A Tender Night in Athens

[Excerpt from forthcoming book, “The Gun is Heavy: The Crisis of Contemporary Greek Statehood”]

…“I’m famished,” I said. Pagidas clapped his hands, “I was hoping you would say that! I know a place nearby. Let’s go for a walk.” Hours after we had entered Six Dogs, the lively courtyard bar hidden down one of Monasteraki’s many heavily graffiti-ed alleyways, we emerged, having covered in a brief span thousands of years of history that had led Greece to this pivotal moment.

Pagidas led us past the Roman Agora, pointing to an old house at its rim that his family used to own but inexplicably sold, then past the Bath House of the Winds, and Panos street, where lovers met and locked arms. A bewildering series of turns through Plaka ended with us progressing down a dark corridor of a street where the murmuring voices and collisions of utensil on plate marked our first destination—a glowing taverna. We went inside, and Pagidas pointed to some photographs on the wall. There was one—a portrait—depicting three men standing erect in dark overcoats, ties, and fedoras, looking regal and smug, having just eaten dolmades, moussaka, and mounds of tzatziki, and very probably imbibed liberal amounts of ouzo or wine, at this very taverna.

It was Patrick Leigh Fermor, the great British soldier, traveler and writer who, as a member of the British Special Operations Executive, coordinated the famous Cretan resistance against the Nazis, and who wrote travel books so brilliantly dense, that reading them is like squeezing some colossal sponge. Next to him stood George Katsimbalis, the “Colossus” of Henry Miller’s “The Colossus of Maroussi,” a great poet and legendary personality, and to his right, George Seferis, Nobel Prize winning poet. The wall was covered in photographs of these literary greats, and I could feel the energy of their presence still permeating the atmosphere of this secluded area, where perhaps they had sat writing or discussing their works, works that have become so ingrained in my consciousness of this country and its people. Pagidas knew the effect that this place would have on me, and I could sense that this was just the beginning of a beautiful extended tour of a side of Athens far more tender than I had ever experienced. As we moved farther and farther away from Syntagma and closer to the base of the Acropolis, the drone of the city subsided, the people were friendlier, and the restaurants and stores seemed to cater to an older Greek clientele, people who wanted to forget not the older days of this city, but what this city had become. Even the air, so often putrid in Athens, was perfumed with night blooms.

We sat down at another taverna, starved but energized. We ordered plates of dolmades, melitzanes, and keftedes and consumed until our stomachs could no longer bear the weight. Our conversations continued, but we consciously skirted around the grandiose and metaphysical, intellectually drained as we were. We were nourishing our physical bodies after hours of meditation and argumentation, a task often forgotten whilst in the throes of a surging intellectual passion, an inversion of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in which the desire for the basic necessities of life—food, water—are buried under spirituality, or in our case, intellectual transcendence.

After our meal we rambled on. They showed me the old Capuchin monastery where Lord Byron once stayed after paying homage to the Ali Pasha in Ioannina, the formerly Ottoman city in the Northwest of Greece. I snapped a photograph with a brutal flash, and studied a street-painting of a blue man in motion that marks the point where Byron street—Oδός Βύρωνα—becomes Shelley street in a clever reflection of both the relationship of these two literary geniuses as well as a commemoration of their love for the city of Athens.

In a small square at the higher reaches of Plaka, I got lost looking through a bookseller’s wares, hypnotized by the beautiful old Greek book design, with their coarse bindings, hand-drawn cover art, and perfect typography. I had fun translating the names of the authors in my head—Μαγιακόβσκι, Κροπότκιν, Φρόιντ, Καμύ. I settled on two compact volumes of poetry by Mayakovsky, one blue, one yellow. In the process of looking, we met the proprietor of this hearty stand, a Rubenesque gentleman with long hair, a beard, and intelligent, sleepy eyes. He invited us to sit with him while his friend played bouzouki. When he heard I was a student interested in Greek history, he smiled, and I could tell this hyper-literate Athenian couldn’t wait to put me on a well-tailored course of study. The complete works of Plato, Plutarch, Aristotle, Solon, Sophocles, Homer, Euripides would be a necessary foundation for my study of modern Greece, he insisted. My head, already swimming with a to-do list of modern philosophers rattled off by Pagidas, stretched at the seams, and I pictured with joy the time I would have reading these classics on a beach somewhere. I had my work cut out for me.

I told him I would come back to visit, though I could never again find the square on my solitary wanderings. He insisted that I go to Ikaria for the panigiri, or local festivals, that occur throughout mid-August. I trusted that this man would know where to find the best of contemporary Greece, and I made a mental note of it. Later in the trip, his advice would prove invaluable. Suddenly I realized that if I didn’t leave immediately for Syntagma, I would have missed all public transportation back to Kifissia. Pagidas offered to drive me. “Nonsense” I said—it was much too far. He became angry for a moment. “What did I just say? I will drive you! I say what I mean.” This was a sentiment that would recur throughout the trip, and eventually I learned to silently and graciously accept the effusive hospitality without the American tendency to avoid being a burden. Also, I think Pagidas was truly enjoying this improvised tour of a city he loved so much, understanding that I also could learn to love this place like he did. “Alright, then,” he said, “we’re free!” This was a simple statement that resounded in my mind, and I felt real joy welling inside me. For the first time in years, I felt completely free.

We moved to higher ground, and to the distinct scent of bougainvillea and jasmine. The architecture evolved as we perambulated. The buildings became smaller and lower to the ground, the alleyways more narrow and winding. Suddenly, I looked around, and it was as it I had arrived by some miracle of space and time to a tiny, Cycladic village like those of my childhood. We had reached Anafiotika, or “Little Anafi,” a neighborhood within a neighborhood built by workers imported to Athens for the refurbishment of King Otto’s palace during his reign in the late 1800’s. Until 1922, when immigrants of Greek descent flooded into Athens from Asia Minor, driven by the violence of the Asia Minor catastrophe, Anafiotika was entirely populated by Cycladic Greeks, who imported their singular architectural style to the bustling city to feel at home while they slaved away for the Bavarian king. To this day, the streets are unnamed, and its imported labyrinthine plan—though perhaps “plan” is misleading as it implies a centralized rhyme or reason—once served the purpose of confounding pirates and invaders who would routinely pillage the vulnerable villages of the Cycladic islands. Today, the village undoubtedly has the same effect on tourists, who, from my understanding, rarely have the pleasure of getting lost in its tranquil passageways.

We had reached the very base of the Acropolis mount, and were close enough to see detail on the pillars hugging the altar-like land-mass by Peisistratus, the first dictator of Athens, known for commissioning the first ever state sponsored arts competition, won by Euripides. We walked along the cobble-stone path, past inexplicable tortoises and a plaque commemorating the point where a Greek soldier, after lowering and folding the Greek flag at the orders of the Nazi invaders, jumped to his death. As the story goes, the German officers were so impressed by this act of defiance that Greece became the only country in the sphere of the Wehrmacht that was allowed to fly its flag at the same height as the Nazi banner. This is one of two incredible stories of defiance relating to flags on the Acropolis from the occupation years, the other being the tale of Apostolis Santos and Manolis Glazos, who as teenagers tore down the Nazi flag in the legendary first act of anti-fascist Greek resistance.

Our walk took us through Thission, with its beautiful, ornate balconies, and then back around into Psirri, a gritty area of the city now experiencing the first ripples of gentrification. It was almost four in the morning, and we met up with friends of Hatzimalonas at a bar called Party, where an open-mic jazz band played upbeat music while smart looking Greeks drank gin and tonics and shuffled around rhythmically.

Pagidas fulfilled his promise of driving me home, and we raced through a darkened Athens. Traffic lights didn’t function past a certain late hour, a cost-saving measure implemented since the crisis, and we tore through the city in the little car, all the way back to Kifissia, where he dropped me off and though words could not express the joy this night had given me, I attempted to thank him adequately for the incredible impromptu tour. It was as if he and Manos had spun me around and then directed me in the right direction.