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.