“We have only a little time to please the living, but all eternity to love the dead.”
Sitting on a rooftop bar in the dark with still unbearable humidity, Thessaloniki could be any city. Surrounded by the light of candles and strings of exposed lightbulbs, a Serbian girl I met at my hostel and I drink excellent mojitos, instagramming the pretty lights and view while complaining about the suffocating heat. The mojitos are quite expensive (for Greece at least), but they have to be when you consider the aesthetic of this bar. We could be anywhere in the world, at least anywhere that has adopted all the accoutrements of hipster cocktail bars. But in the daylight, it’s very obvious that Thessaloniki is, in fact, Thessaloniki, and not anywhere else.
Thessaloniki is undoubtedly a unique place: it’s a collection of Macedonian villages, an ancient Greek city, a Roman city, Byzantine, Ottoman, and finally Greek again. Cities this old aren’t just one city: they’re many cities sitting on top of each other, each layer slowly built upon the other, mazes of secret tunnels and ancient pathways. Cities where ancient sewers were turned into early Christian shrines, when they still had to worship underground for fear of persecution, or where ancient fortress walls have been covered in anarchist graffiti because ancient fortress walls are a dime a dozen. It’s nigh impossible to build anything modern like a metro system because they have to stop every other day when they find another piece of antiquity.
Ancient ruins abut turn-of-the-century art deco buildings or ugly high rises. Our tour guide told us stories about people coming on the tour to find a building where his Jewish grandmother lived before the war, an early 20th century building that is still there but is now decrepit and abandoned, wedged between a building that had the money to be restored and the construction of something that promises to be new and shiny once the funding comes through. You can see the ruins of an ancient palace next to the “kindness walls” that sprung up during the crisis, where people can hang food or clothes or anything they want to donate and someone in need will come by and take it. You can feel something about this place that would like to move forward, but also has a hard time letting go.
You know the story, modernity and history, forever at odds, blah blah blah. But unlike northern Europe, where history is one (maybe two) layers down, everything in Greece seems to have five or six or seven layers, probably more. You think churches and universities from the Middle Ages are old? Ha! You ain’t seen nothing until you’ve been to Greece. It’s all a beautiful and somewhat romantic setting, but I sometimes wonder if it’s all worth saving. I wonder if every ounce of history we would need years to piece together is worth the price of buses stuck in traffic because like we said, there is no metro.
Because no matter how much a pain in the ass it is, it is unique. Even old cities in northern Europe have a certain newness to them. And as they develop (thanks to the merciless engine that is late capitalism!) they all build the same shopping malls and supermarkets and hipster bars and it can all start to feel remarkably similar.
At least here you’ll never make that mistake.