“Come to Greece man, it’s gonna be a riot!” – an Italian in Amsterdam, October 2010.
We thought “Bill” our driver was going right into Athens, but now he says no, he’s tuning off here. He stops abruptly on the motorway. I look at David, who looks very alarmed. “But is it not illegal?” I ask. “Polizia??” “No problem!” he assures us and drives off.
So we’re standing on the motorway. There’s space for cars to stop, but traffic is moving fast. We stick our thumbs out anyway, but half an hour later we’re still there. There’s another road behind us, parallel to the motorway – less traffic, but much slower. We pass our bags over the fence in-between and try the smaller road. A man stops and tells us to try the bigger road, “the only traffic from here is from the war ships”, he says. Well, the military always seem to pick us up, so we decide to stick it out.
The guy that stops isn’t in the military, but he used to be. Now he works on the shipyards as a welder and is hard of hearing because of the noise, despite being about my age. He smokes a spliff in the car on the way home from work – “only one a day”, he says, “Is hard work. I need for relax”. He constantly massages his legs and fingers when we stop in traffic, clearly he’s in a lot of pain. “I don’t like democracy,” he tells us. “You don’t like democracy?” David repeats, checking we’ve understood. “No, I prefer the Military Junta.” Oh god, another fascist. Why do we always get picked up by fascists?
I only contacted one couchsurfer in Athens. I knew she’d say yes after I sent a lengthy personalised request entitled “6 Reasons Why You Are the Perfect Host for Me”. Marina describes herself on her profile as being “peacefully anarchist”, which I quite liked, but David scowls when he hears it. It doesn’t take much time with Marina and her Dutch boyfriend Jorrick to work out that they’re not really anarchists at all, but they are really nice and we have our own room in their place. We’ll have to make contact with the Athens anarchist scene some other way.
Antispeciesist Vegan Kitchen
The Antispeciesists in Athens have a vegan kitchen and meeting every Friday night in a squat.
The freshly painted interior of Patision 61 is not what I was expecting from one of the most infamous anarchist squats in Athens. Two dark red and two white walls face one another across a spacious room of neatly arranged tables, chairs and a couple of sofas. Two men sit drinking coffee. They acknowledge me with a nod as I walk in. A girl bounces out of the kitchen to greet me, shyly twiddling the long green part of her fringe. I tell her I arrived in Athens yesterday and I want to meet vegans and anarchists. She seems delighted by this and ushers me into the kitchen to introduce me to four other shy young people. I am apparently the 6th vegan in Athens. Somebody asks how long I’ve been vegan. “About four years,” I reply. The green-fringed girl translates and they all seem impressed. “That’s longer than all of us,” she tells me.
I arrived hungry expecting a meal, but they begin dishing the food up and I realise it’s cake. All cake. Only cake. A lot of cake. We sit and eat cake. The green-fringed girl is Isabel. She becomes my tour guide, marking on my map all the places I will probably want to visit and telling me where and what times I can go to get food. After a lot of technical hitches and some more cake, the DVD projector is ready and we watch some short animated films about mink. There was a mink liberation in Greece a few months ago, the first of it’s kind. They released over 50,000 mink. I wonder aloud where 50,000 mink might go to and Isabel screws up her face, “well, actually most of them kind of died, because they did it in winter and it was too cold for them.” My heart sinks – but then I think dying in the wild is still a lot better than being tortured and skinned alive. I know which I would choose.
I’ve decided Sundays will be my date with myself. On Sundays I’m a tourist, and lots of things are free – including the Acropolis and Olympieion. I walk around a lot of generally crumbly ancient stuff. It’s nice to look at, but I’m glad not to pay to see it. Of more interest to me is the social life in the tourist areas, the beggars and African men with their designer handbags lined up on white sheets by the roadside. It’s the same bags, same white sheets as in Venice, Bologna, Rome, Caserta, Naples… where are these guys getting them from? I don’t want to know. An Australian juggler is stealing attention away from the men and their wares – “Roll up, roll up…” he puts on a big show, blancing on a wheel and getting one of the kids at the front to throw batons to him while he juggles them. The other men stand further away, watching silently as the Aussie guy rakes in the tourist dollars. A small yapping plastic dog does backflips at the feet of one of the men.
Marina and her boyfriend are going away and David and I need to find a new place to stay. My first thought is of Patision 61, also named “Skaramanga” or “Ska”. We go to the Sunday night house meeting to ask, but we’re not the only ones – it’s riot season in Athens and all the squats are either full or not accepting new guests. In Ska they’re worried about police raids and don’t want the extra responsibility of new guests. They make it clear we’re welcome to hang out and get involved – but no bags here, no keys, no room to sleep in.
I spend two days messaging couchsurfers, texting and emailing people I know. Riot season, holiday season… everyone is full. What are we going to do?
The Worst Birthday Ever
I excitedly turn on my phone and laptop to check my birthday messages. Nothing. No text messages, no missed calls, no emails. What?! At about midday I get a couple of e-cards from mum. Ok, well at least somebody remembered. David has been traveling with me for a month, but he seems to have forgotten despite the amount of times we’ve talked about the unfortunate date and where we’re going to be. What I don’t want for my birthday is tear-gas and a good beating, but it’s the 6th of December in Athens and anything is possible.
If you were asleep for the last two years, or if you only read mainstream media, you may need to know that on the 6th December 2008 a cop shot and killed a 15 year old boy named Alexis in the Exarcheia area of Athens. This sparked off a popular uprising and Athens was basically in flames for months. The same happened after the anniversary of his death last year until the 5th of May, when rioters set fire to a bank on the day of the general strike and some workers died – locked in by their bosses and forced to work.
Different groups have called demonstrations for the same place at different times. Apparently this is normal. People will slowly assemble in their groups and then everyone will leave together anyway. In Greece things generally start almost exactly an hour after they’re due. This infuriates David, but works quite well for me. At any rate, at the time we arrive the demo has already been kick-started by police throwing tear-gas into the assembled crowd. I’m trying to work out the best move, but David disappears into the crowd, making his own way. Great, now I’m alone. I see a man blinded by tear-gas and give him my bottle of water. He washes his eyes out and heads back into the fray. Ok, here I go…
Police here are different from Britain – more militarised in green commando-style outfits, with not just batons and shields, but guns, gas masks and tear-gas, which they spray liberally into the crowd at any opportunity. I join the march. Lines of protesters hold long sticks horizontally against each side to protect the demonstration from the riot police who run along each side. Some of the more militant anarchists throw stones, bits of paving slab, home-made Molotov cocktails and anything else they can find at police, who respond with yet more tear-gas. Almost everyone is wearing some kind of mask – a scarf tied around the face, paint masks or full-on gas masks. I wish I had one too, especially when police throw tear-gas into a peaceful section of the demo, causing panic. Everyone runs to the side, where a ready and waiting line of cops charge in and repeatedly hit whoever is in front of them with batons. I feel a few blows to my right shoulder before managing to get away, running straight into the cloud of gas. Water streams from my eyes and the back of my throat is burning. I can see nothing and only hope the side-street I’m running towards is not full of police. It’s not. Others are flushing their eyes out and a man hands me a bottle of Maalox solution, which I use to rinse my eyes.
I walk the street parallel to the demo until my nerves steady and my eyes and throat stop stinging. In Monastiraki Square people are reassembling. I’m looking around for David and am about to call him when a line of police on motorbikes charge into the square and chaos resumes as people are chased down different streets.
When I’m tired of the cat and mouse game the demonstration has become, I retreat to Skaramanga, where a few people are drinking and chatting. It’s still my birthday. I have a few friends in Athens by now and send out messages inviting people to come and drink with me. I get a few “happy birthday” replies, but nobody comes – not surprising given what’s happening in the city. I take myself out for half a pint instead, and the barmaid buys me a second one. That’s almost like a birthday present, isn’t it?
Survival in Athens
My time in Athens is divided between the endless search for places to sleep and the never-quite satisfied hunt for affordable vegan food. I am often hungry. David and I table-dive frequently at the University of Economics. The anarchists eat for free here and just refuse to pay, but we’re a bit cowardly for this. Sometimes I pay, sometimes we just eat scraps, but anyway the food is not very good. I’ve been known to scrape rice out from under chicken bones, trying not to retch.
Much nicer are the few collective kitchens that happen throughout the week: the migrant social centre at 3pm on Saturday; the autonomist place on a Wednesday afternoon; Skaramanga on a Monday night and of course the vegan kitchen on Fridays. The calender on Athens Indymedia is a good source of information. It’s these place too where I make the most friends – Panos at the migrant place; Danai and Evgenia at the autonomist centre, who each host us for a couple of nights. We even bump into some familiar Icelandic faces and a girl who recognises me from Brighton.
We met Vaios at a CS New Members meeting wile trying to find new hosts. He hosts me and David for a couple of nights, takes us to a rock bar and gives me my first ever motorbike ride to the General Strike demonstration on the 15th December.
Again it’s all tear-gas, molotovs and Athens is in flames – at least the parts I can see. This time I’m prepared with my own supply of Maalox and I find some swimming goggles on the street which stop the stinging, but fog up instantly so I’m blind either way.
I’m leaving Athens for the weekend and have been offered a place to stay for ten days when I get back. I need some recovery time.