Last year, on a few days off work in Kosovo, we went to Greece! The country was amazing, but the most exciting part was the journey. Or, as I like to call it, The Odyssey.
It all started when Neil and I boarded the bus from Pristina, Kosovo to Skopje, Macedonia. We were planning to stay the night in Skopje, and catch the train the next morning to Thessaloniki, Greece. From Thessaloniki, we would change trains and head onto Athens. We arrived in Skopja and found our way to ‘Hostel Hostel,’ our cosy home for the night. So far, everything was going as planned.
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Saturday morning we turned up at the train station. However, at the ticket desk we were informed that there was no train. For political and financial reasons, Greece had cancelled all trains in and out of the country from Macedonia. There was also no bus. However, the nice man at the bus station found us a bus to Gevgelija, a small town in Macedonia close to the border. From here we should be able to get a bus across the border.
Two and a half hours and a delicious street pretzel later, we were in Gevgelija. There were no other buses at the bus stop. Undeterred, we went inside and approached the tiny old Macedonian woman behind the desk. Through a lot of frantic hand waving she managed to communicate to us that there was no bus over the border from here either. We went outside, feeling slightly concerned. Getting stranded at a small Macedonian border town was not part of the plan.
Outside, we met three men, who asked us if we were trying to get to Thessaloniki. It turned out they were too, and were planning to take a taxi to the border, and catch a bus from there into Greece. We asked them to help us procure a taxi so that we could do the same thing. Two minutes later we were cruising towards the border in same taxi as the three men, squashed into the back seat where I was sitting half on Neil’s lap and half on the lap of an older gentleman in a suit.
While making taxi small talk, we told the men that we were working in Kosovo, and asked whether they had been there. The men had heard of Kosovo, but didn’t seem to have to much else to say. Eventually, we asked them where they were from. They were Serbian. Serbia does not recognize Kosovo as a country, and regards people who enter Serbia from Kosovo as criminals. Serbians who live in Kosovo have to stay in guarded enclaves for safety. The history between these countries is bloody, emotional, and complicated. It was an interesting taxi ride.
We arrived at the border. The border guards freaked out seeing three Serbians, a kiwi, and an American in the same place. They called the Serbian men out of the taxi and questioned them, apparently suspicious of people smuggling. However once they established that it was not a hostage situation, they let us through.
Once in the no mans land between Macedonia and Greece, Neil and I got out of the taxi. The men had decided to take it all the way to Thessaloniki. We said goodbye to our new friends, and one of them, Nikola Johnny, gave us his phone number. He told us to come and visit him in Serbia. We told him we would call if we were ever there. Then, we were alone. We stood in the line of cars queuing up for the Greek entry point and walked into Greece.
There were still no buses.
We saw an old couple walking along, and decided to ask them if there would be a bus coming later that we could wait for. They talked to each other for a moment, and then told us they would drive us to the small Greek border town, where we could catch a bus. We accepted their kind offer. While driving along we got to know our new Greek friends, and told them all about what we were doing in Kosovo . They told us about how they were dentists in Thessaloniki. We talked about how winter is nice because you can see birds nests in the trees.
All of a sudden, the Greek man pulled the car violently off the road. He turned around to us and stated ‘we are going to have lunch together. Then, we will drive you to Thessaloniki.’ The Greek dentists bought us pork sandwiches and beer, and drove us all the way to Thessaloniki, dropping us right outside the train station. We caught the very same train we had originally been aiming for. The train ride was absolutely beautiful.
We arrived in Athens. The next five days were a whirlwind of Ancient Artifacts, sunrises, sunsets, new friends, street dogs, markets, Gyros, yoghurt, scenery, and general Greek madness.
All too soon, it was time to head back to Thessaloniki. We weren’t sure how we would get back to Kosovo from there, but we just crossed our fingers, sure that something would work itself out.
When we arrived in Thessaloniki, the train still wasn’t running. We found a travel agent and were given the number of a private bus company who ran a bus from Thessaloniki to Skopja, three times a week. No one knew which days. We would either be lucky or stranded. We found the place. They had a bus leaving in two hours. There were tickets. We were home free.
As we crossed the road to get on the bus, we heard a voice. ‘I CAN’T BELIEVE IT!’ It was Nikola Johnny, our Serbian taxi buddy. We couldn’t believe it either. He had lost all of his money and had to get back to Skopja to meet his father who would drive him back to Serbia. We gave him money to get onto the bus. Johnny’s father wasn’t in Skopja when we arrived. He was stuck at the Serbian border. We told Johnny not to worry about the money. He assured us that he would somehow pay us back, and invited us to a hamburger festival at his village. We told him we would be in touch. The next morning, we boarded the bus to Pristina. As we approached home at last, we took a deep breath and took in our Greek Odyssey. Then we desperately looked ahead to our next break in April.
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