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Letter from Greece: Contradictions in Thessaloniki

4 MINS READMar 12, 2014 | 21:38 GMT

Flying from Frankfurt to Thessaloniki, Greece's second largest city, presents a fascinating contrast. Not only are you traveling from the heart of Europe's economic and political power to the epicenter of the continent's crisis, but also from the efficient and rigid Germanic world to the chaotic yet charming Greek world. You are leaving a world of abundance and frugality and entering a world of scarcity and excess.

My arrival in Southern Europe was confirmed when we landed, when most passengers stood up and desperately began to pull bags from overhead bins while the plane still taxied across the runway. The German crew's repeated attempts to get passengers to return to their seats were in vain — I imagined troika officials having a similar experience negotiating with their Greek counterparts.

After a short taxi ride I arrived at my modest hotel in the heart of the city. It goes without saying that the concierge greeted me with extreme kindness. It also goes without saying that he did not register me in a computer but wrote my name and passport number on a piece of torn paper and stacked it with other pieces of paper. Similar practices apply to other businesses in Greece, where the government fights endlessly against tax evasion and the gray economy.

Thessaloniki lacks the dreamy beaches and islands of Greek postcards, but it is still an active city, with bars, cafes and restaurants full of people drinking strong Greek coffee — a shocking level of commerce for a country with 27 percent unemployment. The first explanation for this is cultural. Cafes are a central part of Greek life. Greeks may struggle to pay rent, but they would never consider giving up their visit to the cafe. 

The second explanation is Thessaloniki's historically vital and continuing economic importance. The city has been a significant economic center for over two millennia. At the height of the Roman Empire, the Pax Romana and the city's strategic position made it a major stop along the Via Egnatia — a spectacular road from Rome to Byzantium (modern-day Istanbul), which crossed the territories of modern Albania, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey. After the partition of the Roman Empire, Thessaloniki was the second largest city of the Eastern Roman Empire after New Rome. Later, its active port made Thessaloniki a site of competition between Venice and the Ottomans and the most important trading hub in the Balkans. Today, Thessaloniki is the second-largest port in Greece after Agioi Theodoroi, surpassing Piraeus in Athens. This historical importance has left the city with a strong economic elite, which has been impacted but not destroyed by the current Greek crisis.

But the frenetic activity in cafes and restaurants is also misleading. Jobless youth hang around Thessaloniki during the day. Old, dented cars run along the pitted streets. It is common to see closed shops, shutters down for good. Unlike cities such as Barcelona, Madrid and Rome, shops are closed even in central areas, not just in side streets and suburbs. 
There is another noticeable difference between Greece and other parts of Europe. Most churches I saw in Thessaloniki were full. As most of Europe's churches decline, Greece is in the midst of a religious resurgence. Every single church flies a Greek flag. This is because the church is at the core of Greek identity: To be Greek is to be Orthodox. The state still pays priests' salaries and non-Orthodox Greeks face difficulties joining the civil service.

This has deep roots. Religion kept Greek culture alive during centuries of foreign occupation, especially during the Ottoman period. Today, Greece continues to assert its strong homogenous identity in the midst of deepening crisis. Muslims are virtually invisible here, unlike in other parts of Europe. Nine out of 10 people in the country are ethnic Greeks (and Orthodox). Still, the locals I spoke with quickly turned to complaints about "massive" levels of immigration from "the Middle East, Albania and other horrible places." Foreigners are easily identified and, especially if they are poor, frowned upon.

The main impression Thessaloniki leaves is of a place that has been hurt by the economic crisis but manages to survive. The tensions between the haves and the have-nots are palpable, but these problems take a deeper — and potentially more serious — shape in Athens, the next destination in my visit to Greece.

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