Letter from Thessaloniki

While local politicians still seem to be excited about the next municipal elections, among Thessalonians at large, the mere mention of this event in 2006 is likely to invite groans and satirical comments. Politics is completely out at the moment. However, for a program that could easily have been titled «Remembrance of Things Past,» on Friday night there was a quasi-political festive concert at the Thessaloniki Concert Hall titled «The Macedon – Constantine Karamanlis’s Cultural Contribution.» It was organized by the Constantine Karamanlis Foundation. Born and educated in this city, yet – understandably – having achieved a career mainly in Athens, conductor Vyron Fidetzis, a renowned and highly sought-after interpreter of what is considered «serious Greek music,» directed compositions by Nikos Skalkottas, Mikis Theodorakis, Stavros Xarchakos and, primarily, by Manos Hadjidakis, who happened to be one of Constantine Karamanlis (the senior)’s closest friends. Speaking of the unforgettable composer (and an esteemed friend of mine as well) Manos Hadjidakis, I can hardly keep from mentioning some of his published thoughts. «Culture has always been the product of everlasting delicate procedures and not just the result of various sensations of certain historical moments. Hence, culture represents our sensibility and not our daily practices nor our everyday needs. Because practices and needs vary, yet our sensibility remains unaltered through the ages. Therefore, culture is called upon to represent this very sensibility, despite any event of a so-called ‘historical moment’.» Furthermore, in his book «The Mirror and the Knife»(Ikaros), Hadjidakis, who never hid his preference for New Democracy, mounted a high horse: «Everything that is repeatedly branded as ‘negative’ and ‘state-corrupt,’ we (that is, our party) have already practiced it in the same – if not worse – manner. «The only difference is that we have colored our actions with blue nationalism and blue-and-white flag waving, while they (PASOK) did it painted in a green-colored populist socialism. We did it for ‘the nation.’ They did it for ‘the people.’ Where is the difference?» He also declared, «I always criticize from within (the party).» Constantine Karamanlis (1907-1998), whose political career spanned five decades and who served as his country’s prime minister four times as well as twice as head of state, was one of the rarest statesman Greece has ever possessed. A genuine statesman (as opposed, I presume, to politicians). So unique that he really did not deserve the kitschy, tasteless and cheap sentimental feelings poorly combined and offered up by stage director Georges Remundos. For longer than I care to remember, I have been suggesting that what most ails the artistic life of Thessaloniki is a discernible lack of the old star power that once dominated and even dictated the cultural affairs of this city: such as Minos Volanakis as the artistic director of the National Theater, professor Linos Politis, or Pavlos Zannas heading the Film Festival, et cetera. My birth city, Thessaloniki, is growing more provincial every year. Just watch ERT3’s programming for a couple of days and you’ll understand what I mean. Last Wednesday, one of the rare good interviews that the local channel showed was an interview by historian Mark Mazower, who wrote «Salonica: City of Ghosts» (2004), which traced the city’s past before 1912. «As late as the First World War,» writes Mazower, «Salonican boot-blacks commanded a working knowledge of six or seven languages.» Well, there are no boot-blacks anymore. Nor is there the rich confluence of cultures that once characterized the city. This book has been widely criticized in Greece and elsewhere. Compiled criticism is best expressed by an outraged Despina Skenderis-Fourniades from Washington, DC, who interpreted last June 15 what Mazower intended to say : «Thessaloniki was our city, the Greeks unfairly stole it, they are complicit in the fate of Jews, they (the Greeks) ought to be made to feel guilty; they need to be embarrassed, and finally they must show in practical terms that they are really sorry. Practical terms means restoration of the city to its pre-1912 ethnic composition when the Jews were the plurality of the population.» Back to the gala concert and to Constantine Karamanlis’s famous quote : «There is only one Macedonia, and this is Greek.» We heard it pronounced from his lips once again in Thessaloniki’s Concert Hall last Friday. Admittedly, it seems that we have lost this game. Sure enough the opposition couldn’t do any better, either. All they do is attack the government on the «name issue» via rhetorical questions. That’s why PASOK functionaries so often say, «Can you name one single thing that New Democracy has ever done for Macedonia?» Or for whatever else. Incidentally, 24 hours before that, on Thursday evening, while still in Sarajevo, I experienced some usurpers using the «name;» The «Naroden teatar Bitola» (which «opened on November 14, 1944 with a performance of the first play written in Macedonian» as the program noted) was co-produced with «The Turkish Theater of Skopje» and «The Laboratorio Nova Firenze,» a highly avant-garde version of one of the most problematic Shakespearean «Roman» plays: «Timon of Athens.» The drama concerns a rich and generous nobleman, Timon, who goes bankrupt and is ignored by his fair-weather friends, so that when he finds gold in the woods, he gives it to the enemies of Athens and not to his ex-friends. I wonder if the Croatian director Branko Brezovec intended to hide some message here. At any rate, the audience sat on a dais on wheels and was pushed around by the actors themselves. It was a most interesting production indeed. Oh, Sarajevo, Sarajevo! I really liked this city known mainly for its fierce violence during the ’90s wars. Some years ago, one would never have thought that peace would ever arrive about there, but it has. Bosnian politicians finally looked away from the past and toward the future. «Can the three communities live now together?» I asked Foreign Minister Mlade Ivanic, a Serbo-Bosnian. «They sure can,» he replied. Good for them. I’ve found excellent friends and some first-class artists there. Surely, better than in Thessaloniki, where yesterday I saw Chekhov’s «Ivanov,» directed by Nikos Mastorakis at the State Theater of Northern Greece.