S. Rabbani: literary fiction, instructional articles, essays & translations
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From Serbia (Belgrade), Macedonia (Skopje), Greece (Thessaloniki, Athens)

By Sahand Rabbani

From Serbia (Belgrade), Macedonia (Skopje), Greece (Thessaloniki, Athens)

Dear Friends,

On the morning of the thirty-second day (May 22), Christian, our annexed German companion from the final night in Tiranë, joined me on my journey to Serbia. The two Kiwis had commitments in Bulgaria and left by an overnight train the previous day. Kiri planned an overnight train to Ljubljana, Slovenia, so she followed us to the bus station in Priština and we said our farewells there.

Christian and I took the 7:20 morning bus to Skpoje, Macedonia, where we made a tight connection to an ill Belgrade-bound bus. Problems with the buses forced us to switch twice before we arrived in the Serbian capital at some minutes passes six that evening. We ate a delicious veal dinner at a traditional Serbian restaurant, grabbed a coffee, and retired for the evening.

The next morning, on the thirty-third day (May 23), Christian and I saw some sites in Belgrade and he departed on an early afternoon train to Munich, Germany. I was alone again for the first time in weeks. I walked around a bit, enough to check this city off the list, and then returned to sleep. The next day, I tied up loose ends and then caught the 22:20 overnight train to Thessaloniki, Greece, scheduled to arrive the next afternoon some minutes past one.

I slept on and off in my second-class compartment until we entered Macedonia at around eight the next morning. Passport control was a pain, with every few minutes somebody new coming to check something or another. In my half sleep, I handed my passport to anyone with a badge. Macedonia seems to enjoy its position as the gateway to other countries, for it may be one of its few merits aside from Lake Ohrid, which I did not have time to visit. Especially now, Skopje is the risk-free portal between Serbia and Kosovo, a way to avoid the confusing Serbian-Kosovar border. But passing Macedonia adds several hours to a trip, for one must endure two borders' worth of passport control and customs.

We started to rip through Macedonia that morning, but by the time the train's scheduled arrival time came around, we still had not entered Greece. It became apparent that we were running terribly behind schedule, what eventually amounted to more than three hours. The train ride was painful. There was no air conditioning so the windows stayed open, serving as a welcoming gate for the springtime pathogens that set my allergies knob to death mode. It was a Balkan train: dirty, slow, late, but empty.

On this train to Thessaloniki, I met two Greek girls who were returning home to Athens after a night in Belgrade for the (apparently) famous music festival called Euro Vision. Indeed, Euro Vision had hiked up accommodation prices in Belgrade during my stay. The first hostel that I had stopped at after getting off the train station in Belgrade had quoted me 30€ per night. I eventually landed a place for 18€, which is still expensive given that you're sharing a room with many people and a bathroom with half of Serbia.

How I met these girls is a story by itself. Before I had boarded the train, I was pacing around the station trying to convert the last of my currency, a trade that the exchange booth was not willing to make. In asking around, I met a pair of Spaniards who were spinning aimlessly around the Balkans much the same way I was. They were doing a year abroad in Romania and had taken some time off right before their final exams. They were not impressed with Romania, a sentiment that I shared.

When we boarded the train, I split up with the Spaniards temporarily to set out for an empty compartment in which I could spread my sheets and sleep. One compartment I had found was deserted except for an expensive-looking camera that was sitting unattended in the middle seat.

Someone had forgotten it while disembarking the train, I thought. I was afraid to hand it over to the authorities, because I would not trust Balkan conductors to put in a decent effort before they pocketed the loot. I recalled an incident on the train from Sofia to Bucharest were the ticket controller demanded money from a Romanian woman and harassed me until I admitted that there were fifty-two states in the US. "We don't ask questions," Claudia had said. "It's the Balkans."

I tried my hands at some detective work. I looked through the pictures on the camera and noticed that the most recent ones were taken at Euro Vision in Belgrade. I concluded, then, that the owners were leaving the city and were most likely on the train. I searched around until I matched a face with one of the photographs. This is how I met the two Greek girls. They were thrilled that their camera had been found. It was a gift from her mother, one of them explained. As it turned out, these girls were headed for Athens, where they studied, via Thessaloniki. They offered to show me the way.

At this point, I was juggling between two groups: the Spanish boys and the Greek girls. I had not told one about the other yet, but I secretly intended to convince the Spaniards to accompany me to Athens.

We arrived just in time to Thessaloniki to make the connection to the domestic train to Athens, departing at 16:29. Convincing the Spaniards to come along was no problem. My selling point was that there were no hostels in Thessaloniki, an unfortunate fact that repelled me from this city as well. Further, this leg of the journey was free for them because of their Balkan Flexipass. The train to Athens was air conditioned, fast, but packed. Many people were without seats.

While the Greek girls and Spanish boys stood painfully in the ends of the cars near the luggage where all the Flexipass travelers without a seat waited, I met two young gay Greek men who gave me the insiders' view on Athens. Though I imagined that they looked for something different in a city, and their idea of good and bad could be entirely orthogonal to mine, I heard them out. They recommended the islands, of course, but I had had my fair share of coastal prices in Croatia and had no desire to party it up, as it were, only to add a few more days between Italy and me.

The train arrived at quarter to eleven on the night of the thirty-fifth day (May 25). I said my farewells to the Greek girls, who were headed home, and then introduced the Spaniards to the two gay men, who had offered to take us half way to the hostel. By the time that we checked in, it was sometime past eleven, completing the journey from Belgrade that racked up a grand total door-to-door time of twenty-six hours. I crashed and woke up at around 7:30 the next morning on the thirty-sixth day (May 26).

The Spaniards and I set out to see Athens in a day's time, for they planned on the overnight to Istanbul that evening. We did the required points. At the Acropolis, I paid a steep 6€, still only half price, to learn that students in EU countries were admitted free to all the sites. After that, I allowed the Spaniards to show their IDs first and by the time my turn came around, they had already pegged me as a Spaniard. Hence, the rest of historical Athens was free for me that day.

The Athens International Youth Hostel where I stayed has been by far the worst hostel yet. Although it is relatively clean compared to a few I've seen, the place has no character and is not conducive to meeting new people. It is designed more like a shitty hotel, the only common space being the three computers in the lobby where people check Facebook and book flights to better places. Both of my SD cards were infected by a malicious virus from one of these desktops. (The virus would later spread to my computer in California upon my return, costing me several frustrating hours of disinfection.) Athens, furthermore, was hot, boring, and not worth the price.

I looked to get out. My original plan was to take a train to the port of Patras on the Ionian Sea in the west coast of Greece, from where I could take a ferry to the Italian ports of Bari or Brindisi and a train to a major city. But the ferry was overnight and a deck seat costs half the price of a plane ticket straight to Rome. Adding in extreme discomfort and price of the train tickets, it became immediately evident that flight was the way to go. I booked a flight to Rome departing the next evening and endured another night in this unworthy hostel.

I write to you now on the thirty-seventh day (May 27) during my final hours in Athens. Next is Rome and then south along the boot toward Sicily. Italy is notorious for poor accommodations, high prices, and unreliable plumbing. Pierre, a French-Canadian I met in Athens, describes Italy as "third-world," and he had based this on visits to the norther part, which is more developed. A cheap hostel in Rome costs 23€ per night in this season, and that buys you a bed among ten and three servings of squalor. But such is the life of the vagabond in Western Europe. Rome is more of a duty, a city that has so much fame, culture, and history that I cannot justify skipping it.


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