© Nada Gambier 2019

The Voice of a City - Athens, Greece

 

Research residency hosted by Mind the Fact festival

17th of February -14th of March 2018

Local assistant: Ioanna Valsamidou

Folk music and kite flying on Filopappou Hill on Clean Monday

Arrival

Athens, I have been here before, many years ago, when for many people Greece was just a tourist location, a paradise of sun, good food and beautiful nature. For me it was the home of a very good friend of mine. But it also became the place for me where people desperately wanted me to be more voluptuous, more like a real woman in their eyes. The place where people would serve me double portions of food in hope that my breasts would grow bigger and my hips would get larger. It was the place where a beggar got so confused at my appearance that instead of asking me for money he looked at me perplexed and asked me whether I was a boy or a girl, and then walked away shaking his head in disbelief at my response that I indeed was a girl.

 

Now I am here discovering the city again, through the filter of new knowledge acquired and a perception of Greece as a country that has for quite some years now been struggling through an economic and social crisis.

 

I am told, or rather warned, that communication with people here is not always very stable. They might agree to a meeting one day, only to change their mind the next. In Greece, the social as well as the working meetings happen on the go.

Some people want to fix our appointment when it is time for the appointment. This means planning ahead is practically impossible.

 

I read online, in the Athens survival Guide, about the infamous Exarcheia neighbourhood.

Few people had ever heard of it until December 2008 when policemen shot and killed a fifteen year-old boy, which set off an orgy of violence, looting and burning that was captured by television cameras and beamed around the world for all to see.

These days the police don't really enter Exarcheia anymore, except in extreme situations. Instead, they are stationed strategically on the corners surrounding the area, not to keep people out, but to keep large groups of anarchists or troublemakers in. I am told I should be prepared to run in case trouble starts.

All goes peacefully however as I walk around surrounded by broken down houses decorated by graffiti, small shops selling music and books, cafés and restaurants. It is mostly quiet on the little streets but a turn of corner and all of a sudden I find myself in the heart of a market. People shouting the prices of oranges, lemons, fish and herbs. It is a market like anywhere in the world, with a diversity of people strolling through the stalls.

 

There are banners - some torn with outdated messages, others newly hung- a little everywhere in the area. I cannot read Greek so I am left guessing what the messages say. I am uncomfortable with my own ignorance and try to read on people’s faces what the mood of the day is, but it remains unclear to me.

Exarcheia is a neighbourhood with a bad reputation no doubt fed by the media’s and the state’s desire to instill fear in people but when I visit it, it is a neighbourhood like any other, with people of all kind just trying to get by.

 

I return to Neos Kosmos, the New World area where my flat is. It is an area once filled with Greek immigrants fleeing the massacres in Turkey in the 20’s. Now it is a rather quiet residential area with a lot of street cats strolling around. On my balcony, that faces an inner courtyard of green, a massive palm tree stares me in the eye. It looks like an out of proportion creature, a combination of a Muppet Show and Monsters Inc. invention, swaying in the wind dangerously close to where I stand.

 

Nada 18th of February 2018

A sea creature for dinner

 

The fish market on a busy early morning is a one stop shop for sensory assault. All senses awakened and bludgeoned.

The floor awash with ice and water and things that have fallen from vast tables and stalls, creatures and tentacles burrow into the soles of your shoes. The crush of people clutching blue and yellow polythene bags shoulder to shoulder ensure that there is no way that you can check what you just walked on. A football match crush in a conveyor belt with people peeling off to the sides as it slowly shuffles forward past the bright lit tables holding the contents of the ocean, some frozen solid, some perhaps still twitching with life.

A competition of shouting of their wares as the vendors reel off endless lists of what they have, one starts to shout, the neighbour shouts louder, their opposite neighbour begins his oceanic soliloquy. And so, the noise begins and rolls on.

 

Squid, cuttle fish, sea bass, octopus and prawns. Arms of frozen octopus stand erect. Black squid ink transforms would be clean trays of calamari into an intestinal looking mess of black guts.

 

Huge paper cones rolled and filled, handful after handful, scoop after scoop, of clams and prawns and things that I know not what are weighed and rolled and bagged and tied.

 

One metre tall grandmas squeeze past under my arms. Two metre men swivel and turn in circles scanning a euro cheaper here a euro more expensive there but always in a forward motion till the time comes to peel and purchase. A choreography.

 

Grandmas feel squid and cuttlefish between thumb and forefinger, throw out two prawns or a handful of calamari gloop from the proffered vendors cone of sea life, some add an extra one here and replace one there.

Fingers are waved, and exclamations made. Smiles follow every time.

 

A man holds an octopus out to me. A woman kisses a prawn in front of another man.

A stream of market workers against the flow clutching discarded fish boxes, coffee cups, hands red with blood and scales and a liquid that by now doesn’t have a name, the sweat on their brows dripping forward and on to the ever-present un-extinguishable cigarette clamped between teeth.

 

Bright lights blind and burn like headlights over this, the contents of the bottom of the Aegean. Hollywood lights over the corpses and meanwhile dinners of the city.

Mark 19th of February 2018

 

Mark 19th of February 2018

top: view of Athens from Filopappou Hill/ bottom: central fish market

from top left to bottom right: tourists by Hadrian's library/ office building by Omonia metro station/ street view/ central fish market/flea-market stalls in Monastiraki/ man resting on a rock on Filopappou Hill/ view over Athens from Filopappou Hill 

Back street tour

 

The offices of Shedia, Athen’s street paper, is our starting point. It is where the homeless gather on Tuesdays to buy their magazines to sell on the streets.

A small profit, enough to survive, but no more.

 

A balcony in the building opposite on the third floor is crammed with the debris of life like a spare room full of junk, no flowers and patio chairs and taking the evening air here in this part of town.

Blocks full of immigrants from the south and east of the planet.

Street markets with chillies and ginger and mooli replacing the dill and pomegranates of a few streets away.

 

Empty offices and shuttered graffiti clad shops everywhere. Desperate owners of buildings fence and razor wire their properties against a tide. Razor wire and galvanised wire as sandbags in this flood of humanity.

 

Water can and does get everywhere eventually.

 

A square once the centre of heroin and every drug you can imagine now clean, swept of its vendors and customers. 

The city decided that this was an important junction of three roads in Athens, and should not be filled with junkies and dealers and prostitutes.

 

A hotel, still just recognisable as such with the salubrious name of Lausanne Hotel stands proudly on the corner. Its shuttered windows and facade revealing a style and provenance of better times in yesteryear. 

Now it’s full of Bangladeshi families.

 

And nearby a day and night shelter for the homeless, another old hotel taken over by the city, which is where Michalis my guide for the day has lived for the past four years. Two or three to a room. A cupboard, a bed. In by midnight.

No drugs. For the clean only. Occupants from 30 years old to the oldest one being 94. 

 

And deeper still.

The sweeping has the swept further into the bye ways of the city, there is no mat to brush things under here, just swept further into the cracks.

The cracks are thriving.

Bangladeshi men hide in doorways with half priced cigarettes, a parked police car keeps only the brave vendors on the street, those with the fastest legs.

A street thick with smoke and the stench of a poverty. Figures from all parts of the planet stand on street corners and roadsides. Two men attempt to cut drugs on a damp curb stone in a broken shop doorway with a piece of plastic.

Sim cards with other people’s names.

Phones that belonged to somebody else yesterday, or even this morning.

Hypodermics in gutters. 

Condoms in gutters.

Staggering men’s eyes peer out from behind hoodies.

Staggering men’s eyes peer from behind a misty wall of their own reality.

I’m not even sure that they see me. 

 

A soup kitchen not yet open with its slumped army of the waiting prostrate on the pavement. 

 

I climb steps behind Michalis who looks like a tourist today, with bum bag and coffee cup held out, Mercedes Benz baseball cap on. I feel myself go rigid as I climb behind him.

To my left two people sit broken and not here save their listless eyes following us.

Another hooded figure squats in the middle of what once was a flower bed with a huge dog with studded collar. Waiting for something. Selling something.

This is everyday for Michalis, this is his reality on the back streets of Athens. The hipster bars and their tourist and expat beloved vibe a far cry from this reality. This is what is happening.

 

Every day the scenes break Michalis. Every single day, 365 days of the year like a nightmare on a loop only broken by the occasional love he receives and gives to people who buy his papers, to his friends who share his fate and others he crosses paths with.

 

Two more, no three more men up against the shuttered door of the burnt-out state pharmacy. It once provided for those that needed. Clean needles and drugs. Robbed and burnt, now a meeting place, just for drugs now, and later in the day, for sex.

A man on his knees pulls at his hair with a maniacal repetition. A needle close by on the ground.

Meandering and eyeless men hold each other and pass on messages and weave on in their dance through these streets of the swept.

Here you can see women from all over the world. Prostitution went up on the streets of Athens by 1500% when the crisis hit. I see this every day, it breaks my heart. I see little girls shopping at the market in the morning, full of mischievous life, and then later they are here, selling their bodies. It is so very sad, and it is getting worse.

 

I would never ever have come here to this place without Michalis leading the way. We walk as if invisible through the heart of this swamp of despond. Eyes through us and not on us.

 

A trail of fresh human blood leads through the empty meat market. Its chopping block tables already furred with the first frosting of a mould.

Mark 25th of February 2018

top and first right the Stavros Niarchos Foundation's multi million euro donation to the Greek state that now houses the National Library and the National Greek Opera, amongst others. 

Tourist planet

 

A week of turning stones and throwing some as far as possible. Maybe some we’ve thrown were part of Hadrian’s library or Platos’ work bench. There are piles and stacks of antiquities on every street corner, ditches dug exposing old Athens and Ancient Athens and some around the city pavements exposing chasms that are ankle breaking deep in a little litter and cigarette butts.

 

Pavements ending suddenly, some going from one metre to zero metres wide in the space of a stride.

 

Culinary delights uncovered in uphill back streets, culinary horrors discovered in well lit tourist laden high streets. Armies of cats, some tailless and camouflaged to blend into dusty asphalt hide in doorways and hide under some ladies from Quebec’s table while they eat a grilled sea Bass and sip wine and talk of how much they hate cats.

 

Sterling silver at 50% discount the lady outside the shop tells us. More discount inside.

We shy away from the bright lit attendant rich silver cave, once in there you will never get out alive, or at least without a pair of sterling silver earrings fashioned to resemble the belt buckle or sandle strap of Odysseus, Penelope or even Zeus himself.

 

A gift for your wife? A gift for your mother?

We settle for fantastical ice cream flavour thought up by someone on hallucinogens. A land where just vanilla does not exist and never will now, with cappuccino and tiramisu and Zeus`s favourite, chunky choc chip with honey and salted caramel taking the lead in best sellers.

A queue of Japanese gather round the oracle of ice creams, a sea of iPads iPhones and things we do not recognise from planet earth record the transactions in 15MP finery.

The movie will be played back in a Tokyo apartment to a gathering of bewildered relatives back to back with the other movie “ The Tower of London does battle with the Eiffel tower” that as yet has not been shot, but will have been by Friday lunchtime.

 

On walkways through the Hill of the Muses on a warm day, iridescent coloured poppies stand brighter than the purple and red graffiti on the quarried marble cliffs by the path. A solitary free climber rests from his vantage point above the city. Cleaner car fume free air up here in the Muses’ playground.

Couples sit scattered amongst the scrub and olive trees, holding hands and talking and kissing. Staring at no particular vista, each couple facing a different direction, a Roman road off to one side, a shattered temple off to another.

 

The local area opening up to reveal itself now. Quiet bars found in corners, supermarkets and their aisles becoming familiar. The lady at the cheese counter knows now. We understand the woman at the oranges department, we must give her the oranges to weigh, and not weigh them ourselves. 

 

We still bypass the meat counter. The elderly male butcher looked to give us 45 kilos of something the last time we had eye contact. We must have given a secret sign, maybe he thinks we own a pack of Hyenas like some foreigners do.

 

Frozen prawns from a deep freeze in the centre of the shop provide little confusion. We put them in our basket with no argument or discussion in sign language, 500 grams, it says on the packet.

The rest is easy.

The sun has shone for two days more or less, a bubble of car fumes has stuck over the city. And this is March, tears form in our eyes and noses burn as we think of what it must be like here in July when the temperature rises to 40 degrees...

Mark 5th of March 2018

Questions unanswered

 

We walk down a path and suddenly Hadrian’s baths gape at us from below. Up a few steps, Hadrian’s obviously, and we arrive to Hadrian’s library. No books and no roof but pillars almost intact from years and years ago. In the distance, Hadrian’s wife waves to us. She wants us to come and sniff Hadrian’s flowers in Hadrian’s garden that lies just next to Hadrian’s supermarket, a newly old built building of stone. On shelves that belong to yesteryear lie nothing but dust. The sun is setting and we sense a little Hadrian nostalgia creeping up on us. Breathing in Hadrian’s air we move into his hut and drink a Hadrian beer, so famous in this part of the world, for Hadrian’s only but shared by a million daily.

Outside the hut a young man is taking a selfie with Zeus and on the other side of the street we see, through a crack in the curtains, an old woman in a pink nightgown getting her hair done. It is 1am and Athens is just about to wake up for the night.

After a month here, after encounters with teachers, a retired undercover policeman, a drag queen, a physiotherapist, a taxi driver, a social worker, a cleaning lady, an Orthodox priest and more we are still at a loss as to what exactly goes on in Greece today. We have searched for answers in the sea, in the ports, in the markets, in the streets and in houses. We have sliced and digested words and thoughts, we have reformulated dreams into questions and we have tentatively tried to grasp the voice of this city. It has been intense and full of little colorful patches but also a lot of misery, sweat and tears, some dried out and some still running.

 

Many people have told us the Greeks are lazy. Many people have told us they live in closed circles. Many people have told us the Greeks have given up. We’ve seen many people working day and night, juggling with many jobs at once. Extremely hard working people. We’ve been welcomed with squeezing embraces and firm handshakes. We’ve seen glimmers of strength and determination sip through tears and anger. In the past weeks we have navigated through the thick and thin, the muddiness and the bright shining sun. 

Now as we leave this place behind us we do so with a slight anxiousness that whenever we return next the city will be another. We can only hope the turn will be a good one, for all those we’ve met and everyone else who fills this place with the pumping beat of life, day after day after day….

Nada 13th of March 2018

neighbourhood around Cholargos

street view near Larissa station

flea market vendor near Monastiraki metro station

old ruins in the Acropolis museum and hereunder new ruins on the streets of Petralona

A boat in the port of Aegina, one hour from Athens

from left to right, top to bottom: the insides of a car repair in Neos Kosmos, one of many in the neighbourhood/ the Acropolis under construction/ me, me, me and not history as it should be on the Acropolis hill

one side of Athens....and another side of Athens