Leading the Gypsy Life

From Elbasan (Albania) to Athens (Greece)

During the winter of 2016/2017, I hitchhiked from Salzburg, Austria to Athens, Greece. Starting in a beautiful snow covered Salzburg end of January, and longing for Greece, spring and higher temperature, I had planned to visit one city in each country, for one week. My plan was to arrive in Athens in April, my final destination being the ‘Free and Real Community’ in the village of Aghios on Evia, an island close to Athens.

Kadir

I left Elbasan on a Sunday afternoon. My normal schedule to start hitchhiking on Saturday was successfully challenged by Murat’s invitation to spend Saturday evening with his family. I enjoyed the hospitality of Murat, his younger brother and their parents at theire home. We had a nice dinner with homemade raki. As a farewell present Murat gave me a small plastic bottle of raki, to be my companion to Greece.


I left Elbasan with a slight hangover. After a last coffee at Rita’s Park, I said goodbye to Murat and his friends and colleagues. Exiting the park, I turned left and followed the road that would take me to Korçë. Some days before, I had found the right spot to pick up my hitchhiking trail again, a petrol station just outside of Elbasan, only 500 meters from the park.


I dropped my backpack and bags, took out my cardboard sign ‘Korçë’ and walked to the entrance of the petrol station. The weather had turned even better during my stay in Elbasan, almost like spring had turned into summer in just one week.


After 30 minutes, a luxury black Mercedes stopped. Kadir, an electro technical engineer who worked in Elbasan was on his way to Macedonia to visit friends and family. After a comfortable one and a half hour ride, Kadir dropped me off at a remote junction near Kotodesh, 55 kilometers from Elbasan. He turned left towards the Macedonian border. My direction was straight on. From here, another 85 kilometers to go to Korçë.

Greece

Today was lucky Sunday. After only 20 minutes, two Albanian men in a black Mercedes stopped. As the black Mercedes is one of most common cars in Albania, I estimate that the chance to get a ride from a black Mercedes in this country is more than 50%. 


The men went to Pogradec, another 35 kilometers closer to Korçë and the Greek border. A small town on a beautiful lake with a view on gorgeous snowy mountains. We stopped in the city center, I got out and walked to a petrol station just outside of town. 


Here I experienced a novelty. For the first time, a truck stopped. The driver was on his way from Tirana to Thessaloniki and was willing to take me to the Greek border. 


Slowly, very slowly we drove through the mountains. We passed Korçë and just before the border the truck driver stopped. He didn’t want to take any risk taking a Dutchman across the border. I jumped out of the truck, passed the border on foot, had my bags thoroughly checked and posted myself some 300 meters behind the customs barriers. And I made my final cardboard sign: ’Athens’.


It was four hours since I left Elbasan. The sun was nearly behind the mountains, I figured it was around five o’clock. Another two hours of daylight available. No car stopped though, so I had to sleep on the border. I found a good spot behind containers, in use as temporary offices. During the night, the temperature dropped to what felt as just above zero. I was very thankful for Murat’s raki. 

Agzom

Monday morning I woke up early and got treated on fresh snowfall. After the snow, it took the sun some time to appear from behind the mountains. As I had trouble getting warm, I kept walking hence and forth until the first sunlight. 


I chose a spot at the parking area for trucks. After half an hour, a yellow van stopped. The driver pointed at my cardboard sign and made a gesture to come.  He was Albanian, with a cargo van on his way to deliver goods somewhere in Greece. 


Agzom spoke no English at all and did not understand a word of what I said. I knew only a handful Albanian words. Not much of a base to have a conversation. This was going to be a challenge. I even could not find out what Agzom’s destination was. Athens was still more than 550 kilometers away, I couldn’t imagine me getting all the way to Athens in one ride.

As we had little conversation, I had a lot of time to enjoy the mountainous landscape of Northern Greece. In comparison to Albania, the roads in Greece all looked brand new. And the landscape was gorgeous. Snowy mountain ranges, large valleys and beautiful lakes. 


And we had music. Agzom played traditional Greek and Albanian music from a USB stick. The music was beautiful. Melancholic sounding voices and instruments, perfect fit with the winding roads and this mountainous area. 

We took several breaks. On the first break for coffee I asked Agzom for his USB drive and copied the music to my laptop.


The other breaks were for touristic reasons. We passed Meteora, an astounding area with great rock formations. At Kalabaka, one of the large cities of the Meteora area we stopped to watch a beautiful rock formation hosting one of the largest complexes of monasteries in the area.

Athens

Near Trikala I saw the first traffic sign to Athens.  A little more than 300 kilometers to go. From the highway that approached Trikala, Agzom turned left, entering the city. I initially figured that Trikala would be the destination, but Agzom drove on. 


Slowly, taking winding, secondary roads, avoiding the cost of the toll road, we approached Athens, the signs indicating the distance to Athens slowly counting down. 


When we passed Lamia, some 200 kilometers from Athens, I started preparing my arrival to Athens. This would be a completely different city from the ones I had experienced so far. Cities like Salzburg, Ljubljana, Split and Elbasan had 150.000 to 300.000 inhabitants. Athens being a metropolis with millions of inhabitants would probably be totally different. 


I figured we would arrive just before or maybe in the evening. For finding a place to sleep I had to trust on my experience so far, that places where I got dropped off would lead to the right place to stay easily. 


Just before 7 o’clock, Agzom stopped in the city center of Athens city, darkness just started falling. He telephoned his Athens contact and I got out of the car. I started to walk in dark Athens. From here I had only one lead. The contact section of the Free and Real community on Evia, mentioned the Nomismatokopio metro station as a meeting place for visitors of the community.

I asked for directions and found out that the metro station was in the direction of the airport. I followed the street signs to the airport. Athens really was a metropolis, crazy traffic, large crowds in the streets and a lively atmosphere, as all shops, cafes and restaurants were open. 


After half an hour, I got a hunch and looked to my right. Through a fence I saw a classical building with young people standing in front. It could be a library, which meant I probably could go there the next day. 


So, in the area around this building I had to find a place to sleep. At the next junction to my right I saw a sports arena. This means a high probability of a park. I walked towards the arena and discovered a large park. Still some people were taking a walk in the park. 


Soon I discovered the right spot for sleeping and on the first silent moment I hid my backpack and one bag in the bushes. With only one leather back I had a good opportunity to explore this part of Athens.

Balamo

The next morning, the library turned out to be the Athens University for Economics and Business. A great atmosphere, among the liveliness of students. In the university library I found a quiet place to start my working week. 


As I love to have music on my headphones while working, I checked the music I copied from Agzom’s USB drive. I soon found the Greek song I liked very much during the ride: “Balamo”, by Eleni Vitali.

I checked the song and the meaning of the lyrics. The song is based on a Gypsy Greek folk song. In a very loose translation it is about the life of Greek gypsies, dwelling around and having no place to live. Perhaps because of my nomadic journey to Greece, and having no place to live anymore, this song resonates in a beautiful, melancholic way with my own gypsy life.


I have no place and nothing to look forward to

No homeland for me, what’s there to do?

With a heavy heart and trembling hands

I dream of setting up my tent in distant lands


Leave me alone, leave me alone

You only care about your own

I don’t belong, I must go alone