The Gravity of Athens

There seems to be a contest between Athenian shop-owners – who can display the most objects in their shop front? Window to window, products are piled perilously high and wide; filling the glass and the eyes of passers-by with an overwhelming variety of wares. It is the real-life equivalent of an online shop’s “View All” button; a visual fishing trip through retail aquariums; brimming with bits and bobs, all shining and packed together like sardines. It is not quite chaos, but it’s close to the edge. A nudge away from collapsing.

The city itself is the same. Wave atop wave of people and vehicles; recycling themselves and reappearing in a convulsive cacophony of discordant stimuli. Athens is constantly spilling onto itself – not quite in chaos, but close to the edge. It is held intact by the same tension that would threaten to pull it apart. A finely balanced agitation creating a social gravity that, for now, is enough to keep things in their place. But it feels just a nudge away from collapsing.

Nowhere is this energy more present than in the spacious Omonoia Square, smack in the centre of Athens. It pulsates erratically like a defective heart, fed by numerous veiny roads and emptied via two arterial streets. The diversity of the people is startling: the homeless and the well-heeled; brown-skinned immigrants – both recent refugees and long-standing residents; native Greeks – weathered and energetic; the old, the young, the desperate, the care-free. Colonies of pigeons nod in bemused agreement, as if to say, “Life is easier than you lot are making it look”. They strut across the concrete between polished and worn shoes; and cling, over-head, to cables that vibrate in time with the whine of endless scooters and the deep hum of packed buses.

A few lengthy strides south of Omonoia, the buildings rise up hastily, closeting narrow streets in which North African men trade in shops and makeshift markets. At a certain junction, the action collects into an estuary of activity. Cars and three wheeled vans slow – although only slightly – to edge past tables of bananas, oranges and pomegranates that impede their way. And perhaps also to avoid the potential for wrath from the policemen who gaze across the scene with hands on hips and furrowed brows. Further on, past heavily graffitied walls and unofficial-looking parking lots, the men trolleying boxes of produce begin to disappear. Suddenly, the sky rises back into view, exorcising the shadows but neutering the compellingly fraught atmosphere that those shadows embraced.

At the polite but steep route to the Parthenon, the immigrants are all the more temporary; clad in sunglasses and rucksacks, squinting at phones as they evaluate the location of their blue dots. Trendy restaurants and bars on one side, folding tables of tourist tat on the other. The crunch of fine stony sand underfoot and the occasional flutter of small birds are among the small collection of noises in breach of the quiet. Upon reaching Athens’ most looming landmark, a dog can be found sleeping beside the gnarled trunks of a breezy olive grove. She sleeps in a custom made trench oblivious to the Chinese, Spanish, French, Scottish, Japanese, Indian, American humans trundling past in their droves. She is pleasantly indifferent to the historic importance of the crumbling pillars only a few metres away and the anxious lives that they now overlook, at the foot of the hill. The progenitor of democracy and the womb of civilisation, now a bassinet of debt and a cradle of the displaced.

In the daytime, everything is yellow and blue: cabs, phone booths, buses, walls, the paving of the sidewalk. All are made fluorescent by the high, warming sun and the bright, clear sky. It is difficult to decide whether this colour scheme – some of it civically chosen and some coincidental – is an ungenerous kind of fateful irony, given the state’s ongoing reliance on the yellow and blue of the European Union’s bespangled banner.

By night, perhaps envious of elsewhere, the city turns green; brightly lit by the secular crosses that glow above countless pharmacies. Elsewhere, kebab shops and bakeries illuminate the one-way streets with purring white lights and the enticing aromas of golden flour and succulent meat. Through the large windows of betting shops and sparsely furnished bars, men huddle together, playing games, smoking cigarettes and congratulating themselves on a day well fought. Just outside, stray cats congregate into populous, fluffy gangs; prowling the green streets, stretching weary limbs and congratulating themselves on a day well fought.

It feels like a place out of its comfort, yanked to and fro by the conceits of geopolitics, the apathy of economics, and the vulnerable collateral of nearby conflicts. It is a solemn place. Maybe it has always been. Regardless, its current weight makes it a fascinating place.

Text & Photographs, 2017.

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