Monday, 3 August 2015

Urban shift

I bumped into a friend from Athens the other day, one of so many friends I have seen this summer, from beyond the borders of my island and indeed my country: it seems that everyone is coming to Crete for their holiday. He looked very relaxed sitting on the roadside outside his son's office. His son moved to Crete, where his father was born, about two years ago from Athens, for employment opportunities. The road was busy and noisy, but this didn't seem to bother my friend. He was taking in the sweet breeze that descends on the island after sunset on a hot summer's day.

"Καλά είστε εδώ," he said, meaning something like 'you've got it good here', something I've never denied. In Crete, we live well, with good food and a more relaxed lifestyle. But I wanted him to explain what HE meant by this. What did he see?

"It's not a jungle here," he said. "You don't feel like you are in danger, you can live peacefully, without so much stress." He began to tell me about the problems of burglaries in Athens. But we also have an increased crime rate in the area. "Ah, but do burglaries happen at night, too, while you are in the house?" I think not. We generally feel safe at night, behind locked doors. I began to understand what he meant. The impoverishment of Greek citizens has given rise to many problems in Greek society. The rate of burglaries rose during the crisis, as has suicide. Desperation has caused many problems. These problems occur all over the country, but they will naturally be more visible in large urban conglomerations.

My friend lives in one of the areas of Athens that is considered very poor, in terms of median levels of incomes. When we want to measure poverty, income level is one of the most often used indicators. But this is completely misleading, in my opinion. I know the area of Athens where my friend lives, and I would never consider it poor, despite the fact that income levels are low. The concept of poverty has been confused by the media, both Greek and global, and we are led to believe that it has to do with a lack of money. But the media rarely explains how it is that there exist a significant number of people living in impoverished areas without their actually being poor. I usually dismiss news stories appearing in Bloomberg and Financial Times about the Greek economic crisis, because they are very skewed to analyses of figures - but these figures rarely show up the facts, one of which is that Greeks are managing to survive with less money. It's not a fact that the global world wants to become widely known about Greece, for obvious reasons: capitalism thrives on wanting more, not making less.

My friend knows my family well. He's in his seventies, and he grew up with my mother's family in a mountainous remote village. Homes were remotely located, but his family home was the closest to my mother's family home, so the 6 children in his family played with the 5 children in my mother's family. We have always maintained a friendship, even among our children. "You haven't been up there recently, have you? " I admitted that I hadn't. The family property was sold in the late 1950s (or early 1960s?) and my mother's family moved to lower ground. They never ever wanted to talk about it or even to return to the village. When my mother died, I tried to find out more about where she came from, but one of my relatives refused to discuss it, muttering something about πολύ δύσκολοι καιροί (very hard times) and μεγάλη φτώχεια (great poverty). And this is pretty much how my friend described living int he village: great poverty, in very hard times. That's mainly what they remember of their village.

 Although the area where Zorba the Greek was shot on location is not a mountainous village (the villages of Akrotiri), it was considered very remote and difficult terrain to live in because the area had no water reserves and the land was very rocky. The houses shown in this segment of the film are similar to the rough houses that my parents lived in before they left Greece for New Zealand. Zorba the Greek was shot in Stavros, Akrotiri, Hania, Crete. To watch the whole film, click here

For a start, it should be noted that living in a mountain village in Crete was never easy in pre-1970s Crete. Water came from wells and had to be carried to houses. Electricity was non-existent. Houses were rough structures, and animals had to be accommodated too. Families were big and houses small. Most food was produced on hilly slopes; planting and harvesting was a difficult job. People walked to the town starting from the wee hours of the night in order to get to the town in the morning to sell their produce - it took about four hours. They sold produce in exchange for staples that they did not grow, eg rice and sugar. Then there was the walk back home in the afternoon.  This is what people like my friend remember when they think about mountain village life. It was never easy. In contrast, life on the lower slopes was much easier in every respect. But to live on lower ground in Crete, you had to earn money, and since paying jobs weren't plentiful, my friend moved to the city.

In World War 2, Greek village life was destroyed. The Nazis burned houses, confiscated food and killed men. This destruction eroded village life and it was not possible to continue to live in the villages without great hardship. My friend was born in 1940; although he was too young to remember what happened in the village during the war, he lived through the crisis that followed. He eventually moved to Athens in the early 1960s as a young man, where rapid industrialisation was taking place and many labourers' jobs were opening up. He found work in the shipyards of Scaramanga. But he also needed a to live somewhere.

The Greek government did not provide housing for the migrants coming from the rural-urban shift. It could never provide enough housing to accommodate all the people in need: in 1922, the population exchange between Greece and Turkey meant that half a million people left Greece and moved to Turkey, and one-and-a-half million people left Turkey and moved to Greece.  The the second world war struck, and many homes were destroyed and many more were needed once again. Greeks were left to their own devices - they had to sort out their housing needs themselves.

If Greece were a richer nation, perhaps people would plead to the government to build them homes while they slept on the streets or in community spaces until a home was found. But this is not the Greek way. What people did instead was to build their own homes on whatever vacant land they found close to their workplace. This is how Anafiotika was built in the early 1800s, on the slopes behind the rock of the Acropolis in central Athens. Anafiotika is a name taken from the area's original inhabitants who came from the island of Anafi, neighbouring Santorini. Legend has it that their fame in masonry was so well known that they were invited in the mid-1800s by the newly-appointed German King of Greece to build the palaces and grand mansions that Athens was lacking when she became the capital of the newly established Hellenic Republic. Their own island homes had been ravaged by an earthquake, hence the need to move away, or rebuild. They hastily erected their Athens homes overnight, taking advantage of an Ottoman law which stated: "if you could put up a structure between sunset and sunrise, the property was yours." The paradox was that during the day, the Anafiotes built palaces for the rich and powerful, but at night they built simple island dwellings for their poor needy selves.

My friend lives in Paralia Aspropirgou in Athens, close to many of his Cretan friends who also left the island at about the same time as him, and went to work in the same kinds of jobs in the same general area.  The area is industrial in nature, with island communities found among the industrial buildings. The houses were also built at night so that the authorities would not see them sprouting up. They were built with any materials available to the inhabitants: plastic sheeting, wood from pallets, discarded hoardings, old barrels, the rocks from the land itself. The style of housing was similar to the houses that these people left behind in their villages - small and functional with a garden and yard. I know these houses well - my aunt lives in a similar house in the same area as my friend. I have always referred to their neighbourhood as Little Crete. These houses were slowly improved and modernised over time, so that they no longer resemble their origins. The housing communities in Paralia Aspropirgou were considered illegal, but eventually legalised - during my own time in Greece (which is not that long ago, after all!). I witnessed the change in the area when the streets were named and tarmac was laid on the roads. My aunt complained that they never got the plumbing right: whereas once the earth paths soaked up the rain, the water now created mini-floods atop the concrete.

My friend told me about his garden in Athens. "It's a hectare in size. My other son bought the land behind the family home, with a mind to building his own family home, but he decided to build elsewhere instead, and he left me the land, which has a well in it. I grow all my vegetables on it all year round and use the water in the well." Wells are now taxed with the new measures - if the authorities can find them, I guess. Whatever the case, being able to grow your own food and keep chickens for meat is considered very important to people with rural origins. It is a way of being able to control something in your life, which is constantly coming under others' control. And that's why it's important to have a home of your own in Greece, and why Syriza is going to protect the ownership rights of the first home, despite the new measures on foreclosures, which will allow banks to put homes up for auctions. It doesn't matter if your home is large or small, or whether it has electricity: it's yours, and will keep you safe during times of trouble.

The Greek urban migration in modern times (1950s) is portrayed poignantly in Alekos Alexandrakis' film Συνοικία το όνειρο (A neighbourhood called Dream). On first coming to the city, people lived in slums. The film shows grinding urban poverty in Athens when people who had recently moved to the city in search of a better life, employment opportunities, and a general moving away from the confines of village life. They established shanty towns. The neighbourhood of Assyrmatos where the film was shot on location was and is still is located on the foothills of Filopapou hill, close to the Acropolis. Some of the images contained in the film are highly disturbing - they show poverty and misery in its raw state. (No wonder my family can't and refuses to this day to talk about it.) The conclusion of the film is that the sense of belonging that one feels in a family is what stops a person from self-destruction.


The film is in Greek, but it is also intelligible to the non-Greek. There are also images in it which will melt the heart of anyone who has visited Athens. Start at point 0.20.00-0.22.00 and watch the young woman leaving the slum where she lives, and see where she ends up. (And if you have patience, you will see who she ended up with.) Another segment starting from 0.40.41 - where are we? There is also another great moment at 1:30:30 right at the end. Browse through the scenes and see the wretchedness of the living conditions of a Greek slum (the area continues to exist but it looks nothing like this now). 

The Greek films of the 1960s-1970s generally show happy glamorous people living in beautiful large glamorous houses and apartments; this film, made in 1961 with the musical score written by Mikis Theodorakis, was banned, only to be allowed to be shown in CENSORED form (!) due to public outcry among the Greek literati, and only in URBAN centres! Villagers would have been shocked to see the concept of grinding urban poverty that it showed - they thought that they, the rural dwellers, were the true poor. So the film still has resonance today when a severely impoverished Greece is trying to ward off further impoverishment.

Πολιτεία - City: music by Mikis Theodorakis, sung by two great Greek voices, Grigoris Bithikotsis and Stelios Kazantzakis. The album appeared in 1961. The lyrics describe, in its severest form, the feelings of deprivation of people who have recently moved from the village to the city's 'new' suburbs, which were in effect slums. Δραπετσώνα and Βρέχει στη φτωχογειονιά are two striking examples of such lyrics. (Use an online translator if you don't understand the Greek lyrics in the links.) 

Will the Greek city ever escape urban poverty? According to the writers of the new measures that have been enacted by law in the Greek Parliament, they will supposedly force us into the right direction. Perhaps... but most likely not. Greece will remain Greece and Greeks will remain Greeks. Greek city life offers more opportunities for entertainment these days than employment. For city living to be sustainable, we need to create work opportunities. Since Greece has no money at the moment for creation of any sort, state jobs are hard to come by, which means that the private sector will not flourish either. The state is owned by Brussels; we've been under foreign ownership for so long that we are used to it. And they are used to us. Some things don't change.

THE CITY Constantine P. Cavafy (1910)
You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world. 

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Friday, 31 July 2015

The psychedelic world of Mr V's shirts

I wanted to tell you today about my latest patchwork project, whose fabrics I found in some tidy bags full of designer clothes, placed against the wall of the former incarceration unit of Hania in the middle of town, which I am already cutting up to get the patchwork project started.  I had a job to do in the town, so I parked the car above the law courts, in front of the former holding cells, in the area known in Hania as Dikastiria. I noticed these bags lying neatly against the wall, a tell-tale sign that someone has left clothes on the street for someone else to pick up. I always rifle through these bags when I see them, looking for fabric I can use for patchwork. Most of the time, these bags contain children's clothes, and the only salvageable items are usually jeans (which are quite good for denim patchwork). So I was really thrilled with my find when I discovered what looked like expensive brand-label women's clothes. (Dikastiria is known at its lowest as an upper middle-class area.) The former owner of the clothes preferred classic lines, and her colour choices were mainly earthy tones in strappy Tshirts paired with white pants and skirts. The clothes were mainly petite sizes, as would be expected for someone who wears white pants. Since the clothes were still in tip top condition, I guess she gave them away because she got fat.

But instead of telling you this story, I will simply allow you to click this link to my facebook page, where you can read all about it, because a Greek patchwork story is unfolding right at this minute as I write and taking the country by storm. The veritable Mr V has appeared in Parliament today sporting a patchwork shirt. Oh, I know, it all sounds blase to you westerners who cite the proverb 'the clothes do not maketh the man' like gospel, but at the same time, you have probably been guilty at least once of looking down on those Greek parliamentarian males that refuse to wear a tie in deference to their position.

My understanding is that Mr V's shirt has made the global press headlines already, but... you are probably unable to access the Greek tweets on his choice of attire. So while you might have seen the photo...
ΑΠΕ-ΜΠΕ/ΟΡΕΣΤΗΣ ΠΑΝΑΓΙΩΤΟΥ
The OXI brigade in Parliament today

... you probably have not heard/read the quips. Sit back with your cuppa and enjoy a bit of Greek humour (keep a coaster handy to place your mug so as not to spill your drink):

- Γιάνη πήρε ο Μιχάλης Μόσιος να πλύνεις το πουκάμισο λέει πριν του το επιστρέψεις
Yani, Mihalis Mosios (Greek comedian) just called and he says he wants you to wash his shirt before you give it back to him.

- Αν είσαστε παρατηρητικοί θα ανακαλύψετε το Plan B σχεδιασμένο στο πουκάμισο του Βαρουφάκη
Careful observation of Yanis' shirt will allow us to discover Plan B. (the word 'plan' in Greek - σχέδιο, sHEdio - can also mean 'design')

- πουκαμισο τεντοπανο των '80ς... αμάνικο ρομπάκι της γιαγιάς μου την ίδια εποχή
shirt made of canvas awning fabric, 80s style - my yiayia's sleeveless robe from the same period

- Η πλήρης κάλυψη του π/θ στον κ. Βαρουφάκη γεννά πολλά ερωτηματικά.... Το λαχούρι πουκάμισο του τέως υπουργού παραπέμπει σε παραλία...
PM's full support for Mr V raises many questions... his 'lahuri' (oriental-style pyjama) shirt points to the direction of the beach

- Νταξ, τέτοιο πουκάμισο δεν έχω. Προσκυνώ Γιανη, προσκυνώ 
OK, so I dont have that kind of shirt. Kowtow Yani, kowtow.

- αν ήμουν γιάνης θα έπαιρνα τον λόγο επί προσωπικού και θα χάριζα στον αλέξη ένα πουκάμισο με λαχούρια. με σκληρό γιακά για γραβάτα
If I were Yani, I would take it personally and I'd present a lahuri shirt to Alexis Tsipras with a stiff collar suitable for wearing a tie.

Ωραιο LSD
- Το πουκάμισο του Βαρουφακη είναι
"Nice LSD." 
"Oh, it's Yani's shirt."

- Έβαλα ένα άσπρο πουκάμισο, μπήκα βράδυ στην πινακοθήκη της Βιέννης και κυλιστηκα σε έναν Κλιμτ
I put on a white shirt, i entered Vienna's art gallery in the evening and I rolled around in a Klimt.

- φίλε μαζί σου. αλλά στυλιστικά υστερείς. Το πουκάμισο αυτό πάει με βερμούδα και παντόφλα δίχαλο...
Buddy, I'm with you, but stylistically, you are lacking. The shirt would go better with Bermuda shorts and flip flops...

- Μου χύθηκε ο καφές στο λευκό μου πουκάμισο... Αυτό είναι το πλαν μπι
My coffee spilt all over my while shirt... That's Plan B (plan = design here)

- έχω βγάλει κι εγώ μάτι με κουμπί από παλιό πουκάμισο που εκσφενδονίστηκε αλλά του βαρουφάκη φαίνεται να είναι το νούμερό του.
I've poked someone's eye out too, wearing an old shirt which popped a button, but Mr V's looks like its the correct size

- Άλα της ψυχεδελιάρικο πουκάμισο ο Γιάνης, ο μακαρίτης ο Sky Saxon είχε ένα τέτοιο 
Sky Saxon had a psychedelic shirt like Yani's.

- Δηλαδή άνοιξε την ντουλάπα του το πρωί, βλέπει το πουκάμισο κ λέει καλέ πού ήσουν κρυμμένο τόσο καιρό, εσένα θα βάλω. 
So he opened his wardrobe this morning, saw the shirt, and said: "hey sweetie, where have you been hiding for so long?"

Το πουκάμισο του Βαρουφακη είναι ο ορισμός της δημιουργικής ασάφειας σε ύφασμα
Mr V's shirt is the designation of creative vagueness on fabric

- "Ωραία η εσάρπα της Κατριβάνου. Θα ήταν όμως too much με αυτό το πουκάμισο" 
Mr V's shawl is nice, but it would just be too much as a shirt.

- Ο τέως ΥΠΟΙΚ στη , όπου ο Πρωθυπουργός απαντά για τα περί "σχεδίου "
Former FinMin in Parliament, where PM responds to questions re Plan B. (remember: plan = design)

- Ιδανικό πουκάμισο για να...χορεύεις μπροστά στον καθρέφτη
Perfect shirt for dancing in front of a mirror

- Δεν ξέρω για σας αλλά εγώ μια φορά γάμησα με το πουκάμισο του Βαρουφάκη. Ερωδιό.
Don't know about you, but I got laid once wearing a shirt like Mr V's. Heron. (lifo.gr printed this in Greek - i am just translating)

Nick Paleologos / SOOC
My own tweet would read something like this:
'Why didn't you ask me to make it for you? 
I wouldn't have left the pins in it.'

I will let the PM have the last word: 
Varoufakis may have made mistakes like all of us. He may be liable. You can blame him as much as you like for his political project on the statements he made about not wearing stylish shirts and that he takes his holidays on the island of Aegina (where readers may recall that he owns a holiday home with his wife). You can blame him for that, but you can't call him lazy! You can not accuse him of stealing money from the Greek people! You can not blame him for having a secret plan to lead the country onto the rocks!" (this was Alexis Tsipras' reply to floosy-brained my-daddy-was-a-politician-too newly-elected leader of PASOK, Fofi Genimmata http://www.lifo.gr/now/politics/72620
With discussions like these taking place in high summer, when people are still happy and smiling, I don't see why I should not be optimistic even as autumn comes (vote Syriza). 


Either he got it cleaned regularly, or he had bought a dozen of them - Mr V most often wore this blue check shirt during his (short) tenure as FinMIn

Thanks to lifo.gr http://www.lifo.gr/now/politics/72618 for providing today's entertainment, including this video clip, which will leave you drooling for a Greek holiday. (For those of you who don't understand Greek, you will just have to enjoy the scenery.)


Have a great weekend, everyone, as we bake through a heatwave, while welcoming in August tomorrow. Can't wait long enough for Persephone to depart...

Bonus photo: 
"I swear I borrowed it from Theodore in France." (according to this link:  http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/03/the-greek-warrior)


©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Monday, 27 July 2015

The Sacred Way (Ιερά Οδός)

Out time! declared The Little Laughing Olive Tree. At home, we usually stay in in the evenings, meaning we sit outside on our large airy balcony, enjoying the view and the fresh air, with platters of fruit and cheese and paximathi (when there are no delicious leftovers available from the day's lunch). The Little Laughing Olive Tree's balcony did not offer the same romance (and neither did her pantry), so it was almost a pleasure to leave the confines of the apartment block and venture out into the cooler air at street level.


IERA ODOS - the SACRED WAY

Tonight, we're going to cross the Sacred Way! cried The Little Laughing Olive Tree. Having just returned from the very crowded commercial centre of Αιγάλεω (Egaleo) along the Ιερά Οδός (Iera Odos - Holy Road/Sacred Way), where I had taken my daughter shopping, I was rather disappointed to think we would be entering that mess all over again. Iera Odos links the Acropolis of Athens with the Eleusinian Mysteries in the West Athens suburb of Elefsina, one of the five holiest sites of ancient Greece. Now, it's a quiet residential area in Athens, once famous for its heavy industry, which subsided well before the period known as the Greek economic crisis.

The Chalyps concrete factory

Ιera Odos feels rather stifling on a hot summer's day from the roars and fumes of car engines forming an endless stream of traffic. But Athens by night is a different picture to Athens by day, so we piled into the car and off we went, with our starting point at Iera Odos in Elefsina. We rolled down the windows to catch the cool air of the late afternoon and tried to take in the sights which were anything but sights for sore eyes. Initially, the bus stop signs we passed which showed the place names of the areas did not seem to match the industrial scenery that shapes Δυτική Αττική (Ditiki Attiki = West Athens). For instance, there were no phoenixes at Φοίνιξ (Phoenix) and the industrial scenery of Παράδεισο (Paradise) did not look tempting. Our concept of Hades suited it better. Χάλυψ (Chalyps) was a steel structure resembling a disused adventure playground while Πετρογκάζ (Petrogaz) was located close to a string of gas stations. Λουζιτανία (Lusitania) was not even near the sea, as its name suggests, but when the sea did come into view, the relation between its murkiness and the fear of its depths became more apparent from the frightening structures that bobbed on its surface. The unknown depths of the Mediterranean have a knack of enveloping all aspects of Greek life: "Listen to that bitch, the sea," Zorba once said, "that maker of widows."

Skaramangas - the area resembles a ghost town in some respects. Some places had their heyday and are now forgotten. Others are coping well with the crisis as they keep morphing into new businesses. Hotel signs may be misleading here - they are usually used by lovers. 

What a daredevil! The Little Laughing Olive Tree chuckled. He must be desperate! She pointed to a man who had just come out of the water and was stepping carefully over the rocky coastline in his bare feet. The bus stop sign told us we were at Σκαραμαγκά (Skaramanga), which hosts a shipyard. What James Bond's ScaramAngas has to do with the Greek SkaramangAs is probably all Greek to most people, suffice it to say that few would dare to go swimming anywhere near a place called Skaramanga, without James Bond around to protect them. Both S(c)karamangas take their name from the same family. The James Bond writer named a nasty character Scaramangas after a spat with a half-Greek Eton schoolmate, whose Greek roots hailed from the island of Chios, well known in Greece for its illustrious maritime history. The Skaramanga family did well in England, and their name lives on in Greece in the same way that all prominent wealthy people's names are remembered, as placenames lost in time. However unattractive the Skaramanga area may now look, it hides many secrets. Driving past the bus stop Αφαία (Aphea) close to Skaramanga, all you will see is a quiet idyllic neighbourhood cluster bordered by hills. Hiding in Mt Egaleo is the original road of the Sacred Way, together with a rocky temple dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite. The archaeological treasures of this area are all due to the route of the Sacred Way. Shrines of various deities were located along the route to keep the pilgrims' minds on the job.

Aphaia - a shrine to Aphodite

Nearly there! chirped The Little Laughing Olive Tree, as she veered right off the highway leaving behind a jumble of road signs pointing to a Ψυχιατρείο (Psychiatric Hospital) and a Μοναστήρι (Monastery), both named Δαφνί (Dafni), not to be confused with the area of Δάφνη (Daphne) which is an eastern suburb of Athens (we were in the west). One lone stress mark changes the whole meaning of a word in the Greek language. The road here had a tidy and above all pleasant appearance at this point after the shabby wasteland appearance of Λεωφόρος Αθηνών (Leoforos Athinon - Athens Avenue), which lies in the path of the original Iera Odos. At the Dafni Junction, Leoforos Athinon continues into Athens, while the road to the right that runs parallel to reappears as Iera Odos. The original Sacred Way of ancient times is the practically the same road in modern times. At the bus stop Αιγάλεω (Egaleo), during construction work for the Athens underground train network, the original Iera Odos was discovered, and is now open for viewing to the public via a raised platform.

It was sales time when we went shopping in Egaleo - there is no Zara in the area, just a heap of stores selling a lot of made-in-Greece clothing, sewn in the working class locality, providing local jobs. There were virtually no boarded shops here - the area is quite widespread, with businesses tucked in the side streets off the main road. 

The industrial nightmare of Leoforos Athinon did not suggest the picturesque green neighbourhoods that suddenly emerged into view on Iera Odos, all clustered around a steep hill. No one would even guess that the bus stop Διομήδειος (Diomedios) actually refers to a botanical garden (a gift to the state by someone named Diomidios) containing over 3000 species of flora, including plants appearing in ancient Greek texts, connected with Greek mythology, and mentioned in the Bible. In modern times, Ditiki Attiki is generally known in Greece (and abroad) for its working class industrial neighbourhoods, and not for its immense significance in ancient times, linking the Acropolis of Athens to the Eleusinian Mysteries via Iera Odos. And yet the sacred nature of this industrial road has not been lost. It is still there, constantly being uncovered, and the residents of the area are not immune to a sense of pride developing among them that they live amidst an unbroken historical connection spanning many centuries.

Hi Vicky! The Little Laughing Olive Tree shouted out, waving her right arm, as we passed a set of forbidding gates leading to yet another psychiatric hospital, the Δρομοκαΐτειο (DromokaIteio). There do seem to be quite a few of them here; we wondered. But who was Vicky? We all knew her very wellTest. As mothers, we both felt sorry for Vicky Stamati: she had not seen her young child for so many years since she was charged with her husband, former Minister of Defence Akis Tzohatzopoulos, for corruption and bribery involving the embezzlement of state money. But as Greek citizens, we felt vindicated for the damage she and her husband had done to the country and if we were asked to vote in a referendum with the question of whether she should remain imprisoned (she ended up at the Dromokaiteio due to mental health problems, we would probably vote NAI (YES). We imagined her cooped up in her cell with a view of the dark foreboding forest where the hospital was located. As the Greek saying goes, όλα πληρώνονται στη γη (everything is paid for on earth).

It's worth taking the metro just to see the archaeological excavations. This one is in Monastiraki.

No more driving! The Little Laughing Olive Tree announced, parking the car close to a station on the Αττικό μετρό (Attiko Metro), a dream come true for Athenians. The Athens underground is the swankiest in the whole of Europe. Construction began in the 1990s and by 2000, the first stations opened, linking the mainly overground 'electric' train line that ran through the city from north to south. It has been embraced by Athenians of all ages, and the addition of many more stations has meant no more mid-town parking worries and no more bumper-to-bumper drives into the town. The Attiko Metro is a unifying force in Athens, bringing together the different worlds of the wealthy Βόρεια Προάστια (Voreia Proastia = Northern Suburbs) and the poorer Δυτική Αττική (Ditiki Attiki = Western Athens). Before its existence, never the twain would meet. We bought our tickets at the automatic ticket dispenser and made our way to the high-speed trains in the super-clean platforms of one of the most archaeologically-rich undergrounds in the world. The crisis is said to have taken Greece backwards, but the Attiko Metro has forced people to move forward, and life will never be the same again because of its existence. We watched the old blind man tap his stick to find a free seat, the middle-aged ladies holding their patent leather bags with one hand and a standing passenger's bus strap with the other, and the young girls holding tightly onto their baby strollers, as we all headed towards the centre of Athens.
It wasn't quite dark when we came out of the Monastiraki train stop.
We were greeted by this sight.
One more stop! The Little Laughing Olive Tree reminded us, as the train pulled into Κεραμεικός (Keramikos), the point where the pilgrims of ancient times began their journey in Athens on their way to the Eleusinian Mysteries. We had covered almost the whole of the Sacred Way now, and were very close to Μοναστηράκι (Monastiraki) just below the Acropolis. Travelling underground, we missed out on seeing the stop where Plato's Ιερή Ελιά (Holy Olive Tree) once stood, but we were reminded of the significance of the olive in Athens by the metro stop Ελαιώνας (Eleonas), once the site of the largest olive grove in Greece, and the area which grew all the crops needed to feed Athens. It began to disappear relatively recently, after the population exchange in 1922; alas, not a branch of it remains in modern times.

Ermou Street, beside Monastiraki Square. The busiest area for the Athens yellow cab is here. With the arrival of Attiko Metro, the taxi business has slowed down. Before the Attiko Metro's appearance, taking a cab in Athens was as common as taking a bus. 

Eureka! The Little Laughing Olive Tree looked elated. We had arrived at Monastiraki. The passengers of our carriage spilled out onto the platform, leaving the the carriage quite empty. Everyone had the same idea as us: it was a perfect night for a walkabout. And there, The Little Laughing Olive Tree did something I did not expect. As we exited the station, she suddenly stopped in her tracks, completely oblivious to hordes of people coming in and out of the station. In the meantime, I was clutching my bag furtively, looking out for my brood.


Athens by night: Monastiraki Square.

Smell! The Little Laughing Olive Tree ordered us. Smell! she repeated on seeing our bewildered looks, waving her hands in front of her face, as if fanning towards her some invisible force that only she was aware of. Monastiraki stink! she laughed. What is Athens without it! And yet, Monastiraki did stink in a way. It stank of too many cheap souvenirs, too much grilled meat and too many people, all right below the Acropolis hill crowned by the Parthenon. Whatever day it is, whatever the weather, it always feels like a formidable moment to be standing at Monastriraki Square and to be looking up at the Parthenon. Right at this moment, the Monastiraki stink smelt like the sweetest perfume, one that could not be bought or bottled.

*** *** ***
Like Cavafy's Ithaca, we had come to the end of our journey, enjoying the Sacred Way even more than the destination. We grabbed a table at one of the tavernas located on the square and sipped in the atmosphere. We had it all: the coveted view of the marble structures of the Acropolis, the worldwide revered Greek cuisine on our plates, a bongo beat band entertaining us on the square, and a world of tourists clamouring to grab the chance to be a part of our country's lifestyle.

Pittaki St - ιf the overhead lampshades were lit up, they'd look like they do in this link.

After dinner, we walked about in the general area, through the urine-scented Pittaki St with its overhead collection of lanterns and graffiti-stenciled boarded up shopfronts, which led us into the hipster Psiri neighbourhood, with its own lively Square at Plateia Iroon, where there wasn't a seat free. The worst moment came when the realisation hit us that we would miss the last train back to the Agia Marina stop where we had left the car. We almost felt like Londoners, dashing to the underground so as not to be left stranded.

The hipster neighbourhood of Psiri, a short stroll from Monastiraki Square

The global media focuses on a crisis in Greece, centred only a few metres away from Monastiraki, on the other end of Ermou St at Syntagma Square outside the Parliament Buildings, misleading the world about the true nature of the Greek crisis, which is a crisis of values, a re-evaluation of identity. Like Alexis Tsipras who acknowledged that he made mistakes in his handling of the crisis in the five months that Syriza has been in power, the global media should apologise for the way that they have reported the situation in Greece. A step in the right direction would be to start asking the Greek people not why they are leaving, but why they refuse to leave their country.

For more photos (which I haven't had time to label yet), click here.

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Friday, 24 July 2015

Plateia Koumoundourou (Πλατεία Κουμουνδούρου)

My Athenian relatives all live in Δυτική Αττική (Ditiki Attiki: west Attica), West Athens, often characterised as a no-go area, although on my recent trip, I did once see a Chinese man on the bus with us, heading towards one of the ancient sites in the archaeologically rich areas of Ditiki Attiki, armed with a selfie stick and a Chinese guidebook. It has a depressed image because of its working class tradition and the high concentration of light and heavy industry that dominates the area. My journeys between Ditiki Attiki and Athens centre always started/ended at Plateia Koumoundourou in Athens, where the buses for Ditiki Attiki terminate. Despite being located so close to the hipster neighbourhood of Psiri, Plateia Koumoundourou is an area mainly misrepresented in the media, including travel guide books. It is no surprise that Syriza's offices have been based here since the party was created, a sign of its proletariat roots.

Despite being the headquarters of the governing political party, only one policeman was guarding the area when we passed by. There is less obvious policing in Athens since Syriza took over. The special forces (MAT) don't make regular appearances these days.

Koumoundourou Square is located on Pireos St, only a few metres away from Omonoia Square. Plateia Koumoundourou is supposedly now named Eleftherias (Freedom) Square - or so say maps and street signs. The official name is actually never used! It's always called Koumoundourou. Reporters still discuss what is going on in Koumoundourou when they are talking about Syriza. Official street names in Greece are often different to what people call them: Pireos St has the name Panayi Tsaldari St written on a sign at Omonoia Square, but no one calls it that either - it's always Pireos (it terminates close to the port of Pireas).


Ditiki Attiki had the highest OXI* votes in the Greek referendum throughout the country. It is not surprising that income levels are an indicator as to how a person voted in the referendum. The well established immigrant groups that have based themselves in Ditiki Attiki also attest to the area's predominantly working class roots.
dimopsifisma-apotelesmata-attiki-guardian-xartis-570
Different worlds: The map on the left hand side shows how people voted in the July 6 referendum. Green shades indicate a predominantly NAI/YES note, while crimson shows mainly OXI/NO. The different shades of blue on the right hand side show the average level of income per suburb: the darker, the higher. For a breakdown of each area, click on the interactive map in this link.  
Pre-crisis, Koumoundourou Square was infamously known for lost-looking immigrants, Roma loiterers, drug addicts, the homeless, itinerants, and sexual solicitations, combined with cheap hostels and state-run centres for the homeless and other marginalised people in society; the main policy used to bring them here was 'not on my backdoor'. It certainly wasn't the crisis that attracted these people here, who still camp out on Koumoundourou Square. They simply found a place where they could congregate without being continually moved on - the headquarters of the left provided protection for these marginal groups.

The global media's knowledge of Greek is seriously lacking, which leads it to misinterpret the shut-down look of many stores in Athens. Looking closely at the photo of the store front on this building (located somewhere between Omonoia Square and Koumoundourou Square, across from the Syriza offices), you will notice a CLUB sign. Given the seediness of the area, this CLUB would have been anything but a club; the sign was simply there for legal purposes. The white sign with the red letters says: 'the clothes shop has moved to...'.  Closed stores are vulnerable to graffiti attacks. Street-level windows are usually kept shuttered. I used to live at street level in Athens, and literally never opened the shutters. Who wants the whole world looking into your house?

The area has been spruced up as of late, but the marginalised are still visible in the square. It is still a place where a motley looking bunch of down-and-outs continue to meet. We took buses a couple of times from here during our Athens trip. Koumoundourou Square still has a grotty grimy look to it with plenty of boarded store fronts. The immigrants stand out in the crowd: the stores in the area are mainly owned/operated by immigrants, predominantly Chinese wholesale merchants and various Pakistani businesses. There were people lying on the grass under the trees on makeshift cardboard mattresses (taken from the bins around the square, used by Chinese wholesale merchants to throw away their recyclable waste).

The villa of Alexandros Koumoundourou, bordering the bus terminals that are still located here.  

Koumoundourou Square's current political status is not a new phenomenon. It got its name from a former Greek Prime Minister, Alexandros Koumoundouros. Koumoundouros was considered a very patriotic statesman of Greece and he lived in the area now known by his name (which, during his time was known as Ludwig Square, presumably named as such by our former German-origin monarchy). His gigantic villa was still standing in the 1970s, being used as a boys' school. It was demolished in 1978 during the modernisation period of the city of Athens; its fate would have been sealed at any rate by 1981 after a big earthquake - the building was not earthquake-proof, and like many others in the area, would have been vacated and left to its own devices before being demolished eventually. Koumoundouros' name is also given to a lake in Ditiki Attiki which existed since ancient times, whose land was once owned by the Koumoundouros dynasty - Koumoundouros' sons also became politicians: one of his grandchildren went by the occupation of poet and died in London in 1980.

Bus departing from Plateia Koumoundourou: in my Athens days, buses were old and not air-conditioned. It's a treat riding them now. 

The changing people-mix of Plateia Koumoundourou is poignantly described by Vaso Nikolakopoulou, president of the Psiri neighbourhood progressive society in an article dated 2007 (ie pre-crisis):
In Plateia Eleftherias [Koumoundourou], there used to be a playground, which was removed, because it was part of the new plan, together with the removal of the benches, so that the homeless and marginalized migrants would not sit or lie there. The problem is not solved, because the homeless and marginalized migrants reside in the square and wherever there is open space below apartment blocks and on sidewalks, and there all their human needs are met. It is very important to understand the need to create hospitality center s for the homeless with the necessary requirements and for the registration of homeless people, to solve the problem, as it is very important to create a reception center, for both illegal immigrants and economic migrants. 
Plateia Koumoundourou, standing outside Syriza headquarters. The bulding behind the trees is the Athens Art Gallery, the church in the foreground is the Greek Orthodox Agii Anargyroi (Holy Unmercenaries), while the church that looks further away is the Armenian Orthodox Cathedral. For the locaiton of Plateia Koumoundourou, click here.
Lastly, the Chinese traders in the region are thriving. All the SMEs and wholesalers based in Evripidou Street [behind Plateia Koumoundourou to the left] rent out their premises and hand over their shops to Chinese traders. It is disturbing the balance of the neighborhood so much that soon, when we want to buy bread, we will only find pyjamas and slippers. This is happening in the center of Athens, in the district of Psirri, 50 meters from the City Hall of Athens and 500 meters from the Greek Parliament. Despite the problems, we love our region, as the heart of the city beats there, and we try through the Panathinea cultural association  to keep this neighborhood alive. Still, we hope that schools will be built schools here and the playground will return. We hope that tomorrow will be a better day for all the residents, workers and professionals of the area.
The playground has indeed returned on Plateia Koumoundourou, but I highly doubt that schools have been built here. The area is so run down that it is difficult to spruce it up without a thorough demolishment, something that few people will be willing to allow to go ahead. For the time being, Plateia Koumoudourou will continue to exist with most of its problems unresolveds.

I really didn't need to venture anywhere near Koumoundourou Square on my recent visit. If I wanted to, I could have taken the high-speed super-clean Attiko Metro with its archaeologically-rich stations (although I would have had to transfer to a bus at the end of the metro line at some point). But Koumoundourou Square has always been part of my psyche since I came to Greece. Its lost-looking immigrants reminded me of my parents' lost looks as they tried to fit into a country they were never comfortable living in. I don't continually look back to my past, but it still forms a major part of my identity. I wanted to give my children a chance to walk through this relatively unknown and often feared area without the prejudices it is associated with. Who knows, they may even need to frequent it at some point in time in the future, following their mother's footsteps.

*OXI - since the Greek referendum, the global world is now familiar with the Greek word for NO.

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Wednesday, 15 July 2015

On conforming

It's very hard finding a news site these days which reports the Greek crisis in a neutral/positive way, either in English or in Greek. This is very disappointing. Whatever web sites I browse through, I read about the doom and gloom that the Greek people face in light of the latest 'deal'. Very few news sites discuss the possibility of the great change taking place in Greek society, from learning to live with a compromise. A true compromise is when both sides are unhappy, and this is the case in the Greek deal.

According to polls taken in the last 2 days, 7/10 want the 'harsh' measures passed tonight, and 7/10 choose Tsipras as the most appropriate leader of the Greek people. Instead of taking into account the will of the Greek people, the articles being published abound with negative criticism of the measures, reasons why they will not work, a heavy emphasis on the possibility of early/snap elections and Syriza party rifts, a focus on the IMF's demands for debt relief, and a lot of Euroscepticism. The greatest proponents of the latter are the British press.

There is little being discussed about the united desire by the majority of the Greek parliamentarians - as well as the Greek people! - to save the country. Instead, there is a greater emphasis on how the country will never manage to pay off its debts. I find it difficult at this point in time to believe that such opinions are forming a significant minority, which is detrimental to political stability, especially for a country that seems to have FINALLY understood in its majority what a compromise means. Such things were said before. Why are they being repeated?

And worst of all, no one mentions that, finally, after five years of watching a highly divided country break up, Greece has formed itself a true centre through Alexis Tsipras. Tsipras himself does not paint himself a saviour. He has admitted his and his party's mistakes, and he acknowledges that some things had to happen, for the sake of the country. He has put party ideologies, personal beliefs and private interests BEHIND the country's issues.

I am starting to wonder if these rabble-rousers want to see the country fall, to prove their beliefs. It reminds me of the propaganda of the right wingers during the referendum. The Greeks did not fall prey to that fear campaign, and I highly doubt that they will fall prey to this fear-mongering lot either. I myself voted NO for many reasons: I was tired of hearing about needing other people's money, I was tired of being told by others how they were going to give it to me, and above all, I was tired of fighting about this issue with the Greeks I am surrounded by, so I let them have their revolution by agreeing with them. And what came out of that? We got a deal, and now, for the first time in six years, MOST people are happy.


I personally believe that Greece is 'finally' on the road to conforming to the reality of modern world living. Life is not easy anywhere. What might look like a coup to some people looks to me as something that was bound to happen eventually. What is happening in Greece is that we are catching up with the reality of the western world. Not nice if you are poor, but in Greece, our concept of poverty is not really the same as in the well-established Western countries. We have to learn to pay back our mortgages if we took out a house loan, otherwise we will lose our homes. We have to learn to pay taxes to the government so that the government can afford to fund our healthcare plans. We have to learn to stop venting our anger on others, and to pick up the shards to rebuild them. Above all, we have to take responsibility for our demise, and admit that we ourselves let our country go to ruin:
"Greece didn't get into all this trouble because its European partners took advantage of it; it went bankrupt because, after more than a generation as a member of a rules-driven, respect-based tight economic community, it never figured out how to play fair, how to fit in and how to build real value. It enjoyed the spoils of membership without ever trying to live up to its end of the bargain; it cheated, squandered, abused, begged for more... and the cycle continued until the financial crisis suddenly brought the entire country to the brink of bankruptcy. And even then, on the strength of charm and an endless stream of fake reform promises over the past half-dozen years, the money kept flowing in from its badly tricked Euro partners in the form of bailouts. And nobody was even humiliated or angry about that. Until now, of course." http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/andreas-souvaliotis/greece-here-is-why-thisisnotacoup_b_7796738.html
Anyone who does not agree with this statement is fooling themselves. If you have lived long enough in Greece, you will have seen this kind of flouting the rules so often, that you become immune to it. And if you are Greek, you will have broken the law silently on many occasions, because you decided to go with the flow. Admitting this is the first step towards fixing the situation:
I am writing to you to confess, to take responsibility, and to clear the slate. Your country is rotten to its core, bankrupt economically and morally, and your parents have had their role in helping it get to this point. I am sorry for never telling you that I am a thief and have been for 20-odd years, as I turned a blind eye to the implications and agreed on more occasions than I can count or remember not to want a legal receipt from the shopkeepers, doctors, dentists, mechanics, etc., whose goods and services were – and continue to be — cheaper without one. I partook in a system that supported corruption and I, too, in my own small way, was corrupt. The state of Greece now, totally septic and broken, is the result.  http://www.dianekochilas.com/a-radicalized-greek-mothers-apology-to-her-kids/
I see many positive things coming out of our new predicament. My optimism centred on being a part of the euro.  I'd rather be poor and in the euro, than poor and outside it. Thank you Mr Donald Tusk, for stopping Ms Merkel and Mr Tsipras from leaving the negotiating table until they agreed to compromise. Finally, both sides are unhappy, therefore the compromise can be nothing but successful.

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