Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Unexpected Delights of Thessaloniki

We arrived after several glorious days in Santorini to Thessaloniki Airport, where we were greeted by Rod’s sister Karin and her Greek husband Vassos. They whisked us to a hotel just two blocks from their flat; we unpacked; walked to their place; and then caught up over tea and biscuits.

Fortified, we set out with Karin and Vassos to explore the open-air markets of Saloniki. They are fascinating, the sort of thing one might have seen in Paris or London before Les Halles and the other old markets were razed. We saw fresh fish, fruits and vegetables, spices, figs, and other local products, all inviting. Old Greek ladies in black haggled with merchants while young, chic housewives pinched the flesh of fish suspiciously. I bought a little copper briki for my first attempts at Greek coffee once I return home.

Then we hopped a local bus for the White Tower, a famous Turkish-Venetian landmark. We dutifully climbed the 500-plus steps to the top and were rewarded with a spectacular view of the harbor and the city. Lunch followed at a café near the lovely waterfront—recently renovated and expanded—where I indulged in yet more roasted eggplant. Gypsy women wandered through the outdoor seating area, aggressively thrusting their crying, dirty babies at the customers in a largely vain attempt to beg money. I have tangled with gypsies in other European countries, and I had an especially frightening experience in St. Petersburg when a Russian girlfriend and I were attacked while caught in downtown traffic. I will make a politically incorrect statement here: I do not like their lifestyle. Undoubtedly this sounds horribly bourgeois, but there is much to be said for getting a job and not dragging one’s unwashed progeny around the streets and subjecting them to a life of penury. Lest I appear prejudiced against ethnic gypsies, I will point out that I felt the same way about the stoner hippies, relics from the sixties and seventies, who until fairly recently panhandled in Berkeley, miserable-looking children in tow.

We spent the rest of the afternoon at the Archaeological Museum, which, like many museums in Greece, is small and manageable. The building is modern, light, and airy; the displays are well done, and we especially enjoyed a special exhibit on gold work in ancient Greek society.

Exhausted, we returned to our hotel for a rest and shower. Later that night we went with Vassos and Karin to a seafood restaurant where we met Christina, their youngest daughter, her husband Petros, and their darling daughter Yvonni (who I might steal and take back with me to the States). It was a relaxed, slightly chaotic, family evening that seemed so Mediterranean, with the toddler lurching around the table while the adults ate, drank, and talked over each other. People dine late in Greece, and I am having to adjust to dinners that begin no earlier than 9.00 p.m. and stretch on until midnight.

I like Thessaloniki far more than I expected; indeed, I’m not quite sure what I expected. Many of the buildings date from the nineteenth century, and the city has the look more of a Slavic city, such as Bucharest, than a Mediterranean one. Some of the boulevards are wide and lined with trees. Ruins abound. Casually scattered throughout the city, they are part of its everyday texture, not something to be seen as tourist sites. There is a north/south divide in Greece, with Thessalonikians looking down on their Athenian brethren, in much the same way that the denizens of St. Petersburg pity Muscovites or Florentines sniff at Romans. After some time in Athens, I’ll have a better sense of whether the Thessalonikian sense of superiority is justified.

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