Letter from Thessaloniki

If only the mayor of Thessaloniki, Mr Vassilis Papageorgopoulos, were more like Dora Bakoyannis, the mayor of Athens: If Thessaloniki’s municipal leader had the Athenian’s will to make a reluctant party see the need for change in this city, her knack for talking ordinarily to ordinary people, her sheer persistence. But, alas, no. Mr Papageorgopoulos, in his long cavalcade of mediocrity, is not Mrs Bakoyannis, and that could be well felt despite his assurances of «No favors to the government» in his interview yesterday in the local Angelioforos. Not unlike the previous PASOK government, the current New Democracy administration pledged on Friday to start building an underground railway network in Thessaloniki next year and have it up and running by 2011. This whole affair started almost a decade ago under another mayor: Sotiris Kouvelas. Here is one of the various quotes on the metro story from MPA (Macedonian Press Agency) dated in the distant past, February 5, 1999. «The agreement for the construction of Thessaloniki’s metro subway is to be signed today. «The project, which will start operating in the fall of 2004, amounts to 220 billion drachmas [646 million euros] and has been undertaken by the Thessaloniki Metro consortium, led by Bouygues of France.» Unlike Americans, who use the term «subway,» or the British, who call it an «underground,» Thessalonians prefer to use «metro.» They perhaps have in mind that their system might – finally – be entirely elevated or set on a level which suits better the word «metro.» On the other hand, Germanic languages generally use names meaning «underground railway» (Untergrundbahn or U-Bahn). It has been said that local entrepreneurs will be used for this enterprise. Two years ago a firm flirting with PASOK was being named constantly. Not any more. Since all this is apparently unknowable, it all becomes untrue. Although there is entrepreneurial spirit by the bucketful here, it is a difficult task to make breakthroughs in the Greek north, where the passé notion of right and left in politics as well as in businesses is still alive and kicking. The prime minister, who comes to Thessaloniki next weekend for the anniversary of the city’s liberation, needs more than the right ideas here. He will also need a different sort of courage for the local economy. His local party pundits do not want to change the old ways, because the old ways give party members their sense of self-importance, and often put money in their pockets too. In fact, corruption has been more the rule than the exception in our political life. However, nowadays, when allegedly the smirking crooks and sneering villains have totally disappeared, and all right-thinking businessmen share the government’s high moral standards, Thessaloniki’s metro is only a step ahead. But this is, once again, only idle supposition.   Elected here, Mr Karamanlis could certainly make better use of his supporters. Thessaloniki is not awash with intelligent, honest people who share the ideas of the man at the top; not many big cities in Greece are. But there are some and Mr Karamanlis is not using them properly. He tucks them away in corners (like Giorgos Feretis of ERT3) or dismisses them without good cause (like the unfortunate ex-mayors Kouvelas and Dinos Kosmopoulos), or oblige them to switch from jobs where they were treading on toes that need treading on (Frank Bledjan). There are countless cases like those. Yet, back to the underground – or to the subway if you so choose. After the European Commission decided, back in 1999, that there is no indication that the contract for the construction of a metro system in Thessaloniki breaches EU public procurement law, the only thing Greek authorities now need is to submit their financial arrangements for clearance under EC Treaty state aid rules. The total cost of the project is estimated at far more than 700 million euros. Last Friday, Public Works Minister Giorgos Souflias said it was a «basic government priority» to give Greece’s second-largest city a metro system. Furthermore, he claimed work would begin next summer. The line will span some 10 kilometers, linking the eastern and western parts of the city. It sure takes time to build a subway. In St Petersburg, where I was 10 days ago, they told me that the first plans for their metro – surely not as majestic as the one in Moscow, yet the deepest in the world – were drawn up in 1899. Building started there in 1941, but war came and the first line was opened on November 15, 1955. With an emphasis on appearance – marble walls, polished granite floors, splendid works of art – not only ex-socialist countries have used metro systems to showcase social and technological national achievements. Athens has done alike. And in all probability, so will Thessaloniki. One of the main problems digging through ancient Egnatia Street in Thessaloniki will, no doubt, be that picks and shovels will have to be put down every time antiquities are discovered. Undoubtedly, this will delay works greatly. Consequently, local chroniclers will be also late in recording the experiences of our subway riders. Incidentally, I remember some TV film I saw a couple of years ago, titled «Tales from the Underground,» where the actual experiences of New York City subway riders were skillfully dramatized in a collection of several fascinating vignettes. Among them there was a smutty beggar who quarrels with a woman, a newlywed who trysts with an odd sexpot, and a skittish tourist who proves to be her own worst enemy. Such stories could eventually happen in our metro as well. Only the one where a disabled man ruins the shoes of a lady with his wheelchair seems highly improbable. Even if our metro planners had foreseen disabled persons’ access to train carriages, it seems quite improbable that their way in would not have been blocked by someone. In that, Thessaloniki is no different than Athens.