I had caught the 6 am train from Skopje which in itself had been an adventure. When our bus pulled up to the border crossing, everyone was ordered off the bus, told to get our luggage, and stand in a line with our luggage on the ground at our feet. There were at least six armed border guards attending to our group, and before long another joined us accompanied by a large German Shepherd, who proceeded to move along the line of luggage, inspecting each by way of scent.
Finding nothing, our passports – which had been collected – were returned to us and we lined up to have them stamped at a small window before returning our luggage to the bus, and retaking our seats.
It was strange to me, after spending so much time over the past three months in Europe, the level of security between Greece and Macedonia. During my time in the Schengen Area - the border free zone in Europe – I had passed between more than ten countries without having to pass through a single border. Even in the Balkans, through which I had been picking my way for the past two weeks, the border crossings had been straightforward and relaxed, at least compared to this. As we pulled away from the crossing, I chalked the increase in security up to resentment and mistrust shared by these neighbors, built up over millennia of history between them.
I stepped out of the bus station in Thessaloniki and began the process of finding my bearings, determining where in the city I was, and where I needed to get to that is familiar to any traveller who has just been deposited in a new place. I tried a few spots in the station before finally finding wifi and setting my course. I was about 15 blocks away from the apartment of my host for the next few days, Heracles. I needed to meet him there by 3:00 so he could let me in before he left for the afternoon, and it was now 2:45. I ran across the street to catch a bus, feeling for any Euros I might still have in my pockets to feed the automated onboard ticket dispenser. My pockets were empty, I hopped on none-the-less.
Part of what took me by surprise about Greece was that this was the first country I had travelled to that used an alphabet other than the Roman script I had grown up with as a native English speaker. This fact hit me as soon as I walked off the bus platform and into the street where I was unable to read any of the street or shop signs. Google had translated my directions phonetically into the streets English equivalents, and I was only able to get off at the right stop by carefully listening to the stops as they were broadcast over the bus intercom.
There was another factor however that stuck out to me at least as much as the difference in alphabet. Growing up in North America, the media always portrayed Canada, the US, and Europe – at least EU member states – as “The West”. Everything I heard about Europe seemed to indicate that Western countries enjoyed largely the same standard of living, were all prosperous nations, and were becoming increasingly Anglicized. While I was aware of the economic troubles Greece was having, I assumed that this downturn was a recent phenomenon. What I realized as a walked the streets of Thessaloniki, one of the major Greek cities, was that this was a country that was clearly not as prosperous as the country in which I had grown up.
Towering apartments lined the streets, but these buildings had about them an air of decay. Hundreds of television antennae sprang up from every rooftop, paint peeled from the walls, and rusty corrugated awnings protected the tiny patios over which they hung. The traffic was chaotic and congested, with horns constantly filling the tiny streets and alleyways with never ending cries. Stray dogs and cats roamed the city at will, coming and going as they pleased, ever on the lookout for a passing tourist who might take pity on them and offer up their next meal.
As for Anglicization, in Thessaloniki at least, most people were bilingual, but in other parts of Europe I had been pleasantly surprised to find that English was not dominating and homogenizing the world, nor even Europe. I'm someone who revels in cultural differences and feel that each of us has traditions and histories that are worth honoring and holding on to. Before my first travels, with little to base my judgements off of except for vague references in media, I had been under the impression that English was – or soon would be - actually replacing native languages around the world. I was surprised and excited to find that even in the most modern and well-off of European countries such as Germany, English was hard, if not impossible to find outside of the major centers, and even in those large cities, it was not ubiquitous.
When picturing Greece, I had always thought of ancient ruins, fantastic coastlines, sun-kissed islands and quaint villages. I was only able to visit Thessaloniki this time around, but that city was enough to remind me that there is more to every country than the standard story that is portrayed.
Thessaloniki had it's ruins, but most were heavily decayed, and to be found in random little pockets of the city, surrounded by apartment buildings, shops, and all the other trappings of a modern city. Walking through the city did not convey the same sense of history and grandeur that I imaging walking through Athens would.
Never-the-less I found myself fascinated by the city. Perhaps it was the chaos of the streets as compared to the more orderly European cities I had recently visited, part of it was the sense of decay and grittiness of the streets and architecture. Whatever it was, I spent almost all of my time aimlessly wandering the streets, fascinated by something at every corner it seemed.
Heracles, my host took me out on a walking tour of his neighborhood the first night I was there and gave me a deep look into the history and current state of the Greeks, the political troubles of the country, and their rocky relationship with their neighbors in Macedonia. My favourite story was of his uncle, a well-off businessman who also happened to be a well known bank robber. He had held up a dozen or so banks before he was caught in the act by an off-duty police officer who happened to be in the bank at the time it was being held up. He is now serving a jail sentence along with former corrupt politicians among others, including the former Prime Minister of Greece.
Sometimes, expectations and preconceptions about what a place is like can end up disappointing you when the location fails to live up to the image you held of it. Thessaloniki was a rare case where the city turned out to be completely different from what I thought it would be, but that fact actually seemed to enhance my experience there. Once I was able to accept the fact that my preconceptions were false, the city was free to surprise me, and I could explore it without any prior knowledge of what I might find. This can be a difficult feat while travelling these days, with the ability to instantly see pictures, scope out things to see, and read up on locations before setting foot in them through the internet, but it is without a doubt one of the best ways to experience a place.
This shot is of an art instillation along the waterfront of Thessaloniki, a place I had walked past half a dozen times during my stay in the city, but never really saw until my last day there. Generally when exploring a city, I find that one of the best ways that I can comprehend a place is by photographing it. Thessaloniki however was a city that to me spoke to all of my senses, and seemed hard to capture in images alone. I had been struggling to find captivating compositions until the last day when I once again walked past these umbrellas and noticed the plethora of leading lines when viewed from below. As soon as I pressed the shutter, I knew I had the shot I had been looking for.
Given the structure of the composition and the lack of any colour in either the sky or the subject, this was a perfect shot to convert to black and white, crank up the contrast and bring out the detail. It was processed entirely in Lightroom and was shot at 11mm, 1/2500 sec, f/2.8, ISO 100.
What are some places that differed from the expectations you had for them? Was your experience enhanced by the difference, or was it a disappointment? Do you like to research your destinations extensively before you show up or do you prefer to arrive “blind” and explore on your own? Let me know in the comments!
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