Letter from Thessaloniki

Culturally, and as a conscious Thessalonian, I am inclined to chase out of my mind all accounts on European Capitals of Culture. For it was in 1997 – «the year we welcomed European cultural diversity,» according to Evangelos Venizelos, then PASOK’s minister of culture – that our city had one of its most dire experiences when it attained that title. Needless to say, that tragic chain of faux-pas turned out to be mainly to the benefit of the politicians and the unsuitable people who were in charge at the time. And to think that this highly aimed culture project was launched at the initiative of Melina Mercouri, by the Council of Ministers on June 13, 1985. There have been 31 Capitals of Culture to date. Nine cities (after the failure of Thessaloniki…) shared the title in 2000 and for 2001, 2002 and 2004, two cities were chosen to share the title. This year, the 50th anniversary of the foundation of what we ended up of calling the European Union, there will again be two cities, of the old and new EU, which will jointly hold the title of «European Capital of Europe» for the next 12 months: Luxembourg, a place we usually think of as uncultured, full of bankers and EU bureaucrats, plus what the Belgian art critic Luk Lambrecht once called «a fortress of the middle class,» and Sibiu in a late arrival – Romania. Now Sibiu is rather unknown to most Europeans. Or rather it is known to the Germans as Hermannstadt and to theater lovers as the home of one of the leading international theater festivals in Europe with a world-class lineup of international performers and artists for more than 10 years now. Since medieval times, Sibiu has been home to Romania’s German minority. Even today, it contains Romania’s largest German community; the Germanic feel of the area has been maintained. This was not the case when Romania was behind the Iron Curtain. There is a somewhat «romantic» legend in Sibiu, explaining the presence of so many blond-haired, blue-eyed German speakers following ancient customs, yet isolated by its being hundreds of miles from Germany. You are certainly acquainted with the Pied Piper of Hamelin. The story has also been documented as a fairy tale by the best-selling Grimm Brothers. Let me remind you of it: In 1284, the town of Hamelin was suffering from an infestation of rats. One day, a man claiming to be a ratcatcher approached the villagers with a solution. They promised to pay him for the removal of the rats. The man took a pipe and lured the rats with a song into the Weser River where they all drowned. However, the villagers reneged on their promise and refused to pay the ratcatcher. So the man returned and, seeking revenge, this time attracted the children of Hamelin. Over 130 boys and girls followed him out of the town, where they were lured into a cave and never seen again. Well, as a matter of fact, they were seen emerging from the Almasch (Varghis) Cave in Transylvania – somewhere close to Sibiu. As matters now stand, the same story today would produce huge diatribes on pedophilia. Yet the Germans were not alone in Romania. For at least 27 centuries, there has been a significant Greek presence – mainly on the coast of the Black Sea – in Romania. During the «Phanariote» era, this presence amounted to real hegemony. What were the Phanariote Greeks really? Well, they were powerful members of prominent Greek families who resided in the Phanar, the now run-down quarter of Istanbul where the Ecumenical Patriarchate is situated. In the early 18th century, Greek culture and Phanariote rule emerged all over the Ottoman-ruled Balkans. The omnipresence and omnipotence of ethnic Greek clerics was some sort of a double occupation for the poor Slavs and the Romanians of the region, who were not allowed by the Orthodox Church to use their languages in liturgy. Theoretically, the Ottoman religious tolerance should have left the individual’s private life to his conscience. But this was not to be the case for the Phanar. Illustrious historical Greek names, such as the (Greek-Albanian) Ghicas, the Mavrocordatos, Mavroghenis, Moruzis, Alexander and Constantinos Ypsilantis come from this time and region when Greek culture became the rule. In terms of 18th century grandeur, Greek communities were principally prosperous and maintained lively cultural institutions. Until recently – well, say some 20 years ago – antique shops in Bucharest were filled with rare editions of Greek books and etchings. Unfortunately, this prosperous prewar situation was challenged by Communist Romania, when the properties of most organizations and many individuals were confiscated, and hundreds of ethnic Greeks were imprisoned at sites such as the Danube – Black Sea Canal. The European Capital of Culture is a city designated by the European Union for a period of one year, during which it is given a chance to showcase its cultural life and development. January is usually not one of the high points of such manifestations. The first exhibition in Sibiu is called «Education in the Spirit of Cultural Tradition.» It includes traditional folk workshops and craftsmen accompanied by their apprentices and symbolic objects. Being a theater lover myself, I await what the National Theater Radu Stanca, where I have previously seen exceptional works, will bring in the near future.

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