The next post will be on or before Wednesday July 19th
ALL THESE IMMIGRANTS
A few weeks ago I was talking to a Greek woman called Marina in her late 50s who was passionate about drama, meaning that living on a very modest income she spent much of her free time watching Greek versions of e.g. Ibsen, Shakespeare and Beckett as performed in club theatres in Athens. Marina was keen exclusively on serious drama, so had no interest in musicals or light farces or the Greek equivalent of pantomimes (I wonder now, as you must do, do they have pantomime anywhere outside of the UK and other anglophone countries? I could google it I suppose, but I cannot really imagine a Xira Twankey or O Kyrio Ntik Whittington). For someone so extremely cultured her background was unusual, as she wasn’t university educated but had trained from the bottom up in hotel management and for some years had worked in the UK and become fluent in English. Divorced and with one daughter in her early 20s who she described as a hell of a handful, Marina’s life had not been easy but she had a strong sense of comedy and what you might call a defiantly wicked laugh. I met her in an Athens bookshop where the English manager was our mutual friend and the three of us sat outside the shop drinking coffee, squinting in the morning sunlight and talking about our kids and our favourite plays (for the record, mine is on one day the hilarious The Government Inspector by Gogol and on the next, the fantastic and quite uncategorisable Playboy of the Western World by JM Synge).
The point of all this scene setting is that I was very surprised when the conversation moved to our favourite parts of Athens, and Marina made a strange response to my nomination of Kypseli about which I have written a couple of times. It has an exquisite village flavour with its central artery of Fokonos Negri replete with doting dog owners, public benches and little patches of parkland, not to speak of its numerous excellent cafes, juice bars and granita joints. Kypseli also has some dilapidated back streets which I also like, given that some of them contain Indo Pak grocers where I love to dawdle and look at all the obscurest spices, especially when they are in colossal completely shameless 1kg bags, and opposite one of these grocers there is even a new Indian restaurant. As is more evident in Plateia Amerikis just down from Fokonos there are substantial numbers of recent African immigrants who I am also glad to see, especially the young guys as they are lively, vocal, irreverent and seem as if they know how to enjoy their difficult lives no matter what. Possibly some of that vibrance and lack of inhibition was what Marina was elliptically and unhappily referring to when she described going to see some play in Kypseli of a winter’s night, so that when she emerged it was pitch dark and she was met full on by what she described as more or less a nightmarish vision of Africa in Athens.
Her humorous face was suddenly taut with a kind of retrospective terror as she said that all she could see was black faces talking and gesticulating so loudly, the pitiless opacity of the dark winter night, and for a split second she really didn’t know where she was, as it could hardly be Athens for it seemed so much like Senegal or Cameroons or God knows where in the pitch dark. It was 18 months ago this had happened and that sense of catastrophic displacement had stayed with her to such an extent that just the word Kypseli could still make her shiver. Lorna the bookshop owner and I looked at each other and did our best to talk gentle adult logic to her, because of course 2 English leftists can hardly listen to someone making out an imaginative hallucination of Africa by night must inevitably and of itself be nightmarish. For after all Marina was no standard scowlingly parochial Greek much less any Xrisi Avgi racist…and even more confusingly her favourite recreation was lapping up Strindberg or Joe Orton or Sarah Kane and quite simply people who like radical and iconoclastic drama cannot simultaneously be horrified and chilled to the bone by ethnic variety and cosmopolitan elan.
I place that baffling opposition side by side with another one, for earlier this week I was in Athens again and was staying in Metaksourgeio, another ethnically mixed area. Certain streets near the metro station are chockablock with Albanian and Bulgarian travel agents, one with the startling though impressive name of Crazy Holidays (tell me, would you go and book with them?). However I had never explored the streets on the other side of Karaiskakis Square and because the nearest post office was in that area and I urgently needed to send a birthday present, I boldly jaywalked, skipped, lunged and swore my way across, dodging all the luxurious pullman coaches headed for impoverished Tirana, Shkoder, Plovdiv and Sofia, and after about 10 minutes found myself in the backstreets of Karachi or Lahore proper, all the more convincing as it was 6 o’ clock a night and was boiling bloody hot. Here in narrow alleys were young Pakistani men some of them in traditional kurtas unloading fruit lorries and chaffing and bantering with each other. Beside one lorry were 3 old men with vast beards and swathed headpieces again laughing and chuckling together, though they also looked the epitome of piety and modesty and sobriety. There were umpteen battered cardboard boxes strewn across the road and a few oranges covered in dust at the edge of the pavement. With numerous spice shops and cosmetic parlours on every corner, it certainly felt more like Asia than Athens, as of course do many parts of London, Bradford and Leicester in the UK. And indeed why shouldn’t it and who cares anyway, as like it or not we are all the one human bloody race, and we need to rapidly grow up and accept as much, for even if Marina’s childish nerves tell her otherwise it is an ineffaceable truth.
I saw one enterprise that possibly might have cared. Smack in the middle of one of the grubbiest Asian back streets was a splendid Best Western Hotel, replete with a confident young Greek bloke in a smart suit in the hallowed doorway acting as ad hoc usher. Just like Marina in Kypseli I rubbed my eyes at the vertiginous mirage. An oasis of Westernness in a desert of Easternness? That hotel could only have been put there before this was an immigrant area, and I wondered how its fortunes had fared since the flavour of the streets surrounding had changed. Indeed by way of documentary research I felt tempted to go across and ask the young Greek manager in a roundabout way, but then I thought no no, there was a fair chance he might just give me a suave and politely edited version of Marina’s instinctive and artless abhorrence.
Plus, and to put my cards on the table, I never really liked Best Western Hotels anyway. Annie and I stayed in one in Milan in 2005, and to be frank and just between you and me, and when the chips were down, it just did not cut the accommodatory mustard. The reception staff either grovelled, or in their glacial coolness effectively treated us like invasive dirt, and those are two sides of the same coin as I’m sure you already know yourselves.