By Karlie Marrazzo
We awoke in Skopje, Macedonia in the ungodly hour between late night and early morning. It was pitch black outside and the streets were deserted. My head was in a fog and I was still unsteady on my feet. It’s a familiar feeling for anyone who has to get up in that in-between time and move. In our case, we were moving on to our next destination; Thessaloniki, Greece. More importantly, I was moving towards achieving a goal, the biggest undertaking of my life; traveling to 30 countries before the age of 30. Greece was it: #30.
The origins of my goal are not solidified in my mind – there was no lightning bolt strike of genius, no intricate plan crystallized in my brain with nothing left but for fate to take its course. My husband Dave and I have been together since our late teens, and we always enjoyed weekend road trips to the mountains in Alberta and British Columbia. It wasn’t until our honeymoon in 2007 that I boarded an airplane for the first time, and not until the following year that I left Canada and made my first of many visits to Europe – Switzerland and Austria for the Euro Cup, and Italy, the land of my ancestors. That trip whet our appetites for travel. We visited Europe once more and made a few trips to our neighbour to the south, visiting Hawaii twice and San Francisco. In 2010, shortly before my 25th birthday, we visited Cuba, which became the 10th country I visited. I made a comment on Facebook stating my accomplishment and throwing in “Next goal: 30 before 30.” I don’t remember thinking about it or planning it or if it was just an offhand comment, but the more we traveled, the more that goal crept into my head and the more attainable it became. The more I pushed and stretched and bent my life around to make it happen.
1599 days later, wide awake and excited, I was cruising down the highway on a stuffy bus with faux hardwood from Macedonia to Greece. In a few hours we reached the border crossing, with 243 days to spare. I needed to do something to commemorate the moment. I’m not accustomed to wandering aimlessly around borders for fear of repercussions, but nobody seemed to mind at all. Everyone got off the bus to smoke their cigarettes. I walked back and forth, looking for a good spot to take a photo in front of a clear sign. I held up three fingers on one hand and made a zero with the other. I got back on the bus and we sailed into Thessaloniki. Everything was the same, but something inside me changed at that instant.
The end of the line for the bus was, inexplicably, the train station. We caught a city bus, packed to the brim and stifling hot, and crawled towards the city centre. Our stunning Airbnb apartment was a block from the main square, Aristotelous, which is distinctly rectangular. My first impressions were of heat, crowds and a very normal city.
Thessaloniki is off the beaten path for tourists, who tend to picture Greece as Athens and sun drenched islands – I know I did. It is a working city with a handful of important sites and ancient ruins that are on the UNESCO World Heritage list scattered about. The four nights we spent there were probably too many, but the place started to grow on me. Sometimes it’s nice not to be surrounded by hordes of other travelers and sightseers, craning our collective necks and getting elbowed in the back just to see something a guidebook tells you to see. Thessaloniki is very well known for its vibrant cultural scene, and it is said that it has the most café’s and bars of any city in Europe, per capita. Cafés and restaurants stand shoulder to shoulder the length of the waterfront, full of friends endlessly sipping iced coffees and talking animatedly. The sun never stopped shining while we were there.
I had always wanted to visit Greece, but it was not originally in our plans for this trip. We knew we were going to be in Macedonia and Bulgaria, so it only seemed natural to stop in Greece on the way. Travel to Athens or any of the islands would be far too complicated for the amount of time we had and Thessaloniki was the most logical place on our route. It wasn’t where I would have pictured myself celebrating my milestone country, but sometimes our travels guide us. We enjoyed a small taste of Greek history in the form of Byzantine churches, ancient ruins and monuments, and artistic and archaeological treasures. We took a tacky booze cruise in the middle of the day and got a nice view of the city from the water. We lazily strolled back and forth on the waterfront, enjoying the sea breeze. We ate more delicious food than should be allowed. To be completely honest, we didn’t do a whole lot in Thessaloniki. It’s nice to behave as though you’re living your normal life rather than cramming a million things into each day and checking them off of a list.
When I set out to travel to 30 countries before I turned 30, I didn’t know how much it would enhance my life, how much I would learn about myself or the world or the people in it. Traveling has made me stronger and braver in so many ways. There are things I have done and would do that I never would have considered in the past, from camping overnight in the Sahara Desert (I hate camping!) to hiking down a volcano in the dark, to more personal changes like becoming more outgoing and getting on that airplane every single time, because even though I am terrified of flying, I just have to get out there and see that big, beautiful world.
1599 days of my life were consumed with the desire and passion to achieve the goal I had set out for myself. There was never a time where I thought I wouldn’t achieve it, but I would often downplay the bigness of it all in my mind. It was just something I was doing. If I didn’t reach that magic number, I wouldn’t be disappointed because we had an amazing time trying. Numerous people over the years told my husband Dave and me that they wished they could’ve done what we were doing or traveled when they were younger, that they were proud of us and lived vicariously through us. There are countless travelers and writers that I look up to, but the fact that I, in turn, might be inspiring someone else still blows my mind. Most importantly of all, I have learned to have confidence in myself and know that whatever I put my mind to, I can do.
Read more about my journey to achieving my goal here.