It was never really much of a main street, just five blocks of shops. Despite its illustrious name, the narrow street was never the kind you walked along but instead walked to. It wasn’t meant for strolling or window-shopping. The stores were mostly places you’d go to get something done or fixed or to buy something to eat or drink. It had a tailor’s, a hairdressing salon, a dry cleaners, a bakery, hardware store, shops like that. A couple of pharmacies, a barber’s, two greengrocer’s, a butcher’s. The DVD store, of course. I seem to remember a shop with artist supplies and another one that sold women’s clothes. But those must have been the first to close, right before the crisis became visible to most of us. That’s how we date things now. Before and after the advent of the crisis.
The first shop closures were followed by the two florists and the travel agency and the pet shop. And then I lost track of exactly what shop closed when. I can’t even remember what some of the other empty storefronts used to be before the crisis. There are so many of them. I counted 29 as I walked down the street this morning.
The signs of the crisis are everywhere to be seen, of course. You encounter them throughout the day, like the intermittent pain of a tooth starting to go bad, a nagging reminder that this is not going away and a harbinger of how much worse things will get. I don’t mean just the announcements of yet another tax increase or pension cut, or the headlines that report yet another contraction in the economy and higher unemployment rates. I mean the stories, too. Like the one my friend Lina told me yesterday. She lost her job last year and hasn’t found a new one yet. She was saying she needs to put up bars on the windows of her ground-floor flat. The house next door to hers was broken into. Apparently they got in through the window. Right now Nina keeps hers locked all during the day and night but she doesn’t know what she’ll do in the summer. She can’t afford the bars.
Or Anna and Marios, who are moving to Germany, where Anna has found work. Marios has been out of work for more than a year. Anna has a job, but it’s one without health insurance. “I hate the thought of leaving,” Anna told me, “and Marios even more than I do. But how can I have a kid with this kind of uncertainty?” We gathered in a small smoky taverna in an old Athens neighborhood to wish them off. There was tsipouro and wine and honest food from the grill, and a trio that played rembetika. There were presents, of course, to remind them of the country they were leaving: a bronze pendant inspired by ancient Cycladic axe, books of poetry, a set of small ouzo bottles with hand-designed labels each sporting a different Greek saying in the original and a funny fractured mistranslation into German.
I hate how life in the city has turned into a series of leave-takings.
There are the less dramatic signs, too, but more frequent reminders: the ever thinner ply of the paper towels in rest rooms (at least restaurants and bars still stock the dispenser; Alexis, whose wife works in a public school, tells me the teachers themselves stock the dispensers at the school), the pouches of rolling tobacco that have replaced the packets of Marlboros or Camels that I used to see on café tables next to the mobile phone and cappuccino freddo.
But the closed shops are perhaps the most striking and ever present mark of the blight wrought by the recession. In most places in most times, a shop or two that goes out of business passes almost unobserved. At most, you’ll notice a sign in the window thanking the loyal customers who supported the business over the years, but the place gets rented soon enough and a new shop sets up business. But here the shops stays closed. And the one next to it or two doors down soon closes as well. Then others. Now in my neighborhood most of the shops along the six blocks of a street named after the first Prime Minister of Greece and the man who delivered Byron’s eulogy, are hauntingly empty. It’s not much different from what’s happening in a lot of other neighborhoods in the city, maybe a little worse (one in four shops in Athens have closed since the beginning of the crisis). In any event, I notice it more here. I live here.
I see the city receding before my eyes. I see it becoming ever smaller and emptier. The streets downtown are empty most evenings (this for a city that was renowned for its 1 a.m. traffic jams), partly because of the crisis, partly because of higher crime or the perception that the incidence of crime has increased downtown. A recent initiative has been launched to get people back into the center on Friday evenings—discounts at restaurants and cinemas, free concerts and happenings, extended happy hours. It helped in the first few weeks, but it was probably the novelty of the idea. The streets are pretty much still empty. The city is receding, caught in a slow, inexorable process of decay and attrition. And as the city changes, I feel that I am changing too.
One of the first things my friends in Athens ask me about when I got back from a recent trip to Germany was the weather. They always ask about the weather when I come back from the North.
I could have told them about the mournful cadet-grey cloak of low-lying cloud cover that turns the day into one long period of extended twilight. About the morning mist that segues into a midday drizzle that lingers throughout the day, protracted foreplay to a storm that never breaks. But I kept it simple: “Cold, grey and wet.”
“With weather like that,” a colleague said, “I’d work like the Germans, too.” Meaning, of course, that there wouldn’t be much else to do other than work.
(The irony is that Greeks work on average more hours per week than the Germans do) But Alexis was convinced he’d work longer and harder in a country of long dark winters and cool wet springs. It was if the carpet of overcast skies would sponge up all his enthusiasm and élan vital along with the light of day.
Apparently, in very dim light people lose their color vision. They see everything in shades of grey. Alexis says he’d feel the same way.
The slow decay of the urban core threatens to become our gloom, forcing us to downshift into a monochrome of dullness and despair. I wonder when I will become anaesthetized to this twilight zone of loss, when it will no longer sadden me, as it does every morning as I ride the trolley to the gym, my way marked by the signs of a city that is wasting away.
It is not like this all the time, of course. There are pockets of vitality everywhere in Athens. There’s still much creative energy in the city, new initiatives in the arts and community action projects. And as Alexis would say, the weather is gorgeous now and just sitting outside with a friend for coffee at a café—the only business that seems to be booming—is deeply restorative.
I’ve acquired a much greater appreciation for the neighborhood shop and the people who run them. They’re eyes of the street and gossips in the good sense of the word: collectors of social news. They anchor the neighborhood in a sense; their shops are points of social encounter for the neighborhood as a whole, perhaps the only one for people like me who don’t go to church or play cards in the very old-school neighborhood café that is frequented mostly by retired men.
Yannis’s shop is one of the few left on the first block of the street. He sells fish. He bought the business from the woman who was retiring. He did it right in the midst of the crisis. Maybe he figured people could do without a dry cleaners but every neighborhood needs a place to buy fish.
The fish from the central market is much cheaper, and there’s much greater variety, and that’s where I go to find things like razor clams and skate or when I’m going to make a fish dinner for friends and need a lot of fish. But I try to buy from Yannis for everyday fish, despite the surcharge. I think of the extra cost—entirely justified seeing as he doesn’t have a huge clientele—as a neighborhood duty in both senses of the word: a responsibility to the neighborhood and as a payment due by virtue of living in the neighborhood, a tax whose proceeds go to keeping the neighborhood alive. I pay it as gladly as I pay the surcharge to the brothers who have the (admittedly well-stocked) corner wine shop.
I’m not one of Yannis’s big customers. I usually buy cheap stuff like mackerel and cuttlefish and farmed sea bass, not the big-ticket items I see some of the other customers buying, red mullet or gilt bream or, God forbid, dentex. Once in a while I’ll splurge on some shrimp for a paella. Sometimes he’ll recommend something I don’t know—he’s a man with a mission—and I’ll take his advice. I always take his advice.
He treats me as if I were one of his best customers, whatever I buy. He even offers to fillet the sardines I buy. To appreciate the magnanimity of this offer you need to realize how tedious this work is and how cheap the fish is (try asking your significant other to gut and debone 20 small fish). In fact, it’s so generous an offer than I never let him do it.
Last Saturday afternoon I was passing by his shop on my way to the bus-stop. On the sidewalk right in front of his place he had set up a small folding table, on which plates of food were set out. I waved and said hi as I made my way to stop. “You’ve got to try this!” he called out to me. “Monkfish liver!” he exclaimed as he proudly pointed to one of the plates on the table. “Have you ever had it?” I confessed I hadn’t. “Well, it’s awfully hard to get, because fishermen usually keep it for themselves, but I found some this morning and, ah, you really have got to try some.” I hesitated but he was so excited I didn’t want to dampen his enthusiasm.
He had sautéed slices of the liver on a makeshift propane-gas burner at the back of his shop, where he had also fried medallions of tope shark and prepared the small bowls of olives and pickled hot peppers that were meant to accompany the fish.
The liver was surprisingly good, all buttery rich and tasting of the sea. Later I learned that monkfish liver is a prized delicacy not only among the fishermen in the Aegean but also on upscaleNew Yorkmenus. I wound up buying a small piece to sauté myself the next day.
Just cooking this stuff in his shop, much less serving it on the sidewalk probably violated a dozen provisions of the health code, and in a city like New York or Munich he would have been fined by mid-morning.
But he wasn’t selling anything. Maybe it was a smart business move in a kind of relationship-marketing loyalty-building way, but it didn’t feel like that. It felt like he just wanted to share his good luck. He was treating us. The neighborhood. This “middle ground of light and shadow”. I don’t know if he’s a promise of better days, a voice of resistance to the discourse of social implosion that is the daily fare served up by the more extreme parties and the boulevard press. I don’t even know how much he weighed the risks of taking on this business at a time when many in the neighborhood are turning to generic tuna as their fish of choice. Maybe he’s just a guy who loves what he does. In any event, I’m glad he’s here.