My departure from Istanbul was as unceremonious as the arrival, crammed in the back of a bus bouncing off into the sunset. Only this time, I was leaving Asia behind me after quite a long time and bound for a new continent.
My bus departed the otogar after sunset. The destination was Thessaloniki, a city in northern Greece on the Aegean Sea’s Thermaic Gulf. I was on a mission here. Kate, one of my roommates, whom I’d lived with for six months in Kathmandu, is from Thessaloniki and was back in town. She also had my smaller backpack. So it was a twofer. I get to see my friend, and I get my backpack back!
The Greek Border
At long last, the final actual border was upon me. It was mostly EU after that, where crossing country borders is as significant as crossing between US states. But here at the Turkey-Greece border, all the weirdness of the past few months was there for a final hurrah.
It was 3:00 AM when the bus came bumping into the border station at İpsala. We were all ushered off the bus by a soldier, who took our passports and vanished into the office. The busload of us, a mix of Turks and Greeks, sat in quiet solidarity.
The guard glared out from the window, grumbling as he checked each passport. It stands out among all of my border experiences as being randomly very weird. I felt a lot of animosity from that guard.
I think it stands out because I wasn’t expecting it to be weird. The other borders, yeah, definitely. But I wasn’t up on my reading about this particular region. Turkey and its neighbors don’t seem to get along.
Anyway, the final weird border behind me, all that was left was a little over 200 miles until I was in Thessaloniki.
The Thessaloniki Seer
Full disclaimer: if you’re wanting photos here, there won’t be any. Honestly, there’s barely going to be any words. After running ragged for the prior two months, I was exhausted. My brain was turned off. I left my camera in my backpack and didn’t take it out for anything. My goal for the two days I was spending in Thessaloniki was to catch up with my friend and just marinate in the vibe of Greece.
I wasn’t really even going to write about Thessaloniki. But while out for coffee, Kate mentioned having gone to a fortune-teller once or twice. Suddenly, my interest in seeking out something weird was renewed. I’d never been to a fortune-teller, and I certainly wasn’t going to go to one in the US. But here, my curiosity was piqued. And what else was I going to do?
I pressed her for info about when and where we could find this person. She was quick to warn me that visiting fortune-tellers in Greece is a thing that Greek men don’t do.
“Well, I’m not a Greek man.”
“No, it’s weird for men to visit fortune-tellers.”
“Like, bad weird? Or unusual weird?”
“Both, I think.”
“Cool, let’s go.”
She shrugged and said alright. She just had to figure out when the local fortune-teller would be around next. As luck would have it, she was in her usual haunt the next day, so off we went.
In a back alley of central Thessaloniki, deep in the maze of narrow streets that make up the city, was a coffee shop on the corner. The walls were dark purple, the floor black. Cat ornamentation adorned the walls. There were only women in the cafe, and when we sat down, I felt the eyes on me.
Kate went to the woman at the counter and put our names down for the fortune-teller, who was occupied with another customer. As we waited, another man came and sat down at a table near the street. His legs jittered and he looked around as he waited, clearly anxious. I understood what Kate had meant that it’s weird for men to visit fortune-tellers. I’m not judgmental, but this dude was weird. The whole place was weird. Despite the open-air exit to the street, the cafe was tangibly quiet.
We continued with our coffees, aiming to finish them when our turn was coming. It wasn’t a palm-reader we were visiting, but a coffee ground-reader. I was instructed to leave just a little bit of coffee in the bottom of my cup for the reader to swirl around and create the patterns to be read.
After a few more minutes, the woman who had been seated with the reader hurried out and disappeared around the corner. We were beckoned forward and we sat across from her. Her eyes flitted between us as Kate explained, in Greek, that I was a foreigner who wanted his fortune read. The reader peered at me through a haze of cigarette smoke. She exhaled smoke through her nostrils and held out her hand for my coffee cup, impatiently wagging her fingers.
Once I gave it to her, she swirled the remaining coffee around, watching it splash coffee grounds onto the sides. When she was satisfied, she left it upside-down on the table, letting the remaining coffee drain and make the final arrangements of the coffee grounds. Finally, she flipped it and looked in. She pointed with a jeweled ring-clad finger, her bracelets jangling as she guided us through my fortune. With each arrangement, she looked up and spoke to Kate, who translated for me.
“You have a happy door.”
Afterwards, Kate explained that it’s a Greek saying that means something to the effect of, “Good things will happen to you.”
“You will get a good job and make a lot of money and everything will be okay.”
Hey, I’m liking this so far — maybe I get why people come to readers?
“A friend will have an accident.”
Things took a dark turn.
“Two of your friends won’t get along with you, and you might fight with them.”
“You have two friends who appear to be friends but are actually enemies. Be careful.”
“Someone in your family will get sick.”
“Your family situation is confused and complicated.”
She went on to say that if it’s not already, then it’s gonna be.
“You’ll be at a big table with lots of people having fun.”
It was a nice little uptick at the end, right before she pointed to one final arrangement in my cup.
“You have a long road ahead of you. You’re going to go somewhere.”
All in, things leaned towards the ominous. It’s a good thing I’m not superstitious, or I might’ve been worried. Kate handed over her cup to be read, and the reader scowled and said something to her, gesturing to me. Apparently, their conversation had gone something like,
“Does he really need to be here?”
“He doesn’t speak Greek, what does it matter?”
She huffed and continued with Kate’s fortune while I sat back, musing over what I’d been told. I’ll say again — I’m not superstitious. This was a novelty experience for me. But I can understand why someone might put stock in fortune-tellers.
I mean, it is comforting to believe in some form of fate, especially when there are people who can read it for you. If I was in a difficult place and needed some kind of reassurance that maybe everything will be alright, sure, I might just want to believe that there’s a way to know. Wouldn’t you?
But here’s the thing. Everything she told me, she could’ve told to literally anyone. Who doesn’t wanna hear someone who can supposedly see the future tell them that they’re gonna get a good job and make a lot of money? Or that good things will happen to them? I mean yeah, no one wants to hear all that ominous shit coming their way either, but it’s generally easier when it’s not a surprise.
So despite the fact that she gave me the most generic fortune ever, I was surprised that I was even thinking twice about it. Of course it was all bullshit, but can you imagine if I were even a little bit superstitious, or in a place where I wanted to believe what she said? Things got existential for a minute. It was weird, man.
But joke’s on her — I’ve been back in the US for five months and I still don’t have a high-paying job! Take that!
I was only in Thessaloniki for a couple of days. I spent it getting a tour of the city from my friend who grew up there, relaxing in the shade and drinking ouzo. No photos were taken, no sights visited. I know from a travel blog perspective, that’s not great. But to my handful of followers, sometimes it’s better to just put aside any ambitions for a place and kick back.
Now that I had officially entered Europe and a European country, I could finally consider my goal reached. I had gotten off a plane in Beijing and hadn’t gotten back on one since then. Nearly 5,000 miles covered by land. A lot could’ve gone wrong during that time, and some very nearly did. But all things considered, it went pretty smoothly. Still, it was a long road that got me to Thessaloniki. All I really needed at the end of it was a chance to catch up with a friend.
But there’s one more thing I needed after so much time in the developing world. At the behest of my brother while we were still in Tbilisi, I booked one more plane ticket.
On my last morning in Thessaloniki, Kate accompanied me on the bus to the airport. We said our goodbyes, open-ended of course. I’ll be seeing all these friends I’ve left behind again someday.
But for the moment, I had a plane to catch for Paris.