Letter from Thessaloniki

His Excellency Bruno Delaye, the elegant new French ambassador, with the looks of a mature rock star and an impressive mane of only slightly graying blond hair, possesses a charm and persuasion that no Parisian has managed to convey in such a short time in Athens before. He presented his credentials only some weeks ago. A fluent German speaker – he is the son of a former French ambassador in Bonn, during the «difficult» years – Mr Bruno Delaye has devoted much of his career to things German. After meeting him in the French residence, a splendid example of neoclassical architecture built in the center of Athens in 1894, and after finding out that the French ambassador has the gift of using his time during social events for a lot more than pleasantries, I can venture the prediction that on the Athens diplomatic stage, the French-German shows will be running neck-and-neck for top ratings. But more about France in Greece some other time. Today it is «German Day» – at least for Thessaloniki. The German Consul-General Ernst-Joachim Doering and his wife Lenore Boecking-Doering will be hosting a big reception tonight on the occasion of German Unity Day which is – of course – later this week, on October 3 to be precise. An authentic (or echt) German military band – the Stabsmusikcorps – has already been flown in from Regensburg to Thessaloniki. Although I have not a drop of German blood in me, I somehow feel the greatest affinity for the country where I spent my formative years, studying in Heidelberg and Berlin. Of course, my grandfather and my mother preceded me studying in «Athens on the River Spree» as Berlin called itself many decades ago. Consequently, I also have a personal reason to commemorate the day Germany was reunited on October 3, 1990, after 40 years of separation (1949-1989). Of course, everything started with the fall of the Berlin Wall on the evening of November 9, 1989. That day was to change the world. Willy Brandt went to the heart of the matter when next day he declared: «Things will never be the same again. It is now up to us to do the best we can with both our German interests and our commitment to Europe in mind.» Before reunification, the Day of German Unity was June 17, namely the day on which workers in the former East staged a revolt in 1953. (He might have been a hard-boiled communist, yet all the same, Bertolt Brecht wrote a poem at that time about the uprising of June 17 and the attitude of the officials toward it.) I judge it appropriate to present it here at full length: After the uprising of the 17th June The Secretary of the Writers Union Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee Stating that the people Had forfeited the confidence of the government And could win it back only By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier In that case for the government To dissolve the people And elect another? At any rate, in my time (the 1960s) Berlin was still under four-power occupation and the three Western powers – the United States, Britain and France – were fuming in the background. Also it was the time, the ’50s and ’60s, when the very adjective «German» cried out to be followed by the words «Witschaftswunder,» meaning «economic miracle.» Life was easier, at least for the few Greeks studying there. One of the paradoxes of that period was the fact that even we Greeks were some sort of an occupying force in Berlin. We maintained there a «Greek Military Mission,» which was financed by the Germans. It is worth mentioning how Athens took advantage of this fact. They had the Greek diplomat who was serving as a consul in Berlin baptized a major or colonel, so he could have free lodging and all the advantages of military occupation. In the 1970s, I remember our consul-general and also «our Greek major» in Berlin being the same Constantinos Fotilas (a close friend from Thessaloniki since we both were 12) whom I met last Saturday at the aforementioned French Embassy in Athens. He has served, meanwhile, with current French Ambassador to Greece Bruno Delaye, first in Egypt and later in Mexico. They became great pals. That is a coincidence and how small this world we are living in is! Enough of twists of fate. Today, decades later, Germany is still divided between a dynamic west and a dependent east. Now, at the beginning of this new century, Germany is still the most populous nation in our common European Union, yet it has – alas – lost the indisputable title of being its most powerful economy. Gross domestic product in the largest European economy grew only 0.6 percent in 2001 and has not done much better since. Is that just too bad? Not necessarily, at least for gain-seeking investors. Property there costs a fraction of what it does in shamefully high-priced London or Paris. Well, anyway, France, Britain and Germany are our EU cousins – or should I say brothers? – even in this shameful European split over Iraq, and thank God we don’t have to ask such senseless questions as the one Turkish Milliyet star columnist Sami Kohen posed last Friday in his paper: «The US or the EU?» Should you be interested the answer the columnist gave was: «Ankara should adopt a foreign policy in light of its own national interests and so work to maintain good relations with both the EU and the US.» Now, isn’t that another blatant coincidence? Aren’t we – that is the Simitis government – concerned as we happen to be about the future, doing precisely the same? Sure enough, we are sentimentally opposed to all wars and we stick very close to the French and the Germans rather than to the British. We share with the first two the same common dream of a Europe that is not based on firepower but on social and political culture. Yet in the age of American hegemony, and considering Greece’s dual European and Atlantic connections, don’t we have something to learn from the Turks? Certainly. «I think Ankara should be able to make choices on a case-by-case basis,» Sami Kohen wrote in his column in Milliyet last Friday.