Letter from Thessaloniki

I am glad to report that there are still places in the world where the biggest thing people worry about is being attacked by a meltemi – a sea wind common this time of year in the Aegean. Now, as for me, on July 21, at 5 a.m. I was robbed. Hate crimes. Everyone is really against them now. They always were, of course. I was sleeping in Nikiti in Halkidiki, in a small bungalow by the sea, when I suddenly was awakened to see someone searching my luggage at 5 a.m. It was pitch dark. I screamed and he left taking with him my most valuable belongings: keys and documents. Hours later I went to the police precinct in Aghios Nikolaos, a small village just a few miles away. A dismal situation was made worse by a policeman who started writing down my complaint by hand. No computer there to help him. Lucky fellow! How I envied him! He doesn’t have to respect any e-mail etiquette. He doesn’t have to bother over whether it is rude to use the «reply» function, as though returning the sender’s stationery with a note scrawled on the back. «We can’t stop 1 million illegal aliens from letting themselves loose every year on the country, can we?» some other officer interjected. No we can’t, and that is a not-so-cooling thought for hot holiday beaches. What prompted another cooling thought came on July 22, in Thessaloniki, the second-largest city in Greece. I had to sign an affidavit at the White Tower police office on the same matter. No word processor there either. Everything was done tediously by hand and taking at least double the time required. Can they ever catch anybody that way? Anyway, what is for sure is that they will never have to worry whether they should be flattered or insulted when receiving a joke that goes to 50 people. They will never experience the feeling I often have, of being a mere entry in a string of names. Between 10 a.m. and sometime in the afternoon, all telephone lines in Halkidiki were dead. Banks, e-mail, important phone calls all had to wait. On that same day the papers informed us that absorption of EU funds for the ambitious «Information Society» program has been greatly disappointing. Deputy Economy Minister Christos Pachtas – appropriately elected in Halkidiki – keeps insisting that the absorption of EU funds will be almost doubled by year’s end. Despite government propaganda, it is a cliche that Greece is slipping into the international morass. Are we becoming a Third World country, or is it indeed that the whole world in the age of globalization is becoming a Third World world? The same night at the Dasos Theater (an ample open-air theater with a breathtaking view of Thessaloniki’s harbor) I saw «Electra» directed by Themis Moumoulidis with Karyofilia Karabeti in the title role. The play was respectably faithful to Euripides’ original, but it needed to be brilliant and piercing and it wasn’t. Next day, on July 23, at the Garden Theater in the center of the city I saw Moliere’s «Georges Dandin.» To be great, comedy must be cruel. The seeming torture that Dandin must endure in the face of his wife’s infidelity was exquisitely portrayed by Tassos Perzikianidis and the members of the Veria City Theater. At 11.45 a.m. on Thursday, July 24, I paid a visit to the German Consul General in Thessaloniki, Ernst-Joachim Doering. During the Red Scare years, I had lived a very full life among the East Germans. As a young student and also as a keen and busy, albeit thoroughly bourgeois, correspondent I was moving constantly back and forth across the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie. All very suspicious. Therefore, it is not a wild guess that the Ministry for State Security of the German Democratic Republic, at that time at its most forbidding and cruel, might have indeed taken a close interest in me as well. Some months ago I was informed that the united German authority which now administers the Stasi files has invited those who were once watched to come and turn the tables on the watchers. Therefore I had made a mental note to wade through my own Stasi files. I only hope the German Consulate in Thessaloniki can be of help. Later, at 6.34 p.m., I got the fast intercity train to Athens. It is comfortable, air-conditioned, and you can do things during the 5 hours-plus ride. Things such as enjoying a DVD on your laptop. Being a G&S fan, I saw Mike Leigh’s wondrously entertaining film about the making of Gilbert and Sullivan’s «Mikado,» titled «Topsy Turvy.» Arrived in Athens on schedule, at precisely 11.48 p.m. It proved to be the wrong time. It takes only a few minutes for an outsider to grasp that waiting for a taxi is not a question of what they are doing; rather, it is a question of who they are: stupid. No taxis whatsoever were present at the Larissis rail station. At that time of the day, cab drivers disappear completely waiting for midnight when they can change meters from position #1 to position #2 so they can cash double prices. No subway either at that time! I had to wait for more than 40 minutes. The Olympics are only months away… On July 25, a Friday, I took the bus that drives journalists to Epidaurus. The tragedy playing was Euripides’ «Hecuba» (425 BC). Two hours of grief, death, misery and helplessness. Troy has fallen. Queen Hecuba has been taken slave along with the other Trojan women and is being held in a POW camp on a desolate, Guantanamo-like beach in Thrace. Hecuba – Despina Bebedeli directed by Spyros Evangelatos – is already in the depths of despair when we meet her, in a tragedy which shows that – ancient – Greeks were also a cruel race, even though they were also capable of deep feeling. The theme of complacent hypocrisy with which leaders justify cruelty in the name of military or political necessity is once more apparent here. During the bus ride I read that the two sons of Saddam Hussein were killed two days ago. It is strongly believed they were turned in by the man, an uncle the correspondent wrote, who sheltered them in his house in Mosul. In Hecuba, Agamemnon says: «Perhaps in Thrace to kill a guest is a light matter; In Hellas we regard it as a wicked crime.» Also: «If men kill guests, rob temples and are not condemned and punished, there is no more justice on earth.» How times have changed! So much of Euripides, who also said in that same play: «The strong ought not use their strength to do what is not right; when they are fortunate they should not think Fortune will always favor them.» Saturday and Sunday I took it easy and did not do anything.

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