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‘One of my favourite writers’ DJ Taylor, The Guardian

Last weekend I discovered some amazingly atmospheric sidestreets at the confluence of Thiseio and Ermou, both close to crazy Monastiraki, which is central and tourist Athens par excellence. There you see occasional ramshackle workshops with old men in crumpled berets battering away at copper metalwork, and it could almost be the clattering Turkish quarter of Sarajevo. You also come across certain ultra modern enterprises, fearlessly catering for Greek and international youth, inevitably with their names in English. Three all next to each other are Ghost Bar, Death Disco (great eh? What happens? Do you die existentially to this tyrannical and idiotic eurozonic world, once  inside the pitch dark, pulsing disco?) and best of all Honest Tattoo. I love that last one, and I really think it can’t be bettered.

I’d now like to fantasise the mindboggling antithesis, and suggest the slogan advertising of Dishonest Tattoo or rather Coyly Unrevealing Tattoo. All inscribed in English (as foreign tattooists always do) in lovely gothic lettering on the blacked out window.

-We know of quite a few skin artists far less skilled than we believe ourselves to be

-No unseemly infections, much less tragic mortalities so far, is one thing we can proudly boast

-It is at our risk as well as at your risk. We call this Enlightened Mutualism and it has worthy historical syndicalist and anarchist precedents.  Please remember that, our valued client…

Otherwise there is a tendency to in your face Hellenic impudence or Greek bravado, or whatever else comes in the wake of being mocked year in year out as Europe’s lame duck. Most fetching was a bristly rug for wiping your feet on, outside a massive hardware shop on Ermou. In among its fellows saying in English Welcome To This House was a sole cynical doormat stoutly declaring: Oh no! Not YOU again. I was seriously tempted to buy 50 of them as Christmas boxes for my friends back in the UK, as I don’t care who you are, you are bound to number in among your excellent mates and dearest relatives a few forlorn pests and woeful bores as occasional visitors to your sitting duck of a door (yes, I know I have used ‘duck’ metaphorically twice in this a paragraph, and I don’t care and I stick to them. They are both first class metaphors. NB, while we’re at it,  I have also used ‘metaphor’ derivatives twice in 2 lines, which is truly deplorable ).

Still that was nothing compared to what I saw an hour later whilst walking from Thiseio Train Station past all the impressive open air  craft stalls up to my hotel. I need to explain that in my long weekend break  in the capital, I had resolved to make up for a 2 year famine when it came to eating in Indian restaurants. There are no foreign eateries on Kythnos needless to add, unless you count the Cretan place in the port as foreign, which some Kythniots would definitely do. I dined in 2 different curry houses in 4 days, and had 3 fine meals and 1 dreadful one. The latter was supposedly prawn masala and the tomato and yoghurt sauce tasted exactly like Heinz Tomato Soup and was inedible. The vegetable dishes were all good, but the weirdest thing was the way the 2 adjacent restaurants duplicated the same very limited options. Aloo gobi, palak paneer, dal and dal makhani (little red beans in yogurt and tomato) and that was it. Given that Greece famously produces plentiful excellent aubergines (melitsanes/brinjal )and okra (bamyes/bindi) why were they missing from the menu? I should have asked one of the two Indian (in fact probably Bangledeshi) chefs, but he might have answered me after the fashion described below. Both of the Ermou restaurants had very beautiful young Greek women waiting on, and the only Asians were the chefs, one in the next door Take Away, and 2 in this one. All 3 men worked like dogs yet looked phlegmatic, indifferent and bored. They didn’t smile at the customers through the glass behind which they were slogging away, but carried on as imperturbable as ancient oriental sages.

My last day in Athens, the younger of the 2 chefs from the place where I had the vile prawn masala, was walking cheerfully up towards central Thiseio. He was a lad of about 28 with kind of unquashable confidence, which of course isn’t very easy if you are a conspicuous Asian in recession-hit Athens with its menacing Xrisi Avgi Golden Dawn thugs. He was actually beaming in the pleasant sunshine, just possibly because he was away from his exhausting 7 days a week job. He was wearing a smart designer t-shirt of a fetching shade of light green, and on it in huge letters it said Fuck You. No one but myself batted an eyelid at the terse injunction, and though very many Greeks know very little English at all, not a single soul would be ignorant of those 2 words. I reflected that say around as late as 1990 you might have been arrested in the UK wearing  an inflammatory garment such as that. Most Bangladeshis have excellent English, and I would imagine if he’d worn a similar shirt in central Dhaka or Chittagong in 2015, he might well have been mobbed and debagged.

I had a wonderful time in all the dozens of motley junk shops(huge valve radios, wind up gramophones with horns, antique manual typewriters) and 2nd hand bookshops along Ermou. I concentrated on bagging novels in English as having finished 2 doorstop Stendhal translations, I was currently starved of something to get my teeth into. In 2 days I clocked up Scott Fitzgerald, Tom Wolfe, Thomas Mann, Lawrence Durrell, 4 Iris Murdochs, blessed be her treasured name, and a handsome 3 volume set of Leslie Stephens’ essays on writers, Hours in  a Library (1874-1879) for only 25 euros. Stephens (1832-1904) if you don’t know it, as well as being a leading literary man and dad of Virginia Woolf, was an accomplished mountain climber, one of those Renaissance Men, don’t you know ( I can give you an interesting example of someone who is not an RM: me or diko mou in Greek). I would have very much liked to have acquired a fine large format Don Quixote English translation with terrific illustrations by Gustave Dore (1832-1883) but it was way over what it would have cost in the UK, a function I would think of simple ignorance rather than cupidity. The lady in the woolly hat and gloves said to my enquiry:

“That? That, sir, is 2000 euros…”

Oh? Oh really? When it might have gone for £60 or £70 in the UK?

Her husband leapt in helpfully. “ No, no. 200 euros, sir! She means 200 euros.”

His wife giggled and slapped her hefty thigh, and though hers was a comical mistake, I was reminded of the one and only time I was ripped off in supposedly lawless Albania, in May 2013. It was Day 1 in Saranda, a lacklustre town where you arrive from Corfu (Corfuz, a very strange word, in Albanian).  My watch strap was falling to pieces, so Ione and I sought out an amiable back street jeweller who grinned and niftily placed a new one on, and then said:

“1600 lek.”

I hurriedly worked out that was about £10, and true enough it was a very beautiful leather strap, but it seemed bloody exorbitant in poverty stricken Albania. I gave him it with a smile and oddly he held his breath and said nothing whatever, as did the canny old man, another customer I had been chatting to in my self-taught Albanian. I pocketed the change, walked out with Ione and then suddenly struck by an attack of lightning, shook my head in dire exasperation, and said to her:

“Shit. I am such an eejit! They devalued by a factor of 10 recently, but they still quote everything in the old rates! That’s the first thing they tell you in the effing guidebook. So 1000 lek = 100 lek, and 1600 means 160 lek  meaning £1, not bloody £10!”

Ione frowned and suggested I go back in and demand my massive amount of change, but I said, no, no let it ride, let me take it on the chin like a Cumbrian version of Skanderbeg (1405-1468), aka George Kastriotis, the legendary Albanian independence leader. It was a very good, very helpful exercise on Day 1, and would stop me ballsing it up again in the excellent month ahead.


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