Letter From Thessaloniki

«Oh, we’ve had our fair share of problems, but it was fun.» This could have been said by any number of people on just about any day about any number of things, but in this case it was said by one of Thessaloniki’s most prominent socialites, Atalanti S.,  on a recent Friday morning. She emphasized the word «fun» («kefi») which, the way she says it, in her north-Macedonian accent, is uttered in two long syllables. Has fun disappeared altogether from Greece’s once most enjoyable metropolis? Was the past, the «good old days,» so much better than today? No. But in these times of economic crisis, problems have grown immensely. Take dining out for example. A lot of restaurants offer inferior fare at inflated prices. «Business at full-service restaurants, bars, nightclubs, even places which just deliver pizzas, is declining dramatically,» the local daily Agelioforos reported two days ago, presenting figures showing that sales have fallen by 40 to 50 percent from year-earlier levels. «This is really the toughest environment the industry has experienced in 20 years,» says Niki Constantinou, president of the National Association of Restaurateurs. «People are suffering from the crisis, therefore it is only natural that they do not have the money or the right spirit to go out at night as they used to. We worry that it might get worse,» she added. Forgotten are the days when patrons ordered three or four drinks in one night. Nowadays it is only one. «Just imagine, some even bring along miniature bottles in their pocket,» Agelioforos wrote on Friday. Thessaloniki is famous for its excellent food. One could always eat fashionably here – for instance at Agora, a simple taverna where flavor takes precedence over style. Meals in this place are accompanied by strong ouzo or tsipouro and concluded with homemade sweets. The owner, Christos Hadjidiakos from Lesvos, knows the stresses of opening up a restaurant in the current financial climate. «Restaurants tend to run on tight profit margins – an average of about 4 percent before taxes. When that margin is under pressure, there is less room for error,» says Hadjidiakos. At nearby Zythos in the downtown neighborhood of Ladadika, tables are still full, but patrons are ordering less, sharing an appetizer or an entree, maybe skipping dessert and getting a glass of wine rather than a full bottle. A poll commissioned by the National Association of Restaurateurs – with 150,000 members all over Greece – with the participation of 1,000 eateries from February 2004 to February this year, showed that the real crisis began just one year ago. The time of ultra-extravagant outings in once flourishing Thessaloniki is waning. Like Barcelona, the city has an intimate relationship with the sea, toward which it slopes from the hills above. As the weather gets warmer, when dusk arrives, the seafront is swamped by people taking in a breath of fresh air – immigrants, youngsters and students, people going off to eat. Restaurants that have a neighborhood feel are always high up on their list of choices and people tend to stay close to home, except for those looking for a big night on the town. However, the restaurants that cater to this clientele tend to be a bit flat. Nightclubs are not what they once were. Late-night party animals agree: «Clubs that used to be full five days a week now have only two good days – Friday and Saturday,» laments Vassilis Gogos, general secretary of the Union of Night Club Proprietors. «Some 700,000 employees are in the ‘red’,» he declares threateningly. On the other hand, some things remain reassuringly the same: the cafes overlooking the shallow, cool waters of the Thermaic Gulf, the flower stalls that still jostle up against the tiny, 9th-century Turkish baths in the market district, the great covered Modiano Market, where you will still be greeted by plump figs and freshly scrubbed rows of squid, while the cry of «Ela! Fresh today,» resounds along its narrow aisles. «Crisis? What crisis?» asks Christos Tellidis, a local journalist. «The truth is that all of us – at least people of our age – are having a mid-life crisis. This is the real problem. And if you want the truth, that is why we don’t go out the way we used to. Now, we are also saving as much money as we can. For different reasons than one might think. We need it to buy a sports car, for face lifts. The mid-life crisis is mainly epitomized by the replacement of the wife with a younger model, isnt’t it? Facing up to your mortality can indeed be a shock and one which might provoke deeper reflection than ‘better go out clubbing while I still can.’» Christos Tellidis has a point here, in his comment on the financial crisis.

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