Sunday, 23 December 2012
Day 256 - Squatting in Thessalonika. (Greece)
Day 256 - Squatting in Thessalonika.
The border crossing between Bulgaria and Greece was a breeze – our first EU to EU crossing. We weren’t even stopped at the Bulgarian side, so we continued to Greece where we were asked for our passports and car documents. A Chinese couple on a business trip from their home in Germany stopped us for a chat whilst we waited for Immigration to look through and decide that we were suitable to enter their country. Our passports were stamped both out of Bulgaria and into Greece in the same office.
In order to get to Budapest in time for Christmas, on the day that we left Bulgaria we had seven countries to do in 18 days (Greece, Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina and Serbia). As a result we unfortunately didn’t have much time for each individually and would only get the chance to see a snippet of each place. It is so frustrating to miss so much, but the nature of travelling is that you actually can’t do everything you want. We could have spent less time in Central Asia or Iran and left more for this part of the world, but then we would have missed so much there. So we made our way to Thessalonika in the Northern part of Greece where we had a Couch Surfer to host us.
The great thing about using Couch Surfing is that you get the opportunity to meet people who can show you places and things that a tourist couldn’t possibly find for themselves. Our first evening in Thessalonika was a prime example of this. Our neuro-scientist host didn’t come with us, but gave us directions to a gay and lesbian movie night at a bar in a squat near his house. We arrived at the spot on the map that he had marked and found ourselves at the end of an alleyway, looking at a high wall covered in anxty graffiti topped with barbed wire and void of any sign of life. He had warned us that the entrance may be hard to find and we might have to circle the block a couple of times to find our way in. We discovered a gate at a corner, surrounded with posters and fliers demonstrating the anarchist movement, so making the assumption that this was what we were looking for, we entered the complex from there.
It’s not often that we feel over dressed or fancy, but this was certainly one of them. Through a dark and overgrown garden there was the “bar” where we were greeted by a very well spoken young man in a ripped tracksuit who politely asked us if we’d been here before and whether we’d like to watch an independent German movie. No, we hadn’t been here before and no thankyou, we’d skip the movie in German (we can’t speak German). Well in that case he proposed that we find ourselves something to drink while he switched the movie on, and then if we like he can show us around.
Passing a group of died-hair, pierced young girls who sat at the bar, we helped ourselves to beer from the fridge and were welcome to any of the bits and pieces of spirits and juice lying around. A till lay open on the counter and no one watched while we tried to figure out what was a reasonable price to pay. We sat at a table next to a dusty motorbike helmet and a ripped poster listing events at a film festival and waited for our well spoken, track suited tour guide to fetch us.
The complex was originally a factory up until the 1960s/70s when it became the site of regular protests, as was the fashion at the time (and still is in Greece). After that it fell into abandonment until around 2001 when it was turned into a squat housing 20-30 people at any one time. During this period it was a centre for Thessalonika’s underground, hosting regular music concerts, art exhibitions and other such community events. Now no one lives in it, but it still functions as a kind of illegal community activist centre, with a cafe/bar, a makeshift cinema, a library, BMX and skate-boarding parks and an information centre. Due to neglect by its inhabitants the buildings have fallen largely into disrepair again though and a lot of the events that used to be hosted can’t happen anymore. They are hoping to house people again in the future and return to functioning as a squat, but the Ministry of Culture has recently been given the complex by the government who wants to repair and develop it into something they see to be productive. Fortunately for the current users of the “squat” though the government doesn’t have the funds to support their plans so are unable to forcefully reclaim it.
Our tour took us through the information centre which was in a sort of foyer to the main building, furnished by makeshift wooden tables on which a wide selection of political propaganda was haphazardly displayed. Various bits of paper were strewn on the ground, torn and muddy from being walked all over. Next to an old-fashioned stove in a corner of the space a doorway led to the library, the walls of which were lined with sparsely filled bookshelves. We were shown through a painted doorway, past a broken shopping trolley and a pile of dusty mattresses to a skate park, which was in use at the time. A vast dark space was ahead, nothing but pillars and a few beer cans in view, until a flight of stairs which took us past an entire burnt out floor (every squat has at least one) to the rooftop. On the way upstairs our guide opened a door to show us a room, but promptly closed it again before we could see inside, explaining that this was a private room, currently being used by BMXers, so we weren’t able to look in at the moment. The stairwell itself was an explosion of political art, every part of the walls making a point, whether in words or in pictures, or often both. The rooftop we were taken to was the concert venue of 10 years ago, now nothing but a dingy concrete space with rubble piled up in the corners. The vantage point from here was exceptional though and we realised just how huge the complex was. We could see the building that was used for housing and the rows and rows of factory floor that has now been left to completely disintegrate.