ALONE AT MIDNIGHT
This blog now publishes every Monday, and the next post is Monday 1st February. You can always contact me about anything, including Bargain Online Fiction Tuition at firstname.lastname@example.org (I have published 10 books of fiction, been Booker longlisted, and taught fiction writing for over 25 years)
If you haven’t been to Athens for a while, and been watching the news, you might imagine the whole city is walking about borderline suicidal and/ or ready for a fight with anything that moves, and especially if it is German. Right enough Greece as a whole is riddled with overwhelming problems, and the struggling farmers and ill-paid ferry workers are going on strike for good reason. Pensions are being decimated when they were nothing much to start with, and it’s not just the workers; middle-aged professionals are affected too. Senior doctors have had their wages summarily cut, so that now GP practice bosses make about as much as a 21 year-old secretary in the UK. A postman on Kythnos island (the job is currently vacant if you are interested) makes 600 euros a month, or about £110 a week for a demanding 40 hours. You do get to see some spectacular and mostly empty landscape of course, and as many gaping goats as you could wish for, and without having to pay for the privilege…
That said the whole country and Athens especially, is infinitely resilient. To be sure, if you go to the right places you can see dismal, usually cosmopolitan destitution, and it is impossible to take the shortest metro ride without getting at least three people, usually Greeks, begging the length of the train. They tend to sing or metrically chant their sufferings these days, a bit like Indian beggars, something wholly new, and in its way disturbing, embarrassing and harrowing. Hard up Greeks dig in their pockets nonetheless, and that is one more fantasy dispelled, that they can’t be bothered to support their own less fortunate citizens. In contrast to all that, in the last couple of months I have stayed a few times in the lovely area of Thiseio, not far from Monastiraki, and with superb views of the Parthenon and the hills surrounding. Just down from the train station is Ermou, a mesmerising array of antique and junk shops, bustling, bawling, and in every sense attractively rough and ready. By contrast, walking upwards from the station, takes you to some of the stylish and alluring cafes that give Thiseio the feel of a lively city village, akin to say London’s Belsize Park or Covent Garden. Just before Christmas I was moved to the core one night when the festive lights there were so beautifully arranged around the street cafes, I instantly and effortlessly regressed to being a 4 year-old in 1954, gazing at a glowing and breathing Christmas tree with its dancing fairytale baubles, alone in the gloaming in our little terraced house in West Cumberland. There is a pedestrianised road adjacent to the hotel where I stay, which is replete with exquisitely furnished cafes, and a fine independent bookshop, run by two very cultured young men who have classical music playing the while. You wouldn’t wish to be anywhere else, it is such a satisfying place, and even though the cafe opposite has coffees at 3 euros and the wines are 4, young couples choose to hang out there over a single drink for most of the night, and seem as genuinely carefree as any in London or Paris or Berlin.
Best of all is the cobbled walk from my hotel down to the station, where almost every day of the year there is an open craft market that spreads almost a kilometer downhill. Along with the subtlest, most beautiful and bargain handmade jewellery, there are stalls with leather goods, with wooden plaque art of a usually vintage and/ or mildly risque aspect, with engaging bric a brac, and most enchantingly coin and stamp collectors. A lot of the stall owners have friendly and unabashed dogs, and there are a bunch of amiable strays have taken up Beaming Canine in Residence status, and who are petted and fed as a result. The stalls are open late in the spring and summer, and even in winter some of them persist in the dark with their own illumination and the street lighting combined. A week or so before Christmas, I left my hotel about 10pm, and set off for my favourite Indian eatery on Ermou. Only one stall was going, and the place was otherwise completely deserted. It was run by an unkempt, unshaved old man of possibly late seventies, who wore a battered hat and ragged multiple layers of clothes, and who certainly looked as my mother might have said, like something the cat had brought in. I had seen him there before, and his stall was monumentally unattractive. He had about 50 motley, ancient and uninspiring books, only one not in Greek, a 1911 German treatise on Drainage Engineering. There were also a few eccentric DVDs on subjects most people avoid; namely A Comprehensive Tour Around the Costa Del Sol, and Rare Sheep Breeds From Around the World (both in English). Needless to say he didn’t have a single customer, and he was warming himself at an old fashioned brazier, and exuded a melancholy but somehow persistent and uncowed air. He expected nothing at all from the acquisitive public, as even he must have realised no one in the world would be interested in his stock, as candidly he himself wasn’t remotely interested in it either. In which case, you wondered why he was here on a freezing deserted night, and why he hadn’t gone home. Maybe his home was a depressing and lonesome bedsit, and he preferred to be sat alone here with the world, such as it was, trickling indifferently by.
Like something out of a Christmas morality tale, I selfishly left the solitary old man to his few burning coals, and went down to Ermou and stuffed myself with a very tasty vegetable thali. I gorged in my luxurious environment, on a massive plate of rice, nan, mixed veg curry and yoghurt and chutney, all washed down with the very best red wine in the world, which I’m pleased to say is 100% Greek and is called Thealos Yis (google the bilingual website, and your life will be changed forever). The only drawback was, as everywhere in Greek Indian places, they only stump up one curry with a thali, whereas in India and the UK you would get an array of four or five vegetables: typically something like brinjal, sag, phulgobi, aloo mattar and dhal. Regardless of the gripe, it is worth pointing out that the place was full and mostly with Greeks, with only one other obvious foreigner there. The place isn’t at all cheap, so that for example a dish of chickpea masala or an aloo gobi is 7 euros, meaning more than in many a UK place. The majority of customers were Greek couples and student types, and admittedly most of them shared two dishes and one rice and had a Coke between 2, and that was it. Yet still it would come to about 25 euros, and you would wonder, when the monthly salaries for young graduates lucky enough to have a job are 500, how the hell they do it. That in part, is what I mean about resilience. Despite being skinned and sometimes unemployed, these kids do their best, they shrug their shoulders and smile and laugh, and sit in a stylish bar over a single drink, and dress themselves very fashionably indeed. If you haven’t been to Greece for some time, and go by the scare story news reports, you might imagine Athens now looks like Tirana circa 1970, but far from it. You can’t move for smartphones, beautiful leather jackets, and blokes who look like a job is a stranger to them, yet who have a brand new Harley Davidson the size of a tank, or a grinning laptop that makes frappe coffee and Nescafe, and understands and Dalek-croaks at least 25 languages.
En route here from the boat, and away from the centre, I walked through central Piraeus and noted a fine looking Greek restaurant with an enticing bilingual menu. It was everyone’s favourite night of the week, Friday, it was 8.30, and it was completely empty… and the owner quite reasonably looked sad. For months I have been trying to make sense of the disparity between an ailing taverna like that, and a place like the bustling Athens masala place. The answer is that the economic crisis is both real, but is also a mirage as well. That is the appropriately paradoxical (Greek word) lesson that I have learnt. If you don’t accept that, you are always going to be baffled and even obscurely indignant at the sight of Greeks somehow sternly struggling on, and even winning the impossible and extremely unfair fight, no matter bloody what.
Then of course there is the enigma of the grubby old geezer at his hopeless stall, with his twinkling and equally obstinate brazier. I walked home past him just after midnight. His coals were still glowing, his calor gas lantern still hissing, and he himself was fast asleep and audibly snoring. There was him and me, and no one else, not even a stray dog, and that was it. I’ve no idea whether he spent the whole night there, nor for that matter the whole of the run up to Christmas, but I think there’s an odds on chance that the old man did.