In Thessaloniki

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Weariness, mathematicians, Easter lambs, bagged beers, no vacancy, Greece, dendrites, pit fires, golden eggs, photo albums & “Für Elise.”


 

The run-up to Greek Easter is, like any of the world’s great migrations, crowded. I traveled north from Athens via Metéora to Thessaloniki, battling the hordes of old women who stuffed whole lambs, broom-sized bunches of scallions and mountains of bread into the cargo compartments of buses. Christ may have divided the loaves and the fishes, but these ladies were not going to starve waiting for him to repeat himself. By the time I made it to Thessaloniki, I was close to broke, so I immediately bought my train ticket back to Turkey and found a place I could afford for a couple of nights, though not the full three nights I’d be there.

Homeless come Easter Eve, I wandered from church to church and found myself ringing in the resurrection with a dull fever and aching legs at the Church of Hosios David. It dates from the late fifth century and features a mosaic of Ezekiel’s vision of Christ ascending into heaven on a rainbow, which he rides sidesaddle. Of particular interest to me were the icons of Saint David the Dendrite, the first of the tree-dwellers, for whom the church was named. So many people sought his counsel that he took up residence in an almond tree and lived there for three years, just to get away from them. In one, he looks like a torso in a bird’s nest; in another, he’s forced to use all of his limbs just to maintain his balance. I suspect all the dendrites (like the anchorites and stylites) were people-haters at heart.


Christ may have divided the loaves and the fishes, but these ladies were not going to starve waiting for him to repeat himself.


The church service ended around 3 a.m. While I considered stowing myself away there, I was afraid I’d get locked in with the Albanian refugees who’d come begging for eggs and bread and miss my morning train, or worse. I walked to the hotel where I’d stayed the previous night, hoping they’d take pity on me and let me just sit there, but it was closed. Someone asked me if I needed a hotel and followed me for a while. I walked by two other people who also had no place to go, but I avoided them and tried to distinguish myself from them by walking quickly, with purpose. They called to me, “Hey, not so fast,” but I ignored them. I stopped at a restaurant and asked if they were open all night. When my face lit up, the proprietor said, “Madame, this is not a hotel!” and turned away from me just as quickly as I had from the others. I said, “Sir, I am not tired.”

I’d learned from another hotel patron that the train station was open all night, so I headed there.

My remaining staples included one bag of pretzel sticks and a juice. A pudgy guy with long hair tried to make eye contact with me. I saw that he was drinking beer out of a bag and did my best to avoid him. He walked over anyway and asked me where I was from and whether I’d talk to him so he could practice his English. I was sure he didn’t care about English, but he bought me a soda. When he asked me to come back to his house, there wasn’t much of the night left, but risking whatever was at stake (life?) for a few hours of rest seemed worth it, given how poorly I felt.


He told me his father drank but assured me he wasn’t dangerous.


It was a long walk down dark streets and alleys. We passed abandoned lots where spotty clusters of revelers gathered around pit fires. We stopped at one and someone came over, greeted my companion and slowly eyed me up and down. They shared a cigarette and what was left of a bottle. I had no idea where I was or where we were going, and I didn’t even know his name. He told me his father drank but assured me he wasn’t dangerous. Some comfort.

The door to the apartment opened into the kitchen, which was a mess. There were pots and pans, plates covered in stumped butts, and bottles everywhere. He explained to me that his father had had friends over that night, that he had cooked for them and drank with them. We went into the living room and sat on the couch. He showed me his family photo album. His mother died when he was young, as my father had, after which his father moved them from Bucharest to Thessaloniki. In the pictures, the men wore short-shorts and tube socks. I was surprised Ceaușescu had permitted this; I was surprised by how much these pictures reminded me of my family’s pictures from the ’70s. Soon after, I stretched out on the couch, and he closed the door to his room.

In a few hours, I woke up to the sound of “Für Elise” coming from the kitchen. For two months, all I’d heard was Turkish music, and it wasn’t until that moment, with the familiar rendered strange, that I realized how far away I was. I laid on the couch listening as the father hummed along and smoked cigarettes. I waited for Giorgios—the son’s name was Giorgios—to wake up and introduce me to his father, but got sick of waiting. And there he was, sitting at the kitchen table by a window, light streaming in, in a spotless kitchen. Talk about resurrection!


We drank coffee and continued on in this way until Giorgios woke up. His father showed me that he was making Easter eggs, golden eggs, by boiling them with onion skins.


We didn’t really have a common language, but he made me understand that he was a mathematician, though he hadn’t found work as one in Greece, and an atheist. He showed me notebooks of equations, including one called “The Big Bag.” He told me he didn’t believe in God, that he believed in man, and he patted his sternum in the way we do when we mean to say “human being” in a general sense. We drank coffee and continued on in this way until Giorgios woke up. His father showed me that he was making Easter eggs, golden eggs, by boiling them with onion skins. He gave me some of these when I left. Giorgios took me by bus back to the train station, as there wasn’t enough time to walk, and he bought me sandwiches and sodas for the long trip back.

From the train, I saw poppy fields and children picking at the rinds of watermelon, and later, when the train stopped, there was the smell of rain and engine oil and the sound of trees. We reached the border in the middle of the night and were herded off for an ID check before crossing. I remember standing outside, feeling a little worried about my backpack, which I’d left on the train, and hearing a nightingale sing for the first time in my entire life.


Jennifer Kietzman is the author of a chapbook, Chief of Interpretation (Green Zone Editions). Her poems have appeared in Like Musical Instruments: 83 Contemporary Poets, Spinning Jenny, Gargoyle and elsewhere. Jennifer recently finished work on a book-length collection of poems titled Traveling Actualities. “In Thessaloniki” is an excerpt from an extended essay about her travels in Turkey and Greece. She earned her MFA in poetry at the University of Michigan and lives in Brooklyn.

Lead image: Brian Suda

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