Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sights and Sounds of Athens

It may be one week too late, but yesterday I decided to go down into central Athens and Panepistimio to see for myself what exactly has been happening to my city for the last week. I took a bus that should have taken me all the way to Omonia square, but was stopped at the last set of traffic lights before entering central Athens.

"These f*cking police, they didn't even tell us they'd be closing the road." muttered the bus driver as he let his passengers spill into the road and reach their destinations on foot.

I joined a scattering of people heading towards Syntagma and felt my heart start to pound the closer we got. I wanted to see Athens, but I wasn’t sure if I’d be prepared for what I would see. In the end, it seems to me Athens bounced back better than anyone could have predicted.

It was eerily quite on the walk to Syntagma Square. Athens looked as it does on any other day, until closer looks revealed broken glass on shop fronts and graffiti everywhere; "ALEXI, THIS NIGHT IS FOR YOU" screamed a red sentence from a marble wall. Near the parliament, I saw the battered marble slabs that a protestor had been caught smashing on camera earlier in the week to throw at riot police.

At the square itself, a few hundred people had gathered to observe a peaceful sit in the memory of Alexandros to mark one week since his death. The crowd was very varied; small children, old hippies, smartly dressed middle aged women and of course high spirited teenagers.

There was a lot of broken glass, but not that many burnt out shops, but then again the worst of the incidents hadn’t taken place in Syntagma.

Athens is a schizophrenic city. I have never seen Syntagma square so quiet, despite the people gathered there, and yet one road away, on Ermou street, business was brisk as Christmas shoppers darted in and out of shops that were either unaffected by the riots or have been quickly fixed to make it seem so.

If you looked down Ermou street, it could have been any other Saturday afternoon – shoppers, well dressed women clutching gigantic Attica Stores bags, street performers. If you turned and looked towards Syntagma, you realised that something was amiss. The square was cordoned off, and the burnt out Christmas tree already dismantled. A few curious guests had gathered on the balconies of the Great Britain hotel to observe the goings on below.

The people who were doing the best business of all were the illegal street vendours who for once in their lives were looking relaxed as they lined Ermou from top to bottom with blankets displaying their wares. After all, for the time being the attentions of the police lie elsewhere.

I continued on towards Panepistimio and it was the same story there, except here almost everything was shuttered and closed. Once again, lots of broken glass and scars of where Molotov bombs had hit the ground, and the evidence that things had been bad around here was that despite the fire damage not being very visible, the whole area had a lingering smell of burnt petrol.

Akadimia was not much different. A young woman holding her Christmas shopping approached me, “Do you know when the bus will come? We’ve been waiting here for so long.” I told her it was best to try the metro as the police had closed off roads without letting public transport know. She thanked me and walked away.

I contemplated going on to Exarchia, but didn’t see what good it would do. I had come armed with nothing except a notebook – no candles or flowers. What good would it do to go just go and see the spot where Alexandros was killed, like some sort of misery tourist?

It was nearly 4, so I decided to head back to Syntagma square and join in with the protest for a while – after all I’d spent a week watching the protests from the comfort of my sofa, so it was the very least I could do.

Nearing the square, I passed a brigade of riot police. “Do you remember that time when we were at the Athens Albania football match? Hey man, I said do you remember that time when…” traffic swallowed up their words as I walked away, wondering what was so memorable about the time when they were at the Athens Albania match.

At the Square I mingled with the crowd and looked at all these young people who had come out in the cold weather. A few were handing out leaflets. Others sat in groups here and there. A group of girls with multicoloured hair began to sing “Always look on the Bright side of life.” A young couple kissed. There were flowers everywhere: clutched in hands, poking out of backpacks, braided into hair.

A group of men had gathered in a small circle and one of them was giving out stickers that read PLEASE KILL ME, which the gang was gleefully sticking all over their clothes. A teenage boy walked past, talking on a mobile phone in English “Well, there’s a lot of things we want to change…”

Some teenagers sitting in the middle of the road produced a guitar and began to pass it round and sing songs. Black candles were produced and carefully lit in the center of the gathering. The teenagers draped themselves over each other in that casual way that teenagers do. They looked so full of life, so hopeful and so determined. The atmosphere was quiet and peaceful, and I hoped for their sake that it would remain that way.

As I began to walk away and head towards Syntagma metro, I overhead a very telling conversation. A cameraman with his colleagues dug his hands into his pockets and said “Come on guys, let’s pack up. Everyone else is starting to leave too.” His colleagues said it was better to stay a while. “What’s the point? Nothing’s happening. The station doesn’t want this. They won’t run it unless something happens.”

Such a sad fact that riots with Molotovs and burnt cars make better news than a sit in with flowers and candles.


Anonymous said...

"The people who were doing the best business of all were the illegal street vendours who for once in their lives were looking relaxed as they lined Ermou from top to bottom with blankets displaying their wares."

LOL... Best line yet!
(who for some reason can't post under her original identity from these Greek internet cafes...)

stassa said...

Hey, thanks for this. I wish you would have gone to Exarcheia too, so I knew how things are going there too. Sorry :)

Sesi said...

Yeah it's what they want us to see, the riots and the breaking and all that.
Anyone see any coverage for the environment rally the day before the shooting? I know I haven't. Neither have I seen the peaceful sit down protests and all.
I haven't been downtown yet, I am avoiding it to be honest. There just is times I wish I'd live in a country where a quiet march would give the authorities something to worry about.

Blackbird said...

The last part of your entry is one of the things that has been infuriating me the most about what's been going on. I decided to stop watching any of the local news stations because of their preference for covering only the mad circus. To follow the media here is to assume that all action being taken by people is one of a violent nature. The ones protesting peacefully/by means of civil disobedience, etc. deserve more exposure and support... History has shown time and time again such people (Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela!) get the greatest results, although they may not be as immediate and 'satisfying' as a smashed window.

I guess it's safe for me to turn on the tv again, though - things are a little calmer so now they must be showing all their Christmas shopping specials! Ah, greek tv...

Did you catch the people dancing and playing instruments in front of the parliament? Completely bizarre but quite lifting to the spirits.

bollybutton said...

THanks for the comments guys. I watched footage of the sit-in later when I got home and it seems the most tense point was when a young man walked up to a MAT officer and placed his hands gently on his shield, looking him in the eye. I think that epitomised the whole thing: please listen to what we have to say, we're not here to fight.

My mission for tomorrow evening is to go to Exarchia and the Polytexnio university. I'm hoping I'll find someone to come with me but so far no takers!

Thanks for reading, add your experiences/view.

stassa said...

Please be careful around the Polytechneio. Stay were there's lots of people, and as few MAT as possible.

Well, you're a big girl (er, not in size!). You'll be allright.

Take care. :)

Psofofeggaro said...

I dont watch the news either, I rearly do, only when I want to know what's happening with details. Internet is the best resource for learning the latest news the traditional way, not with tears, fists and "extras". Tv news in all the world show first what they think will give the better numbers, giving almost no time to more important (for the viewer) imformation.

People just want to forget the insident and go on, their lives have been smashed with their shops it's nothing to blame them for. After all, chirstmas' comming, meaning peace and joy. What happent, happent and its time to move on.

Anonymous said...

I have found the TV coverage of what's happened personally very one-sided. The same with the coverage of the death of Babi Lazaridi, where the psychological state of his lover Aggeliki Iliadi is dwelt upon with incredible intensity just because she's a famous singer, while his grieving widow Popi, who loved him even after he left her and their child for another woman, is virtually ignored.

Simon Baddeley said...

Thanks for your observations on events in Athens. Do please make a point of reporting on those expressions the media are less interested in or willing to cover, Narrowcasting as opposed to broadcasting is now a significant competitor with so called mainstream media. You are not as voice in the wilderness. Please keep telling us (outside `Greece) about the less dramatic and non-violent activity in Greece that you witness. I understand that the workers' strike was dignified and largely peaceful but it's coverage in the media always came back to fire and smoke. It is so important thgat things the broadcasters won't tell us are told by others. Best wishes for Christmas and the New Year.

Bel Ludovic said...

I went to downtown Athens today and normality seems to have been fully restored... the city centre looked to be in surprisingly good nick, all things considered.

stassa said...

Bolly, your radio silence is scaring me, a little bit.

Anyway, there's this thing going on, a virtual sit-in at Karamanli's and the cops' websites.

If you want to jump in, better click on the link where it says "To view our site and start ECDing...", because it routes you through a proxy that way. Also, best use firefox.

Hope you're having fun :)

Anonymous said...

Καλή Χρονιά

Ευτυχισμένο το 2009 με υγεία, ευτυχία και επιτυχίες!

Anonymous said...

Hi. My mom has a Greek boyfriend (currently in Africa) and they are talking about moving to Greece together.. but I wanted to find out more about a non Eu, non Greek lady living with a Greek husband/boyfriend in Greece... do you know much about how to go about this. . .