How well do you know the city you live in?

Yesterday, I spent my day roaming around the city with my good friend M., as we tried to rediscover the city’s neighborhoods for a new project we’re preparing.

“You think we’ll find anything decent in Plaka? It’s just so touristy,” I said to my friend as we exited the metro. We were in one of the most touristic areas in Athens and one I’ve been dozens of times before. The old square we met was filled with people strolling and gazing at the small shops of the nearby flea market. A girl with pink ray-bans was trying to take a picture of herself and her boyfriend.  She couldn’t get a good shot because she was giggling all the time.

“I don’t know. I hope so,” was the answer by M.

It was a glorious day, full of sunshine with the scent of bitter orange tree blossoms filling the air. I wondered: Are cities like people? Can one live in (with) one for years and never know its real character, its secret places? 

I had my notebook out with a pen hanging from the spiral. As we walked, we observed and took notes. Walking up steep Dioskouron street and turning right in narrow Thrasivoulou street, a new world appears before our eyes. We stop to catch our breath and look down at the amazing view of the small houses, the Roman Agora and the old Ottoman mosque. The hustle and bustle of the city is gone and the alley is so quiet, we feel we might be the first people to have ever been there. We’re not, of course.

In a city as old as Athens, every inch of land, every cobble has been stepped on by millions of people. Some of them wore togas, some army uniforms, some plain clothes and some – more recently – sneakers. Of course, how does one keep up with the changes of a city? One never really has time to wander aimlessly around his city, does we? We’re always going somewhere.

Following the road that takes you around the Acropolis Hill and into Koukaki, another neighborhood clustered at the feet of Athens’ main tourist attraction, we chat with local shop owners and try some produce in a delicatessen. “If they hadn’t told me to come here, I would have never bothered,” said M. while devouring a fresh sandwich with veggies and goats cheese.

I didn’t know that, if you made the effort, people would be so eager to start up a conversation, to explain what they were selling, to comment on the social impact of austerity. Athenians are so talkative. Then I realize, it is me who never had time to talk to anyone, rushing to work and back again. Sitting on the marble staircase of an art-deco house, I jot down some information about the neighborhood and look around at the people walking up and down the street.

Housewives carrying their supermarket bags, youngsters with headphones on, pensioners sipping their coffee at the local cafe, immigrants gathering around one of the few remaining card phone booths in the city. Athens has been changed before my eyes and I hadn’t noticed anything. It’s sweeter, harder, more open, more curious, less innocent, more tourist friendly, less pram friendly (all these poor young mothers having to step down from the pavement with their pram because of the illegally parked cars), a bit cheaper, more extreme.

Four hours later, my notebook is full of names, addresses, impressions, corrections, exclamation marks. “Well, I didn’t expect that. Old Athens can still surprise me,” I mutter.


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