Thursday, October 2 Thessalonika Wrap Up Day
Tomorrow I will be a pound lighter. I have read two books on this trip—Brian Benson’s Going Somewhere about his cross-country trip on bike and Life is a Wheel, NY Times journalist, Bruce Weber’s, account of his cross-country trip on his bike in 2011 at the age of 57. Gosh! Is there a theme here and am I as boring as I sound? Actually, I have been reading them as part of shaping my own book from my western pilgrimage in 2011.
Tonight I finished Weber’s book that was especially enjoyable given our similar ages and the questions and issues that one seems to face at this age that weren’t there in our twenties and thirties. I left in on the swap shelf here at the hostel for others to enjoy in their travels. I would love to keep the book for later reference, but dropping the weight has become more important than transporting it another 1,000 kilometers. I know Bruce will understand!
Today, I visited a few more sights that I wanted to see before packing up and moving east again. St. Paul’s Cathedral was on my list, but I am not sure the large church I visited was it given the locked gates and the Greek lettering that I still haven’t quite mastered even with a semester of Greek in seminary (just 25 years ago…eek!).
I also visited the Church of Dimitrious, the oldest church in Thessaloniki and the largest one in Greece. It was pretty astounding and ornate in much the same way that much of the Vatican was, but in miniature form. The Greek Orthodox churches are recognizable from the inside, however, by their wooden chairs and the walls of iconography that tell a story of which I am not yet familiar. My last stop was the Rotondo, a massive ancient circular structure. It too, unfortunately was behind locked gates, but the story is intriguing. It was built by one of the Caesars in the Roman period, was converted to a Christian cathedral after Constantine and in 1590 became an Islamic mosque.
This story reflects something deep in the cultural psyche of Thessaloniki people. I had just a glimpse of it, but to speak of Greek culture here is not the same as it is in the villages that I passed through. For one, it is a very secular city with a port and international commerce. But, Thessaloniki didn’t even become part of Greece until 1912 when it was liberated from the Ottoman Empire. Thessaloniki does not have a singular ethnic identity except that it is Greek in same way that recent immigrants in the U.S. are American, but have origins in Germany, Italy, the Philippines, Mexico, etc. The fact that the city has had different periods of Christian, Jewish, Islamic and Hellenistic influences seems to add to richness of the city and leave it vulnerable to conflict.
Tomorrow I leave Thessaloniki with the next major destination being Istanbul. In some ways it feels like this is what I came for—to enter this world of the East that so much of our focus has been on in the last ten or so years since 9/11. I am aware of the strange paradox that a Sufi Islamic mystic has become, maybe America’s favorite and most read poet and, we are at war with Islamic fundamentalist militants. I hope to get a better grasp of this strange paradox and discover the day-to-day religious faith of the people who aren’t on the front pages of the New York Times.
I spent part of day planning a route out of the city that wouldn’t require a stiff shot of whiskey before going (I jest, really!). It appears that I negotiated through the worst of the city coming in. My route out may be a fairly simple navigation through a few neighborhood streets (not exactly easy as they are jagged cobblestones) and into a forested and protected park that is supposed to deposit me into the unpopulated and scenic countryside close to the coast.
I am in a really good frame of mind—have been pretty much since leaving Italy with the exception of the nervous ride out of Larisa. I have a mind boggling set of uncertainties still before me, yet with this much uncertainty I also have opportunities that others wouldn’t have who are tied down to established responsibilities. I have no reason to feel this calm and confident about my future.
Weber’s book, Life is a Wheel, ends with how I feel, “Where we are is where we belong. Never wish away the distance. Never wish away the time.”