After showing our passports to the border officers, we were ready to continue our journey southward. It was the first time in Greece for both of us.
We weren’t exactly sure what to expect in Greece. It was probably going to be hotter even than in Bulgaria, from which we came. At a small border shop we bought some ice cream to cool down, and some water for the journey. Then we hit the road.
It was August 2014, we were young and silly.
We looked the shit on our new 28″ Koga Randonneurs. It’s a great bike that I’m still happy to ride to this day. Two pairs of Ortlieb panniers – bright red – were fitted to each of them and carried all we needed on this trip.
The road ahead wasn’t very long. About 13 kilometers of highway lay between the border post and the exit towards lake Kerkini, which we hoped to visit along the way.
The highway had a broad shoulder, plenty of space to keep us at a safe distance from the cars that sped past us.
I can’t say that I like cycling on a highway much, but as we made our way towards the exit, I was getting increasingly worried about other things. It was August in Greece. It was about 3pm – about as close to the hottest part of the day as you can get. The sun burned on our heads, and our helmets didn’t protect us much from the heat. From below the black tarmac radiated heat from hours and hours of solar warming upwards. We were getting grilled. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be a spit roast pig, try cycling Greece in August.
It took us about forty minutes to get to the exit. I don’t think I’ve ever sweated this much. I must have lost several liters. Once we got off the highway, we had to find our bearings a little bit. We followed the road towards Neo Petritsi, a small town close to Lake Kerkini. Along the road were several unwelcoming signs indicating a truck stop up the road. I was dehydrated, I was hungry, I was desoriented, we simply had to stop to refuel and cool off.
Aside from a few motorcyclists that were having a cold drink, the ramshackle truck stop seemed to be completely deserted. We didn’t care, as the trees that dotted the space provided some much-wanted shade. It was still 35 degrees, but at least the sun was blocked.
A short sun-tanned figure in his early sixties approached us with a big grin as we sat down on flimsy plastic chairs. His sweaty shirt was buttoned up to just above his belly button, revealing a sweaty hairy chest. We were not the only ones suffering from the heat.
“Something incomprehensible,” the man said as he pointed to our bikes.
“I’m sorry, we don’t speak Greek,” Heike replied. “Do you speak English?”
“Tassos!” he said. “You want drinks? Food? I make you good food!”
I told Heike I had only a couple of Euros left, and that the place was clearly not fitted with any form of electronic payment service.
“We don’t have much money on us. We need to get to town to find an ATM.”
“No problem. I cook for you. Sit here. I get drinks.”
I was confused. As a Dutch person, this kind of behavior is unexpected. In my country, no money means no service. They might point you to an ATM if you’re lucky.
“That’s weird. We don’t have cash. What’s he doing?” I asked Heike.
“I don’t know.”
In the meantime Tassos – I assume that was his name – lit up a barbecue and was running in and out of a small hut in the back. Soon after he returned with two ice cold bottles of Coke.
“I make the best food for you!”
“Should we get to an ATM first?” I tried once more.
Tassos acted like he didn’t hear, and ran back to the hut.
Before I traveled other countries, I used to be very untrusting. I wasn’t raised with hospitality. We never had guests – let alone foreign ones – in my family. Hospitality is a very strange thing to comprehend if you have never experienced it. I was very suspicious. Having been scammed in Cambodia once the year before, we were very cautious this time. I was worried Tassos would cook us a feast we didn’t want, nor budgeted for, and would charge us huge amounts afterwards. There was no menu in this place, and since the bikers had left, there was no other soul in sight.
Half an hour later, Tassos brought us the biggest Greek salad you could imagine. Sliced onions and tomatoes, lettuce, big juicy olives, with a big block of oily sheep’s cheese on top. Some herbs on top. Perfection.
And gone he was again. His barbecue seemed to be hot now, as he was devoting all his attention to the grill. Despite being suspicious, I was very curious what he was going to being us next.
We didn’t have to wait long. Soon, Tassos returned with a platter of souvlaki, with bread and olive oil on the side. A cold bottle of mineral water to quench the thirst.
We feasted like only two hungry cyclists could do.
The evening went by quicker than I thought. We had no place to stay yet.
When we asked Tassos for the bill, he wouldn’t have it. He wouldn’t let us leave. He pointed at a flat area in the back, behind the hut. “You camp there.”
“Uh oh,” my mind said. “This guy is going to keep us here and make a scene about payments when we leave tomorrow.”
We set up our tent and unrolled our mats. The night ahead was a typical Greek night. Hot as hell, and surrounded by loud packs of howling stray dogs. We didn’t get much sleep that night.
“How you sleep?” Tassos asked.
“Great!” we lied.
“I make you breakfast!”
“Tassos, we really need to leave. You’ve been very kind, but we have quite some kilometers ahead of us,” Heike said.
“Can we get the bill, and go to an ATM so we can pay you for your services?” I asked.
We were so confused. Again he walked away. Then returned. He made a gesture, asking me to follow him. I did.
I followed him to an old rusty Volvo. I’ve never been in an oldtimer like this before or after this event. It was a miracle it could drive.
My heart was racing. I was plotting out fifty doom scenarios at once. He was going to drain my bank account. He was abducting me, while Heike was alone in the middle of nowhere. I felt as if I had abandoned her. I felt weak.
As we drove to the ATM, about ten minutes away, my heart was pounding in my chest. I think Tassos could feel it too. No words were spoken. A silent ride towards my execution. We both got out at the ATM. Why did he get out? I was expecting the feeling of a gun pointing at my back, but it never came. I took out 100 Euros, thinking that I would find a silly excuse to limit the damage to maximum 100 Euro.
The same silent drive back to the ramshackle truck stop. I felt so weird. Why wasn’t he saying anything?
This may have been the happiest I’ve ever been to see Heike again. Unharmed. Equally confused about the situation.
Two minutes later he came back smiling, while holding the bill in one hand. Some scribblings: 2 Coke, 2 souvlaki menu, 2 Greek salad, 1 mineral water, 23 Euro.
As we paid in our confusion, he said that he wouldn’t let us leave just yet.
He wanted a picture together.
We said goodbye to a wonderful warm-hearted soul, a soul like many others we have met on our bike trips, in Greece and elsewhere. We felt embarrassed for mistaking hospitality for suspicious activity. I think it was that day that I started seeing people with different eyes.
If you’re ever in the area, go see Tassos at a truck stop near Neo Petritsi. But bring money, as I wouldn’t bet on the old Volvo.