The uniformed Greek soldier striding with pace and purpose into the war museum exhibition room might have felt a shade threatening were it not for a couple of small details. First, he was clutching a small, plastic orange house brush as his weapon. Second, he appeared to be taking orders from my daughter (10), who was minus the yellow sun hat she had previously been wearing. The hat, it transpired, had been relocated to the top of a wood and glass cabinet stocked with Greek military memorabilia. It was too high up for her to rescue so, displaying her own form of wartime strategic management and unashamed at being the one who had thrown it up there, she had sought army support from the ticket desk of the museum. The soldier was not the tallest combatant so the house brush was key to the mission’s success.
We had been enjoying the displays in the War Museum in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city and a most seductive destination. The museum, blissfully air-conditioned against the melting summer heat, is small but illuminating, surveying Greece’s role in various conflicts from the early 1900s up to the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. There’s a good bit on Turkey in general, as you might expect, but also plenty on Bulgaria and Greece’s numerous other very close neighbours. The retrieval of a yellow bucket hat from Penneys from the top of a display cabinet was merely the country’s latest invasion.
Initially, things looked bad on that front, with an early jab from the brush shaft sending the hat further to the back of the cabinet, out of sight. We were all starting to feel uncomfortable now, hoping the brave soldier would not have to admit defeat in the face of such a benign international challenge. Just as we were preparing to say goodbye to the hat though, all his military training paid off. It was manoeuvered by the brush and, with an athletic leap, retrieved. There was collective relief as the potentially huge embarrassment of all in the room evaporated with a soldierly grin.
This museum, like others in Greece, operates a two-tier ticket system where EU citizens gain entry at a reduced price. In both Thessaloniki institutions we visited, the staff had to consult a list to ensure Ireland was indeed an EU country. It seems we are not as important in everybody’s universe as we like to believe.
It was similarly remarkable that during our two-week holiday close to the city, we heard not a single Irish accent and very few voices that even spoke English. Instead, our holidaymaking companions, if not from Greece itself, were drawn from Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania and (whisper it) North Macedonia.
You don’t tend to hear the name of the last country very much, but its capital Skopje features widely in uncomplimentary graffiti on motorway bridges and the like. The problem is that Thessaloniki is located in the Greek province of Macedonia and people around here were not too happy when, in the aftermath of the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the neighbouring country decided it would call itself Macedonia too. There followed decades of diplomatic dancing, where the new country was in international forums referred to as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Fyrom for short). Three and half years ago, the brouhaha was “solved” with the new name of North Macedonia, but Skopje seems to have stuck as the preferred label among Greeks. It is a situation any Irish person with familiarity with the North and its many potential lingual faux pas will perhaps understand.
The importance of language, especially when it flows from disagreement or conflict, can also be seen today in a smattering of towns close to Thessaloniki which have the Nea prefix before their names. These are modern, sometimes scrappy places (don’t expect the whitewashed, winding alleys of postcards or Mamma Mia, but don’t discount their gritty charm either) that were established after a 1920s population exchange with Turkey led to an enforced mass movement of at least a couple of million refugees between the two countries. This saw the abandonment of settlements in old homes and the creation of new ones in unfamiliar locations. One happy and unexpected outcome in the Haldikidi area where we holidayed was that the new towns emerged in yet-to-be prime and lucrative real estate beside the beautifully lukewarm Aegean Sea. Think Nea Bundoran or Nea Ballybunion but with much cheaper ice creams.
These new towns also bask in their proximity to the byzantine, Roman delights of Thessaloniki, including a museum where a yellow bucket hat very briefly formed part of an exhibit on the First Balkan War.