Tuesday, 22 September 2009


Steeped in 3500 years of history, the home of culture and the once capital of the Greek Empire, Athens is currently regarded by visitors as a grim city. Un-phased by its status amongst tourist crowds I set out to find life in this place, behind the ill-designed modern apartment blocks and busy streets that provide the ingredients for many tourists’ superficial conclusions. However, I discovered that reputation and reality are distinct for another group of visitors to Athens, whose only antidote to the truth that jobs are guarded tightly for locals, becomes heroin.

I had 24 hours here, financially and transportationally disabled; I was unable to get money from the bank and the bike that I’d used to ride from London to Greece was now hobbling like an old mule after it had provided an ill-advised backy to Clio. My ferry from Poros, a monkey-nut shaped island east off the Pelaponese, arrived at 2pm. The sail was pleasant and I shared the deck with the aunt and uncle of the girl who was the cause of my detour to Greece in the first place. In fact, it was nice to speak with them on a relaxed level, as our last encounter had been at dinner the night before, an event daggered with awkwardness due to Clio’s mother’s distain for my presence and potential corruption of her daughter. The experience was so far beyond comfortable that I had begun to wonder if Clio was a modern mermaid, of the stuff of Homer, whose sirens had led me to an unavoidable death by maternal stare!

The late August sun hid behind the downtown high-rises as I passed a soup kitchen in Athens’ Omonoia district. Known to tourists for its abundance of cheap hotels this area is also infamous to locals for its association with drugs and crime. I was only in town for 24 hours and had been drawn here for the latter of these two reasons to visit; not to engage in drugs or crime but to peer into the cracks of a society that’s keen to paste over such problems, with the aim to find what truth lies behind the city’s touristic veneer.

The scene was of a leafy square, with many benches and fountains. Lots of people were eating as well as queuing to receive meals that were being handed out by volunteers with masks over their mouths. Attending lunch at the kitchen was a varied range of people, young and old, male and female, high and sober. The only similarity between them was that nobody was Greek. Why? After all, no proof of deprivation was required and the food seemed to be good, if a little like an aeroplane meal.

I approached a young man, curly haired and observational, sat with one leg over the other as he stroked his chin. Mohammed was from Tunis. We spoke in French and although this was his mother tongue Greek was easier now as he’d keenly practiced since arriving two years previous. “Mon soeur”, he said, “eat”. As he offered me his food I found it funny to hear him address me as brother, as many N.African people do, just usually in English whilst you’re being sold something. He couldn’t eat the carbonara meal, as A. it had pork in it, B. it was the 3rd day of Ramadan. He’d picked it up to give to someone else and thought I was as suitable a candidate as any. I wasn’t but accepted, not wanting to seem rude.

Mohammed was sitting with friends, also from Tunis and he exchanged greetings with other passers-by. People here were regulars, he told me, and as we spoke more I learnt that there were common stories that could be told by many people eating; of travelling to Greece on a Zodiac, of entering Europe possessing little more than the rumour that there was work, and of their burdening and unwanted relationship with heroin – seemingly the only thing to welcome immigrants once they arrive.

Lunch ended promptly at 5, everyone was ushered out of the park as the clean up began. Mohammed and I continued to talk outside and we were joined by one of his friends, a man who had spent most of the mealtime slumped over his dish. Even now he was high but the relocation had jolted him into life. None of us had anywhere specific to be and an onlooker might have accused us of loitering. “Why are you here?” was the first question Mohammed’s friend asked.

“I don’t really know”, I responded, “a girl invited me and so I came.

“Do you work?” was his second enquiry.

“I don’t have a job.”

“But there’s a lot of work there, or, why don’t you get a job here? You have papers, in fact, you can go anywhere.”

This was true, and a familiar point made by many people I met on my route to Athens, by bike from London. As a British person you can travel anywhere and the accusation made by countless people from Albania and North Africa, that we don’t value our freedom enough, is true also. Yet, it wasn’t the ability to explore but the opportunity of work that fuelled his envy. He shared with me his experience of racism and his belief that his Tunisian and Muslim roots made finding work even harder. Mohammed backed up this talk although his attitude was less resigned than his friend’s. He’d in fact secured an infrequent shift cleaning in a hotel. A perk of the job was a cupboard where he was allowed to keep one or two belongings. He suggested I leave my bag there, lock up my bike and that he show me around.

Our route to Omonoia Square took us past many people doing ‘business’. Mohammed knew these dealers and they all introduced themselves to me. “What can I get you, Mohammed, draw or a tourist?!” one wittily asked. The area was clearly teeming with drugs, to the extent that there seemed to be no escape from the inevitability of buying some. I picked up some weed then bought some juice. After sitting for a while and watching skateboarders, Mohammed and I went to a nearby spot where I could skin up in peace. By now it was dark but the alleyway he’d chosen was lit by a single street lamp. I spotted two women already there, although their practice was obscured to me at first by their position. The younger of the two had her head cocked towards the sky with her shirt splayed whilst the other pierced her chest with a needle and injected the substance. The mixture became red as the syringe retracted and the instrument left her body.

The scene was slightly surreal and I sat on the edge of a plant pot nearby and began to role my joint. By now Mohammed was causing a commotion with the two who clearly weren’t ready to hand over the needle. He sat next to me and began cooking up the brown. I asked him how he was and he said it’d been two days. “Do you think I’m a bad guy?” He asked. I honestly didn’t; in fact, it was strange that seeing him prepare this stuff didn’t make me think anything different about him at all. There was something honest in his habit, as if he was filling the only role that’s laid out to people in his position. “Did you do this in Tunis?” I asked, knowing full well the answer. Of course not, it’s cheap and easy to get hold of here and you don’t need a map to figure out the only direction for many people who had come here from Africa.

Oddly, this alleyway wasn’t very secluded and occasional people wandered through, casting glances and then faces tired of the regularity of the occasion. Syringe wrappers and little UHT milk containers littered the ground. I watched on, whilst the three got on with the job. Then Mohammed sat back down and we joked and continued to share the juice. AIDS crossed my mind but he poured without the carton touching his lips. He reiterated that I shouldn’t be scared anywhere in Athens, that we were friends because we’d shared food together earlier and that he wished he could work to get to Patras, a westerly town in the North Pelaponis.

Mohammed took it upon himself to show me the rest of the city and we made our way to the Acropolis. He bought some Kouleraki, the ubiquitous Greek biscuit, and we shared the bag whilst strolling back through Syntagma Square and up the mountain. He was sensitive to the beautiful view of white lights and we shared the lookout point with others similarly keen to hangout there. The food and the walk called for another joint that we shared. We both agreed that eating and smoking were better social events than drinking, a habit we both abstained from.

Our descent was precarious, down the slippery and uneven marble in the dark and we stopped to take a photo of each other in front of the ancient structure halfway down before making our way back to the neighbourhood had become to feel familiar. Leading off from Omonoia Sq was a precinct. About 20 meters wide at the entrance, lit well and easily accessible from the metro station outside. In fact, we’d walked through here earlier that day but it wasn’t instantly recognisable with the shop shutters down. There was a slight dog-leg halfway down and the extent of how well lit this place was meant that the groups of people milling around, sitting and sleeping weren’t intimidating. However, each person was here for the same reason: to score drugs and do them once they’d picked an available spot in the tunnel.

Mohammed looked at me, “my friend, don’t worry”. I was very stoned and I became struck with a sense of panic, what the fuck was this place? 3 blocks from the central square in a major European city and only a few meters in I’d already passed 15 people shooting up. Mohammed reassured the people he knew there that I was with him and the small group who were queuing to pick up soon lost interest in me. There’s only one thing people come here for and the manor in which each addict was conducting himself or herself, showed it to be a course of conduct, learned only through experience. The scene was shocking, I’d witnessed nothing like this in my life before despite being exposed to heroin addiction via friends. For all I cared it could have been pickled eggs that these people were taking as it wasn’t the heroin that made me shudder, more the desperation, degradation and dependency. The processes were regiment but what differed between each taker was where he or she would inject. Into thighs, faces, necks, forearms, legs. Each would inject and then slump into the ground. I watched Mohammed squirt the blood from his syringe onto the floor and return it to his pocket. I gave some water to his ‘friend’, the guy who’d injected for him, and lent against the wall. Occasionally a foreigner to this scene would wander in but turn back as soon as they read the situation. This wasn’t surprising given the central location, a fact that became more baffling each time I thought about it. There was an official clean-up attempt before the Olympics, of drugs and dogs, however, the prevalence of each today seems to suggest that it was a superficial endeavour and the government had neglected to deal with the root of the problem. As if dealing with it would recognise it. Heroin is any issue everywhere but surely if it’s taken in the faces of councillors then it’s an unavoidable topic that needs sorting out. The visibility of this behaviour only compounds the Greek attitude to immigrants’ worth and the cycle continues. Racism goes on everywhere here, from the street vendor outside whose mean rudeness to Mohammed almost caused me to throw the doughnut I’d bought in his face, to the derogatory reference Mohammed made towards a Chinese man we bought juice from.

We slept on a roundabout until I’d decided enough insects had crawled up my shorts. Mohammed couldn’t sleep either. He suggested we find some friends of his elsewhere but I told him I was going to ride my bike out of the city and pitch my tent.

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