When 11:59 ticked to midnight as I walked the streets of downtown Thessaloniki, it officially became my first birthday away from home. As the day continued to progress, it also became the most adventurous.

Out to dinner the night before my birthday. Photo by Paxtyn Merten

The celebrations began the day before over dinner at Taverna Kronos, a restaurant recommended by one of the program facilitators. I felt nearly spiritual as I savored the meatballs – deliciously spiced and slathered in Tzatziki sauce – over a glass of white wine. I would definitely place it in the top 10 meals I have ever consumed.

It was a new and exciting experience compared to my typical birthday dinner, which generally consists of my immediate family at some steakhouse or Italian restaurant in suburbia. Yet I found myself missing some aspects of being home, like the fun-loving family banter over the table or my mother’s boisterous laughter at everyone else’s silly and stupid jokes. I was luckily provided some solace by some family-like dynamic within the group, accompanied by similar volume of laughter. And, again, the food.

In the night we explored the club culture of Greece, which was very strange to me. No one was dancing at the club we ventured to. Instead, it was commonplace to stand around tables, drinking and smoking cigarettes while music blasted in the background. It seemed odd that dancing was virtually nonexistent within Greek nightlife, especially when I am from a culture where most places with young people, alcoholic beverages and loud music are centers of dancing. Fortunately there was a negotiator among us, and the legend Isaac Feldberg managed to get us our own balcony area where we could overlook the rest of the club and dance shamelessly.

After a late, exhausting night and a long, deep sleep, I woke up late on the morning of my actual birthday and ventured to the Saturday neighborhood open market with Olivia Arnold and Ellie Williams. I expected it to be nearly the same as a farmer’s market. The two were similar, but this market had much more. It seemed to be a place people go to buy everything for their homes, such as produce, plants and everyday clothing. It also turned out to be a major fish market, and the sights and smells brought me back to Pike Place Market in Seattle. Though I did not buy much, simply being in the market felt right and I can hardly wait to attend next week’s.

I picked out some Greek candy at the neighborhood open market. Photo by Olivia Arnold

In the afternoon, I traveled with a segment of our group to the Old City, a region of Thessaloniki that is high on a hill and has much older and historical buildings – the type of houses you typically imagine when you think of Greece.

The walk up was treacherous, and I was convinced on several occasions that I could not go any further. The staircases were steep, the sun was hot and beating down on us, and everyone seemed to be moving at top speed toward the region. I felt the sweat dripping on my body – something I don’t typically experience as a non-athlete in the Seattle area – and the fatigue in my calves.

When we made it to the top, however, and turned around to look at the view, it was breathtaking. I will let the pictures speak for themselves, though nothing that I took could quite do the view justice.

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As I lay down to sleep after dinner and a soothing shower, I felt content. Despite the missing aspects of my usual birthday celebrations, my day was full. Here’s to 19!