It isn’t difficult to find places in Greece where time stands still. But even here, it is rare to see a combination of this effect with modern technology. Yesterday, I came across just such a place, during my first visit to Thessaloniki.
None of the locals I met knew about it. They probably visited it as children in school, had a good time there, and promptly forgot about it. Nor do taxi drivers know it. Yet it is barely a 15 minute 7-Euro drive from the centre of the city. I had to get directions from Google Maps to show my non-English speaking taxi driver how to get there. Even up to the last minute, he wanted to ignore the app and take an opposite turn towards where everyone else goes. Fortunately I saw behind some buildings what I was looking for and pointed it out to him. Reluctantly he took a couple of left turns and stopped before an open gate.
It was a beautifully warm and sunny day during a cold February. There were three small buildings, with an old style of architecture and painted in warm colours. A bicycle that looked a hundred years old stood against a wall. A big dog slept in the yard and hardly batted an eyelid at me.
As I walked and looked around, a woman came out of one of the buildings and spoke to me in Greek. I said “English please” and she asked me what I was doing there. I mentioned to her that I had emailed to say I would visit, and had received a positive response. She asked me to wait, and walked into the other building. Presently, out walked Andreas Mylonakis, the person who had responded to my email earlier.
Andreas is a jovial old man with a mild manner. He looks somewhat scholarly. Indeed, as I introduced myself and mentioned Silicon Valley, he told me that he was the first software programmer in Thessaloniki, having worked with Forth, MS-DOS and assembly. He is a civil engineer by profession and worked for many years with the Greek Railways. He recently visited India, and was very impressed with his experiences in Delhi and Rajasthan. Now in his retired life, his primary passion is managing the Railway Museum of Thessaloniki, which I was now visiting.
Back in the US, when I was planning this trip to Thessaloniki, I put in an extra day since it was going to be a long weekend, due to President’s Day on February 18. Then, looking for interesting things to do, I planned a photo shoot with a local model, Spookie. Old architecture, ruins and monuments, they bore me unless there are interesting people or stories connected with them, so I figured this was a good way to experience such things in Greece. And then I looked for nice places to shoot in, found some photos on the web, and subsequently the museum.
Thus, here I was. Spookie’s makeup artist was taking her job too seriously, so they arrived over an hour late, and then it took another hour to get her ready for the shoot.
Andreas in the meantime took me around and narrated the history of the place and its treasures. He refused to take any money from me, saying instead that if I liked his tour, I could buy a calendar from him for 5 Euros. And by the way, my hotel was on his way back home so he could drop me off when I was done with my shoot. One of the best bargains I’ve had, gaining knowledge, friendship, experiencing history, doing a fabulous photo shoot, and saving 2 Euros and the entrance fee in the process!
Here is Andreas showing me around the Pullman restaurant car from the original Orient Express, where kings and queens and various important people dined.
And here is his old TI-59 programmable calculator from circa 1955, with its original box, manuals and program cards, with which he started his software work. He is pointing out the program cards which fit into a slot on the side of the calculator.
Tourists almost never come to this museum, so I was an oddity in that regard, which is why he probably was so excited to see me. The visitors to this museum are usually school children on field trips, or other students like these two girls who stopped by while I was doing my shoot.
The museum is right next to the main railway line out of Thessaloniki, so every once in a while, you get to hear and see a regular train going by.
The buildings and yard where the museum is, were built in the Ottoman era for the rail line to Constantinople. They were then taken over by the Germans during WWII. Thessaloniki is at an important intersection point of land and sea routes, so transportation was important to them, as it was for the Ottomans. The RAF bombed this area to prevent Germans moving equipment to Rommel in North Africa. Last year, construction workers found an unexploded bomb here, from a WWII RAF air strike. The authorities had to evacuate thousands of people from around the museum area and call in munitions experts to remove it. Greek Jews, more than 50,000 of them were rounded up here, the older ones sent to Auschwitz to die, the younger ones made to work on the port and marshalling yard before suffering a similar fate. There is a lot of history here.
Spookie’s makeup artist ended up with a look that was both macabre and hilarious at the same time. I’d never done such a shoot before – this visit became a first for me on many levels. As Andreas drove us back, I thought I couldn’t have asked for a better day and experience.