No matter what country you’re in, trips on public buses have tremendous entertainment potential. There’s something about a mass of total strangers crammed into a large metal box that seems to be a recipe for eccentricity. Here in Greece, I am completely dependent on public buses: I have to take them to get to one of the schools I teach at, as well as any time I want to go in and out of the city center. On average, I probably take about 6-10 bus rides per week; and since I’ve been here since September, that adds up to a lot of bus time. I also frequently use the intercity buses while traveling. Many of these bus rides were completely incident-free. Others, however, were… well, not.
#10: Why are all these people dressed in yellow and singing?
Football is big here. And when I say football, I mean soccer; I think I may call it football even when I’m back in the States, because in American football, you barely use your feet! Anyway, Thessaloniki’s main stadium is right along my bus route to get into the city. On one Sunday evening, I got on the bus to find nearly everyone on it dressed in yellow. Now, I normally feel pretty physically out of place, but this was extreme. Did I miss something? I thought. I racked my brain for any significance yellow might have for Greeks. The Byzantine flag, which flies with the Greek flag at the top of most churches, is yellow. Is it Byzantine Appreciation Day? (Lo, the depths of my nerdery!) The bus neared the stadium, and suddenly, one teenager started to sing. This was startling enough, but then everyone around me joined in. That’s when I realized that yellow & black are the colors of the local football team, and since games are on Sundays, these fans were singing the team’s fight song! Once I realized what was going on, it was tremendously fun to find myself smack in the middle of such a collaborative, public display of team spirit. I found myself wishing I knew the words!
#9: You’re sweet, but I only date men who are up to 56 years older than me, not 57.
People in Thessaloniki, in my experience, are extremely friendly. One thing I love about them is that they are almost always so delighted with my attempts to speak Greek that they’re willing to be incredibly patient with me, and will wait for me to puzzle out what I want to say in Greek (even though most of them could jump right in in English). Because of this, I’ve had several delightful exchanges with people in the city, many of which become a mutual language lesson in which I can practice Greek and they can practice their English. So, one evening on the bus, I was talking to an elderly gentleman in this manner when he abruptly said, “You give me number? I take you out!” I chuckled and said I already had a boyfriend. He flashed a wicked smile and, as I was about to get off the bus, helped me get my grocery bags together. I hope that by now, he has found a nice lady his own age to delight with devilish grins.
#8: Did I mention we’re going to Delfi?
Some readers may remember this story from my bus ride to Delfi in October. I was riding in the very front, and the bus had been grumbling along for about two minutes before I saw a figure on the right side of the road, frantically waving the bus down. The bus stopped, and a sprightly-looking old man with a mad-scientist-worthy shock of white hair sticking up in all directions sprang onto the bus. He flopped down next to me, and spent the entire bus ride reassuring me that the bus was indeed going to Delfi. I think he was also trying to explain the geological features of the surrounding area to me, but it’s hard to say. He kept repeating himself, so at one point, I said, “Katalaveno” (“I understand”). At this, he said, “‘Katalaveno?’ Katalaveno!!” and reached over and gave my hand a congratulatory pat as if he was very proud of me. He then pointed forward once again and said, “Delfi, Delfi!” the way one would say, “Don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it.”
#7: Sweet little old lady, or Incredible Hulk?
Just this Saturday, I was getting on the bus and found myself having to pass a group of little old ladies in the aisle. I stepped aside to let them pass, but apparently I didn’t step aside enough. Without even looking at me, the first sweet little old lady to pass extended her arm, flung it forcefully in my direction, and shoved me into the wall of the bus with an astonishing amount of force. While I collected myself and stood there gaping in shock, she motioned her friends toward the prime seats at the front of the bus, sat down, smoothed her skirt, smiled, and began amiably chatting away with her friends about the weather. I can only imagine what would have happened if I had tried to get to those seats first.
#6: My first exposure to protest culture
I don’t live in a big city in the States, so I could be wrong, but it seems to me that my generation does not participate in protest the way that previous generations of Americans have. By contrast, Greece has a recent history of powerful youth protests, especially now that the economy is struggling so much. Having lived here since September, I’ve now become accustomed to protests in the city center, mostly involving large crowds of young people marching with banners and chanting. However, when I first arrived, I had never really seen a mass protest before, and when it first happened to me on the bus, I was genuinely terrified. At the time, I barely spoke any Greek, so I had no idea whatsoever what was going on. I was riding on the bus to get downtown when it suddenly stopped, in the middle of traffic. Huge crowds of people swarmed around the outside and put up a big banner on each side of the bus, covering all the windows. They then boarded the bus, handed out leaflets, and shouted through megaphones past the banners covering the windows. Once I was given a leaflet and saw the cartoon of a bus on the front, I understood that they were protesting something about the bus system. But before then, I was truly frightened, especially because the windows were covered and I couldn’t understand anything that was being said.
#5: The old ladies vs. teenagers throwdown!
Again, some of you may remember this episode from my readjustment to Greek life after being home at Christmastime. I was waiting for the bus to the city center when it rolled up, absolutely packed with Greek teenagers. I had my headphones in, and as the bus rumbled along, I could barely hear my music for all the racket the teens were making. When we stopped at the cemetery, a whole gaggle of elderly Greek ladies boarded the bus, making the bus even more jam-packed.
And that’s when the old ladies and the teenagers began to fight.
I’m not kidding. I almost wish I was. It was so horrifying and fabulous at the same time. I couldn’t tell exactly what they were fighting about, but suddenly one of the old women began yelling. When I turned to look, she was pointing at one of the teenagers, one of the loudest who appeared to be a sort of leader of the group. Judging by the reaction of his buddies, the next thing he said was some sort of wisecrack, and one of the other old women hit him in the leg with her bag of groceries! As far as I’m concerned, he’s just lucky she wasn’t the Incredible Hulk lady.
#4: Keep your pants on, buddy… literally.
I was seated next to the window headed towards the city center when I saw a man on the street who somehow caught my attention. The bus was moving quickly, and I barely had time to look at his face before the barrier between the windows got in the way, and he was gone from sight. But a split second before he disappeared from view… he dropped trow. Right there on the street, in the middle of the afternoon. I’m serious. I will never know what his objective was; perhaps he had to pee that bad, or maybe he just didn’t feel like wearing pants right then. I don’t really blame him; sometimes I don’t feel like wearing pants either. But I will always wonder about this pantsless character. Who is he? Where is he from? What made him take off his pants in the middle of Thessaloniki? We will never know, my friends. Let us just hope that wherever he is now, he is enjoying the cool breeze around his knees in a more private locale.
#3: This is what happens when you give the world’s most absent-minded Fulbright scholar a suitcase to keep track of for one day.
Faithful readers may remember that in October, I went on a huge cross-country solo trip which required several legs of bus travel. After the very first leg, I was in such a blissful daze as I waited for the bus in Trikala, listening to my music, people-watching and wallowing in excitement for the rest of the trip…
…When I realized I had two bags with me when I left Thessaloniki, not just one.
I ran into the station, found the information booth and managed a quick “Signome!! Milate anglika?” (“Excuse me! Do you speak English?”) to the woman at the counter before, at her nod, I burst out, “IleftmybagonthebusfromThessaloniki!!” Very slowly, as if making any sudden movements would make me cry or throw up or combust, she told me to wait while she made a phone call. In a few minutes, she led me to a room that was very clearly The Place They Bring Idiot Tourists’ Bags When They Forget Them. And there was my bag. Laughing out loud at myself, I caught the bus to Kalambaka, one of the two towns right underneath the rocks of Meteora. The ride to Kalambaka was only about twenty minutes long, and within fifteen, the cliffs of Meteora suddenly swung into view. And I don’t believe I’ll ever forget that moment. The beauty of those pillars of stone was absolutely astounding. I was absolutely, wholly captured by Meteora from the first instant I saw it. So captured, in fact, that I had been wandering around Kalambaka in awe for about thirty minutes before I realized…
Oh. Sweet. Jesus.
If, at this point, you’re wondering how I got a Fulbright scholarship, I don’t blame you. In fact, all I could think as I was running back to the station was, “I’m here on a freaking Fulbright scholarship and I left my bag on the bus twice in one day?!” I ran into the tiny bus station, and there was my bag, safe and sound.
#2: Is this seat taken?
At the end of the line, I had the bus to myself as I waited for it to leave. It was evening, and not a soul was occupying any of the thirty or so other seats. After a few minutes, a woman of, well, sizable carriage entered at the front door of the bus. I was seated at the back, occupying the window seat in a row of just two seats. I watched her slowly lumber forward, apparently unsatisfied with any of the seats at the front. Halfway down the aisle, she took out a handkerchief and mopped her forehead before continuing on her way. As she stepped closer and closer, I thought it curious that she would travel so far just to sit at the back of the bus. She paused in the aisle next to the row I was seated in. No, I thought. There’s no way. Every single other seat on this bus is open. Well, apparently that was of little concern to her. Without so much as a glance in my direction, she hefted herself into the seat next to me, squishing me against the window in a searing moment of cross-cultural hilarity. Fellow countrymen, when traveling to Greece, you’d better be ready to surrender your pretty little American personal space bubble–because otherwise, someone will pop it for you.
#1: The One-Woman Show
Often, in big cities, one encounters rabble-rousers–folks who thrive on creating a scene. I’ve traveled to many big cities all over the world, and lived in a few. But I’ve never seen any such display as this.
At the stop for the cemetery, a tiny elderly woman boarded the bus one day, wearing a simple cloth dress, leggings and loafers, with a shawl wrapped tightly around her head. She was carrying a cane and a grocery bag filled with heads of lettuce. Tufts of wiry, brilliantly white hair shot out from the shawl above her forehead like tiny horns, and though she was perhaps seventy-five, she moved with a dangerous agility and speed as she took a seat.
The bus had been rolling along for less than two minutes after her stop when she began to yell. I jumped so hard my headphones fell out, because when I say yell, I mean yell. This woman’s diaphragm must have been made of steel. She was yowling and carrying on like a whole chorus of cats in heat, and it seemed she was addressing either the entire bus or no one at all–it’s hard to say. I could only make out a word here and there, and the words I could understand are of the variety that I can’t publish on this blog. Not only was she screaming, but she was also gesturing like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Her whole tiny body was involved in the protest. She waved her cane, stomped her little foot, pointed her bony fingers and occasionally made what looked like an extreme kung-fu chop through the air.
The bus ride into the city is an hour long.
She kept it up the entire ride.
(I finally asked someone, and found out that she was raving about the bus drivers.)
I’ve often wondered what it is about bus rides that creates this potential for incident within us. Maybe it’s boredom. Maybe it’s impatience. Maybe it’s loneliness. Whatever the cause, the bus remains a paragon of human peculiarity. People are always looking for things to do to pass the time in transit on public transportation. But at this point, I don’t think anything could be as entertaining as my fellow passengers.