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The City and the Writer: In Thessaloniki with Christopher Bakken

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Thessaloniki as you feel/see it?

Thessaloniki sits right on the Aegean, and the city’s mood is appropriately mercurial—moving from blaring sun to placid shadow, from wave to wave, from agony to ecstasy. Out on the larger avenues, you find pandemonium, swelter, and constant vibration, but retreat down any side street and you’ll wind up in a network of tiny alleyways, all remarkably quiet. There, Thessaloniki feels much more like a village than the second-largest city in Greece.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

In a patch of forest on the edge of Thessaloniki (close to the campus of Anatolia College, where I taught for a few years), I visited what my students referred to as “the German house.” During the Nazi occupation, the Germans seized this civilian mansion for military use—even digging a labyrinth of tunnels in the earth beneath it. The house was eventually set alight, but you could find old inkwells and other artifacts in the rubble there. I’d visited the house at least a dozen times before I realized that the marble slabs of the patio were actually Jewish gravestones. In one of their first acts, the Germans bulldozed the massive and ancient Jewish cemetery in the heart of Thessaloniki—a city once referred to as the Mother of Israel because of its robust Jewish identity and population. Though I was aware of the cemetery’s destruction, discovering those gravestones—after unknowingly walking across them—brought the full force of the city’s history down upon me. There’s poem about that experience in my first book, After Greece.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

In the ruins of the Roman forum—still right there in the heart of modern Thessaloniki—a beautiful orange cat sleeps curled atop the marble plinth where a column once stood. I swear the same cat has been sleeping there for thirty years.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

An important poet to emerge after the German occupation ­­­­­and the Greek Civil War was Thessaloniki-born Manolis Anagnostakis. The author of the famous political novel Z, Vassilis Vassilikos, is also from Thessaloniki. Though he was not born here, the sailor-poet Nikos Kavvadias’s poem “Thessaloniki” (sung here by Yorgos Dalaras) captures the kind of nostalgia this sordid city inspires. The poem’s final stanza begins: “Under the red lights, Thessaloniki is sleeping. / Ten years ago, drunk, you told me you loved me….”

Thessaloniki is perhaps more famous for its musical heritage than its literary heritage—the great rembetika innovator Vassilis Tsitsanis perfected his own gritty strain of that urban music in Thessaloniki. Many decades later, in the seventies and eighties, singer-songwriter Nikos Papazoglou created a unique sound that will always be associated with the city of his birth.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that one of the great poets of the twentieth century was born in Ottoman Thessaloniki: Nazim Hikmet. So was the father of the modern Turkish state, Kemal Atatürk himself.


Is there a place here you return to often?

Until it closed a few years ago, I always made sure to take the mesimeriano (the leisurely afternoon meal, which sometimes lasts many hours) at Myrovolos Smyrni. Because the restaurant was adjacent to the Modiano fish market, the food was impossibly fresh and the atmosphere was wild. On Saturdays, huge crowds would spill from the place (back in the early nineties, the whole shop was little more than a grill, a countertop, and a few benches) and Romani musicians would come through with oboes and drums to inspire frenzied dancing, singing, and bottle smashing.

“Dig anywhere in the city and you collide with history.”

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

For over one hundred years and until it closed in 2005, the literary heart of the city resided at the great Molho Bookstore on Tsimiski Street. The store was founded in 1888 by Isaac Molho and had to be rebuilt twice: once after the great fire of 1917 and again after it was ransacked by the Nazis. In addition to books in Greek, Molho had a good selection of English and French literature. When I started going there, it was owned by Solon Molho and his wife, Renee Saltiel, Jews born in Thessaloniki who somehow managed to survive the Holocaust.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

For several decades now, Thessaloniki has attempted to build a much-needed subway system, a project that has stalled so many times it has become the butt of national jokes. In addition to mismanagement, corruption, and the country’s recent economic implosion, the problem was Thessaloniki’s archaeology. Dig anywhere in the city and you collide with history.

As you walk down the sidewalk, you are likely to see firsthand evidence of what is layered beneath you—often the street opens up to a fenced-in monument or ancient ruin, with foundations fifteen or twenty feet lower than where you are standing. Such places allow you to remember the secret worlds residing beneath modern asphalt: layers of the Jewish, Ottoman, Byzantine, Roman, and ancient Greek city. Historian Mark Mazower has called Thessaloniki a “city of ghosts,” and it’s easy to understand why.


Where does passion live here?

Thessaloniki has a long rivalry with Athens, but when it comes to passion, there is no contest: Thessaloniki is voluptuous, mysterious, and undeniably sexy. In music, food, and style, the city looks east, not west. Everywhere, lovers gaze across café tables at one another, or are caught in provocative poses in the shadows of the Roman walls. In the alleyways of the Valioritou neighborhood, music and mischief continue all night, and no one stops when the sun comes up. I moved to Thessaloniki in my early twenties, and I can still feel, thirty years later, the heat that emanated from those intoxicating nights. Thessaloniki pulls you in, demands that you let down your hair, and urges you to see who or what you might find down the next alley.


What is the title of one of your works about Thessaloniki and what inspired it exactly?

I have poems about Thessaloniki in all of my books, but I probably set my intentions most clearly in an early ars poetica called “Motive,” which I wrote while gazing through my window toward Thermaikos Bay. The poem was an early attempt to take inventory of what Thessaloniki offered me when I let my mind loose to drift into its mysteries.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Thessaloniki does an outside exist?”

Thessaloniki sprawls like an urban amphitheater in the embrace of Mt. Hortiatis, opening always to the sea and stretching itself broader every year. A port city—and the most important gateway from the Aegean and Mediterranean into the Balkans—it has always been a place moved into or moved through: products and people forever flowing north and south, from Egypt and Crete toward Sofia and Belgrade and back. At the same time, running east and west through the heart of Thessaloniki is the Via Egnatia, the great Roman road that once stretched from the Adriatic to Constantinople and is still a frenzy of traffic and commerce.

As for me, I only lived in Thessaloniki for two years, but my imagination has been moving through it ever since.


Christopher Bakken was born in Wisconsin in 1967. He is the author of three books of poetry—Eternity & Oranges, Goat Funeral, and After Greece—as well as the culinary memoir Honey, Olives, Octopus. He also co-translated The Lions’ Gate: Selected Poems of Titos Patrikios. His work has been translated into Polish, Bulgarian, Romanian, and Greek. Bakken is director of Writing Workshops in Greece: Thessaloniki and Thasos, and he is Frederick F. Seely Professor of English at Allegheny College.


Related Reading:

The City and the Writer: In Athens with Amanda Michalopoulou

Dan Beachy-Quick Casts an Elegiac Look at Ancient Greece in Stone-Garland

On Sestinas and Literary Translation

Published Feb 12, 2021   Copyright 2021 Nathalie Handal

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