When people think of Athens, they probably have a vision of the rock where the Acropolis is located, the laid-back dining atmosphere in Plaka and the cheap souvenir shops in Monastiraki (check out this site for some great photos of it, taken at the same time as I was there). Maybe they also recall going up Lycabettus Hill to get a bird's eye view of the capital city, which is where they discovered that Athens is a concrete jungle: aesthetically distasteful apartment blocks cramped into a tight space, unsightly television aerials on their roofs and air conditioning units marring every balcony. Pireas Harbour is where you will start an island hopping tour (unless you take a chartered flight directly to an island). The modern cruisers make you feel like you're Aristotle Onassis jet-setting around the world, but look across from the port to the street, and you'll remember precisely where you are. Some of the more cultured among us might also remember that Athens has some interesting museums and galleries displaying Greek antiquities and contemporary art.
This is not the Athens that the majority of its inhabitants know. Most Athenians do not even go into those parts of town at all. They may commute into the centre for work, but their free time, family time and leisure time will be centred near their home. The choice about where to live is not a random one: priority will be given to the area where most of one's family resides, after which work will take precedence. Fewer Greeks will choose to live closer to work than those that choose to live closer to family.
Egaleo, I decided to go and live there, instead of commute the less than 5 kilometres needed to get in and out of the city centre. I was separated from my central Athens apartment and my job by one of the most congested and underdeveloped roads in Athens, Leoforos Athinon (Athens Avenue). The main problem getting to work was the amount of time it took the bus to get out of the city centre and onto the main arterial route, which was a multi-laned dusty grey road with a host of unappealing businesses and buildings located on it. When there was a bus strike, I had to take a taxi, which wasn't at all expensive (Greece has one the cheapest taxi fares in Europe); the trouble was that everyone was flagging down a taxi during (frequent, almost regularised) bus strikes, and I could never find one to take me to an area where the driver wasn't sure of finding a fare to get him back into the city centre. It's against the law for a driver to choose his fare, but few people at the time would have bothered to report such an incident (this has changed slightly).
Going to live in Egaleo wasn't based solely on the grounds of work. Some of my extended family lived in the neighbouring suburb of Peristeri, a sports rival of Egaleo, while the rest lived further away on the same bus route, so it seemed a logical choice, even if I didn't visit them often. But moving to the western suburbs of Athens is not a choice most foreign-born Greeks like myself would make, not then, and not now; at the time, all my colleagues (Greek women from the USA and Australia) lived in the city centre, not further than 1-2 kilometres away from the centre of Athens, but never westwards. The junkyard of Athens starts from the minute the bus veers west of Monastiraki; it is one of the most aesthetically unappealing areas, as well as suffering from the highest rates of pollution in the city. The western suburbs of Athens are where most industrial plants make their home.
The main roads - Athens Avenue, the Holy Road and Thebes Avenue - are where all the shops and businesses are located, while the roads behind the main arterial route are residences. I rented this yellow house.
Some people entertain a very romantic idea of living close to the Acropolis, in that same way that some people want to live near the sea, even though they can't afford it: they are all suffering from the "Mommy, I want a puppy for Christmas" syndrome. Others like the idea of living near the friends they have made at work. In both cases, we are talking about loose relationships based on loose connections, with high expectations; circumstances could easily change from one minute to the next, for instance when someone meets the love of their life, or suddenly has to leave their home and job to attend to ageing parents. I felt sorry for my friends who insisted on living in the centre, as they were binding themselves to a life of loneliness, trying to build non-existent connections based on fragile foundations. (The trend nowadays is to move to the southern suburbs near the sea because of the good night life in the area; more superficiality.)
My boss was thrilled when I told him that I would be coming to live in Egaleo. He had enough trouble finding university-educated native speakers of English to come and work for him in the Western suburb where his private English school and publishing house were located. Both he and his wife had lived most of their adult lives in the area, while their parents also lived close by. He was always having trouble with teachers who arrived late for work because they couldn't find a taxi or the bus was slow. After a while, they'd resign and go and find a job inside the centre of Athens. He was constantly asking me if I knew of any reliable teachers myself who would be willing to come and live in the area; he even helped me to find a place to live, a ground-floor flat with a garden, only a two-minute walk from the school. When I eventually left for Crete, I helped him find another reliable native-English university-educated teacher who lived close to the area by choice; that was how he hired most of his staff.
Egaleo is a misunderstood area. It is equated with high unemployment rates, pollution and low income earners. Its first permanent settlers were refugees from Asia Minor after the forced population exchange poured 1.5 million people into Greece. Nowadays, economic migrants have also entered the area, but this is hardly surprising given the industrial nature of the area. The many forms of light industry make Egaleo a good choice for unskilled people to find a job in a difficult economic climate like today's; who would believe that this area was once a paradise full of fields and trees, located on one of the holiest routes in Athens?
George Zambetas sang all night until the next morning in what is now the bakery on the corner behind the silver van, on Thebes Avenue (Leoforos Thivon).
Over 120,000 people live in Egaleo, which also happens to be the birthplace of George Zambetas, a famous popular Greek singer and bouzouki player, adored by the working class because he was one of them, and loved by Greeks all over because he sang songs about them. He was the first person to call the area 'Egaleo City' (after he gave a performance in London) suddenly changing its status from a low-class suburb to a maccho man's territory and elevating its image to a more positive one. Zambetas was the people's hero, epitomising the Greek street-wise μάγκα (manga - 'maccho'). A very moving account of life in Egaleo during Zambetas' time there is given by Mirandolina (in Greek). Coincidentally, Katy Garbi, a contemporary pop singer who once represented Greece in the Eurovision song contest, was also born in Egaleo, and the area boasts a high ranking soccer team, which is about the only reference you will find of Egaleo in English over the internet, despite my efforts during the three years I spent teaching there!
Egaleo is no different from any suburb in Athens in terms of the services and facilities offered. Due to the polytechnic school based in the area (thereby attracting students from all around the country), there is no lack of entertainment facilities: bars, clubs, discos, cafes, tavernas, fast-food outlets all operate day and night in congested streets. Given the working class nature of the area, there are plenty of shopping opportunities with moderately priced stores. Maybe it's not high street fashion, but at least it's good value. Housing consists of one- or two-storey terraced dwellings, with pretty back yards and gardens. I lived in this kind of house myself. Rents were cheaper than in the city centre. All the big supermarket chains operate in the area, while every Friday, Egaleo is home to one of the largest street markets in Athens, taking place on Iera Odos, the Holy Road (the avenue linking the Acropolis with the goddess of the Earth Dimitra's sanctuary in Eleusis, the present-day Elefsina), where a metro station has now been built.
*** *** ***
The residents of Egaleo do not need to go far in search of a good place to eat out. As in all areas, there are some eateries that have become well known for the good food they serve, and even people from outside the area will come to eat there. We ate at one of those places on our recent trip to Athens.
Do you get the feeling that you've gone back in time to 1960s Athens?
This is what the houses looked like right outside the taverna.
Nikos' taverna (you can't get a simpler name than that) is located on the border between Egaleo and the neighbouring suburb of Ayia Varvara (which translates to Santa Barbara, as it is sometimes nicknamed), two urban working-class areas with high unemployment rates, a most unlikely location for a well-known fish taverna specialising in shrimps. It is a family-run business, the premises look ancient, and there is little if any attempt made to modernise them. What struck me was how large the indoor seating area was. But Greeks never choose the place where they eat by the decor alone; they choose by numbers, and when we arrived, the place was just starting to fill up. I was told that the specialty of this garidadiko ('shrimp house') was fried shrimps in a mustard sauce.
The calamari was fried in large pieces instead of being cut into rings. It was soft and tasty, and not at all oily. The mustard sauce was a little too piquant for my liking, but the fried shrimp was superb. The crab had a light taste, but it was rather bland for my liking.
After we came back to Hania, my husband asked me if I had noted the address of Nikos taverna so that we could come back to it on a future visit. "There's no need to," I replied. If you come to Egaleo, just ask any kiosk owner where Nikos Garidadiko is, and he'll direct you to it (you might need to ask a few more people for further directions, if you get my gist). Everyone knows each other in these places even if there 120,000 people living there, so everyone will know Nikos' shrimp house.
The food was simple, well cooked and very tasty. Nikos taverna is a good place for seafood; despite the distance that separates it from the sea, the shrimp house is always busy, meaning that there is a high turnover, which of course means that the seafood will not have been hanging around in the fridge or freezer for a long time. When we were ready to leave, there was hardly a spare seat left in the taverna. Both the indoor and outdoor seating areas were full.
There were seven of us: we ordered 3 servings of fried calamari, three plates of fried potatoes (these two dishes were the children's favorites), a bowl of taramasalata, a plate of barbecued crabs, one serving of large fried shrimps and one taverna special, shrimps in mustard sauce, a beetroot salad, a mixed green salad, toasted bread, house wine and soda. Total cost: 108 euro.
This post is for you, AA.
©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.