Drinking with Thracians

Alexander Billinis takes us through the Thracian city of Xanthi; a melting pot of cultures

I love crossing borders, whether official ones with their lines and barriers, or ‘Schengen’ borders, which give the dangerous illusion that intra-European Union crossings matter as or less than those of US states.

That said, I particularly love those ‘fuzzy’, cultural lines of demarcation, which have no visible controls, barriers, or bureaucracies, but may mean far more in present, past, or future than the ones involving wire, passports, and officious guards.

One April day a few years ago, while visiting Kavala, Macedonia’s second city, I jumped into my rental car and sped along the Egnatia Highway, one of Greece’s Brussels-funded superhighways, due east. Not 30 kilometres away, the wide (for Greek standards) Nestos River separates Macedonia Province, overwhelmingly Greek and with all of the loaded historical connotations that implies, from Thrace.

Cross the Nestos, and you have just passed an invisible frontier. At the first village on the far side in Thrace, you sight your first minaret, a modest white pen skyward. Then, another in the next village, and the next. Not what you expect in Greece, but for the few minarets remaining, atop empty mosques in Ioannina or on Crete, stuck like a retreating warrior’s spear in the ground, to paraphrase Patrick Leigh Fermor’s inimitable prose.

Nestos River separates Macedonia Province from Thrace.

Here, uniquely in Greece, one third of the population is Muslim: not recent immigrants, migrants, or refugees from far away but, rather, very local, often very indigenous people. This Muslim population is considered by the Turks to be Turkish, but it is instead a very diverse group; a mosaic within a mosaic. There are Turks, Pomaks, a Slavic group speaking a dialect of Bulgarian, Muslim Gypsies, and even a village of Sudanese transferred here in the late Ottoman era.

Further, among the ethnic Turks there is a small Orthodox Christian community, the Gagaouze, who also have communities in Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, and Moldova. Confused yet?

We were all Greek citizens, and proud to be: yet we were so different … At one table, we represented a plethora of ironies, immigrations, emigrations, and expulsions, but we were all there together drinking a single transparent spirit which fostered a spirit of transparency.

On that spring day, I was retracing a trip I had made a decade earlier, accompanied by the woman who would become my wife. The city of Xanthi beckoned: I wanted to see the difference a decade makes. The Egnatia Autobahn, named after a Roman road and which traces in part the same course, cuts through Thrace with Germanic efficiency and, in short order, the turnoff beckoned, for Xanthi.

Post turnoff, you are back in the Balkans.

Xanthi is a beautiful Balkan town, at the foot of green mountains. Here the cobblestone streets and traditional Balkan town architecture predominate; the delicate shutters, neoclassical moldings, hatayi (covered, shuttered balconies) on second floors, all enchanting travellers accustomed to such architectural elements elsewhere falling into disuse or to the wrecking ball, displaced by Magnitogorsk-on-the-Med apartment blocks. Here, in Xanthi, Thrace’s isolation and poverty shielded it from the cement culture of 1970s Greece. It is easy to walk its upward-cobbled streets, and back into time.

The people help to complete the illusion. Here, Muslim women wear the veil and, at times, traditional costumes. Older Greeks, too, tend to dress formally. Ten years earlier, the line between Christian and Muslim was clear, both in sartorial and economic terms, as the Greeks of the Bubble Economy Years took part in the general credit-borne feeding frenzy, options less available to the Turks.

Yet on this, my second trip, the lines had blurred. While older Turkish women often wore veils (more than I saw in Turkey), the younger ones were indistinguishable from Greeks. While waiting in line to use an ATM, a tall, attractive girl in tight jeans, heels unsuited to the cobblestone streets, and a stylish jacket took a call on her mobile phone… in Turkish. The phone was late-model, and though the general economy was creaking, I could no longer discern the gap between the communities so obvious a decade before.

A mosque in Komotini.

Having retrieved my cash, I tried to retrace the steps my then fiancée and I had taken in town. I remembered an art gallery. I always like purchasing small mementos from local artists, and I recalled our spending time talking to this particular artist. My wife, who had studied in Sarajevo just as Yugoslavia was imploding, said that Xanthi, nestled in green mountains, with Orthodox Christian and Muslim – and their respective religious architecture – side by side, reminded her of a smaller version of Sarajevo, in all its fragile and fraught beauty. Back then, we drank coffee with the owner and talked art and politics.

A decade later, I walked into a gallery clearly on a downward spiral from better days. It was April, still quite cold in northern Greece, and my opening the door brought in the cold and stirred those inside. I remembered the artist; he did not remember me. His work was good but naïve, the product of practice rather than schooling or great talent. He answered my questions bloodlessly, worn out by life. In a corner, a white-haired man with a moustache and intelligent eyes eavesdropped from behind his newspaper.

I bought a Xanthi scene for my wife and as I was going out, the man dropped his newspaper. I told him I was writing a piece on Xanthi, and I inquired where he would recommend that I eat.

“Easy,” he said. “Go to To Dromaki (‘The Little Alley’) and tell them I sent you.”

Xanthi, Thrace (Below). Photo: Weekly Hubris

For reasons that became apparent shortly thereafter. I have forgotten his name.
A few minutes of navigation through cobbled lanes lined with old mansions, and I reached To Dromaki. An older man, the owner, greeted me and sat me down at a table with a glass of water. His accent was faintly like that of Bulgarians who speak Greek, but Greek accents in Macedonia and Thrace often have a slightly Slavonic cadence; I did not think much of it.

With the first appetiser, fried green peppers with feta, came the first tumbler of tsipouro (rakiya, rakija, grappa). Having set the items down, a 30-ish fellow with thinning blond hair sat down opposite me.

“Enjoy! We are pleased to have a guest from America,” he said with a flourish.

“I’m Selim, the owner’s son.”

Speaking of America, he was quick to remind me that Rita Wilson, Tom Hanks’ Greek American wife, was “one of us”; her father is a Pomak who converted to Orthodoxy.

Suddenly, his father’s faint Bulgarian accent made sense. These were Pomaks, an ethnicity not easily placeable in a region where identities are explicit and definite. Muslims, they converted, like so many Balkan Muslims, rather later in the Ottoman era, and under unclear circumstances. They speak a dialect of Bulgarian, but consider themselves separate from Orthodox Christian Bulgarians. Though they are Muslims and, under the Treaty of Lausanne between Greece and Turkey, they are educated in Turkish, they do not consider themselves Turks. While such matters are varied and subtle, they are often considerably fairer-haired than their Greek, Turkish, and Bulgarian neighbours.

Selim took me on a tour of the taverna’s – and Thrace’s – cuisine, with a plethora of peppers, cheeses, and grilled meats washed down by multiple shots of strong tsipouro. Early in the ‘lesson’, the fellow who suggested To Dromaki arrived, greeting Selim’s father like the old friend he was, and settled quickly into a chair at our table. He punched a few texts into his cellphone and within a few minutes another friend arrived. Both were teachers, one at a music academy, the other on the agricultural faculty of the University of Xanthi.

As we demolished the starters, a culinary tour of the Balkan and Asia Minor peninsulas, we spoke, as Greeks often do, of origins, professions, family, and a bit about our days of military service. We spoke, of course, in Greek, with occasional lapses into Bulgarian or English; we all understood enough of all of these languages to banter. It was one of those alcohol-fuelled afternoons that I adore: good cheer, drink, conversation, food, and intellect, all centred upon a diverse table.

We were all Greek citizens, and proud to be: yet we were so different. I was Greek yet American-born and bred; the other three were born in Greece, and in Thrace, specifically. One of the professors had origins in Asia Minor; the other was Thracian, but with roots in Eastern Thrace, now Turkey. The only true local, from Xanthi, was Selim, the Pomak. At one table, we represented a plethora of ironies, immigrations, emigrations, and expulsions, but we were all there together drinking a single transparent spirit which fostered a spirit of transparency.

A Pomak woman. Photo: Myrto Papadopoulos

One of our most spirited debates was not about politics or religion, but rather about the transparent spirit itself – tsipouro/rakija. I offered my considerable experience with Hungarian palinka, Vojvodina Serbian rakija, Romanian tuica, and various Bulgarian and Slav Macedonian rakiyas, and Turkish raki, to arrive at my favourite: A raspberry-distilled rakija I bought off a waiter in the Serbian mineral spa resort of Vrnajcka Banja. This moment of tsipouro-induced honesty did cause a bit of a ruckus, and Selim sought to bolster his argument with his own “personal stash” of homemade tsipouro – a strong argument indeed.
As the afternoon rolled on, I remembered that I was expected, for dinner, back in Kavala. Abruptly, the tsipouro left the table – actually we emptied the tumbler, and it was not replaced. Turkish (or Greek, or Bulgarian or Pomak) coffee arrived, together with a local sweet, the first, again, of many.

Saying goodbye was tough, because such afternoons deserve to go on and on, and I could only imagine the fare for supper. I left bearing a much-needed infusion of fellowship and intellect, served on the mosaic table that is Thrace.

If only all the problems of the world, and the region, could be spread out across such a table, and spoken over with open palates and open minds all round.
Then the diverse spices of the cuisine, and the debate, might enrich us all, rather than divide us.

How often, however, this is not the case.

I closed the door, and I stepped back into the chill wind.

* This article originally appeared in Weekly Hubris.