Athens: Exarchia by night

Exarchia  is the heart of the radical district in Athens.  With the occupation on the corner and the polytechnic just down the road, its quite a little hub.  For many years it has been the centre of the antagonistic movement of Greece and it was here that Alexis Grigoropoulous was murdered in 2008 sparking disturbances that lasted several weeks.  Exarchia Square at night is just something else.    Though the day, cafes line the square giving it a busy and fairly affluent atmosphere.  People come to the square to sit, to meet people , chat and play basketball.  By midnight, most of the cafes are closed, but the square lives on.   Going to the square late at night is a remarkable experience.  A few of the smaller cafes stay open while the street stalls sell beer.  Lots of small groups who all seem to know each other sit in little huddles. Sitting on the edge of the square watching people go by was fascinating.

After sitting for 10 or so minutes a man came over to join me and chat, gradually joining me up with another group and more integrated into the community.  Next to me sat a couple of men from Afghanistan, who had been in Greece for a couple of years.  I mentioned that I had found that Greek people didn’t like people form other countries very much, and they agreed that this was a big problem.  They found that they didn’t get any hassle for this in the square, but in ordinary life this was a big problem.  Sitting round the corner from our group was a guy sitting on his own.  The bloke who had intially befriended me, beckoned me to come with him as we went and sat beside him.  As we approached he recoiled, and was shaking with his eyes darting about.  He had a head wound that he told us was four days old and a hand in bandages.  Apparently he had been sleeping in a doorway when some people came and beat him, he didn’t remember what happened.  He would relax for periods while we were chatting in English which he spoke very fluently, yet periodically he would become frightened and distracted.  My friend introduced him to another group and suggested that we left them to it and he would introduce me to some other people I should know.

As we walked across the square one of the many stray dogs that roam the area started nipping at my ankles and I froze.  Me and dogs dont really get along.  So long as they are calm and stay out of my way I’m fine, but the minute they bark or show any kind of interest in me, I have a massive paranoia that they see me as dinner.  Seeing my reaction, he stopped and told me that we had to sort that out – that I couldn’t come to Athens for Mayday and be put off by dogs.  The dogs around the square tend to be fairly roughly, but not unkindly, treated by its occupants: they are not above giving them a slap away when they nosy into something they shouldn’t, but at the same time, there is no overt hostility or cruelty to them.  The dogs are wary though of people they dont know, yet within half an hour with his encouragement I was clapping the still hesistant dog, quite an issue of trust for both of us methinks.

Wandering round the square, it appeared that my friend tended to befriend everyone, particularly anyone sat alone, chatting for short periods, disappearing then returning and linking them up with other people, while looking after them until they found their feet.  It was noticable that there were many more men in the square than women, and as the night drew on and more alchol was being consumed, I was becoming less and less confident with the situation.   I asked the only other woman in the group I was with at the time why it was that not so many women came to the square as men, but unfortunately her English wasn’t so good, so we went through an intermediary, who immediately took over the conversation, wondering why I wanted more women in the square.  I felt mildly intimidated at this point, yet not in actual danger, just more wary than I would usually have been with the activity of men: basketball, small skirmishes and demonstrative gestures taking up a great deal of the available space, while people were getting noticably more intoxicated.

My friend then toured me round introducing me to a number of the other inhabitants, all were friendly and keen to chat to me about international politics and keen to hear what the situation was like in the UK, they all appeared well informed about Syria, Palestine, Egypt  and Spain, suggesting people from these countries that I should talk to to find out more.   Several times, to my surprise, it was suggested that the Greeks were politically apathetic and hopes were expressed that more resistance to the measures being imposed would occur.  None were planning to attend the MayDay march the following day, and when asked if they had any plans, they grew vague, suggesting that they would probably just head directly to Syntagma.  Although friendly, the women were clearly wary of men that they didn’t know – taking refuge among those that they did, while the men were more open.  Only one person was openly hostile – a young woman with a number of fresh scars on her back told my friend immediately to fuck off, and despite the others she was with trying to placate her, she was clearly not up for making friends.

My friend then drew me away, leading me to a bar just off the square where he asked to wait while he went to the toilet, while I was waiting, the man next to me started introducing himself to me in broken English, before asking me if I worked for the man who had led me in.  I shook my head just as my friend returned.  He suggested that we got a drink, but a bit freaked at the question that had just been asked, and knowing the prevalence of prostitution in Athens I suggested we leave.  Walking up the main drag, he offered me a cigarette and sat down at a table in a fairly secluded area where I joined him.  He then told me to look over the street, where there was a man standing on the street corner that I recognised from earlier.  I asked him what I was supposed to be looking for and he told me that the man was watching out for me.  That he had seen us leave the square, knew that I was a new face, and had followed us to make sure I was alright. “We look out for one another here” he told me.

We went back to the square, where I said goodbye to my friend and thanked him for his kindness and went to speak to a group of women over at one of the other benches.  I found one who spoke very good English and explained that I was starting to feel wary and wanted the company of women.  She told me that this was the safest place in Athens, all the anarchists came here and they made sure that everyone was alright but that there were other areas where people should really not go alone, even in the daytime.  She started telling me that the areas were full of immigrants, before checking herself and explaining that although she had no problem with them, many of them were violent and the areas were dangerous.  I told her that I had come across a large anti-immigration sentiment in Athens and she replied that although in principle she had nothing against immigration, there were far too coming into the country, the country could not support them and nothing was done to address the issues that they caused when abandoned in overcrowded housing with no jobs or access to social welfare.  She told me this was feeding the fascists and was the cause of the rise of the Golden Dawn who she expected to see gain seats in the forthcoming elections.

By this time it was approaching 6am, there was no point in getting a hotel so I wandered round looking for a place for breakfast.  As I wandered past the back of the polytechnic, I passed by the strip of land between the polytechnic and the museum which also acted as a congregation point although one with a darker character, with open hard drug use and visible violent altercations.  Armed police patrolled the top of the area, while people tended to gather towards the bottom away from their watchful eye.  As I passed, a man shouted at a woman from the other side of the street before crossing.  She tried to run back into the main belt, but the man easily caught up with her, slapping her hard, then dragging her back to the main road, where he flagged down a passing car and pushed her inside.  About 20 people on the strip watched this happen; none of them reacted.







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