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.
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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.