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Thessaloniki by Eleni Bastea
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CULTURE
Thessaloniki through the eyes of
Eleni Bastea
Professor of Architecture, University of New Mexico
 Director of the International Studies Institute
Most every summer, since I left Thessaloniki 38 years ago to study in the States, I practice saying goodbye to the city. The day before departing is already a day of transition and gradual withdrawal. But two days before departure is when I try to take in as much of the city as possible, hold it inside me, and carry it with me. Then, time stretches out and the long day unfolds into the night, while the city and its people begin to reveal new and deeper facets of their lives.
 
I walk down Tsimiski Street, in the busy downtown shopping area, and choose my last koulouri from a street seller’s carefully piled tray. Slowly, I bite this chewy, crunchy circle of bread. I taste the toasted sesame seeds on its surface, some of them coming off in my palm, and I am back in first grade, at our school courtyard during recess, shyly approaching Kyra Kali, the old koulouri seller, to ask if she had extra sesame seeds. And she would tip her blackened metal tray and pour sesame seeds in my cupped hands. 

One last stroll along the paralia, which wraps around the waterfront. Imposing historical structures and contemporary apartment buildings rise gradually all the way up to the Byzantine fortifications crowning the city. Modern landscaping, lighting and a bike lane have transformed the paralia into a well-defined space for pedestrians, joggers, and bike riders. And for those who find the new design alienating, the old, narrow part of the paralia remains unchanged.  Even when people abandon the city en masse for one more weekend at the beach in Chalkidiki, the old paralia remains crowded with pedestrians who struggle to negotiate their paths between bike riders and street sellers of faux designer bags and sneakers.

 
I watch the sun setting over the port, which has now become an attractive destination for residents and tourists. Sitting on the large, square, wood-topped benches or at the water’s edge are the young city kids, looking cool and worldly in their edgy, urban clothes and I-have-seen-it-all gaze; I blend in with the middle-aged set that exhibits its eternal youthfulness in the slightly rumpled clothes, unfussy hair, and occasional backpacks. I could get a drink at the trendy bar & restaurant that overlooks the water, but I am drawn rather to the museums that are housed in the restored warehouse buildings along the pier. Some of their exhibits are presented simultaneously at several different venues around the city. Seeing part of the recent Photo Biennale Logos (May—September 2014) mounted in the Cryptoporticus of the Roman Agora (Forum), a major archaeological site on the top of Aristotelous Street, jarring though it seemed at first, helped me appreciate the Roman Agora in a new way. Creating a web of such events stitches together Thessaloniki’s distinct if sometimes forgotten parts.

 
What if you happen to be one of only 52 people who are still in Thessaloniki in early August, the remaining 788,900 away on their last vacation this year? And what if it also happens to be a full moon, when an extravaganza of free musical and theatrical performances unfolds at most of the archaeological and cultural sites around the country? Those vacationers might wish they were back, sipping a drink in the garden of the Archaeological Museum, listening to a live performance of Hadjidakis and Theodorakis, as the moon rises over the city.
 
I, on the other hand, watched the full moon rise over the abandoned Allatini factory, a powerful remnant of the city’s once thriving industry, now left in ruins, its future uncertain. Next year, με το καλό, I hope to visit it in the daytime, slip through the gates, and explore its deserted buildings. But by then, its fate may have changed.
 
 
Gradually, I come to realize that saying goodbye to your city is like saying goodbye to your family. Both are charged with the energy of the last days; both are draining but also deeply rewarding. The city I am leaving today is not the city I left a year ago, just as the people are not the same as last year and both they and I will change more in years to come. I am beginning to understand that this unique sense of feeling so alive when getting ready to leave is not only fueled by the sadness of departure, but also by those unexpected discoveries of the last few days, days of looking at the city with new eyes, days of looking at the people around me with a new understanding. New family stories emerge; dots connect for the first time, or reconnect forming new schemes. As it closes one chapter in our lives, each departure also begins to foretell the chapters ahead.

From top to bottom: 1.Thessaloniki. Port with moon rising. Photo: Mark Forte, 2014 2.Thessaloniki. Alaca Imaret mosque, 15th century, now used as an exhibition hall. The suspended piece, created by the Beforelight group and titled “Qr-esque,” was installed for the 4th Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art, 2013. Photo: Mark Forte, 2014 3.Thessaloniki. Redesigned new paralia. Photo: Eleni Bastéa, 2014 4.Thessaloniki. New paralia. Opera performance. Photo Mark Forte, 2014 5.Thessaloniki. Roman Agora. Cryptoporticus with part of the exhibit Photo Biennale Logos (May-September 2014). Photo: Mark Forte, 2014.

Biographical note

Eleni Bastéa was born and grew up in Thessaloniki, Greece. She holds a BA in art history from Bryn Mawr College, and a Master’s of Architecture and a Ph.D. in architectural history from the University of California at Berkeley. At the University of New Mexico, where she has taught since 2001, she is Regents’ Professor of Architecture and Director of the International Studies Institute. Her books include The Creation of Modern Athens: Planning the Myth (Cambridge University Press, 2000), winner of the John D. Criticos Prize, and a finalist for the Sir Steven Runciman Award. Bastéa has appeared in the English-language documentaries Smyrna: The destruction of a cosmopolitan city, 1900-1922 and From Both Sides of the Aegean: Expulsion and Exchange of populations, Turkey -- Greece: 1922-1924, (both directed by Maria Iliou, Proteus production, 2012).
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