x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Off to Thessaloniki for a big fat Greek wedding

The nomad I am impressed by seeing how easily the Greeks pick up the Arabic dancing and how too the Arabs ape the fancy footwork of the Greeks.

The main purpose of my trip to Thessaloniki is to attend a wedding. As was the case in Australia, a close friend's sister is getting married and I'm lucky enough to have been invited. What can I say? As I've found out recently, I'm at that age where everybody's getting married. I have known the bride's brother, Nadeem, since we were about eight years old. For both of us, some of our fondest memories were spent growing up together in Abu Dhabi and this trip is an opportunity to share an important event in his adult life.

I discover on arrival that my hotel is near the airport and somewhat outside the city proper so on the first night, my brother, Ali, and I decide to catch a taxi and head into town for some authentic Greek food. The driver leaves us at the promenade and our walk along the seafront is remarkable. I notice that even on a week night the pavement is flooded with strollers enjoying the salty air and Mediterranean breeze. The waves crash into the shore on our left and the busy cafes and bars are abuzz in Aristotelous Square on our right, where grand, white-faced hotels are trimmed in pink and yellow lights. We come to the end of the path after about 20 minutes of walking and turn into a narrow alleyway with ageing white houses on either side that have chipped paint and an old-fashioned look about them. Something about the buildings and the layout of the streets and the proximity to the sea remind me of Beirut. When we come to the end of the alley, we turn into an even smaller passageway called Cairo Street and at its end we arrive at the taverna we have been looking for.

As soon as we walk inside, our nostrils are filled with the scent of the heavily spiced meat and fish being cooked in the kitchen. The feeling of hunger raging in my belly is exacerbated by the mouthwatering aroma floating around me and I sit down and impatiently look down the menu in search of a hearty dinner. We start with a selection of meze, including grilled calf's liver, stuffed vine leaves and a Greek salad. By the time we finish the appetizers our stomachs have little room left over for the gigantic fish that arrives as our entrée.

Eventually, we give our compliments to the chef, pay the bill and pat our tummies on the way out the door. Slow-footed after our big meal, we retrace our route along the seashore, again enjoying the simple pleasure of following the curves of the water. On the way back, however, we notice more closely what we had merely glanced at before - the White Tower, one of the city's infamous landmarks. Built by the Ottomans in the 1400s after the Byzantine Empire disintegrated, the tower was used as a garrison and a prison where people were tortured. In 1826, all of the prisoners in the tower were killed and the place came to be known as the Tower of Blood. It was painted white after the First Balkan War.

It seems amazing to me how much history surrounds one pile of stones. For the following few days Ali, Nadeem and I, along with some other family friends, relax by the hotel's pool, taking advantage of the baking hot weather to get deeper tans. During the evenings we head into town for dinner with the families of the bride and groom. One night we venture into a bar called Politia; a well-known venue that is famous for hosting all manner of live music acts. This night the stage is graced by a series of Greek boy bands covering English pop songs. Yes, it is cheesy but at the same time embarrassingly entertaining. The last performance of the night, however is a pleasant surprise that feels authentically Greek: a local singer named Pegi Zina accompanies her own voice on the bouzouki, a pear-shaped, stringed instrument with a very long neck. How can I describe the combination of her plaintive, haunting voice and the strings' wild plinks? Spellbinding, perhaps, would be best.

When the wedding day arrives the fun isn't over yet. After the ceremony the crowd settle into a party that heats up when the band play a repertoire of both Greek and Arabic tunes. I am impressed by seeing how easily the Greeks pick up the Arabic dancing and how too the Arabs ape the fancy footwork of the Greeks. Both peoples, I guess, know how to enjoy good music and good company all too well, anywhere, anytime.

Next week: Omar heads to the US to visit Boulder, Colorado