It has excited my imagination for some time, but I know very little about it. I know it’s Mustafa Kemal’s birthplace, but ironically not part of the great modern state he created. It’s often compared to Izmir. Its history, rich, significant … Greek, Roman, Ottoman, 20th century, Jewish. It’s a port city, Aegean, named after the princess born on the day of a great Macedonian victory.
To hell with guidebooks. Wander. Get a vague sense of direction and then to let all five, or is it six, senses lead me. I don’t want anybody else to discover for me. Why not relinquish the burdensome anxiety that something will be missed without Fodor’s or Lonely Planet?
Yes, I have expectations, but seeing how close one’s imagination stands up to reality is another pleasure. Thessaloniki … Salonika … Selanik? doesn’t disappoint. There are echoes of other port cities, Izmir, Beirut, common architectural details like shuttered windows, but this is a city with its very own feel. Perhaps it’s the imprint of that vast and important aforementioned history.
The Greeks are a far more resilient people than the images on the nightly news would suggest of late. Despite their recent economic woes, the locals here seem very much up to the task of appreciating the kind of wealth that only their geography can provide. Everyone is concerned but overall, I sense resigned calm, not panic, not depression. Why waste sunlight and spring?
Other things I notice … the choice of a single species of tree for each of the central streets. Sunlight spilling down on the wide sidewalks, filling the cracks in the cobblestone malls. Corners and alleys alive with a kind of decrepit charm. But mostly space … space without excess emptiness. Spaces creeping with interest and imagination. It’s not a big city, not especially crowded, but there a lot of places where the inhabitants can go out and enjoy themselves. And they’re full to capacity. Metal jugs of wine. Grilled sardines. Grilled cheeses. Clinking plates. Cigarette smoke spiraling up into the air. Greek voices suddenly penetrated by clamorous Turkish ones. The streets, the city continue to replenish themselves.
Atriums. Passages. Shafts of blue colored light and then Hermes Bar. High ceilings, tall windows, long late afternoon light. More cigarette smoke. I need to find this place again. Is it fate that I’m brought to a bar named after the God of all alchemists? And no, I can’t tell you where it is, the card is in Greek. But its location is no longer a mystery withheld from me. It will not dissolve like a dream.
The vastness of the Aegean washes in empty except for a handful of freighters. Olive trees toss in a salt-tinged breeze. Orange trees hang heavy with fruit. Children play at their parent’s feet. Teenagers gather to greet and gawk at each other across Aristotelous Square.
Time to find another glass of wine. The economy is not thriving. Life is.