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Portraits of Thessalonians: Pilot-Shopkeeper-Patriot

by on January 22, 2020 5:00 AM

THESSALONIKI, Greece -- Before I knew his name, I called him Tsipouro Guy.

Soon after we got here, while working our way through the neighborhood street market, we noticed in one of the shops a stainless-steel urn labeled “tsipouro” – a Greek brandy closely related to grappa and raki — and decided to get some for home use. That’s how we met Tsipouro Guy.

Since, then we’ve bought eggs, coffee and paper towels from the little shop and learned that Tsipouro Guy’s name is Stelios. 

It’s “sun with teeth” weather in northern Greece, but the door of Stelios’ shop remains open. The proprietor wears a puffy jacket and Nike sweats. A postage stamp-sized version of the Greek flag hangs around his neck, alongside a crucifix. He’s 52, with thinning black hair, a round ruddy face and round brown eyes.

In a space the size of an average bedroom, Stelios has a coffee grinder, a copy machine, a glass-doored cooler for dairy and soft drinks, and shelves crammed with foodstuffs, newspapers, cigarettes, condoms and coloring books. He touts the freshness of his eggs and the quality of his coffee. He pours me a taste of red wine, locally produced and recently arrived.

“You sell everything in here,” I marvel.

“Except my body,” he says.

I ask him how his shop survives amid the supermarkets, the weekly street market and all the other little stores just like his.

“I know everyone in the neighborhood,” he says. “I know their secrets, but I keep my mouth shut.”

He’s joking, I think.

A decade ago, before “the crisis,” as the near-collapse of the Greek economy is known, there were a lot more shops. If things are still so bad, I ask him, why do I see so many people carrying shopping bags and packing Thessaloniki’s innumerable cafes?

“Greece is a lamb,” he tells me. “He likes to be fed with promises and good talk. Give him five euros and he’ll spend the whole time in a café instead of looking for a job.”

This seems to be the image that the rest of Europe has of Greeks and that many Greeks have of themselves. A T-shirt sold in a souvenir kiosk on the waterfront bears the words “Greek Crisis,” followed by three checked boxes: 

  • No Job

  • No Money

  • No Problem

On shelves in the back corner of Stelios’ store sit a helmet emblazoned with the Greek flag and a model of a helicopter. Between them hangs a photo of Stelios in uniform, the same helmet tucked under his arm, the life-size helicopter behind him. 

The store is Stelios’ second career. His first was pilot in the Greek army. He retired in 2010 and opened the shop because “I had to fill the blank hours.”

I ask him if he misses flying. 

“Every day,” he says. Even now, “I will be the first to go fight for Greece. I consider myself a real patriot.”

In 1995, he spent half a year learning to fly Apaches at Fort Rucker, Alabama. He loves America, he tells me. I ask him why.

“The spirit,” he says. Also, “People are kind.”

“Aren’t Greeks kind?” I ask him.


But he is not kindly disposed toward the refugees who got stuck in Greece on the way to more prosperous havens in northern Europe.

Stelios calls it “an invasion without weapons.” Sounding like he gets his information from Greece’s version of Fox News, he talks of crime increasing and diseases returning since the asylum seekers began arriving in 2015. He hints at dark plots to Islamize Europe.

I ask him if he feels at all sorry for families fleeing war in Syria. Of course, he says. But what about the men – and he says 80 percent of them are men – coming from Morocco and Algeria, which are not at war?

“I don’t know if all of them are ISIS,” he says, “but many of them are ISIS.”

And in 10 or 20 years, he warns, as the immigrants out-reproduce the Greeks, “they will spoil the population of Greece. That is not the Greece I want for my children.”

Already, he says, his children “are afraid to sing the national anthem or make the cross as Christians.” 

I try to point out that his monocultural view of Greece is totally at odds with the history of his city, which in the days of the Ottoman Empire was almost equal parts Jewish, Muslim and Greek Orthodox.

That was a long time ago, he says. And all those people were here legally.

“Other countries should take immigrants, not only Greece,” he says, reasonably. He compares his small country to a four-person household. 

“You make food for four persons. Suddenly, you have guests. How will you feed them?”

Stelios’ solution: “Mine the border. Put a fence – like your president.”

I ask him what he thinks of “my” president.

“He’s unstable,” Stelios says.

On that, at least, we agree.

Russell Frank teaches journalism in Penn State’s Bellisario College of Communications. He is spending the 2019-2020 academic year as a Fulbright scholar in Thessaloniki, Greece.

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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