Do I have a favorite spot in Thessaloniki? Yes, it is the vista from my room in the Makedonia Palace hotel, on a misty afternoon, after a nap, watching the fog eating up the sunset over the Thermaic Gulf. I stand on the balcony, a potent double espresso just wheeled in by room service, amazed and amused by the fact that after almost four decades of visiting, I simply cannot get enough of this city.
My coffee is getting cold, as a consequence of the obligatory chat with any member of the immaculate staff that delivers the order. “Chat with staff” here is code for a short, but passionate discussion about politics, soccer – the local teams are revered almost to the point of a cult following – the latest snippet of city gossip, as well as soul-baring disclosures about our personal lives.
“Are you with your husband?
“No.” “I see” (wink).
“Oh, come on, I’m here on an assignment, those years are behind me.”
“Yes, yes, of course, my daughter/sister/myself is/am going through a divorce/separation/affair right now; nothing to worry about. The government stinks, the city is suffering, we are being short-changed, once again, don’t you think?”
“Yep, right, I couldn’t agree more.”
“So, where is your husband?”
After all, this is Thessaloniki. As friendly as it gets. Keeping a polite professional distance is futile.
Still, as a born-and-bred Athenian I will always be an outsider. It does not matter that my home is just a half-hour flight away. I am not a Thessalonikia, and this is what matters. I am a hamoutzou, a southerner, forever the object of gentle ridicule among my many northern friends. I will never be able to master the few, but distinct language differences between my city and theirs, and I will certainly never aspire to even mimic the lush, heavily spiced accent that gives away a true Greek of Thessaloniki, in any part of the world he or she chooses to set camp. I will never be a real Thessaloniki woman, a truly enchanting creature, with the appearance of an exceptionally well-groomed kitten and the heart of a roaring lioness; nor will I come to ever really know this city, no matter how much I work at it, how long I stay or how hard I study.
My advice? Don’t even try. Travel guides, specialist books and websites, as well as dedicated editions such as the one you are presently perusing are very much needed. Mostly to take home with you and marvel at the multitude of things you did not even have time to read about, let alone explore.
Thessaloniki is a live, sentient being. She acknowledges your presence; she assesses your personality, your needs, and probes into your deepest thoughts.
A great way to get to know Thessaloniki is do nothing to explore her, but instead just exist in the moment. Just relax. The word halara (take it easy), is so embedded in the city’s laid-back mentality, that its use is now all but frowned upon by the locals. However, those superficial platitudes that modern Thessalonians avoid like the plague when describing their city, are in fact, very real qualities any metropolis would kill to have. Apart from its given unquestionably relaxed mentality, the city has, at times being been branded as erotic, lazy, magical or short-changed (in comparison to with the public funding and opportunities that are, more or less, reserved for the capital and the general Athens metropolitan area). There is a core of truth inside each and every one of those tired clichés. Even if you don’t ever publicly utter the words, it does not hurt to take them into consideration.
Did I mention the word magical? I am not very comfortable with the unproven, but I could swear that this place is a live, sentient being. She speaks to you. One of our most beloved Greek songs of the last 30 years (and one of myriads that salute the city’s name) is titled “Looking for you in Thessaloniki” (S’anazito sti Saloniki). The song Ladadika includes the cryptic phrase “This is what I give / How much do you want? / They sell what you want in Ladadika.” The historical downtown quarter of Ladadika is a metaphor for the entire city. Be prepared to pay, not always in money. You also need to throw in some soul currency for the exchange to be complete.
By all means, take a risk if you feel like it, but know that you are doing so at your own peril. I remember the night our Canadian friends, a delightful, cosmopolitan couple, dismissed our recommendation for dinner exactly 20 feet from their hotel entrance, as “too touristy.” Instead, armed with the latest trendy city guide they took us to a distant neighborhood, to savor the legendary Pontic cuisine, the culinary heritage of the diaspora of the Pontic (Black Sea) Greeks.
The four of us ended up gazing at our plates of cold mushy pasta, cold cream, and cold ham, all rolled up and served in one amorphous dish. Back at the hotel, close to midnight – our exhausted friends now asleep in their room – we decided to honor the original dinner reservation – albeit with two guests short and a three-hour delay. The manager did not flinch. Out of curiosity, he wanted to know where we had been. “Pontic? I am Pontic,” he laughed loudly, “so is half the city! If they wanted Pontic culture, they could have stayed at their hotel; the manager is Pontic, the staff is Pontic, even their breakfast is Pontic. Trust me, I know; the hotel belongs to my family.”
See my point? Don’t feel guilty if you don’t go all out actively uncovering Thessaloniki’s secrets. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed by the historical, informational and sensory overload. Breathe deeply. Stay put. Look around. Have a bite. Walk two blocks. Chat with a complete stranger. Follow your group’s scheduled itinerary or just stand on your balcony, linger on a street corner. Try to feel the Thermaic Gulf breeze, or the frosty Vardaris wind in your face. Sip your coffee and listen. This city speaks. Some of the things she will say, or show to you, will remain in your memory for a long, long time. Some of them will perplex you and take you out of your comfort zone.
But the city does speak.
And her first words will always be “This is what I give / How much do you want? I sell what you want to buy.”