Tuesday, September 30 Methoni to Thessaloniki
(written Wednesday morning)
Transition. Shifting. Movement.
Interesting day. As you are aware early on in the pilgrimage I needed to get calmed down in order to “stay in the moment.” Today I felt like I was both in the moment and concentrating on my destination. This pilgrimage has been very different than my last one when I cycled through the western United States. On that pilgrimage I stayed very close to the route I had planned. And because it was the West with its broad expanses, it was typical for me to have a day where my map said, “Turn right. Go 400 miles. Turn left. Stay on highway for 90 miles, etc.” On this pilgrimage I feel like I have a final destination in mind, but I have my map, a compass, and lots of local advice. It is more involved, but also appealing in the same way that a scavenger hunt is.
Yesterday was a good example. After swimming in my skivvies in the Aegean Sea for a few minutes I set my sites on my next destination. I had a reservation at a hostel in Thessaloniki for three nights so I needed to make the trek from Methoni to here. The most direct route was on a freeway, but was only 60 kilometers (37 miles) away. I wanted to avoid the freeway so I picked a route that added about 20 kilometers, but would keep me on a lesser highway. Wrong choice! The freeway at least had an eight food wide shoulder. This highway had shoulder room, but no lines and it was filled with both agricultural and industrial truck traffic.
I finally figured out why. I had picked a route that was so far out of the way that it was the main thoroughfare to all the outlying towns northwest of Thessaloniki. I needed to find a way to get back toward the freeway, if possible, where I might find local roads and, if not, could use the wide shoulder of the freeway. I discovered a frontage road that was perfect—20 kilometers of peaceful, traffic-free riding with only the occasional tractor or car.
Getting into Thessaloniki was not the worst traffic I have ever encountered, but it definitely kept me on my toes. And, I was stopping every few blocks to once again check my final destination with my current location as I wound my way through residential streets, main arteries, and congested business districts. This part of Thessaloniki will be great for walking, but is not conducive to cycling—narrow streets, broken, buckled pavement, and lots of traffic and distractions. It feels like I am in a video game trying to survive long enough to go to the next level.
So there was a transition getting here, but I am noticing another shift that is subtle, but clear. The “Rome to Rumi” theme has some meaning here. The closer I am getting to Turkey the more people seem to care about what I am doing. In Italy people were intrigued sort of like, “That’s an interesting project.” In western and central Greece local people were pleased to share their local religious culture. But, in the last 100 kilometers I am getting a different reception. People feel strongly about presence of and the clash of cultures in this part of the world.
It’s good that I am observing and studying and recording. I don’t think it would be received well by some if I was taking a position of more or less recognition or tolerance of religions outside of Greek Orthodox. I have heard from both sides—those who feel that there needs to more tolerance for Islam and other religious faiths and those who are fighting to hold onto a purer Greek cultural identity. I met one man yesterday who stopped me as I was negotiating a difficult section of traffic. He went into his home (his mother’s home, actually, as he is one of the 24% of Greeks who are unemployed), and brought out chocolates and lemonade. He asked about where I was going and when I told him that Istanbul was my next significant stop, he quickly corrected me telling me that it’s proper Greek name was Constantinople.
I am now at the most amazing hostel. Talk about hospitality and creating a warm, homelike atmosphere. I was welcomed with cold water and a local Greek favorite, a coffee frappe (a frothy mixture thicker than cappuccino). There are four of us to a room, but a door separates out each bunk bed making it feel like just two per room. Each room has its own little kitchen, plates and utensils, cookware, and a couple of coffee options depending on your national preference.
As I received my orientation to the hostel and to the city, it was made clear that I am now in a different part of the world and certainly a different Greece. Vicky, the young, energetic, brightly-optimistic, red-headed owner of the hostel gave me a clear picture of the cultural make-up of the city. I am still trying to get my head around what this means in modern terms, but she informed me that the city is made up of four distinct cultures—Hellenistic, Jewish, Ottoman, and Byzantine. Istanbul (Constantinople) may be the official city where West meets East (the Bosphorous River is the dividing line between Europe and Asia in the city), but I can feel that I am already riding into the confluence of cultures.
Finally, one other note on transition. I believe I was in western Italy about two weeks ago when I came around a sweeping corner while ascending one of the softer and more inviting hills of the trip. A small gust of wind came up and dozens of browning leaves were dislodged from the trees from my right. They floated down crossing my path from right to left in what was a brief glimpse of the future. I immediately felt that it was a message. “Fall is in the air, my friend. Be prepared.”
For the last four days the riding has been very comfortable, but there is chill in the air. The sun in warm still, but the air quickly cools down in the shade. The mornings are a little chilly. By 4:00 p.m. I can feel the temperature beginning to drop. The extra night I spent on the mountain in Ambelakia almost had a winter spirit about it. A little colder and those raindrops would have been snowflakes.
The locals are telling me that it has been unseasonably cold this summer and fall. I checked average temperatures before I left to determine the best time to take this journey. I wanted to be late enough to miss the holiday crowds and early enough to beat winter. It feels like fall is at least two weeks, maybe even three weeks ahead of schedule. I am fine now and will be fine. I brought enough clothing to handle fall weather. Anything more than that I may need to stop in Istanbul and re-weatherize.
And my question yesterday, “Where, O where do I best serve” is working on me. Some things are clear. I have a grandchild on the way and adult children whom I enjoy and would benefit from having me around more. I have a blossoming love interest and my gifts and character are definitely needed, just maybe not in the way we have come to define them in a typical job and paycheck.
Transition. Shifting. Movement. All is well. All is well.