I want to tell you a story. You don’t have to believe it. I didn’t at first, and it happened to me. It was years ago in Istanbul, at the end of a long evening down by the water at Besiktas, when we had all become as dreamy as the waters of the Bosphorus at that hour. I was aching for my bed, but the tide of the night was running towards an iskembe joint, and I could already taste the garlicky vinegar of the tripe soup on the air. I pleaded mercy – a godawful early start for Salonica – when a young guy at the edge of the group touched my arm. “If you are going to Salonica, you must eat the borek,” he said, and began to write down directions to the best bougatsatsidiko in the city.
He had never been to Thessaloniki himself, but his grandfather had been born there. Even his grandmother, who came from Hania, with all the Cretan pride that entails, had to admit that Salonicans made the best borek/bougatsa on the planet – the lightest, flakiest filo, just greasy enough to cut the goaty kick of the young mizithra cheese flecked with oregano and mint.
He handed me a napkin with a line drawn across it to show the sea, a fortress on a hill, a hamam with three domes, and between them the Turkish names of some streets.
But hadn’t Thessaloniki been Greek since December 1912? Hadn’t it been burned to the ground, bombed, rebuilt, knocked down and rebuilt again since then? Hadn’t it endured two world wars, various occupations, a civil war, a dictatorship and the worst that precast concrete can inflict? Hadn’t its Turks been sent back to the eternal exile of “home” and its Jews, the soul of the city, who made up the majority of its remarkable mix of peoples, been all but exterminated at Auschwitz?
None of this seemed to phase him. It should be there. “People still have to eat borek.”
Two days later, using his scribbled directions, I found a bougatsa shop just where he said I would, next to a patsas place that was still serving the Greek variant of that hangover tripe soup I had missed in Istanbul to the last of the night’s stragglers.
Greek troops arriving at Salonica, now Thessaloniki, in 1915 The owner was a refugee, too. But his family had come from Smyrna, now Izmir in Turkey. His Borekci grandfather had taken over from a man who had been given the key by a blond-haired Turk the day he and his family were deported in 1924 with the last of the city’s Muslims. And yes, the bougatsa was fit for a bishop.
I took a photograph of the owner with two customers – one an Armenian Greek, the other a Cappadocian, though neither had set foot in the places they claimed to be from – and sent it to my friend in Istanbul. A few weeks later I received a reply.
He’d shown the photo to his grandfather, then well into his 90s. I’d got the wrong borek shop. The place never got sun like that in the morning.
I am telling you this story because to me it says a lot about the people who live in Salonica or have lived there, and people who have only inhabited the city in their dreams or in the stories of their parents or grandparents, but for whom it is still in some ways home.
The rest of the article in the Guardian