It has a bit of a reputation. You could describe it as the Splott of Athens. But it is friendly enough with its artists, anarchists and music. And it is easy to fit in if you wear a black t-shirt. Even better if you’ve got a noisy dog on a lead pulling you in every direction. But one thing that is different is that it has its own parallel economy, where people bank their time. ie one person may teach English for an hour and can then request a gardener to work for the same time.
It is an area that has had a troubled past. In 1973, the Greek military raided the student occupation of the Athens Polytechnic University, killing 40 civilians. In 2008, a Greek police special guard shot and killed 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos within blocks of the Athens Polytechnic University, leading to the largest protests in Greece since the end of the dictatorship in 1974. Though I heard of the place through the book “Adults in the room” where the author Yanis Varoufakis mentions a confrontation he had with Anarchists outside a restaurant when he was finance minister.
From the description in the book I’m certain that the airbnb that I was staying at was a stone’s throw from where this had happened. It was an apartment full of sixties art and manikins inside and out. The owner gave me two keys and told me for my own security and his not to let anyone else into the room and to always lock the outside gate.
On my first night there I went for a wander and straight away noticed the graffiti which is everywhere. I stopped at the Mystic Pizza where the dough is made from cannabis seed flower.
A Broken Key
Before turning in I stopped in a bar near the apartment and got into conversation with the owner. We soon got talking about politics and he mentioned how in what he called the “crisis years” there were times when he could play tennis on the road outside as there were so few cars and people around. We were joined by Maria who was a waitress in another establishment, though was a Chemical Engineering graduate. Her friend who worked behind the bar was also a graduate from the same course. Obviously this shows how bad the employment situation is there.
It turned out that this had been the local of Alexis Tsipris the current prime minister of Greece and leader of the Syriza the first left wing party to come to power in Europe since the sixties. I’d thought that perhaps the fact that the party had been unable to implement 70% of its program and the capitulation to the troika would have generated plenty of cynicism. But that wasn’t the case here. In fact the opposite they were supportive of both Alexis and Yanis. I said goodnight and went back to the apartment.
As the landlord had stipulated, I carefully locked the outside gate and proceeded to the apartment door. I knew the lock would be stiff from earlier in the day, but I must have not inserted the key far enough in, because as I turned it I heard it snap in the lock. Not a thing you want to happen. First thing I tried was to turn the broken piece in the lock, then I tried to ring the landlords door but there was no answer. Then I thought of calling him on his mobile, but unfortunately I had left my mobile charging in the room. Out of ideas I thought I might as well go back to the bar.
“Disaster” I said to Maria who was surprised to see me again showing her the two pieces of the key. “Hold on” she said, “I’ll get my boyfriend, he’s about to finish his shift”. When they got back he got out his phone and we tried to get onto the airbnb site to get the apartment owner’s phone number. Unfortunately they don’t show the phone number unless you log in. But when I tried to log in the message came up “you are trying to log in on a device that we don’t recognize. Enter the code we will send to your mobile”. Of course my mobile was in the apartment. So much for technology.
“I know” said Maria’s boyfriend “i’ll get my friend, he’s really good at picking locks”. When he arrived we stood up to leave. “Hold on a minute, I’ll come with you” said Zach and he got the landlord of the bar next door to look after the bar for him. So two minutes later, there we were, six of us outside the apartment door with the friend picking the lock with a safety pin and paperclips. I could picture the apartment owner turning up and finding a whole gang of people trying to break into his place. I also could see that the place was overlooked by a block of flats and I could well imagine that someone would phone the police and we’d all find ourselves in a Greek prison cell. But I needn’t have worried as the police don’t enter Exarcheia because of its reputation.
Luckily after about an hours effort there was a click as the door opened. But to do this they had to push the small broken piece of the key into the lock and twist it with the safety pin then used the larger piece to turn the outside of the lock. I couldn’t thank them all enough. Episodes like that bring home how nice people really are. And the Greeks are an especially friendly people.
The hub of Democracy
The following day was a bit less eventful. First I had to explain to the owner what had happened… Well I didn’t tell him everything. Then I went to a local locksmith and got him to sort the lock out and cut a new key. Afterwards I found the directions on my phone and went off to find the Diem25 office. Google maps took me to a location in Exarchia near the polytechnic. It dropped me outside a travel agents, above it a block of residential flats. There was nothing to mention Diem25. Technology failure again I thought … But no the man sitting on a chair near the lift confirmed that the hub of the democratic revolution in Europe was on the sixth floor.
The office was spacious with several meeting rooms and there were two women working there at the time. Bounding about the place was a large white haired dog. I introduced myself to the women and had a brief conversation and though lack of language skills was a barrier I think we all appreciated the contact. They told me about several events being organized and I talked about the situation and our efforts in Wales. We took some pictures and I made my way. The dog apparently was a stray that they had adopted.
The Welsh Connection
The last day and I needed to get presents for my family and ended up buying a t-shirt from a shop that printed them on demand. It was a black one with a picture of Sheldon Cooper on the front as my daughter is a big fan of the Big Bang Theory. They told me to come back after half an hour and it would be ready. As I was leaving I glanced at a small Welsh flag on the wall. “Excellent” I said and pointed to the dragon on my Welsh football shirt. “Ah” said the woman “we got that in a concert of the Manic Street Preachers. We are big fans of theirs.” When I came back to get the finished t-shirt her husband came out and said what a pity Wales were not in the world cup and that he had so enjoyed seeing them play in the previous European cup.
Funnily enough that wasn’t all. In one of the record shops, in pride of place were two CDs by Meic Stevens who is well known in the Cardiff music scene, partly because of his song writing skills, but also his bohemian lifestyle and personality. However he is virtually unknown outside Wales and Brittany though I do remember hearing that he once lived in a cave on Crete. All in all it was really nice to see the growing cultural and sporting influence in Europe of a small people like ourselves.
A Parting Tune
Getting the metro train back to the airport and five young girls aged about 10 got on the carriage. One of them was playing an Accordion and giving a rousing rendition of “Bella Ciao” a song of the Italian Partisans. They may have been Romany. The youngest held a collecting cup and took it around the passengers though rather unsuccessfully. They saw me getting my wallet out and headed for me. I gave them a couple of Euros in change. The girl collecting the money gave such a beaming smile that I instinctively raised my hand and said “high five”. She slapped my hand and then motioned to shake hands. I made out that she was squeezing my hand too tightly. The girls all laughed and moved into the next carriage. Another man in the carriage shook his head at me. Evidently he didn’t appreciate my clowning around.
As I got on the plane I couldn’t help think how sad it is that in a Europe of so much wealth, we still have kids begging for a couple of Euros.