How I fell in love with Athens

A story from my youth: Greek coffee, Athens News, spoon sweets, kamaki, suicide and freedom

I took a deep breath and inhaled the Athens smog feeling rather high. Finally, here I was alone in this beautiful city where I’d come to make my home – and I just breathed it in.

How ignorant I was to believe that I could trap ‘freedom’ in my nostrils.

Silly 21-year-old me. How can freedom even remotely smell like Greek 1990s smog?

I remember holding it so deep inside me that it felt almost erotic. As though I was beckoning liberty to be trapped in my womb, like a love child.

It was the first time I felt so free – unequivocally so. Up until then, I had only philosophised as to the meaning of freedom and read about it in books.

“Zorba!” I thought, visualising Anthony Quinn’s staggering syrtaki steps. Indeed, Nikos Kazantzakis’ lascivious figure became so popular that Greeks gladly adopted the persona of tzatziki-eating, freedom-loving, plate-breaking puppets. This is how the world wanted Greeks to be and how Greeks wished to see themselves – passionate people with a ravenous appetite for earthly pleasures.

These are the people I expected to find in this place, one of my many homelands.

And I hoped to eventually become part of the pulsating madness of this city. To be swallowed by the mayhem of the madding crowd. Or as Kazantzakis, using Zorba’s voice, had said, “You have everything but one thing: madness. A man needs a little madness or else – he never dares cut the rope and be free.”

So here I was, an eager “Zorbina”, knife intact, ready to sever the rope. Let freedom take me where it would even if this were to bring crushing defeat.

READ MORE: Athens suburbia: Return to Nea Smyrni, a neighbourhood gem in Greece

Greek coffee

And as I sat at Papaspyrou at Syntagma Square, I read through the classified advertisements of the Athens News (just before the Lambrakis Organisation acquired it, and where I would later come to work), and I ordered a coffee, traditional to match the vibe.

“Turkish coffee,” I ordered.

“We call it Greek,” the waiter corrected me. “Greek coffee!”

“OK then, Greek coffee,” I said, certain that it would not change the taste.

It was not a coffee I usually drank, but I thought I’d pick it up as part of the new Athens version of myself.

The coffee aroma was powerful, as vivid as the smog I’d just been enjoying.

The taste, though, was quite the contrary.

“Is something wrong, miss?” asked the Hesitant Waiter, responding to my evident squint of distaste.

“No,” I said. The truth is, it tasted like mud to me.

“Perhaps Greek coffee is an acquired taste,” I thought. “Something like vegemite.”

That was thirty years ago, and I still haven’t been successful in acquiring a fondness for either.

So there I was, naively sitting, with my English printed newspaper and Nikon camera buckled onto my belt bellowing, “Tourist!” when I met my first Greek villain, Babis (for want of a better name).

“Dardana!” he whispered in a husky Barry White voice. “Amazona mou!”

Naturally Babis thought of himself as quite the stud. His favourite pastime was of course what was then known as “kamaki”, the Greek word for “harpooning”. It was the local sport two or three decades ago before the new “sensitive” role model of the ideal male started gaining ground.
Babis was one of a dying breed in Greece and he knew it.

“No wonder Greek tourism is falling,” he’d complain. “The younger generation are wussies. No longer showing tourist wenches a good time.”

Babis, of course, was doing his bit to keep tourism’s soil fertile with his radar crotch always on alert.

READ MORE: Athens defies curfews: conjuring the days of Papathemelis during the global pandemic

Spoon sweets

Dressed the part required for a Greek “kamaki” – he was short with a furry chest showcased beneath his unbuttoned shirt, a thick gold chain hanging around his neck and too-tight trousers thinly veiling his virility that screams promises of steamy one-night stands, enough to accommodate even the most depraved Scandinavian tourist.

In one foul and agile swoop, he scratches his crotch, spits his hands and runs them through his greasy hair while preparing for action.

I looked surprise as the Hesitant Waiter placed a vanilla submarine spoon sweet beside me.

“This is a kerasma,” he said pointing to Babis.

Our eyes locked. I smiled awkwardly and mouthed my thanks.

That was invitation enough for Babis.

Truth be told, I could have given him the flick. I was smart enough to sense that his motives were not respectable. But lucky for Babis, I was in the mood for rollicking in the mud – drinking it as well as socialising with it.

All my life, I had a circle of friends that were mirror images of myself. The time had come to crack the mirror.

“This sweet is a submarine,” said Babis in a voice dripping with innuendos. “See the spoon, it’s like a submarine under water. You are supposed to suck on it. You may find this sucking pleasing.”

“I am Greek,” I said in Greek, seeing the disappointment flicker in his eyes.

“You don’t look Greek! I thought you were Spanish. You have a wild look about you – like a flamenco-dancing gypsy.”

Wow! “Μας φλόμωσε στα ψέματα,” must have been my first Greek thought.

And despite the innuendos and shameless kamaki under the scorching sun, these were innocent times at Papaspyrou, a cafe that no longer exists on Syntagma Square, at the foot of Parliament house where the evzones stand guard in their traditional costumes protecting the tomb of the unknown soldier.

Nearby is another tomb of sorts, the “suicide tree” where that old pensioner shot himself – much later – outside the Athens Metro on 4 April, 2012, protesting against the socialist PASOK government’s pension slashes, just one drop in a flood of suicides seen by the people as a “cry for dignity”.

Dignity, of course, never came.

Just layers of poison tear gas and pain. But underneath it all, there is still the lingering memory of fragrant neranjia trees that blossomed when tourist cafes lined the square back at a time when I drank my muddy Greek coffee – my first.

It was a lifestyle I fell in love with. Unfortunately, it fell under siege, replaced by McDonalds, Everest, Public and those overpriced trendy cafes around the fountain. There was no Metro, but like today, people would meet at the steps off Panepistimiou Street. The state post office at the corner of Filellinon and Mitropoleos streets had not been renovated and the smoking ban had not been implemented – not even in a semi-sort of half-arsed way as is the case today.

How I miss that city of stale smoke, jasmine, neranjia and Greek coffee priced at 200 drachmas, two thirds of a euro, and a brand of Greek freedom that lingers in our hearts but no longer exists. And neither do the Athens News, PASOK party, Papaspyrou and tacky Greek kamaki.