To paraphrase the respected Greek songwriter and composer Eleni Karaindrou, “Everyone is waiting again, for the ship to appear.”
In the northern Greek port city of Alexandroupoli, May 21, 202, will be remembered as the day the ship appeared. It was a Saturday and the massive USS Arlington sailed into port, bringing around a thousand marines who headed right into the city center. The locals were taken aback. They had been expecting Turkish, Bulgarian and Romanian tourists, and instead got Americans in uniform.
The city’s hospitality sector went into overdrive at the sight of the young men and women heading to the seaside cafes, local tavernas and popular nightlife spots.
“We were surprised; we had not been expecting a rush of this scale on our businesses. The city center was crammed, demand went through the roof,” former president of the Alexandroupoli hospitality association and grill house owner Georgios Davis told Kathimerini. “I serve 16 different types of meat at my restaurant, and they tried them all. They were very polite, they ate everything, with a particular preference for breakfast from Thrace. They had fun and did not cross any lines.”
Some of the locals had heard about the pending disembarkation and prepared for it. Tattoo shop owner Nikos Katsoulis, for example, brought in additional staff and opened his store on the following Sunday.
“They had found me online and had booked appointments while they were still aboard. More than 50 people came in for tattoos,” he said.
The American seamen were not alone, either, as parents, other family and friends, had flown in and booked hotels to spend the four-day leave with them – understandable given that the seamen may spend several months at sea, sailing the globe.
While the marines enjoyed themselves in the city, the old slogan “Americans, murderers of the people” made its appearance on some city walls. Except for the fact that a more applicable slogan in this case would have been “Americans, eaters of eggs,” as according to some market estimates more than 25,000 of the things were eaten over those four days.
“Even the chickens noticed the arrival of the Americans,” quipped Giorgos Alavantas, who owns a seaside cafe that serves a local breakfast menu.
“I got a panicked call from my employees on the very first day telling me that they’d run out of eggs, even though I had just delivered an additional 300,” he said, adding that his American patrons showed a preference for the local cured kavurma meat with their eggs. “If we can take advantage of this, it will be good for the survival of the city’s economy,” he said.
When the 208-meter-long USS Arlington sailed out again on the morning of May 25, it left behind a significant sense of hope among residents that the benefits they have been promised from the port’s upgrading will transpire.
The port’s conversion into a key junction for the movement of troops, military equipment and supplies, as well as a railway junction for cargo moving to and from the Black Sea and the Baltics is already under way. As is a project to construct a floating storage and regasification unit (FSRU) that will soon place Alexandroupoli firmly on the European energy map.
“Alexandroupoli has the opportunity right now to show its comparative advantages and we are part of these developments,” the city’s mayor, Yiannis Zampoukis, told Kathimerini.
“Or primary concern is that there be multiple benefits for the local community and the economy, which will translate into economic growth potential, the attraction of foreign private investment schemes, as well as, primarily, a strong sense of security,” he added.
“People think they will be able to rent out their homes for 600 euros. They keep on writing and talking about an American base with over 5,000 people that was supposed to be created in a camp outside of the city in March, which we have yet to see,” said Katsoulis, the tattoo shop owner.
Another local with his finger on the pulse, Georgios Alavantas stresses the need to take advantage of the situation, and also accuses local politicians of cultivating over-ambitious expectations.
“Four years ago, they told us that at any moment over 18,000 American troops would be stationed in the city, raising people’s hopes way too high,” he said.
The president of the Alexandroupoli Trader’s Association, Vassilis Kasapidis, noted that “there is already a steady number of US troops that have been based for some time in barracks around the city, who, apart from cafes and restaurants, shop at retail stores, primarily clothing stores.”
The owner of a local real estate agency, Matoula Pontiadou-Hatzimichail, also spoke to Kathimerini about the impact of these developments on her sector.
“We are seeing some activity, particularly an interest in learning what real estate is available and how it can be used. However, we still do not know what is going to happen. If the Americans come, as we have been hearing, the city will have to double in size within the space of a few months and I don’t know if we are ready for that. There are not enough available houses right now, as very few new ones were built over the decade of the financial crisis. Some are being built now, in anticipation of the promised growth from the increased importance of the port and the natural gas platform” she told Kathimerini.
“But we’re also in competition with Athens. Several homes for American officers were built in the [area’s] military bases by Athenian companies, who have even assumed catering responsibilities. We also have cases of Athenian businesses leasing derelict buildings so they can claim local headquarters and bid for local projects,” she.
According to Pontiadou-Hatzimichail, there has also been increased international interest in the city’s real estate.
“We recently welcomed Arab investors, while there was also interest from Spain which is looking to settle military officers in the city. We are all waiting to see what happens,” she added.
The benefits have so far been limited to the increasing frequency of visits to the city by NATO officers acting in a supporting role to the military convoys that are also growing in frequency due to the latest developments in southeast Europe, and particularly Ukraine.
A few hours after the USS Arlington sailed out of Alexandroupoli, the colossal American vehicle carrier Arc Endurance took its place. After unloading its cargo of military equipment for the US forces participating in NATO missions, it loaded material sent to Alexandroupoli from the Balkans and the Baltics destined for the United States.
The president of Alexandroupoli Port Authority, Kostas Hatzimichai, told Kathimerini that from June to late September there will be a total of five operations to move military equipment through the port, including over 2,500 vehicles, armoured carriers, tanks and other equipment, to and from the broader region’s most volatile parts. The activity is only expected to peak following the statements by US President Joe Biden in Madrid announcing the reinforcement of all military forces guarding the eastern borders of Europe and confronting Russian aggression.
At the same time, the public targeting of Alexandroupolis by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Kremlin has provided ammunition for those on the margins who are trying to stir reactions from the local community.
“There are rumors going around that we are about to be bombed by the Russians or the Turks over the city’s American base. A base that we do not have,” said Nikos Katsoulis.
However, these rumors do not seem to be enough to put a damper on hopes for the city’s future.