The Athens Riots of May 5

Trip Start Jan 14, 2010
Trip End Sep 02, 2010

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Flag of Greece  , Attica,
Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The church bells woke me this morning and they didn't sound as pleasant as they did the day before. I think I might have overdone it last night.  Still the day awaits and I want to go to several places today before it gets too warm.  Transportation is on strike, so I have a long walk ahead of me.

I didn’t make it too far before I saw the crowds and demonstrators all around.  At 9:30am there were scattered groups and it was obvious people were setting up for a big rally of some sort.  I decided to scrap my plans – especially when I was told that all the museums and the Acropolis were shut down – and had a breakfast at a café that seemed to be in the center of things.  People were energized and everyone was talking feverishly.  The demographics were spread all over the map – parents with kids in tow – elderly men with walking canes – college age kids and lots of regular folks – the 40somethings.  In the course of an hour the crowd went from light to medium and in 30 minutes after that the streets were swarmed for blocks.  The usually traffic jammed Athina Street was packed with people – groups and groups – hoisting banners, wearing the colors of their affiliation (unions? Political parties?).  An obvious anti-American/anti-Capitalism sentiment was in the air, so I kept my mouth shut, my sunglasses on and looked angry just like everyone else. All the shops in the area were closed and shuddered. The sea of people became thick as pea soup by noon and the loud speakers were screaming slogans, appeals and John Lennon music.

At about 12:30pm I decided to head back towards homebase.  The crowd was thick enough and there was an edge to it – like a powder keg looking for a match.  Time to get a little distance.  I tried navigating through the crowd, but gave up – I headed over two blocks and pointed myself towards home.  Within a few blocks things began to look normal and by the time I was back at my little piazza you couldn’t tell a thing was different.  I kinda feel like a wimp, but I’m tuckered out from my late night last night and I need a nap.

At about 2pm I heard the protestors pass through the adjacent plaza – the pounding of a snare drum kept them in beat – they quickly passed.  I briefly thought about going down to catch up with them, but my sleepy eyes wouldn’t go along with that plan.  I dozed off.

My nap was cut short when about 3pm I heard what sounded to my naïve mind as gun fire followed closely by some really loud booms.  Looking out my window I could see black smoke plume up in the air not more than a mile away.  I could hear sirens and screaming, loud speakers and more things getting blown up.  Curiosity got the best of me.  I grabbed my camera, purse with money and passport and my friendly bandana cuz where there’s kabooms, there is usually smoke.  And where there are riots, there is usually tear gas.

My neighborhood seemed uninterested in what was happening.  It was like no one knew about the riot.  I did my best to go towards where I saw the smoke but at that point the sky was mostly blocked by tall buildings.  I was in a section of the city that I had not been in before – but my navigation point – the Acropolis, kept me moving in what I thot to be the right direction.  I looked down one wide avenue and saw smoke.  I had come to one of the main arteries of the city – Leof Vasillssis Amalis – near the temple of Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch.  The first bit of carnage that I saw was two bombed out cars, still hot and smoking.  Moving around the corner things became worse.  A huge fire truck was set on fire as was a police bus.  Windows were shattered all along the avenue.  The air reeked of some terrible smell that quickly tickled my throat and made my eyes water – tear gas.  That plus the acrid smell of burning paint, fuel and rubber made me pull my bandana over my nose.  Several small fires were ignored by the firemen as they tried to contain the bigger blazes.  A large bank – probably 6 stories tall – was set aflame and dozens of firemen were in the building attempting to bring it under control – it is believed that three people were killed in that blaze.  A burned out journalism van was down the road a bit from there – all glass exploded and the back doors were wide open – charred wire and cameras and other things in the back like a surreal movie set. 

All the while no authorities made any attempt to control the onlookers or the crowd that was forming.  As police in riot gear passed, some yelled at them, calling them what I believe to be "Theives".  Tourists and locals were posing in front of burned out vehicles to get their picture taken.  People were everywhere.  Meanwhile some shopkeepers were already scooping up broken glass and boarding up windows.  They have a big job ahead of them.

The initial reports say that “tens of thousands took to the streets of Athens” and I believe them.  I’m glad that I didn’t hang out with the demonstrations or the march.  And I don’t think this situation is settled yet.  Greeks are mad as hell and they aren’t going to take it anymore…

I got back to the hotel without even a glance at a map, which is good because in my haste I grabbed a hotel brochure and not my map.  Athens, fortunately, is pretty easy to navigate.  Five o’clock in Greece is pretty darn early on the west coast, but I wanted to send a few of my friends and my daughter a text message that I was fine – just in case they woke up to hear about the riot – just in case someone out there worried about me.  Then I found an internet connection and sent them a real message – and checked up on what the news was.  It’s ugly.

Now I’m going to take a well deserved shower and dress for dinner at 8 with my new buddy the Buddhist.  Boy was he right.  And I’m kinda thankful that he kept me out till 2am – otherwise I might have had the energy and bravado to follow the crowd all day.

Hopefully the airport will be open tomorrow and I will make my way to Corfu.  I am really looking forward to some serious time on a sandy beach with a tropical drink in my hand.

A shower, fresh clothes and a glass of wine do wonders for your outlook on life.  Still, it was strange to go from what looked like a war scene to a table at a chi-chi bar in less than 2 hours.  Right on time, my gentleman du jour picked me up at 8 and we set off for dinner.  He promised it would be a rare Greek gastronomical experience.

As I told him of my adventures for the day he acted as if I was making up a wild story.  He kept repeating in his charming east coast accent “This is bad, very bad”.  When I got to the part about 3 people being killed he stopped in his tracks.  He was shocked.  Greeks riot.  They break windows.  They even blow up a few cars, but they do not, have not and should never kill other innocent Greeks.

We walked along slowly, casually, in a direction that I was not familiar with and he told me it was comparable to 5th Avenue in NYC.  That sounded cool.  But, as we looked ahead of us down the narrow lane we saw a line of police in full riot gear bridging the street ahead.  Then we smelt it – tear gas.  It was bad.  We turned and headed back the way we came coughing and sneezing and trying not to touch our eyes.  It was a good 5 or 6 blocks before I could inhale through my nose.  My throat itched and I was uncomfortable – and we were probably ½ mile from where they sprayed.  Twice in one day I had a taste of tear gas and that is probably enough for a whole trip.

Plan B.  My friend suggested that we head away from the area – to the Gysis area via the Metro.  But the Metro was closed.  “This is bad” he said.  A strike may last for several hours, but not this long.  Plan C was to check out something very local.

The streets were nearly deserted and the restaurants that were open had few, if any, customers.  It was dismal.  I felt badly for all the people who would be hurt or put out of business because of this.  Tourism certainly will be off this season – which for them is just starting – and many are already on the brink.

We came to a small bistro where my friend knew the staff quite well.  We were the only customers at 9pm.  The food was good, the wine was fresh and the company the highlight.  This is one fascinating guy – he has lived a good life and lived it well, and he’s got lots of stories and opinions. He apologized for the restaurant, but no apology was needed, I was happy.

After dinner we wandered through more of the thousands of little ally ways and small streets that are in the shadow of the Acropolis.  The moon was nearly full and between the lights of the Ancient city and the moon, the streets were washed with a blue glow.  The haunting smell of jasmine floated in the air – as did the smell of wet street pavers and trash.  Every city has a smell – unfortunately for me, Athens will always remind me of tear gas.

He lead me to a Taverna owned by his friend Kosta.  I had read about a place in Athens owned by a man named Kosta and wondered if this was the one.  He laughed.  It seems that a significant percentage of people in Athens are named Kosta.

Kosta is a young man – probably mid to late 30’s – and handsome with dark eyes, light chocolate skin and that great black, messy and slightly greasy long hair.  The two men engaged each other in small talk that had a sorrowful tone.  The day had not been a good one for the people of Athens and the ramifications of the riot were only now beginning to sink in for them.  Three were dead – one, according to Kosta – was a young pregnant woman.  This does not happen in Athens.  The attack was also on a Greek bank – it all seemed senseless.

I enjoyed the company of my friend and a couple of glasses of wine while he became a little bleary eyed drinking his “beverage of choice” – a grappa like clear ethanol-esq liquid that he kept chilled down with fresh ice every few minutes.  It had to be 80 proof if it was anything.

We talked the night away and ended up back near my hotel for a final glass of wine at the place where we met – it had become my local pub – I am not sure of the name because the signs were unreadable but to me it looked like “kamikaze” – anyway, you can find it two doors down from Hotel Tempi on Eoulou street – use the Matrassikki Metro exit, and forgive me for butchering the spelling.

As I woke this morning to a glorious day I was grateful that my flight was at Noon.  I had dreaded dragging my suitcase down those 85 stairs for days, but I had made peace with the stairs and actually appreciated the calorie consuming climb.  Still, enough is enough. 

The Metro was open again, the trains, planes, busses and people of Athens were on the move again and although there is damage to repair and lives to put back together and for 3 families, mourning to be done, a new day had come with either hope or despair.  On my way to the airport the look of the people was decidedly of despair.  I feel a little like I am abandoning them in their time of need, but I have nothing to give them.  It is time for me to go.
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