Thursday 8 April
This is my final post from Greece. I thought I’d quickly tell you about some of the other adventures I’ve had with Crazy Anastasia since I arrived in her village, plus show you a few photos. Mind you, blogging was a labour of love between when I left Santorini and reached Thessaloniki: although I bought a wireless USB and SIM card here, it has been so slow that uploading each photo took at least 10 mins, making the whole process a real test of endurance. However, I’m in my Saloniki hotel now with its high speed wireless internet, and am thrilled to be able to upload a photo in just 45 seconds!
I confess that we probably haven’t travelled around and seen as much as I would have liked – Anastasia has not been able to sleep much, and so takes her forever to get ready in the morning (I usually add an hour to any estimated time of departure) plus we’ve had Easter madness get in the way. However, I’ve had a lovely time and am sad to be leaving her. She really is like my second mum (yes, including all the really annoying and weird things that go along with it, especially since she’s my Greek mother).
Apart from her eternal kindness, one of the best qualities she has is her extraordinarily gregarious nature. That same cheeky, sparkling chick who introduced herself to me on the plane back in 2007 is happy to meet absolutely everybody. One of the keys to discovery, she believes, is simply to ask questions of everyone she meets. So, even if she already knows the answer to something, she’ll walk or drive up to a perfect stranger and just ask – for directions, the time of the next ferry, you name it. And along the way, she makes new friends and often learns something she doesn’t already know. Simple as that.
Sometimes it can be hilarious – it’s not unusual for her to wander off, and by the time I wonder where she is, I spot her sitting at some stranger’s table, yelling and laughing.
Other times, it’s incredibly useful – through her million question strategy she discovered an extra ferry that saved us an hour on our return trip from the island of Thassos.
Of course, like most Greeks, she is a mad driver, and cannot drive behind anyone for long before she ends up assessing how quickly she will overtake them. She is a master of horn tooting and, even if there’s nothing to beep at, she’ll hit it hard anyway. Yesterday, we reached 160km/h (in a 130km/h zone, mind you), which was terrifying enough on its own…minutes later she confessed she felt drowsy and I demanded that she either hand the wheel over to me, or we take a break at the nearby lake so she could revive with a coffee.
The worst drivers, so you know, are in Crete, where it is fairly common to be overtaken by someone who is being overtaken by someone else. The cars speed along, three abreast in the same direction on a two-lane highway (and I have had the immense joy of driving one of them!). The other morning, as we zoomed along at 140km/h in a 50km/h zone, I asked Anastasia if her speed was a problem. The response: “Only if, by accident, we should meet a policeman.”
When I first drove with Anastasia, my strategy was to cling to my rosary beads, praying for survival, and shrieking at every near miss. This really annoyed her, and did nothing for my stress levels. Now, I just go with it. Of course, just yesterday she scraped a car while reverse parking and a man fled out of a shop to check the damage, so it’s always an adventure.
On Friday, my first day here, we headed to a nearby village to do some shopping, and visited an open air market offering a wide assortment of fruit, veges, honey, olives, and the usual awful trinkets you can only buy at markets. It was completely crowded, but the goods were cheap and gorgeous.
After this, we went in search of bougatsa. Even though I’ve already told you about my favourite sweet bougatsa, in reality “bougatsa” is a generic word for a dish served warm, covered in a flaky, crumbly pastry and containing an array of ingredients from spinach, cheese, leek, tomato, peppers, olives…mmmm). I discovered the joy of a bougatsa shop, which seems to be neither a bakery, nor a cafe. At the front, they have a stainless steel warming area containing bougatsas in numerous flavours. The server uses a half-mezzaluna type knife to efficiently slice into bite-size pieces whichever combination of flavours you feel like before weighing your purchases for you to either eat there, or to be wrapped into greaseproof paper and taken away. Naturally, before the final weigh-in, Anastasia is scoffing the bougatsa pieces and handing some to me.
On Monday, we visited the island of Thassos, which is a real stunner. Surrounded by some of the best beaches in Greece (acqua water and sand, not those awful pebbles), big enough to be interesting and to absorb other annoying tourists, but small enough to drive around in a couple of hours. I highly recommend it as a destination and will need to return to sus it out some more.
We enjoyed a gorgeous fish lunch on the sand, where Anastasia got talking to some very nice Bulgarians, Pepper and Nikolai, who she immediately befriended, offered food to, and then dragged half-way around the island with us.
By the end of it, we were exchanging email addresses and phone numbers, and Anastasia was insisting that they return to Thassos in September to meet her again. Plus, she is extra pleased because now she has somewhere to stay in Sofia.
After parting company with
Pepper and Nikolai, we drove around the island, as Anastasia reminisced about the time she was here when she was 48 and had a 26 year old lover! (Good thinking, I say). In between gazing at the stunning views and clear water, we collected stray bits of the white marble for which Thassos is famous. Before I came to Greece, I didn’t think a lot about marble unless it was related to kitchen benchtops. But many of the hills on Thassos are made of this stuff – white marble mountains literally gleam at you as you speed by.
On Tuesday, Anastasia’s friend Cornelia invited us to lunch at her place – a stunning apartment in the same village as the open air market. She cooked for us and a gorgeous array of fried eggplant and zucchini, dips and salad was laid out on the table before us: a feast! Unfortunately, despite my asking Anastasia to ensure there would be no repeat of the “Soup Incident”, there it was: liver cooked in – wait for it – yoghurt. Oooooh, you can only imagine how little of this I ate, especially when discovering the liver was a dull grey/brown colour. Little wonder that Anastasia was at first reluctant to tell me what was in it…and of course I felt like a bad guest again. Anastasia told me that Cornelia spent 5 hours preparing the liver and yogurt dish, but I’m pretty sure she was lying since it my assessment of the dish was a half hour at most (ie 1. cut liver; 2. cut spinach and some other stuff; 3. pour over yoghurt; 4. cook). I give you these instructions on the off-chance you wish to make this for yourself, but if you need more detail I am happy to put you in touch with Cornelia.
On my final day and a half, it was a visit to Thessaloniki (or Saloniki for short), Greece’s second-largest city, which is 1 ½ hours’ drive from the village.
After our arrival, we took a taxi to a hill near the old castle overlooking the city, and had lunch as Anastasia dialled all of her relatives in Thessaloniki searching for a dinner invitation for that night. She grew annoyed as she realised most of them were out of town for Easter, but reached her nephew who took us out for dinner with his family. I was grateful that most of them made at least some effort to speak English so I didn’t have to pretend to look interested even though I understood nothing. My highlight was meeting Anastasia’s cousin again, who I’d spent the day with a couple of years back – such a lovely lady, just recovering from breast cancer.
We stayed overnight, and the following morning we visited the Archaelogical Museum. One thing I need to let you know is that Anastasia says that the cab drivers in Saloniki are the worst in Greece and – indeed – I confess that she is right. Of about 8 cab rides, I have never encountered so much smoking, body odour, rudeness and – I hate to say it – farting in all my cab rides put together as I did in these just 24 hours in Saloniki. After we’d had a coffee by the water, we jumped into a cab that had been sitting on a rank for a while. Well…rank was RIGHT. Anastasia, in her inimitable style, of course asks why the taxi smells like a toilet, and the driver blames the last passenger before he promptly gets on his phone. Yeah, right. As we drove along, conversation ensued between him and Anastasia, including him basically telling her to shut up because he was on the phone. At this point, I knew we were in for some trouble, since Anastasia is no shrinking violet. Sure enough, Anastasia soon starts yelling at the rude, farting, mobile-talking driver. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her hand reach for the door and – BAM – we were outta there as she stormed along the road, arms waving, yelling and swearing like crazy at this windbag of a guy. What an adventure!
In the afternoon, Anastasia delivered me to the airport for my flight to Istanbul. I felt bad leaving: she is surrounded by people and meets new ones all the time, but there are few people who she really relates to (ie who give her as hard a time as she gives them), and she is lonely. It’s sad we are so far away. However, she is getting more and more proficient with Skype, which I totally LOVE, so hopefully that will make things easier. And, when you visit Greece, you really must meet her, as she’ll become your Greek mother too.
So, for now, it’s off to my next adventure. My next post will be from marvellous Istanbul!