Letter from Thessaloniki

It has been an eventful week. First, there was the rubbish. Austrians may top the list of EU garbage producers, with 654 kilos per inhabitant per year according to a recent Eurobarometer survey, yet the average Greek is not doing that badly either, throwing out 372 kilos of garbage annually. It was possible to form a clear picture of the volume just by stepping over the tons of trash in the streets of Thessaloniki of late. Two weeks ago, hundreds of municipal garbage collectors went on a nine-day strike, leaving the city in a literal mess. Some 5,000 tons of trash, it was duly reported, had piled up by last Tuesday in the streets of the «Nymph of Thermaic Gulf» and the mess was expected to increase at the rate of 600 tons a day. Happily, last Wednesday the strike was called off and Thessaloniki’s Mayor Vassilis Papageorgopoulos, a former New Democracy parliamentarian, himself lent a hand as hundreds of municipal garbage collectors started cleaning up the mess that had accumulated across the city. In the pre-electoral period, rumors had abounded that PASOK-backed Spyros Vougias – the main opponent of the current mayor – had incited the strike. Oh, there has been passion and anger these last few weeks in Thessaloniki. Politics is, after all, just marketing by other means, and a smart activist might very well attract attention to his cause by reformulating it as a garbage issue. To change the subject, there is definitely something to this blonde mystique. Many of the female candidates were blondes. I know at least two dozen of them personally. It seems that the blonde is somehow more of a woman. The blonde is also an innocent, like youngsters Elena Rapti from New Democracy and Eva Kaili from PASOK. The blonde is an indicator of a thoroughbred heritage like Katerina Kamara, who comes from the city’s aristocracy; the blonde is a symbol of achievement and affluence like… well, enough names. All right, just one more: Iraklis Doukas, a has-been female impersonator, who threatens that – should he be elected to the city council (he is on list of Mr Sahinis’s communist candidates) – he will appear at the first session wearing a blond Marilyn Monroe-style wig. Enough of Thessaloniki… Last Friday morning, I got my transit visa at the Yugoslav Embassy in Athens easily and swiftly (sadly, Greece cannot claim any reciprocity in that matter – distressed visa seekers outside the Greek Embassy on Francuska Street in Belgrade have some dismal stories to tell) and in the late afternoon – at 7 p.m. precisely – I went to the opening night of «Die Frau ohne Schatten» (The Woman Without a Shadow) by Richard Strauss at the Athens Concert Hall. I have rarely experienced such an overwhelmingly engrossing night at the opera. «The most ambitious production ever staged by the Athens Concert Hall» (as Nikos Tsouchlos, the venue’s artistic director, characterized this demanding, four-and-a-half hour-long opera) was a triumph, particularly for Danish conductor Michael Schonwandt, who led the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, and also for the cast, including the sopranos Inga Nielsen, Eva Marton, and Marilyn Zschau and bass-baritones Ronald Hamilton, and Franz Grundheber. At a press conference, the Athens Concert Hall’s president, Christos Lambrakis – one of those opera fans who can tell you how many times Tebaldi sang La Boheme or how much better Callas sang in the Teatro Colon than at the Met – said one could hardly fail to be aware of the critical period of opera’s composition in the early-20th century in terms of the lead-up to the Great War and its subsequent effects. Therefore, «There could not be a more appropriate work for stressing the importance of peace in today’s era,» Lambrakis stressed. Such an appropriate work – not only in terms of politics but also in social terms, including the role of women in European society – seemed to be fitting for a top politician to attend. So appropriately, Prime Minister Costas Simitis and his wife Daphne attended the opening night, with repeat performances scheduled for tonight, as well for Thursday and Saturday. As the plot of this opera is crammed full of parables and symbols, one can well imagine that Mr Simitis – fluent in German – could have found some analogies with this particular frau greatly open to interpretation. The woman of the title stands between two worlds, trapped by one, rejected by the other. Could this opera, which takes place in a fairy-tale world, have brought any edifying thoughts to Mr Simitis? No one will ever know. Well, perhaps he confided something to Daphne. Particularly, all that mysticism with respect to the symbolism of the central shadow can be variously interpreted in today’s Greek political scene. One could carry on indefinitely in this vein. Anyway, the show rivaled any opera performance anywhere in the world today. In yesterday’s elections, when a total of 9,856,453 people (among them 3,500 EU nationals who are residents of Greece) were to vote in local government elections, I voted early and unapologetically for the best man (not among the major parties) and then decamped for Slovenia by car – one of the 10 new countries due to join the EU in 2004. Ljubljana’s government is actually wrestling – along with the other nine candidates – with a tough dilemma: How to avoid offending the US and improve its chances of being admitted into NATO while toeing the western European line as a candidate member of the EU. But it’s not just that which concerns me. There is also another opera to see there: some «Cleopatra» by a Danilo Svara, unknown to me, which had its premiere just some days ago. And I must rush.