Idylls of Athens

We lived in Athens for nearly three years, my daughter and I. She was only three years and a few months old, when we arrived there, and just short of kindergarten when we left. This is the place that she remembers clearly as a child. I was assigned to the base at Hellenikon, which was merely an acre-wide strip between Vouligmeni Boulevard, and the airport flight line, wedged in between a similar strip which was a Greek Air Force facility, and a couple of blocks of warehouse and semi-industrial facilities of the sort which cluster in the vicinity of busy urban airports. Once – at the end of WWII, or so I was told by people who remembered that far back – the airfield had been away out in hell and gone in the wild and rolling scrub-brush country, south of the city. One very elderly American retiree recalled that the airfield was so far from the city that he was advised to carry a pistol for self-defense purposes, when he had reason to venture out that far from the American Embassy.

By the early 1980s – when I lived there – suburban sprawl had overtaken the airfield and spread a good way down the coast of the Attic peninsula. It made a long, skinny district of neighborhoods that melted indistinguishably into one another, just like Los Angeles. And like Los Angeles, wedged between the coast and a steep line of mountains that made a wall and backdrop, as well as a catchment-basin for smog. Sourmena, Argyoupoli, Glyphada, Ano Glyphada, Voula and Varkiza; each had their own weekly market, their own character, although most of their building stock was pretty much of a muchness: low-rise apartment blocks with balconies big enough to be an outdoor room, three and four stories tall with a patch of garden and some trees around them. Many of those on the main streets had shops on the ground floor, but there were still a few single-story houses, and a few remaining farmholds in the neighborhood where we lived: Ano Glyphada, on the corner of Delphon and Knoussou Streets. When we lived there, there was still a shepherd in my neighborhood who took his sheep through the street to the un-built on uplands a few blocks away. My neighbor Penny, an Englishwoman married to a retired Greek CPA told me that when she and her family had first moved to the area, there were hardly any modern buildings at all, and consequently a great many more little farmsteads, with flocks of sheep pattering along roads that were still mostly unpaved, on their way to graze in the hills, just as they had done for centuries.

Athens was also very like Los Angeles in that the greater part of it had been built after WWII: practically everything outside the historic core was ugly, concrete modern blocks and a network of streets as straight as if they had been mapped out with a ruler and compass – as of course, they had. I liked living there very much, though; I had a flat on the second floor (first floor to Europeans) with a narrow balcony all the way around, and a view over the roofs of the houses opposite and downhill all the way out to the Saronic Gulf and the island of Aegina. If I went to the end of the balcony and stood on my tip-toes I could just barely see Piraeus and the ships lying at anchor there.

On my days off, I would leave my car parked on base, and my daughter and I would catch a city bus and go downtown – to wander through the Zappion Park, or cut across into the Plaka – the old historic part of Athens huddled around the hill of the Acropolus. There was Syntagma Square – with the bulk of the Hotel Grand Bretagne looming over it, and any number of interesting and charming side streets leading off of it; all the places that show up in the news stories of riots and smashing of shops and offices. I wonder if any of the burnt-out places are the places that I used to go to, along Mitropolou – there were some lovely fabric stores along there; all the shops of one type clustered together, and the next street over would be a cluster of shops specializing in something else. One little street featured shops selling automobile accessories; a window full of nothing but reflectors and lenses of every shape.

My neighbor Penny and I exchanged letters for years after I left: Penny telling me how the neighborhood had gradually filled in. Where there had been empty lots, now there were apartment blocks. Where there had been single houses and a garden, now it was all houses. Even apartment blocks had another couple of stories added to them. There was an extensive subway system installed, which was supposed to make it easier to reach downtown from Glyphada and the outlying suburbs. The old Hellenikon base sat empty for decades, until they built the facility for the Olympics; one old NCO who I served with had married a Greek girl and retired there. He posted about going to the Olympic events, saying that no one who had ever served there would recognize the place. Which was information that I received with mixed emotions: I loved living in Greece, was indifferent to the base, and he himself was a rather difficult person to work for, but still …

I can see, in the pictures in my album, and in my memory, the places that I frequented and liked: the bakery at the top of Delphon, the other at the bottom where there was an intersection called ‘Five Corners’; there was a taxi-stand by the kaffinon and bakery where I could walk down and find a taxi at any time of day or night, the Athina-grocery where I bought yoghurt by the quart and great chunks of feta cheese, dripping with brine as it was fished up from a barrel, the construction-site which was for a new elementary school – our first two cats came from there, tiny kittens dumped among the construction debris.

I remember how the neighborhood always emptied out, around Easter, and during August – because most everyone had kept a foot in the old village where they had come from: their parents’ or their grandparent’s house. I had the impression from acquaintanceships and friendships that many modern Greeks of my age or a little older lived in ‘the city’ by choice – but their true heart-home was in the village of their fathers and grandfathers. Where there had been no jobs, after WWII, and very few modern conveniences and luxuries such as were available in suburban Athens … but the old house and the garden and acres that went with it were kept as a holiday and weekend home. I think of my friends that I had, and the neighborhood where I lived in the early 80s – and wonder how many of the downtown shop premises that I knew are burnt out today – and how many of the people that I knew and lived among, are now heading back to their home village to wait out the bad times in store.

7 thoughts on “Idylls of Athens”

  1. Charming photo and post. Evocative.

    Back in the olden days of blogging, like 2002 or something, I remember reading fiction blogs that would scare up a quote, or post up a photo, and then ask the readers for bit of microfiction or something.

    At least, I think I remember those 50 word short short story “contests.” The olden days of blogging are so long ago….


    – Madhu

    PS: I love, love, love diaries and memoirs and “I was there and this is what I saw….”

  2. Well, maybe charming is not the correct word to use for the last few worrying sentences. I hope the people you knew are okay.

    – Madhu

  3. It sounds like you remember your Greek past with some melancholy – like my going back to Germany 20 years after I was stationed there. The town, Landstuhl – in the Saar region – was a charming little town that the war had bypassed – they had a little movie theater in the center where I watched Gone With the Wind – in German.

    You haven’t lived until seeing Rhett tell Scarlett “Auf Wiedersehn!”

    I went back in 1992 and the town had Pizza Huts , used car lots, and video rental stores.

    It served many servicemen from Ramstein AFB and the US Army Hospital, which had grown like a weed in my absence.

    Sometimes it is best just to hold on to the memories…

    As the philosopher said “You can never go back home”

  4. @Madhu –

    “Olden Days Of Blogging”? ;-) I keep looking back to DOS and CP/M BBS’s – where you’d have to wait for someone else to clear the phone line before you could get in ;-)

    This blogging stuff is pretty new to me! And I am realizing that it is becoming a powerful force for shaping world opinion.

    Sgt – did you spend any time just sitting in Constitution Square sipping Ouzo? Great stuff but a little went a long way.

    The way I saw Greece – the Army needed “observers” at Nike-Hercules missile test firings (done on Crete) so I flew in with a battery on a C130 – 8 hours from Frankfurt to Crete – my teeth were still rattling 24 hours later – Hania is a sleepy little town – dark blue water – I went swimming in the ocean at the NATO resort area in Hania – was enjoying the warm blue water when – to put it as delicately as possible – I saw evidence that this was the end line for the town’s sewage ;-)

    Needless to say the water didn’t look so inviting after that.

  5. Ah, the olden, golden days of blogging, when we didn’t need spam filters, hardly anyone requested registering to post a comment, and practically everyone on Instapundit’s blog-roll knew each other via email. Sigh..
    I never had time to sit in Constitution Square, sipping ouzo … I was a busy single mother with a very active and fearless three-year old.
    I was … um … aware of certain shortcomings, regarding public sanitation on the Greek beaches – it’s why we never, ever, went to the beach on the Athens side of the Attic peninsula. If all the trash on the beach wasn’t a clue – and a lot of it was sea-borne trash,washed up from ships – it was the warnings in the Greek English-language papers about the bacteria count being too high for public swimming, so many kilometers on either side of some dinky little town’s main sewer outfall.
    We went over the mountains, to Marathon or Nea Makri on the opposite side. There was a lovely beach just south of Marathon,where the beach was hard-packed sand, and went out in a gentle slope so very gradually that it was like a kid’s wading pool. My daughter would have had to go for about half a mile to get in over her head!

  6. You took me back to a time in my life that I loved. I wonder if we knew each other back then. We were stationed at Hellinikon from 1984 until 1987 with the 2140th Comm Sq.

  7. Hi, Judy! We might have passed each other, at the post office, or at the Apollon Palace! I was working when most everyone was off duty, and off-duty when most people were working, so I really only knew the other staff at the radio station … or the parents of my daughter’s friends!

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