Letter from Thessaloniki

The other day, I paid a visit to US Consul General Hoyt Brian Yee in Thessaloniki. Built in 1999, the new US Consulate occupies a purpose-built suite on the 7th floor of a new commercial office building on the city’s major commercial artery, Tsimiski Street. The visit reminded me of my student years in an abnormal place: West Berlin. It was the time when the city was under military rule, in which the Allies – American, British, French and Russian – exercised supreme authority. At that time, the wall was still there dividing the «West» from the «East.» Sure enough, Berlin was then not a normal metropolis. But who wants to be normal when you are 20 years old? We thought we lived somewhere special, which should be celebrated as such. Furthermore, we prided ourselves on belonging to a city that breeds extremes of behavior and fine universities. In the Red Scare years, the security procedures when crossing from West to East Berlin were severe, just like the screenings one has to go through when now entering US soil in Thessaloniki. Visitors are required to present identification papers to the security officers, who verify identity and ask questions about the purpose of your visit there. «To see the consul general, Hoyt Brian Yee. I have an appointment,» was my response. Based upon your answer, the security officer asks you to empty your pockets and turn off your mobile phone before you can proceed to the waiting room. This somewhat degrading and embarrassing process can take several minutes while your mobile phone is being checked – for explosives? – on the table in front of you. Inevitably, the procedure to enter the Consulate brought back heroic memories of the screenings every traveler underwent when crossing from West Berlin to East Berlin. Or, even, when leaving Israel at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. In a letter published in Kathimerini on September 24, Michalis Tarasis, a dual national holding both Israeli and Greek passports described his ordeal at the Tel Aviv airport. He had to submit to questions from the Israeli security officers that would be illegal in any country in the European Union. For example, he was asked questions about his level of religious observance – they noted that he wore a cross around his neck. «I felt shame and indignation. What kind of religious rights are we talking about?» he concluded. In general practice, if not in particular statute, the Consulate General in Thessaloniki is not like that at all. It insists obstinately on human rights, which are observed mainly in Thrace and around Florina. For some decades, the Americans had one of the most prestigious addresses in Thessaloniki: 39 Nikis Avenue. There stood a seven-floor Bauhaus building directly on the waterfront, with an open view of Mount Olympus. Extraordinary. The consul general’s residence high up was spactacular. Yet the State Department discovered some sticking points and the perfect consulate is now history: the amount of «stand-off» distance between the public street and the Consulate’s facade created fears of a vehicle-borne bomb. The engineers from Washington were also worried the aging building might not survive another earthquake. So they sold it to a well-known Greek businessman at a premium price and put the money into the construction of the new US Embassy in Berlin, which opened for business this spring. In the German media the building of the US Embassy was strongly criticized for its aesthetic appearance, which was often described as very banal and ugly – especially if compared to the ambitious embassies of many other nations in Berlin. One of the leading German dailies, Die Welt, summarized it under the headline: «Ugly but safe.» In Thessaloniki, too, the new location is less flashy than before – but it is safe. (Or, is it really? You can actually get in easily from across the street or the floors above or below it. Eventually, they want to find another location.) The student demonstrations and the political protests that rocked Nikis Avenue in the 1970s and 1980s are now simply part of the far left’s folk memory and the right’s demonology. Those who live in Thessaloniki nowadays find it easy to ignore the existence of the US Consulate up on the 7th floor on Tsimiski Street. The residents of the city prefer to look straight ahead. All the same, it always gets its fair share of protests and the reason nowadays is because it’s very close to Aristotelous Square, from where all demonstrations start. As in all countries outside the USA, in Greece there are also teams of volunteers working long hours to make sure Americans living abroad can vote if they want to. Once you manage to get into the Consulate, one can read a message on the blackboard saying that American citizens should register to vote now for the November 4, 2008, presidential and general elections. Many states close voter registration 30 days before the general election. As matters now stand, the Democrats Abroad chapter in Athens had a rally and registration event September 25 in Glyfada, at which two former US diplomats, Brady Kiesling from the US Embassy in Athens and our own ex-consul general here in Thessaloniki, Alec Mally, spoke about current issues («It’s the economy, stupid» or these days, «It’s the bailout, stupid») but the real point was to get overseas American voters registered before the deadline. In many states, this deadline is October 4. People will then vote via absentee ballots, which are then mailed in. With passions running higher than usual in 2008, it is estimated that the traditionally low number of overseas voters may skyrocket this year. Volunteers who register American voters abroad say the presidential election buzz is palpable. They’ve seen a swell of requests for absentee ballots. Even more interesting was a bigger event held in Athens on Saturday morning, September 27, at the Hard Rock Cafe in Syntagma Square. The concept was to watch the first presidential debate a few hours after it ended in the US and figure out what it means. The Athens branches of Republicans Abroad and Democrats Abroad put this large event together (about 150 attendees). It was attended by US Ambassador Daniel V. Speckhard, who applauded the bipartisan co-operation and declared: «Let’s celebrate the American democratic system.» (In all probability, the ambassador ignores what Gore Vidal, the grandson of Thomas Pryor Gore, the populist senator from Oklahoma, wrote in his essay «The American Presidency:» «He who can raise the most money to buy time on television is apt to be elected president by the less than half of the electorate which bothers to vote.») Again the idea at this meeting was to get more overseas voters registered. We hear these two political groups will be doing another event in the same format, linked to the vice presidential debate this week. Note that their co-operation here in Greece is something you don’t see elsewhere in Europe and deserves special mention. (Perhaps it is also an omen for the new Greek government after the next elections, since in all probability only a coalition might run our country from now on.) Curiously, people who would normally not bother to vote are turning up for registration drives in Greece, which, according to polls, would give its vote to Obama. Needless to say that with an estimated 5 to 7 million Americans living abroad, including military personnel, the overseas vote could definitely make a difference in this election. Therefore, organizers who concentrate on setting up the best system for people are vital.

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