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]