Salonicans, 2023

By: | Post date: May 26, 2023 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Culture, Greece

Salonicans are overall a much more low-key people than the Brian Blesseds of Crete. Something Salonicans themselves acknowledge.

A decade before he became a sesquipedalian reactionary member of parliament, Kostas Zouraris was a magical realist author. And his “fairy tale” Μέσα στο σάμαλι η αχεροποίητος “In the shambali unmade of human hands” beautifully captures the miserableness of 50s Salonica—and Salonicans’ yearning for somewhere sunnier in nature and in mood, somewhere like Crete.

In this town, a strong wind kept blowing, and people had given it some name or other. But the wind just made fun of them and told them “You guys are so clueless, giving winds and breezes any old name you can think up. Can’t you hear how much fairer my sound is than my name? You lot should just mind your own business, and watch how much better I make your town look, when I blast my way through it.”

The strong wind was right, because this town was soft, and a bit slack, and hazy all the time because it got damp; it got all plump down in the city centre, and it was full of mud, Sunday schools, and stool pigeons. It was nothing like Crete, shining through its grapes and deep-shaded carob trees, with its boastful leaping men and laughing women dancing.

[…]

The strong wind was right to make fun of the lot of them. Because their town got a bit of backbone into it, and stood up as tall and playful as it small tiled churches, only when he, mighty as he was, blew.

Then the mud would set; the stool pigeons would draw back; and the gendarmes with their moustaches, their twisted bodies and their black-and-yellow nails would rivet their eyeballs straight up at the roof of the Transfers Department, Poland Street. No, Crete was one thing this windy town would never turn into, this town of mud and stool pigeons doing their rounds with their yellowing nails, by its playful terracotta churches, in its cafes and outside its houses.

(The title is tricky to translate, like anything culturally resonant will be. Shambali (to use its Turkish name, as Wikipedia does), is one of the many syrupy desserts shared across the Aegean, made of semolina, sugar, and yoghurt. acheropoiētos “unmade of human hands” is how the Orthodox church attributes miraculous origin to a small number of icons, and one such icon gave its name to the 5th century Salonican Church of the Acheiropoietos. To speak of a dessert as being of divine origin is the kind of jarring conflation that magical realism does well, and however ridiculous Zouraris proved as an orator, as an author he did it very well indeed.)

… I love that excerpt, by the way, as an outsider. I was introduced to it by my friend George, Salonican born and bred. Another native Salonican I have consulted loathed it: she thought it was infected with Athenian cliches about the second city, and that while it did reflect a time of crisis in Salonican identity, that time was long past since.

Salonica may well still know it’s no Crete, but it has a population, even if they are quieter than the population in Crete. What have I noticed about them this time around?

I’m not making as much of an effort to fit in as previously; that’s had the pleasant result of better banter with young (and therefore far more Westernised) bar staff, because I feel more comfortable drawing on shared Western cultural referents, rather than shared Greek. So I could compliment the barman on his choice of Nirvana as background music, complete with “the razor goes vertically” suicide joke. I could much of the time crack jokes with 20-year old waiters…

… when they didn’t look bored out of their skull to be there. Hospitality has been all over the shop: there was the old familiar service with brutal efficiency, there were chatty service staff, there were surly young things (mostly male), and (mostly female) impossibly chirpy young things, using very American service staff discourse.

—That’s wonderful! (Υπέροχα!)
—Awesome! (Τέλεια!)
—Great choice! (Ωραία επιλογή!)
—Happy enjoyment! (Καλή απόλαυση!, which is of course a remodelling of the traditional καλή όρεξη “Happy appetite!” to match American “Enjoy!”)

And an oddly sing-song chirp in their farewell formulas:

—Here’s YOUR change! (Τα ρέστα σας!)
—Thank you VERY much! (Ευχαριστώ πολύ!)

and, same tune, the formula that has spread like wildfire in the last decade:

—Happy con-TINU-ation! (Καλή συνέχεια!)

It’s a novel expression, but it does hit the spot. It’s not just “have a pleasant rest of the day”, it’s pretty much “have a good rest of your life”, whatever you might be getting up to next, once you leave the store. And it’s the store staff nicely implying that there is something you’re going to get up to next, worth enjoying; that it won’t be just watching the TV in your sweatpants.

But I am in a bigger city; there’s less readiness of service staff to banter. I dropped an aside about a book editor at the high temple of academic publishing, the bookshop of the Educational Institution of the National Bank, hoping to bait the staff into a response. They didn’t bite when I was around; but my friend George decided to buy the same book I did, and he did hear from them about the oddball with his running commentary about the book’s editor.

There’s surliness among cab drivers too. Far from universal—I had a pleasant time explaining to a cab driver my obscure reference in “glory be to Ya Rabbi, I’m a foreigner so I don’t have to care about the elections.” (Greek in the mid-20th century had a nickname for God, taken from the Arabic for “Oh Lord”.) But I also got cab drivers crappy with me for thinking I was withholding small banknotes from them, or for heading in the wrong direction. That of course was just the reminder that I was out of the countryside, and back in a big city.

There are more people hanging out in street cafes or nightclubs than I remember last time I was here in 2019; that suggests at least some recovery in the economy. I have had reports that gone are the days of staying out till 3 am on a weekday, but patches in the city still had people out till midnight, and the weekend was still great business for bars.

My accommodation this time around was AirBnB, and AirBnB is being vilified as triggering rentier flight from the city: people rent their inner city housing out and flee to the suburbs, and as a result the city centres of Athens and Salonica are full of non-residents: tourists, who are a known quantity, and digital nomads, who are novel, and who are treated with the same suspicion here as they are anywhere. (As I pointed out to my cousins, I’m working this trip, which means that logically I’m one of those digital nomads too, undermining the vitality of the city.)

In particular, it was in a side of town I hadn’t explored before: Valaoritou St, one street behind the now much ghostlier Via Egnatia. (It used to be the main shopping street, but decades of subway road works have sapped it.) By day, it hosts a slowly-dying, small scale rag trade. By night, it has a lot of bars, including the latest fad of shisha bars, and a lot of young things out and about in bars. Not a whole lot of smiling, but a widespread notion of coolness, at least.

Oh, and accusative indirect object pronouns, the local shibboleth, remain plentiful. Not at all universal, but plentiful. (My friend George has admitted to trying not to do that around me as a southerner.) The other local shibboleth, the dark l, may still be plentiful, but if so, I have too tin an ear to make it out.

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