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.