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I’ve settled during my current sojourn in Greece into a comfortable pattern. I stay for three weeks somewhere familiar, where I settle down, get reacquainted with the surrounds, work, experience things, and don’t blog much at all. Halfway through, I do a side-trip to avoid feeling too settled. When the three weeks are up, I take a week’s holiday somewhere completely alien, get thrown, and blog a truckload.
Repeat three times, but the repetitions are different. My coming to a rest this time has been in Salonica.
(No, of course I’m not going to call it Thessaloniki. So long as there are Greek nationalists that the <k> makes happy, I’m going to keep distancing myself from them with a <c>. Anglo fashion be damned: it’s not imperialism that I have ancestral beef with.)
Salonica is a city I fell in love with close to thirty years ago, and that has endured. I’ve been reminded again, in this sojourn, how much Salonica feels like home to me.
It’s not because I have any ancestral links to the place. Sure I have an aunt here, who married a Macedonian Greek, but that’s as far back as any family connection goes—that, and a cousin or two who has studied at Aristotle U.
It’s not because of the big heart of the locals. Sitia has big-hearted locals to spare, which is why the whole town is a booming incubator of Brian Blesseds, boisterously teasing each other with no inside voice. But as was rightly pointed out to me, that’s not the whole of Greece: that’s rural Greece. Salonica is a city, and as with any city, people tend to keep to themselves. The exceptions—insistent beggars, insistent lottery salespeople, irascible cab drivers, couples broadcasting their domestic dispute in central thoroughfares—stand out here a lot more.
It’s not because of the continuous history of the place, although that has been a comfort. The eerie marble of classical Greek antiquity has columns in the Greek urban landscape look like they’ve airlifted in by aliens. There’s a little of that in Salonica’s Ancient Forum—which is far from the most commanding old site. The forum aside, Salonica’s old constructions are in reassuring flat brick. And it’s hard to tell apart 4th century Roman brick from 16th century Ottoman brick: there’s a continuity between the Rotunda and the Yahudi Hamam, and between both and construction as know it now, that I have always found reassuring.
Yahudi Hamam: the communal baths of the Ottoman Jewish quarter
Like a lot of the historical narratives of urban landscapes, it’s a narrative that works for the locals, and that elides the inconvenient past. There is very little left to speak of what was a majority Jewish city, critically: just a couple of sidewalk memorials. The Great Fire of 1917 wiped much of that Jewish history out—and made the pleasant, breezy boulevards of the modern city possible, even if the influx of new arrivals turned their backstreets rabbit warren soon enough.
It isn’t the progressivism of a new city for a new country, that Salonica used to take such pride in throughout the 20th century. The ideological split between Salonica and Athens was real, and Salonica was the forward-looking place. Salonica feels like home, and Salonica feels young (at places), and Salonica has hip progressives in it; but the overall narrative has shifted, and there are many more reactionaries and populists now to express that shift. Much too often, Salonica is now an aggrieved, fearful place; anxious about threats to its north, anxious about neglect from the south, anxious about its economic decline. The progressive confidence that used to be articulated here has metastasised into florid philippics of anger, whether from the old left (Kechagioglou) or the neo-right (Zouraris).
(It’s a source of ongoing amusement to me that I first heard that analysis of a fearful Salonica articulated on TV, on Themos Anastasiadis‘ talk show—amidst bored strippers and inane mockery of politicians. But that’s how Greece works. It does confound high and low.)
It’s not these things, but it is a result of these things. The new town of Salonica, after the 1917 fire, is a walkable, contained urban centre, delineated with boulevards that have grown dense and busy, and stuffed with back alleys and random openings. It’s a delight to explore, and there is enough order left from the original city plan that you can explore it: it isn’t the chaos that Athens has grown into.
And what you find when you go exploring is bookshops and tavernas and Byzantine and Ottoman buildings and offices and cake shops, and strolling, usually chill, often fashionable Salonicans.
What you find when you go exploring now is a city that is less affluent and relaxed than it used to be, that parties less and reads less and strolls less (wearing its Sunday best less often) and remembers less. Yet it still parties, and reads, and strolls, and remembers, enough to be a city that makes sense to me, a city that pleases me just to be in the thick of. More than many a city. More, I daresay, even than my home of Melbourne.
Of course, I’ve been fortunate in Salonica to have had my friend of thirty years, George Baloglou, be my guide and my conversation partner each visit; and those conversations have taken us up and down the town, sidetracking as much in our walks as in our discourse. I’ve had that joy again this visit, and good discourse is truly one of the things that makes life most worth living. I remain in his debt.
My previous visit was incognito from my relatives; this time I got to spend time with my cousins Christos and Nikos as well, and explore bits of Salonica I previously hadn’t. My thanks to them as well.