groaning of engines, car horns, footsteps and oaths. A lot of this horn hooting and oath shouting is due to the relationship between the road signs and the trees. The road signs were set up first, marked clearly in Greek and English to show where the various destinations were and which way you had to drive to get to them. The trees were planted later. Unfortunately the trees grew, as they do, and their branches and the leaves on them tended to hide the road signs. This is only my theory but I have seen it in operation in every Greek city I have driven in and as a result have been subject to many of these horn hoots and shouted oaths myself as I suddenly changed direction and veered left or right having seen which way to go only at the last minute!

Found the station and dutifully looked at the train times. Actually, this did put the idea into my head of doing a day-trip to Volos where I have never been, so my invented Steinbeckian aim might actually bear fruit.

I wandered down Monastiriou, another parallel, and discovered a couple of estiatoria which looked authentically shabby enough and were serving etoima on the menu; ready-cooked food which sits there all day keeping warm and tastes increasingly tremendous as the hours go by.

On the other side of the street there was a Starbucks…bleeuuugh. I guess I am not alone in finding it a travesty whenever I come across a MacDonalds or BurgerKing or whatever in historical cities.

Still, this Starbucks was advertising an Internet hotspot so I made a resigned mental note of it.

Right, time to go back before it gets too bleedin’ hot.

I was feeling pretty confident of my orientational abilities by now and my navigation had been reduced to “if it’s uphill it’s probably right”.

However I began to find myself not remembering if I had passed this or that shop and this or that church, and suddenly a Greek phrase from a long lost guidebook popped into my head, echo chathei – I am lost!

Much as I hated the thought, I felt I would have to go downhill a bit before finding where I had to go uphill again, so I did…and then there was my graffiti, gamo tous dodeka theous, so, echo brethei - I am found!

Bread! I needed bread. Stopped at the bread shop but they were looking a bit low on bread.

Mipos echete akoma psomi? Could it be that you still have some bread?

Ochi, teleiose! Nope!

None left…bugger. So, up the steep street and then the very steep street and on impulse I went along a little side street just before the flat…and there was a little corner shop. I went in and asked for bread…

Oh yes, I have this bread and that bread and the other bread…

Ligo periploko…erm…ena kannoniko psomi? That’s a bit complicated, erm…just a normal standard loaf?

Oriste, 70 lepta. Here you are, 70 cents.

So up the last little bit to the flat; and a lunch of gigandes, dolmadakia, feta, turopita, psomi kai retsina - µµµµµµµµµµµ… (mmmmmmmmm).

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