Arnon Grunberg

Christmas in Thessaloniki

In Greece’s second-largest city, the financial implosion leads to widespread reimagining of the social contract

Discussed: The Omnipresent War on Terror, Lehman Brothers and Contamination, “Good Greeks,” Naked Bike Rides and Body Image Issues, The Advantages of Scooters, Hunger Strikes, Community-Run Health Care, Efficiency and Ektos, Sliding into Fascism, Buying Armani Suits on Credit, Anarchism as Pure Democracy, The Politics of Garbage, Taking the Farmer Out of the City Dweller
Thessaloniki’s mayor, Yiannis Boutaris<br />
Photograph by the author

Until recently, wars had a venue. They had a front. Wars had a beginning, and often came to a clear end. Then the war against terrorism came along. This war was everywhere and nowhere; it could pop up anyplace. And although the war was more manifest in some places than others—Afghanistan and Iraq, for example—it remained elusive. Then the financial crisis hit, and proved every bit as elusive as the “real” wars at the start of the twenty-first century. The crisis, too, was everywhere and nowhere, but it did have a single nation at its epicenter: Greece.

Not at Lehman Brothers, which collapsed in 2008, and not on Wall Street; Greece was where the fire broke out. One heard the word contamination again and again, but this time it was no imperial cultural contamination, no creeping process of civilization. This time the crisis was a contagion: debts and obligations that would never be repaid, a gradual deterioration of the financial immune system.

And so, in the darkest days of winter, I decided to set off for Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city. Cities like that are often at least as interesting as the capital, and if God is in the details, then the truth is going to be revealed at the periphery. In conversations with people working in various capacities to regenerate Greek social and economic life, I would try to assess the collateral damage from this newest international conflagration. But I also went to Thessaloniki to meet its mayor, Yiannis Boutaris, who had recently rocketed to international stardom. In newspaper articles he was portrayed as a “good Greek,” a man who wanted to combat corruption, who did not compare Angela Merkel to Hitler, who did not blame everything on capitalism, and who had no desire to defend in veiled terms the country’s nepotism and status quo. In those articles one detected an unmistakable relief at the fact that a good Greek had been found.

I would spend Christmas in Thessaloniki—the light in the darkened world of the crisis.

I. KOSTAS

About a fifteen-minute walk uphill from the sea—Thessaloniki has an upper city and a lower city—is the Rent-Rooms Thessaloniki youth hostel. In the cafeteria there I meet with Kostas Terzopoulos. He has a little beard and kindly, not-quite-shy eyes. Kostas is wearing a gray sweater that looks like it’s been washed too often. I’ve been told that he organizes the Totally Naked Bike Ride in Thessaloniki. Why wear clothes in a climate like this? Clothes, too, are something on which one can economize.

We both order tea. “To start with, it’s an ecological thing,” Kostas says. “I’m a member of the Green Ecological Party. It’s a small party. In the last elections we just made our quorum—we ended up with 2.93 percent. And in the second round of the elections we only made 0.88 percent. People had no more confidence in us then. It’s a pleasant party. We have a representative in the European Parliament, and there’s also someone on the municipal council in Thessaloniki; he’s been misbehaving lately, though, so we’re trying to drum him out of the party.” Kostas talks to me as though I’m his friend, or at least as though I’m rapidly becoming his friend.

“I’m unemployed these days, but it all started back when I still had a job. I did the IT for a radio station, and I was a part-time DJ. At school, all the cool guys had scooters, and later on—like lots of Greeks—my car was one of the most important things in my life. I did all the things you’re not supposed to do: I parked wherever I found a spot. My car meant everything to me. Like a lot of Greeks, I had the idea that I didn’t have to do anything and that the government had to do everything for me. The change in my mentality started when I became a nudist.”

“How did that go?” I ask.

“I was always very shy, especially in the bodily sense. But a few years ago I was with a few friends at a lovely, quiet beach. One of them said: ‘Let’s go skinny-dipping.’ I hesitated, but I finally took off my clothes, too, even though I didn’t really enjoy that yet. A few weeks later I actually started as a practicing nudist. At first only at home, where I walked around naked as much as possible, but later also outdoors, in natural surroundings. I didn’t do any nudism in an urban setting, not yet.

“Then, I guess that was in 2007, a colleague said to me: ‘Why don’t you ever come to work on a bike? It would make it a lot easier to find a parking spot.’ I bought my first bike, an Ideal Megisto, something between a mountain bike and a regular bicycle. At first, biking was an experiment, like nudism.

“I haven’t eaten all day, would you mind if I ordered a sandwich?”

“Go right ahead,” I say.

“I wanted to combine my two great passions,” Kostas tells me, “nudism and cycling. That’s how I stumbled on the Totally Naked Bike Ride. I called some friends and I got a lot of help. People liked the idea. Thessaloniki’s first Totally Naked Bike Ride was held on June 27, 2008. There were about a hundred participants, ten of them were women. The police said they were going to arrest us, and they actually did arrest a couple of participants who were totally naked, but we kept protesting until they let them go. Not everyone, by the way, has to be totally naked. Some of the participants wear strings, others wear body paint. Each year, more and more people take part in the Totally Naked Bike Ride. In 2009 there were 350 riders, in 2010 there were 700, in 2011 there were 1,300, and in 2012 we had 2,000 participants. The Totally Naked Bide Ride originally started in Vancouver, but it’s spread all over the world.”

Kostas takes a few bites of his sandwich.

“It’s a social movement,” he says. “We have three objectives: to promote cycling, to increase environmental awareness, and to promote bodily freedom. I always have to explain to people that nudity has nothing to do with sex. Nudity isn’t at all sexy. I’ve gone through four phases myself. It started with nudism, then I discovered the bike, after that I became a vegetarian, and in 2013 I’m going to go vegan. But the Totally Naked Bike Ride isn’t the only thing I do. I also organize the bicycle carnival. Thessaloniki has no carnival tradition, which is how I hit on the idea. The floats will all be pulled by bicycles. This year’s theme is ‘anti-gold’; there are plans to give a Canadian company permission to start a gold mine near here, and we’re against that. The new mayor likes us, but the church doesn’t.”

“And what about the crisis?” I ask.

“I’m thirty-eight,” Kostas says. “And like I said, I’m unemployed. I live alone, but in a house that belongs to my parents, so I just get by. But I’m going to stay here. Ever since 1974”—the year the Greek military junta collapsed—“we’ve been stuck with politicians who keep on failing. But the crisis also brings out good things in people. They do more things together; sometimes they even do things for each other. They talk to each other more, because that doesn’t cost anything either. Soon I’m going to organize a totally naked event. Where people come in and take off all their clothes.”

“That doesn’t cost anything either,” I say.

Kostas nods.

I feel sympathy for him.

Walking back to my hotel, I realize that I forgot to ask him if it hurts when you sit on a bike naked. I email the question to him and receive a reply almost immediately: “It depends on the seat. My seat is very soft, and therefore very comfortable.”

II. DEBBIE

At the Social Clinic of Solidarity, located in a rather dilapidated building, I have an appointment with Debbie Litsa.

Behind her glasses, her eyes are inquisitive; she looks to be in her mid-thirties. We sit down in the waiting room. Beside her is a man who I figure at first is one of the doctors who works here, but he turns out to be her boyfriend, waiting for an appointment with the dentist—beside the doctor’s office is a little room with a dentist’s office.

“It started two years ago,” Debbie says. “Illegal immigrants who had been here for years but had never been legalized were holding a big hunger strike. There were two hundred and fifty hunger-strikers in Athens and fifty in Thessaloniki. They received support from local activists. The hunger-strikers came from northern Africa, most of them from Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. The strike ended after forty-four days, when the strikers received a temporary residence permit that had to be extended every six months. Some people considered that a victory, others a defeat. We figured: we can’t stop now. We have to do something for the community.”

A woman comes in with her husband and child.

“In Greece, everyone with a job has health insurance,” Debbie Litsa continues. “But there are lots of self-employed people who can’t afford it. Private health insurance is not at all common in Greece. We asked the mayor to give us an office, but he didn’t want to do that. This building was where the trade unions used to meet to decide whether or not to go on strike. We fixed it up into a health center for people who are uninsured: the Social Clinic of Solidarity.”

More patients are coming into the waiting room now. Debbie Litsa’s friend gets up and goes into the dentist’s office.

“This project is greater than the sum of the people who work here,” she says. “We’re not hierarchical. Here, there’s no difference between the secretary and the physician. We don’t provide charity, because charity assumes a relationship based on power. Patients are welcome at our meetings, too.”

“How many patients have shown up at meetings so far?”

“None,” she says. “That’s disappointing, I admit. But changes in mentality take time.”

“And during those meetings, do you vote?”

“No,” Debbie says. “A vote implies that the minority is not heard. We discuss things until we reach a consensus. Everyone has the right of veto.”

“That’s not very efficient,” I remark.

Efficiency is a capitalist term that assumes one has the goal of achieving a certain level of productivity. That’s not the way we think. Capitalism, of course, is what sired this crisis. But the crisis is also an opportunity to ask the right questions. We want to teach people that they have the power to fight back. No one can take away your dignity, that’s what I tell them. No one has to be embarrassed by the fact that the system can’t guarantee that everyone has health insurance. The power of capitalism lies in how it presents itself as the sole alternative. I don’t have any illusions about ever seeing it disappear, but we can create little fissures in it.”

Debbie’s boyfriend comes back from the dentist.

“How did the clinic get dental equipment?” I ask.

“It was donated by a dentist who was retiring.”

She doesn’t want to have her picture taken, but she encourages me to take pictures of the patients. A black man refuses to have his picture taken and one woman gets up and walks away, but the other patients meekly allow themselves to be photographed.

“Don’t forget the secretary,” Debbie says.

III. DORA

Nothing drives out melancholy better than music, as Spinoza knew. Orfanidou 5 is the address I was given, along with instructions to take the elevator to the sixth floor. Here I am going to meet Dora Seitanidou; I’ve heard that she leads a percussion group.

Dora is in her late thirties, with dark shoulder-length hair. Her boyfriend, Nick, is there, too, but Nick leaves the talking to Dora.

“This neighborhood we’re in,” Dora says as she makes coffee for me, “used to have a lot of small industry. Shoemakers, for example, but they’ve all closed down. Not so much because of the crisis; the process started long before that. The Chinese have taken over. Nick is my boyfriend. He’s a musician, a teacher, and an educator. This space is used to give dance, music, and drama lessons. Nick does the percussion group. We call ourselves ‘Ektos,’ which means ‘outside.’ As in ‘outside myself’ or ‘outside of town,’ but also as in ‘out of fashion.’ The crisis has changed a lot, of course. The person living in times of crisis needs to express himself, and money is important, but if you don’t have it, you have to find some other way. We’re a nonprofit organization, and the course fees are low. Some courses, like percussion, cost forty euros a month. Others, like modern dance, cost thirty euros, and students and the unemployed get a five-euro discount. We made all this ourselves—almost everything you see here was found on the street. We don’t do all the lessons ourselves, though; we also have teachers. But the money we make on courses isn’t enough to pay the rent.”

We drink our coffee at a makeshift bar. Dora sits across from me, Nick is sitting beside me.

“Most people feel betrayed by the state, and their attitude is like: if you don’t help me then I won’t help you,” Dora says. “Look at the garbage. Look at obesity, and you’ll see that the problem is education. That’s the big problem here in Greece. You have to teach yourself, there’s no other way. All the parties have tried to push reforms in the Greek educational system, but it hasn’t gotten any better. For example, now there’s a law that allows the police to go onto campus. That wasn’t legal for a while, it led to lots of rioting, but better education? Roughly speaking, you can say that Greek education is aimed at making children and students learn a lot of things by rote, but no attention is paid to teaching them to think.”

She sips her coffee.

“If we become increasingly fascist—and Greek society is becoming increasingly fascist—you have to put the blame not only on the crisis but also on the educational system. The whole system is sick. Until recently everyone wanted to work for the government in Athens, because working for the government meant security, and it also meant you didn’t have to really work—it meant you could just set up a business for yourself on the side. Security is an obsession that was passed down from grandfather to father to son; maybe it can be explained by the fact that here in Thessaloniki, we’re almost all the descendants of refugees.” (Many of the inhabitants of Thessaloniki are the descendants of Greeks who were run out of Turkey.) “Take my uncle and aunt, for example; they’re not incredibly rich people, but they have five houses. They have the house that they live in, three houses they rent out, and they also have a vacation home. The Greek is obsessed with property because he sees property ownership as security. My uncle and aunt have a son who’s confined to a wheelchair; they think that those houses are going to guarantee his financial security.

“Or take Fena, the department store, where you can buy the most expensive brand clothing on credit. People from the lower classes were suddenly walking around in Armani suits because the down payment was so low and they didn’t ask any bothersome questions. Everyone could buy fancy clothes on credit. They took out loans for everything.

“You could get a loan to go on vacation, a loan for Christmas, a loan for your own funeral—there was a loan for everything. We were taught to borrow money, we weren’t taught to be productive. But you’ve seen it already: at Christmas the department stores are packed. Life on the installment plan has never stopped, maybe it never will. It just moves from one place to the next. But Athens is meaner and bigger than Thessaloniki. We have the sun, we have family, we don’t need much.”

I decide to take the plunge and ask: “How much do you earn?”

“I work for the university,” Dora says. “One of the things I do is teach classes in Greek culture to foreign students. I gross eight hundred euros a month. The university holds back 20 percent of that, and 23 percent goes to taxes. If I had to pay rent I could never get by, but we live in a house that belongs to Nick’s parents. Like I said, we wouldn’t be able to pay the rent for this place from the money we get from courses, but we also have to pay municipal taxes that are included along with the electric bill, and we can pay those taxes only because we sell coffee and tea to our students, and drinks under the counter. Otherwise it would be impossible.”

“Have you two ever thought about going away?” I ask.

“Of course. Lots of our friends have left. They live in Wales or in Sweden now. They have more money, they have a better life, but the Greeks there aren’t happy. We have friends who went to Sweden. Financially they’re doing well, but they tell us: ‘The Swedes are as cold as the weather. If you laugh out loud on the street in Sweden, they think you’re out of your mind.’”

Dora is quiet for a moment. She seems to be thinking about Sweden, where she doesn’t want to live.

“I know a lot of Greeks,” she says, “who drive to Bulgaria to go to the dentist. The dentist in Bulgaria is five times cheaper than in Greece. Coca-Cola just closed down a big plant here and is going to open a new one in Bulgaria. Bulgaria is going to be the new Greece.”

“But don’t you think Bulgaria will learn from the recent history of Greece?” I ask cautiously.

“No one learns from history. We don’t even learn from our own history. Before the war there were almost fifty thousand Jews living here. Who remembers that these days? The university is built on the old Jewish cemetery. You can still see the gravestones in some of the walls, because the marble was recycled.”

IV. GEORGE

At nine o’clock the next morning I find George Kastanis waiting in front of my hotel. George is a young, energetic man with a quiet voice. We stop in at a nearby café to pick up his girlfriend, another Dora. She is wearing a gray wool cap and matching scarf. We go to an old military base, about half an hour’s drive from the hotel. This is where the PERKA project is being carried out. PERKA stands for “Peri-Urban Cultivation Team,” a gardeners’ collective. Where soldiers once marched, PERKA now plants vegetable gardens.

“We started in January 2011 with forty people,” George says. “Now there are one hundred and fifty people active in the collective. This is what we call ‘suburban farming.’ You don’t pay for it. You cultivate your own garden.”

We walk past the gardens. Some plots are neater than others.

“There’s no electricity here,” George says, “and no fences. We accept the fact that some people in the neighborhood come and steal our vegetables. The only fence you see here is to keep the dogs out. In fact, the army wants to build here. But now we’re working on a proposal to preserve this place as a park, maybe as a campground, too. We’re going to present the plan to the mayor. You’ve probably noticed that there aren’t any parks in Thessaloniki. Experts say that if this green lung disappears, the temperature in Thessaloniki in the summer will go up a few degrees. Along with another army base a little farther up that way, the ground here is worth one billion euros. So, as you can imagine, there are big interests at stake.”

We walk on.

“I’d like to show you the room we made from one of the soldiers’ dormitories—that’s where we hold our meetings now,” George says.

Everywhere around the green lung there are dormitories, more or less in ruins.

“I’m thirty-two,” George says when we stop at a spot with a view of this part of the city. “Dora is twenty-nine. I’m unemployed, but the important thing is not to leave solidarity to the fascists. The extreme right-wing parties go into the working-class neighborhoods and hand out food. You can’t combat fascism with weapons, only with education, but the schools in Greece produce people with no political awareness. That’s why you have to be self-taught. Anarchism is creativity, anarchism is democracy in the true sense of the word. At PERKA, we don’t vote, we reach a consensus. There are days when we’re not ready to reach a consensus. But another day always comes along.”

“Things weren’t any better before,” Dora says. “But now people are less motivated, because they have so many problems. They’re depressed. But there is a small, dynamic minority that really does do something. We meet two times a month.”

“And what about the EU?” I ask.

“Being in the EU or not being in the EU is actually not the real issue,” George says. “The issue is: IMF or no IMF. We want to keep this spot green. We want to protect our seeds. Everything we grow here is organic and for our own use. It’s a struggle for freedom, and for the country.”

The man with the key shows up. They show me around the renovated dormitory.

“We built a kitchen over here,” Dora says.

The kitchen is simple, almost Spartan, but they are proud of it.

As we head for the door, Dora says: “The people in northern Europe who say we’re lazy don’t realize that one day people will say that they’re lazy, too.”

V. YIANNIS

You can walk right into Thessaloniki’s city hall; there’s no security at the door. One of the mayor’s assistants, whom I’ve contacted by email, says the mayor is running a little late because of a wedding.

I take a seat. The people walking around, all of whom work for the mayor, are young and hip. The atmosphere seems more like that of an internet start-up than a city hall.

The mayor makes me wait for an hour and a half. He has the air of a rock star, and for a rock star an hour and a half is nothing.

In One Step Ahead, Dimitris Athyridis’s documentary on the 2010 municipal elections in Thessaloniki, the then–mayoral candidate, Yiannis Boutaris, talks frankly about his alcohol dependency, his marital problems, and his conflict with Anthimos, the archbishop of the city, whom he accuses of hate-mongering because of Anthimos’s outspokenly nationalistic speeches. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Boutaris after watching the documentary, even though it’s clear that the mayor, after the electoral close call, has not been able to solve all the problems before him. Garbage continues to pile up on street corners.

The mayor is not a career politician; he’s a vintner. He got his first diploma in chemistry in 1965 from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, and another—in oenology—in 1969 from the Athens Wine Institute. I recognize the tattoos on his fingers from other articles I’ve read about him.

Boutaris is now seventy-one, his voice smoky.

“We were opposed to this building,” Boutaris begins. “But we weren’t able to keep them from building it. This used to be a military base. The law specified that a new city hall had to be built here. There’s going to be a square built outside, and all the roads you see will be going underground.”

“But that’s a long-term project,” adds his assistant, who is sitting beside us, taking notes.

“I’m afraid that maybe it’s not a very original question,” I say, “but why did you wait so long to go into politics?”

“I’m a political animal, I have political convictions, I have ideals. I’m a social democrat, even though I don’t know exactly what that means anymore in this day and age: neoliberal, social democrat—what does that mean? But anyway. When I was chairman of the vintners’ association, I said: ‘It’s not about wangling a little market share away from each other, it’s about boosting the total market for Greek wine; we have to do this together.’ Besides, I have three children: one daughter and two sons. If we all went into the wine business, there would be too many of us. So I went into politics.”

Boutaris laughs self-deprecatingly.

I ask him: “Were you prepared for this office? Is being a political animal enough of a preparation?”

“You can’t live without politics. Well, not unless you’re very egotistical or very blasé. That’s why I told the citizens of Thessaloniki: ‘Whatever we do about the garbage problem, if you don’t help, it’s not going to go away. If you don’t help out, the city will stay dirty; if you throw garbage all over the place, there’s not muchI can do.’ We’re not going through an economic crisis, we’re going through a social crisis. The economic crisis will be over in five years, but the social crisis won’t just go away, and it’s been going on for a lot longer. To find the beginning you have to go back to ’74, to the end of the dictatorship.

“In actual practice, there is no law. That’s the problem. The people relate to the law in the sense that they place themselves above it. That starts with the politicians. We’re supposed to implement the law. I get attacked because I implement the law. I’ve had to call the police in order to enforce the law, even right here in this building. The Greeks’ relationship with the state is problematic—maybe there’s also a historical reason for that. We had the German occupation, the civil war. We haven’t learned to respect the decisions made by a majority. There is no natural relationship between the Greek citizen and the Greek state. The most natural relationship that exists is the Greek citizens’ suspicion that the state is lying. But we’ve become arrogant. We do everything we can to not pay taxes, but at the same time we want social facilities, good roads, good schools. We have no respect for wealth.

“The Stavros Niarchos Foundation was set up by a rich Greek; it has given more than five hundred million euros to good causes. But people despise it because they say that Niarchos lived from the lifeblood of workers. Don’t forget that as recently as 1952 there was a political execution in Greece.” (In 1952, the Greek government executed Nikos Beloyannis, a communist leader and resistance fighter in World War II, after accusing him of spying for the Soviet Union.)

“What people praise you for most often,” I point out, “is having promoted tourism.”

“That’s right,” Boutaris says. “I’ve brought Turks and Israelis to Thessaloniki. Because of our history. For five hundred years, this was part of the Ottoman Empire. Before the war, Thessaloniki had one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe. The Jews from Spain fled to Thessaloniki. We’re working on a subway system, and during the excavations we keep finding things from the Roman and Byzantine Empires. Coexistence is a part of Thessaloniki’s identity. The Ottomans were clever enough to invite the Jews driven out of Spain to settle here. After the city was liberated, in 1912, it was no longer an Ottoman town. There were three or four Jewish newspapers here at the time, four Turkish newspapers, two or three Greek newspapers, an English paper, a French one, and a German paper. That was Thessaloniki.

“In the 1920s, the Turks disappeared.” (Both the Greeks and the Turks at that time carried out pogroms and programs of ethnic cleansing.) “The Nazis exterminated the Jews. And that’s how Thessaloniki lost its identity. Not so long ago there were three hundred thousand people living here. Now there are a million. I want to remind the people of Thessaloniki of their history.”

“What can a mayor like you do during a crisis,” I ask, “when the Greek presence in the EU, and certainly in the Eurozone, no longer seems like something we can take for granted?”

“One of the pillars of the EU is solidarity; you can’t have an EU without solidarity. What’s more, it would be wrong to pretend that the German and Dutch companies were not overjoyed to sell Greece military equipment and consumer goods. Some German politicians have made it sound as though they are prepared to start the Third World War. Now Merkel has adopted a different attitude toward Greece, but in principle nothing has changed. I’m in direct contact with my fellow mayors in Germany. In that modest way, I try to influence national politics there.”

I ask: “And what exactly does that mean for Thessaloniki?”

“All over Greece there has been a huge trek from the countryside to the city. Except for South Korea, in Seoul, there is no other place where a country’s population is so proportionally concentrated as it is in Athens. But the people haven’t become urbanites. A rural mentality still prevails. That’s why I want to point out the city’s history to the inhabitants of Thessaloniki. The big question is whether we can become a central European city again. The question is whether we can take the farmer out of the city dweller. That’s my job.”

As I get up to leave, I ask Boutaris whether he will run again, in 2014. For the first time, a huge smile appears on his face. “Oh sure,” he says. “This is lots of fun.”

Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett.

Arnon Grunberg is a novelist and reporter. Grunberg’s novel, Tirza, was published this year by Open Letter. His work has been translated to twenty-six languages.

Thessaloniki’s mayor, Yiannis Boutaris
Photograph by the author

What did you think?
Write a letter to the editor


STAY CONNECTED
News on Facebook Photos on Instagram Stuff on Pinterest Announcements by RSS Sounds on Soundcloud Exclusives on Tumblr Updates on Twitter

Subscribe to our mailing list for periodic announcements about online exclusives and the occasional deal.