Monday, July 10, 2017

Feast of the Epiphany

It was dark when we got in. We’d taken a bus from Skopje, but the border crossing was easy. In the dark we passed from one Macedonia to another. I must’ve been asleep. I remember all the other imposing borders with their massive awnings spread over the sky sheltering lambent coal beds of brakelights, ten lanes of traffic waiting to pass, but I don’t remember seeing anything like this coming into Greece. In my memory, we just continued down the road and one country became another as gently as a hill begins to level out and you suddenly find yourself in the shadow of the summit you’d only recently climbed.

In Thessaloniki, we took a bus through town, passing chunks of ruins in the moonlight like the melting remnants of ice age glaciers with only another day in the sun before they would be gone forever. I used the button to request a stop. Digital Greek characters flashed above the driver and we walked out onto a street the wispy Mediterranean trees had curled over, shutting out half of the streetlights. At a newsstand, I stopped to ask directions. The man took the scrap of paper from my hand and read the name written hastily in Roman script. I had a difficult time listening to his directions thinking how many American newselllers would be able to read something hastily penned in Greek. At least the numbers were the same.

We found the place and tried Nina’s apartment buzzer, but weren’t sure it was right. The name written under the number was blurred. The voice on the intercom sounded like someone was answering, from far away in the wind. I called into the speaker and my own ghostly voice came back—like it’d traveled up, through the building and, finding no recipient had fallen back, whispered and vague.

We walked around the corner to an idealized restaurant—like something projected straight from someone’s happy memory. It was small but warm, suffused with a golden light. Patrons were constantly getting up, holding on to their wine glasses like balloons, and moving to new seats, laughing and talking the whole way. Waiters drew themselves up in the jovial importance of the situation. Their job was not to deliver food, or even help with pairings, but to ensure the bright mood of the place. Each was an MC, a tamada of the Caucasus tradition, calling on speech makers and plopping wet glasses of raki or coffee in front of comfortable diners without spilling a drop on the cream-colored tablecloth.

Gina went in and got a wifi code from someone. I stayed on the sidewalk, afraid to walk into the scene and spoil it. It was almost better outside. It was cold. I could feel the frozen concrete through the soles of my boots. On the other side of the window, people had taken their jackets off. I watched Gina walk through the scene like she belonged in it: a comfortable person in a comfortable place. She came out with the code on a dense napkin, the ink had swollen around the letters and numbers. “They spoke some English,” she explained and began to dial Nina’s number.

Nina lived in an aerie on the roof, like something you’d house a large machine in, except it had a bathroom and a sink. We slept spooled in blankets on the tile floor at the foot of her twin bed, blocking the way to the bathroom; there was no where else. Nina got back into bed after letting us in and we talked in the darkness. I asked about Thessaloniki. “Oh, there are buildings, the sea, ruins” she told me from the sursurations of her blankets. The room was night-soaked, the color, the light, it was like sleeping on a forest floor with the cold stars guttering overhead. I didn’t sleep; I watched the inky darkness blanch, the night become morning in the ceiling.

It was freezing when I got up. I burned my fingers on the cold water in the sink making instant coffee. No one else wanted any. It was too strong. I forgot to warm the frozen cup and the coffee was immediately cooled into something unpalatable. Nina went to work and Gina and I went out.

There was no snow, but a jagged wind was blowing across a sky the color of late-winter ice. The cold night spent on the floor was in my nose and sinuses like a screwdriver. The more coffee I drank, the farther I seemed to jam it down into my throat.

It was the Feast of the Epiphany and everything was closed, but no one was out doing anything. We asked at a cafe. “Things are just closed,” the barista explained. We went down to the white marble docks on the sea and ran around trying to warm up. A man sold us something hot, thick and cinnamoned like oatmeal water.

In the center of town, a few places were open; we got a simit bread ring or its Greek equivalent at the train station and bought a ticket to Sofia for the next day.

It felt like it had been getting dark all day, so it was something of a relief when, around 4, the gray began to clot and spread in the clouds. Despite the holiday, I hadn’t heard any church bells, or maybe I’d confused them with the dull tocsin of the lighthouses.

We met Nina downtown and she took us to a squat that was clean and looked nothing like a squat except for the big squatters’ rights symbol hanging on the front of the place, painted on dropcloth. Inside, people were swing dancing around the creaky wooden floor of what had probably once been a living room. ‘The perfect communism,’ I thought. ‘Give us your homes so we can dance.’ I got a raki at the bar and sat down next to Gina and a pack of cards that I began to shuffle around. Nina sat down and explained why she was in Greece.

The boy had some abbreviated Greek name, like Nick or Theo. They’d spent a summer some place near a lake, meeting in dark, open places, nestled in reeds or field grass and talking.

Nina’s story had so much residual warmth in it, I moved closer, repeatedly kicking my frozen feet against the wooden floor. Listening more intently and swishing the raki around in my mouth.

At the end of the summer, Nick had gone back to Greece and Nina followed, but things weren’t going well. She was immured at night in her wind-stricken tower and during the day, she struggled to keep her English students from canceling classes. Mostly, she was alone. Nick wouldn’t even answer his phone if his mom was around. The mom was dominating and would have nothing less than a Greek Orthodox girl for her son. She couldn’t ever know about Nina. Nick’s dad was a metropolitan or something. Occasionally, Nick would come in the night, but he’d leave soon after without much reassurance that things were ever going to change.

I finished my raki and gave my opinion trying hard to look Nina honestly in the eyes. If it was only Nick that kept her here; she might consider going home. It couldn’t possibly be any colder in Poland, I joked.

“Yes it could,” she said. We left it at that and I went to buy rakis for everyone.

On the way home from the squat, we got lost looking for the aerie. I kept thinking I saw the ideal restaurant from the night before, but it turns out, all restaurants in Thessaloniki were like this, which was lovely, but made it very easy to get lost among them.

It took us so long to find our way back, we only had a couple hours of sleep before we had to catch our train. It didn’t matter, I couldn’t sleep in that apartment, anyway.

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