Pictures from the Balkans
Fraser, John Foster


Mount Olympus at Sunrise - Ancient and Modern Greeks - Albanians - Women of Different Races and their Dress - The "Converts" - English Manners and Others - The Turks of Salonika - The Art of Driving Bargains

I SHALL ever think that at the Mount Olympus Hotel in Salonika I had the best room. Perhaps every other wayfarer was assured he had the best room - just as at Chamonix it is understood that every bedroom window looks out upon Mont Blanc.

Anyway, at the break of day, when the quay was awakened into the life and colour only to be seen in the East, it was pleasant to throw back the shutters, look across the way to where the quaint caiques were bobbing on the burnished bosom of the sea, and then away, over a pat of mist resting on the waters, to the crest of Mount Olympus flushed with rose by the young sun.

It was indeed pleasant for a modern pilgrim like myself to fill lungs with crisp ozone, stretch idly in pyjamas in a deck-chair on the balcony, whiff a Kavala cigarette, and think of the ancient Greeks who thought Olympus touched the heavens with its top, thought that there was neither wind nor rain nor clouds, but an eternal spring, where the gods wantoned and where Jupiter held his court. That was when the world was young, life was poetry, and the Greeks were brave.


Beneath my balcony were modern Greeks, sitting at little tables on the pavement, sipping their five-o'clock-in-the-morning coffee, smoking, chattering, quarrelling, reading Greek papers, enjoying the Graphic, which is found in every Salonika restaurant - crowds of them, mostly podgy, wearing European clothes and the obligatory fez.

There is a row. Two Greeks jump to their feet; their black eyes flash; their tongues clip insult. They press their hands to their waists as though searching for stilettos. "Bah!" to each other. They move apart, breathing fire. It is war to the death. Then one weeps and peevishly picks up a stone and throws it girl-like at his foe. His foe runs away. And this is the up-to-date manner in which Greek meets Greek!

One afternoon I went on a little yachting excursion. The breeze was sprightly, the sky clear azure, the sea merry. I got a good view of Salonika, a white and clean city making a curve with the bay, rising on a sharp slope, and then suddenly checked by walls and turrets. Mosques and minarets provided picturesque points. It was all entrancing, and yet somewhat like a scene to be occasionally noticed on the drop-curtain of a theatre.

Salonika has its distinctions. Near the quay, where are the big hotels and boulevards and the syrup-sipping and the horse tramcars, is a touch of Europe. Within the town the streets narrow and are covered; the bazaars are gloomy and Oriental and smelly - the more Oriental the more smelly. There is the aroma of the East. At one part of


Salonika you can get a nice French dinner. You can jump on a tramcar and in five minutes you are in another land, where there are no chairs and tables, nothing but mats and Turkish food and the heavy narcotic smoke of turbaned Moslems puffing narghiles.

The population is hotch-potch. When you get above the poorer class, garb alone is no aid to decide nationality. Everybody speaks Greek and most know Turkish. But you have to note the features, the eye, the walk, the general manner, to decide whether this man be a Turk, a Greek, an Armenian, a Bulgarian, or a Jew. The shifty eye tells the Armenian, the swagger of demeanour proclaims the Greek, the quiet alertness reveals the Jew. They are all Turkish subjects, and all have to wear the fez.

But here are men of distinction, tall, swarthy, proud in their carriage. These are Albanians, with quilted white petticoats, black caps, silver-braced coats, and a couple of revolvers stuck in the girdle. They are the dread of the Turk. They are part of the Turkish Empire, but they do not recognise Turkish authority. They do as they like. They pay what taxes they choose. If an Albanian kills a Turk, of course the Turk provoked him. Turkish authorities will do anything to conciliate the Albanians.

The beautiful women are Greek. They are tall, carry themselves gracefully when young, dress well in the Parisian style, and are decorative and amusing in the little gardens by the sea-front where at


sun-down everybody gathers to listen to indifferent music and drink indifferent lager beer. The stalwart, big-boned, plain-featured women in red skirts are Bulgarian.

But the most striking costumes are those worn by the middle-aged and elderly Jewish women- not by the young Jewish women, for they, following the example of their Greek sisters, prefer last month's Parisian style. But this garb worn by the Jewesses is peculiar to Salonika. Three or four hundred years ago great crowds of Jews were driven out from Spain. Many came to Salonika. Now, whilst the fashion of costume has changed all over Europe, the Jewish women of Salonika, on passing the age when "the latest thing" attracts, wear the precise costume that was worn in Spain before the persecution. From mother to daughter, through long generations, has the style of this quaint garb been passed, a symbol and a reminiscence of how the Jews were hunted by the Christians before they found refuge in a Mahommedan land.

Being a mere man I hesitate even to attempt a description. At first shot I would say the Salonika Jewess is like a middle-aged and portly Geisha girl wearing a smoking cap. At second shot I would say she looks like one of Tom Smith's Christmas crackers on end with a head sticking up. For third shot take this: a plain Jewish face and the hair brushed smooth, but the plait twined about a low-crowned crimson fez. The jacket is zouave, generally satin, silver slashed. It is open in front, show-


ing a flowered, or a white, but generally a green, soft, cross-bosom covering, leaving much of the bosom bare. Around the throat are ropes of real pearls; tassels of pearls rest upon the breasts, and at the back you will find two heavy green bands with clusters of pearls in size and quantity proportionate to the wealth of the owner. Pearls are the one ornament, and the Jewish woman gives a fair indication of the position she holds in Salonika society by the quantity she wears.

Another class of women, differing not only in costume but in caste, and peculiar to Salonika, is that of the Deunmeh (convert). Two hundred and fifty years ago a man appeared among the Jews and proclaimed he was the real Messiah. The Turks put him to the test by ordering him to perform a miracle. This was impossible, and he acknowledged he was not the Messiah. Then this Jew turned to Mahommedanism and, as he had great power over his followers, they did the same. Now the Turk has a great contempt for the man who changes his faith. The consequence was that these Deunmeh, though Moslem in religion, were not allowed to marry into Moslem families, and, though the converts are Jews by race, no Hebrew man or woman would demean themselves by an alliance.

So the Deunmeh have been a class apart. They have had to marry amongst themselves, and this they have been doing for two hundred and fifty years. Altogether they do not number more than ten thousand, and their headquarters are at Salonika. The fact that the Jewish-Mahommedans are


ostracised by both Jews and Turks, and so live in isolation, has had the effect of making them witful, keen, the sharpest of business men. The Deunmeh are amongst the richest people in Salonika. Certainly those I saw were cultured, well-bred, and had an aristocratic air not to be found among the others.

The Deunmeh ladies have faces pale and pensive and with the delicacy of alabaster; their eyes are large, dark, and dreamy; they are tall, handsome, and lackadaisical. The way they compromise the severity of dress incumbent upon them as Mahommedans with the characteristic fondness of Jewish women for finery is ingenious. They always dress in black, and the head-covering is a thin shawl. But the cut and the adornment of the dress are exquisite; the head-covering is tastefully arranged; forearms are bare; black fans are wafted and held up - not too rigorously when the lady is beautiful and knows it, which she generally does - so that the face be hidden from the eyes of men. There is nothing but black in the dress of the Deunmeh ladies, but their grace and ingenuity make it distinctive.

Then there are the Turkish-Mahommedan ladies, who never appear in the streets save swathed in plain black or blue gowns, keep their faces covered, never walk with their husbands, never sit in the gardens listening to the band, are kept in the harem, and have no man to talk to besides the husband. I was told that the Mahommedan ladies eat their hearts out in envy of their Christian and


Jewish sisters who can dine with their men friends, go carriage drives, visit the café chantant in the evening. They see that the Infidel treats his women folk with consideration.

"Ah," said a Salonika man to me, "the Turk will never break down the barrier between himself and the Christian in the matter of the freedom allowed to women. A Turkish woman would willingly sacrifice her nationality to have the liberty she sees Christian women enjoy."

There are three Sundays a week in Salonika, Friday for the Moslems, Saturday for the Jews, and Sunday itself for the Christians. Or rather there is no Sunday at all, for there is never a day when you notice any cessation in business.

Much of the business is done at the cafés. If you want a man you go to his favourite café and not to his place of business. Some cafés are busy in the mornings and others busy in the afternoons, and all are busy in the evening. The Salonikan loves the shade. At one hour a café will be packed. The sun creeps along the pavements over the mass of little tables. Gradually customers go to the tables on the other side of the road and leave deserted the sun-baked side.

Dining at home is not popular. The Greeks like to sit beneath the trees and have dinner served from the adjoining restaurant. And they are charming, gay, and courteous. I should have liked them very much if I had not had the misfortune to see so many of them eat. Their table manners were atrocious; they made noises over their soup; they


messed the food; they held their fingers and forks pointed starwards, and they shovelled vegetables with their knives.

The more I travel the more I am convinced that the manners of England are the best, and I have been in near forty different countries. I do not say the English way is the best just because it is the way I am used to or because it is different from foreign countries. I say it because I have always noticed that among the better classes of all countries - the way accepted as best is toward what is regarded as best in England.

Now though the Turks are a minority of the population of Salonika, they are the ruling class. The wonder is that the quay is so long and so fine. It must have been built by foreigners. It was decided a little time ago to widen the front. All that was done was to get one man to go to the outskirts of the town, load a wheel-barrow with debris, wheel it to the quay, and tipple it into the sea. A friend of mine calculated it would take four hundred years at that rate for the necessary quantity of material to be procured. When there is a road to be repaired part of the work will be done. Then everybody will get tired and no further progress will be made for perhaps a couple of years. The Turk, when you talk to him, will argue it is rather a bad thing to keep a road in repair. Keeping a road in repair occupies only a few men. Let it get very bad and then a great number will be required. Further, the higher officials like a road to get beyond repair. Then a large sum will be needed to make another


road, and the heads of departments get their "squeeze."

For a great port - looked upon with greedy eyes by Austria, and to be the ultimate possession of Germany, so Berlin thinks - Salonika does its trade in a rather haphazard way. The Greek flag flies most often from the masthead of incoming steamers. British vessels number maybe thirty in a year. Cotton, tobacco, and opium are found more profitable than cereals. Fezzes and cigarette papers come from Austria. About £20,000 worth of cigarette papers alone, mostly of inferior quality, comes yearly from Austria.

The visitor will hardly have put his nose into the dark, shadowy bazaar before he is politely bowed to by some Armenian or Greek or Jew who keeps a store of antiquities. Foreigners are notorious purchasers of rubbish, and all alike are supposed to be inordinately rich.

You plead you are not interested in antiquities - which is not truthful - and that you have no money to purchase if you were. The Jew smiles, bows, and would not trespass, would not dream of forcing a purchase, but thinks the distinguished visitor would regret it if he departed without seeing his collection, which everybody knows is the best in the city. Please! So you go to the shop. If you are a novice or show the slightest enthusiasm for anything, you are "done." If you are an old hand, you set your wits against the dealer's wits, bring "bluff" into play, and exercise an exemplary and dilatory patience.


This was my personal experience, for I did not mind dawdling a few afternoons, pretending to be blasé, but keeping an eye open for bargains. The place was a higgledy-piggledy mass of old Albanian guns of which I could have bought a hundred at a Turkish lira (about a sovereign) apiece. Silver carvings - and the silver very bad - chains, lamps, ornaments, lay about, dusty and black with age. It was like a litter in a scrap-iron store. The Jew declared everything to be silver. I scraped one piece and showed it was plated on copper. Well, well; he had been deceived by the ruffian from whom he bought it! What would I give? Nothing! My eye was on something else, a quaint silver bowl inset with turquoise. Like the expert he was, he saw. Ah! what would I give for that? What did he want? Three lira! I tossed it aside, saying it was not worth more than a medjedeh (about four shillings). Oh, no, no; two lira; well, then, one lira. "If you have anything really good let me see it," I said, "otherwise you are wasting my time." He had got me!

His eyes gleamed. I was a customer. Step upstairs! Pardon the wretched place! A chair, and a cup of coffee and a cigarette! It was a real pleasure to have an English gentleman. "But I don't say I'm going to buy," I observe. "Oh, no, just look; I quite understand, just look."

The place is piled with carpets, some old and good, most new and bad. He wants me to buy the new and bad. I tell him I can buy the same things at the same price in London. Silver? A


sword! A silver scabbard, beautifully worked, and with coral inset in the handle. Only twelve lira! I offer three. Oh, the gentleman is joking, and the sword is put away - but not far. Embroideries? Oh, yes, there are some exquisite embroideries from Asia Minor, from Rhodes, from elsewhere. I give reluctant admiration. But the price - why, the Jew must think me foolish, or with more money than sense. How much for that piece? Five lira - no, just for luck and to get a sale he will sacrifice himself and let me have it for four lira, though it wrings his heart to do so! I offer one lira! Ah, the gentleman is joking again.

In my inward soul I am determined to have certain things. But there must be no eagerness. I politely inform the Jew he is too rapacious, and that I don't think I'll buy anything. "Oh, sir!" I rise to leave. I finger the embroideries I fancy. He understands. I examine the silver sword again. He understands also. I see a pretty Greek cast. Oh, yes, very pretty, but it would smash before I got it home. I pick up the turquoise-studded bowl, likewise one or two other silver bowls which take my fancy. They are used by Turkish ladies in the bath for laving the water over their shoulders. I think they would do nicely as finger-bowls in my own house. But I drop them after a casual glance. Sorry there is nothing which pleases! Won't I come again; he is quite certain we should come to a bargain? Well, maybe, but I won't promise. So I depart.

The next afternoon I happen to stroll through


the bazaar, showing interest in things I would not purchase. "Oh, sir, please, please come as you promised." It is my friend the Jew. I look at my watch. I have no time; at least I have only half an hour. We go to the shop. More coffee and more cigarettes. All the things in which I had shown interest are on one side. I at once reject several articles and say I would not have them at a gift. The others! We go through them again. At last I get together precisely the things I want, rare embroideries, bowls, sword, cast. Why, the price - and he has come down - is thirty-eight lira! And I did not intend to spend more than ten. Ten lira! He picks out several things he will let me have for ten lira. Oh, no, I would not have those! He assures me that never had he been so willing to make a sacrifice; he loves gentlemen from England; they are so much nicer than men from other countries; indeed, he had become fond of me; he did not want to make any money, he just wanted me not to be disappointed when I got home that I had let such a chance go. And when was I leaving Salonika? In two days' time. I jump up. I have an appointment and I am behind my time. I cannot make any purchases. Perhaps I will look in again? But his prices are so extortionate! No, it is no good coming round to my hotel! I'm dining out. Good-bye! But let him keep the things on one side on the odd chance I may look in again.

A day goes by and I never approach the bazaar. The next day I saunter along with a friend. I pass


the store, but the Jew hears of me, and comes running, panting. Please, please; his heart has been hungering for me; will I not step into the shop and have a cup of coffee? And when am I leaving? To-morrow morning! Ah, and I have not bought anything. The same things are again brought out. My friend knows much about Turkish antiquities. We discuss values in English. It is on his advice I do not boggle over particular articles, but offer a lump sum for the lot. It is the total sum which touches the Jew's imagination. He would like to sell the things on which there would be a profit ana keep the others. But I won't have it; it must be a fixed price for the lot. Well, well! He muses and calculates and looks all the things over. Twenty-five lira he will accept, and he pulls a wry face. I offer ten lira. He shrugs his shoulders. He is sorry. I say I'm sorry. We rise to leave and glance cursorily at other things. He will take twenty lira! No, it is too much. I pretend to be indifferent; he is openly sad. Some day, when I again visit Salonika, I'll call on him again! Good afternoon! We leave the shop. "I want them," I say to my friend, "and I'd better give him the twenty." Wait a second," is the answer. The Jew runs up. " It is ruin, but you shall have them for sixteen lira." "That's his bottom price today," observes my friend. All right! The dealer dances with joy. He is full of delight. He will take a cheque. Everything will be brought along to my hotel in an hour. Ah, he knew he could make a bargain!


"If you could have stayed for another two days," said my friend to me, "you would have got them for twelve lira, and I fancy I, who live here, could in time have got them for ten."

Anyway, that is a sample of how business is done in Turkey. No one ever asks a fair price; he asks the biggest price, quite independent of value. If you are ignorant and pay it, that is your look-out. As a rule twice as much is asked as the dealer is prepared to accept, and he knows you offer half as much as you are prepared to pay. Much time is spent by him in reducing his figure, and you in increasing yours. It is the custom.

An acquaintance of mine, who had lived many years in Turkey, went into a Bond Street shop to buy a pair of gloves. "How much?" "Three shillings and sixpence, sir." "I'll give you two shillings," said my acquaintance. The only reply was a glance and the sharp closing of the box. As the attendant put it away he remarked, "I said three and six." The returned Englishman remembered he was not in Turkey. He laughed and explained and bought his gloves.

[Previous] [Next]
[Back to Index]