Down and out in Pi­raeus

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - I AN ROBERT SMITH

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.

ALAMY

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

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