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Night in Exarchia

Grigoropoulou Memorial Exarchia AthensThe US Embassy issued a warning that travelers should avoid the neighborhood of Exarchia. This made sense to me. The area is behind the Polytechnic University which is historically a hotbed of activism with many of the major marches originating here. It is also the neighborhood where Alexander Grigoropoulos was killed by a policeman's bullet, setting off several days of rioting in December of 2008. Since then police cars don't patrol the area because they are regularly pelted with bottles, rocks and the occasional Molotov cocktail. They just station riot police dressed like futuristic gladiators on the corners that surround Exarchia to keep trouble in and off the streets of the rest of downtown Athens. Exarchia is a city within a city.

Exarchia, AthensLast night I went to Exarchia to meet some friends and to visit one of my favorite ouzeris and I discovered the real reason the US embassy does not want its citizens to venture into this dark world. They don't want people to have fun! Exarchia was the liveliest place in Athens on this hot and humid Tuesday in June. There was some kind of rally going on in the square which is also a venue for rock concerts. Every bar and cafe was full and music of all types poured out of each of them. There were people lined up for souvlakia in the psistarias, almost all young in black t-shirts and shorts, with girls dressed like modern hippies with style. Colorful posters of bands and summer rock festivals were plastered on walls. There were drug addicts here and there among the crowds, just sort of doing their own thing as junkies tend to do, but for those who fear to be part of a crowd that contains these unfortunate people keep in mind the next time you are at a football game the guy next to you may be a wife beater, the guy behind you may have foreclosed on your neighbors house and the guy in front of you may have embezzled so much money for his coke habit that the business he owns is on the verge of collapse putting several hundred of your neighbors out of work. Would you rather be with them or a crowd of young people dissatisfied with what we old people have done to the world they are about to be stuck with? Who would you rather stand next to? A Greek junkie or Jack the Ripper?

Exarchia graffitiOK. Let me get serious for a moment. Obviously if you are my age and even somewhat younger, Exarchia will have a limited appeal to you. In fact if you are not able to run fast enough to get out of trouble as easily as you get into it, like for example running from cops who mistake you for the guy who just tossed their teargas canister back at them, you should stick to the Plaka, Psiri and Gazi. But my impression last night which sort of came over me like an epiphany was that if the American kids who visit Greece knew about this place they would come like Muslims to Mecca. This is the center of counter culture. Exarchia is Ann Arbor, Berkeley, and the East Village on steroids. Is it a scary place? Shit yeah. To anyone over thirty it is terrifying. A place for young people where cops are not allowed? No wonder the US embassy does not want us to go here. What if we imported Exarchia to the USA? It's a revolutionary ghetto. It is the world that groups like the MC5 and the Bad Brains imagined they could create with their music. To the establishment it is a cancer that has to be contained, thus the cops on the corners with bus loads of reinforcements nearby. It's a dark and scary world of Megadeath t-shirts and tattoos, an entire neighborhood that looks like your kid's favorite rock club or even his bedroom. Exarchia=Evil. Perhaps the end of civilization.

Exarchia restaurantAnd yet there is something very civilized about it. Art galleries. Nice tavernas. Interesting cafes of all styles. Bars, clubs, pedestrian streets, computer shops, and great CD and used record shops. And right there on the edge, my favorite Lesbian hangout, the Lesvos Cafeneion, like the embassy of the older generation in this island of rebellious youth. Now of course when I say Lesbian I mean from the island of Lesvos, not gay women, and as I drank my Dimino ouzo and ate my meze of fried gavros, shrimp, bakaliaro, potatoes and eggplant I gazed around at my fellow-travelers who looked like they just came back from tending their sheep, oblivious to the inhabitants of the rock and roll kingdom that passes by on their way to and from Exarchia square. The Russian lady who plays violin drove by on her motorbike and a minute later she was serenading me. My family and friends were together on the 6th floor balcony of Elizabeth and Mihos apartment a few blocks away, drinking raki and sending me text messages begging me to come and join them, but I was lost in this world at street level. I did not want to leave and at the same time I did not want them to come. In the end we compromised and arranged to meet at midnight at a taverna with a big garden way up on Kalidromiou on the hill of Strofi that overlooks Exarchia. I went there but they never showed up which was good because I really did not want to eat or drink anymore. I walked back to Kypseli, past the gladiator cops who greeted me uneasily when I smiled and said Kalispera.

Exarchia graffitiThinking now about the cops and their nightly battles with the 'anarchists' and the Athenian teenagers who come into the city from the suburbs just to taunt and hit and run, reminds me of this song that was a hit in the late sixties called 'The Years of Othon' about when they wanted to clean up the riff-raff that had taken over Athens during the period when Greece was first being established as a country. They sent a proclamation to all the towns and villages of Crete and the Mani, areas where the young men were known to be courageous and tough, that they needed policemen to come to Athens. It's one of my favorite songs. (Check it out). So here are the modern versions of these guys, dressed to kill, but they are scared kids, maybe from the villages, maybe from the neighborhoods of Athens, paid very little to fight other kids and protect the interests of society. It must be a strange position to be in. I think of the way American cops would handle an army of angry young people who are pelting them with rocks and bottle-bombs and I am pretty sure that they would wade in with clubs swinging in organized military fashion, taking prisoners and focusing on the generals. Whereas the Greek police are just satisfied with containment, and why not? These are not highly trained professionals, skilled in the art of crowd control. They are kids with less experience than the rebellious youth they are supposed to be fighting. They might very well be with the demonstrators if they did not need to make a living.

Anyway for those who are reading this as a disagreement with the US Embassy about visiting Exarchia, you should not take it that way. There are certainly times when you should not visit the area and since you probably have no way of knowing when these times are you may want to play it safe and stick to the carefree neighborhoods of Plaka, Psiri, Monastiraki, and Gazi. But young college aged people looking for a scene that may be a little darker than what you are used to may find the attraction of Exarchia hard to resist. Sure Exarchia may be the scariest place in Athens. But that depends on your definition of scary. One person's 'scary' is another person's 'home'.


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