Greek heroes of our time
While Greece groans beneath the weight of the debt crisis, most Greeks remain buoyant – especially in Thessaloniki, an ancient port that is now a buzzing creative center. We pay a visit to a city that is crafting its own future.
No city in Greece is as much a symbol of hope for a better future as Thessaloniki. The country is suffering from sanctions and austerity measures, but right here, startups are popping out of the ground like mushrooms beside design firms and delicatessen factories, hiprestaurants and action groups. In these desperate times, the people of Thessaloniki, indeed people throughout much of Macedonia, are boldly following their own ideas – and putting them into practise. Of course poverty and unemployment exist here. “But we don’t take it as hard as the Athenians,” explains one taxi driver, who sets some of his sparse earnings aside to pay for his daugher’s piano lessons, “and we seek solutions.”
I leave the old harbor behind and follow the broad promenade that today belongs to people out for a stroll, street traders and musicians. The city’s new government has introduced carfree Sundays, once a month to start with, but there are thoughts of banning motorized traffic from the boulevard entirely. This would no doubt please the many young couples out walking, holding hands. At White Tower, the city’s famous landmark, I sit on the wharf dangling my feet and watch the big ships plowing the horizon. Ever since it was founded in 315 B.C.C., Thessaloniki has been an important Mediterranean port. Roman and Byzantine rule in this region was followed by almost 500 years under the Ottomans.In 1912, it went to the Greeks. Fifteen buildings in Thessaloniki are UNESCO World Heritage sites and testify to the region’s checkered history.
A droning bass beat awakens me from my daydreams. Close by, young people are dancing in the sun to electronic music. Of the city’s 400 000 inhabitants, 120 000 are students – a larger percentage than in any other southeast European city. All anyone needs to start an impromptu party here is a good sound system; the rest will follow. The many young people are one reason for the upswing; they bring creative potential to the city. All the same, the most important force for renewal is an elderly gentleman: Yiannis Boutaris, 72, mayor of Thessaloniki since 2011. Dressed in rainbow-striped suspenders, wearing metal-rimmed glasses and sporting tattoos, the ex-winegrower and ex-alcoholic looks the very antithesis of the political establishment. While his predecessors, convicted of corruption, sit out their prison sentences, Boutaris, who never belonged to a major political party, is now celebrated like a guru, which is why the muscle outside his office is there mainly to stop fans from storming in. Once we are sitting across from each other, Boutaris fishes a filterless cigarette our of his breast pocket, lights up and starts talking almost reverently about how he had to drastically reorganize the city government in order to achieve anything at all; about the car-free Sundays on the promenade and the newly introduced recycling system. One of his first projects, though, was to introduce measures to preserve the city’s cultural heritage. He cultivates good relations with the Turks, whose state founder, Kemal Atatürk, was born in Thessaloniki. He also initiated a march to preserve the memory of hundreds of thousands of Jews deported during World War II. Thessaloniki was once home to one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe. Boutaris says: “We can only build the future on the knowledge of the past.” In this case, it even applies quite specifically: The number of tourists from Israel and Turkey has risen drastically in a very short time. Among the tattoos on his right hand, Boutaris has a lizard, which, he says, reminds him that any crisis can be overcome. “The animal stands for new beginnings because it can shed its skin.” A lot more people in Thessaloniki deserve a lizard tattoo, I muse. Athanasios Babalis, for example. The 52-year-old product designer who lived for many years in London and New York and won numerous major awards before returning to his native city. Today, he enjoys the quiet life here – and is happy to be a part of the booming creative industry. Design firms like 157 + 173 and Beetroot are just two overnight success stories that enjoy international recognition.