Monday, November 25, 2013

visible and invisable Athens

Θλίψη” I heard a woman say to her friend as I walked along Stadiou Ave in downtown Athens. It is the one thing I clearly heard amid the noise around me – the whooshing of passing traffic, the honking horns, the buzzing mopeds leaving puffs of grey clouds in their wake. I was walking past a block of neoclassical buildings that were burnt and destroyed during one of last year’s protests-turned-ugly.

The two women had paused to look across the street at the boarded-up, blackened edifice. The protest long over, the ugliness of the charred buildings is not the only thing that remains. What’s left is something much deeper: sorrow, misery, heartache, devastation: θλίψη. 

The visible scars of the crisis are everywhere. I walk along the central streets of downtown Athens, past homeless people who have claimed a spot on low, wide ledges or steps. The cold marble is covered by blue yoga mats, which are covered by tattered sleeping bags, on which small bowls have been placed with hand-written signs propped up against them: help, I’m hungry, or thank you.  

Pre-crisis, these central streets were vibrant and bustling, full of shiny storefronts, immaculately maintained buildings, well-heeled people. Since the crisis, the streets began to reflect a surreal picture of what was happening.


I continue on my way to a bookstore in search of a book called σευχαριστώ που μαγαπάς (thank you for loving me) by a woman named Dimitra Nousi. As soon as I learned about the book, I went to Patakis on Akademias St and found it. New purchase in hand, I take a long walk through Athens and slowly make my way home.

I walk past a luxury department store which still stands in its polished finery. Next to this - empty storefronts, dirty windows, neglect. I turn into a side street, it’s darker and dingier than the previous block. On the sidewalk, I see three men sitting on a stoop, on a piece of cardboard. They are filthy, their hair is matted, and their faces are dark with grime. They are hunched over, fiddling with something in their hands. As I walk past them, I see that one of them has a syringe and the others are preparing something; I see a spoon, a lighter. They don’t even notice when I walk by, less than two feet away from them…


When I got home, I spent the rest of the afternoon reading the book. The next day I finished it. The wounds of this crisis are noticeable to anyone who lives here, or even visits briefly. But this book talks about the wounds that are not so visible. The ugliness that is harder to see, and more difficult to ignore.  In 2011, Dimitra Nousi, employed by the city of Athens for over 10 years, was given a challenging new position:  director of the city’s foundation for the homeless and disadvantaged (Κέντρο Υποδοχής Αστέγων Δήμου Αθηναίων). The foundation acts as a reception center and offers meals, shelter, clothing, a food bank, medical attention and psychological support.

It seems like an impossible task to provide these vital services during a time when everything is collapsing. Austerity measures forced the foundation to slash its budget, reduce its staff, while the remaining staff is underpaid and/or goes for months without payment. Morale at the foundation was low, to say the least. Some days the shelves of the food pantry were practically empty, and donations were dismal. Sometimes all the foundation had to offer desperate people was plain, boiled, white pasta.

The author’s frank narration about a reality that she experiences day in and day out, is overwhelmingly shocking and tragic. People from all walks of life go to the foundation every day to receive free meals. The homeless, drug addicts, people with psychological problems, refugees from other countries, and the ‘nouveau poor’: the elderly whose pensions have been slashed so drastically that they can no longer afford food, rent, heat; the newly unemployed whose savings have run out; families who have been able to stay in their homes but have nothing left for food after the bills have been paid… Each group has their own needs and their own set of grievances, triumphs and failures.  Every day, people line up in the foundation’s courtyard to receive meals, and anything else that can be offered. The author came to some very raw conclusions about destitute refugees and the Athenian ‘nouveau poor’:

[the refugees] are the strongest among us; the most shielded. Their only tool of survival was to develop their resistance. They are ones who can smile impulsively about the small but significant things they have in their lives… when you see one mother express her joy when she is given a few oranges, and another express her shame, even though both feel relieved that they have managed to obtain some fruit for their children, you realize a simultaneous reversal of the facts of life. One mother feels like she has managed to attain success and is joyful, the other feels her failure and is devastated.

Years into this crisis, the facts about the shrinking middle class and the growing class of newly poor are well known. People who suddenly find themselves unable to support themselves, and have used up any savings, find themselves at the mercy of charitable organizations. The author witnesses people face their new horrific reality, while at the same time fears that she and her staff may be facing the same fate, as their pay continues to be reduced, and new austerity measures only increase the cost of living.

The author describes what it’s like for the families that have been hit hardest by the crisis. She talks about the time a well-dressed, educated woman came to her office to ask for food, without completing the required forms so as to remain anonymous:

Tears kept falling from her eyes, but she wiped them away. The fact that she was able to control the tone of her voice gave her courage as she told me about her hardships. For some reason, she insisted on speaking with me specifically and not with the social workers…. When I asked her why, she replied: “because I cannot stand it, I can’t take the feeling that my family and I have become a statistic of the social services. We have our health. The only thing we don’t have is food. We have everything else in our home. We have love, understanding, my children are [college] students here [in Athens]. They don’t know I came here. If you give me food today, they’ll never know I came here. They shouldn’t know that I came here, isn’t that right?”

I didn’t have an answer to give her. If I was a psychologist would I have been able to answer her questions? Perhaps… Should her children know the truth? “We have everything else in our home…” Do you have honesty? …

….”Do you have children?” the woman asked…

…“A daughter” I replied.

“…you are a mother. Don’t you agree with me? I have a duty to protect my children from this situation I am faced with. They know we are struggling. They understand. They don’t ask for things. But if they found out I came here today to ask for food, how will they feel? Am I not right?”

I didn’t know how to answer her. The only thing I thought about was how this woman, whose entire world fell apart so suddenly, sat before me, wiping her tears to get a bag of groceries, had every right to feel justified.

All of the author’s personal accounts of her experiences are compassionate and thought-provoking. The one that stands out the most, I think, is the exchange she had with Fatma, a small refugee child who would often show up at the foundation with her family to eat.

Fatma was a shy child with green eyes. I am not sure of her age, perhaps 8 or 9 years old… She would never push and shove when in line to get a chocolate bar or a pair of shoes, she didn’t talk as much as the other children, she didn’t approach me often, nor would she fall into my arms to give me a hug and kiss. On the contrary, I always approached her… Only one day she approached me and said, “ma’am, do you love me?”

“I love you Fatma, of course I love you. Would you like to go play with the other children? Over there in the circle. Panagiotis has a ball…”

Fatma looked around as if she wanted to tell me a secret. First she made sure that no one could hear us and then she asked, “I stay here with you, ma’am, ok? Mama and Baba leave for Germany. Everyone. And my siblings. I stay here with you. Here – with food, with courtyard, ma’am. I want you and courtyard. No Germany. Do you love me, ma’am?”…

I hugged Fatma and was not sure if the child’s words were what hurt me more, or my own memories [of immigration and uprooting] from my grandmother. When your heritage is migration and hunger, condemnation and failure… how difficult is it to not identify with the ill-fated? In the end, that which shields us is also what makes us more vulnerable…

“Fatma, I love you very much. But your parents love you even more. Do you understand what I’m saying? Children belong with their parents. You have to go with your parents to Germany. You, your siblings, you will go all together, and you will have a better life there. OK? Why don’t you go play now with Panagiotis?”


She left to join the circle with the other children. As soon as Panagiotis saw her… she turned and ran back to me. She hugged me and said again, “I, ma’am, love you very much. Do you love me?”

“I love you, Fatma.”

“Thank you for loving me, ma’am.”

This time, she went running back to the circle happily, determined to join them. Panagiotis held out his hand to her and she smiled.

I don’t recall how many minutes it took for the conversation to sink in. It is the most significant combination of words and meaning that I have come across in my entire life. Did she understand that she managed to stun me?... with what power did she manage to simultaneously deliver both a deep blow and such a warm caress? Such contradiction…


In the sixth year of the financial crisis, life in Greece continues to be a series of powerful contradictions on every level. Burnt-out buildings on Stadiou Ave, a luxury department store on the next block; drug addicts shooting up in a dark corner, a crowd of young people eating at a trendy new burger joint on another corner….

Dimitra Nousi’s book offers a haunting glimpse into the depths of the crisis, on a most personal level… Another view of (new) Athens, one that goes beyond the visible surface, a story from the very heart of Athens.

  • Τhe book is available in Greek. (I have taken the liberty to translate a few short excerpts for the purposes of this article.)  

σ’ευχαριστώ που μ’αγαπάς… μια ιστορία από την καρδιά της Αθήνας, Δήμητρα Νούση, Εκδόσεις Πατάκης, 2013.


Thursday, June 13, 2013


This morning I woke up to a broken refrigerator. No warning signs of trouble. It just suddenly stopped. I watched the numbers on the temperature indicator rise, one degree at a time. First the top half of the fridge stopped but the freezer bravely trudges on, alone but still working, the temperature slightly increased. It is not completely dead, the food has not completely spoiled, and somehow the fridge is managing to stubbornly cling to life.

And so I sat and waited for salvation to arrive in the form of a General Electric repairman. “We are in your area,” he tried to sound reassuring, “we’ll be there in two hours, the latest.” Help was on the way.


As I waited, I watched ‘Occupied’ ERT – which is still holding on, broadcasting live from their station – another (private) TV channel is transmitting ERT’s program at the moment, and some websites host ERT’s live-streaming video as well.

Two days ago, on the afternoon of Tuesday, June 11 – the Greek government announced it was shutting down the national, state-run TV & Radio broadcaster ERT and laying off over 2,600 employees, in an effort to reduce costs. The closure was effective (almost) immediately.

That very night, around 11pm, as thousands of people gathered outside ERT headquarters, inside ERT journalists were broadcasting live… and suddenly our TV screens just went black. The government literally pulled the plug, on-air. Reporters were cut off in mid-sentence. Riot police had to accompany technicians to the location of the transmitters so they could be shut down. As all this was happening, all of the other, privately-owned TV channels continued to broadcast their regularly scheduled programs. No breaking news bulletins, no mention of anything out of the ordinary.

Since Tuesday night, the other Greek TV channels have been broadcasting a continuous stream of re-runs and infomercials. No news broadcasts. And today, a general strike has been called in protest to ERT’s closure – all journalists are on strike, public transport is disrupted, as well as international and domestic flights, and public services. In fact, today I attempted to log on to the Finance Ministry’s website for filing taxes electronically. A message at the top of the screen informed me that “some electronic services may be disrupted from 4-9pm”… It was only 12 noon but I was unable to log on and get to my electronic tax form. Even the website was on strike.


At least the repairman showed up as he said he would, on time. The verdict on the refrigerator: it’s broken. It needs new parts. The freezer may hold up until tomorrow but it will inevitably shut down too, slowly but surely. The new parts might be available tomorrow, he might be able to come back again tomorrow afternoon to fix it.

I thanked him and went back to my broken fridge – to my drippy ice cubes and souring milk – as the freezer began to quietly wheeze and sputter. Perhaps by morning it will stop working too. Perhaps by tomorrow afternoon it will be fixed, up and running, good as new.

But for now, I am stuck. Broken and waiting. We are sick of being stuck, broken, and waiting. Everything slowing down. Everything beginning to rot and fester. Pieces of our lives diminishing bit by bit, no matter how hard we try to fix everything, no matter how long we await salvation.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

off to see the wizard...

The zipper on my jacket broke last month and instead of trying to find a tailor who can replace the zipper, I found it easier to just walk around with an unzipped jacket for weeks… The other day, I happened to mention the broken zipper to an aunt and the seemingly dull subject led to an interesting conversation.

“A broken zipper, you said?!!” she put down her coffee cup and leaned in closer.

“I know of a φερμουαρατζής, a zipper man – probably the last one left in Athens…”

And so the story began… It was just a few days ago in fact, that her friend went to the zipper man and waited in line for two whole hours. He only charged her a few euro to fix the zipper, you see. He has tools and old machines that can magically repair zippers instead of replacing them with new ones, which can be very costly. The place is downtown, she told me - in a narrow street, it’s hard to find, you have to go early as people get there as soon as the zipper man opens and a line forms right away… It’s a first-come, first-serve kind of thing, you can’t just drop off your item and pick it up the next day. You go there, wait in line and he fixes each person’s zipper on-the-spot… τσακ-μπαμ! Likity-split!
Two hours in line didn’t sound “likity-split” to me, but nevertheless, I was intrigued…

My aunt told me she’d ask her friend for the exact address of the zipper man’s place. Last night she called to give me the address but insisted it wasn’t at all straight-forward. It’s in a neighborhood with a maze of little streets and a jumble of family-run stores from days gone by: old spice shops, a hand-made lamp store, one of Athens’ oldest cheese shops… The zipper man’s store is practically hidden, you pass a church and then you’ll see a τυροπιτάδικο, a cheese-pie stand on the corner. She instructed me to ask at the cheese-pie stand and they would direct me to the zipper man. I was tempted to ask her if I needed to whisper a code word, or give them a secret handshake in order to be led to the Wizard of Zippers.
So today, around noon I went to the address to see if in fact this urban legend existed. I didn’t see the cheese-pie stand but I was able to find the zipper place on my own. I saw an open doorway next to a lamp/religious icon shop, with the word φερμουάρ (zipper) spelled vertically with red letters on the door frame.

A long hallway led to a spiral staircase which led to a basement workshop. There were two women standing in line in front of me, one guy sitting on the stairs and from the mirror on the wall above the spiral stairs I could see the reflection of the room below – the line continued down into the workshop and about 5-6 more people were crowded into the tiny space. It was kind of quiet, I stepped forward and looked closer. The zipper wizard sat behind a large worktable covered with tools, tiny boxes, bits and pieces of zippers… His hands worked quickly, snipping and snapping, clipping and clacking and with a flourish he held up the finished product, a zip-front sweater, and said “ορίστε madame,” here you are – to a lady who stood across from him, watching him closely with bifocals perched on the tip of her nose. The guy sitting on the stairs clapped and everyone seemed relieved. The bifocals lady had various items of clothing and had taken up a half hour of the zipper wizard’s time. She was finally done and ascended the spiral staircase triumphantly.
Άντε, the line will start moving now,” another lady said, complaining that she had already been waiting for 45 minutes. I wondered if I should stay and wait or just give up and go have a coffee somewhere….

The grandmother in front of me, who sat on the only stool in the hallway, held a plastic bag on her lap filled with children’s jackets. The woman next to her looked at the bag and smiled knowingly. “I’ve been coming here for years, he’ll fix those for you and your grandkids can still get some use out of those jackets.”   
“My daughter told me to forget about it, to give the jackets away. I told her ‘if you have money to throw away, then go buy new jackets…’ I said ‘give those jackets here, I’ll have the zippers fixed and it will only cost a few euro’… these young people… they still haven’t learned the value of money,” she shook her head in disapproval.

The other woman went on to explain that she is a retired teacher and has seen generations of children pass before her. “Generations of kids who don’t appreciate anything,” she went on…
“No wonder all the Albanians came here to work” the grandmother added, “they're good workers - the men, the women, the young people, they know what it means to struggle to earn money… there’s nothing shameful about hard work…. In my day, I lived in a village, we worked in the fields, we picked olives… nowadays in the village all the young people sit in the café all day while Albanians and foreigners work in the fields…”

The retired teacher agreed. “They are hardworking people, not like the Greeks. We are the worst kind of people on the earth. All we want to do is steal from one another, take the easy way out, cheat, and pretend to be grand and important…. Greeks don’t want to send their kids to work in the fields, or work as waiters, noooo, we don’t want our neighbors whispering behind our backs, saying ‘ohh look at them, they sent their kids to work in a restaurant, they are poor’… Greeks... we all wanna act like big shots…”
I wondered if I should add my two cents, and tell them that I am the daughter of Greek immigrants, that I grew up outside of Greece and spent many of my teenage summers working in restaurant kitchens, or as a salesgirl at various stores – like all of my friends did… not because our parents didn’t have money to give us an allowance but because that’s just what everyone did – get a summer job, learn how to make your own money, learn the value of a dollar, see what it takes to save up your own money to buy something special… But I decided to remain quiet and just keep listening…

The retired teacher continued… “these younger generations… we have handed them everything, maybe because we wanted to give them everything we didn’t have… but we have created a nation of young people who don’t know how to survive…”
“Just look at this neighborhood” the retired teacher continued, “these small businesses are closing their doors, one after another. I’m surprised this zipper shop hasn’t closed. The knife-sharpening shop down the street closed years ago. Who has their knives sharpened anymore? No one, that’s who. The knife gets dull, they just throw it away and buy another one… Your zipper broke, just throw the jacket away and buy another one… no one values anything anymore…”

An hour later I finally made my way back outside into the daylight, my zipper fixed for only €2.50. I paused at the nearby square, along one of Athens’ main avenues, to get a bottle of water from a kiosk. Blue riot police buses lined the sidewalk, the cops stood around talking, their shields stacked up against the side of the bus like dominoes. I stood there drinking my water, looking around. Many of the surrounding buildings were still boarded up, shops either closed or damaged during the riots and fires of Feb 2012… some doorways and window casings were still charred and black…
On my way home, I sat on the bus looking out the window… I noticed that the usual trash pickers were out in force. It is now very common to see immigrants with supermarket carriages poking through the trash for scrap metal, all over Athens, in every neighborhood (another ‘new’ normal). I watch as a guy looks through a huge garbage bin, his carriage filled with all kinds of metal items – from discarded ironing boards, to empty olive oil tins. He pulls out a broken umbrella, the metal parts were bent and twisted. He puts it in his carriage and moves on to the next set of garbage bins as the bus rolls past him and an old man sitting next to me comments to no one in particular, “they have to do something, they might as well live off what we throw away…”

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

silver linings…

Last week, the Hellenic Statistical Authority (ELSTAT) released new data for November 2012. The report states that unemployment has risen to 27% (compare that to November 2008, when the unemployment rate was 7.8%). Today, youth unemployment (age 15-24) is at 61.7% (in November 2008, it was 22.6%).

Our most treasured asset lies in our people. I personally witnessed and experienced what happened when as a nation, we channeled our incredible human resources to create and organize an unforgettable, exceptional, incomparable, triumphant event: the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. I joyfully lived the rise, full of hope for a bright future… and now I sadly live the fall, painfully aware of lost opportunities and life-changing, difficult circumstances.

Two days after the ELSTAT report was released, I had the opportunity to visit some local entrepreneurs in downtown Athens. A group called ATA (Alternative Tours of Athens) and another group called βy local/Athens co-hosted a walking tour which offered a behind-the-scenes look at artisans, craftspeople and designers in their studios and shops.

With the statistics swirling in my head, I made my way to the event… and…  was blown away by the people I met along the way. Talented, driven, passionate, hopeful, creative, unique, inspiring - are words that don’t even begin to describe them. The first stop on the tour was a shop called Tintinnabulum. I felt like I was stepping into a little piece of old Athens. And when I heard the owner, Athena Drakopoulou, talk about how her store came to life, I realized that I had stepped into a tiny slice of the city’s living history. The building itself dates back to the 1930s and since the 1950s the space existed as a woodcarver’s shop. In 2010, the workshop closed its doors and the neighborhood mourned the loss of yet another traditional small business.
Athena had the vision to turn the place into something unique. It took a lot of hard work to clean decades of sawdust and grime from the floor; but it paid off as the original tile was revealed underneath - a stunning, black and white art deco block design. Even the walls practically talk in this place – they are riddled with small holes, a lifetime of the woodcarvers using many, many nails to tack up anything from tools, pieces of wood, calendars, to keys and photos…. For nine months, Athena removed nails from the walls, did all of the cleaning, painting, restoring and even some of the plumbing herself. The one-of-a-kind light fixture hanging from the ceiling is also her creation.

The woodcarver’s old work table serves as a counter, holding vintage suitcases filled with new treasures – handmade earrings, bracelets and necklaces. Old-fashioned frames, furniture and mirrors are used to display hand-crafted items and a piled-up collection of antique bedside tables adorn the entire back wall, from floor to ceiling. In the center of the small space you can sit on the retro sofa and enjoy a cup of tea and cookies. In fact, Tintinnabulum often hosts tea parties for friends and visitors.
Athena explained that when she came to the neighborhood, people were happy that a young person had rented the shop and was working so hard to retain its original character. When the “Tintinnabulum” sign went up and the vintage items, including a white lace dress, were placed in the shop window, curious neighbors popped their heads inside, asking “what exactly is it that you sell?” With the initial confusion long gone, Tintinnabulum is a welcome addition to the community.

The next stop on the tour brought us to the “home” of Maria Velizioti and Giorgos Andritsakis. She’s actually a chemical engineer and he’s a professional diver. But it was their combined passion (hers, interior design - his, furniture re-design) that created Sous Sol. The semi-basement apartment is located in a pink neo-classical building, the top floors of which accommodate a music school. As I descended the few steps into Sous Sol, I felt like I was walking into someone’s house. The original layout has been left intact, and the couple spent months restoring the space, which was formerly used as a religious icons workshop. Maria and Giorgos also spent many months on their own, renovating each room, keeping original flooring and fittings where possible. The end result is 1940s Athens with a modern twist - an eclectic mix of refurbished vintage furniture, new items for the home, restyled lighting and newly-designed artsy fixtures.

Walk through the apartment’s four rooms (living room, dining room, kitchen and bedroom) and everything you see is for sale. The walls are a gallery where original artwork is displayed, currently featuring work by artist Michalis Andritsakis. Pieces of old tables (coffee tables, end tables) are re-designed into a shelving unit on the wall, filled with interesting books. In the bedroom, an old jewelry box filled with colorful baubles lies open on an antique dresser, a string of pearls is carefully laid out… I half expected Rita Hayworth to walk in, wearing a long silk dressing gown…

I discovered many amazing new shops during that afternoon tour. I met skilled artisans and craftspeople and saw their original designs, one-of-a-kind items that you can’t find anywhere else. Clothing, accessories, jewelry, home goods… From re-styled vintage items to modern, cutting-edge industrial design items.
But what stands out the most for me, is the innovative people behind these projects who have invested their time and resources, making a serious effort to overcome the obstacles of the current situation. If we can somehow find a silver lining in this crisis-cloud that hangs over us, perhaps it is this – we are forced to think outside the box, be resourceful, and have the courage to pursue something that, in better times, we might have overlooked. Despite the grim statistics and unfavorable conditions, new ideas are being created, new communities are coming together. And that’s the other side of our new reality, another face of (new) Athens.
Find out more:

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…

Some of you may remember watching ‘Mister Roger’s Neighborhood’ on TV as a kid. I watched it too. A kindly, soft-spoken man dressed in nerdy clothes showed us around his fictional neighborhood, filled with polite characters like the friendly mailman. Well, I’m not Mr Rogers but this is what I saw and heard around my neighborhood on one recent day…
…I found myself at the supermarket around noon, the worst possible time to be there. It was packed, lines at the registers were long, and I gradually made my way to the toilet paper aisle, weaving in and out of the crowd… worn-out mothers pushing strollers, weary grandmothers leaning on canes slowly inching their way forward, oblivious shoppers blocking the aisles with their overflowing supermarket carts…

So there I stood in front of the enormous wall of toilet paper when I hear a woman speaking loudly into her cell phone and see her coming full force, barreling through the aisle unmindful of the rest of us who were courteously trying to maneuver ourselves around each other. We all overheard the woman’s very loud cell phone conversation:
“…I tell you, I prefer to just leave my apartment unrented. My son told me he wants to move into the apartment himself but it’s on the ground floor and I’m worried he might get robbed. These Albanians are unreal. They’ll rob and beat you so fast you don’t know what happened. My own mother got robbed on the street, they took her purse and dragged her to the ground!! Golden Dawn, and once again, I say Golden Dawn is the answer!!” She pushed her way past us and disappeared down the aisle filled with cleaning products. I stood staring at the wall of toilet paper, stunned.

A few minutes later, still stunned, I stood in line at the register. It was noisy, people were cranky and bored… and then I heard the voice again, coming from a few rows down. Over the racket I heard bits and pieces: “the first time, I voted for Syriza…. then I voted for Golden Dawn and I will only vote for them now…”
I went home, rolling my cart past a few empty storefronts, some beggars, the neighborhood pawn shop… I turned on the TV as I put the groceries away.

The news was reporting on the death of the last surviving member of the 1967-74 military dictatorship in Greece, Nikos Dertilis at age 92. The ex-colonel had spent the last 37 years in prison. He was serving a life sentence for the 1973 murder of Michalis Myroyiannis, a student during the Athens Polytechnic uprising. The funeral was attended, among others, by Golden Dawn parliament members and their supporters. In an article on its website dated January 29, Golden Dawn stated “…Greece mourns the loss of a Man, whose life and work was mighty proof of the racial continuity, in its most heroic form, of Greek Military History, which is paved with blood…”
The funeral service was conducted by Bishop Amvrosios of Kalavryta who hailed Dertilis as “a hero, like Kolokotronis and Socrates.”

A eulogy was given by Grigoris Michalopoulos, (editor of the newspaper Eleutheri Ora) who said “a hero has gone, a hero like the president of the Hellenic Republic Georgios Papadopoulos [president during the military dictatorship]. In your last letter you told me that only the two of us have remained. However, I say to you now that we number in the thousands.”
I listened to these words as I put the giant package of toilet paper away in the cabinet. Then I switched the TV off, thinking “it's a beautiful day in the neighborhood” and wishing that I was merely experiencing the sights and sounds of a (warped) but fictitious Mr Roger’s neighborhood.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Exarheia wanderings

Recently I had the opportunity to explore the Athenian neighborhood of Exarheia with a group of architects, artists and creatives. Exarheia is like that group of rebellious teenagers you remember from high school. The ones with the ripped jeans and studded leather jackets. The tough kids who smoked in the bathroom without getting caught. The ones who sat at the back of the class, looking cool and uninterested. Whenever something was vandalized or stolen, everyone assumed that those kids did it. 
Exarheia has a rough-and-tough exterior, it always gets a bad rap, and most people don’t bother to look beneath the surface to discover its many interesting layers. Every neighborhood of Athens has a unique color; together, like each brushstroke on a canvas, they create an overall image of Athens that is hauntingly beautiful.

Exarheia is one of the modern city's oldest neighborhoods. During the late 1800’s both the Polytechnic University and the Archeological Museum of Athens were built in the area – these buildings still remain, along with additional university buildings which were contructed in later years (University of Athens, the School of Law, and the School of Fine Arts). The neighborhood reveals many architectural styles: neo-classical, art nouveau, art deco, 1930’s modernism, etc. It is not surprising that Exarheia was always the epicenter of all forms of intellectual and artistic expression. The clubs, cafes, bookshops, bars and taverns were and still are frequented by students, artists, writers, actors and musicians.

In the early 1970s, when Greece was ruled by a military junta, it was a student uprising that began in Exarheia and at the Polytechnic which eventually toppled the dictatorship. On November 17, 1973 the regime ordered the military to crush the student uprising which resulted in a tank plowing through the gates of the Polytechnic and tragic loss of life. By 1982, laws were passed to ensure that would never happen again; in an effort to protect freedom of thought and expression, all university buildings in Greece were granted “university asylum” –  police were not able to enter university property without the dean’s permission. Therefore, students inside university property could not be arrested or suffer unjustified state violence.
Since that time, Exarheia slowly began to acquire its bad-boy persona. Although the asylum law had admirable intentions, fast forward 30 years and the law has been abused by some who use university grounds as a convenient hiding place for illegal activity.

Many movements have been born and thrive in Exarheia – political, artistic, civic, cultural, etc…. Protests, marches, occupations and sit-ins are frequent in this area (as they are in other parts of Athens too). Riot police are often seen in Exarheia (as they are in other parts of Athens too…). But an event which occurred in Exarheia in 2008 caused civil unrest which had not been seen since the student uprisings of the 1970s.

On December 6, 2008, a 15-year old student, Alexis Grigoropoulos, was shot and killed by riot police in Exarheia, which triggered an enormous reaction across Greece – protests and demonstrations took place from Athens to Thessaloniki to Patras and even spread to other cities around the world. Rioters used sticks, stones, and Molotov cocktails – causing unprecedented destruction and damage to both public and private property. The riots seemed to gain strength as each day passed and the civil unrest lasted for weeks.

So in recent years, that is what Exarheia has been known for. Take a walk around the neighborhood today and some might see nothing but graffiti and urban decay. But I see a colorful, pulsating, urban rawness that is gritty and real, and is an essential part of Athens’ social fabric. Residents have a progressive mindset and the area is a hub for new movements and concepts. An underground culture that speaks volumes. What caught my eye the most was the amazing street art on walls, sidewalks, the sides of buildings, everywhere.

Beautiful artwork by artists with names like, Sonkè, Wild Drawings WD and Sidron. Some come with a biting political message, some are quirky, some are poignant – all of them evoke some kind of feeling to those who come across them. You can’t help but stop and look, and ponder. A message high up on the side of a building reads 'wake up, rise up'... while another image shows a man with the bust of Aristotle as a head, holding a Molotov cocktail in his hand, and the words read: "Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime."

The 4th century quote echoed in my head as I walked around the city on that sunny afternoon. I saw and felt a lot of things. Sadness; drug addicts dropping their pants to piss on university steps. Exasperation; a mentally disturbed man shouting at us to go away. Anger; another group of homeless drug addicts fist fighting amongst themselves. Street art and graffiti; expressions of indignation that are hard to ignore. And most importantly: a reminder - neighborhoods like Exarcheia, in the darkest moments of modern Greek history, have given birth to ideals that created light, hope, and change.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

smoke signals

Anyone living or passing through Athens these days will certainly have noticed another new reality that has emerged from the crisis. When night falls and temperatures drop, the smell of smoke wafts through the air, rising from every neighborhood, every district, every suburb. In fact, the smoke can actually be seen; it hovers over the city like a hazy gauze enveloping a gaping wound. If you are out and about at night, the smell seeps into your clothes, your hair, your skin and your lungs.
The reason for all this smoke is because most Athenians can no longer afford to buy heating fuel, which is now taxed at 48%. Fireplaces and wood-burning stoves are being used to heat hundreds of thousands of apartments across Athens. However, people are not just burning firewood – they are burning anything they can get their hands on – old furniture, bits of wood found in the trash and other unsuitable items. The smog levels have risen dangerously; on Dec 28 the Environment Ministry issued a press release stating that “extraordinarily high levels of suspended particles” have been detected by stations which monitor air pollution. The press release also urges citizens to use proper caution and not burn inappropriate materials – plastic, painted wood, wood treated with chemicals, etc.

Reports by the Environment Institute of the Athens Observatory state that the smog is made up of sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and other carcinogens. A study by Aristotle University in Thessaloniki reports that these new high levels of air pollution pose a threat to public health. Scientists caution that particles from air pollution “penetrate the lungs and affect blood circulation.”
When the night air started to get chilly in December, and the faint smell of burning wood could be detected in the air, at first I unsuspectingly thought it was rather nice – combined with the Christmas lights strung across the busy square, it sort of created a cozy holiday feeling. Every winter, when it starts to get cold, you can detect a very faint smell of burning fireplaces in many neighborhoods so at first I thought nothing of it. I imagined people were getting into the holiday spirit; families gathered around the fireplace, decorating their Christmas trees.

But each night the smell got stronger and stronger and one night when I stepped out onto the balcony to get something, I looked up at the curious sight before me: a white foggy mass hung just above the rooftops of all the buildings; my eyes got itchy; when I closed the balcony door, the strong smell of smoke was trapped in my living room. My naïve vision of people hanging their stockings above the chimney with care went up in flames. It dawned on me that people were primarily using fireplaces and/or wood-burning stoves as their main source of heat.

And then suddenly, “it” was in the news, everyone was talking about “it”…

“Did you see it last night?” – “Athens is covered in it” - “Because of it I can’t put my laundry out to dry, my clothes smell like sooty smoke” – “We are breathing it in” – “Eventually it will kill us”…

And then suddenly everyone stopped talking about it and, like every other new aspect of new Athens, we accepted it as the new normal. Drying racks are brought indoors, clothes and blankets are no longer aired outside on balconies; more and more cyclists and motorcyclists can be seen wearing those little white masks…

And life goes on in new Athens… each evening smoke signals continue to rise up into the night air but somehow I get the feeling that no one is receiving the message…


[photo by Yiannis Larios]