We spotted him walking along the side of Athinon Avenue in the western suburbs of Athens on a Saturday afternoon. He did not appear to be in any hurry, nor bothered by the rush of cars whizzing past him on this major thoroughfare which eventually turns into the Athens-Corinth national highway. There are no sidewalks, or even pedestrians, just Yiannis making his way along the side of the road near the guard rails, smoking a cigarette and carrying a cloth bag. He appeared almost carefree.
“Good afternoon. Are you lost?” we asked him. “No. I’m just taking a walk,” he replied. “I’m looking to see if I’ll find anything, but there’s nothing. People don’t have any money anymore. How will they lose what they don’t have in the first place?” he said.
Yiannis is 55 years old and has been combing the roadsides since he was 42. He had come to Athens at the age of 40 to escape his family back in his home village, who were trying to get him to marry even though he didn’t want to. He remembers exactly when he started scouring the streets. It was the same day Greece won the Euro soccer championship in 2004. Back then he had a cart and would collect scrap metal, among other things, which he would sell. “That day something amazing happened,” he remembered. “As I was plodding along with my cart, I realized that if a banknote flew out of a car, the wind would push it up to the fence, where it would get stuck. And that is exactly where I found a 20-euro note.
“That’s kind of how I started doing this,” he said. That night he went to a taverna in Aspropyrgos. “I watched the game, I ate, I paid,” he said smiling at the memory.
That was back during the “good days.” Once, he said, he found 17 banknotes in a single day. “They must have flown out of the same person’s car, but what could I do? Go up to people and ask if they’d lost 20 euros?”
Another day he was walking along and saw two stamped packages fall out of a car. “I picked them up because I figured the driver would surely come back looking for them. So I went to a nearby gas station and waited for him there. Soon afterward, he showed up and was overjoyed that I had held on to them for him, telling me I had no idea how important they were to him. He then gave me 6 euros, which was OK. I mean that’s probably all he had on him,” said Yiannis.
That day he said he felt a bit like the custodian of the national roadways.
Summer is usually the best time of year for this sort of roadside scavenging, Yiannis told us, adding that he hadn’t been having much luck. “This whole summer, I only found three 10-euro notes,” he said.
There was a time when other people could be seen scouring the roadsides too. “You don’t see others doing this anymore because there’s usually nothing to be found.” The Schisto-Skaramangas road used to be a gold mine back in the day, but even there the pickings are slim now, he said.
Yiannis, however, continues to scan the waysides each day, saying it’s like a roll of the dice. He’ll either find something or he won’t, but either way, he says, he gets a nice walk out of it.