Friday, 21 December 2012

Leaving Thessalonika

Mount Olympus shimmered in the distance, it snowcapped peaks majestic in the midday sunshine of a chilly December day. At 9570 feet, it's the highest mountain in Greece and, in case you've just stepped out of a beam of light after the manner of Mr. Bean, you'll know that it was the fabled home of the Greek Gods of old.

The mountain sits on the skyline many kilometres to the west of the second largest city in Greece, not always visible due to either high humidity or smog from the city, but on December 7th, as I was sitting in the back seat of our friend's car as he whisked my friend Mihali and I back to the airport from the city, the mountain graced us with a superb show of snow-capped stateliness. The sky was very blue and created the impression that the snowy pinnacles of the mount were suspended in the air above the ground. I found it hard to tear my eyes away. Of course, the frequent obscuring of this noble rockmass by such things as the many huge out-of-town shopping complexes and stores that pepper the area around so many modern cities kept bringing my eyes back to the immediate vicinity around the car, but each time there was a gap of sufficient time or space my eyes sought Olympus out again of their own volition.

It can't fail to strike a chord with me the behaviour of the ancient Gods of this country and how closely it parallels that of the "gods' of this modern world, the movie and TV celebrities who are worshiped with much the same fervour as were the Gods on Olympus. Religion 'per se' may have waned to a large degree in the last century or so, but in reality, in the western world at any rate,  it's simply been a switch from the mysterious gods of the churches to the gods on the small and large screen. The "cult" of celebrity is quite real. Take Aphrodite for example, a stunningly beautiful woman, she was famed for having many lovers. Then there was Ares, God of - among other things - war, bloodshed and violence. He's still got millions of worshippers among cinema goers or even computer game-players nowadays. Dionysus was god of wine, parties and festivals, madness, chaos, drunkenness, drugs, and ecstasy. He was also frequently portrayed as quite effeminate. Strikes me a lot of worship goes his way during the "festive" season.

I can't watch a red-carpet event without being reminded of the ancient Greeks and their worship of the Olympian gods. You only have to look at the faces of some of those poor plebs behind the barriers, all desperate to catch a glimpse or even share a word or two with their favourite deities. You may think all this is a bit extreme, but the parallels are all there.

Thessalonika is a city with a proud heritage here in Greece. It's home to numerous cultural events, plus it's the birthplace of many of modern Greece's top singers and musicians. Stratos Dionysiou was born is Serres, but moved to Thessalonika when very young. There he rose to become the biggest star of his generation. He died in 1990 but is still played often on the traditional radio stations, of which there are many all across the country. Pascalis Terzis, Vasilis Karras and Natassa Theodoridou are all huge in Greece today and all come from Thessalonika, where the bouzouki clubs rival those of Athens and, if you were to ask a local, they'd say they surpass them.

The problem is, in wintertime it gets ruddy cold there!!! I can't quite get my head around it. It's a long way south of most of western Europe and yet, during winter it often gets snow and, during the five days I spent there in early December the temperature was around freezing overnight and not much higher during daylight hours. I reckon it must have something to do with the fact that it's at the bottom of the Balkans (and you don't want to be at the bottom of the Balkans when the north wind blows!). Immediately north of here are some pretty high mountains, plus the countries you'd travel through going north wouldn't be many before you arrived in Ukraine or Poland, perhaps Belarus and then Russia, where it gets very nippy round the old turntables, as Tony Blackburn used to say.

Still, we'd stayed with a family who are friends of Mihalis, who'd made the trip with me and they'd treated us like kings, feeding us up with a wonderful selection of home cooked dishes for the whole time we were there. They resolutely refused to accept any money to cover their expenses, even though times are tough for them. The husband, also a Mihalis, is retired and his wife also lives on a modest pension, which, of course has been reduced by something like 40% in the past year or so.

Greeks eat some pretty odd things for breakfast. They often lay the table with that huge round brown sponge with a hole in the middle, or they'll spread butter on a slice of bread and add some cheese, some ham or a few olives. Often, as was the case with our host, they'll make do with a cup of Elleniko coffee. It may be short on nutrition, but doesn't half kick start them for the day, eh? Our hosts were well amused at their British guest, as I asked on the first evening for a breakfast bowl into which I could pour some of the muesli that I'd brought along in my case, so that I could add a little water to soak it overnight. Apart from the fact that they were bemused over quite what the muesli was, they were even more perplexed when I refused milk and simply wanted water to pour onto it. I tried to explain that the oats in the mix would produce their own "milk" as they absorbed the water during the night, but they just shook their heads, smiled and remarked on how weird I was.

The first morning at breakfast, when I asked if there was perhaps a piece of fruit that I could chop on to my muesli, Dimitra (the wife) produced some beautiful green apples and proudly announced that they were their own. In other words, they'd grown them on their own trees. Now it was my turn to be perplexed. Here they were living in an apartment on the third floor in the great urban sprawl of the northern suburbs of this huge city, and they're telling me that they have apple trees. In fact, all through the week we ate their produce, from white radishes on the salad to root vegetables and all kinds of other delicious stuff. Turns out that they have a house, an actual house, not just a "kaliva", many km out of town, but they can't afford to live out there because there's no work. Their son Petros was going for interviews and exams to see if he could get work as a bus driver even while we were there, so they had no choice but to live in the city. But Mihalis treks out there every so often to tend his crops and trees.

Tell you what was really good though. They have gas central heating!!! You can't get that on the islands. Not that it's a huge necessity down here on Rhodes, but further north it's a huge advantage, as it's still the cheapest way to heat a home during the winter months.

Anyway, we arrived back at Macedonia Airport, just south of the city, at around 12.45pm, checked in with Aegean, got rid of the cases and began that rather irritating process of shuffling up and down in a bustling queue, between those pull-out tapes that are attached to the metal posts that we're all so familiar with as we queued to get through that x-ray machine for your hand baggage and that electronic arch you have to walk through after first removing your belt, and throwing your wallet, your phone and your fillings into a little plastic tray. Internal flights are a little easier than international ones in that you don't have to arrive two hours before departure and there's no passport control or customs to slow you down. But you still have all that security stuff which is such a necessary although depressing aspect of flying nowadays.

Mind you, although I have little time for religion in general, there's something to be said for being a priest in the Orthodox Church. Whilst all of us poor lay-people queued for the best part of twenty-five minutes just to get into the departure lounge, a couple of portly priests, their bellies under those flowing black robes displaying the evidence of a pretty good lifestyle and their bearded chins held high, were immediately ushered through a glass door at the side by some uniformed official or other, where they found themselves right at the front of the queue before you could say Vatopedi scandal!! Miracles do still happen, but only for the select few it seems.

I wondered if they'd been up to Olympus lately, you know, to ensure the favour of a few deities for their journey. Seems to have worked!

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