My Arrival in Greece

Henry Fast

First posted on
February 28, 2011

I was but a simple farm boy from Saskatchewan when, at age 19, I boarded the train in my hometown and embarked on my first overseas assignment as a young volunteer. I can only imagine how my dear mother must have felt as the train pulled out of the station knowing that we would not see each other again for two years. The year was 1961, long before the advent of the internet, e-mails and cell phones. Even long-distance international phone calls were prohibitively expensive.

It was also a time when crossing the Atlantic was still cheaper to go by ship than by air. So after about two weeks of orientation in Akron, PA with more than a dozen other MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) volunteers, I and six guys boarded the 38,000 ton S.S. Rotterdam, flag ship of the Holland American Line, bound for Rotterdam.

What a luxury liner. I was amazed at the fine darkly finished wooden décor, spiral staircases between different levels, high-end gift shops, bars, a huge dining hall and even a movie theatre. At every meal we could choose from at least two kinds of appetizers, main course dishes and desserts. The trouble was my digestive system was used to the terra firma of Saskatchewan, not the constant rising and falling of the floor beneath my feet. Fortunately, I managed to keep things down for the entire 8-day voyage; a few of my companions were not so lucky. (Ira & ?? Landes)

The MCC van picked us up in Rotterdam and took us to Frankfurt, Germany. Following another week of orientation, each of us were assigned to different project sites in post-WWII Europe. I was told that I’d be going to Greece but that since they first had to obtain a visa for me, I would be taken to the work unit in Salzburg, Austria. It only took about a week for my visa to be issued. I then boarded the train in Salzburg for a 36-hour journey through what was then Yugoslavia and on to Thessalonica, Greece.

In preparation for my trip, our cook in Salzburg packed a few sandwiches and an apple or two but they were long gone before we reached our destination. While I had a few dollars in my pocket, I was afraid to get down off the train at one of our stops along the way to search for something more to eat in case the train started up without me. I couldn’t read any signs, I didn’t know if anyone spoke English, I had no local currency and didn’t know how I would go about exchanging my dollars. So I tightened my belt and suffered in silence.

Sharing my compartment was a young Turkish chap who took pity on me and offered me an orange if I recall correctly, and a drink of carbonated mineral water. That strange kind of drink was not something I had experienced in Saskatchewan. Funny how little things like this stick in one’s memory.

It was about mid-morning when we finally pulled into the station in Thessalonica. My large steamer trunk and a briefcase contained all I would supposedly need for the next two years. With the help of a porter, I proceeded to customs and immigration. The official spoke no English. The only Greek word I knew was agape from the Bible. He motioned for me to open the trunk, poked around the top layer of stuff and said I needed to pay $10. Okay, I thought, who was I to argue particularly given the language barrier.

Going on to the arrivals section, I fully expected someone there to meet me from the Greek MCC work unit but, alas, nobody came forward. Now what? I knew that the unit leader in Salzburg had sent a telegram the same morning I left to inform the unit in Greece of my coming. Why was there no one to meet me?

I had the name and address (in English, of course) of the unit located in Aridea, a village somewhere outside of Thessalonica but had no idea how far it was or how to get there. Mainly because of the language barrier, train station staff weren’t of much help. I ran outside and tried to find help. Soon a taxi driver who could speak a little German asked if he could help me. Since I also knew German I was able to explain to him my predicament.

We retrieved my trunk from the arrivals area, loaded it into his taxi and proceeded to the bus depot. There he talked to the ticket agent, purchased a ticket, sat me down in the waiting room and said I needed to wait until the next bus which left at 2:00 p.m., a couple of hours hence.

I had not eaten for some 15 hours and I was famished. I spotted a vendor holding what looked like large sesame-covered pretzels threaded onto a long stick. I must have gotten some drachmas in change when I paid for my ticket so I jumped at the chance and bought some pretzels.

The appointed hour of departure finally came and I along with other passengers boarded a green-coloured country bus whose seats were like those of a Canadian school bus—straight backs and little padding. All seats and luggage space quickly filled up. My steamer trunk was hoisted up onto the roof of the bus along with everyone else’s luggage, including a few live chickens. I was the only foreign passenger.

One hour passed, two hours and then three and I was getting rather worried that I may have missed my stop. The bus made many stops along the way in one village or town after another, passengers kept getting off and on, and I kept peering out the window to see if I could recognize any Greek road sign that looked like Aridea.

Sitting beside me was an elderly and friendly grandmother-type woman who kept motioning to me that I should just relax and remain seated. I’m sure everyone else on that bus knew where I was going except me.

Some four hours later we finally arrived in Aridea, at the very end of the bus run. The kind lady who had sat beside me, ordered a couple of young village boys to go fetch a wheel barrow. They loaded up my trunk and we hiked off to where the “Americans” lived.

I was greatly relieved to be welcomed by a bunch of American and Canadian guys standing around outside the entrance of the MCC Unit house, including the director (Larry Eisenbeis). In his hand he held up the telegram that had just arrived an hour earlier from Salzburg telling him of my arrival.

But there’s more to this story.

Aridea in northeastern Greece was not my final destination. Although that’s where the main group of MCC volunteers was located, I was being seconded to a Church World Service team in northwestern Greece. After a week or so of getting to know a bit about the agricultural work the guys were dong in that area, Larry the director, and I drove back to Salonika, where very early the next morning he put me on a bus that would take me to Ioannina. If you know anything about the country, you will know it is rocky and mountainous. (Legend has it that after God had created all the other nations, he had a pile of rocks left over which he threw over his shoulder, together with a piece of the rainbow, and that became Greece.)

It was a long 12-hour journey over a winding, bone-jarring road through the mountains, much of it not paved. Thoughtfully, Larry had supplied me with a piece of salami sausage, a hunk of bread and a bottle of water, which more or less sustained me for the duration.

It was after dark when we arrived in Ioannina, a city of about 30,000. I was relieved and excited that I had finally reached my destination. As I disembarked, I searched the crowd for a friendly face but, alas, again there was no one to meet me. How can this be, I thought, the second time in a row!

Naturally, bus depot staff could not communicate in English so finally one of them walked with me to a hotel nearby where they thought someone could speak English. I had to trust that my trunk would be fine, left sitting in the waiting room of the bus depot.

The hotel clerk looked up the phone number of the Church World Service office (again referred to as the Americans) and placed the call. Even though it was well past office hours, luckily one of the staff happened still to be there to answer the call. It didn’t take long before he arrived at the bus depot to rescue me. Christos was the Greek interpreter for the team, and it so happened that he had just been at the bus depot to meet someone else. Then it became clear that there was an error in the telegram Larry had sent. The date did not correspond to the day of the week, therefore, he thought I was arriving the next evening.

That was my introduction to Greece.

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