Beyond the City

Two European cities told by its inhabitants

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Author: Are We Europe

Florian Schmitz is a hard drinker. Thessaloniki is the city that taught him how to slow down. To sip little glasses of tsiporo (like ouzo, but made from just the peel of the grape) the same way he sips coffee while looking out at Mount Olympus, mythic home of the Greek gods.

“I’m German, so I drink a lot of beer, and we drink to get drunk” he said, admitting that he had probably looked like a “hopeless and desperate alcoholic” the first few times he went out in the northern Greek industrial town.

Florian was one of the first German journalists to move to Thessaloniki as the financial crisis wreaked havoc across the Mediterranean nation in 2011.

Even as the German government took hardline positions on the strings of austerity it attached to internationally-backed loans for Greece, Florian found himself an object of curiosity in Thessaloniki. As a German who had moved in the opposite direction of hundreds of thousands of Greeks, he was often received graciously, from bars, to the market, to the local choir that he joined.

People would line up at the choir to meet me, I always got free shots, I even got free apples from a fruit seller in the market once.

Thessaloniki, founded in 315 BC by King Cassander of Macedon, who named the city after his wife, a half-sister of Alexander, traces its history back to a time when Greece was Great. 

The Church of Holy Wisdom in Thessaloniki

In the centuries that followed, this port city facilitated trade between the Eastern and Western parts of the Roman Empire, hosted Paul the Apostle and lent its name to a book of the New Testament. The city fell to the Ottoman Empire in the 1400’s, became majority Jewish after Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain expelled the Sephardim from their kingdom and, in 1881, gave birth to the founding father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – whose historical significance is currently being erased from school textbooks by Erdogan’s government.

Today, Thessaloniki’s modern promenade that looks out upon the sea is the product of accidental destruction – a fire set by occupying French soldiers in 1917 – and planned reconstruction, under the direction of the French architect Ernest Hebrard.  

In 2011, Greece became ground zero for the eurozone financial crisis. Today, its economy has shrunk by 25% since 2008, and the debt burden, 109% of GDP when the crisis began, has increased to 179% of GDP as a result of austerity measures that punched harder than the Eurogroup was willing to admit. Eventually, the IMF offered a mea culpa and began to call for outright debt relief. The European Central Bank began pushing against its legal limits to bring Eurozone inflation back to the internationally accepted 2%. Yanis Varoufakis raged online and in print, and Alexis Tsipras rode a wave of fiery rhetoric to political power and then found himself forced to back down.

When people from Germany come here, they expect to see everything going to shit, more signs of poverty, and when they don’t see obvious signs of decay,Florian says, adding with emphasis that Greece is still a Western country, “they get kind of disappointed and ask me, ‘Is the crisis over?‘”

Monument of Alexander the Great in Thessaloniki

But though Greece has now largely disappeared from headlines, the human toll of the crisis has worn on. It reeks, like the park across from Florian‘s apartment that too often serves as an open air latrine for taxi drivers in need of a toilet. Its refuse and stench hang over the country, seeping into almost every facet of ordinary life.

The place is falling apart,Florian insists. “What visitors don’t know is that people have been working in stores for six months without getting paid, or that the store hasn’t been able to pay its rent, or that 1/3 of Greeks don’t have health insurance.

“Köln has the friendliest and most open-minded people in Germany. That’s why it is the first city I not only call home, but where I feel at home.”

Christopher, 29 (Cologne)

If Thessaloniki is cracking beneath the surface of its bustling boardwalk, then Cologne is ripping its way in the opposite direction – an urban phoenix that has risen from its own ashes.

During World War II, the British Royal Air Force dropped no less than 35,268 tonnes of explosives on Cologne. In a matter of days after the first raid, in May, 1942, most of the buildings in the city were blown to bits; by the end of the bombing, 90% of the urban core had been destroyed, and 95% of its inhabitants had fled.

Though tragic, the bombing kickstarted a postwar restoration and reconstruction boom in Cologne. Today, any observer will notice the striking contrasts in the city’s design – Gothic, Neo-Romanesque and modernist architecture come together to form a mixed cityscape.

It’s against the backdrop of that skyline that Maria Panagopoulou, a 24-year-old graphic designer from Thessaloniki, bikes to her job at a Greek restaurant in the northwest of the city.

This time last year, Maria packed a suitcase filled with warm clothes and a Greek-German dictionary and got on a one-way flight to Cologne, leaving her native Thessaloniki behind in the hope of better job prospects.

There was nothing for me in Greece. No real future“, she says. “So I told my family I wanted to try to go abroad. It turned out my aunt knew someone in Cologne where I could stay the first few weeks, so the decision to come here was kind of made for me.

But, like many Greeks who moved to Germany following the crisis, building a career in the country hasn’t been easy for Maria. With limited German skills, she struggled to find work as a graphic designer. Needing a way to pay the rent, she used her connections to land a job at a Greek restaurant, where she now works as a part-time waitress. Whenever she gets the chance, she still freelances as a graphic designer.

Hohenzollern bridge and Kölner Dom in Cologne.

“It makes me proud that my city is one of the most open, most tolerant cities in Germany concerning the LGBT+ community.”
Pia, 26 (Cologne)

Stories like Maria‘s have become increasingly normal. According to some estimates, up to half a million Greeks have left the country in the years following the crisis. This “brain-drain” particularly affects young Greeks under 25, for whom the unemployment rate in January this year was as high as 50%.

Despite her struggle to find a job, it didn’t take Maria long to take find a group of friends who, like her, were mostly expats. In their free time, they drink beers in Cologne’s parks and go for falafel at the Zülpicher Straße.

When asked about her plans for the future, she shrugs her shoulders and says, “I’m not going anywhere, for now.

The people make Cologne what it is

Like many other Kölner (the moniker for people from Cologne), what Lilia Vogelsang, a 23-year-old student who currently interns at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Berlin, loves most about her city is its people.

But if Cologne’s ‘multicultural’ character is a source of pride to some, it is also increasingly being associated with the 2015 New Year’s Eve sexual assaults – a series of organized attacks on women that caused an international media pandemonium, and sparked a debate about women’s rights in Germany and the viability of the country’s open-door asylum policy.

The people of Cologne remain strongly divided in their opinion of the incident. Some express outrage at the “exaggerated” and “sensationalised” media coverage of the harassment. Others blame the media of “covering up” the fact that the perpetrators were asylum-seekers who predominantly hailed from countries in North Africa and the Middle East.

“Cologne’s population is made up of people from all walks of life and backgrounds. So it’s obvious to say that I’m proud about the cultural diversity.” – Philipp, 29 (Cologne)

Either way, the attack did little to undermine Lilia’s belief in the importance of embracing multiculturalism. During her time at school, she shared a classroom with children from various backgrounds – a girl from Namibia, five or six classmates from Turkey, two boys from Afghanistan – something quite normal for Kölner like herself.

That was no biggie, of course“, she says. “The whole debate about integration is just so strange to me: in Cologne, though there are problems, multiculturalism is the heart and soul of the city. It is one of the things that makes it a special place.

But recently, that multiculturalism has become increasingly controversial, both in Germany and abroad. Whenever she mentions that she is from Cologne, Lilia says, the conversation almost always veers to the unrest on New Year’s eve, 2015.

Though Lilia and many other Kölner say that the event has given their city an undeservedly negative image, there is no denying that the New Year’s Eve assaults have taken on greater significance, revealing the deep political cleavage that has been wrought in the German political landscape. A landscape that now includes insurgent right wing movements such as the AfD (Alternative fur Deutschland), and extreme-right organisations like PEGIDA, which have sought to use attacks to their advantage.

“Kölle Alaaf!”

Yet the fear of public gatherings doesn’t stop hundreds of thousands of Kölner each year from partaking in the Kölner Karneval, a medieval tradition that turns the entire city into a costume bonanza for several weeks on end.

Each year, the carnival kicks off at 11 minutes past 11, on the 11th of the 11th month (November), after which masqueraded Kölner begin flooding the streets clutching tall pints of “Weißbier” and cheering “Kölle Alaaf!” (“Cologne, rise up!”). The festivities are temporarily suspended during Christmas, then officially reopened at the “Alter Markt” – a square in the city center – on the Thursday before Lent. The highlight of the carnival is “Rose Monday” (Rosenmontag), a feast of excess that lasts two days before “Ash Wednesday”, which marks the end of the fun and the start of a fasting period that lasts until Easter.

It was on a Rose Monday several years ago that Lilia and her friends, still high school students at the time, made their way through a crowd of costumed Kölner when, suddenly, she spotted her high school maths teacher in the sea of medieval maidens and princes.

That’s Köln for me,” Lilia says, referring to the city by its German name, “this global city where it’s possible to run into your maths teacher, who happens to be dressed like a frog, and have a drunken conversation with him about life.” 

Life: for Florian, that’s where the promise of this continent lies. In realizing that amidst the urban cacophony of chaos and cars and coffee and choirs, ancient ruins and modern skylines, the watery sea and seas of people, the resonance of German and the grumble of Greek, lies a simple intersection; the one where we cross and recross each other. He states it elegantly. Simply.

This is the beauty of Europe“, he says.

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