Author series: Julian Sayarer on Athens

After recessions and housing crises, the Greek capital has certainly suffered. But its creative locals and life lessons prove it can be a gentle, generous teacher.

By Julian Sayarer
Published 8 Apr 2019, 23:57 BST
Julian Sayare
Julian Sayare.
Photograph by Jacqui Oakley

After the Second World War, the Athenian authorities demolished entire blocks of neoclassical architecture, throwing up huge apartment buildings that, in the oversupply of housing, accidentally crashed the price of property. It came at the same time as a banking crisis, too, so if you could make your money elsewhere, Athens was prepared to let it go far. As a result, the low cost of living meant creativity blossomed from within the city streets. A printmaker in Kypseli, novelists, activists and journalists in Exarcheia and a sculptor in Victoria all flourished.

With London rents indifferent to any social capital of life as an emerging author, I decided to take my place among them, and found myself a doma — a small, one-room nubbin of concrete atop one of the apartment blocks. The structure also housed the winch to the lift shaft, and I had the rest of the building’s roof as a terrace that stood at twice the area of the room itself. From my roof, looking over the straight streets and sloping hills of the city, I could see the Acropolis, and each night I watched as it was illuminated, glowing like a golden ingot on top of its rocky outcrop.

Creatives out for a cheaper quality of life hardly had the most serious troubles of all those who had fled to Athens, and for every refugee of rents in the city, there were two of war. The former occupants of that small space from which I’d made a home were a trio of men from Afghanistan, and the landlord told me upon arrival of the work he’d done to make ready the room, pulling bergs of fat out of the drain, solidified after it had been poured there from so much deep-fried cooking — samosas, bhajis, pakoras.

If the streets of Athens read like a three-dimensional chart of failed economics, Western foreign policy was the other doctrine that was coming home to roost. One evening I sat with a young man from Somalia, the two of us together in an abandoned hotel that had been squatted and restored as accommodation for refugees. In a shabby lounge, faded since that quaint glory through which passengers of luxury cruises might once have waltzed, the man welled up with tears, lamenting a truck bomb in Mogadishu the previous weekend. “Around 300 dead. Why?” he asked, and he begged an answer of the world before telling me about his own journey. “Cross water, to Yemen, but nobody can live in Yemen. Too many bombs. I go to Riyadh. There I wash cars…”

He placed a palm across his beautiful, black face, traced his fingers down it, smiling as he went on.

“Saudi Arabians not like African people. I was smuggled out. Back of a car. In one day they drive me across Iraq. To Iran. There I walk into Turkey, through desert. Took 17 days. My legs so strong after. Truck to Samos, then here. I want to go to Dublin. Good people there. Many Somali in Dublin.”

In conversations like that, if you waited around to listen, Athens was ready to explain to you all the world and how it worked.

The Athenians themselves were unfazed by it all. They had in them a sort of calm that seemed steeped in its own history — an awareness that things changed and could always be relied upon to change again, that in the meantime you had to get your priorities right. Opposite the National Archaeological Museum, I became a regular at a small cafe run by a man who made only sandwiches and served coffee. After my third visit, and despite the fact I went there mostly at breakfast, he never again let me eat or leave without first drinking a measure of raki, the fiery spirit made from grape pomace and naturally, as it was almost everywhere, given on the house. When, at my local store, I bought in a few condiments for my own kitchen, the shopkeeper sidled up to me as I eyed a plastic tub of salt and a bag of salt. “This one two euros,” he said, gesturing to the tub before moving to the bag, “this one 80 cents.”

He shrugged, as if the answer were obvious, and that I’d be a fool to give him a cent more than necessary. And there, as a shopkeeper talked me out of his own profit, I learned both a little of why the Greeks might have had a financial crisis, but also why they’d be fine in the end.

Julian Sayarer is an award-winning journalist, author and adventurer. He won the 2017 Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year Award for his book, Interstate.

Published in the April 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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