ArchivesSite MapSubmitOur GangHot Sites
tearing the rag off the bush again
Letter from Greece 8 from Mark Sargent PDF E-mail


by Mark Sargent

Road trip, that’s what we need.  So it’s off to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city and many hours far to the north, not far from Bulgaria and Turkey.  Mirella’s son Nikos is living there, reason enough, and some type of graphic arts festival is also occurring.  We load up supplies for the troops: jars of cured olives, paxamahdi (a twice baked bread that they just don’t do well up north), prime cuts from a freshly slaughtered pig, bags of oranges, grapefruit, lemons, all the stuff from the country that must be ferried to the city.  Every day the country regurgitates itself onto the urban landscape. 


An hour and a half after departing we roll into Corinth at the isthmus.  “oὺ παντὸς ἀνδρὸς  εἰς Κóρινθóν σθὁ πλοῡς”—Not every man may visit Corinth, they used to say in ancient Greece.  I have no idea why.  It was a crossroads of the ancient world and wealthy from trade.  Maybe you needed to utter a secret password to enter or prove you had some cash to spread around like a third world backwater?  Now anyone can roll in and damn, have they ever.  Just off the new modern highway the Corinth bus station is flanked by rundown cafes selling bad coffee and cheap trinkets and it is a swarm with hundreds and hundreds of Greek teenagers in their coolest clothes milling about gawking at each other and shoving cheese pies in their faces.  Many dozens of idling buses spew toxic fumes.  They’re parked higgley-piggely and back up and advance through crowds of kids amidst utter chaos.  We smack our foreheads in unison, of course, it’s ek-dro-MEE season.  The word translates as ‘excursion,’ which is accurate, but whose meaning pales before the annual road trip/parties that the Greek education system indulges the little darlings with.  Middle school through high school, every Spring, though, interestingly enough, not during the two-week Easter holiday, the youth of Greece bus and or ferry off to some distant town where they are allowed, even encouraged, to go crazy.  Falling down puking drunk is very common, nay, almost de rigueur in some circles.


Years ago in my son’s last year of high school his class went to the island of Rhodes.  Just getting there took about 24 hrs.  Once there they discovered that the island was crawling with thousands of teenagers from across the country (a not insignificant boost to the tourist industry in an otherwise dead Spring season).  He loved it.  One night about three in the morning the class was at some huge dance club when the class president began to fade.  He had the DJ make the announcement that the Sparti kids should rendezvous at the bus.  So they dutifully did.  Whereupon their primary chaperone, also the principal of the school, climbed into the bus and asked why they had retreated to transport.  We heard the announcement and came was the response.  He said, That’s fine.  Those of you who are done can chill in the bus, but the rest of you, get back in there!  This party’s not over!  And, like a bacchanalian Pied Piper, he danced them back into the chaos.                 


In the midst of a vertiginous economic descent, a large number of Greek families have scratched together the bread to send their children on a holiday binge.  Of course, there are plenty of kids absent because their families can’t afford it.  But like hunger, you only see the most desperate, not the belt cinching majority.  In a more egalitarian society there would be a student fund to finance the children from poorer families.  Alas, that is not Greece.  If it was, it would only be abused.  Instead, the class ekdromee committees are often accused of siphoning off funds.  Years ago with surreptitious cameras a travel agent was videoed laying out to a class group just how they could, in cahoots with the agent, shove some of their fellow students’ money into their pockets.  When Greeks hear these stories they grit their teeth and nod with distain.  In my experience, young adults are the most cynical about these things.  They were fed a line of shit all through school and now the system they were resigned too has crashed and there’s no reason to pretend.


We are in Corinth to pick up Yianna, our surrogate daughter, who is busing over from Patras where she’s studying civil engineering.  The idea of a road trip appealed to her as well.  Actually, it doesn’t take a complicated calculus to get her away from the grinding calculation of engineering.  I worked in the family engineering company in my youth and no, not for me, and, certainly, not for Yianna.  This situation illustrates the sclerotic cookie-cutter mentality of the Greek university system which is, categorically, not about choice. 


From middle school on the system attempts to track students towards either academic or technical instruction.  On the academic side they are then divided into either hard science/mathematics or the humanities, i.e. history, languages, literature, etc.  At the end of their high school careers they take a national exam which determines their fates.  The top students on the science side go to medical school while in the humanities the winners are streamed into law school,  whether those careers interest them or not.  Consequently, you encounter a large number of unmotivated doctors, for instance, people who have no feel or interest in practicing medicine.  The other professions are pretty much the same, though you have far more numerous and intimate dealings with doctors than with the others.  Once had an accountant who counted on his fingers.  On the plus side, there’s no tuition.  Those who don’t make the med school cut are shunted into secondary professions.  All the pharmacists didn’t quite make it, and veterinarians.  Vets.  In Western Europe, the States, Canada et al, the vets you encounter invariably have a real affinity for animals.  This is what they wanted to do and it is a very competitive field.  Here you’ll encounter ones, especially new graduates, that don’t even know how to handle animals, no feel for it at all.  Aye, tis a long long ways from Yorkshire and James Herriot, alas.  We finally found a good very professional vet an hour away in Tripoli, but, regardless of their skills or compassion, your animals will get sick and die.  When you give a child a pet, besides helping them learn to be responsible, developing their nurturing side and all that, you are setting them up for a lesson in loss.  Because more than likely that animal will die while they are still children.  It’s a good lesson, an important one.  It gets them ready for the next loss, their grandparents, if they’re lucky. 


But let’s get back to the lovely Jianna.  She’ll be twenty-four soon and we met her through our children.  She was and is an integral member of the scene that we still host here on the hill.  She’s adopted Mirella has her spiritual mum, though her real parents still live in Sparti.  Although both sides of her family are deeply Greek, she smacks of something off an Irish tourist advert with very pale lightly freckled skin, rich auburn hair and blue eyes.  That they look enough alike that many upon first meeting think they are mother/daughter, or, to Mirella’s delight, sisters, promotes this idea further.  She’s a lovely young woman, curious, adventuresome, and we delight in her company. 


Then north to Thessaloniki.  Greece is all eruptions of rock slashing into the sea.  Often the road carves a path along the sea, beyond which is more rock pushed up, blue gray, darker than the clouded sky.  We pass the exit for Thermopylae.  A site I’ve never been to though I’d like to one day.  Brush up on me Herodotus beforehand.  “Then we will fight in the shade.”  That would be the bravado required to take up arms against the hegemony of global capitalism, but how would that be done?  Best to remember, they were wiped out at Thermopylae.  According to Herodotus, King Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans (the Oracle at Delphi had predicted their doom[an easy call given the relative size of the armies], so only soldiers with living sons were taken) were not the only Greeks who fought to the end.  When the Greek army discovered that they had been betrayed by a local, Ephialtes (whose name means ‘nightmare’ in modern Greek), and who had shown the Persians a back trail that allowed them to encircle the Greeks, a dawn council was held.  Leonidas commanded the other Greek troops to fall back while the Spartans would hold off the Persians as long as they could.  But seven hundred Thespians chose to stand, and die, with the Spartans.  Imagine Leonidas upon hearing that actors would be standing with them.

            “They’re obviously brave, but can they fight worth a shit?”

            “They’re method actors, sire.  They’ll get in touch with their inner warriors.  All the world’s their stage.”

            “Well then, bring on the players!  And tell them the Persians spears are very real.”


I’ve long had an idea to write a play about this event beginning with the arrival of the runner who reveals the betrayal followed by the dawn council and various personal stories.  I thought I’d open it in Shakespearean fashion with two guards discussing the previous day’s battle while standing guard outside Leonidas’ tent.  I call the play, “The Tent,” which references the ancient Greek, “All the world’s a tent.”  From which Shakespeare concocted, “All the world’s a stage.”  It is quite possible to be too clever by half. 


Later Mt. Olympus to the west is grand with its snowy crown.  If only Athena could descend from those heights and slay the entire political class of Greece with extreme prejudice, like suitors in the great hall, arrows through the throat, others skewed with spears.  Again with the javelins of war, again violent fates for the dullards in power.  That’s the mythic scenario.  If only the young men of the world would collectively reject the murderous plans of their elders.


We cruise along the sea into Thessalonikian twilight in good spirits.  The road tolls from Sparti total thirty-four euros, which is a piece of change.  The warehouse that our gang inhabits, is very centrally located and we find it quite easily.  They have the third and fourth floors, although are only using the third at the moment.  Elevator, are you kidding?  We trudge up the long flights of stairs and enter through a door flanked by hundreds of empty beer bottles.  We came to the right place.


We drop our kit and fruit on the vast wood floor and send someone out for beer.  Two hundred and fifty square meters of space per floor, it’s vast.  A common space occupies the center and branches off to the kitchen and various salon sitting areas.  Everywhere there is fatigued and broken furniture begging you to throw yourself upon them, which many have done already.  Except for Dimitris, a part-time surveyor, everyone is under the age of thirty.  Using the existing columns and beams, bedrooms have been carved out.  And there’s a wood shop full of tools and a tattoo salon.  It’s all happening, as they say.  Greetings and lots of cigarettes later (I’m the only non-smoker at all times.  People who have cancer don’t quit smoking here.), I make my best move of the visit by pulling out a bottle of single malt whiskey.  Talisker, not my usual, but it came with two free glasses at the super and I knew Nikos would dig them.  Which he does.  The whiskey itself announces its’ smoothness with the first pour and quickly there’s more than a dozen sipping away.  Hey, it’s a party.


Yianna quickly finds a resident, Vangelis, recently back from studying massage in Thailand, to give her the once over.  She’s picking this stuff up everywhere she goes.  It will make her even more in demand than she already is.


One young man is writing electronic music in his room, though he takes a whiskey break.  Nikos has a new girlfriend, Evangalea, who just finished Med School.  Bright, inquisitive, speaks beautiful English, with good energy and a certain grounded feel.  She’s great, wants to take a year off before she does her specialization studies, maybe wait tables.  But waitress jobs are hard to come by.     


Our sleeping quarters are an unenclosed cubicle, mattress on the floor, but it works for us and once I start sleeping, which doesn’t normally take very long, little wakes me. Good thing, as we retire hours before the residents. 


Morning.  On the far side of the warehouse the sun has managed to penetrate a bank of windows and is lazily bouncing across the room to me, watching it arrive at floor level.  There’s stuff everywhere.  Angles of walls fashioned from found materials, wood, fabric, windows, doors.  Odd lights dangling.  There’s a crude handmade movie projector, large oil paintings on canvas, a clothesline with one towel and much unexplained material just waiting for a use.  No surprise, no one has risen.  But I, well rounded with a sleep, do.


I make myself a cup of tea and decide to bus the main table in the lounging area which is dense with cups and glasses, including a quite a few jars that once held pickles or tahini, peanut butter.  In these situations there’s a big difference between doing your communal part, or a bit more, say, and obsessively being a parent.  The parent cleans up the entire kitchen, scrubbing the surfaces, putting everything away, looking for the vacuum cleaner.  No.  I decide I’ll do all the cups and glasses, of which there are masses, and okay, I wipe the odd counter.  But that’s it.  Alas, it doesn’t work the other way.  Many young people have passed through our house without wiping a plate.  This too is easy to understand.  A) They are generally bourgeois Greek kids and use to doing bugger all, and B) at our crib we are being parental in the sense that we’re whipping out the nosh, bevies and bedding, so they slide right into child mode.  Yet, when they get it, when you turn around and they’re mucking out the kitchen, it is a great delight.  There’s a certain transitional glow, they’re becoming an adult.  It doesn’t take much to lift my spirits, I’m happy to say.


I kick back in a broken chair and continue reading Mark Mazower’s Salonica: City of Ghosts.  Terrific book.  Back in the day it was Roman, of course, and the Via Egnatia, the 700 kilometer road they built from Italy to Anatolia ran through the middle of town.  Still does.  After that it was within the Byzantine Empire and then, for nearly 5oo years, until 1912, the city was within the Ottoman Empire. During this time Sephardic Jews constituted a majority of the population.  It was a Jewish city within an Islamic empire.  Where did they come from?  During the middle ages Jews were regularly expelled from various European countries, most infamously from Spain in 1492.  The Ottoman Empire, recognizing a good thing, welcomed them in.  Many settled in Thessaloniki where they spoke that linguistic oddity, Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish.  In a 1890 census Greeks, meaning Orthodox Christians, were a mere ten percent.  After the Greek military disaster in Smyrna in 1922 there was a mass population exchange between Greece and Turkey with the Turkish population dramatically reduced and the Greek greatly swelled.  Round this time the name was officially changed back to Thessaloniki, which was the name of one of Phillip of Macedon’s daughters, so a sister of Alexander the Great.  Name means Victory in Thessaly.  That’s what you get when you’re the daughter of a warrior king.  During the Nazi occupation in the Second World War the Jewish population faced the same awful fate as elsewhere.  They were rounded up and shipped off to the camps.  There are a mere thousand in the city today.  Essentially, the 20th Century is a time of ethnic cleansing for Thessaloniki.  In 1950 Greeks constituted 95% of the population.  It took extreme violence and inane politics to make this polis Greek.  This is a fact not acknowledged in contemporary Greek history. 


A bit like somnolent French farce, people keep making entrances from various rooms, rubbing their eyes and seeking coffee and nicotine.  Dream analysis doesn’t seem to part of the agenda, but what do I know?  Visitors shout up to the third floor and someone throws them down the key.  Regularly teenagers arrive to purchase illicit tattoos, maybe an anarchist A on their shoulder or barbed wire around their neck.  That one never tempted me.  I remain unadorned and getting one now smacks of grasping at youth culture, which is something to be avoided.  Not one person in this scene has a full-time job, at least half have nothing at all.    


M and I hit the streets to see what the city has to offer.  It is a sea port and it is lovely to look down the streets toward the port and the sea a shimmer in the distance.  There was a devastating fire in 1917 and most of the old city was destroyed.  Consequently it is full of ugly 20th century Greek architecture.  The Roman ruins were underneath, so as the city rebuilt they were uncovered and are visible all over town.  We’re more interested in what may remains of the Ottoman empire, bazaar streets with raki joints and hookahs, herbs, tin and copper smiths, leather artists and flea markets.  We find them.  And excellent food on several occasions.


One afternoon, a Sunday, M & I are walking down Ermou, a street lined with clothing stores.  Up head I spy the obvious TV woman with a microphone and a cameraman just over her shoulder.  They accost us.  She shoves a microphone at me and asks what I think about opening up retail shops on Sundays, when, as in the rest of Europe, they are closed.  I start talking in English, so she switches tongues and asks with a smile what I think of Thessaloniki.  I give them my 20th Century ethnic cleansing take and for extra spice toss in the civil war, which followed closely on the heels of WWII, when they ran the communists out too.  Who’s next?  Their smiles fade for about a three count and then they swivel away in search of a new victim.  Suffice to say, I don’t think I made the evening news. 


Interestingly enough, when I make these types of comments to the young comrades at the warehouse they nod in agreement and often reply with even harsher critiques.  Nikos feels the situation is hopeless but nevertheless is working a group that is providing assistance to immigrant workers.  While there appears to be a growing fascist movement in Greece, The Golden Dawn, that attracts thick neck-less young Greeks, the young leftists we hang out with loathe nationalist sentiment and are withering in their condemnations of the entire system.  Their expectations couldn’t be lower.  It’s the middle aged, who have more invested in the country, who scramble to find something to salvage amid the wreckage.  What is it going to take for Greek society to believe in itself enough to make the wrenching changes that are required?  Squeezing more taxes out of the rich is fine, but that won’t empower anyone, save the tax collector.  And so far, several years of this tax collection effort has produced almost nothing. 




Mirella  looks up from Vargas Lhosa’s The Way to Paradise and says, “All the guys selling stuff from trucks sound the same through their loudspeakers.  Is this an amplification phenomenon?”  Not at all, says I, they have to audition and if they can’t hit a certain pleading stridency, they don’t qualify and aren’t issued a shout-a-phone.  Imagine, you are handed a script and asked to bellow into a microphone: ka-rek-lahs, tra-pez-ia (chairs, tables), mah-ree-thes, bah-kah-ya-ros (smelt, cod), and whatever else you can sell off the back of a truck.  And you gotta streeeeeetch those words way out.  We can rest assured they aren’t asked for any Cavafy or Sophocles.  But they can’t be too strident, after all, you’re trying to get the women of the village out of their houses and into the street.  There’s a certain element of seduction involved.  And that’s tough when you’re screaming about how fresh your fish is or how cheap your plastic chairs are.




A beautiful morning waking above the sea, wind rustling the oaks; we take our tea in the sun and discuss various spider webs stretched between the trees.  Some of the distances appear impossible.  Great feats of engineering occur all around us, overnight.  All manner of bug is caught and eaten.  Mirella gives me the once over and says, “You look so American.”  I’m wearing a dumb straw hat that can’t decide if it’s cowboy or sombrero, Roy Orbison shades, though the optometrist swore they were Jack Nicholson, and sandals, no confusion there, and nada mas.  In my hands a roll of toilet paper and Zadie Smith’s new novel, NW.  I’m headed to the open air loo beneath some oak trees that affords a panorama of sea.  Shitting with a view, it has no nationality, on the contrary, it’s a simple luxury.  Practically pagan.


What have you to do with what’s happened to you?

How easy to take good luck as your due.


13 May 2013

< Prev   Next >