Thessaloniki and the Meaning of Transience

By Chris Deliso for Travel Intelligence (2006)

The singular characteristics of almost all great cities, the capital ones at least, have been noted in writing at one time or another. Even some of the lesser ones have. Acclaimed British travel writer Jan Morris, for example, discovered in the Italian city of Trieste “the meaning of nowhere.” Perhaps in Thessaloniki, another port city of cafés and mixed cultures, one can discern the meaning of transience. Thessaloniki-men-parkbench-ChrisdelisocomFor Thessaloniki is one of those fleeting cities of indifference, restlessness and necessity, whose permanent population has been forged by the trauma of dislocation abroad and forced resettlement.

And many of its more recent and sometimes temporary residents emerged too from the disintegration of static patterns of life and uprooted certainties. But in its halfhearted welcome, one of little love but at least tolerance, today’s Thessaloniki acknowledges its transient temperament

Thessaloniki motorbike taxi chrisdeliso com The former group of residents comprises both a positivity and a negativity. One the one hand, it consists of those Greeks from far-flung places like Smyrna and Trebizond forced to emigrate to the Thessaloniki area following the 1923 population exchanges with Turkey, which saw millions of Greeks exchanged for Turks throughout the length and breadth of the two countries (save two excepted areas, Thrace and Istanbul). The very common last name ending -idis indicates that someone is a “Pontian,” i.e., a descendent of refugees from the Pontos Black Sea region of eastern Turkey, while the smouldering dark features of others the city once welcomed in reveal the eastern Aegean roots of some of Thessaloniki’s Greeks.

On the other hand, the city is notable by its absences, not just of the aforementioned Turks but also of the Sephardic Jews consigned to Hitler’s death camps during World War II. Today, only around a thousand remain. The vanished representatives of a once flourishing commercial community, these Jews of Spanish origin had originally arrived as refugees: in the 16th century, Thessaloniki’s Ottoman rulers took them in when the Spanish Inquisition forced them to flee their homes.

Thessaloniki’s tragedies of transience compounded in the first half of the 20th century, when the vertiginous effects of wars for territory and ideology resulted in the forced expulsion of the once thriving Slavic populations made up of Bulgarians and Macedonians, who were sent north to the states that had been set up for them. In the heady days of the Balkan Wars and the Great War the Slavs were not Greek enough, while those who survived World War II were too communist.

Thessaloniki hanging newspapers Chrisdeliso comWhen Europe’s grand ideas of ideology subsequently ran their course, the same became constituents of the latter group, the semi-permanent population. But despite the heavily politicized and sensitive nature of the Macedonian ‘name issue,’ the return of the Slavs today as seasonal laborers and respectable vacationers is now largely met by indifference from Greeks.

Less so with the Albanians, whose sudden appearance following the end of Enver Hoxha’s fortified siege regime flooded Greeks with images of cheap labor and cheap lives, of whimsical murder for no reason and clumsy theft born of necessity, stereotypes that live on today. Many were desperate, with desperately gauche clothing and bulging black plastic bags that raised the eyebrows of impatient Greek custom guards at the unhappiest of border crossings. At about the same time, “Greeks” from the Caucasus and other belated Soviet lands began arriving, equally poor if more attuned to the culture, invited by the government to bolster the ranks of the Hellenes, honoring the ghost of a policy of purposeful migration that had always characterized the rulers’ energetic management of the city, during Byzantine and Ottoman times and the seminal moments of modern Greece as well.

Thessaloniki boy bicycle chrisdeliso comFor the accustomed eye, it is not hard to distinguish between the ethnicities at usual points of arrival such as the bus station and the sidiromiko stathmo (train station). But even the less initiated can discern the identities of Salonica’s more recent resolute drifters. The diminutive Chinese, who now have even repossessed a couple of short blocks for themselves near the station, can be spotted throughout the city proffering up trays of cheap plastic toys, while enormous Africans, some in flowing traditional garb, sell ornate Senegalese bows and animistic statues and pirated CD’s; they duck in and out of cafés, pitching to disinterested smokers and usually without much success.

Both peoples have picked up some Greek along the way of lonely traipsing around Thessaloniki’s long straight streets. Finally there are the gypsies, old and ignored natives begging at café tables out of doors and jumping ticketless on and off buses.

Modern-day Thessaloniki is also a booming convention town and its foreign ranks are swelled by a permanent habitation of temporary visitors from all over, global individuals who are never the same but whose continuous if unrepeated presence has driven up prices in undeserving hotels, flummoxing the pocketbooks of more traditional tourists. The city is also fleshed out with thousands of students from all over Greece, coming with food prepared in distant maternal kitchens and genially committed to merrymaking. Theirs is also an adopted city, though not nearly so grim as it is for those who’ve come there of necessity, in between homes, importing and exporting themselves and lucky to make a sale or gainful employment.

Thessaloniki Pougatsa Salonikias Chrisdeliso comNevertheless, transience is central to Thessaloniki’s collective memory and collective consciousness. In the end, there is tolerance to be found there and one feels, even if the moment can’t last forever, the protection of a small city by the sea.