08 Jan Halkidiki: My Big Fat Greek New Year
After spending a more than sufficient 5 days with my family for Christmas, eating mince pies, drinking tea, sitting by the fire, and hitting a couple of Boxing Day sales, on the last Friday of 2012 I headed off on a new adventure – to Greece.
The flight there was a little bit of a disaster, I think it’s fair to say.
I left home in the morning, arrived at the airport Britishly early and settled in to the Starbucks in Departures, before hopping on the plane to be annoyed by Ryanair’s persistent advertisements for scratch cards and electronic cigarettes for three hours.
The Greek had told me it was foggy in Thessaloniki earlier that day, but I hadn’t thought much of it, and on our descent to the airport, the fog below didn’t seem like anything to worry about. The captain announced “Ten minutes to landing”, and the plane descended towards the airport and into some much thicker fog, before the pilot decided quite literally at the last minute to pull upwards again and fly off.
Soon enough, a very British announcement from the cockpit came, “The pilot has decided not to land the plane, on this occasion”. I imagined we’d do a loop and try again, but no. We just carried on flying, getting higher and higher, until ten or so minutes later the next announcement came. “Due to weather conditions, the plane is now headed towards Athens”.
Now, my Greek geography leaves a lot to be desired, but I was pretty confident that Athens and Thessaloniki are not very near each other. And I was right.
I will admit, I did have a little cry at this point, mainly because I was tired, desperate to pee as I’d drank a litre of water just before the first ‘landing’, and frankly didn’t really understand what I was supposed to do, alone in Athens at 10pm, with my very minimal knowledge of Greek. And nobody else seemed to know either.
We were stuck on the grounded plane for an hour with no idea what was going on, before eventually being let off and told we’d be taken to the north on… a bus.
An hour after that, some coaches arrived, and everybody got on, with no idea how long it would take, where it would stop, or anything else really, seeing as nobody at all told us anything at any point.
A couple of hours into my midnight tour of the darkened motorways of Greece, I, like most of the people around me finally managed to doze off, only to be awoken by the stereotype of all stereotypes; at 3.30am the bus driver decided it’d been too long since he’d seen some Greek dancing and heard some Greek music, so started to blast a very 90s-looking video of Greeks eating and dancing, to the soundtrack of every single scene in every single film set in Greece. At almost any other time, this would have been funny, but timing was not on its side.
Seven and a half hours after leaving Athens airport, and 13 and a half after leaving British soil, I arrived in a completely fog-free Thessaloniki, and was greeted by a slightly tired but quite relieved looking Greek.
Things could only improve from there.
And improve they did, as for the next eight days I was fed more delicious Greek food than I ever thought possible, introduced to lots of lovely Greeks, and taken around to all sorts of beautiful places by my personal tour guide.
I didn’t really know what to expect of Greece, which made it difficult when The Greek’s friends asked me whether it was better or worse than I expected, because I quite honestly had no idea.
What I will say is that the sea is flipping clear, even in winter, there’s a lot more green space around than I expected, and they have some very impressive sunsets. There are also lots of mountains (including Mount Olympus, which I embarrassingly thought was a fictional mountain used for the purposes of Greek Myths…), and even the occasional lake, so it’s not all islands, white houses and crumbling columns as you may expect.
It’s not the third-world country that the news would have you believe either, but the cafés (where you can smoke inside – of course) are completely full at every hour of every day, so I suppose it’s true that nobody has a job, except the many, many waitresses.
Most of the people are super friendly, all speak English, and all are quite upset that these days, everybody thinks of the economic situation before they think of how beautiful this place is. Which is sad, because they’re completely right.
My New Year’s Eve was spent at The Greek’s house with a dinner, no, a feast prepared by his friend the chef for eight or so of his friends, followed by a big game of blackjack (which, it transpired, I am very bad at) and heading to a club at 5am only to find it totally full of scantily clad 14 year olds, giving up, and going back home.
In true Greek style, the first day of 2013 was spent eating yet more food, going for a walk along the sea in Moudania, and finally drinking frappés in a café facing on to the sea for sunset. Perfect.
2013 could not have started better, and as a bonus, I now don’t need to eat again until at least March.
The following days consisted of lots of lovely walks in the surprising warmth of the January sun, and many, many coffees and meals – including one pita gyros certainly bigger than my head.
We also had several trips to various places including the nearby city of Thessaloniki for dinners and wandering and coffee with friends (including Stelios and Maria from Turin – it is a small world); some thermal baths near the Bulgarian border; The Greek’s old university town of Kozani; and a beautiful little lake town called Kastoria, which definitely would have seemed more Italian than Greek if it weren’t for the random groups of people dancing to the aforementioned stereotypical Greek music on the streets for no readily apparent reason.
All of the places we went to were great in their own way, but I am assured that Greek winter has nothing on Greek summer, and I guess there’s only one way to find out…