Reflections from the city of ghosts

Sunday Blog 103 – Sunday 24th September

It always takes me some time to “arrive” once I return from a trip. One of the biggest mysteries of travel to me not just exploring new places, but also being once again in places that you were before.

It’s like re-reading a book over time, when you can re-discover who you were when you read it last time, what you missed, what you know now that makes those same words mean such different things now.

Visiting Thessaloniki, (also known as Salonika, Salonica, Thessalonika etc.) Greece’s second biggest city, was a bit part of this trip for me. Last year, on the way out to Heathrow airport I saw a sign advertising Thessaloniki as a tourist destination. I hadn’t seen that before, and I took it as a Sign that my 2023 needed to include Thessaloniki. I had been to Athens several times to catch ferries to islands, but was increasingly disenchanted with how little grace the city seems to have apart from the Acropolis and the excellent museums, and its delicious, overpriced tavernas surrounding this area. The rest seems to me grim and increasingly desperate sprawl of apartments. Sometimes I felt unsafe walking its dark streets.

Besides Thessaloniki was my home for nearly four years, from 1996 to 2000 in the tumultuous years where I became an English language teacher briefly, and then the mother of a half-Greek daughter. I have been back and forth over the years, but not recently.

This year I was able to spend a little time in Thessaloniki separately and together with my husband, my daughter, and my daughter’s father and friends. I also finally read Gail Jones’ Salonika Burning which was excellent. She also left a clue about a history book she had found very helpful when reading it, Salonica, City of Ghosts – Christians, Muslins and Jews by Mark Mazower. I have downloaded its 700+ pages and am only in the early part of it but it is comprehensive and fascinating. The opening quote in the book leapt out at me because it is exactly as this city seems – “the gods who live beneath names and above places have gone off without a word and outsiders have settled in their place”

Take for example this photo taken through the 6 metre deep Rotunda Walls. This 4th Century building has been a pagan temple to who knows which god, a Christian basilica, a Muslim mosque, back to a Christian church and its main use now, an archeological site and museum. You can see through the window the modern apartment blocks of Greece anywhere, slap bang next to it.

Where I chose to spend my final three days right in the centre in Navarinou Square, the remains of the Hippodrome built adjacent to this magnificent rotunda is mainly ruins surrounded again by apartment blocks.

For three days I lived in one of these apartments, finishing off the working holiday with mainly working, a little bit of holiday and a lot of sunshine. Tourists, something I had never seen before, are now common. It is clear money has been spent on roads, on the airport. More ferries are running again.

I loved this idealised and unrealistic three-day stay in the flash Navarinou apartment, so different from my life when I eked out an existence as a teacher. Perhaps what made it so sweet was that I had spent several days with my daughter in her father’s family apartment in the old town. We were joined by a couple of his friends too, and we camped out there together for a few days. That’s what it feels like, as the apartment is about to be rented out and it’s fair to say, it has been somewhat neglected in the last five years. Also I elected to stay on the day bed so I had the run of the place to make a cup of tea in the middle of the night and do my yoga early in the morning while my daughter slept.

Just before I was due to leave, and after my daughter had already gone, (sob) we found the photo albums from her dad’s family. We’d looked for these in vain while she was there. I pored over these, capturing all the images for my her, filing them away for her to enjoy back in Perth. My last time in the apartment was spent marinating in memories of others lives. Zigging and zagging across the joys and tragedies and sadness of loss and change.

My Greek memoir is beginning to brew and take shape…

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *