On the other side of The Pond

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We landed in Frankfurt, Germany. Not a wink of sleep, as I was too cramped in the back of the aircraft, and too excited about where I was going. My face was pressed for a large part of the 14-hour trip against the window. I watched to see the lights of Europe slowly winking on with the dawn. We flew over the German countryside, en route to Frankfurt. As we descended, I was amazed by the ordered beauty of the region: there was an unbroken circumference of thick forest, surrounded by what appeared to be miles of fields.

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It seemed so balanced, and with so little sprawl. Very unlike areas of my country, where cities spread out along the framework of highways on the landscape.

We landed at Frankfurt at approximately 9 a.m. and were greeted by the morning sun gleaming through clouds massed over the tarmac.

Unkinking my legs, I scrambled to pull down my two bags: my shoulder bag, which held my laptop, and my backpack, which held my most prized possession, my Nikon D810 camera. The camera was securely packed in its original boxes and squeezed into the pack. There wasn’t room for much else, but that is all I really needed, frankly. Along with my medications and adapters for the foreign outlets I would be plugging my electronic devices into.

Given my jet-lagged state, the airport was complicated to navigate, even though it was laid out (deceptively) in a straight line. Eventually, I found my way to customs, and after a brief, curt interview with agents who were behind closed glass, I shuffled to my gate, where I proceeded to doze off in a chair. My connecting Aegean Airways flight was due at 2:50 p.m. Once en route, it would be a 2.5-hour flight to Thessaloniki, the second-largest city in Greece. (Athens being the first).

Finally, my flight number was called and I queued up, along with an assortment of other folk bound for Greece. This was my first exposure to Greek people. I was left with the odd feeling I’d seen them somewhere before. Then it hit me – they reminded me of the people in the New York neighborhood where I had grown up — warm and loud, with the men comfortably grouped and talking to each other, the women in their own family groups. I felt comfortable. We weren’t flying to Greece – we were going to Newark, New Jersey.

At last we got onto the twin-engine Airbus. I parked my bags in an overhead compartment, then fell more than sat in my seat. Adrenaline was kicking in and I felt oddly light and elated.

I was sandwiched between a young man in the window seat, and a very professional young woman on the aisle seat. She and I talked for some time. She was a French chemist working in Athens for the pharmaceutical industry. We received our in-flight meals, and I attacked mine, as I was famished and needing something to align my blood sugar. My chemist friend, I noted, ate a rather spare meal of vegetables. No wonder she looked so healthy – albeit bored. Lima beans at 50,000 feet are hardly something to cheer about.

We crossed over a variety of Eastern European landscapes in Macedonia, Slovenia, Bulgaria; before making our final approach to Thessaloniki Airport. From the plane window I could see the city sprawled out below, and in the distance the blue of the Aegean Sea.

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Upon landing, the passengers erupted into applause. Initially this seemed quite funny to me. But thinking about it, why wouldn’t we applaud? Our crew did not crash the plane, and we had a decent meal on the way over. I clapped along.

We took a cramped diesel bus from aircraft to airport, after exiting the plane on a wheeled stairway that made me feel like one of the Beatles. Standing half-gassed in the baggage claim, I watched the carousel spit out my three bags, two of which were massive and full of supplies for the camps. I pulled them off and staggered to load them onto a baggage cart, then wheeled to the front lobby.

I’d never seen so many men dressed in leather in my life. If Greece had a dress code for the male population, this would have to be it: the ubiquitous black leather jacket. Women were rocking big hair with highlights and manicured nails. Hera, to go with Zeus in the leather bomber jacket. Cigarette smoke wafted in through the sliding doors, as travelers reunited with their families and had a relaxing drag before going home.

My ride to the hotel was coming from Sam, the Syrian-American leader of our NGO volunteer group. I rolled my big cart of baggage to the front lobby of the airport and watched people going in and out in the late-afternoon sun.

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Back home in Seattle, it was now 3:30 a.m. My eyeballs felt as if they were sinking into my head.

Sam texted to tell me he was running late, and if I wanted to, he could just meet me at the hotel. I’d already canceled my driver after Sam had offered to pick me up. So I waited, hoping my giant bags weren’t making me look like a terrorist or human trafficker.

About an hour later, Sam came in with a big, gangly Viking of a man named Larry, as well as two young women volunteers in hijab who were flying back to London. It was quite a contrast – Larry, with a big mustache, wearing a scarf around his neck and speaking in a booming voice to Sam, and the two soft-spoken London girls who had spent a week at the refugee camp, called Frakapor. There were hugs all around, and then the three of us were finally walking out of the airport. Larry, good-naturedly impossible to ignore, was in Frakapor refugee camp for a month, and was halfway through his stay. Sam had been in Greece for some months already, including the horrific times, in the previous year, when the borders between Greece and the Balkans closed, leaving thousands stranded on northern border.

It was cold in the winter sun. Larry and Sam loaded my bags in the back of a tired-looking white rental van, and I climbed into the first row of seats in the back. Larry and Sam got into the front and we pulled out into traffic, taking Highway 67 past Thessaloniki, en route to Chalkidona, a farming town where the Maison Hotel is located.

I watched the landscape fly by. We passed rocky hills forested with olive trees and scrubby undergrowth. I tried to picture how the ancient Greeks would have looked against this landscape. They must have worn considerably more clothing than their vase paintings indicated – it was snapping cold outside.

We started passing businesses – large industrial-supply stores and car-part places. On the roofs of some were installed huge metal Greek letters, spelling out business names. There was no landscaping; just buildings that looked as if they had been dropped out of the sky into parking lots, with the rocky Greek landscape surging up behind them. Big buildings and signs, not a lot of artifice or prettiness. This was a place for hard men driving big trucks. It was a landscape stripped down for the sole purpose of moving product in and out.

We stopped for gas. I got out of the van because I wanted to breathe the air, feel the place through my senses. The air was cold and smelled oddly of burning cinders – something I was to notice throughout my stay in Northern Greece. I later learned this was because people were burning furniture and other wood fixtures to heat their homes – prices for oil having exploded due to taxes from Greek austerity measures. The furnishings people were burning had been treated with various chemicals, and these were being released into the air when the wood was ignited.

I could feel my lungs tightening in the dry, stale air. Meanwhile Larry and Sam were engaged in heavy conversation with a troupe of good-natured gas station attendants, trying to open the hood of the van. The engine light had come on. This was an exciting project for all parties.

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In the meantime, a number of large, feral dogs strolled by, alerted to the noise and hoping for a handout. I was to learn later that stray dogs and cats are just a part of the landscape here. I could not believe how big some of these dogs were – they looked as if you could harness them to a cart.

Eventually, with a lot of gesturing and head-scratching, the problem was solved, the hood was slammed shut, and we were on our way to the hotel. It was early evening when we arrived. Located across the road from what I later learned was a cabbage field, the hotel was faced in marble and lit in such a manner that it looked less like a hotel and more like Midas’ palace. Marble is the go-to building material here.

Sam and Larry took the camp bags, and I took my own, thankful that it was on wheels for the home stretch. After fighting with the hallway light switch, I made it to my room, which was spare but quite comfortable. The bed was nicely firm. The bathroom had a tiny shower. At least I had running water – the camp where we were going tomorrow did not.

I vaguely recall sitting down for some kind of dinner, and being aware smokers were part of the landscape here — this was so much like the place where I’d grown up on Long Island, New York. Larry waxed rhapsodic about the breakfasts served here. Sam, who was fighting a very bad cold, left to put together some paperwork for the NGO. I felt so bad for him – he was really sick.

Then I went to my room, laid down, and attempted to sleep. It was about 7 a.m. back on the other side of the globe. What a day.

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