I. Last Days
Our Global Prowl was truncated one hot day in Heraklion when I got the news my grandmother had died in Sydney. I had been calling her every week from the road. She didn’t have a good sense of geography. From Montreal and Mexico City and Lisbon I told her to find me on the world map in her disintegrating Pears Cyclopaedia. Nan was an 85-year-old with the good humour and alertness and physical agility of a woman 20 years younger. Then one day she was no longer at the other end of the telephone line.
Clare and I made arrangements to go home immediately. It was a sad and bitter way to end six months of backpacking. It would take us four flights and about 40 hours to get back from Crete. We began with a dawn flight to Athens through clear Aegean skies. We had to wait until evening to continue on to Frankfurt, then to Bangkok, then to Sydney. Rather than stew at Elefthérios Venizélos Airport all day, we got on the metro and rode out to Akropoli Station. I love Athens and even a few hours in its streets was a welcome distraction.
I had last been in the city some months before the riots of 2008. The police shooting of a 15-year-old boy in the Exarchia neighbourhood that December was the catalyst for nation-wide protests that spilled into riots, but other problems were gurgling in the bloated gut of Greece. Wages and pensions were low while food and rent and everyday items seemed as expensive as in Western Europe. I had met many young Greeks who couldn’t get jobs. Educated people who couldn’t move out of menial jobs. Life for the average person had become more and more impoverished and without hope.
Since 2008 the country has descended further into economic catastrophe, lumped into the cruelly-named group of PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain) which soon became PIIGS (adding Ireland to the ash heap). In May 2010 further mass protests rose up in Greece against a round of austerity measures mandated by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund in exchange for a bailout package. Several people died in those protests.
Clare and I passed through Athens in May, just before a new and larger protest movement, the aganaktismenoi, was to rise up in Syntagma Square. This is the Greek version of the Spanish indignados who had camped in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol from 15 May (we missed that protest by two months). These latest Greek protests culminated at the end of June when the national parliament passed yet another round of budget cuts, privatisation, and higher taxes.
Savas Robolis, a professor of Economics and Social Policy at Panteion University, recently predicted a 40 percent decline in living standards for Greek employees and pensioners between 2008 and 2015 as a consequence of the austerity measures. (Spiegel Online, 19 July 2011)
So Athens is not exactly an economically viable city for an expatriate writer.
Maria Margaronis, writing about contemporary Greece in The Nation (28 June 2011), describes “the sense of powerlessness, resentment and humiliation that finds no foothold in democracy, reaching instead for scapegoats and too-easy answers.” There is also an “uncontainable migration crisis. Tens of thousands of Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis, Bengalis, Somalis, and North Africans are packed into crumbling buildings owned by slumlords, mostly Greek, who double as traffickers.”
“Already parts of Athens look like New York City circa 1980, with shut-up shops, derelict buildings and graffitied walls… depression is endemic. Suicide rates have soared. For Greeks, this is much more than an economic crisis. It is a social and political convulsion unlike anything seen here at least since the fall of the colonels’ dictatorship in 1974.”
The year 2011 has seen feverish political activity around the Mediterranean—the Arab Spring across North Africa and the Middle East, huge protests in the EU from west to east. As Clare and I crossed Western Europe to Central Asia and back, we’ve naturally read mainstream and independent internet news (plus blogs and tweets). But the real news has come from the eyewitness stories of fellow backpackers. Over late night drinks in hostels we heard from people present in Cairo during the early stages of the revolution in Tahrir Square, or exiled from Damascus because of the protests against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.
Something was happening in early 2011.
Memories of the Ragtag Plaka Crew
Waiting for our evening flight, Clare and I went to lunch at the Taverna Restaurant in the Athenian neighbourhood of Plaka, close to Brettos Bar on Kidathineon Street. I ordered stuffed tomatoes. Over a long quiet lunch I thought back to my solo backpacking trip of 2008, before Clare and I got together.
What images of Greek life in 2008 made the international media? Molotov cocktails, broken glass, riot police, clouds of tear gas, and the big Christmas tree in Syntagma Square enveloped in flames. But earlier that year in Athens I found a city of impassioned conversation and barely-suppressible energy. As is customary on the international backpacker circuit, I found friendship and uneasy acquaintance with both locals and travelers—a new crew in every city. The Ragtag Plaka Crew rendezvoused and caroused in Monastiraki or at Brettos in Plaka, where the bartenders would push Bloody Marys into your hands when you were already drunk. Dionysus still rules that neighbourhood. Everybody talked late into the night. Finally we walked back to our hotels and hostels. I remember a Charlie Parker record playing to the deserted streets from some phantom loudspeaker.
One day when I was on the Athenian peak of Mount Lycabettus, accessible by funicular railway, I started talking to two Polish women in their 30s named Magda and Anka. Red-headed Magda was an unlikely Polish Russophile—she dreamed of taking the Trans-Siberian Railway all the way to Vladivostok. I didn’t like her chances because she hadn’t yet been able to figure out the Athens Metro. Since I knew how to join the blue line at Evangelismos, they invited me to come along and sup with them and a Greek friend. We decamped to a souvlaki joint in Monastiraki and downed glasses of Mythos Beer. Prince’s snoozy easy-jazz record N.E.W.S. played on a loop.
The Greek friend was a blue-eyed 30-ish character named Alex, a real estate agent on a Greek island. He was well-educated, multilingual, and full of resentment. He curled his lip at the lurking emo kids and barked abuse at the Nigerian hawkers who approached our table with bootleg DVDs, pens, and roses for us to buy our Polish lady friends.
“Monkeys,” Alex said. “Give them a banana.”
I felt something wilt inside me and said I had to get going, but Magda slipped her hand into mine under the table and asked me to stay awhile. Then the food arrived (dolmades for me) and the inevitable interrogation began. “You’re a vegan?” Alex, masticating his mince, refused to let me pay for a meal so laughably insubstantial.
“Maybe I should have given you the banana,” he said with a chuckle.
Another afternoon while walking around the Parthenon I met Svetlana and Martina, two Czech women working as nannies in England. They’d come to Greece on ten quid plane tickets. Martina said she had to return to London the next morning, but Svetlana was here for three more days.
“Wednesday I go back and look after little shits,” she said. “What you do tomorrow?”
“I’m going to take a ferry to one of the islands in the Saronic Gulf,” I said. “Maybe Aegina.”
“Yes, we do this. I come, too.”
Wind from the East
Svetlana and I took a train to the port of Piraeus and a ferry to Aegina, the closest large island. The sun was high in a cloudless sky. The port was packed with dirty fishing boats and piled nets. I bought a pineapple from a fruit stall on a docked boat. People zoomed past on motor scooters. In one of the shops by the waterfront I found Dimitris Papadimitriou’s soundtrack for Anastasia, my favourite mid-‘90s slow-as-watching-paint-dry Greek soap opera. It’s the one where the girl two-times the father Pavlos with the son Alexandros. Or is it the son with the father? Anyway, the shop owner was thrilled. He blew the dust off the CD case and said, “Yes, this was very good show!”
Svetlana and I decided to hire a car.
“Thirty-five euros,” said the young man at the hire desk.
“No way, I heard you give these cars for twenty-five,” Svetlana said.
“No, impossible…you can’t…” He frowned. “We make no money that way.”
Svetlana smiled. “Yes, I’m sure you can do something.”
“I have to ask my mother.”
“And make it red car, yes?” To me, laughing: “He ask his mother!”
The man went into the back room. We heard an old lady shouting in Greek. Finally the man came back and handed over the keys.
The red hatchback was a manual transmission. I could only drive an automatic. Svetlana took the wheel. “Not worth more than twenty,” she said as the car croaked along Leoforos Dimokratias. The sun burned above. We left the port and wove through bald hills of spindly olive trees, white-and-blue churches, holiday villas. We pulled off the road at a restaurant amid groves of lemon trees. The place was shut up for the winter. Svetlana pulled down her jeans and squatted in the grass to piss. I stole some lemons.
Svetlana decided it was time I learned to drive a real car. I got into the driver’s seat. “Don’t worry,” she said as I stalled coming down the next hill. “You can’t wreck this car any worse than already is.” At the first corner I nearly smacked into a herd of goats. The old goatherd leaned into the car to show me how to use the clutch. I got the hang of it.
Beyond the village of Mesagros we headed for the Temple of Aphaia. I parked. We hiked to the summit and raised clouds of dust from the hillside with our boots. We were alone at the temple. It was noon and the colonnades barely threw a shadow. The sky was blindingly blue and hazy at the horizon. Svetlana took photos of herself in front of the temple. I gazed east across the Saronic Gulf to the ghostly mainland: Attica. A Homeric vision. Gulls winged above the sea. The wind from the east blew hard and salty.
For lunch we drove to the Agia Marina on the eastern coast of the island, almost a ghost town at that time of year. The rocky coastline was crowded with closed-up white-and-blue hotels. We found a supermarket and bought a big bottle of Mythos beer, a jar of olives, bread, tomatoes, and camembert (for Svetlana).
“You don’t eat cheese?” she said. “My God, what you eat?”
We sat in the sun on a stone wall at the shore, making sandwiches and drinking the beer and twirling our bare toes in the limpid sapphire water. A duck clucked by to harass us for food scraps. Svetlana and I compared histories. My school pledge had been to God, Queen, and School, while hers was:
“To Lenin and the workers of the world!”
Since then we’d both rebelled: I’d become a republican atheist, while the grown-up Svetlana showed little solidarity with the downtrodden.
“The worst are the blacks,” she told me.
I called her a fucking racist.
“Ha,” she said. “You don’t know.”
She drove me back across the island. We returned the car without refilling the tank (“This guy not know,” Svetlana chuckled). The sun was starting to sink into a wraith of low-drifting cirrus. There were white-hot sparkles on the water. Our shadows were long on the wharf near the miniature Church of Agios Nikolaos. The last ferry, the Giorgios, was docked.
“Coming back to Athens?” she said.
“I like it here.”
“My God, so boring.”
She caught the ferry. I checked into a little hotel at the port. It was cheap. There was a small table on the terrace with a view out to sea.
Later, back in Athens, I forgot about the Ragtag Plaka Crew and spent my days and nights with a beautiful Albanian girl who worked in a shop in Plaka. We formed our own crew of two. She was trying to find a new job in Athens or in the islands but having no luck. She was studying Human Resources Management by correspondence. Some nights she had to read her textbook to prepare for an exam. I was reading Kafka’s The Castle. I figured her book lied about power, while mine told the truth.
It began to rain with fury beneath the Acropolis. The afternoon was wearing on and soon Clare and I would have to get back to the Airport to continue the long journey home. We travelled one metro stop to Syntagma Square in front of the nation’s parliament where protestors would take up residence later in May and June. For now, everything was calm. Misty rain drifted to the pavement. Athenians were wandering about, eating on the square’s wet benches. We wandered down Ermou Street, the shopping thoroughfare which leads to Monastiraki. I went to the bathroom in the Syntagma McDonalds. It would be vandalised in the June protests. That day it was full of teenagers in raincoats. The windows were steamed up.
Clare and I went back down to the Syntagma metro station and rode out to the airport for our flight. I tried to distract myself by reading the second volume of Simon Callow’s Orson Welles biography, Hello Americans. I watched Guillaume Canet’s Les petits mouchoirs (translated as Little White Lies), an awful and interminably episodic movie about the French bourgeoisie on vacation in Cap Ferret, a movie trying very self-consciously to make a generational statement about thirtysomethings. From my outsider’s perspective, it had no feel for the European zeitgeist; it had nothing to with the young people we’d met on our global prowl.
It was a long trip back to a bitter winter Sydney dawn.
Weeks later an expatriate English blogger living in Greece, who goes by the online name of Teacher Dude, wrote of Syntagma Square on June 29:
“Even though I have seen lots of upheaval in Greece, including the violent uprising in December 2008, the level of violence I witnessed in Syntagma was of a new order of magnitude and it seemed that it was ushering in a violently different relationship between the Greek government and the people they are supposed to represent.”