Letter from Thessalonika

By Myrna Kostash | October 25, 2001

Now that I’m back inside Real Europe – Greece is a member of the EU after all and a large electronic contraption downtown is counting off the days remaining until the EU countries, with the exception of the insular Brits, switch to the Euro currency – I can see how a mere 12 days in Turkey have (probably temporarily) altered the way I see life in Europe. The level of consumption here is remarkable – the ranks of shining Mondo Trendo Italian motorcycles outside the bourgie cafes, the masses of young people jamming these Cafe Bars night after night – and the drinks are not cheap – the high end boutiques in high end suburbs…well, it all seems excessive, just like Canada.

If I look over my left shoulder from where I am sitting at the computer that belongs to Escape Internet Cafe (they also offer ice cream), I can see the excavations that are proceeding handsomely of the Roman Agora where St Demetrius himself preached the Christian Gospel and was arrested and dragged from there uphill to the subterranean vaults of the bathhouse where he was eventually killed. (These vaults now form the Crypt of the Basilica of Agios Dimitrios.) We’re talking 304 AD.

But this week Thessaloniki is definitely the place to be if you are the least bit engaged by the life and death of St D. His Feast Day is October 26 and the rituals began Monday with a procession from the famous Byzantine White Tower down on the waterfront where I milled about with a crowd of matrons, priests, nuns, soldiers in combat outfit complete with deadly looking guns, and choir boys before we all set off, following a flower-encrusted icon of the Mother of God, on our way to the Basilica of St Demetrius about a kilometre away. Led by the soldiers who were marching in a modified goose step (this was really jarring),surrounded by the matrons who walked arm in arm and young girls with their arms around each other (and me on the heels of a young man in dreadlocks) I took delight in the fact that, in direct competition with the military marching band at the head of the procession, the women persisted in singing a hymn to the Virgin the whole way, aided and abetted by the churches en route which rang out thunderous peals of bells as we passed by.

This male/female socio-cultural split was glaringly obvious on Wednesday evening when a multitude of the faithful gathered for the service of the Epitaphios [the carrying of the relics of the saint around the nave; actually, there are no relics of Demetrius, never have been, so it’s anybody’s guess who is actually in that silver box]. I stood in the gallery so I could look down on the proceedings, an excellent vantage point for seeing what is going on behind the iconostas and for taking note of the fact that the exclusively male priesthood is servicing a largely female community of worshippers.

It was a spectacular service and from where I stood I could see how everything moved and flowed in an elaborate choreography of ritual and veneration. There was the constant motion of people entering and leaving the Basilica, lighting candles, venerating icons, lining up to approach the icon of the Virgin still splendid in her border of white and pink flowers (followed close behind by a church employee with a spray bottle of disinfectant, wiping the glass clean of all its kisses).

Behind the iconostas perhaps 50 priests donned their gorgeous red and gold vestments and, lining up with lighted tapers, made their way out into the nave. Here they moved about in synchronized patterns performing different tasks – censing the relics, genuflecting before the Bishop (I assume he was a Bishop), refilling the incense burners, singing the text, handling the wicker baskets full of flower petals that the Bishop flung, both hands at once, over the faithful, passing along the gold flasks of blessed water – and one poor priest assigned the job of handling the Bishop’s long red robe, fussing with it for all the world like a bridesmaid at a wedding as the Bishop got up, sat down, turned this way and that and back again. The voices of the chanters and priests together were clear and powerful and, although the Byzantine style of ecclesiastical music is not pleasing to my ear – with its half-tones and off beats, not at all melodic in the Slavic manner – it is, to say the least, mesmerizing. The delivery of the Sermon was a signal for a general milling about again and so I walked out into the night time streets – into a traffic jam, and sidewalks crammed with shoppers, popcorn sellers, a merry-go-round, and a woman with a huge bouquet of balloons for sale, including one of Tweety Bird. Well, after all, the Feast of St Demetrius was the occasion of a huge fair that drew people from all over the Balkans all through the Middle Ages and beyond.

The rest of the week has been a blur of Matins, Vespers, a Vigil, and a Divine Liturgy. And each one is an elaborate pattern of light (the red lamps in front of all the icons, the hundreds of sputtering beeswax candles, the chandeliers) and colour (the red and gold and white vestments, the scintillating gold of the mosaics, the flowers) and sound (the alternating voices of the priests, sweet tenor all the way down to basso profundo, the male choir, the responses, sotto voce, of the worshippers). The lamentations sung during the Vigil made my hair stand on end. The "dance" of all the different movements – processions up and down the aisles, priests swirling around, genuflecting, embracing, the people in constant motion themselves…I felt like one of those emissaries of a barbarian kingdom who, visiting Constantinople the first time and entering Aya Sophia, fell into a swoon.

But life goes on. Last week’s Question of the Week in the Athens News was "What are your views on the bombings in Afghanistan?" George Touris, hotel owner: "The Americans should have found a diplomatic solution." Yiannis Vamvakousis, bank employee: "It is unacceptable but very typical of America and NATO. In the past years we got used to their policies when it comes to bombing innocent people." Grigoris Petropoulos, peace activist: "The problem of terrorism cannot be solved by government terrorism. American is going to war in order to gain control of the petrol routes through Afghanistan." There have been some marches and demonstrations here but we travelling Canadians have been advised by ambassadors and consuls to stay clear of protests so, much against my natural instinct, last week when I was in a bookstore and heard the sounds of an approaching protest march, I stayed put where I was, browsing through a book about "Byzantium and the Orthodox World." I felt vaguely disappointed with myself.

I also missed the speech of Aleida Guevara, daughter of Che, who was in town to address a packed audience at the University as part of a European conference for ties of friendship and solidarity with Cuba. The press wrote: "Guevara stressed that ‘the situation [the war on terrorism] demands courage and seriousness. It is time for the Cuban people to declare: Socialism or death, homeland or death.’ To a standing ovation, she added, ‘But we shall win.’" That would be: VENCEREMOS!

The papers have also covered last weekend’s party conference of the ruling social democrats (sort of), PASOK. I remember the first PASOK government back in the winter of 1981-82 during the first of my Greek "retreats," and how thrilling and exciting and even glamorous the party seemed then, coming in on the heels of generations of right wing not to say juntist governments, and how leonized Andreas Papandreou, prime minister, was, in Greece and abroad. Well, sic transit gloria…now the press, in covering the conference, refers sarcastically to the "usual incantations to [late] chairman Andreas invoked in all the ancestor worship ceremonies ritually performed by the old Pasok faithful," and to the anti-American rhetoric of the Papandreou years as a cover-up for the "deadly combination of unaccountability with a totally unwarranted sense of entitlement at the expense of honesty, competence and respect for the public good." "As the unreconstructed flat-earthers of the Greek Communist Party pursue their chosen road to extinction and as the left-of-Pasok political groupings predict daily the worst and then display an exemplary ability to explain why it did not happen, millions of Greeks realize that the left is dead." So writes Mark Dragoumis in the Athens News. I can’t argue although I note that this "dead" Left was out in rapturous strength for La Guevara – but for all the political ennui of these millions, at least there is no anthrax hysteria.

(Speaking of hysteria: I noted on my flights to Europe that, for the Edmonton-Toronto, Toronto-Frankfurt legs, the cutlery at mealtimes included a plastic knife but on the Frankfurt-Istanbul flight, on Lufthansa, we were served a normal metal knife.)

Other bits: Forty per cent of all Greeks below the age of 10 are obese, according to the Greek Medical Society, but given the anorectic slimness of the teenagers and 20-somethings, I can only assume that millions of kids simply stop eating when they hit puberty…."Specialists meeting in the north Greek city of Edessa (Macedonia) reached the conclusion that the image of neighbouring peoples as presented in the school books of the neighbouring Balkan states, has notably improved in recent years. Improvement was particularly marked in the case of schoolbooks in Greece and Bulgaria while the same impression was absent from a perusal of the Turkish schoolbooks."…Did you know that Greece maintains a minefield along its north-eastern border with Turkey?…The Hellenic National Ice Hockey team are trying to rebuild the Greek Hockey League after years of financial difficulties. "Hockey is the world’s fastest spectator sport during which a vulcanised
rubber disk (the puck) is whacked around the ice." [I couldn’t have explained it better myself.],,,In the lead up to the 2004 Olympics in Athens, tens of thousands of billboards are being removed from all over the city and especially from godawful Omonia Square, 290,000 trees and "millions" of bushes will be planted and something will be done, we all hope, with the "forest of television antennae currently dotting Athens’ skyline." And the Ukrainian driver of a truck involved in "migrant trafficking" was sentenced to 8 years and a fine of 28 million drachmas [one Canadian dollar = 240 drachmas]. He was to have been paid 2,400,000 drachs for his services.

My How Greece Has Changed Dept: I note that even since the early 1980s, never mind my first trip here in 1969, elements of the everyday have changed utterly. Examples: cellphones and cardphones in place of the telephone at the kiosk where you paid the kiosk proprietor per call; restaurants where you walked into the kitchen and pointed at what you wanted from what was on offer on the stove: as far as I can tell these have disappeared, at least from downtown; old style ouzeries where you could munch happily from little dishes of simple olives and feta, squid and tomatoes have largely transmogrified into major bistros where the "mezedes" – those appetizers -have become expensive entrees; the traditional kafenion, really for men only unless you were a know-nothing foreigner, has been overwhelmed by the Cafe Bar and Euro coffee drinks; the proliferation of English vocabulary on store fronts, street signs, t-shirts, video games – I suppose inevitably there will be some Euro ruling that says all aphabets must be harmonized into Latin script.

But the most startling effect is produced by the change in the young Greek body. The men have grown really long legs, Serb-style. As for the women, several of us foreigners have made the same
observation: the Greek female has been reconfigured dramatically in a single generation. She is now thin as a toothpick, with a boyish pelvis and narrow ribcage, she dresses in cling-wrap tights and tops with lots of cleavage, she wears lots of hair and make-up, and she seems to me, at least, to project an aggressively sexualized femininity. (Not everyone agrees with me on this. Candas Dorsey, Edmonton writer, who is here with Timothy Anderson as part of a conference on Bio-Ethics and Science Fiction, feels that these young women may look provocative but carry themselves as though The Look were mere style. But I can’t get over the difference between how these beautiful young women are in effect displayed before the public gaze and how, by contrast, I felt so tender about the young woman who was having tea at a table not far from mine in the gardens of the Museum of Archaeology in Istanbul. She was with a young man, chatting amiably, full of smiles, she was wearing a full-length turquoise coat and her face bloomed like a flower from her blue scarf. I’m not advocating the covering-up of young women, only noting that their uncovering is problematic in a consumerist culture.)

(While I’m still thinking about Istanbul, I’d like to note that certain apprehensions as fostered by travel guidebook advice turn out to be over the top or just passe. For exactly one day I bothered laboriously to cut the skin off the slices of cucumber and tomato in my salad, having been shriekingly warned by books never to eat anything that isn’t peeled – not to mention never to ingest the local water, not even when brushing one’s teeth or showering: "Keep your mouth closed" – and I felt like such an idiot that I decided thereafter to eat what everybody else was eating, period. There was grim warning about the toilets; again, unnecessary. I used exactly one squat-on-your-haunches style loo (there have been more of these in Thessaloniki); all the others were the kind we’re used to, including plenty of soft t.p. Besides, thanks to the Moslem practice of performing ablutions 5 times a day before prayers, every mosque has a WC somewhere on the grounds, always very very clean. An admonishment not to take a seat on a bus next to a member of the opposite sex was routinely ignored by Istanbulians themselves. Advice to wear a money belt etc. I can never be bothered with; it feels vaguely insulting to one’s hosts. The only unpleasantness I encountered re money matters was the one time I took a taxi by myself, from the ferry boat landing to my guest house, a ride of about 2 million lira. Cunningly, the driver did not set the meter, so when he had delivered me to the hotel and I handed over 3 million, he protested. Five million! he said. I ignored this, pointing to his mute meter and he did not make a fuss. I could not help wondering why he hadn’t demanded some truly worthwhile sum, like 15 million instead of trying to cheat me of a paltry $2.50)

Some Things Never Change Dept: Last Sunday I took a 7 hours (all told) bus ride to and from Kastoria (in western Macedonia and full of Byzantine churches) and was forced to submit to the Torture of Bus Passengers by Stupid Greek Music on the p.a. Some Things Do Change Dept: on the other hand, on the drive back to Thessaloniki I was introduced to the newly-invented Torture by Imbecilic American Video Dreck on the t.v. monitor hanging overhead. Unlike the Greeks, I couldn’t just turn away from the subtitles. I actually had to listen to the crap….While I’m on the subject of irritants: that same day in Kastoria, I took a lovely long walk along the lakeside in the shade of ancient plane trees, arrived at the 11th century monastery of Panagia Mavrotissia, marvelled at the still-vivid frescoes on the exterior walls, then entered the little church to marvel at the interior frescoes. As always, there is a stack of beeswax candles for sale (you drop your coins into a little box) and a candle-stand, a round pan filled with sand into which you stick your candle(s). And, as always, there is some church employee or maybe volunteer (people who get a kick out of this), usually someone ancient, spidery, and fleet of hand, who comes along a few minutes later, yanks out burning candles by the fistful, blows them out and throws them unceremoniously into a big can, presumably for recycling. Well, there I was sitting meditatively in this lovely little Byzantine church, having nicely set burning two tapers for my parents, when in stomps a priest – bloated and slovenly and still chewing his lunch -who grabbed all the candles, mine along with several others, in his big fat hand and threw them like garbage into the can. (I was so infuriated that, as soon as he left, I scooped the candles out and lit them all again.) I would like someone please to explain this insensitive practice in orthodox churches????

Finally, I have also been busy meeting with scholars here. Herewith representative quotes from our conversations: The retired professor of Byzantine History, Antony-Emile Tachiaos, a specialist in Slav-Byzantine relations, received me as graciously as a year ago when we first met and I interviewed him for the CBC radio piece. I asked him how the period of the right-wing Junta, 1967-74, had affected his work as a scholar: "We scholars were mature in our national feelings and the Junta could not affect what was in our hearts and spirits. I believe in democracy and it was inconceivable that I would co-operate. I look at all events as an historian and I knew that the Junta would collapse, it was so irrational."

Aris Mentzos, professor of Byzantine archaeology: "We’ve come to realize, unlike earlier Greek scholarship, that Byzantine society was not identical with Greek nationality. Byzantine Greekness was intellectual not racial, and Byzantine civilization can be claimed by Slavs and by people from Asia Minor. All kinds of people have understood themselves to be Byzantine if not Greek."

I quoted to Aris a statement that a young historian in Istanbul had made to me that "it is impossible for Turkish scholars to do a deep study of Byzantium because of Greek objections. We all have to accept the idea that the Turks did conquer this territory – in fact we preserve Byzantine remains for you – but Greeks cannot easily accept this." Aris’s response: There are some people in Greece who feel this way but they are a slight minority. The important thing is that history belongs to the past. What cannot be changed is historical truth itself and we must not distort historical reality for the sake of present reality. We Greeks must not sacrifice our personal and collective memory of having been part of Asia Minor society but that doesn’t mean we want it back."

Simeon Paskhalidis, professor of Theology: "St Demetrius is an ecumenical saint. All saints of all nations are saints of Orthodoxy. This is the true spirit of Orthodoxy, and the traditions of saints of local and ethnic churches can survive in this ecumenicity. These traditions can survive in the people living together in the faith that these saints belong to the whole Orthodox world."

I leave Thessaloniki October 27 and put aside Demetrius and Orthodoxy for a short while in order to take part in a regional conference of Canadianists in Bucharest, Romania. As soon as I find a working Internet Cafe there, you will be hearing all about it.

3260 w. October 25th


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