Xanthi offers glimpse into melting pot of the Greek north

Xanthi’s 6th primary school is a melting pot of religion and culture. The principal, Panayiotis Lymberakis has 200 pupils in his charge, nearly half of them Muslim. The school district’s geographical area covers the old town where most Muslims live and offers a look at biculturalism within Greece’s borders, in a bedrock northeastern city that is changing with the times. Lymberakis says he sees children in Xanthi as being far more at ease with each other than are the adults. «This is where the beginning is made – the problems that exist will be solved through education,» he said. «Neither foreign ministers nor prime ministers can improve relations as well as a school can. Among the parents, however, there is still a coolness. Relations are pleasant, but the doors are not open. In the old days, my mother used to drink coffee with Muslim women, but now there is no contact between families, perhaps as a result of urbanization.» On the playground, where schoolchildren spend their morning break playing soccer, they don’t seem to care who is Muslim and who is Christian. The only barrier is language. «These children begin their lives with three languages – Greek, Turkish and Pomak,» the principal said. «In the minority primary school they also learn Arabic for their Koranic studies and then in high school they learn English and French, ancient Greek and Latin – seven languages in an environment where people have generally been illiterate. It is not surprising, then, if they have a problem with language.» But Xanthi also retains a provincial feel and an affordability appreciated by its residents. Leonidas and Vassilis, both environmental engineering students in Xanthi, talk about their lives over beers at the «Ano Kato,» a bar in the Old Town that features rock and jazz music. «Sometimes we see articles about ‘magical’ Xanthi and we have to laugh,» they say. «You should have lived through the five winters that we have been here and see how tough it is. Yet student life is very cheap and everything is close by. If you go out alone you’ll see so many people you know that you’ll end up saying hello four times to the same person. That can be tiresome, but at least you know you’ll always find someone to have a beer with. «The Old Town is beautiful and the business owners here are friendly and professional,» they continue. «Meanwhile, the highest rents are 330 euros a month.» These rents, however, apply in the new town. In Old Town, they have skyrocketed. Eight or nine years ago, Agop and Katrin bought a beautiful old mansion across the road from the folklore museum and have been slowly restoring it. The house is lovely enough to draw brides looking for a scenic place to take professional photographs. «We were the last to buy a home here at a reasonable price before they shot sky-high,» said Agop, who is of Armenian origin, but born and bred in Xanthi. His wife is German and has lived in the town since 1987. Their friends gather at their home every Sunday for coffee and go over the Sunday newspapers together. Agop, who has a furniture store, also plays drums in the Oxygene band at the Ano Kato bar, owned by his childhood friend Yiannis Zamidis. «We rehearse two or three times a week, have a drink or two, play our music and chat,» he said. «We are amateurs. In the provinces there is not much to do so you have to find your own way to spend time creatively, rather than sitting around in a cafe for hours.» This article first appeared in the November 6 edition of «K,» Kathimerini’s color supplement.

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