Thessaloniki: Where Triple-Headed Dogs And Buddhism Hold The Key To Modern Greece

November 22, 2018

4.5 minute read

The only people I’ve seen all day is a family who turned up for an hour in the afternoon, splashed around in the (still tepid) Aegean, constructed a couple of sandcastles then skedaddled as a thin cover of cloud rolled in off the hillside. Personally I’m drawn to the seaside off-season: the forlorn beach cafes, the abandoned sun loungers, the aftermath of the party viewed in the cold light of day. All that trudging slowly over wet sand. But, at least in this part of the world, I seem to possess uncommon tastes.

So I’m slightly surprised to see a silver Honda crunch up the gravel path, curl across the tarmac, and nestle up to the van. Archie looks up: friend or foe? We receive a welcoming smile from a youthful-looking sexagenarian. He’s slim, wearing some killer shades, and all in all a pretty laid back looking chap. He owns the house in front of which we are parked, metres from the sea. I learn that he worked in San Francisco for twenty years and has returned home to retire. He’s definitely brought some easy-going Cally cool back home with him. I ask him if we can stay for a couple of nights.

“It’s not permitted to camp on the beach.”

“Oh OK.”

“But the police don’t enforce. Stay all week, stay all year, I don’t mind.”

I’m struck by his attitude: the land is a resource to be shared; of course I can stay. As if to illustrate, he disappears into his kitchen and returns bearing handfuls of fresh fruit.

“From the garden,” he explains. “If you want some grapes, just climb over my fence and help yourself.”

I wonder how this conversation might have progressed if a Greek man was camping outside a property in, say, Southwold, or Ramsgate.

At dusk, two fishermen arrive in open top trucks. With great efficiency they unpack their kit, launch their little wooden boat, and are soon bobbing on the ocean. They are, I suspect, working some marine timetable to which I’m not privy. Their flashlights and the alien glow of their fishing floats are the sole illumination for miles around. I doubt this method of fishing has changed in millennia.

It’s quite a contrast to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, an hour or so up the coast, where I’d spent a few days wandering the back streets in search of antiquity. It’s not an easy task. Truth is, the present has continually layered itself over the past for centuries in a kind of perpetual redecoration project. Occasionally a gate or a tower will poke out from behind the facade of the modern city but its very easy to miss unless you are looking hard.

I found more satisfaction strolling along the promenade with Archie. It’s mercifully absent of the kind of tat that clutters Britain’s coastal towns. No penny arcades, or sticks of rock to coax the pennies out of your pocket. Instead, families dog walkers, the young, the old, all strata of life perambulate the two mile long walkway in warm southern sun. They share jokes, hold each others arms, enjoy each others company. The Greek economy may be banjaxed but, it seems, not at the expense of conviviality.

There are two things guaranteed to start a conversation on a walk. If I whip out my analogue rangefinder, someone somewhere will stop me and ask me about it: ‘cute camera,’ they invariably say. The other, seemingly irresistible, cute conversation starter is the brown four legged dude at my side. Two men, legs dangling over the harbour wall, are talking earnestly, heads bowed in confab. One of them spies Archie and beckons us over.

“I have the exact same dog, “ he says. “But blond. Let me show you.”

The man proceeds to show me his own blond, beloved, four legged dude. He tells me the Ancient Greeks held dogs in high esteem because they posses almost divine-like attributes. Indeed in Virgil’s Aeneid, Cerberus fiercely guards the entrance to Hades with ’triple-throated baying’. Cerberus, of course, being in possession of three heads: past, present and future.

“Do you think Greeks are still in touch with this ancient past?”

“Frankly I don’t think so. The modern Greek is lost. We are searching for our identity, how we fit into the 21st century.”

“Personally I admire the Greek way of life. Despite the current state of the economy, you don’t seem to have lost your sense of what is important: Family, love, friendship. Unlike in Britain where everything is about money.”

“Believe me the Greeks worry about money. But the spirit of the Greek is to be unafraid of tomorrow. We have today. If tomorrow we die, so be it.”

I discover he’s a Buddhist and I wonder how much this is contributing to his viewpoint. I tell him I struggle with Buddhism, how to apply the concepts to living a pragmatic, practical life. On the one hand practising acceptance and letting go (of ego and selfness), and on the other hand having drive and motivation. How to balance this equation for they seem to me like polar opposites. He tries, in vain, to explain; perhaps I’m not ready to digest the arguments. That’s ok.

Even though most Greeks are not Buddhists, I suspect this laissez faire attitude (one I do admire), has contributed to their current economic predicament. By living in the moment, they neglected to save for the future. Further down the promenade, I make way on a bench for a young fellow hobbling on crutches. He’s been involved in a motorcycle accident and is bemoaning the Greek healthcare care system. He continues the theme.

“In my view, it’s the fault of my grandfather’s generation. They squandered the opportunities they had and now we must pay the price.”

He is not, it must be said, the first to make this argument. It falls on sympathetic ears.

“But,” he says, “what can you do? In the summer I will, if my leg recovers, work as a captain. Rich Russians tourists want to charter a boat for a couple of weeks and cruise around the islands. It pays well. In the winter I study Business.”

He seems to posses a well-balanced outlook. He has accepted the situation, letting go of ego, and yet is making plans for the future, possessing drive and motivation. I wish him well in his studies.

It’s this last conversation which fills me with hope and makes me think the Greeks will be fine. Yes, the elders, like their peers in my own country, were born lucky. But, unlike the prevailing attitude in Britain, there is still a generosity about them: sure, the older guy owns a nice second home by the beach; but he’s happy to share it with the world. The middle generation is thoughtful and cerebral, delving into the past for answers to the future. And the youngest. Well, there’s no doubt they’ve been dealt a bad hand, they’ve inherited an utter mess. But, as the young man said, what can you do? Accept the present situation and make some plans for the future. I think it’s all any of us can do. Cerberus would bay in approval.