Gordon G Hall
Writer and Neo-Philhellene


Short Stories about Greece

I boarded the 78 bus and in doing so crossed the boundary between the cossetting anonymity of Thessaloniki airport and the reality of self-reliance in this foreign land. It is no gradual transition from international traveller to resident of Greece, but a sudden change that caught me unawares and caused a draining of self-confidence as I was assailed on all sides by things strange and unexpected. But then that is why I had come here – to both bemuse and challenge the staid old Englishman that I had been, and to enjoy the opportunity of living in this ancient city of northern Greece.

I do not travel by bus much when in London, but I know enough either to equip myself with an Oyster card, or to proffer to the driver something approaching the appropriate fare for the journey. Not so here! The driver drives. He or she does not take money, nor interact with the passengers except when pressed to do so. It is more efficient this way, and the bus service in Thessaloniki is just that. No hanging about at bus stops as the driver takes money. By judicious use of mirrors and aided by efficient pneumatically operated doors the driver can clear a bus stop in seconds.

I had bought myself a monthly bus pass at the airport kiosk thus avoiding having to indulge in the fraught process of buying a ticket on the bus. This involves squeezing your way through the crowd of fellow passengers to a rather confusing machine that is intent upon gobbling all of your money without regurgitating change. Oddly to the English mind the fares are the same however far you are travelling within the city. And to avoid the greedy on-board machine you can buy a book of ten tickets for €10.00 at a Periptero. I watched my fellow passengers as they boarded and was at a loss as to why they were sticking their tickets into funny little orange boxes perched on poles inside the bus.

“You are from England?”

The girl sitting next to me must have been reading the labels stuck to my cabin case.

“That’s right, but I am living in Thessaloniki now.”


It was a reasonable question and one that I was finding it difficult to answer to myself. “I am a writer.”

This seemed to satisfy her curiosity and she was clearly pleased to be able to use her excellent English. I complimented her on it and she was delighted.

“What are those orange coloured boxes for?” I said pointing to the nearest one.

“You have to validate your ticket, otherwise you could cheat the system by using it again.“ She explained that if I failed to perform this ritual then I would face an enormous fine if a ticket inspector should catch me. I validated my ticket.

The 78 bus acquires a mind of its own as it nears the city centre. It displays this wayward temperament by skipping first one, then several stops at a time. I needed to hop off in the centre of town somewhere near Pavlos Mela. Squeezed in as I was by fellow travellers I managed to consult the Mr Google of my iPhone, His online maps are smart enough to predict where this independently minded bus is prepared to deposit me. It was as well that I did so.

The transition from airport to bus had been a jolt to my equanimity, but it was far exceeded by the experience of alighting upon the pavement of downtown Thessaloniki. It is not the bustle or the heat or the noise, such impacts will be found in any large city. It is the contrast that is so overwhelming. A smart store displaying ladies fashions and expensive jewellery provides an astonishing backdrop to the dark-skinned cripple lying propped against the sheet-glass with his begging bowl boasting a few measly cents. It seems unusual to a western European to find lounging at strategic points large groups of policemen that dress themselves as for war; war with their own population.

It was of course my own stupidity that caused my misfortune. Happily settled in my apartment I went out the very next day to explore the city. Cafes beckoned from all sides and eventually I chose a charming one just off Dimitriou Gounari. It was a pleasant October day and I seated myself at an outside table. The waitress seemed more amused than impressed at my attempt to order in Greek, but I persevered. I had not travelled 2500km to order Greek Coffee at Baraka in my native tongue.

“Where are you from?” The pretty girl at the table next to me had been smiling at my stumbling linguistic efforts.


“Ah, I thought so. You did not seem to have an American accent.”

We chatted for a while. She was a student and her brother was a civil engineer in London. She had never been there, but was keen to go.

“What are you doing in Thessaloniki?”

I explained that I was a writer and was gathering material for articles about Greece and the way that ordinary people were being affected by the Crisis. I extracted my card from my wallet and gave it to her, making her promise to buy my latest novel that was being published in the States.

She was a pleasant young thing, not in the least embarrassed to have started up a conversation with someone at least three times her age. Such quiet poise is, as I was to discover, an endearing characteristic of the youth of this country.

Not so endearing are the trinket sellers that persistently circulate amongst the customers of every street café. I have no idea if they actually sell anything although I did once see a rather over-eager young man buy a single red rose for his lady from a table-wandering flower seller. Today it was the turn of a seller of religious cards to harass me. These icons were held on a stick that he waved somewhat aggressively in my face.

“Oxi.” I said, and then more firmly “Oxi, Oxi”, waving my arm at this dark-skinned man wearing an incongruous bobble hat.

He jumped back to avoid my gesture and in doing so dropped the cards that spilled over my table and the ground. I got to my feet so that he could more easily recover his nasty little pictures. Presumably he had had enough of the place for he gathered most of the cards and left in a hurry. Good, he was a pest.

I was enjoying myself. The city life passed me by and I just soaked up the experience of sitting in a modern vibrant city with the ruins of an ancient palace of Rome no more than ten metres from where I was sitting. People came and went, although there did not seem to be much to hurry about in their lives. I wondered how cafes managed to survive given the length of time most customers spent over a single coffee. I was the exception in that I was eating a light meal, a cheese omelette and salad.

It was time to move on. I got to my feet to pay the bill and reached for my wallet. It was not in my back pocket. I started to search other pockets, my bag, my pockets again. The wallet was not there. I knew that I had it with me as I had taken my card from it to give to the student.

The waitress came over and I explained my predicament. She called the manager. He helped me search the area and asked people at other tables if they had seen anything untoward.

A growing sense of panic was gripping me. I had my three credit cards, driving licence, a good deal of cash, international health card, English SIM for my phone, and numerous other things in my wallet.

Surely this could not have been happening to me?

It was!

The owner, Kostos, sat me down and brought me a drink.

“But I can’t pay you,” I whined as I counted out the €3.65 that I had in my purse. “And I cannot pay you for the meal.” Kostas put his arm on my shoulder. “Don’t worry, my friend, I’m so sorry it happened to you here in my café.” His English was imperfect, but a good deal better than my Greek. His hospitality at this time of disaster was much unrivalled.

Pleasant people offered their advice, a doctor and her mother, a couple of ‘ladies who lunch’, a translator – all determined to ensure that I should cancel all my credit cards immediately. This is not easy to do when your phone has €2 left on it, your top-up cards have been stolen and you are down to your last €3.65 in cash.

Skype came to the rescue and a Skype-phone call to the UK set cancellations in motion. I had insurance for most of the cash, but in order to claim it I would have to report the theft to the Greek police. I enquired of the whereabouts of the local cop-shop and set off in search of documentation. A few minutes later I was talking to the Guardian of the Gates in his sentry box at the front entrance of the Aristotelous police station. He was an English-speaking, pleasant young man who said I needed Room 101.

Fearful of an Orwellian connection I mounted the shabby stone staircase with some trepidation. An unkempt individual was lounging in the doorway of room 100. He did not speak English. I was not certain if he was a policeman. I speculated that he was most likely an undercover Agent dressed in a manner to infiltrate protest groups. He did not speak English.

“ Portofili – err – stolen,” I said

He said something in Greek about staying where I was and sauntered into Room 101. A second man, of equal sartorial elegance, was perched on the corner of a large desk talking loudly at, rather than to, what appeared to be a ‘gentleman of the road’. The thought struck me that perhaps all three of them were undercover Agents. I was clearly over-dressed for the occasion.

The two policemen spoke together. They shook their heads. The second one turned to me and in broken English asked me when where and how the wallet was stolen. I explained what had happened and told him about the card seller. It was clear to me that I had failed to place the wallet securely in my pocket when I gave the girl my card and that it had fallen to the ground. Spilling the cards was a ruse to allow the perpetrator to gather up my wallet. The policeman shrugged. He had heard it all before from stupid tourists.

“How long do you stay in ‘Saloniki?” He asked.

“I’m living here.”

His attitude changed considerably.

And he became positively friendly when I gave my contact information as a Greek phone number. He beamed at me and asked what I was doing in Greece. I gave him my usual authorial explanation and he clapped me on the shoulder and wished me good luck.

He relayed my responses to his colleague who opened a rather dog-eared desk notebook. He drew a line under the previous entry and laboriously wrote about five lines – presumably describing my plight. He then drew a very final line under the new entry. His mate broke off from his ‘examination’ of the unfortunate to tell me that if they found the wallet they would phone me. Clearly they did not expect to do so. Both then shook me warmly by the hand, and wished me well. I was surprised at the kindness of my newfound friends in the police force. Hitherto I had been very wary of the Greek police. Perhaps I should remain so.

I was none too convinced that my insurance people would accept the lack of any official paperwork from the constabulary. I needed something ‘official’. It was time to be ‘British’. I would visit the Consulate. I knew that this was in located in Tsimiski, as part of the British Council offices. I had been there with a Greek friend of mine when I had visited Greece some three months ago to help organise an educational exchange visit.

A balding man in his early thirties opened the door to me. He did not look pleased to see me. His English was not good.

“I have had my wallet stolen. Perhaps you can help me?”

He reached to my right and pulled out a form, small print, all in Greek. “You should fill this in and take it to the Embassy.”

“But that is in Athens.”

“Yes. Take it to the Embassy.”

“But I cannot get there. All my money was in my wallet.”

He shrugged. “This is the British Council. We do not deal with such matters.”

“But you have an Honorary Consul here.”

“How do you know that?”

“I have met her, she’s called Maria.”

“Well she’s not here today.”

“But if you have an Honorary Consul then this must be an Honorary Consulate.”

“This is the British Council. Good day to you.”

He thrust the useless form into my hands and propelled me to the door.

With just one exception every person had been so kind and helpful about my lost wallet – the café owner, the café customers, the police. But not the British Consulate.

I am a British citizen.

I used to be proud of that.

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