Down and out in Piraeus
I AM in the market at Piraeus. Having paid for my feta and olives, I am leaving the shop when the owner waylays me. He is small and dark, in a clean white smock, with a neat silver moustache and sympathetic eyes.
‘‘From where do you come?’’ he asks, and when I tell him Australia, he inquires, ‘‘Tell me, do you have the crisis there? ’’
He speaks the word as if it were a disease, which it is, essentially — a cancer eating out the marrow of Greek society. ‘‘No, not like in Greece.’’
The man nods, then begins to pour out his heart. With brimming eyes he tells me about his children, two of whom have recently graduated from university but, like more than 50 per cent of Greek youth, are unable to find employment.
‘ ‘ What can I do?’’ he concludes, genuinely helpless. His grief unnerves me, yet I should be accustomed to it, having just returned from the Peloponnese where, pointedly, everyone had the same message — the politicians ‘‘ate the money’’ (this, accompanied by the gesture of a hand feeding the mouth) and the people paid.
Meanwhile, underlying everything is this concern for ta paidia, the children. ‘‘What will become of them?’’ I am repeatedly asked.
Stalls selling fish, fruit and vegetables are closing and a hum of activity stirs the pungent air. Voices ring out, while sunshine pours from a cobalt sky and the mercurial Greek light works its magic, transforming an urban landscape that elsewhere might be unbearably drab.
Tourists rarely linger in Piraeus but I’ve always liked the pulsing streets and the big white ferries bound for the promised adventure of the islands.
The setting for the film Never on Sunday, starring Melina Mercouri, and the opening scene of Zorba the Greek, Piraeus boasts a chequered history.
After becoming important during the Persian wars of the 5th century BC, the harbour was destroyed by the Roman general Sulla and remained a backwater for centuries until, in 1834, Athens became the capital of the new Greek state.
Crucially, like Thessaloniki in the north, Piraeus was the entry point for many of the 1.3 million Greeks expelled from Asia Minor in the 1923 compulsory population exchange following the Greek-Turkish war. Descending on a country that had been impoverished by the opportunism of its leaders, the refugees formed a new underclass. Dispossessed, poor, aggrieved and, most of all, baffled by the place in which they found themselves, many did not even speak Greek, but Turkish.
Yet along with their despair, the newcomers brought their musical traditions, instruments and singing styles. These were integral in the development of Rembetika, the bouzoukidriven urban blues already well established in the harbourside cafes and hash dens of Piraeus.
I stumble on an echo of this troubled but creatively vibrant period at the Old Clock taverna, where black-and-white photographs of famous Rembetika musicians cover the walls.
Lunching outside, I watch the world pass. African immigrants, bearing trays of sunglasses and watches, work the tables. Smoke billows from a grill manned by a ruffian who, a cigarette clamped between his lips, could pass for an extra in Never on Sunday. The man prepares cheap souvlaki and sausage and the grill is particularly popular, I notice, with the elderly, who amble up carrying their meagre groceries in plastic bags, hand over a euro coin, and come away nibbling at meat on a stick.
The man beside me tells me he was born in 1926 to refugee parents. He has lived through the Great Depression, Nazi occupation, civil war and military dictatorship.
‘‘But I’ve enjoyed a good life,’’ he says. ‘‘As for my children and grandchildren . . .’’ He pauses, pointing a finger to the sky, ‘‘Only God knows.’’
Older Greeks fear for the future