Letter from Thessaloniki

Lets’s take film first. The one mistake most dangerous to make about films is to assume that their basilisk stare is directed at reality. Wrong. Considering that today’s reality is largely the product of TV journalism, one could easily come to the conclusion that various strands of post-modern cinematography are doing nothing less than inventing reality before one’s eyes. This thought emerged after watching, on a Thessaloniki stage, Moliere’s version of social climbing and mock-philosophy. It was further cemented after reading the «fact» that most of the foreign films to be screened at Thessaloniki’s 45th Film Festival, which opened two days ago, are «human-centered stories of anti-heroes who try to survive adverse conditions.» A total of 186 films will be screened at the festival through November 28. Therefore, more about this next Monday. Now, about theater: The State Theater of Northern Greece’s latest premiere on Friday showed one of Moliere’s greatest and most popular plays, «Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.» It seems that in this case, the basilisk stare is directed at attitudes only too well-known in this city: social climbing, opportunism and kitsch – this a German expression that includes anything that claims to have an aesthetic purpose but is only showy, glitzy and tasteless. The play by Jean-Baptiste Moliere is a ridiculously frivolous tale of one Monsieur Jourdain, a foolish social climber who takes lessons in «how to be aristocratic,» and forbids his daughter to marry a nice lad who is not very classy. Now, who and how can one be classy in modern-day Thessaloniki? Certainly, one of the last classy figures of this city – Graf (Count) von Posadowsky-Wehner, the first postwar director of the Goethe Institut – passed on over a decade or so ago. The good old local families – the Zannas, the Abbots, the Syndicas, the Siagases, the Athanassopouloses – are no longer what they once were. What have remained are the nouveau rich, that class of social bluffers that emerged mainly during the 1980s and the ’90s. Now, all these persons – accompanied by wives in pastel-tinted dresses with tasteful matching accessories – who, brushing dandruff from their coats, have suddenly risen to higher economic status without gaining the social acceptance of older «nobility,» are doing their best to come out of the dark. Rumors claim that there are specific ways to become an eminent social bluffer in Thessaloniki. Allegedly, some of them are: First, your look is more essential than rent or food. You may be homeless, but if you look expensive, the city system will accept you, no questions asked. Second, you must appear as often as possible at dinner parties and in the local weekend magazines. Meeting helpful people is imperative. Knowing every fashion publicist in town helps too. Of course, you must befriend all the paparazzi you can find. Evangelidis, Konios, Papous are some photographers who are always at the socially correct spots. Observe that the film festival offers some brilliant events at which to rub shoulders with celebs and TV glitterati. This way you’ll be whisked into society instantly on the passport of their ephemeral fabulousness. Although Thessalonians tend to think of themselves and each other first and foremost as Macedonians and secondly as Hellenes, deep down they envy Athenians, to whom they usually refer to with bated breath. Therefore, if you aren’t an Athenian, fake it. Half the «Athenian» kids studying at the local universities are anyway from Loutraki, Thebes or the Mesogeia villages. Thessaloniki is celebrated for its «classical» underground scene before and after World War II. In those glory days, the essential components of a mariner’s shore leave – whores, drag queens, drugs and liquor – abounded. Now, it has become «in» to work up a level of high familiarity on the scene and to graduate past the point of a nod and smile to doormen. Obviously, public attitudes have changed since those vigorous times. All the same, modern underground parties have become suitable for dinner-table anecdotes. Back to «Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,» which also involves things Turkish. At the time the play was written, the Ottoman Empire was an important force around the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe – including Ottoman-ruled Greece – and the Middle East. Unlike today, when the French are the most skeptical among Europeans on the subject of having Turkey enter the EU, in Moliere’s epoch, they were fascinated by the exoticism of the Orient and the mysteries of Islam. Not unlike the way some prosperous Thessalonians work themselves up over some obscure «honorary consul» title today, in this comedy, the wealthy merchant, Monsieur Jourdain, is crowned «Mamamouchi» in a carnivalesque ceremony. This makes him a member – he thinks – of the Turkish nobility – somewhat the way present-day Thessalonians are baptized as diplomats. One of the most celebrated scenes in Moliere’s play is the philosophy lesson (Act II, 4). This scene’s major achievement is the hilarious interaction between the sophistic instructor and his naive pupil, who hardly knows his «alphas» from his «omegas.» Instead of teaching his novice such axioms as: «If there is a God, what is the nature of substance or the structure of casual connections? – subjects broadly discussed each Friday on Pantelis Savvidis’s talk show on Thessaloniki’s ERT-3 – in the play, Jourdain’s master teaches him merely the pronunciation of four vowels: «I, O, I, O.» Under the present circumstances, similarities between Moliere’s parody and Thessaloniki’s social life are indeed impressive. Yet there are some differences as well.   In a society where money matters and nothing else – particularly if one has enough of what matters – to be lower middle-class has not the significance it once carried.