The Athens Gang: The Plaka

The PlakaI used to love the Plaka.

Now it's more of a love/hate relationship, much like my relationship with the rest of Greece. The fact that there are about three restaurants in the whole area that serve something besides souvlaki, mousaka, pastitsio and lobster has a lot to do with it. If it weren't for the ouzeries the area would be a total loss for me. At least I can sit and drink myself silly with my old friends, ordering snacks of saganaki (fried cheese), keftedes (tiny meatballs), melitzana salada (eggplant dip) loukaniko (fried sausages) and other delicacies, between numerous carafes of ouzo. If it weren't for my favorite cafeneon called To Cafeneon, and Psaras, the old fish restaurant where the waiters are so antagonistic that any tourist who stumbles upon it usually flees in terror, I would just as soon stay in some suburb of Athens, rather than the ancient center.

Like many places I have loved, the Plaka has sold out to the tourists. In the summer months the streets are jammed by nine o'clock with women who look as if they were poured into their clothing and men who are starting to spill out of theirs. The streets are lined with tacky gift and T-shirt shops, and what were once quiet neighborhood tavernas now have men in starched white shirts begging people to come in and have a look at their authentic Greek menu of ...souvlaki, mousaka, pastitsio and lobster. The tiny cafes where the old men used to play backgammon and argue politics now serve gelato. And if you order ouzo, instead of a meze of marinated octopus or cheese from the owner's village, they give you a handful of nuts.

But Plaka has many memories for me. The first time I ever smoked marijuana was in the Plaka outside a little dive called The Golden Key, a renowned hangout for drug dealers, hippies and American high school students like me. I think it was my father who encouraged me to spend more time in downtown Athens rather than at the American Youth Center in Kifissia where I had been spending my weekends with my friends from school. It turned out to be an excellent suggestion. After that first night in which I sampled marijuana from the legendary traveler who was forever known as "The Colorado Kid," (even though we never saw him or heard from him again), the Golden Key became my hangout. Well, actually the steps outside the Key is where we spent ninety percent of our time. The weather was always nice and you could hear the music just fine. Plus you didn't have to buy a drink. Really, all the action was outside. But every night at about midnight, a cop car would drive up the tiny street and park right in front of the Key. More plainclothes cops than it seemed a Fiat could possibly hold would pile out and walk into the bar. The music would magically stop as soon as they entered the door. They would go from person to person examining their eyes and looking at their papers. (After all, this was during the military junta.) Then they would select a few unlucky customers to go with them, climb back into the car and drive away. Then the music would come back on and it was as if nothing had ever happened. Except for the people they would take away whom you would never see again, or if you did they had their heads shaved and were in the army or if they still had their hair it was the general consensus that they were now narcs.

The most amazing thing about it is that even though this happened almost every night, we still hung out there. We never once turned to one another and said "You know what? This place is fucked. Why do we come here?"

Well, we were young. And the place did have its good points. First of all it was where the cool kids from the other American and International schools would go. It was a few short steps from the Acropolis where we would take acid and stand in front of the giant floodlights that lit up the Parthenon in various colors for the evening Sound & Light Show. Then we would wander around the mountainside with our vision so short-circuited that we didn't know what was real rock and what was a hundred foot wall made of strawberry jello. As the end of the night approached we would usually be sitting on the sidewalk drinking from a shared bottle of retsina that cost us all of about twenty cents, before jumping in our respective taxis for the ten kilometer-fifty cent ride home, including tip.

Down the street was another club called Folk 17 that was more of a live acoustic music place. The cops would go there first before hitting the Golden Key, but because most of the clientele were westerners, they usually left empty handed. Around the corner was The Odyssey, or as it was known in the sixties "The Trip." This was where Andrea and her friends would hang out. It was more of a disco, though at the time there was no music known as disco and people danced with wild abandon to Hendrix, The Stones, The Doors, and the soundtrack to Woodstock. All three places would be closed by the police for weeks at a time. Somehow they would always re-open.

The Plaka wasn't just a fun-center for hashish smokers, acid heads and under achieving high school students. Some of the most famous old Tavernas were down there where people would dance to live bouzouki bands and smash plates until four in the morning. These were full of rich businessmen and poor laborers who didn't mind dropping a month's wages for a night of celebration. There were plenty of tourists, but a heartier variety than the current breed. Back then Greece was not on everybody's list of places to visit. Only the most adventurous traveled east of Italy.

There were also seedy bars like the Cat Club, above our favorite souvlaki shop, where sailors, from whatever fleet happened to be in town, would go to be ripped off by sleazy women in mini-skirts, who would get them to buy bottles of cheap champagne at a hundred dollars a pop and disappear out the back door before things got out of hand. There was a live band but all we could hear from outside was the sound of a Farfissa organ playing the same simple repetitive chords. When we would discuss who would be members of our personal Supergroups, my best friend Peter always chose the organist at the Cat Club over Keith Emerson, Jon Lord or Rick Wakeman.

As we changed, so did the Plaka. We began to spend our nights in the local tavernas, drinking retsina from the barrel and having orgies of inexpensive food at places like Barba Stavros, which was later torn down to expose the archeological relics beneath it before becoming a garbage pit. We kept moving from taverna to taverna as they would be closed down or go out of business. Psaras was the last in that long line of old restaurants. It has a sign that says it's been open since the late 1800's and some of the staff could probably testify to that. When Psaras closes its doors for the last time we will probably skip Athens altogether when we visit Greece.

By the end of the seventies, Plaka had become a Sodom and Gomorra. The bouzouki bands were playing at full volume all night long while drunken people staggered through piles of broken plates. More bars and discos opened and as space became scarce, long time residents of the Plaka, mostly old women, were terrorized and harassed by thugs who wanted to get their hands on their valuable real-estate. Finally the government decided to act. First they outlawed all amplified music in the area. Then they prohibited the smashing of plates. Overnight the bars and discos were out of business. The restaurants that had been popular because of their loud music and wild dancing, now had to make it on their food. Many of them went out of business too. The center of gravity moved away from the streets where the clubs used to be and moved closer to Syntagma. Eventually it became what it is today: A tourist trap, but a pleasant one.

In the winter, when tourists are few and outdoor dining or air-conditioning is not a necessity, the Bakaliarikos open. They serve bakalaro (fried codfish) and skorda-ya (garlic sauce) as their specialty, along with boiled beets, radish greens, tarama (mullet or carp roe or as sometimes translated: egg-fish-salad), and incredible fried potatoes. They have very good wine and even though your clothes smell like fried codfish and cigarette smoke for days, it's worth it. In addition, all the hip expatriates hang out there. All you have to do is eavesdrop at the table next to you and wait for an opening. Then you figure out what friends or places you have in common and before you know it, you're all pals, even if you haven't agreed on a single subject all night. That's what I mean by very good wine. These restaurants are in basements on Kydatheneon street, where they have been in business for a hundred years. When the weather gets warm, the ovens and deep-fat-fryers turn these rooms into underground furnaces and the owners stick a sign on the door that says "GONE FOR VACATION. SEE YOU IN OCTOBER."

One of the more positive aspects of the present day Plaka is that they have eliminated almost all motorized vehicles from it. With the exception of a few speeding motorbikes, taxis and delivery trucks the streets are now safe for pedestrians. The old city is one of the best places in Greece to walk around or sit and watch other people walking around. I spend a large portion of my time doing that. My favorite past-time is to go sit at To Cafeneon, or the place known sarcastically as "The Nice-guy Cafe" (because the owner is ill-tempered), order an ouzo and meze, read the baseball results in the USA Today, and wait for someone I know to show up or walk by. It's one of those crossroads of the universe. If you sit there long enough, sooner or later everyone you know, no matter where you know them from, will pass by.

To be honest I have to say that the main thing that kept me coming back and staying in the Plaka is because for 11 years Andrea rented a big old house there. Where the mountain that the Acropolis sits upon turns the narrow roads into steps and the homes look more like an island village than the center of a major city, Andrea lived at #17 Epiharmou Street. The house was at least a couple of hundred years old and the steps in the courtyard were made of ancient marble from some old public building that stood nearby or from the Parthenon when a Venetian shell hit the Turkish gunpowder being stored there and blew it apart.

It was so quiet and so close that I could hear the flag that waved from the Acropolis on a windy day. There were several rooms downstairs, usually used for storage, but livable. I knew that no matter how disoriented I was from my flight from the States, or how confused I was about the state my life was in and why I was coming back to this country, that I had my own room and that after a few hours of rest and meditation, I would be ready for fun.

But that was then and this is now....

The Plaka, Athens

June 8 1994: First Day in Athens

It's about 6:30 in the morning. I think. I lost count of the church bells which is how I usually tell time in the Plaka. Amarandi and Andrea are asleep as I wish I were only because I am anticipating going out tonight to celebrate our arrival in Athens and I don't want to be dragging after only an hour worth of chaotic-dream sleep. The bells just rang again but I lost count. It must be seven.

The flights to Greece were OK. Still, I had that terrible feeling where I could not fall asleep or get comfortable and time seemed to slow down, but that was only on the trans-Atlantic flight and once we arrived in London things got better. Heathrow Airport is like a big tax-free mall and we walked around for a couple hours starting at about six-thirty in the morning. Later, Andrea shopped, Amarandi played on the horizontal escalators and I went to a replica of a local pub and had a couple replicas of the local beer. They took the edge off it being 9 AM London time and 4 AM North Carolina time. The several hours we spent there passed quickly as did the flight to Athens. I dozed off and woke up a few moments later with a tray of Indian food in front of me. It wasn't India Palace. It wasn't even good but it was better than the usual airline food. Andrea had seafood for every flight, mostly poached salmon and shrimp. Amarandi slept through all her meals and picked at them when she woke up though she was not really interested. Outside it was cloudy until we flew south of Thessaloniki. After that we could see the islands of Skiathos, Skopelos, Alonissos and Skyros and then flew right over Athens before heading out past Aegina and making our turn and landing. It was a great feeling especially for me since I had the window seat.

Once we arrived things seemed normal if not a little stressful. We went through immigration, the baggage carousel, and customs in record time and had a very nice taxi driver named George Kokotas, who had been kicking himself for giving up his life in the Bronx to come back to Greece. There were no jobs in Greece. He was a tool maker and felt that it was too late to go back to America and start over again. I told him that it was never too late and that in the United States people change careers at all ages and stages of life. We took his card for future taxi use and to give to Andrea's mother in case she wanted to take a 300 kilometer taxi ride to the village of Agrinion where her ex-boyfriend lives.

We found Andrea's friend Mary's apartment which is right next to To Cafeneon, where I knew I would be spending most of my time. We had dinner with Andrea's friends Niko and Carolina who invited us for a cruise on their caique to the tiny island of Angistri, but I had to turn down the invitation to avoid being at Captain Niko's mercy on the high seas. After a couple ouzos at the cafeneon I took a few sedatives I had left over from the plane. They didn't really put me to sleep but they made me not mind that Amarandi was wide awake, talking and playing games with herself for most of the night. I tried to put her in with Andrea and Mary and even lay down next to her. There were four of us fitting comfortably in Mary's bed and I was hoping that Amarandi would fall asleep quickly and then Mary, Andrea and I could have wild sex together. However, I had no idea of how I could get the ball rolling or how we could ever all deal with it the next morning and so had to be satisfied with my fantasies, occasionally broken by Amarandi's little songs.

Andrea coaxes me awake at about eleven with some high-test espresso from Judges Cafe that we had brought with us from Chapel Hill to get us through the first few days. We meet my friend Dorian at Thission train station and I have a frappe and an ouzo with him while we talk for several hours. Dorian has been living in Greece for the last twenty years, teaching English and playing guitar. Greece has frustrated him. He's got a doctorate in literature but no connections. Greece is the land of connections. It doesn't matter how good you are but whom you know. Some of the best minds in the country are waiting tables or shooting heroin in frustration. Dorian is broke. He's been teaching the past year at one of the "American Universities," but they don't have any money to pay him. It's not really a University nor is it American. Someone rents a building, hires a few teachers and calls it a college. The one Dorian works at has a very nice building on Amalias street. The large sign above the door looks as if it says, "STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK." It appears very impressive until you look closer and realize that what it really says is "Transfer Credits Accepted at STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK At New Paltz." My Greek friends have a word for it. They call it mymou. It means monkey or more precisely "monkey-see, monkey-do," but in a half-assed, inefficient way that doesn't fool anybody. Dorian has been living a mymou existence. He knows he was capable of great things but has been winging it. Now he's afraid. Life is getting more difficult for people on the outside looking in. Life in Athens is getting more expensive and money scarce. He leaves and I watch him get on his beat up old motorbike.

I wander around Ermou street where they have abolished automobile traffic to create a pedestrian center, what they have labeled "A Shoppers Paradise." It's more of a construction site than paradise but I can see the potential here. In a year it will look like a mall, with a Gap, a Disney Store, a GNC and maybe a food court with Chinese food and burritos. They've already got the McDonald's in place where Ermou meets Syntagma square, but for now the area is still Greek and that includes the occasional motorbike whizzing by on this so-called pedestrian street.

After I come back to the apartment to get the girls, we walk most of the way to Kypseli before taking a trolley, for dinner with Poppie and Amarandi, Andrea's ninety year old spinster aunts and our daughters' namesakes. At dinner, our little Amarandi is terrible. She screams and cries and finally I take her back to the park at Fokionos Negri, another cafe lined street closed to automobiles, where we had seen some children playing earlier while we were wandering around unsuccessfully looking for a Greek restaurant among the fast-food joints. The children have all gone, perhaps home to await the delivery from Pizza Hut which seems to be doing a brisk business. Its drivers are on motorcycles racing up and down the pedestrian street.

We decide to go surprise Dorian at home, which is nearby. On the way there we stop to look at a pet monkey, belonging to the owner of a kiosk, a tremendously fat man who leans back on a chair that looks as if it is on its last legs. The monkey is tied to a tree. First it jumps on to Andrea's bag and tries to get into it. Then it leaps on Amarandi's stroller and gets stuck in the netting while she screams in terror. I grab the monkey and try to disengage it, expecting my first painful monkey bite and perhaps a trip to the hospital for rabies shots. Despite the danger I find myself instinctively going through the motions of protecting my daughter, just like a real father. It does bite me but luckily he was an old monkey and all I feel are soft gums and monkey spit. Amarandi has no further interest in the creature and we move on. We run into Dorian coming out of his building and sit in a cafe in the park across the street while he spends the entire visit trying to persuade us to come upstairs and enjoy the view of the park from his balcony.

"But we are in the park. Why should we sit above it and look at it?" I wonder aloud. It illustrates the difference between Dorian and me. I prefer to immerse myself in a scene while he would rather sit above it like a benevolent God. In the end we concede but only after he coaxes us upstairs by promising to show us his photos of the monasteries of Meteora and the month he spent studying with the Di Lai Lama in Tibet. It turned out to be closer to five minutes with the Di Lai Lama and not even him, just some spiritual guy from New York who set himself up as an enlightened Guru. We finally escape and get a taxi back to Plaka and have an ouzo with Nino the Iranian helicopter pilot and waiter, at To Cafeneon. Despite his high level of training he is unable to find a job other than waiting tables or driving a cab. Amarandi has been sleeping since we left Dorian's but by the time we get to bed she has awakened from what to her was a nice nap and is ready for a night of action. Andrea falls asleep and leaves me to stay up listening to my daughter sing and talk to herself for several hours.

June 9th

After wandering through downtown Athens trying to fix the extension speakers to my walkman I go to the flea market to find Nick Nikalau, my friend from high school and currently a junk dealer in Monastiraki. He has his wares laid out on the sidewalk and we greet each other and go to a cafe for a soda. He talks of his problems and how he is going to move with his wife to Romania and also open a shop on Akadamias street. The life of a junk dealer is not what it used to be. Refugees have come from Eastern Europe, along with gypsies and Albanians and the police are starting to crack down, even on the noble professionals. He looks like hell, as if he has been on and off heroin for years which he most likely has. I suggest that he goes back to school. He tells me the ins and outs of being a street merchant. He finds a fortune in garbage bags in Kolonaki, the wealthy section of downtown Athens that sits on the slopes of Mount Lykavittos. He gives me a list of stuff that sells so I can send it from the states and be an international junk dealer. While he is telling me this a fight has broken out between two of the street merchants. There's much yelling and scuffling and I realize that one has been cut while the other holds a knife. Nick explains that this feud has been going on for days. Nobody is sure how it actually started but tensions have been escalating. The other merchants are afraid the police will use it as an excuse to clear the streets and close down the whole operation.

As I'm getting ready to leave we spy Dorian crouched down looking at some old books on the sidewalk. He doesn't even say hi when he sees us but goes straight into a dialogue about how he has been teaching for 5 hours straight, going into detail about the walls in the classroom, the blank faces of the students and whatever appears in his suffering mind. I should go back and meet up with Andrea, but I ask him if he wants to go to a nearby cafeneon and have a drink and talk. He seems as if he needs it. He'd like to but first has to look in a bookstore or two. His apartment is piled high with cheap novels and there are several he must have for his collection. Rumor has it that a truckload of cheap novels had been hijacked on the national road and some of them are sure to turn up here in the flea market at one of the notorious second-hand bookstores. We walk into one of the nearby shops. It's more of a shack than a store with books piled up everywhere like a book dungeon. People wander the aisles in a daze sometimes knocking books that have been perched precariously on overcrowded shelves to the floor where they are trampled and left for days. There are many books in English, but almost all of it is garbage. Dorian notices my distaste and points me towards another bookstore around the corner because of my interest in Byzantine icons. I've been shopping enough with Andrea to know he wants to get rid of me so he can browse in peace so I go check it out. Sure enough they have a few icons on wood done in the style that I had been making in America, except these look as if the "artist" didn't put much care or effort into them. They are just prints haphazardly glued on wood and I wonder about his commitment to this art form or to Orthodoxy itself. When I try to buy a book about the churches of Santorini so I can use some of the images for my own icons, the owner refuses to sell it to me even though he has several copies around the shop. Is he a psychic? When I try to buy a postcard of one of his icons he won't sell me that either and tells me I have to buy the awful icon he had made from it. How does this guy know I make Icons? There is no way on earth that he could and yet he refuses to sell me any of the books or prints that I can use. As for buying his icons, they are lousy and I don't want to encourage him by buying one, even if I am doing it just to use the image myself. I become irritated and walk out. Now I can understand the reasoning behind the Iconoclasts when they outlawed these holy images. It's a cutthroat business. He was suspicious of me and I angry at him and what are we fighting about? Holy Icons of Jesus and the Madonna. It's the equivalent of American parents fighting over the toy-store's last Barbie at Christmas. When I return to Dorian I tell him I've had enough and I'm leaving. He barely acknowledges me, lost in a trance in his trashy cheap novel paradise.

Of course when I get back to the Plaka I can't find Andrea so I go to Kostis' restaurant on the platia to eat. The waiter tells me I had just missed her and Amarandi. They have gone to feed the ducks and the perverts in the King's Gardens. Should I go find them and risk starvation? I eat a nice lunch of lettuce salad, and sadziki. I read the Athens News for dessert. They'll certainly find me here if I wait long enough.

I spend the rest of the afternoon packing for the islands and taking Amarandi for a walk through the Plaka so Andrea can pack without being distracted by us. Amarandi seems to love it here. She is entertained by her surroundings, and though she occasionally asks to see the Little Mermaid, she seems to have been weaned of television. When she walks down the street people stop and smile. Some approach and speak to her in Greek. I have her in a backpack made for carrying children and people seem amused by it. I think they like the fact that they don't have to bend over to pinch her cheek. It's not often they get to communicate with a child at eye level while standing up and they realize it's a novelty.

We have a night on the town with Corinne at To Cafeneon. We drink plenty of ouzo and are serenaded by some of the best and worst street musicians in Europe. My favorite is an Albanian folk singer who does a great cover of Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called To Say I Love You" in perfect incomprehensible English. It is my dream to record an album of him singing these favorites and then advertising it on late night TV along with Slim Whitman and Boxcar Willie. He's been playing in the Plaka for many years now and has made a career out of it. Sometimes I don't see him for weeks and I wonder if he has been rounded up during a sweep of illegal immigrants or is he vacationing in Mykonos with his earnings?

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Athens Survival Guide

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