Friday, June 21, 2013

Balkans I

Monday, June 17, 2013
A short time ago, a bet that America's Favorite Epidemiologist would be spending her birthday in Thessaloniki (Salonika), Greece would have drawn long odds. But, after a pleasant nine-hour transatlantic flight to Athens, an uncomfortable three-hour layover in its airport, a 40-minute flight to Salonika and then an additional one-hour delay in the Salonika airport waiting for Marcia, our group's leader, to trace her suitcase back to JFK airport, where it never left the ground, we arrived at a beautiful hotel in the center of Salonika after a short bus ride. The hotel is one block from the Aegean Sea, and our fifth-floor room has a perfect view of the water. After a restorative nap and shower, our group of 13, went no more than 5 miles to Yialos, a restaurant on the Aegean Sea, for an outdoor dinner where the food was even better than the view -- an unusual balance, rarely achieved. Dish after dish kept arriving. There were five types of fish, served cold smoked or marinated, or hot fried. There was a spinach salad and a Greek (surprise!) salad. There were fried zucchini chips and French fries. There was baked cheese, taramasalata (fish roe), skaradalia (garlic spread) and tzadiki (yoghurt and dill). Fortunately, I cannot recall either eating or being served plain vegetables. A dessert plate contained mini ice cream pops, Greek halavah, made from semolina, not sesame seeds, and some phyllo-honey combinations. Additionally, Marcia, without any complicity on my part, produced a delicous chocolate birthday cake for you-know-who. Even better news was that the cake came from a bakery/cafÄ—/chocolatier in the lobby of our hotel, that might be willing to accept my patronage at random times of day or night. Happy Birthday, Beloved. An extra dinner treat was the presence of Heinz, Shelly and Hella Kounio, a prominent local Jewish family. More about them later.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013
After the long day yesterday, which really began the day before with our departure from New York, Marcia, our leader, got us going at the very civilized hour of 10 AM, after a buffet breakfast on the hotel's roof garden, an even more civilized start of the day. We spent the next four hours guided by Hella, a beautiful, local Jewish woman, an insurance broker, whose family dates back hundreds of years in Salonika. Last night, her parents were at dinner with us and any distance between me and recent tragic Jewish history disappeared as Hella and Marcia told part of their story. Her father Heinz Kounio, just 13-years old, his sister, his Jewish German-Czech mother and his Jewish Salonikan father were on the first transport from Salonika to Auschwitz in March 1943. When the cattle cars were opened at Auschwitz, after more than one week on the rails, the longest ride any deportees experienced throughout Europe, the Salonikan Jews were unable to respond to the Germans' commands, because the Jews spoke Ladino primarily and a little Greek. The Germans called out for any German speakers. The Kounio family responded, although volunteering at Auschwitz had to be a dangerous venture. They were used as translators and clerks thereafter, and survived the war as a result, the only Salonikan Jewish family to survive intact. They returned to Salonika, among the 4%, allow me to repeat, 4% of the 50,000 Salonikan Jews to survive. Before the war, about one quarter of Salonika's population was Jewish. Hella's mother had been hidden as a child in Salonika and Athens, which was precisely the history of Dr. Laura, another member of our tour group, who eventually trained as a physician in Salonika and moved to New York City.

Since Salonika had once been such a big Jewish city, it had had an enormous Jewish cemetery. We rode around its perimeter today; it must have been at least 8 city blocks long (to me, a universal measure) and 4 city blocks wide. It reportedly contained about 500,000 graves. One of the first things that the occupying Germans did was to dig up the grounds, after giving the Jewish community six days to remove whatever (whomever) they could. Thousands of marble tombstones and slabs were disbursed throughout the city and wound up covering horizontal and vertical surfaces of all sorts, a swimming pool in one instance. Many remain in (dis)place until this day. Remarkably (is this the right word?), the complete area of the Jewish cemetery is now the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, the largest university in Greece, looking like any other architecturally nondescript campus built since WW II.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013
Last night, most of us went to dinner at a big outdoor taverna just a few blocks from our hotel. Two musicians played Greek ballads for hours as we ate a large number of dishes made up of tomatoes, cheese, olives, peppers, onions and olive oil in various combinations and permutations. Two special events occurred during dinner to me alone. A large tooth, one of those treated in exchange for the Toyota Camry ceded to my dentist, fell out while chewing my food. I captured it and, with Marcia's help, found a dentist just two blocks from the hotel, who glued me back together in an efficient, friendly and complimentary manner at midday today.

Moments before shedding a tooth, a bird made a deposit right at the neckline of my plastic polo shirt, something that has never happened to me before in spite of the legions of Manhattan pigeons I have lived beneath for decades. My fellow diners noted my good luck, a distinction that I would have eschewed given the choice.

This morning, before visiting the dentist, Hella escorted us around the central city area, once densely populated by Jews. We went to the Jewish museum, where we met with Heinz, her father, who discussed his experiences and answered our questions. In the Hagaddah, the story repeated each year at Passover, we are told to regard it as our story, as if we were the ones leaving Egypt and spending decades in the desert. Heinz's memories and passion were as fresh as the day that 109565 was tattooed on his arm. Hearing the stories from Heinz, Hella, and Laura (who found a picture of herself at a children's camp in Salonika in the early 1950s on the wall of the Jewish museum) brought me nervously close to the terrible events that transpired in my life time, not thousands of years ago. I hope their stories are repeated at least as long as the Hagaddah has been, so that all of us, regardless of our background, will honor them as our ancestors and adopt their stories as our own.

Thursday, June 20, 2013
Last night, we drove to the highest point above Salonika, to see the ruins of ancient walls. Then, we went partially down the hill to eat at a restaurant with a lovely view, but with food closer to earth. Notable was the duration of my glued-in tooth -- one bite into my order of grilled shrimp in the shell. I'll try once more in Sofia over the weekend to put my mouth back together.
We got on the road at 9:15 AM and spent the next 10 hours in or in the immediate vicinity of our bus as we headed into Bulgaria. The ride was supposed to be 5 hours, but presented with a choice of waiting at a very busy border crossing leading into modern roads, or a deserted border crossing and old roads, we chose the latter and it became later and later as we drove over two-lane, winding, climbing and descending country roads through tiny villages and fields of sunflowers. Rest stops brought us into direct contact with the history of gravity-dependent Bulgarian plumbing. Lunch was at a gas station, where there were just enough plastic-wrapped sandwiches to go around, although not enough to satisfy our hunger for real food.

We arrived at our hotel in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, the country's second largest city, almost exactly 10 hours after we set out. After a hasty dinner in the hotel's dining room (without visiting the attached casino), we took a walk through Plovdiv's old town. A parishioner (??) was kind enough to turn on the lights of the grand mosque so that we could admire the elaborate interior. After returning to the hotel after 11 PM, very tired and sweaty, the Upper West Side's Power Couple found that we had to change our room in order to replace a rumor of airconditioning with a suspicion of airconditioning. Although confined to the bus most of the day, we learned that the local daytime temperature here, as in Salonika, was in the mid-90s American, mid-30s European.

Friday, June 21, 2013
We walked again this morning into the old town to visit the only standing synagogue in Plovdiv. Standing, but barely operating. The lovely building, about 130-years old, was completely renovated by an non-sectarian, American NGO, and features an intricately painted interior and an exquisite glass chandelier that seemed to contain most of its original pieces. There is no local rabbi and barely any Jews. Only holiday services are regularly scheduled at the synagogue plus an occasional wedding or other festive event.

At noon, we headed off to Sofia. Road food lunch tip: On highway E80, about 50 minutes outside Plovdiv, near Pazardzhik (sounds very much like the infamous New York Giant quarterback), try Maestro Nedzho's Turkish restaurant. The parking lot was loaded with Bulgarian trucks. We ate collectively fresh parsley after squeezing fresh lemon juice on it, a chopped cucumber, tomato, onion salad (nearly gazpacho), slices of roasted eggplant drenched in yoghurt, a (for lack of a better word) Greek salad, and a platter of grilled, spicy lamb. With drinks, mostly soft, the bill divided up to 10 levs each, about $6. It's worth going out of your way for.

We rolled into Sofia well-fed, and headed directly to the grand (and solitary) synagogue for a meeting with a leader of the Jewish community.  He spoke of the renaissance of organized Jewish life in Sofia, very much in contrast with the situation in Plovdiv.  He expressed special pride in the recent marriage of a local Jewish man to a local Jewish woman, something that is becoming increasingly rare in New York City.

Greece and Bulgaria are experiencing political unrest because of economic and political issues.  However, we have only sat in the Athens airport for a while without going into the city.  That comes next week.  We are in the center of Sofia, however, but only skirted the edges of a demonstration on the way to dinner tonight.  We expect to get closer to the action in the next couple of days.  "Solidarity forever!"

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