NEWS

My multiethnic neighborhood in Athens

The Siddique Akbar mosque is on Polymittou Street, very close to where I live. On my way home from work I often see Muslims from my neighborhood gathering there to pray shortly before dusk. A bit further along, opposite the greengrocer’s, black women dressed in their best sit on the steps outside the Sierra Leone Women’s Association, chatting or talking on their mobile phones. It’s time for me to do my shopping in my multiethnic neighborhood, which in addition to branches of the Vassilopoulos, Sklavenitis, My Market and Dia supermarkets also has Polish, African, Indian, Arabic and Asian stores. That’s what it means to live in Patissia, especially in Amerikis Square. I buy curry powder, cumin and coriander with the intention of cooking an African specialty. The mangoes sold by the Pakistani at the Halal Food Market look just right for our afternoon fruit salad. «But nobody speaks Greek there!» some complain of the neighborhood where I live. I walk around its streets for hours with my daughter every weekend, getting to know every corner and every aroma. Near the end of Michail Nomikou Street, I’ve spotted a house from which the fragrance of curry emanates most afternoons. In the multiethnic playground, my daughter has made friends with a girl from Syria and a boy from Poland, and I’m pleased about that. Even in moments when I recall how it used to be in this area – which I adore because I was born and raised here – I have no intention of leaving. Outside the 8th Junior High School, groups of young Albanians with punk hairstyles hang out listening to MP3 players, while the local Russian gangster parks his Mercedes near the sleazy bar not far from my place. When I think that my daughter will probably go to the local primary school and junior high, will spend her adolescence here, and that her friends will be foreigners, despite a certain anxiety I find myself reaffirming my decision to stay. Not that I’d refuse if someone offered me a house in a cleaner, greener, quieter neighborhood. For the moment there are no other options, and the odd thing is that it doesn’t bother me. On the contrary, I enjoy it. Even when I encounter the kind of comments I hear from time to time: «Do you still live here? Aren’t you afraid?» «All these foreigners give you suspicious looks; be careful, they hate us.» In the past, on hearing such remarks I was ready to argue or to start lauding the hidden virtues and history of Patissia. But now, realizing how few will understand me, I just look away and daydream. Luckily there are some alternative types, mainly artists, who have said to me from time to time: «I feel like I’m in London; it’s lovely walking around and seeing people of all ethnicities.» Indeed. Winter evenings are a bit more difficult. That’s when it’s my turn to feel melancholy. The girl upstairs plays Strauss waltzes on the piano, which bring back childhood memories of Patissia. Clasping my father’s hand, I entered one of the old mansions in the area, like those that Grigorios Xenopoulos describes in his novels. All the atmosphere of the district imprinted itself on me as I hid in my pockets the wrappings from the chocolates the gentleman of the house had given me. I was lucky then to experience the afterglow of bygone times. Now I’m lucky to live in one of the city’s liveliest neighborhoods. For some strange reason, I’m convinced that the new face of Athens is coming to life here. Why shouldn’t I be one of the first to see it?