A sticker on a map

6. Juli 2013 § Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

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A roadside companion in Greece

I just haven’t been able to warm to Greece since I entered this country through the bizarre border crossing near Bitola. This is somewhat suprising because as a young man or rather teenager, the seat of classical antiquity had many of my sympathies. I’d been learning ancient Greek on top of Latin for three years when I went on a summer excursion to the Peloponnes together with my class, led by two teachers. It’s been one of the most memorable trips in my life, and just today, talking to a bookshop owner in Drama, northern Greece, I raved about some of our hikes, sleeping under the stars at the Bassai temple and watching a classical play at Epidauros. The man listened to my tales rather impassively, probably depressed by the decline of his business that his father, present in an old black and white photograph, had founded in the neighbouring house, formerly much grander, now decaying. The shop now only has a small selection of guidebooks, thrillers in English and and three or four international newspapers. He targets the tourists, but there aren’t any except for me.
Although his grandparents are from around Megalopolis, the man is not aware of the extremely well-preserved Apollo temple at Bassai, where my friend Roberto spent some romantic time embracing columns in the moonlight. We looked at some maps together, and I finally found Bassai, in the middle of nowhere, and he said, without much enthusiasm emanting from his dark-ringed eyes, he’d visit the site when he’d travel in the area the next time.
This is one reason why I can’t get very enthusiastic about Greece. People seem depressed and a bit truculent, too. They’re in dire straits and are not sure whom to blame. I’d often hear men discussing in the cafes, dismissing someone or something with exaggerated gestures. Of course, these men’s fathers would debate things too when I was here 30 odd years ago, but then they didn’t have such bulging bellies. These items of a comfy past are likely to be the last to go, along with the cafes and the hours spent on a glass of iced coffee, and the cars, and the ladies‘ make-up. But many shops are closed and barricaded, and I couldn’t find a restaurant to have a non-fast-food meal tonight. It seems much harder to let go of the spoils people are used to than to wriggle your way out of poverty, as I could see it happen in Kosovo and Macedonia.
There were a few hundred tourists in the seaside town of Astrovalta where I stayed last night, families from Serbia and Bulgaria mostly for whom the land of Pallas Athene has suddenly become affordable. Is that perhaps a bit of a bummer for the proud Greeks?
Another reason why I’m not so in the mood for dancing sirtaki is revealed again today when I open the map of Bulgaria I bought at the bookshop. North of Greece, we have Bulgaria, of course, another EU member state, with not too many border crossings to Greece. Be that as it may, to the east of Bulgaria, there is the Republic of Macedonia. I know it exists because I cycled through the length and breadth of it. On the map, there is a grey sticker with the Greek capital letters Pi Gamma Delta My to cover up the state’s official name, Makedonia. Bulgaria and Turkey bear no such transcription. The original publisher, Marco Polo, correctly put F.Y.R.O.M (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), the state’s embarrassing provisonal designation since its independence in 1991. From Danjiel, my fervent and knowledgeable guide in Ohrid, I’d heard the Macedonian version of the conflict. Greece has managed to block all development in the relations between his country and the EU as well as NATO. Despite the Hague court rulings against the Greeks, his country still does not stand a chance of negotiating for membership with NATO, let alone the EU. Macedonians who travel to Greece on business or as tourists had better make their neighbours believe they are from Serbia, otherwise they’d be in trouble. Macedonian passports are rejected at the border, and a form is issued for the Macedonians who have to keep it for any future crossings. Greek border officials even go so far as to put black stickers on the MK license plate sign that officially identifies them as cars held by one of the UN’s members states.
The 2 million Macedonians seem to be a threat to the national self-identity of their much larger southerly neighbour even after they have changed their national flag and withdrawn a passage in their constitution which said something about supporting ethnic Macedonians in other regions. It needn’t be stressed that they’re a countless ironies in the long history of this strife, one of the earliest being that the ancient Greeks counted the Makedonian populace among the barbarians, only the representatives of the royal houses were accepted as Greeks and could participate in the Olympic Games.
It appears that Greece, in its attempt to maintain a uniform nation state after the trauma of Osmanic occupation and its civil war (after WWII), is highly uncomfortable with mixtures and patchwork population and explains the problems away with black or grey stickers. I didn’t actually spot any of them in Greece and started to mistrust Danijel’s forceful accusations, but whenever I innocently mentioned Macedonia as part of my itinerary, my Greek counterparts flinched. I asked the bookshop owner who was responsible for the sticker, the government or the Greek re-publisher. He just shrugged and said he didn’t know. Then he brought the subject back to the Bassai temple quickly.
I mentioned the bizarre border crossing between Bitola and Florina. It sits geographically in a wide fertile basin, and there’s no natural feature to suggest a boundary. There’s hardly any traffic on the wide road, not a single car at the border point. I am waved through into the EU, and the first thing I see is a statue of Niki, the goddess of victory. Other than that, everything appears the same: the weather, the size of the cherries that are being picked, the different animals that ended up as roadkill in their differing states of flatness and dryness, the third floors of houses not yet completed.
Oh, but the currency differs. There was no way I could change my Macedonian Denars back into Euro once in Greece (a typical catch 22: I had paid my hotel bill in Bitola with a 50€ note and had got back the 25€ change in Denars, as the Macedonians are not allowed to do otherwise). I asked the bank clerk at Alpha Bank in Florina why not. He said: I don’t know.
In the small village of Vevi, they had found a clever way of circumnavigating the problem of signage, avoiding even the ominous M in F.Y.R.OM. The signpost pointed back, saying Yugoslavia, 40 km. Perhaps this ancient nation had better look forward now, for its own sake and that of others.

The governmentally ordained sticker

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