The City

Inside, Outside and Right Next Door

The arcade was never one of those elegant passageways of fashion and luxury goods that come to mind when thinking of the passages couverts of Paris or Milan. Instead of calfskin gloves, antique maps and elaborate, feathered hats, the shops in this stoa, the few that were still in business, purveyed less glamorous wares: university textbooks and discount shoes, a camera shop that advertised passport and ID photo services. Dark and unwelcoming, it was more a tunnel than a shopping arcade, covered not by a roof of glass but the slabs of concrete of the floor above.

The eight stories of the building were given over to the offices of commerce and to the professions that served them—import-export companies, lawyers, accountants and notaries public, whose tarnished gold-plated nameplates I could see on a wall by the bank of elevators in the building’s modest lobby, all uniformly set in the tall, thin, sans-serif font popular in the 50s and 60s. The largest nameplate belonged to “The Chamber of Tradesmen.”

The passageway described an L through the ground floor, leading from the broad avenue that runs from the Parliament to a busy if now downtrodden commercial square, and on to a side street bearing the name of a former Prime Minister. On the sidewalk a few meters from the entrance was a kiosk with the day’s newspapers hung with clothespins on a rope that drew a few passersby to scan their doom-ridden headlines of impending state bankruptcy.

The north corner of the arcade facing the avenue was given over to an upscale donut shop or loukoumadiko. Traditionally these are among the most humble of shops, often no more than a hole in the wall with just enough room for a counter and a large stove with vats of hot oil in which plum-sized balls of yeast dough are fried, drenched in honey, and dusted with cinnamon.

This shop, however, had been gussied up, with places to sit and a menu expanded to accommodate espresso, beignets and churros. The pair of handsome young servers, dressed in green polo shorts and a brick-orange bandanna worn in the way farm women might have wrapped their hair, were prepping for the midday crowd, scrupulously wiping and re-wiping the countertops. One of them was singing a Greek song above the English pop music that bellowed from the shop’s speakers.

It was a sleek and hyper-modern concept shop, like an industrial design souvlaki shop or trendy ouzo bar, in which tradition had been packaged in design and prices correspondingly raised.  “A shop you could find in London,” one could say in an air of sad praise, as if the measure of success were the degree of approximation to the enterprises of the North. Still, I admired the young entrepreneur, whom I saw on my way out of the exhibition and who in the face of the recession and the utter evaporation of financing had open this shop. I liked his disruptive mashup of European street food, those holy cows of cultural identity that so mark the countenance of a city. I imagined he paid his staff the troika-mandated new minimum monthly wage, several hundred Euros less than what it had been before the crisis, and I was certain he also provided the social security contributions that legalized their labor.  All in all, the loukoumadiko made for an unlikely and misleading portico to the row of dull and dimly lit shops further into the arcade.

The exhibition I had come to see in the arcade, entitled “Anna Wanderer”, is part of a project conceived by the School of Fine Arts called “Inside/Outside” that plays with the notions of private and public space. It was housed in one of the pair of booths flanking the elevator bay. They were a later prosthesis to the building, tiny cabins clad in wood, with a sloping façade vaguely reminiscent of the Scandinavian design that was a sign of sophistication in Greek movies of the 60s, along with whiskey and nightclubs. Each could hold one but not two clerks. Not a shop really, despite what I had read in the reviews, but the domain of a concierge or the workshop of a watch repairer.

The artist, Persephone Nikolakopoulou, had covered the walls of the booth with inexpertly taped wrapping paper depicting a turquoise sky with fluffy white clouds. A trap door was set in the ceiling, from which one could see a hand emerging and part of a wing, and another hatch lay in the floor. There was a bench which served as a bed, on which a brightly colored coverlet and a Tupperware of cookies sat, and a counter with a plastic cup holding remains of a frappe, that quintessentially Greek beverage of frothy shaken instant coffee. Each evening she would return to the booth to deposit mementoes of her explorations in the city. But I had come too soon, I realized, only a day after the opening. There were no stories here yet.

I thought of what I bring back to my apartment after my wanderings in the city. Concert tickets, exhibition brochures, a potted bougainvillea for the terrace picked up from the farmers’ market. Receipts of course, required by the Tax Office to claim a deduction, a government measure to crack down on the black market economy. I have shoeboxes filled with them, collected from cafés and taxis and dry-cleaners and a host of other shops and services. I have no doubt that the loukoumas shop issues them as well and as a matter of course. Not all shopkeepers do, even now, but all will comply when asked, some even offering a feigned apology and excuse that neither seller nor buyer believes.

Few of the receipts now give any hint of the occasion for their collection. They are merely the inevitable and unremarkable debris one accumulates throughout a day in the city, like the dust that settles on one’s shoulders or gathers in the soles of one’s shoes, far less interesting yet just as incommunicable a collectible as the scraps of conversation we remember having with a stranger on the tram or the recollection of a flirt.

When I returned the following week, I saw that “Anna” had strung a line on which she had affixed amorphous figurines made of modeling clay and hung a few sheets of newspapers. The plastic cup of coffee was gone, and its place lay a pair of bloodstained gloves. Someone had left slipped her a note under the door to her booth.

The crime lair seemed a bit forced, and whatever personal meaning her wanderings in the city had for her remained unreadable in the figurines and documents of crime she brought back. Of course, murders and knife-fights mark the city’s physiognomy much as its pocket parks and art galleries do, as Walter Benjamin reminds us.

In his endlessly fascinating and unfinished work The  Arcades Project, Benjamin mentioned various means one could use to construct a city topographically. In place of the markets and churches that once anchored the city in the minds of its inhabitants, one could map a city by its fountains, say, or its arcades, cemeteries and bordellos, and, at least for cities such as Paris and London and Berlin, its railroad stations, too.  Alternatively, or as yet another layer superimposed on the other more mundane mappings, one could turn to “the more deeply embedded figures of the city: murders and rebellions, the bloody knots in the network of streets, lairs of love, and conflagrations.”*

Anna could have started more modestly before wandering into the “bloody knots” of the city streets.  She could have climbed up through her hatch to the empty offices above, abandoned in the wake of crisis but still bearing the marks of their former enterprise, the gouges in the floor where once heavy metal desks stood, the floor plugs standing like sentinels in a forgotten outpost. I wondered what interesting) evidence of her wanderings could she bring to her booth from the offices still occupied, with their cabinets of lawsuits filed by squabbling heirs, embittered spouses and bankrupt tradesmen?

Or she could have begun with a shop.

While writing this I stumbled upon a passage from G. K. Chesterton’s critical study of Charles Dickens, in which he reminds us how often shops triggered the writer’s imagination.

There seems no reason in particular, at the first and most literal glance, why the story should be called after the Old Curiosity Shop. Only two of the characters have anything to do with such a shop, and they leave it forever in the first few pages… But when we feel the situation with more fidelity we realise that this title is something in the nature of a key to the whole Dickens romance. His tales always started from some splendid hint in the streets. And shops, perhaps the most poetical of all things, often set off his fancy galloping. Every shop, in fact, was to him the door of romance. Among all the huge serial schemes of which we have spoken, it is a matter of wonder that he never started an endless periodical called “The Street,” and divided it into shops. He could have written an exquisite romance called “The Baker’s Shop”; another called “The Chemist’s Shop”; another called “The Oil Shop,” to keep company with “The Old Curiosity Shop.”

Granted, if the artist had wanted to tell a story, she would have written one. Instead she created this installation. Still, I wonder why there is no box of half-eaten donuts in her booth.


Featured image: Photo of the booth by Persephone Nikolakopoulou. The project Inside/Outside (Entos/Ektos), which hosted the artist’s installation (others are to follow), is an initiative by the School of Fine Arts’ Unit for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The address is Panepistimiou 44, the curator Haris Kanellopoulou. Check out the donuts.

* The Benjamin quote is from Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin’s translation of The Arcades Project published by the Belknap Press (p. 83), which also alerted me to Chesterton’s book.


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