Metal gods loomed over the skyline, reminding me to be free instead of locked in up in my head. I didn’t know any better. Letting the isolation sink in, it cut to the bone, sapping my very existence. I learned quickly. Pretence isn’t looked upon kindly here. Here you make it because you ate shit for breakfast and it really doesn’t matter what anybody thinks.
“What the FUCK are you looking at!”, she shouts as you quickly avert your gaze, as she hits you with daggers of anger and fear. Imagine how hard you have to become in order to survive this grind and still plant trees of love and understanding, but now they’re rebranding Gotham City into a Monopoly Game. Property moguls eating up land faster than pacman ever could.
You once stood tall, but now.
Game Over. Move over lady this isn’t for you any more. Dark alleyways, dimly lit, covered in the wheat paste dreams of momentary and permanent art gods. The grunting sounds of kitchens working to feed a city that never slept. But now silence. As you hear the footsteps in front of you disappear.
Kindness comes from places you hardly expect. Even though they say no one cares, you get the stare of recognition of common pain. She knows what you’re dealing with as you fight back tears on a Brooklyn bound F train. Get off a stop early to collect yourself and, put on your dark glasses so others don’t see you strain. Suck it up, pull it together. There will be good days and bad days but this place makes a Human out of you with a capital H.
You walk up second avenue, conjuring up images in your head about how you got here in the first place. Will you triumph over your fears, or cower in self defence? Condensed dreams in a flash, sweep by you, bringing you to an intense euphoria as you realize it’s all about to end.
Walk a block up.
Those moments of quaint rarity and clarity bubble up into the Manhattan Skyline. Right across the way, under the PepsiCo Sign, sublime afternoons overlooking the Hudson, moments of chaotic oneness, undone through the blaring sirens of cop cars. Bars overflowing with lonely boys trying to get your attention. “Hey pretty, wanna grab a drink with me?”
Nah I’m good.
I remember how I once stood, alone wondering how this would all turn out.
Fade to black.
Sirens, lure me onto ancient lands that are far more about fiction than fact. The dream is intact even though we are packed in like rats. 5 Million souls and counting, and everyone is in your damn business.
A village, A rock, An ancient ideal now lost in the cement crevices of the mind. We are strangers here. Nomads. Others. Coming and going and finding our way out of the darkness. Slowly trying to prove to every passerby to look up at the skies, instead we limit ourselves to what’s available, attainable and nothing more.
That isn’t my game.
I came here to create change. No matter what. Lingering in the dimly lit passageways of my fatherland now lost in its ugliness and disrepair. People here stare at you as if trying to find the answer to their own insecurities and grief. Knee deep in regrets they never knew they had, they stand tall against the creeping fear mongering and laundering of hope.
I smile gently urging you to invite me to your ceremony. My tears shed in apotheosis of a dream long deferred, but no more. The allure of Athenian mysteries becomes clear, a litany of a city long demolished & rebuild on repeat.
I stand still for a moment to take it all in. The clouds of doubt have dispersed once again, to reveal the softness within.
Έχει ταλαιπωρηθεί λίγο τα τελευταία 8 χρόνια. Έχει υποστεί τραύματα που δύσκολα επουλώνονται, αλλά ακόμα παλεύει. Παλεύει γιατί είναι πόλη που έχει περάσει και χειρότερα.
Παλεύει για τα ιδεώδη, και την αρμονία, τη τέχνη και το κάλλος. Ως Πηνελόπη που περιμένει τον Οδυσσέα της… αλλά καλά κρατάει και δεν δέχεται κανέναν πάνω στο σπαθί της.
Έχει ραγίσει η καρδιά της αλλά είναι ηρωίδα, είναι πολεμίστρα είναι γυναικάρα.
Το έπαιξα τουριστάκι, στη πόλη μου. Σχεδίαζα βόλτες και περιπάτους, και την άφησα να με πάρει μαζί της. Γελούσαμε σα μικρά κορίτσια και τρώγαμε μαζί παγωτό. Πέρασα από την Πρωτογένους και διέσχισα την Αθηνάς και βρέθηκα στο Μοναστηράκι να παρατηρώ τη παλιά αρχιτεκτονική μαζί με το χάος της νεόδμητης πλατείας.
Βρήκα καινούργια στοιχεία στην Αθήνα που αφήνουν μια ευχάριστη γεύση στο στόμα. Σίγουρα έχει αλλάξει, έχει κουραστεί από τα τελευταία χρόνια των μεταρρυθμίσεων, της οικονομικής κρίσης, της συναισθηματικής κρίσης, αλλά έχει επίσης δώσει πνοή σε καινούργιες φιγούρες, σε καινούργιες τέχνες, σε μια νέα φωνή.
Υπάρχει οργή ακόμα. Τη νιώθεις στα σπασμένα πεζοδρόμια. Υπάρχει στεναχώρια. Τη βλέπεις στα πρόσωπα των φθαρμένων πολιτών της. Υπάρχει αγανάκτηση, την αισθάνεσαι στους τοίχους, αλλά… σιγά σιγά, δειλά όμως… ξεπροβάλλει μια Αθήνα πιο δυνατή απ ότι θα έλεγαν οι πολιτικοί, οι παλιοί, οι βολεμένοι, η κομπάρσοι, οι περιστασιακοί γκόμενοι της πόλης. Αυτοί που πραγματικά δεν την αγαπούν… τη χρησιμοποιούν όπως οι μνηστήρες… ως διέξοδο, ως πουτάνα.
Αλλά η Αθήνα είναι κυρία… με λίγο φθαρμένα ρούχα, με λίγο χαλασμένο το μακιγιάζ… είναι όμως κυρία.
Η Αθήνα δε μασάει. Μου ψιθύρισε ότι γουστάρει τη νεολαία που την αγάπησε ξανά. Μου έδειξε ότι η τέχνη είναι στους τοίχους της, οι γεύσεις στα πεζοδρόμια της, τα αρώματα καινούργια, πρόσωπα με χαμόγελο. Μια νέα δύναμη τη στηρίζει σιγά σιγά όλο και πιο πολύ.
Θέλει χρόνο όμως. Θέλει υπομονή γιατί είναι ακόμα φοβισμένη. Δεν εμπιστεύεται εύκολα τον κάθε κόλακα και ομορφάντρα που θα τη πλησιάσει… έχει ακόμα δρόμο μπροστά της να φανεί η ομορφιά της. Αλλά οι μνηστήρες βαρέθηκαν και σιγά σιγά αποχωρούν.
Τα αγόρια και τα κορίτσια της γειτονιάς την υπερασπίζονται είναι με το μέρος της, την ακούν.
One invaluable lesson the financial crisis in Greece taught me, is that one can’t take anything for granted.
There are few incredibly wealthy Greeks who remain untouched by the financial crisis. I am not going to talk about them in this blog post.
Countless young Greek professionals like myself, have had to leave their lives, their homes and their families behind for a another and very uncertain life elsewhere. I uprooted my life, (again) and migrated to another country, not only for a better life but essentially to survive. If all goes well and I’m able to build a life here in the U.S, or anywhere else; I hope to move beyond surviving, and to ultimately thrive and succeed.
Going back to Greece to live and work; is not a viable option for us who left.
At least not yet.
I am far luckier than most.
With all the strides, that I have made living in New York the past five years; it has not been without its challenges. I attribute the general malaise of my fellow country men and women, not only to nostalgia or missing our homeland, but to the crude realization of having to prove ourselves somewhere else AGAIN, after having fought very hard to establish a life in a far less conducive and accepting environment.
I built a successful career in my field, and was afforded a relatively stable family and personal life, but most importantly Greece was my home. I LOVED living there. I had in general terms a good life. Despite all its craziness and complete chaos; I love Greece. Yet….most young people, (myself included when I first moved back after my studies), are endlessly discouraged by Greece’s pure lack of any provable organization, shitty public services, corrupt governance, disorganized and badly outdated infrastructure, nepotism, greed … rampant sexism, and most recently a newly emboldened racism and nationalism; the list is endless.
We all have complained, and continue to do so about how badly everything runs, how our corrupt politicians are stifling growth, entrepreneurship, and innovation. Many of the people who left, wanted to make it work in Greece. We wanted to bring our knowledge back to our homeland. I like many of my contemporaries, have had the privilege of being educated in good schools, have had contact with some amazing minds in all the fields I have worked at; (the Arts, Dance, Wellness and beyond), and have had the good fortune to be able to choose where I would like to live, but above all…. I had the ultimate “golden ticket”; an American Passport.
My privilege is not lost on me.
It has afforded much needed headway when coming to the United States to work and live after living in Greece for most of my adult life. Yet…. I am still seen as a bloody foreigner. Despite my many difficulties proving myself again as a yoga teacher, arts administrator and overall capable professional; this little title “American Citizen” protects me from far worse treatment and marginalization that many of my compatriots feel having never lived in the U.S, or any other foreign country for that matter.
When observing the difficulty my friends face when coming to the U.S for the first time, I feel immensely grateful to be able to navigate through “the system” as well as having a better understanding of the intricacies of living, operating and decoding how “the little things” work in the U.S. This is an obscure list of unwritten rules; it’s handed to us upon arrival and, we all have to follow them.
A rude awakening, to a new life.
Whatever life I left behind in Greece; losing the comfort and ease I was used to, was quite daunting at first glance. What I learned upon arrival to the U.S is that nothing of what I knew or was used to is applicable here. If I am going to survive, I must play the local game and all but forget how things worked for me “back home”. I had to go through the same “schooling” when I moved back to Greece at 22, after my studies in the U.S. The American way of life does not apply to Greek chaos… so I was called to re-calibrate how I worked “the system”, in order to survive and ultimately thrive.
This I find is the biggest gift, no matter how hard of a transition it has been. I am now fortified with the tools to be able to negotiate a productive way of life both here and in Greece. The local rules and “how things are done” are no longer a mystery, because doing things by the book in New York is only the first step to a long education about making it here, or anywhere else.
Today the phrase “your home is where your heart is” is my topic of self conversation.
As I get closer and closer to the end of this experiment of daily postings about my observations, thoughts, emotions, opinions, and ideas; this phrase came up and it’s the only thing that seemed important for me to talk about.
I’m the daughter of an expat American woman who grew up in a small town in western Massachusetts; but spent most of her adult life (45 years to be exact) in Athens, Greece; and a Greek man born in Athens, who despite all his protests has moved between Greece and the United states twice. I’m the amalgam of one true roamer and one homebody (nope it’s not my mum). I have moved house 20 times since I was born, and have moved and lived in Athens, Western Massachusetts, London, upstate New York, New York City, London, Athens, Mykonos and again New York. (if you’re not dizzy; I am!)
What comes to mind is a phrase in Greek which loosely translates to “the land you live in now, is your homeland). “Όπου γης και πατρίς” which is originally attributed to the politician and orator Cicero. This encapsulates the whole way in which I’ve navigated my travels and my many “homes”.
Πατρίδα-in Greek means homeland (fatherland to be more precise); the place where you were born; which is very different from Χώρα-Chora or country (also referring to the village/the countryside) which can be seen as a place of residence or nationality. In recent years I’ve seen myself as a nomad with no country, no homeland and no place to call home. I come from Greece, I was born there, I lived there most of my life, but as of now it is no longer my home. I no longer have a family home that I grew up in, I don’t have a bedroom with all my childhood memories. I carry that childhood, and those memories with me wherever I go. I’m somewhat of an exile, having chosen to leave my home in Greece, and come to New York “for a better life”; and not really wanting to. As most exiles I feel uprooted, and this idea of connection to where I now live is quite frail.
This fragility of course does not come without a better understanding of oneself in connection to identity and belonging. A house is just a roof over our heads, but a home is where we feel comforted, protected, familiar, and at peace. I’ll bring two more Greek words to the mix to show the complexity of meaning and feeling.
οικία (oikia)– means house or home
οικεία (oikeia) — means familiar or something you find comforting
For now my house is in New York City, but it does not feel like my home, so the heart keeps roaming, and if my life is any indication of a pattern, it will roam again.
So when you close the door to your home tonight make sure that you feel at home, comforted and safe.
Athens isn’t what you would call a beautiful city or even a picturesque one. A friend described it as a place where someone threw a bag of Legos and wherever they landed that’s how Athens was built and developed after the second world war. This huge uncontrollable expanse of cement, metal and marble is a basin engulfed by 4 mountain ranges. Parnitha, Penteli,Hemetos and Egaleo. Except for the Parthenon, Mount Lycabettous, and the Panathenaic Stadium (Kallimarmaron) there aren’t distinct recognizable features in its landscape that define it like other sprawling metropoles.
Athens is an ugly modern city. built around on the glory of ancient wonder.
What Athens has that other cities in the world don’t is its ability to constantly renew itself and reinvent its story. This does not stem of capricious artistry but because of necessity. Ever since the second world war, Athens has been a city of change, tumult and pathos. It’s an experimental, dramatic place filled with history and constant change.
Fluctuating Governments, Regimes, Geo-Political importance, invasions, occupations, war and turmoil. Its streets are paved over layers upon layers of history. Every building quite literally stands over ancient cities and past glory. At every turn there is an ancient site tucked between the cacophony of 1950’s chaotic rebuilding post WWII.
Despite its misfortunes, Athens is a grand, triumphant city taking its name after its most powerful female symbol. The city is dedicated to the goddess Athena, she rains over this basin as a goddess spawned from fierce strength and magnificence. The Virgin Goddess (Athena Parthenos) protects our city, and you can feel her presence looming over the polis every night as the Parthenon lights up over the night sky.
Like every one of its citizens, its loud, nosy, loving, boisterous , nostalgic, hospitable, suspicious, dirty, and mystical. You will come to this city a stranger and you leave a friend. Its not an easy friendship mind you; it will demand a lot of you, but its a deep and genuine lasting friendship that will be there for your through the hardest of times. She is a city that has been battered, used, taken advantage of again and again but still has life to give and love to share for those who are willing to look beyond the scars and the misfortunes.
In 2010 the economic crisis started to bear down on the soul of this beautiful city goddess. This was one wound too many for some neighborhoods. I saw once vibrant street corners turn into drug infested sewers, I saw its people live in fear of their neighbors and let the mistrust and anger brewing around them seep into their daily lives. Yet despite the destruction, the riots, and the strikes that crippled our city for the past eight harrowing years, it’s people and most importantly it’s young people are starting to find ways to bring sunlight into even the darkest spots.
New Life built on the shadows of the crisis.
New businesses are being created, replacing once empty neighborhoods with bars restaurants and cafes. New companies are being founded with innovation from forward thinking Greeks, who left, the country for years at a time, and came back, with renewed courage to give back to the city they love.
These changes are not with out their set backs of course. The crisis still looms heavy on every day living but instead of giving in to the roller coaster crippling economy that has been Greece’s reality, Greek entrepreneurs and business owners have learned to adapt with the times. Etsy and online stores are now replacing physical storefronts which are expensive to maintain and don’t draw the foot traffic they once did. Yes we all are very weary when stores that have been in the center of Athens since the late 1800’s close, but innovation has to take place in order for new blood to enter a ill fated city.
Online business is on the rise, as crippling capital controls are still in place, but have allowed for more online commerce to develop. Greeks and specifically Athenians have long been trained in loopholes, and this is no exception. Old abandoned houses are being transformed and given new life as hip cocktail bars and gourmet restaurants. Greeks although strapped for cash themselves have found a way to work outside the localized economic restrictions and build businesses that are not only successful but profitable as well.
Just underneath Philopapou Hill in Petralona what was once a working class neighborhood in the 1950’s has now become a gathering place for new restaurants, and bars. Old taverns that were only frequented by the locals are now a destination spot for people who don’t live near these neighborhoods. I witnessed the beginning stages of this transformation starting in 2010 when I still lived in Athens. Beautiful neoclassical buildings are transformed, and transported to a time and place that has no historical reference and recreates these streets from the beginning.
The northern suburbs of Athens are also getting their taste of new glory days; with local restaurants and bars choosing to set up shop in smaller venues there rather than take their business in more prevalent or central neighborhoods in Athens. Off the tourist beaten path, these neighborhoods are usually strangers to foreign visitors so they keep their authenticity and are loyal to their patrons are they are to them.
Chalandri, Cholargos, Kifissia, Marousi, Agia Paraskevi to name a few are the northern neighborhoods receiving a fresh spotlight after their initial heyday in the 80’s and 90’s.
Even more “working class” and immigrant neighborhoods such as Ilion, Nea Smyrni, and Egaleo are reinventing themselves in their own unique way.
The under represented and often overlooked jewel of Athens in my opinion has always been Piraeus. Its a busy, dirty, port with overly antithetical ideas about itself. In the 30’s and 40’s part of it was a very upper class neighborhood, next to a sprawling lower class and immigrant population constantly coming in from Asia Minor and the northern outskirts of the Greek villages. Many families who had shipping or trade businesses would live and work there. One of them being my grandmother and her 3 siblings. The northern suburbs now considered upper class, were all but non existent, and only for “summer vacations” of the wealthy Athenians, seeking refuse from the overcrowding Athenian metropolis.
Philopapou Hill in the early 1800’s and 1900’s
Pireaus on the other hand was and is for many a separate entity of Athens set apart for its glory and Academic centers, Pireaus was a city of the people and by the people. Its like no other part of Athens. The residents call themselves Pireotes before they would ever call themselves Athenians. And I can completely understand their pride and camaraderie to their neighborhood.
This is true for other neighborhoods in Athens, as they are slowly revamping, reinventing, renewing their re-imagined surroundings.
Athens is always forever struggling with the city that it once was, and now slowly growing into the city that it will be. Its Renaissance comes with many growing pains and crises of identity yet I’ve always had faith in this crazy lego-land built on the ruins of ancient civilization. This faith is born not because Athens is the home I was born in, but has become the home that I’ve grown as a person, as a woman, as a friend as a professional, with countless others who worked hard and made it their home too. We are not Europe and I hope that one day we realize that and define this city with its own colors.
For more information about the places you’ve seen here — Get on a plane and visit!