Letter from Thessaloniki

It was Christmas Eve in Thessaloniki some 15 years ago. Melina Karapanayiotidou, a fresh young reporter at the time – now anchorwoman of the important morning zone of the ET3 television channel – had an exceptional idea for a one-hour radio program for ANT1 Thessaloniki. At the time, and through three different versions of Windows, I was directing the station. «Forget cultural treasures and all that crap,» she insisted. Nearly everyone who knew Melina liked her a lot. She has been repeatedly told, with some justification, that she resembles a popular actress of the time. «Forget ‘Scrooge,’ ‘O Tannenbaum,’ ‘Hansel and Gretel,’ Alexandros Papadiamantis and the ‘Snow Queen.’ Let’s do something different. Something that will give a unique insight into our local Christmas feeling. How does the song go? ‘See the way a stranger greets you, just as though you’d met him Christmases ago…’ Now, let’s make an inquiry about this holiday.» And she started dialing. The police station was the first in a long list of calls. «There is a young couple hanging out on Tsimiski Street. Foreign. They are in distress. The girl is pregnant and it seems as though labor pains have begun… They look like hippies. They don’t speak Greek and do not have any money, I presume. Can you come over?» The voice wasn’t sure: «Tsimiski Street and what? What district?…» «It’s on the corner of Tsimiski and Karolou Diehl. You know, there where the carols are blaring from loudspeakers.» «We are not responsible for that region. Call the 2nd precinct.» The story was repeated once again. This time the answer was: «Try emergency services. Try the Social Security Foundation.» «They are foreign, you know. They’re not insured.» «Then Doctors Without Borders, perhaps. What do I know? Can’t they pay for a doctor? Do they have a credit card?» «No! Somebody gave them only a chair to sit on. Nothing else.» The message that followed was clear. The chair could be resold, the couple was expendable. In the 1990s, credit card companies divided the world into two kinds of people: Those they could trust and those they could not. The trustworthy were given credit cards. The untrustworthy got no credit at all. Just a chair perhaps. «Is this the Social Security Foundation? There is a young couple on Tsimiski etc, etc.» «Do they have a social security number?» «They are foreign.» «So call their consulate. Where do they come from? They are not illegal migrants, are they?» «I can’t communicate with them at all, but, no, they are blond. They could be Swedish.» In Thessaloniki most consulates are honorary consulates, which means that they are generally staffed with a representative from the local business community and they perform only minor duties such as dispensing general information; they rarely provide consular assistance. The voice that answered the phone reported: «It’s Christmas Eve. Nobody is here. I’ll have a word with the honorary consul the day after tomorrow. Trust me.» Melina insisted: «But the girl is almost in labor. You got my hopes up!» «You’re too much of an optimist. Some things can’t be done in a day. They’ll be OK in two days.» A local church responded in more or less the same manner. «Is that all you can say?» Melina asked. «That’s all!?» And so it went on and on. With the exception of Alekos Papadopoulos, a local journalist who at the time was the press officer at the Ministry of Macedonia and Thrace and who showed a genuine interest in the matter. And, in the spirit of the birth of Jesus as recounted in the gospels of Luke and Matthew, our imaginary young woman in Thessaloniki had her baby. She could have brought forth her firstborn son, and may have «wrapped him in swaddling clothes and placed him in a manger, for there was no room for them at the inn» (Luke 2:4). All this because nobody bothered to care for them. Modern-day Christmas is not about emergencies. It’s about the holiday spirit, and there is only one true measure of that: the number of colored light bulbs adorning the tackiest exteriors of flashy Panorama, on the hills of Thessaloniki, where the city’s glitterati live and where carols blare from loudspeakers. In what might be called the conclusion of our story, or, alternatively, the beginning of our new era, nothing much has changed. The story was documented at length on an audio tape some 15 years ago. In Thessaloniki, a city which boasts more than 2,300 years of glorious history, and one of the locations where the Apostle Paul walked and preached.