Stepping onboard the ferry to Igoumenitsa in North Western Greece is like stepping back in time a few decades. The lack of facilities wouldn’t be much of a problem if it wasn’t for the absence of internet access, as I’d planned to spend much of the 15 hour crossing online, organising for my journey through Greece. As soon as we arrive at the port I hunt down an internet cafe and write down the details of my anarchist contact Malamas in Thessaloniki who’s told me he has some comrades in Ioannina (around 90 km to the East) who could possibly put me up for a night. Having missed all the traffic from the ferry and hopelessly attempting to hitch for an hour I get a bus to Ioannina and wait around all day for a call from one of the comrades. The call never comes but by chance I happen across a large anarchist squat and wonder in to see the lie of the land. I stop a pony-tailed fellow and explain I was just passing by and ask if he knows anywhere I could stay for the night (hint, hint) but he abruptly informs me “This is not a hostel”. Such a welcoming demeanour puts me off elaborating on the details of my reason for being in Ioannina. He goes on to tell me that I would need to attend a meeting the next evening to be able to stay a night. I resist the temptation to tell him to fuck himself and say I’m only in Ioannina for one night and I go off on my merry way. I end up settling down for the night on a bench beside the lake.
The coldness is unexpected as it was 28 degrees during the day and I don’t sleep much. By 1 am my sleeping bag is damp and I head back to the bus station in search for a warmer bench. I manage to get around half an hour’s sleep before the station opens at 5am and I enquire what bus I can get to “a good hitching spot outside of town on the way to Thessaloniki”. The helpful attendant arranges a free bus ride for me to a spot near the motorway and after sheltering from the cold for an hour in a roadside cafe, I start to hitch at 8. Straight away I’m joined by a young Dutch chap who also slept outside during the night. He too is traveling to India (from Istanbul) and he hopes to hitch to some monastery in the mountains nearby. After an hour he gives up and walks back into town to get a bus. I stubbornly persist and am still standing with the thumb out 5 hours later. I grab some lunch before giving it another go and am picked up within a minute by a lad who’s going directly to Thessaloniki. What is supposed to be a 5 hour journey by bus is done in under 2 hours and we rarely go below 160 km/hr. He spends most of his time arguing with his girlfriend on the phone while I sit in a daze from the lack of sleep. I can barely belive how quickly I’ve made it to Thessaloniki and after an unsuccessful hostel search I call Malamas hoping he won’t mind hosting me at short notice and he kindly agrees to put me up for a couple of nights.
Thessaloniki is around the same size as Dublin but its people are much more relaxed and friendlier than the Dubs. A crossroads between East and West for centuries, it has a unique character. Malamas takes me to an anarchist social centre in the centre (there are 5 such places in the city)…a multi-storey building with a lively bar and activities/classes of all sorts, from kickboxing to a kindergarten are hosted there. Run collectively as an independent space, it’s impressive to see such an anarchist presence in the centre of the city. Given its modern history, it’s not surprising Greece has such a strong anarchist culture; the struggle against fascism waged by the partizans during WW2 and the subsequent betrayal of the left in Greece following their victory, leading to a fascist dictatorship, has meant the main radical left force in the country is libertarian/anti-authoritarian (an estimated 10 to 15% of the population self-identify as anarchist).
With the country being bled dry by the IMF/EU, and a resurgent Nazi party exploiting the bitterness and desperation of many (50% of the police voted for the fascist ‘Golden Dawn’ party in the last election), the polarisation of society is set to deepen. The state is already coming down in favor of the fascists (a bit like Germany in the 1930s) rather than see the radical left gain the upper hand. Malamas reckons civil war is inevitable and from what I’ve seen and heard I have to agree with him (I plan to write about this and the roots of the political situation in Greece in my other blog soon). The implications of what happens there will impact everyone in Europe and will determine the future of the continent. To say one is “not political” is a political postition and as Howard Zinn once said, you can’t be nuetral on a moving train. Too many people in Greece and Europe choose not to be politically enagaged and that’s one of the main reasons our future looks so bleak. In the right wing media in Greece, Ireland is held up as a sensible country, taking the IMF’s medicine without any fuss. The ‘elites’ in Greece want the public to be like the Irish, i.e docile and confused, offering little resistance to the assault on their country but enough Greeks see through the bullshit to ensure it won’t be easy for the gangsters in power to get their way.
After Thessaloniki I spend a mosquito infested night by the sea in the coastal village of Afitos before staying with a couchsurfer in the mountain village of Perestera. Katherine was born in Canada to Greek parents and moved to Greece 40 years ago and has a relaxed home with a nice space for guests . Staying there gives me time to chill and enjoy some quiet time before hitting the road again. My week in Greece goes by all too quickly…its warm people are more ‘Balkan’ in nature than ‘European’ but I leave with some trepidation at what lies ahead for us all.