The road to Macedonia

Bureaucracy has a lot to answer for, wherever in the world you are. Most of us have been held hostage by it at some point, and would probably agree that we would all be better off without it.
Farmers have a lot to answer for too, especially in Greece. And in particular, those that take industrial action between Athens and Macedonia on Thursdays.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely on the left side of left, and would be the last person to ban unions, or their members the right to strike. But really, was it absolutely necessary to block the main (only remotely sensible) road from Athens to Macedonia, all day on Thursday? Could they not have done it on Wednesday for instance, or even Friday?

To be fair we did know about the strike when we left Athens. But one can have a wealth knowledge yet still remain ignorant. And quite frankly we didn’t have a clue.
Our plan was to volunteer in the two camps in Macedonia. A week in the north and a week in the south. But we all know about the road to hell, and we lost our good intentions on the E75.

In the UK – thanks primarily to Thatcher – the withdrawal of one’s labour as a form of protest, is a highly regulated, bordering on illegal, activity. The Greeks however, still consider striking to be a reasonable form of action to resolve disputes. Which is great – on the one hand, but incredibly inconvenient on road to Macedonia.

We were expecting to pass groups of protesters along the roadside with megaphones and banners. Maybe warming themselves by an oil drum fire, making tea and almost certainly handing out leaflets and taking signatures.
But a farmer’s strike in Greece is a totally different ball game. It doesn’t mean a picket line, it doesn’t mean placards and marching, it doesn’t even mean withdrawal of labour -what would be the point, most farmers are self employed?

The hard core reality of a Greek farmers’ strike is that hundreds of Greek farmers drive their tractors onto the main highways.

And leave them there.

Try ignoring that!

Tractors
Photo by Paul Hill

So instead of taking five and a half hours to travel from Athens to the Greek / Macedonian border, it took us almost ten. Diversions were organized of course, but you know the kind, where a couple of cardboard signs direct you around some back roads, and just when you’ve lost all sense of direction, the signs and the roads all disappear.
And all the satnav wants to do is take you back to the same road that is blocked. And it’s easy to understand why, because all other routes to the border don’t really involve roads – not in the traditional sense of the word. There is nothing for the satnav to ‘recalculate’.
And our maps, and all the road signs, and even the police directing the traffic don’t even share the same alphabet never mind speak the same language.

So you can imagine, it was ten hours that did wonders for our relationship.

But eventually we made it to the border, and we sailed through the Greek passport control. This was good news, no questions, no searches, just a quick glance at the passports and waved on. Cue false sense of security. Because at the second check point (the Macedonian one), our old friend ‘bureaucracy’ caught up with us.

The man in the smart uniform kept asking for our green papers. What are green papers? Whatever they are I was pretty sure that we didn’t have any. Paul tried to fob him off with our recently acquired international drivers licenses, but he wasn’t having any of it. After a while an English speaking officer arrived, and explained that we needed some kind of ‘green papers’ to bring the hire car into Macedonia. Then he asked us where we were travelling to, and when I told him Gevgelia, he smiled, pointed and said, ‘oh that’s just 2 km over there…..but I still can’t let you in!’
I have since heard tales of ‘offers to purchase’ green papers, by the men in the smart uniforms at the checkpoints – which quite frankly, at this point would have been most welcome. But no, for us only an apologetic smile and a shrug of the shoulders, as we turned our car around to point back towards Greece.

It’s only about 200 metres between the two checkpoints and there was only 5 cars waiting in line. It quickly became apparent though that nothing was moving. After a little while we were able to find someone who spoke a few English words. Unfortunately for us though, they weren’t words that we wanted to hear. He simply said, Greek farmers strike block border.

Marvelous – we can’t get into Macedonia, but now there is no way back into Greece.

We are trapped in no man’s land.

No man’s land is probably not what you might at first imagine. There aren’t any high fences or razor wire, just a duty free shop, a casino and a car park full of taxis. There must be a solution here somewhere. Maybe not in the Casino, and, tempting though the duty free shop was, its possibilities were mostly confined to cheap booze, perfume and cigarettes. And so eventually we hit on the idea of ditching the hire car and taking a taxi into Macedonia. We could at least find a restaurant, book into a hotel and return in the morning refreshed and ready to sort this mess out.

Beurocracy was finally working in our favour.

Green papers only apply to cars – not people!

Macedonia here we come.

2 thoughts on “The road to Macedonia

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