The Girl and the City

11 May

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On the one hand: there are as many beautiful places in the world as grains of sand on a beach. One could spend a thousand lifetimes exploring, and never see enough.

On the other: to return to a place over time, to learn its quirks and foibles, to become its intimate – this is more than a pleasure. You grow in your knowledge of the city; you grow in yourself.

*

The first time I came to Athens, I was sixteen years old, just recovering from several months of illness that had changed my body and mind quite profoundly. I had also lost pretty much all of my friends for various reasons. The trip was something of a watershed.

I don’t remember much about the city from that trip, if I’m honest, because we were ferried around by coach most of the time, or hopped from our hotel to Omonoia metro which had just opened in advance of the 2004 Olympics. I remember the oranges growing by the side of the roads, a chicken plate with my first tzatziki, one girl getting her leg burned by a motorbike exhaust as we tried to cross a busy junction. I remember trying to figure out the letters one by one on the signs we passed. I was so homesick I cried when I heard the Coronation Street theme tune on the other end of the payphone I used to call my mum.

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The next time I came to the city it was five years later and I was a little older, perhaps a little wiser, but still an outsider. For a week, the city was mine to explore. I could read the signs now, although the modern language escaped me, a fog of rolled rs and throaty noises. For the first time, walking down from posh Kolonaki to the tourist hub of Plaka most evenings, I saw the city as a place where ordinary people might live, instead of just a tourist attraction. Athina had smiled at me, and I was smitten.

Now I searched for a way to return. I found it in the shape of a European teaching assistantship in a northern suburb of the city. For ten months I was immersed in Greek life, although living in a tiny village well out of the centre meant that the city was just my neighbour. Each week I took the train into the central station, Stathmos Larisis, walked to my Greek lesson at the Lykeio Ellinidwn through dusky streets, and loved to feel part of the ebb and flow, even just for twenty minutes at a time. The dense cloud of language gradually resolved itself into meaning.

I was no longer just an outsider, breezing through. Athina and I were closer, and I began to know her ways.

*

This time, I have four days to give her. She’s suffered in the six years since my last visit, and I have more scars, too.  So I don’t know how we will find each other this time round.

Thursday evening and Friday I dedicate to my friends in Agios Stefanos and Afidnes. I go to school with my mentor, Areti, and she shows me all the wonderful things they’re doing there: painting murals in the playground, planting flowers in old tyres, rehearsing a play and even an author visit for Year 5.

“It’s getting easier,” she says. The crisis doesn’t seem to have stopped them doing all they can for their kids. A grandfather comes in to register his fourth grandchild for the reception class and is greeted with warm smiles, a far cry from the electronic council registration and scramble for school places in London. I’m struck by how much this school is at the heart of its community, and how important it is to them to shape the town’s next generation, even if it’s acknowledged that many of them will leave to find a better life somewhere else.

I’ve worked in a school where we had trouble affording paper, so I know that it’s actually very difficult to keep going when you don’t have the essentials. But here, they’re endlessly resourceful.  “What do we need in order to teach?” Areti muses. “Nothing. We can speak and the children will listen.” As long as there are good, gold-hearted teachers like this, I think Greece will be okay.

Later, my former landlady and her husband are so kind it’s overwhelming. We all cry at some point during the afternoon, remembering their son who was only a couple of years younger than me and tragically killed in an accident five years ago. Their house is filled with the joyous energy of their young grandsons, but when they leave it has the kind of dusty silence that hangs heavy over a place of mourning.

Eleni cooks pasta with vegetable sauce, piling my plate dangerously high, and serves an omelette made with fresh eggs from their garden, alongside a salad of tomatoes with that truly Mediterranean taste of the sun. Afterwards, she and Kostas take me to the lakeside at Marathon, a place so beautiful it is the perfect antidote to London stress. There is a small cafe there on the bank, with a view of the white, arcing dam to our left and the sparkling water to our right. We take coffee (or tea, in my case, which the Greeks drink black) and we somehow manage to discuss Brexit, terrorism and the crisis in my incredibly broken Greek. They give me a lovely necklace with the protective blue eye.

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“What else can we give you?” she asks. “You need to take some Greek things back for your family and your boyfriend. What can we give you?”

Philoxenia. Greek hospitality has survived. But of course I refuse, because how could I take anything else when they have already done so much?

*

There’s no escaping the fact that I am getting older. I’m thirty now, still just about managing to cling on to being a kopella (a girl) but probably pushing my luck. I get asked about fifty times if I’m married yet.

“No,” I say. “It’s expensive in London.” Then I feel foolish for saying such things, here.

Older means more confident, though. I end up talking to more people than ever before, perhaps because the words come more easily to me now, or perhaps because I’m at that point in life where I really don’t care what people think of me. In some ways I wish I could have been more like this when I lived here, but then again that sense of thrilling liberation can only come from a contrast with the hum-drum.

Speaking to people gives me an insight into the krisi, the crisis, and particularly how it is affecting the young. There is not much optimism, although the city shows signs of artistic renaissance and there are still plenty of full tables at restaurants, bars and cafes (Merkel will have to pry the frappe and cigarettes from Greeks’ cold, dead hands). There are more beggars, and plenty more junkies; more graffiti, and even more crumbling buildings than before. But life has to go on, and the young have to navigate the world  in whatever ways they can.

I meet Olga at a dance class I go to. She’s sweet, probably early twenties, with short black hair pulled back into a ponytail. She tells me she has qualified as a designer but there isn’t any work in here field, not here anyway. Still, she comes to the class every week and tells me she hopes I come back again soon.

Then there’s Giorgos, a waiter. I naively ask him what he would like to be. He gives me a baffled look. “This,” he replies. “I don’t have anything else.” Then he flashes a cheeky grin. “Or maybe I’ll become a model.”

And the aptly named Athina, working at an unpaid internship during the day and a bar on a quiet corner at night. She loves London and would like to move over to work in the television industry. “When I hear from friends abroad, they have a different life. They live freely! Whereas here, I just work, and for nothing.” We swap numbers in case she makes it. I worry she might have missed her chance thanks to Brexit. But this hope of escape is clearly keeping her going, and I don’t want to crush that dream.

I’m struck by these people’s openness, and friendliness, coming from London where our default mode is ‘don’t talk to me’. It opens something in me, in turn. To make human connections is a pleasure without a price, a joy that can survive any crisis.

*

The nightlife scene is filling with trendy cocktail places and hipster-style speakeasies. I see about ten different escape rooms as I walk around the city. A group of men in a noisy bar spend the whole evening looking down at their phones. Athens is subject to the same forces of modern culture as any city. She applies them in her own chaotic way.

Yet scrambling up to the Areopagus, something I haven’t done for nine years, and looking over the white sprawl from the sea to the mountains, I am reminded that this is a place of deep and complex history. The view might have changed somewhat, but people have looked down from this rock for thousands of years.

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The ancient buildings are what brought me here to Athens in the first place, all those many years ago. That’s one layer of the onion. What keeps me coming back is the joy of unpicking all those other parts. Am I hoping to reach the city’s heart?

Or am I hoping to reach my own?

 

 

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