Thessaloniki and Beyond

13 June 2011

From the Greek border, it was a full day’s drive to Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece. The bus was working relatively well, aside from a wheel that was leaking gear oil, a minor problem that we were hoping to sort out at some point in Greece.

The Greek roads are smooth and dependable, nothing like Turkey were we could spend 3 hours on level, well paved highway and then suddenly bump over a break in the asphalt and find ourselves on a 200 km stretch of pockmarked, pavement-optional road.

But Greece’s good road didn’t solve all our problems. A few hours into the afternoon, as we settled into our post lunch driving groove, the sky began to darken. There were big, heavy, blackish clouds looming over the highway in front of us. Wet weather in a normal car isn’t the best of driving conditions, but the Combi brings the challenges of driving in the rain to a whole new level. First of all we have no windshield wipers, at least not the kind that are attached to the windshield and work automatically.

The original bus had wipers, but somehow along the way they escaped. Now we just have little holes under the pop out windows that make our car such an anomaly to all those who see us rolling down the street. Aurel ordered the parts from our wonderful sponsor, Serial Kombi, but he forgot to order a key piece, without which the mechanism just doesn’t work. So we have a single, toy-like detached wiper which we keep under the dash board for use in bad weather conditions. When the windshield fills up with droplets, one of us reaches out the window (usually the one sitting in the passenger’s seat, who can push open the pop out windshield on that side and reach over) and manually uses the wiper to squeegee the windshield in front of the driver clean. This obviously has to be done repeatedly, and makes who ever is doing it wet, cold, and rather cranky.

But the real cranky-maker is the fact that the bus leaks, from just about every window in the front seat and there are six of them just surrounding the driver and front passenger’s seats. Little streams of water trickle at first and then run with steady pressure from the dash board as the rain on the windshield leaks through the seals we replaced to solve that very problem. A fine mist sprays through the mirco slits and holes in the seals of the side windows as the rain hits against them, like a freak of physics, something to do with the forward motion of the car and the force of the rain drops.

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On this particular day driving through the northeastern part of Greece, the rain started off heavy and then turned torrential. Huge drops of water were plummeting from heaven and exploding onto the roof of the bus. The road itself was running with water. Without an exit insight, we pulled over to the side of the highway and stopped the car. That solved the wiper problem, but the amount of water that was finding its way rapidly through all of the bus’s afore mentioned openings was quite astounding. After 20 minutes or so, we looked out the windows, which were fogging up with condensation, and saw that below us, under the raised highway, the dirt road that paralleled the highway was now a river at least 2 feet deep.

In about 45 minututes, the rain finally let up. We dumped the buckets and squeezed out the sponges we were using to redirect and catch water, and continued on our way.

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We found Thessaloniki around 5pm on Tuesday, working our way through the busy streets to the port area where we discovered a long stretch of waterfront with a stone paved boardwalk and park running along it. People of all ages strolled, biked, chatted, and stopped to relax up and down the boardwalk. The sea beyond was smooth and calm and the sun set slowly under a few low clouds.

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Thessaloniki was the last stop for Diego, who had a film showing at a film festival in Germany in a few days. He had decided to fly from Thessaloniki to Paris and then on to Germany early the following morning so he plunked us down on the boardwalk to do a final interview, asking us what we hoped for for the rest of the trip and to reflect on what had happened so far.

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It seemed impossible that he was leaving, the trip had so far been a story of the three of us taking turns in the optimistic role of “yes we can” when the other two wondered if any of this was even worth the gas money. How would we go on without him? And the idea of not having to wire up in the morning with the remote mics or see the inquisitive face of the camera, like a fourth member of our team, who always seemed to stick its nose brashly into every situation and reflect the ridiculousness, frustration, or joy of the moment back at us was unthinkable.

But Diego had to go, so we decided to get some pork chops (finally out of Muslim countries) and find a private spot somewhere outside of town to grill and celebrate his final night. We drove up hill, through a residential neighborhood in the growing darkness and happened on a deserted park at the very top, high above Thessaloniki where the view of the city lights was spectacular. While we struggled to get the fire started and the tent up in the low light, we wondered why there was a metal tower (more like a pole) with a blinking red light sharing our campsite at the top of the hill. A few minutes later, the sound of roaring engines and a giant shadow of a winged beast blacking out the moonlit sky, we had an answer to our question. High above the Thessaloniki airport, we were in a direct flight path of descending and ascending planes.

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Early the next morning we rushed to break everything down so Diego could get to his plane on time. We drove down the grassy hill, down through the residential neighborhood to the relatively deserted airport. Diego collected his bags, and we said goodbye.

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