Friday, March 6, 2015

A Rather Ugly City

 “It’s a rather ugly city, isn’t it?” remarked one of my friends the other day as she, I and another sat looking at the sea from the roof of her apartment building.

While at first I was somewhat inclined to disagree, I suppose I must confess that in some ways Thessaloniki is indeed “a rather ugly city.” Filled with dirty, graffiti-ridden post-war flats, it certainly lacks the obvious charms of places such as Rome or Florence. In fact, when I first arrived, the rather dismal state of parts of the city made reexamine my decision. As long as I can remember, I have had trouble sleeping in cars and airplanes, and so the airplane ride, as you may suspect, had been rather exhausting. So I remember being in something a delusional hallucinatory state while I watched the urban landscape go by in my priest-friend’s car as he drove me to my apartment for the first time, and thinking to myself “Where have I decided to live?” I don’t know if it’s a post-crisis phenomenon, but no one seems to bother washing the graffiti from the walls anymore here, and there are enough bored youths (read: unemployed) that plenty of graffiti there is.

I guess it's not all bad...
Those first few days in Thessaloniki were rather surreal, and if I’m honest with myself, I was more than a little frightened. No matter how much I had done to prepare myself for the move, I still felt like I was hanging over the abyss---the chasm of uncertainty which now seems to be merely the characteristic trait of adulthood. I had left a great number of people whom I loved (and love) dearly in Texas and had moved 5000 miles to a country where I only had a couple of friends and could barely speak the language. It was difficult to sleep that first night after my arrival; despite my exhaustion, the seemingly endless questions and uncertainties made it nearly impossible to rest properly, but eventually sleep overtook me.

The next day, an acquaintance helped me get to the university for the Greek language placement exam. I’m still surprised I am friends with anyone I met that day because I’m sure I was a complete wreck. I’m also surprised that I managed to get into the A2 class given how exhausted I still was from my journey. Once I completed the exam, I was given my first real opportunity to explore the city on my own: this was a rather terrifying freedom. I had no friends and I knew nothing of the layout of this city, only the brief impressions from my two days there the year before. Naturally, I followed the tourist signs toward the center, and this is how I first encountered one of the hidden wonders of this ancient city: the Arch of Galerius (or as the locals have affectionately dubbed it, Καμάρα Kamara).

One meets the Arch of Galerius not as mere chiseled stone but as event. The first time I came upon it, I felt such a deep awe before its presence, and every day as I walk to my Greek lessons its ancient figure reawakens that same awe. This arch was built as part of a larger complex that included the Rotunda (which still stands today) and a palace, the ruins of which are now Plateia Navarinou. All constructed at the end of the 3rd century A.D. in order to commemorate the victory of the Roman Emperor Galerius over the Sassanid Persians. 

Even in its greatly diminished form, 1700 years later, it has served its purpose of attributing a certain immortal glory to the long-dead Galerius. It is impossible to encounter the arch and resist the intoxication of the nostalgic draught of history; the unsuspecting passer-by is favored with a brief glimpse of the glory which was the Roman autocracy. For a moment we hear again the accolades of ancient Thessalonians as they welcome their exultant and victorious Emperor.
Even in the midst of our ‘post-liberal’ milieu, such beauty from the classical world still resonates within the heart of the postmodern man; it reminds us of a time when society was oriented toward an ideal greater than individual which gave once gave meaning to the lives of so many. Of course, the corollary to this was the risk of the diminution and reduction of the value of the person as merely a part of a more important whole—something which the widespread acceptance of slave labor can so quickly remind us of (the shadow of the Aristotle’s polis). 

Thus it is that Thessaloniki serves as a reminder to us: neither to romanticize the past as being without flaw but also not to forget it in our often all-too-hasty and ambitious plans to construct a new future. Thessaloniki’s character lies in its ability to inspire the awe of classical civilization in the midst of what are admittedly graffiti-ridden post-war flats which evoke more the sentiments of French existentialism and post-war malaise.  It is a city which in many ways represents the crossroads at which our common European civilization has arrived; we see in it juxtaposed the remains of the dying old order and the results of a century in which the West (if such a monolith could be conceived) lost faith in its own project of modernity and the narrative of progress. Greece has served as the laboratory of European civilization many times before as I have mentioned; whether it was the spread of Hellenism under Alexander the Great, or the creation of a Christian Roman culture in late antiquity, it has often been the case that Greece has served as a sign. While for a time, she may have followed various cultural captors—both Ottoman and German—it may be that once again Greece will determine the fate of the newest European project, the Eurozone. For as Greece goes, so does Europe.

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