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]

 

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Εξαιρετικο - η νεα πραγματικοτητα.

Anonymous said...

Your writing skills are prodigious. You've helped me to imagine this misery in a most painful way. I'm so sorry for the citizens suffering this nightmare. Writer, you have done your job well!