My Tibetan friend was impressed with the photo I had posted. You can see Mt Olympus from your city? How lucky, she added wistfully, to be so near your cultural touchstone. Alas, I had to remind her we no longer worship the ancient gods—and they’ve punished us. No longer enmeshed in the landscape, we’ve become creatures of concrete and petrol fumes, of hashtags and ring tones. Two buildings on the 5-km-long new waterfront of Thessaloniki enact this silent tug-of-war between history and environment. One, by a local architect, references colours and materials used in Byzantine times and faces the city, turning its back to the sea. And the second one? The Japanese architect simply looked around him—and turned his building toward the Aegean and the distant mountains.
But who is local here anyway? As Delhi exchanged its Urdu speakers for Punjabis in the 1940s, so Thessaloniki lost its Muslims and its Slavs to the Balkan Wars and the disastrous aftermath of World War I. In their place came Christian refugees from Asia Minor, the Black Sea and Thrace, leaving behind cities that had been Greek since ancient times, victims of a compulsory exchange of populations. Later still, the Holocaust deprived Thessaloniki of its Jews—who had been its largest single ethnic group since the 1400s. Their ornate villas are now museums, their synagogues mostly silent, their cemetery ploughed over and occupied by university buildings.
Layers and layers of history abut each other in this 3,000-year-old city. Even the landscape has moved: the site of the ancient market, now a half-kilometre from the sea, reveals how far land has advanced! Fashions too change, but traditional shops selling seeds and herbs, dress-making materials or olive oil canisters are still going strong, despite the creeping proliferation of wine bars and upscale pizza joints. Here in the old commercial centre, the various stories and tribes of the city all meet: marble signs in Arabic script, a Catholic church tucked discreetly among the narrow streets, hipsters downing craft beers in the pubs of the old stock exchange, matrons shopping for buttons in the Ottoman-era covered market, music students milling about the conservatory building that started life as a 19th century bank, pensioners buying lottery tickets, lawyers catching a coffee on the way to court, late-morning demonstrations, late-night confessions.
Yet all this motion is deceptive. City businesses had been haemorrhaging even before the 2010 financial crisis struck. The entire textile industry had moved to Bulgaria, leaving a part of downtown derelict. Some of the abandoned warehouses got a new lease of life for a time, taken over by folk-rock bands and theatre groups. Now, short-term tourist leases and real estate sales to foreigners in search of golden EU visas are again crowding out artists, young families, and just about anyone of low-to-middle income.
The crisis is officially over. But what has it left behind, apart from a massive brain drain and cynicism? Not fairer taxation or better public administration. Not a national conversation about what kind of development we want.
Whenever I’m out with friends in the old town on the hillside, enjoying the view from the Byzantine walls, eating meze, talking about everything and nothing, I’m tempted to think things are not so bad. Then I remember those of us who’ve had to emigrate to Germany, Sweden, China. Or the journalist who, unable to afford a flat, moved back to her village. Or the family on the 6th floor: the father who’s lost his business and his health, the mother, forced to work in London, children anxious about their future. The cafes may be full, but too many people are still struggling, and no end is in sight.
But for my melancholy thoughts, at least there’s a remedy at hand. I leave the house, dodging delivery mopeds, overflowing café tables and double-parked cars, and walk downhill towards the sea: past the jumble of the antique market; past the tourists gawking at the Roman arches and baths; past the statue of Eleftherios Venizelos—the nationalist leader’s plinth covered with graffiti, his extended arm with pigeons; past the partly disembowelled Egnatia road, the marble-laid Roman roads and Byzantine homesteads hidden beneath, now revealed by the endless metro works; into the French-designed 19th century Aristotle street, where Pakistanis sell contraband cigarettes two blocks from the police station, stray dogs settle on the manicured lawn to enjoy the bones they grab from the nearby meat market, and Georgian ladies sell tarragon and coriander on tiny tables just off the arcade; past street musicians; and finally, into the expanse of Aristotle Square (the statue of its namesake discreetly watching over us), all the way to the waterfront—and I stand there for a while, admiring the sun as it sets near Mt Olympus.
(The author is an Athens-based writer and translator)