Letter from Thessaloniki

On hot August nights when stars fall out of the sky in meteor showers, tempers blister and discipline runs thin. A brawl outside the Tropicana nightclub on the island of Myconos left 20-year-old tourist Doujon Zammit from Australia brain dead. The chief suspect is a 25-year-old bouncer. Acting uncommonly openhanded, Oliver Zammit, the father of the unfortunate youth, thanked the Greek people for their cooperation and support and agreed to donate his son’s organs after the doctors declared Zammit dead. «Such incidents are an insult to the culture that our country taught and continues to teach and harm its image overseas,» the Greek government spokesman both mourned and bragged. In a statement, Tourism Minister Aris Spiliotopoulos added: «And as we talk about Greece’s image abroad, it is logical that these isolated incidents sadden us even more.» Right. With more than 15 million tourists a year, which account for nearly a fifth of the country’s economy, Greece idealizes its bright summers more than any other season. With similar figures and hardly any police around, the flip side of summer freedom is anarchy. Many coastal resorts have become notorious for the violent or indecent activities of drunken holidaymakers. In a recent press conference, the tourism minister denounced profit-hungry bar owners supplying tourists with drinks fortified with industrial-grade alcohol. Quite a traditional practice, it seems. In his book «When the Going was Good,» Evelyn Waugh writes of a pleasure cruise in 1929. «In Athens we went straight to a nightclub kept by a one-legged Maltese, who gave us cocktails made out of odd drugs and a spirit of his own distilling. Later the prima ballerina of the cabaret came out and sat at our table and warned us on no account to touch the cocktails. It was too late.» Presumably, not much has changed since those glorious times, when going in style meant something. «Why, oh why, do the wrong people travel when the right people stay at home?» lamented British playwright Noel Coward some decades ago. The answer is that the «right people» don’t; they stay at other people’s homes, or on yachts. They hardly get the chance to come face to face with «bouncers.» The rich and the stylish are traveling more than ever these days, but it takes a powerful telescope to pick them out in the shade of a private veranda on a private island, or sunbathing aboard a 60-meter yacht in the Dodecanese. Judging from the private villas on Myconos and Paros, the really, really rich do their best to pass their summers in a private cocoon. They will own or charter a jet rather than fly a commercial airline, even in business class. They will borrow or hire a yacht rather than go on a cruise. They would go to a friend’s chalet in Switzerland to ski and invite him back to Halkidiki for the summer. Money can buy elegance, display and status; it can also buy privacy, unobtrusive service and adventure. However, luxury is in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it? There was a time, of course, when travel was almost by definition both exclusive and a luxury. Centuries ago, soldiers and scholars, pilgrims and peddlers took to the road to ply their trades. But only the man of means traveled for fun. «The very rich… are different from you and me,» wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, and so are their holidays. No more. Last Friday a total of 678 flights were scheduled to leave Athens International Airport. More than 400 intercity buses departed on the same day for various destinations around the country. The number of boats must have been just as impressive. However, these do not include those who are more likely to go boating or sailing on their own. The idea of ships is practically synonymous with the travelers who grew up before Hitler’s war. There are not so many of them around anymore. Nowadays, it is cheap air travel, plus growing prosperity and improved holiday benefits for employees, that have given the toiling masses a shot at the outside world. From the beginning of this new century, tourism, for the rich or the poor, never looked back. «Rich people of all ages tend to take more – though not necessarily longer – vacations,» a hotel owner told me in Halkidiki, a location where, unlike the rest of Greece, there has been a steep increase of foreign tourists this year. Some nationalities spend more cash abroad than others. «This season we have many Russians. A lot of Bulgarians. All of them with more money to spend than the Germans or the Brits in past years…We had to teach our staff some Russian.» Where rich people from the «new countries» go depends on the current fashion. All travel is faddish, and upmarket travel particularly so. There are, however, a few basic trends. The goal of the new travelers is to get there first, to enjoy the place before it gets spoiled. However, spoiled Myconos, a name better known abroad than in Greece itself, remains an evergreen. One of the reasons is that what has remained unspoiled is the island’s architecture, once described by renowned Swiss-French architect and town-planner Le Corbusier as inexplicably beautiful. «Whatever architecture has to say, it is said here,» he commented. Inhabitants of the island of 400 churches and an 89-kilometer coastline organized last night in Manto Square a public protest against events like the one that cost the life of ill-fated 20-year-old Doujon Zammit. «I consider it a shame that the mayor of our city did not immediately call a special session to condemn the event,» says Yiannis Koukas, a young hotel owner, a Myconiate himself. Poet Constantine P. Cavafy wrote that it is better to travel hopefully toward one’s own Ithaca than to arrive. Most people do not travel just to get out of the house. The curious have always ventured abroad to learn by studying other civilizations. Even for an introduction to a new – mostly harmful – spirit. Nevertheless, some inhabitants of Myconos are whispering that there is a well-known Mafia of high-profile owners of clubs and property on the island that hinder local authorities from cracking down on a range of violations. Yesterday, the father of the unlucky 20-year-old Australian alleged that impunity reigns on Myconos, since three of the «bouncers» involved in the criminal incident with his son were not imprisoned.