Everyone pretty much told me that you can’t get to Macedonia from Greece. Certainly not right now, what with the World Financial Crisis causing riots in the streets. Or something.

Because I was using frequent-flyer miles to get as close as possible to Skopje (Macedonia’s capital), I had the options of Sofia, in Bulgaria, or someplace in Albania, or Thessaloniki, Greece. The only thing I knew about Albania was that it’s an isolated dictatorship, and it might be hard to exit. And Sofia wasn’t available. So after waiting till the last minute I booked a flight from Gatwick to Thessaloniki.

A few late-night searches on Google for “transport between Thessaloniki and Skopje” yielded little hope or information. I found a few dead blogs and weatherworn travel sites with “discussions” comprising complaints about the unreliability and undesirability of the trains that ran the route (sporadically) in the late 1990s. Buses were worse.

I asked my friend GP to ask his current housemate, a Serbian man, if perchance he knew or could easily ascertain the transcontinental railroad schedule of his home continent, but Mr. Serbia only sent back word that I should fly into Sofia, not Thessaloniki.

I sent word to Goran, our wonderful Macedonian on the ground in Macedonia, via one of our organizers whom I will call Elizabeth. I asked Elizabeth to please ask Goran how I might get to Skopje from Thessaloniki. She sent me back a forwarded message from Goran, with her original message appended to the bottom. Her note to Goran said, “One of the participants is coming via train from Thessaloniki. Crazy I know.” This did not inspire confidence; neither did Goran’s response:

“Everything in Greece is crazy at the moment . Demonstration on the streets….over government… Wish good luck to Gillian.”

Elizabeth wrote to me a second time to stress how difficult, hot, crowded, and uncomfortable Balkan trains are, and how people would not even open the windows for fear of drafts. She warned, “It is not like Amtrak.” Well, I was not expecting a luxury journey. I wrote back and told her that I’d traveled by train in the third world including Egypt, Indonesia, and Thailand (though I suppose Thailand isn’t 3rd world by anyone’s definition anymore) and that I could handle two or four hours of hot cramped conditions. I hope I did not sound overconfident.

Besides, I was broke. Flights from Thessaloniki to Skopje were about $400, and I’d just had to pay about $500 for my “free” ticket to London (in addition to buying 10,000 FF miles), so after talking to Miho, I decided that I’d be fine on the train. Or, as we say in Oz, “I’ll be roight!” Besides, Miho surmised, if there truly were no trains and no buses, I could always talk some useful underemployed Greek into driving me across the border for $100. Miho’s grasp of geography may be soft, but she knows what $100 will buy in many parts of the world, so I agreed with her and made no plans for getting to Skopje.I’d have two and a half days to get 250 kilometers; surely I could manage that without breaking a limb or creating an international incident. You would think.

Meanwhile my parents were sending me separate and frequent alarmed emails regarding my planned stay in Greece. My mother is somewhat prone to exaggeration and I believe had convinced herself and a number of my relatives that I was on the verge of being sold into white slavery. Even Daddy (a character who lived in our household when I was growing up, but from whom we rarely heard, Even Daddy) evidenced concern for my wellbeing and urged me to stay locked in my hotel room until it was time to leave. My parents watch the BBC news which, unlike some American news programs, covers events in Europe. They had seen the rioting in Greece and, knowing that I am accident-prone and impulsive, were afraid I’d join the fray (anything for a good story).

So it was not without trepidation and forethought that I went to Thessaloniki, only my second visit to Greece in about a million years. The first was another layover visit, en route to Alexandria from Rome, and I stayed in Athens between ferries, I think. All I remember is that dinner took about 5 hours to be served, and that they invited me into the kitchen to see what I wanted to eat, and it was the first time in my life I ever liked olives. It had not been a particularly propitious first entry to the ancient civilization and I’d never wished to return, but it certainly didn’t seem as if I’d be in mortal danger.

So as not to have to spend the night on the street during violent demonstrations, I booked a hotel on Wotif, after cleverly comparing all the Wotif selections to the reviews on TripAdvisor. For about 60 Euros (I don’t know what that is in US dollars, but I will find out when the bill comes) I booked a place called “Hotel Tourist.” It was not a promising name, but then, I was not a promising tourist.

Next time: Did I get off at the wrong place?