MY MOTHER’S ATHENS
Let me start by describing the view from my mother’s slim balcony: concrete apartment buildings of 5 or 6 floors with balconies, a very narrow street populated by pigeons, small cars, motorcycles, and the occasional cat. Pedestrians walk in the middle of the street because sidewalks are impassable, parked as they are with motorcycles or simply too narrow to maneuver with a bag. (Is there a synonym for narrow? I’m going to need it so as not to bore you with the word.) Balconies across the street are mostly empty of people these days but there are green plants, a table here, a chair there, some laundry hanging. People are away, on holiday as they like to say. The top apartments of the buildings tend to be recessed and therefore offer larger, more spacious balconies called verandas. They’re like penthouses and coveted.
There are a handful of shops visible from my vantage point: a leather bag workshop, a car mechanic, an apartment-management office, an off-track betting parlor for the lottery and other sports, and, in the distance (in the corner) the confluence of two streets, a pharmacy, a frozen fish and seafood store, and a few more buildings. If I look the other way I see an uphill street losing itself in the near mountain.
On Sundays the accordionist strolls and plays around 10-11 in the morning, hoping for a few coins thrown from the balconies. On most weekdays a small truck with loudspeakers rolls by announcing his intentions to buy whatever you might want to sell him: old appliances, rags, furniture, anything old and useless to you but obviously profitable to him. The roar of motorcycles can drive me batty, especially at night time, but these days the traffic has noticeably decreased. Few cars, few people make their way up and down. Are they on holiday or just staying home?
After a couple of days, I venture out on my own despite my mother’s warnings – Watch your purse! Keep it next to you at all times. Look both ways when you’re crossing the streets. This is not Chicago. They’ll mow you down and keep going. Call me when you get there. I’m going to meet a friend for a long stroll downtown. I am proud to say that I buy the trolley tickets, get off on the right corner (both times), and find the place all on my own. Athens is not an easy city to navigate, especially downtown. No matter. The bitter orange trees are delightful to see as are the acacia trees with their bright blue/purple flowers. Legend has it that when the Germans occupied Athens during the war, they went crazy eating the oranges. Note: they are not edible. Go figure those Germans.
The entire city seems deserted, emptier than I’ve ever seen it. Downtown on weekends you can bowl on the avenues – the only wide streets in the entire city. Taxis are so plentiful I am awed. And the drivers are so polite compared to the past that it is a pleasure to hail one as opposed to earlier times when I used to dread the thought of hailing a cab: if you weren’t going their way, they wouldn’t take you; if there was someone else in it, they’d ask you where you’re going and decide if they would let you in. Today they beg for fares, lined up in corners one after another – 6 or 7 or 8.
Let me continue by describing the Tuesday market where you buy a kilo or two of peaches or eggplants or green beans or lemons – never one lemon or two eggplants – “they’ll laugh at you” my mother says. Block after block, the stalls brim over with watermelons, cauliflower, broccoli, towels, blankets, utensils, garlic, dresses, trousers, cherries, toilet paper, fresh fish; in other words - you name it, they sell it.
In the evenings we go to the open-air cinemas - ubiquitous, remarkable, and fragrant with jasmine. We sit under the blue sky and watch a big screen surrounded by greenery. Sometimes cats’ shrieks can interfere with the movie but we learn to ignore them. The same way we learn to ignore the cigarette smoke all around us. And the occasional backyard party next door.
And now I’ll tell you about the walk to the trolley stop: again narrow sidewalks, so narrow I walk in the middle of the street. I pass the corner where the pharmacist sells mom her medications and even does some of her errands. Then the small supermarket – “Melissa” – that knows her well and even carries her groceries home. I cross the street and there is the stop. All the streets are a noisy assault on the senses. Signs of all shapes and sizes crowd the fronts of buildings. Shops fight for space even though now many are empty, vacant, FOR RENT. There is no respite from sounds and sights. Blank walls are covered with graffiti. No place to rest your eyes or ears. Colors and words attack you all the time. Clothing stores, shoe stores, cosmetics boutiques, cafes, bakeries, banks. From the trolley on my way downtown or back home I spot the Parthenon, the Gates of Hadrian, the Acropolis. I marvel at the this view - so quotidian and yet so extraordinary.
And now I’ll speak about the spot where I go every few days to withdraw cash from the ATM. An African man sells bags and purses on the sidewalk. They are obviously designer knock-offs, sprawled on top of blankets. He speaks to me in English trying to entice me to buy one or two but I shake my head no and continue walking. Next door three cafes are filled with men and women smoking (smoking has been banned for a few years) and drinking coffee. These images are the most ubiquitous in the city. I wonder why these people are out here instead of working or in school.
One morning I go to a café downtown. This is what I overhear: “I am not a communist. I’m a Marxist. There is a big difference.” Then the man continues expounding on “the state vs. the people.” I sit on the sidewalk sipping my coffee and emailing friends on my little computer. When the man walks by me on his way home, I smile.
One afternoon my friend Maria takes me to a cafe behind the Numismatic Museum where quiet reigns. It is a very large patio open to the sky with tables and chairs and umbrellas, trees, flowers, fresh air. The museum used to be the mansion of Heinrich Schliemann – the German archeologist who dug up Troy. We talk for a long time about our lives before setting off for a walk towards Exarhia, an old neighborhood filled with graffiti and young people dreaming about a better future. We stop at the Goethe Institute and a fantastic bookstore/cafe called Free Thinking Zone where the owner tells me that John Cass from The Chicago Tribune had written a nice article about her store a few months ago. We walk by a small square where junkies are shooting up (seriously - in the open) next to the Law School. We settle in Alexandrino Cafe for a beer and bruschetta. On the way back to the trolley stop another group of junkies starts fighting and chasing each other (right in front of the university). No matter. We watch and keep walking.
Another afternoon Maria takes me to a neighborhood near downtown with zig-zag streets and old, peeling buildings with old fabric shops and new, trendy cafes. Anything old is new again. Some try to rehab, remodel, and make old, abandoned spaces habitable again. One large space is referred to as "the chickens place." I think the owner raises chickens but no, there are large paper-mache colorful chickens hanging from the ceiling. Underneath the chickens, large tables accommodate customers reading, drinking, and working on their computers. Huge paper-mache chickens!
This morning – like we do every time I come to Athens – mom and I walk to the bank so she can collect her social security and pay her rent. (First question mark: pay her rent in the bank?) There is a line outside the door waiting to get in. Is the bank that crowded we have to wait outside? Not. We have to go up to the door and press a red button. When the red becomes green we can open the door. Close that door and press another red button that turns green in a few seconds. In the meantime, if there are two people (like in our case) you are stuck in this tiny enclosure. (Second question: what is that about?) Walk in and there must be about 50 people waiting. What the heck is going on? Most of them are old. They have come to collect their social security. We take a number: 387. I look up at the counter on the wall to see what number is being waited on right now: 299. What?! (Third question: why do they have to come here and wait?) Answer: because their money is not delivered by the postman anymore (what? the mail carrier brought you cash?). Yes, because they used to be robbed. So now, you have to go to the bank and wait for two or three hours to collect your pension money.
I look at the faces of the women waiting: tired, wrinkled, hopeless. They stare out into space and/or look at me and/or look at the counter. When we walk in, a man who is leaving gives my mom his number: 360. Ok, that's something. Only 59 numbers to go.
In the meantime mom goes up to a desk where a woman she knows is working and introduces me. Mom's passbook is old, and she must get a new one. (What number question is this? Anyway, passbook? I haven't seen one of those in 30 years.) We sit down and after half an hour mom has a new passbook and the clerk's signature on her number, so she can now go to the teller ahead of the others and get her money and pay her rent. I always say: it pays to know people. In this case, it saves us an hour wait, at least.
To get out of the bank we must go through the same procedure as when we walked in. One door first. Close that door. Stand in the glass enclosure. Open the other door. The line to get in has grown longer by now. Good luck folks! Did you bring something to read? Your lunch? Some candy at least or a crossword puzzle?
Let me take you to Syllabi Cafe this evening, one of my favorite cafes in Pangrati. Set in an alleyway where there is no traffic, the café is also a bookstore. Rather small and charming inside, I prefer to sit outside, surrounded by green shrubs and trees, the occasional dog with its owner, children riding by on bikes. The owner - Philippos - plays tango music for me and then brings out his guitar to sing a song. He’s a sweet man who knows his books and his music. I must return some morning to sip coffee and read. A week later I return, welcoming the solitude despite the sounds of the bustling city all around. I read Andre Aciman’s book, sip a French coffee, jot down notes for future essays.
Some mornings I walk to St. Lazarus’s square: quiet, residential streets. But once there, the square surrounds you with cafes: chairs, tables, trees, cigarette smoke. And a tiny fountain. Pigeons everywhere. People feed them, call them “doves,” and are inexplicably fond of them. They shit all over, startle me out of my wits flying into my head.
The senior citizens sit on benches and twirl their worry beads absentmindedly. They stare in the distance. The men, at least. The women feed the pigeons or sit next to the men, attempting to chat. Pigeons walk around our feet, jump on a chair and try to grab our potato chips or chocolate cakes. Their feathers flutter around, fall on our heads or inside our coffee cups. Disgusting pigeons! Aggressive little birds ubiquitous as clouds.
There are so many older people here. With canes. Some smoking. White-haired. Doing nothing. There is very little grass, mostly brown soil, dry and stony. Short trees offer shade. The chapel of St. Lazarus attracts a few faithful. When they walk by, they cross themselves.
They spend several hours at the square before going home for lunch and a nap.
The children, like children everywhere, play ball or with their iPads. Roughhouse. Mothers admonish good behavior, yelling to be heard above their din.
I overhear a conversation about the highlight of the day:
-What are you making for lunch?
-Okra with lamb. And you?
-Fish with greens.
-We had fish yesterday.
-Yes, fish is good for you. We'll have okra tomorrow.
-I'm tired of meat, meat every day.
The square is busy enough to make us feel alive but not too chaotic. A good place to read, write, and listen to other people's conversations.
In the center, a statue of Lord Byron keeps watch. The neighborhood also bears his name. A hero for the Greeks, there are other statues around the city and references to his support and dedication to the cause of Greek Independence in the 19th century. He fought the Ottomans and died in 1824 at the Battle of Messolonghi.
Under the watchful eyes of Lord Byron, the Greek people try to return to some kind of glory days, not to fall into despair, to survive and triumph.
Back home in Chicago, my image of the city when I close my eyes : concrete blocks piled on top of each other crowded around with barely an inch of green space or free air sprinkled with magnificent ruins of ancient structures popping up when you least expect them, columns, arches, sculptures, monuments. I would rather have the old ruins.