we left paris really early. too early. after a month, it’d started to stick. half asleep in the taxi, to ORLY airport, where i’d never been. sleeping halfway, trying to read… landing in athens.
in the car, on the way: it doesn’t look like any given thing. i’ve been a lot of places, and it doesn’t look like any of them. but it feels it. it feels like NY in the 80s. there’s not a surface in this place that isn’t marked up. through the streets, the bakers in carts, the junkies drag along in daylight, sleeping halfway…
athens has seen better times. but it’s also seen worse. you get a lot from a place that isn’t at its best. you get to see what a place IS when it’s got nothing to hide behind. athens is a real city. ornate in all the wrong ways, the ways i like. at our hotel, we’re surrounded by flyers, pasted and taped over others. physical things or ideas, sold on every surface. protest, shouted out in paint. we walk out toward the city’s center, in daylight, the eyes of the city following us like shadows through shifting sunlight. we eat more and better than we have any right. meat and vegetable of every kind, yogurt, bread.
here’s the thing: in NY, they serve gyros made of LAMB, but not here.
backing up a bit: the first thing i ask when i see my friend vasilis, 2 years later than the last time… out of nowhere i blurt out- what do you call greece in GREEK. it never occurred to me, and suddenly it does… “greece” doesn’t sound very greek.
elláda, he says. how is it possible this country has a real name i’ve never heard? i struggled just now, writing the name above, of athens, which is really athína. i wonder why some places get to keep their names and other places the world has a nickname for, more familiar than reality. what to call it? what they call it? what you’ll all understand?
a little research shows the name “greece”, maybe came originally from the illirians, who later colonized italy. it occurs to me that maybe gyros met the world a similar way, like a game of telephone. maybe through turkish immigrants… in greece they’re made of pork. why would pork become lamb except filtered through a muslim culture? maybe NY’s greek restaurants aren’t all that greek. (my evidence is circumstantial but with ouzo it works for me.)
and the pork… i can’t express how much better it makes the thing. spinning there, behind the counter… the pork glistens like a trophy. not like the american lamb, dry, charred (which works in a pinch, late at night, don’t get me wrong).
vasilis texts me at 2 in the afternoon. he’s just now awake, he’s moving, he says: “from ghetto to less-ghetto”. he’ll see us later, he has a place in mind, exarchia. vasilis asks if we’ll meet him there. he says 10, we tell him we’re due to be up at 6am. our verbal compromise: 9:30.
the internet says exarchia’s a place where the police won’t go unless they have to. their presence, in recent past, leads to riots. there was a 15 year old boy who died. there’s a lot that’s happened in this place.
a couple years back, because of all of this: the US government put out a warning: american citizens should avoid this place. this all centers around exarchia square… in one piece, a man talks about being bitten by a dog. cherry on top.
but that’s not the funny part. we steel ourselves, we walk out to find this place: and we realize we’re IN it. we’re staying in exarchia. we’ve been walking up and down the place all day.
the square’s a block from our hotel. and in the center you can see what it is, you can see the tension. but the circumference is coffee and terrible music. commerce. in all the countries i’ve been, i’ve never seen such a rough patch of land enmeshed so thoroughly with capitalism. lounges, pizza. somewhere: foreigner is blasting from a bar.
vasilis shows up with norzine a little after 10:30. i drink a bottle of ouzo, watching the chemical reaction as the ice dissolves in tendrils, hanging in the glass like a jellyfish. i fall and hurt my leg worse than ever. both sides swollen and black. we talk about everything… he’s drawn a lot more than i’d have guessed. a lot more than most.
his passion’s as infectious as his frustration. he’s got a lot of things to say on paper. he’s impatient with the paper itself. with the printers. with the process.
we spend the next day at the ruins. i think all the wrong things. i take a lot of pictures, inch by inch, most of which i hate. my threadbare tigers, the soles rubbed bare, slip and slide on the marble. my leg throbs, a dull pain growing underneath.
when we get back to the hotel, there’s a warning: the city’s on strike. we’re not leaving in the morning. we’re stuck in athens. there’s no one to take us out of this place. more than one person says: plan to stay there a while. says vasilis: you may see some shit, tomorrow.
the protests start a block from our bed. they’re 10 blocks gone before they grow into riots. the teargas (israeli, we’re told) fills every picture all over the world. on every corner of this neighborhood, riot cops with helmets and shields. down the street, there are handmade flaming barricades, to keep them out.
the tension’s in the air like weather. shifty eyes. no one looks happy. everyone looks ready for something worse.
down the street we walk into a store where a smiling old man imports cheese and wine and goods from crete. he serves us shots, cheese, he smiles like no one else we’ll see that day. he won’t accept payment. we don’t understand what he’s saying.
we spend the night looking at art, eating pastries, sitting in a new apartment, forbidden from the balcony. i get to see all the new art vasilis has produced. one thing’s called ELECTRONOMICON. vasilis wins.
they give us pastries for our trip. in the morning we’re loaded onto a ferry and we sleep all the way to mykonos.
special deleted scene: we went to a japanese cooking class that consisted mostly of watching 2 people cook from a distance and then eating what they’d cooked. the food was terrible, but we got to watch the teacher go pound for pound drinking kirin beer with a pregnant student.