Roma adventure

Rating: NNNNNthessaloniki ­-- it's not the lit- tle things you notice, it's the little things you don't. I've been to.

Rating: NNNNN

thessaloniki ­– it’s not the lit- tle things you notice, it’s the little things you don’t. I’ve been to this place four times now. I’ve spent a full month of my life walking these streets between the old Roman road called the Via Egnatia and the mist over the Aegean sea.And yet still I can’t read the signs.

Reading the literal signs isn’t so hard. For anyone raised on the Bible, mathematics and menus on the Danforth, decoding the Greek in adverts and shop signs is a bit of a parlour game.

And I’m at a film festival, so at least I know that lingo.

“So good to see you again!” means “I’ve forgotten your name.”

“What films have you seen?” means “Have a nice day.”

Thessaloniki hosts one of the best-programmed festivals in the world. This is a place where a critic can shed his carapace, where a North American can forget stars, where a fame whore can shun that evil force we’ve come to call buzz. This is a place for epiphanies. It’s happened here before. I just have to look.

But this year the signs, especially the human ones, recede. In fact, the whole city feels like it’s receding from view.

In the morning, the sky and the sea and the ever-present marble are all the same milky grey. It’s a colour I can almost touch. That’s haptic. From the Greek. And synaesthetic. Also from the Greek. A language I don’t even know keeps intruding into every thought. It’s beguiling. It makes me think I know this place better than I do. Just as the warmth of the people does.

But I never noticed the gypsies before. Four years in Greece and I never noticed the gypsies.

The Roma. I know that name only because I pay attention to names. Names I can read fine. But as Gisele and I rush up to a taxi stand, I realize that for years I’ve been blurring all this city’s faces together. Albanians, Turks, Roma, Macedonians ­– all Greeks to me.

We’re trying to get a ride out to a place called Saint Sophia. No cab driver seems to know where it is. Even though it’s the largest Roma settlement in Greece. Even though it’s a place that’s been hounded by controversy for years.

Saint Sophia sits on the site of the old Gonou military barracks, on the drab, dusty outskirts of town. It was originally planned to house more than 2,000 Roma who had been kicked off land at nearby Evosmos, where they’d been living for 30 years.

But when local officials in Ionia got wind of the plan to move the Roma to Gonou, some threatened to block the move, by violence if necessary. So these people wound up in limbo for two years, living in tents in the bed of the river Gallikos ­– dry most of the time, except when it flooded.

The taxi driver clearly thinks we’re nuts to want to come out here, but we have something like an invitation. This year’s festival opened with Tony Gatlif’s new film, Vengo. Gatlif is to the Roma what Alice Walker is to African Americans. Opening in the marbled Olympion cinema with his film, I now realize, is a decision with fierce political overtones. Another sign I’m late to read.

Gatlif and the festival have organized a screening of one of his earlier films here in Gonou in a half-finished community centre. Old men and women sit in red plastic chairs, half watching the projected videotape, half chatting. Boys tear through the concrete space kicking up construction dust. We’re late, and overdressed. We look like we came from a film festival.

Gonou is the Greek government’s first model settlement for the Roma. It’s got electricity, running water and toilets ­– all new mod cons for the 251 families who live here.

And it feels nothing like Thessaloniki. In fact, suddenly I’m in Africa. The smell of wood fires, of food grilling outdoors, the feel of dust and cheap lodgings ­– it reminds me of life lived well in harsh conditions, in other words, of Africa.

There’s no marble in Gonou, no sublime grey mist. But there is a solid, 5-foot concrete wall that circles the entire neighbourhood. It’s a sign you can’t miss.

cameronb@nowtoronto.comRoma adventure

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