Written by Roger Allen
Greece was in meltdown. In parts of Athens unemployment ran at 60 percent and the sight of men scavenging in bins for food was not a rare one. Drug addicts laying in doorways with needles on show and proud men waiting in line of food parcels also formed part of the cityscape. Not the aftermath of war but the financial meltdown of a country in 2012.
In Perema, a shipbuilding suburb of Athens where Doctors of the World charity had set a make shift clinic to administer care to people with no health insurance, a small child sat dazed on a table as paediatrician Anna Malilli checked her over from signs of malnutrition and tuberculosis. This is a snap shot of what a country looks like when it goes broke.
Across the street from the clinic is a once busy shipbuilding yard. Huge hulks of multi million pound vessels sit half built and abandoned with vast bills unpaid to the shipyard owners. No money, no work. The queues at the banks stretch along the pavement for a hundred yards or so, customers shuffling forward to claim their ever-shrinking savings before they disappear completely.
One thing that survives all is the food.
The local food that reporter Tom Parry and I found on a road running parallel to the shipyard. The open-fronted shop had a sloping shelve on the pavement full of fish, squid, octopus and molluscs. The fresh catch was liberally covered in ice; it had been caught that morning.
Behind the glistening seafood was a small café with a bar and five tables with four chairs each.
“Christ this looks good Tom, shall we have an early lunch?” I asked.
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Minutes later we sat on two barstools supping chilled beer. The bar man was a jolly chap who spoke good English.
“What brings two gentlemen like you to a washed up place like this?” he asked in a friendly manner.
We told him our story, he told his.
“This area was full of men working 24 hours a day, boats being built, broken down, repaired, the café had to stay open all day all night, now it’s all gone, me I only stay because I have nowhere to go. The fishermen like me because I stay, I buy their catch. Look.” He profers a photo. “This picture was taken 10 years ago, you see how it was, busy busy.” Grinning, he asked: “You want another beer?”
We did. The second glass of lager arrived with condensation running down the side. A blackboard in Greek listed the food options.
“What is there to eat sir?” asked Tom
“My fish stew is just been made, you have a a small bowl or large bowl as a main meal” said the owner/chef.
Two small fish stews was the order.
Behind the bar was a small room with a Belling two plate cooker on the side, on top was a chrome pot where the owner ladled out the stew into bowls. They were placed on one of the tables along with a basket of bread. I could smell the food before I saw it, and it was divine.
Having finished I asked how it was made.
“Nice and simple my friend, keep it simple. I feed folk from around here”
He told me the basic recipe. He put down a piece of paper with the total for six beers and two bowls of stew. 18 euros.
Our next port of call was the deserted athlete’s accommodation left over from the Athens Olympics. Some of the apartments had been taken over by families who’d lost their homes.
Parnitha, where the village is, northwest of Athens is a vast open space of empty car parks and empty roads leading to dead ends. The blocks of four and five story apartments where the world best athletes stayed back in 2004 stand isolated and forgotten.
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Tom and I asked the driver to take us to where he thought people may be living. Through a maze of smaller roads we arrived in the middle of the blocks of flats. The pair of us wandered off looking for signs of life, we saw smoke rising from a garden in a cul-de-sac, we headed towards it. As we got closer there was a group of about twenty people milling around enjoying a barbecue.
“Hello,” we said in unison. Fearing, as we might in England, told to “fuck off,” we approached smiling.
“Hello, please how can we help you?” came the reply from a heavy set man holding a beer bottle.
We told him who we were and what we were doing.
“Join us please,” women jostled around fetching chairs, bottles of beer were thrust in our hands.
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After Tom had had a chat about how they came to be living in the apartments I took pictures of the barbecue in full swing. Plumes of smoke billowed from the makeshift BBQ, sprigs of rosemary pulled from nearby bushes were thrown on to the hot coals filling the air with a fantastic scent.
“We do this every Saturday, its better this way. All the neighbours bring their food and we share it out, we have a few beers talk and sing, here there is nobody to bother us,” said a bare-chested man.
We turned to leave saying thank you for the beers and offering to pay our way.
“No, no you must stay please, its great you came to find us,”
After another beer plates of food started to arrive, lots of food. A Greek barbecue is a mix of great meat and plenty of grilled vegetables along with small side dishes.
Long skewers of lamb with smoke still rising where brought over to us.
“Please, it is best ever souvlaki,” said a women laughing at her boastfulness.
Tzatziki followed along with minted yogurt and a paper plate of grilled vegetables.
More people arrived bringing yet more food, marinated chicken, long thin sausages and still more lamb.
Two hours later Tom and I found our driver fast asleep in the back of his car. Once he was back in the driving seat Tom and I snoozed all the way back to our hotel.
In Athens later that night we wandered the streets packed with locals. The restaurants were all jammed, bars had people overflowing onto the street.
For a country that was on its uppers there seemed to be a lot of people eating and drinking, I think the Greeks have a fatalistic view on life . . . Lets eat and drink while we still can.