Greece’s true beauty is in everyday life
I moved to Thessaloniki because it has the same urban vibrancy I grew up with in lower Manhattan, plus bounty, beauty, and all those extra centuries of culture, including the culture thriving right now. I also love the contact- it’s a little messy, a little loud, and so warm, so personal.
I love Thessaloniki because it’s a little messy, a little loud, and so warm, so personal!
You get a little of all those things every day- mount Olympus, tips on grilling fish at the busy central market, a 5th C mosaic, an avant-garde fashion show on the board-walk in the afternoon light, bougatsa at 4 am. There’s a lot to experience. I like to share experiences, foods, and vignettes of the refinement and the happy chaos of our contemporary life in an ancient place.
My most cherished memories are the summer‘s pleasures – the dazzling beaches and whitewashed windmills, the light that opened Henry Miller’s eyes and the rosy fingered dawn (to say nothing of the Parthenon) get all the attention. And how could they not?
But Greece’s true beauty is how everyday life is lived, and there is no time like winter to explore this- the life of the city is in full swing and the conviviality and texture of the everyday engages you completely- grocery shopping means stopping at half a dozen speciality shops, and a conversation in each one. Lunch is an event, not a meal (and certainly not a sandwich).
An impromptu coffee or drink with friends breaks up the morning’s errands in town, always spontaneous, and yet a sure thing. Life is richly lived, and that makes every day feel like a holiday.
I wouldn’t forget the Greek scents! The fragrance of winter in the city is beguiling- wet leaves on the sidewalks in the shadow of Lycabettus , wood smoke from chimneys, that rich layer of kaimaki on a Greek coffee, and the bright sweet fragrance of mandarin oranges fills the air, from the weekly farmers’ markets all over to the vendors on street corners. When you rip into the peel, the aroma sings.
My first Epiphany was… just that! The winter holiday season in Greece does not slow down at the New Year, but comes to a graceful and bracing close on the sixth of January. Twelfth Night brings us to the Epiphany- a brisk, splashy finale to a season of feasting and warmth. What happens is that the congregation of any church that can goes to a nearby body of water- in our happy case the bay of Thermaikos with Mount Olympus glittering in the distance.
The priest, often from a boat, throws in a cross as far as he can and young men and boys, and happily sometimes a girl or two, dive in and swim competitively in pursuit of it. Even if you know what’s coming, the moment they dive in your pace quickens with the kind of thrill you get at a football match.
This ritual of a handful of the community braving the shockingly cold waters (inevitably, the sea is roughened by a north wind) cleanses us all. It is a joyous, exciting spectacle. A holiday of such austere purity brings the season to a redemptive and hopeful finale.
In Athens, it’s true your heart skips a beat every time you get an unexpected glimpse of the Parthenon, especially at night. But the temple of Hephaistos in the ancient Agora? That was the most romantic and intimate experience of archaeology I have ever had- the wild shrubs as you ascend the hill to it make you feel like you are discovering it yourself. And the manicured lawn by the side adds another dimension- feels very 18th C, not at all contemporary. Of course close to dusk.
What makes people love the most about Greece is the rawness, the realness, the authentic texture of the experience. The gastronomy is a microcosm of that- the meat market might be rough for someone from another country, but you feel the cycle of life, and you are a part of that.
You know what fish are running when, and what produce is in season, and the name of the guy who grows it. Salt is something scraped off of rocks by your friends who are good swimmers. Wine is often in recycled Fanta bottles, heavy and delicious, and you know who made that too. There is quality and authenticity, and everything has a meaning. Nothing is anonymous here- not your fish, not your olive oil, and not you.
My favourite Greek food is fried calamari and a plate of taramosalata, and ouzo watered down with lots of ice. There’s a reason it’s iconic- salty hot crunchy, smooth and rich, icy and sweet. It tastes best if you are still damp from swimming or in winter when you are sitting outside wearing a warm jacket and sunglasses.
I live here, so I would say the most recent place that I’ve visited is my weekly laiki (farmer’s market) – everything is so beautiful and abundant and dewy fresh, and the vendors all have their own individual sing-songy thing and some banter. It’s like living in someone’s travel documentary. That is the thing- everyday life here is a destination.
The next place I’d like to visit is one of the islands with neo-classical architecture. I would love that juxtaposition of wild nature and formalized structure. That must be beautiful.
As a souvenir, I usually pick up anything edible with the sweet exotic fragrance of the East- glyko koutaliou (spoon sweet) made of rose petals, loukoumi scented with mastic or bergamot. Thessaloniki has an old family-owned store that has every kind of glyko koutaliou you can imagine. Besides rose petal and all the fruits, there is carrot, tomato, even baby eggplant. They make delicious gifts.