Wednesday, September 5, 2012

a cold Sunday in Athens

On a cold Sunday morning I was sitting in the breakfast room of my hotel in Athens and thinking of sunny Crete and warm sands along the shore of the Lybian Sea.  “Kriti poli krio imera,” said the breakfast room lady, discouragingly.  “Crete is very cold today.”   She was listening to the radio.  It was one of those rare and happy instances where what was said did not exceed my limited grasp of the language.  So I put Crete out of my mind and dressed warmly and went out to see what Athens was like on a cold Sunday morning. 

I went wandering around the older part of the city, the Plaka, and bought some old coins from a shop in a crowded lane with a huge iron caldron full of obsolete coins.  I got my hands dirty with verdigris digging through them.  It rained while I was there and a man on a motorcycle came roaring through the crowd which effortlessly parted to make way for him and then closed back behind him as if he had never passed through.  

My hotel was on Athenai Street, which runs down from Omonia Square to intersect Ermou Street, which comes down from Syntagma.  The two streets come together at the church of Monastiraki where, on Sundays, is held the Athens Flea Market.

I love junk shops and foreign junk is so much more interesting than our domestic stuff.  In addition to the little shops around the neighborhood there are on Flea Market Sunday stalls and street vendors who have come from around the country for the day.   

Perhaps I was in a mood for militaria that day, but among all the oddments and archaic bric-a-brac I seemed to notice a lot of stuff left over from the war.  There was a machine gun on a tripod, though not all its parts seemed to be there; a handy thing to have, I suppose, if you are restoring one at home and need odd parts.   There were Wehrmacht badges and Nazi medals  --  "Germany, Old Years," the signs said  --  almost all of them poorly-made fakes, as if they thought their buyers didn’t really care.  I found a couple of British submachine guns that might have been used by the Resistance: a Sten that seemed to fall apart in my hands and a Lanchester, a gun I had seen only in old war movies.  The Lanchester was largely intact and would have made a fine relic, but I could foresee nothing but bother if I tried to bring it back through customs and even carrying it around as I traveled through Greece would probably attract attention.

In a cave-like room in the back of a shop I detected a familiar odor and traced it to an antique brass tray of Turkish design sitting on the floor under a table; it was filled with what appeared to be antique kitty litter.    

I had more traveling around Greece to do so I didn’t buy much that day and aside from a piece of antique copperware I picked up nothing that couldn’t fit in my pocket.  I planned to come back again before I left Greece and buy something wonderful, but things came up and it is the nature of flea markets that when you come back, the thing you wanted will have been sold.  You shop in the same flea market but once.

In Monastiraki I found the Café Abyssinia, named apparently for its Square rather than any Ethiopian association.  A little place with large glass windows, crowded and noisy, the conversation a cosmopolitan mix of French and English and German and Greek.   I bought a coffee for the fellow playing an accordion.  “Those were the Days”, “Midnight in Moscow”, “Russian Sailors’ Dance”, “Dark Eyes”.  I imagined him a soulful Russian exile pining for the birch forests and broad rivers of his northern home.  Perhaps even a gypsy.  And why should I ask him and risk discovering that the truth is not as romantic as I imagined it?  I spent about two hours there over a long lunch. 

Café Abyssinia is still in business.  I found it on the web, looking much more prosperous and sophisticated than I remember it.  But that seems the case with so many of those places.  Greece has prospered since those days and I hope they can hold on to it.


  1. Days when plans change can lead to unexpected surprises... but so many machine guns, how long after the war? What is your take on Greece today?

  2. I was surprised by all the ordnance myself, though one knows that in other countries they do things differently. The Greek Civil War ended in 1949 and this incident was in the early '80s, so it might have been the kids cleaning out grandpa's closet.

    As for Greece today, I am too far removed -- and have little faith in the media, which in the best of times are unreliable on Greek politics -- to have an opinion on current events, but I have boundless faith that Greece and the Greeks will survive whatever disasters befall them in the near term.

  3. You are right, foreign flea markets are so much more interesting. I love the one in Yerevan, Armenia, where I lived for years. You find scary dental and lab equipment from a century ago, old Soviet pins and other memorabilia, antique phones and weird hardware...