Athens: Day One

There’s a first time for everything. Today was the first time I’d experienced the effects, albeit mildly, of tear gas. A sudden burning in the eyes, throat and lungs. At least I think it was tear gas – it could just as easily have been the acrid smoke rising from the smouldering remains of upturned municipal dustbins.

I am in Athens for the international poetry festival Dasein. This is my first full day, and my first time in Greece since… well, before I can remember. We took a few family holidays here back in the 80s, that’s all. My hotel – which is in fact lovely and where I’m writing this from – seems to be bang in the middle of the ‘troubles’ you may be aware of due to the precarious economic and social situation here. I’d just returned from an afternoon walking around the city, and something’s clearly happened in the area.

The signs of disturbance are everywhere. Riot police in heavy, dark blue jumpsuits and shades ride in flottilas of motorbikes. Soldiers – younger, conscripts I guess, in khaki, stand in groups of three or four on street corners. Young Greeks in black t-shirts and back-packs displaying an air of latent discontent. Graffiti ever-present like a sinister voice in the back of your head. This morning I woke to the call of raised voices and loudhailers. Across the square my balcony overlooks, a political demonstration – red and black flags contrasting with the clear blue day.

I followed the demo as it moved slowly down one of the main streets towards Syntagma Square, the public centre of Athens. It was good-natured and noisy – a carnival atmosphere contrasting with the serious messages of the demonstrators. Amongst them, groups of Sri Lankan and African immigrants, protesting for greater rights.

People wear a lot of black here. I stood out with my Northern European face and crazy bright white plimsolls (you can take the boy out of Shoreditch, etc…), strolling parallel to the march and regularly stopping to take photos with my phone. I also made an audio recording of the demonstrators’ chants. I may use these recordings in a new piece I’m set to create for the Festival.

This afternoon I took the funicular railway up Lycabettus Hill, which looms over Athens, a rocky outcrop said to have been created when Athena dropped a large stone she was carrying by mistake. The views from the top are breathtaking, and there is a small and pretty chapel, Agia Georgios.

My lunch consisted of a slice of delicious Spinach pie and a frappa coffee thing. Last night I had veal in pasta at a great little canteen-style restaurant my host here, the writer Christos Chrissopoulos, had taken me to.

I’m off to meet another writer, Theodoros Chiotis, now. He writes for Hand + Star, so it’ll be good to finally put a face to the name.

I hope to avoid any more tear gas. It’s nasty stuff.

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