Letter from Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki is an illustrious and rich city, but it doesn’t matter. That seems to be the conclusion of a study published yesterday by the local Angelioforos. The front page reads that the western parts of the city are «bleeding,» due to overpopulation and illiteracy, from neighborhoods that never underwent any planning, infrastructure construction or addition of basic facilities such as sewage and drainage. A group of academic researchers, mainly from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, have documented in a thorough report that the city of superlatives («the nymph of the Thermaic Gulf,» «the mother of Macedonia,» «the city whose praises are sung») is not exactly what it seems. As usual, the picture is mistaken. Those who look to her to set the standard, whether in excellence or absurdity, are seldom disappointed. Certainly the food offered here is better than in Athens, yet 28 percent of people over 15 living in the western part of the city which is overpopulated due to immigration, are – according to the National Statistics Service – complete illiterates. The main trouble in the western areas is the lack of educational infrastructure. Some 40 percent of the population abandons education before high school, while only 1.5 percent goes to university. Sheer overpopulation – which can be a threat to the environment too – has never been controlled in those less fortunate and cheaper parts of industrial Thessaloniki. Those more fortunate individuals living in the attractive and shamefully posh center by the seafront do not seem too worried. What we do not know won’t hurt us. Still, those facing the harbor – where busy intersections abound, and where excessive traffic has provoked a vast increase in air pollution – would have seen the Greenpeace ship Esperanza, used in the good old days by the Soviet Navy, sailing majestically into the city’s port. With the slogan «For a Mediterranean without toxic waste,» this sometimes Don-Quixotic organization is now launching a tour of the Mediterranean to sensitize the people around the world on environmental issues. The ship’s young crew, between 20 and 30 years old, come from different countries. Moving around the harbor built by the Byzantine emperor Constantine the Great (AD 379-395), they willingly informed the Thessalonians on possible threats from the sea. At the exact same time, on November 29, several thousand miles farther to the north in the Estonian seaside town of Tallinn, other Greenpeace activists prevented a 26-year-old Greek-owned, Maltese-flagged tanker (appropriately named Byzantio) – which had been chartered by the same company that contracted the ill-fated oil tanker Prestige that sank off the northwestern coast of Spain earlier this month – from leaving port. They said they intended to prevent another oil disaster. All 20 of them were promptly arrested by the Estonian police. Despite all the warnings and all the evidence, it appears to be business as usual for many energy and transport companies. Considered as the natural outlet of the Balkan Peninsula, with a sphere of influence extending over a large part of Central and Eastern Europe, Thessaloniki, – deemed Cultural Capital of Europe for 1997 – still plays host to the some 400,000 hardly fortunate inhabitants and penniless newcomers from the north and the east. Underprivileged slum-dwellers who have to constantly deal with practical problems such as the lack of water, sewage and solid waste facilities and public transport, pollution and housing shortages. All this was duly reported in yesterday’s local paper. Although more than 8.8 million euros has been allocated for coastal protection – at least according to the Ministry for the Environment – inhabitants of Thessaloniki still complain of strange odors coming from the sea on hot summer days. Yet statistics insist that some 5,000 tons of decomposed algae and marine plants, and 2,000 tons of litter, including untreated human waste and metal (e.g. lead), are removed annually from the coastline. Greece is a signatory party to all major international agreements on the protection of the marine environment in the Mediterranean. National legislation has been adjusted accordingly. Further, in yesterday’s Angelioforos we read that a seriously reforming northern Greece will be absorbed in its task for a while, and chastened by having to breathe bad air. In fact, air pollution is «choking» Thessaloniki, the paper reported, invoking once again a survey by the Aristotle University. The symbol of the city, the famous White Tower – euphemistically so called to divert attention from its original label, the «Tower of Blood» – was built by the Venetians but used mainly by the Ottomans as a site of punishment and execution. It may have not suffered tragically from pollution, yet the arch of Emperor Galerius (AD 250-311), who had used the city as a base against the Persians, has been increasingly obscured from the imposing landmark it was in my childhood, only some decades ago. This pollution, in turn, harms a variety of other industries, including fishing and tourism. Sure enough, some recent, minor steps to clean up the Thermaic Gulf, to filter the air and also clean up the western slums have been made possible with the aid of the EU. Yet forecasters now predict that all the necessary funds will go to the Athens Olympics from now on. In fact, «there were some important decentralizing ideas broached last September when the whole government moved to Thessaloniki for the annual trade fair. But none were acted upon,» as local journalist Pandelis Savidis pointed out.

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