Greece Before ‘No’
Elle Triantafillou spent the week before the Greek referendum in Athens.
There’s traffic on the drive into Syntagma Square, another protest, and on the same street families eat ice-cream, kali tixi/good luck written (ominously) on the walls.
Petros is driving. We’ve come from Glyfada, a middle class area a little further south, popular, by the beach, emptier than usual. We were drinking hot chocolates. I see children playing on the steps of an abandoned building. It’s after midnight. Petros says they’re likely to be refugees; there have been a lot in the last few years, the facilities here are bad, ti krimas/what a shame. With this, he gestures to the street outside, to the cars, to the buildings suffocated by dust and graffiti. What is Greece to do, what are we to do? We nod, we say we know, ti krimas/what a shame.
A couple of weeks later, in Kos, we will see asylum seekers as we wait for a ferry across to Leros, a small island in the Dodecanese where my grandmother was born. There will be men waiting by the port wearing dirty white hotel slippers, waiting to be sent to someone or somewhere with resources, waiting to be processed, waiting. More, getting off a boat, accompanied by police officers, smiling, waving, happy to have reached land. And in Leros: more, sitting on the steps of a police station built against the Aegean, both building and people battered by the sea. We will hear that this is where they will sleep, waiting, like the locals, for a deal to be struck, for something to change.
At 5am we are woken by the sound of a chainsaw. Men are cutting up a tree that had fallen across five cars.
The next day we’re lying on my theia Evangelia’s bed, she’s eighty-six, she puts on lipstick, which she calls crayon, and in Greek she says she only speaks French. My mum, my great aunt and me, the three of us lying on her bed, we’re laughing, tipsy off ouzo and beer. I get up to make us frappes, which we have in bed along with chocolate biscuits. I take a picture of us. We’re still laughing. The crayon looks nice.
Later, waiting for the tram in Nea Smirni, I see a naked woman on a derelict balcony. She’s smoking a cigarette, sixty at least, maybe seventy. No one else notices, or maybe they do, or maybe they don’t care; an Athenian acceptance of old age and decline in a city that expects no less. She looks happy. I recall someone saying there’s Sunday and then there’s the rest of our lives.
In Monastiraki it storms and tourists eat gyros on balconies in the shadow of the Acropolis and salute the megalith behind them.
Everywhere else, everyone else is drinking coffee; black, sweet, cold. If they are not drinking it they have just finished drinking it and are swearing at politicians or frowning over newspapers or tilting their heads back with frustrated laughter, yelling across the kafenion. In the day, no one orders food or alcohol. There is only coffee and talking.
I buy bandaids and the pharmacist who serves me yawns. I ask if she’s tired, she yells that she’s fed up, she’s scared, she’s confused, she yells that we all are. She says how can you make a decision when you don’t know the facts? This is the second time I’ve heard this. She asks how long I’m staying in Greece. When I say three weeks, she says that maybe I can do some good. I feel stupid but she means it.
We change apartments. We’re staying on the steep slope of Lycabettus Hill, it’s nice, there’s a bougainvillea on our balcony and everything. We call a taxi but he can’t take us to where we need to go because the roads to the centre of the city are closed. It would take an hour and a half to drive there. He takes us to a metro station that was too far to walk to. The metro is packed. We’re late to a play whilst everyone else is on time for a protest.
We watch a monologue, it’s Socrates’ last apology, his final plea to his jurors. It’s in English. We’re an audience of tourists; white linen and patient smiles. Overhead, a projector with Greek subtitles. Underneath us, the sound of drums and chants, the city sounds like it’s burning but of course I know it’s not, this is just something people say, this is a metaphor. Everywhere, the symbolism is obvious. I can’t really concentrate. The courtyard we are in seems overwhelmingly irrelevant. When I do concentrate I’m not sure if it’s because the noise goes away or I just get used to it.
We detour via Syntagma, we hope to catch something, to join in, to see democracy in action as my uncle will later say, but everyone is gone. The streets are dark. We walk back home through Exarcheia. One building reads: pride antifa / you have nice tits.
A friend, a taxi driver, tells us he sometimes takes people home for free, he says don’t worry about it. To us he says, what can you do? I can’t make them pay half of what they’ve just earned. The standard cab fare for short distances is €3.20.
In the evening we make it to a rally. We hear that there are 200 000 people here. It’s like a huge open-air concert. Families with prams, OXI stickers on every chest, couples swaying with beers in their hands, an almost forgetful kind of solidarity. I think that there must be a difference between a regular type of unknown and a very definite type of unknown.
My theia waits in the car whilst we buy her groceries. She’s asked us to, she wants to stock up in case anything happens. She says she will ask another relative in Australia, a closer one, to give us the money. We tell her not to be silly about the money, but really we are thinking don’t be silly, don’t overreact, things will be O.K. But still we buy cans of tuna, evaporated milk, Heinekens as a treat. We try to find more crayon but can’t, they only have lip-gloss. Supermarket employees are whispering in a corner, they are the ones who directed us to the gloss, their brows are furrowed, they look troubled. I mean, they must be, or maybe I imagine it, I’m not sure anymore, there are still people shopping in Zara.
That evening there are riot police in the empty streets, but their shields hang limp in their hands, the city will vote in the morning. One is holding komboloi/worry beads and I just about hear the noise that is made as he slides each bead across the string to reach the next, and I wonder if the small ceaseless noise that has filled every apartment, every kafenion, every public space over the last week is really just that sound.