Letter from Thessaloniki

Most Greeks have probably already got enough on their plates, worrying about «yes» and «no» votes and what might happen after the April 24 referenda on Cyprus. Yet, Thessalonians – with their faces to the Balkans and their backs to the rest of the country – are not really on the way to anywhere or at the center of anything. Therefore, they have other things to worry about right now – like attracting tourists to the city. Sure, we retain some really precious Byzantine churches, a sculptured arch dedicated to the Roman Emperor Gallerius, as well as the White Tower, which dates from the reign of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. However, Thessaloniki has no «must see before you die» museums or monuments – no Louvre, no Sistine Chapel – and, more importantly, no low-cost carriers flying into its Macedonia Airport. Strangely, Thessaloniki – one of the liveliest and most agreeable cities in Europe without anybody really noticing – is, as Macedonia-Thrace Minister Nikos Tsartsionis said the other day at a press conference, in the throes of a renaissance. The city’s newfound confidence has a lot to do with the minister’s assurance that the 2005 state budget will contain special funding for the city’s candidacy for World Expo 2005. If you really wanted to turn the knife in the wound, the sorry failure of European Cultural Capital 1996 may surely call into question present enthusiasm. Today, a committee of the Paris-based Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) will visit the city to judge our candidacy. Try this from our native Minister Tsartsionis: «The results of the visit will contribute 50 percent toward the final evaluation.» Campaigning for Expo 2008 are also Trieste, Italy, and Saragossa, Spain. As in the case of the Olympics, all are hoping for a net – read financial – gain. For more than a century, expos are inclined to exalt progress. By their nature, they are upward-and-onward businesses. The first one, in London in 1851, the Great Exhibition for which the Crystal Palace was built, was a celebration of Victorian industrial might. The Brussels fair, with its Atomium installation, was held to glorify the nuclear age. The best attended was the Osaka Expo of 1970, which drew 64 million people. Expo 2000 in Hanover, Germany was a financial catastrophe. The fair attracted fewer than half the anticipated 40 million visitors during the five months it was on and has closed with debts of about $1 billion. All the same, Universal Expositions has been trumpeting the future for 150 years. The 2008 exhibition, which would be held between June 14 and September 13 of that year, is expected to draw an estimated investment of 600 million euros, the presence of more than 60 countries and three international organizations, and at least 7.5 million visitors. There are certain divergences among the three contenders. While Thessaloniki still insists on having its own costly subway, disdaining any idea of a more economical streetcar, Spanish Saragossa is planning the construction of two tramlines to link up with Expo 2008, the site of which is planned for the Ranillas Meander. Trieste in Italy already possesses a tramway. Should the Adriatic port of Trieste be chosen as the host of the 2008 Expo, the licensees of the Porto Vecchio area have already committed themselves to vacate the site and support the organization of the event. Despite the costly fiasco of Cultural Capital 1996 in Thessaloniki and the present anguish concerning the 2004 Olympics, Thessaloniki hopes to get an international expo, which the by-far-better-off French have refused to hold in Paris due to lack of finance or foreign interest. Two years ago, French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin made the decision based on a report that spoke of delays in preparation and no guarantee that the project was financially viable.   Yet Thessaloniki has a lot to offer beyond its Byzantine monuments. Being a university city, it is full of inviting bars, by far better than those in Italy or Spain. «On The Road,» the radically hip and most famous of Jack Kerouac’s works, is not only the soul of the Beat movement and literature, but one of the coolest bars on Thessaloniki’s waterfront promenade, next to where the US Consulate General used to stand. The State Department sold the building some years ago and used the money to build the new US Embassy in Berlin. Originally a design store, since 1996 a bar, On The Road attracts a mass of cool, unaffected drinkers of all ages most nights of the week.   The owner, a wiry, bohemian-looking man in his 50s named Megaklis, who lives on his sailing boat in Kalamaria, has created the «enjoy life» tradition of the most colorful university campuses. Oh, speaking of universities, we have in town one of the most quoted professors worldwide. He comes from MIT, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Noam Chomsky, 75, who has been characterized as the Darwin of our age, the Einstein of linguistics, the Anti-American extremist, and who leads two separate lives – one as a linguist, the other as a human rights activist – is here on an invitation from Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University. At noon today he will represent his first life, addressing a congress of linguists at the old ceremony hall of the university, and later, at 8 p.m., he will evoke his second life, addressing a vast – as is expected – audience in the new ceremony hall on Egnatia Street. What will he speak about? The war in Iraq, of course, what else? And what will he say? Now, it is well known how Chomsky, for decades, analyzes, comments on and, above all, criticizes the phenomenon of power. In particular the power of the government in his own country, the United States. That will be his topic. After all, as we Greeks know only too well from our ancient forefathers, it is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies, isn’t it?

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