About a week before I left for my study abroad adventure to Thessaloniki, Greece I was chatting with the mother of a girl to whom I gave swimming lessons. She gave me one of the most important pieces of advice that I have ever received.
“To travel is to find your happiness,” she said. I kept these words of wisdom with me as I embarked on what truly was the happiest three-month adventure of my life. Thessaloniki is located in northern Greece, about five hours north of Athens and 10 hours east of Istanbul. It is the second largest city in Greece and home to one of southern Europe’s most famous universities: Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Thessaloniki is also home to the most bars and cafés per capita among European cities. At any time of day, you could find dozens of locals lounging around surrounded by good coffee, better company and breathtaking Grecian sunshine.
One of the coolest things about Thessaloniki was that despite how incredible it is, it has managed to fly pretty under the radar of the tourism industry, preserving its unique culture, language and general Greek charm. Restaurant menus are in Greek only––something that made the first week a bit challenging as a vegetarian. The public city-wide bus had no schedule, but rather comes when it comes––as a Greek man explained to me, “We sit and pray it’s soon.” A weeknight dinner with friends customarily lasts anywhere from five to six hours, always accompanied by complimentary dessert.
When you study abroad, one of the hardest questions to answer is, “What was your favorite part?” Take a three-month vacation of nothing but adventure, happy memories, a lack of responsibility and try to pick one thing you liked ‘best’––impossible. After trying to answer this question for over a year now, however, I’ve finally gotten somewhat better at answering it. If I had to pick my favorite thing about my three-month adventure of bliss, I’d say the people of Thessaloniki and their attitude toward life takes the cake.
Ask any man or woman you meet on the streets of New York City who they are and nine times out of 10, you’ll get an occupation as your answer. Too often, I believe, we as Americans are taught to be workers first and people second. In Thessaloniki, however, it’s just the opposite. Introduce yourself to a Thessalonian and you’ll find yourself in an hour-long conversation about their family, the latest football match, what makes them happy and what makes them aggravated. Thessalonians are family first, individuals second and everything else is just extra. There’s a word in Greek for this attitude that doesn’t really have an appropriate English translation: Καλαρά. It is a truly beautiful approach to life.
My three months in Thessaloniki gave me incredible friends, life-long memories and an irreplaceable new outlook on life. Traveling truly did let me find my happiness and for that, I am forever grateful.