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Greece: Jolly and Melancholy

by on October 16, 2019 5:00 AM

THESSALONIKI, GREECE — “In Greece, no money. Funny.”

The baker around the corner, silver-haired and light-eyed, paunchy and cheerful, told me that.

What he meant, I think, is that Greeks don’t let hard times keep them from having a good time.

Which seems to be true, at least from the perspective of a stranger who has been here all of two weeks. 

Everywhere you look in this ancient city, on the seafront, in grape arbors, under the trees or under the stars, you see two, three, eight people passing the time around café tables. To an American who has eaten a solitary meal or two – while behind the wheel — out of a paper sack obtained from a drive-up window, the outdoor cafe is the very image of the good life. Here, one thinks, are people with the leisure and funds to savor food, drink and each other’s company.

Appearances, my Greek friends tell me, may deceive. Anyone who can while away the afternoon in a café must not be working. And the reason they’re not working is that they don’t have full-time jobs, or any jobs at all. 

A decade after Greece’s economy hit the skids, unemployment remains around 20 percent. Among young people, it’s closer to 50 percent.

How, you may ask, do people with little or no income afford to eat out? That, too, demands a closer look. The main thing being consumed at these cafes is coffee. With summer weather lingering into mid-October, the drink of choice is a foamy iced freddo espresso. And in Greek cafes that one coffee order pretty much rents you the table for as many hours as you care to occupy it.  

So while it may seem like an extravagance to blow two or three euros on a beverage when you’re out of work, if hanging out in cafes is your principal form of entertainment and solace, it’s really a bargain.

Still, we’re only seeing the people who have an extra couple of euros to spend on coffee. Those who don’t, probably aren’t going out at all. We’re also not seeing where and how these coffee drinkers live. A lot of young folk, I’m told, still live with their parents, or have moved back in with their parents.

Then there’s the fact that we’ve spent most of our time in and around the relatively prosperous city center. There are plenty of empty storefronts in my neighborhood; as I get out and about more, I may find that there is even less economic activity out on the periphery. 

All of which reinforces a point I made in my first column from Greece: This isn’t paradise. (For example: I swam in the Aegean the other day – and got stung by jellyfish. Is that what those black flags on the pier meant? On the plus side was the grilled fish I ate at a restaurant on the beach.)

Thessaloniki, lovely as it is (in some parts of town), doesn’t even look like postcard and calendar Greece. For dazzling white houses set off by blue roofs, doors and window frames, you have to go south and to the islands. 

Thessaloniki and northern Greece have a different look, as well as a different history from the rest of the country. Central and southern Greece gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1832. Thessaloniki and the north did not become part of independent Greece until 80 years later. For much of its history, the city was more Jewish and Turkish than it was Greek. 

Every seven years, apparently, I get this urge to wander among the ghosts of once-thriving Jewish communities. My previous sabbatical took me to Lviv, Ukraine, which was about a third Jewish before the Holocaust. At one point in its history, Thessaloniki was more than half Jewish. Now, depending on your source, there are as few as 600 and no more than 1,200 Jews in a metropolitan area with a population of 1 million.

The near destruction of Thessaloniki’s Jewish community is the melancholy part of being here. The jolly parts are encounters with people like the baker around the corner. Even before I open my mouth, everyone can tell I’m not from these parts.  But aside from one grumpy supermarket checker, they all seem to get a kick out of speaking English and an even bigger kick out of my faltering attempts at Greek. 

People who work in bakeries, not surprisingly, have been the warmest. The other morning, as I paid for a loaf of bread and two savory pastries, the woman behind the counter threw in a loaf of slightly sweet challah-like bread to welcome me to the neighborhood. Now I don’t know whether to buy from her or from the “no money/funny” guy.

Not to mention the half-dozen bakeries in the neighborhood that I haven’t tried yet. So much to look forward to!

But it ain’t paradise, even if not hearing the name Trump for days at a time makes it feel that way.



A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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