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Thessaloniki Modern

But my favorite church remains the Church of Osios David, a tiny structure set on a porch high up in the Upper City, where a toothless old woman explained to me, in a hopeful mixture of Greek, French, English, and (I think) Italian, the wonders of the mosaics and paintings: a rambunctious Ezekiel with a bull and a lion, an inexpressibly tender fresco of the Virgin bathing the infant Jesus. Outside on the patio, I caught my breath at the sweeping views all the way down to the Lower City. In one corner of this heavenly terrace, on that very warm day, someone was playing country-and-western music.

This all-too-typical contrast in Thessaloniki of stillness and activity, past and present, a kind of melancholy and a kind of violence, is also characteristic of the city's Ottoman monuments—most of them small, domed buildings that suddenly pop up on a side street or amid a cluster of otherwise undistinguished concrete apartment buildings. But Thessaloniki's oldest self—its classical self—offers more surprising moments of stillness and cool. Just below Ayios Dimitrios, at the dead center of the city, is the Roman Forum, with its tiny, perfect theater, its elegant colonnade: here again, a strange emptiness, a sense of too much space, can tinge one's admiration of the ruins with a kind of regret. Even the Archaeological Museum, farther down toward the water, feels quiet and introspectivecompared to the big museum in Athens. It has opted for focus over size, and the result is that everything you see, you remember: a dazzling sampling of Hellenistic mosaics (one floor's decoration depicts the seductions of Ganymede by Zeus, Ariadne by Dionysus, and Daphne by Apollo; you can only assume this was the floor of someone's bedroom), Roman glass (there's a fabulous little jar whose belly is shaped like a baby's face, in iridescent green), sculpture (a professional actor's immodest tomb monument; plus ça change), and above all gold. The Derveni Krater, a vast, ornate Hellenistic vase,represents the acme of ancient metalsmithing; but to my mind, as with so much else about this city, smaller is better—and more evocative. There are gold wreaths here that imitate laurel or olive so realistically that the berries quiver on the precious twigs; there is also a pair of pins, sinister in their length and pointed, with great incised balls at the end, of the sort Greek women once used to fasten their elaborately draped dresses. It was a pair of pins such as these that Oedipus used to blind himself; somehow, in Thessaloniki, it is easy to think of tragedy while looking at beauty.

And it was of tragedy and beauty that I thought, again and again, on this return to Thessaloniki, which has known both so well; it was of both that I thought on my last night there when, during a final walk along the waterfront, I bought an ancient paperback of the complete poems of Cavafy from an old man selling books off a table near the White Tower. Cavafy's poem "The City," though an ode to Alexandria, suits Thessaloniki, in its faded grandeur, its compelling entwining of the ancient and the contemporary, of capitalism and regret, of bourgeois Victorian plushness and Middle Eastern secrets. The poem is an imaginary dialogue between the narrator and someone who claims to want to leave the city and never again return: "I'll go to another land," that person says, "I'll go to another sea./I'll find another city, one that's better than this." To which complaint the narrator rightly counters: "New places: you won't find them; you won't find new seas./The city will follow you."

Thessaloniki followed me. Even when I thought I had done with it, it made me come back.


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