It was our first walk around Pangrati, the genteel-shabby Athens neighborhood where my boyfriend, Barry, and I rented a flat last spring. I was there researching a book. Orange blossoms and car fumes scented the air. In one of those cozy squares called plateias that give a village-like feel to this sprawling metropolis, we came upon a small group of women and men cheerfully tending a vast simmering pot of fasolada (a traditional bean soup). We were greeted, offered a pour from a plastic bottle of tsipouro, the throat-searing Greek pomace brandy. Street party? we asked. Someone’s birthday? “No,” a woman replied, “we’re here each weekend cooking for the hungry. Refugees, pensioners. Whoever’s in need.” Oh, a government program? “No government,” a guy smiled. “Just us. Just write . . . philoxenia.”
Philoxenia. Greek for kindness to strangers.
That night, Pangrati did resemble a street party. The laughter could have shaken plaster off the blocky white apartment buildings where balconies burbled with family gatherings. At street level, grandmas in housedresses munched loukoumades (honey-drenched doughnuts) on benches. Fairy lights festooned café facades. And every ouzeri and kafeneío, every taverna and mezedopoleío (meze spot), seemed jam-packed with Athenians ignoring the smoking ban, swiping bread into garlicky dips, and spinning political conspiracy theories over wine and Fix Hellas lager.
Later that night, squeezed into a boho bar called Hotel Chelsea on still another plateia, we shouted our ouzo order over the live jazz. “Athens is, umm, fun,” I mumbled to a woman in big clunky jewelry. She shot me a look. "You were expecting Caracas? Aleppo? Sure, Schäuble wants us all committing mass suicide on Syntagma Square,” she snorted, invoking the ruthless outgoing German finance minister, Greece’s arch-tormentor. “But here we are—completely alive!” She unfurled a manicured middle finger—“To Schäuble!”
The kefi, the gritty defiance, the renewed flame of philoxenia are why you should rush to Athens—right now. Our month there unfolded as a sometimes chaotic but always inspiring case study of how a society refuses to give in to despair. Shorn of their welfare state, deceived by their boyish prime minister, choked by international creditors, Athenians are taking matters into their own hands through bottom-up solidarity actions, community activism, grassroots initiatives, and feats of DIY improvisation. The energy here is loud, young, creative, urgent, and profoundly human.
Me? I’m still daydreaming about chickpeas—the chickpeas gone exalted at Papadakis, a chic Aegean restaurant in the upscale Kolonaki district. Nutty, creamy, faintly smoky from 15 hours of simmering, these garbanzos were the handiwork of Argiro Barbarigou, the salt-of-the-earth Greek cooking goddess who runs Papadakis with her ingredient-obsessed husband, Manolis. Barry and I shared the chickpeas—along with diaphanous fresh mullet and shrimp—one evening with our new friend Mariana, a sharp-eyed political journalist. “Can’t the foreign press drop that damn word crisis?” she sighed, dabbing bread into a pool of grassy green olive oil. “We’ve had a severe eight-year recession. And a newly developing civil society that’s learning to cope and adapt.”
“Ten years ago,” chuckled Barbarigou, stopping by our table, “the chickpeas on my menu got me called—” She made a “crazy” sign. “Athenians back then only wanted sushi. Truffles!” She let out the exuberant laugh adored by the myriad fans of her TV show celebrating traditional home cooking. “Us Greeks! Took a catastrophe for us to appreciate our roots.”
“Understand, Greeks suffered terribly during the 20th century,” explained Dimitrios Antonopoulos, the nattily dressed editor of the influential Athinorama city guide; we met for sensuous Chios sea urchins and pink curls of bottarga (salted fish roe) at Vezené, a sleek New Hellenic bistro across from the Hilton Hotel. Here in the birthplace of the Mediterranean Diet, the staples of global locavorism—grains, greens, pulses—had been shunned because they brought back memories of hunger and war. “Now they’re . . .” He grinned. “The new black?”
Each day in Athens brought a flavor surprise, a hospitality gesture, a lesson in social responsibility.
Our dinner, outrageously good, also featured trachana (sun-dried clumps of wheat and fermented milk) moistened with smoked lamb broth; and fish grilled in fig leaves, straight out of the works of Archestratus, the 4th century b.c.e. poet-gastronome. Born and raised in the States, Ari Vezené, the Greek American chef-owner, repatriated to his roots in the aughts and is one of the most exciting chefs in the region. He’s a selfless champion of philoxenia who every day cooks 150 meals for the poor in his vast basement kitchen. “What’s your career dream?” I asked him one day, over grilled sardines at Diporto, his favorite old-school taverna near the Central Market. “To give away everything I earn to the needy,” he replied softly, then ordered another tin pitcher of rustic retsina wine.
Each day in Athens brought a flavor surprise, a hospitality gesture, a lesson in social responsibility. We discovered a “Suspended Coffee” initiative in cafés—buy your cup, and another for someone less fortunate—and sweet nonprofits such as Wise Greece, which donates proceeds from its artisanal chutneys and jams to the poor. We came across volunteer-run health clinics, parking lots transformed into guerrilla gardens by neighborhood associations, street demonstrations blazing slogans like “Refugees Welcome.”
En route to Seychelles we’d explored the Metaxourgeio-Kerameikos district with Carolina Doriti, a former chef who guides Culinary Backstreets tours of Athens. On scrappy plateias, immigrant children kicked soccer balls. Graffitied alleys led to ramshackle avant-garde theaters, ad hoc bars, and major art galleries such as Breeder. A progressive arts hub for over a decade, the neighborhood still retains that scruffy on-the-verge energy that took me back to Berlin in the 1990s, or Manhattan’s East Village in the 1980s. “What Parthenon?” laughed Doriti. “This is Athens.”
Northeast of EMST, we explored the loud, feral street art in the Exarcheia neighborhood—a bastion of anarchist activism—before savoring Cretan sausages and ouzo-spiked meatballs in the garden of the modern Ama LaChei taverna. Philologika kafeneia (literary cafés) and secondhand bookstores keep company here with migrant aid centers. Farther north still, past the vast, neoclassical National Archaeological Museum, lies Victoria Square, the hardscrabble symbol of refugee Athens. Over the last three years, more than a million asylum-seekers have entered debt-stricken Greece; many are still here in anxious limbo while Europe tightens its borders. In 2015, at the influx peak, hundreds of souls fleeing Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere camped on cardboard under flimsy blankets in Victoria Square.
The twin crises of refugees and austerity have brought out the best and the worst in their society, Greeks often told me. The district around Victoria Square also happens to be a stronghold of the xenophobic neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. And yet Christopoulou was overwhelmed by support when Melissa opened at the peak of the troubles. Struggling tavernas and bakeries donated provisions. Old people came to offer 10 euros from their slashed pensions. Such philoxenia, such kindness to strangers, she mused, isn’t philanthropy. It is human solidarity in pure, basic form—a society faced with its own hardships offering what little it has to those who are even worse off. Compassion and kindness. Roots we could all stand to rediscover.
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