DOWN AND OUT IN DOWNTOWN ATHENS
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Severe hardship in the Greek capital is well advertised, both on Greek TV news items and in the international media. I was reminded of being in India 40 years ago when an old and grubby blind man got on the elektriko train for Piraeus, and started walking the length of the train ranting and shouting his distress and begging for money. So intense he was in his passion, he mostly forgot to hold his hand out for coins, but instead it was as if he was singing a paean of distress in the form of an aria of lamentation, something composed for eternity, and that was more important than getting with luck one and a half euros by the time he’d traversed the train. More successful was a young Rumanian accordionist, a man of maybe 28, and I would guess his 8 year-old and very beautiful daughter. With almond eyes and jet black hair, she carried her paper cup with a gentle smile and one or two Greeks sighed and shelled out at the poignant sight.
Later when seated at a Piraeus outdoor cafe exactly opposite Gate E9 = the boat for Kythnos, I was assailed by a young Pakistani lad who could only have been 16. He had a big rather vacant grin and several front teeth missing. He seemed to have neither Greek nor English, and kept trying to press multipacks of cigarette lighters on me in exchange for 1 euro, and ignored the trifling obstacle of me telling him I didn’t smoke. At length I noticed he had other things in his carrier bag, including bumper quantities of batteries on cards. I am always running out of AAs so asked for one of those, whereupon he presented me with a monster pack of AAAs. I spelt out AH AH! not AH AH AH! which even if you only have Urdu or Pushtu must be intelligible enough. He kept on pressing AAAs until losing patience I shuffled in his carrier bag and found a single AA pack. He only wanted 1 euro and when I gave him 2 (this was for 16 top brand batteries) he was very moved and patted my head very tenderly and put his hand to his heart. I smiled but before that and when he was doggedly ignoring everything I said, I had had the strange and surreal thought that maybe his teeth had dropped out from sheer embarrassment at their owner, rather than lack of adequate dental care.
He wasn’t the only deaf one on offer in the vicinity. The cafe owner was a quaint bald man of 45 with a pointy beard and a rather raffish air, the kind who would put imaginary figures on the bill and if you questioned him demand the pair of you laugh in hearty chorus at the risible mistake. I waived the menu and asked for what I saw on the window front, namely vegetarian pita (NO MEAT, it said boldly) and chilli pepper salad. He returned suspiciously quickly and promptly slapped down a sumptuous Greek salad and in English jested, a Greek breakfast for you! Of course I hadn’t asked for a horiatiki salat, but buggerit, it would be good and wholesome for me, so why not go with the flow. The chilli pepper salad proved to be a white cheese mush, which he declared was a hot and fiery cheese, and after a fashion, a salad. I baulked at that at 12 noon, and he happily removed it saying No Pressing! as if I were a pair of trousers needing ironing. The veggie pita looked delicious, and I set to wolfing it down, until I saw within something long and fat and purple, 2 such things in fact, which on scrutiny, assuming they were vegetables, could only be the very rare and hybrid purple parsnip. The problem is of course that Greeks do not eat the parsnip, and I made up the purple variety for jovial humorous effect. I lifted one up and it turned out to be a sausage, in Greek a loukaniko. I separated it and its friend onto the plate, and being no absolutist, ate what was left, possibly a little tarnished, but otherwise very tasty. Later I smiled and pointed out to pointy beard that his hortofago (vegetarian) pita had loukaniko in it. He made the joke I expected, that sausage isn’t really meat, in the same way my incredulous Dad when I turned veggie in 1982 seriously wondered why I rejected chicken which in his opinion wasn’t meat either. There was a further pun the proprietor cheerfully made, in that the word for vegetable is lakhanika, virtually a homophone of loukaniko, meaning that like it or not, in Greece at least a sausage is actually a vegetable.
I was expecting a massive and brazen overcharge at the end of all this, but the opposite happened. He didn’t charge for the loukaniko veggie pita, and only for the Greek salad and retsina, a meagre 7 and a half euros. I had misjudged the poor guy after all, and he really hadn’t been out to milk me, just generously fill me up with 2 impeccable and very nourishing Greek sausages.
2 days previous I had been in Monastiraki, the tourist hub and still the favourite meeting place for many worn out and thoroughly pissed off Athenians. Despite the recession, these very central eating places were chockablock with mostly Greek folk treating themselves, and hang the consequence. There was a falafel carry out place which served the finest example I have ever tasted of that pan Middle Eastern snack, and the queue was endless. With all that trade going on, there were more far more folk begging here, including skinny young immigrant men, very often with young children to help elicit compassion. One of these father and son duos persisted in begging from a young Greek woman sat next to me on a public bench. She firmly refused to give him anything, because, as she later confided to me in English, she believed it was part of an organised set up, more than likely tied up with the forced prostitution racket. I had no idea if that was feasible, but when she refused for the 4th time, he snarled at her in Arabic some words which she explained meant ‘you are a dirty prostitute’. She actually worked as a volunteer in an immigration hostel and had picked up some useful colloquial Arabic as a result.
Less than 2 kilometres away from the centre, the cafes and restaurants and most of the shops were either empty or boarded up. Handsome areas that had once been bustling and prosperous were now like melancholy ghost villages. I looked inside a shabby Post Office that the authorities apparently were wishing to rationalise, meaning close it…and saw that were was just one assistant serving about 50 people. Nearby one business defiantly surviving was a 2nd hand clothes store where the woman spoke good English, and who regularly drove to Italy to replenish her excellent stock. She was selling very fine Italian leather jackets for 7 euros, where a few years ago she could have got 5 times that. Recently she had had a bumper quantity of good denims that had gone for 5 euros each, and they had disappeared within days.
I bought one of the leather jackets, the first I have ever had in my life, and walked around feeling, how can I put it, the business. Back in the Glaros here on Kythnos they all breathed their open admiration and one of them even called me John Travolta.