In London’s Tate Modern right now, in the midst of the brilliant Conflict Time Photography exhibit on the 3rd floor, is a curious set of rooms called A Guide for the Protection of the Public In Peace Time. It’s a strange space curated by a group called the Archive of Modern Conflict; apparently a publishing house concerned with artefacts of the past; forming them together in new and unusual ways. And in this room of propaganda and subversion, I see this image on the wall.
I was, its fair to say, pretty stunned. You see, I’d seen this image before. It is the cover image for a comic picture book called Album De La Revolucion Cubana, which I found on a market stall in Plaza des Armes in old Havana back in May this year. It’s now perched on my Hackney living room bookshelf.
A bit of a surprise, I can tell you, to see something you picked up at a market for a tenner displayed on the wall of one of the world’s greatest contemporary art galleries. And seeing it displayed in this way lead me to want to find out more about it.
The book itself is fascinating. Designed for children, it is a blow by blow retelling of Castro’s guerilla war with Batista’s government from 1952 to 1959. What makes it particularly special though is that each scene in the revolution is told by an individual picture card, which it seems were given away with cans of Felices canned fruit, collected and stuck into the book by kids. I remember when I got it how struck I was by the design and approach – it seemed to me to be a particularly overt piece of marketing designed to sell the story of the revolution, which is kind of ironic given this is a country that deliberately closed itself off to the usual blends of brand capitalism.
Castro, of course, is presented as the hero, inspired by Jose Marti’s Cuban independence movement in the 1800s (that’s his face hovering in the sky behind Fidel on the book’s cover), and flanked by his brother Raul and of course the beautiful Che. Each page comes with illustrations of guns and grenades, Cuban flags and army tanks, and even though the commentary is in Spanish, the drama jumps out of the illustrations – underhand backroom dealings by Batista, the suffering and sacrifice of the Cuban people, the bravery of the guerillas, fighting for the future of their country.
There’s a fair bit of chatter about the book online. Over on dropby, one Cuban man describes it as “a plaything from my childhood” which he since found in a restaurant in California – owned by a man who also found the book in Havana’s Plaza des Armes. Then on the Libriquarian site for ‘the sale of fine books’, the curators are displaying the Album with a $2000 price tag.
For a moment I’m pretty excited. Not that I’d sell my copy of course. But to see that others have found it too and recognise it as a special piece of history reminds me of my own wide-eyed excitement when I flicked through its pages back in the hot Havana sun.
On closer inspection however, it’s very clear that mine is a copy, rather than an original. The pages are too white; the picture cards are tinted in a distinctly photocopied way. Nevermind. It’s the symbolism of it I like – somehow enhanced by the fact that some enterprising market stall owner has decided to occasionally recreate the full thing now, in 2014, sticking in each of the 271 pictures by hand in the hope of selling it at a profit to a tourist like me.
So I’m on this flight from London to Tel Aviv. It’s a budget affair and frankly I don’t think I’m the only one whose adrenaline levels have gone through the roof in the fight to get on the plane, squeeze my somewhat oversized ‘hand luggage’ into the overhead locker and bag a coveted window seat.
As soon as the stewardess gives us the required permission, everyone unfolds ipads/laptops and plugs in ear phones, killing time til we touch down. I’m one of them. I’m looking at the clock and wondering how many episodes of Sherlock I can squeeze in before we actually reach Ben Gurion.
At some point over Turkey – and a good 4.5 hours into the flight – I look out of the window for, I think, the first time since take off. This is what I see…
1. The one that looks like snowy mountains
2. The one that looks like dinosaurs
3. The one that looks like a flying saucer
4. The one of the sunset
We were flying! Like, ABOVE THE CLOUDS!!
Is this not frickin’ incredible to us anymore? What’s WRONG with us?!
So here are mine. I’ve chosen a bit of a street-art/graffiti theme and stuck to the suggested titles in only the very loosest of ways.
1. A photo that…takes my breath away
This shot was taken in early 2005, a few months after George Bush had defeated John Kerry in the US Presidential race. It was my first time in the USA and I had hired a monster of a car to drive down Highway 1 from San Francisco to LA. I’d never driven on the right hand side of the road before, or driven an automatic, so large portions of this trip were spent with me trying to navigate roads while not veering into the wrong lane while pumping the Chemical Brothers on full blast. Driving through the university town of San Luis Obispo I came across this stop sign and had to pull over the car to take a photo. As someone who thought Bush was a total imbecile, it was great to come to the USA and see that a whole heap of Americans thought so too.
2. A photo that…makes me laugh or smile
I found these patterns and paintings down several of the laneways in Jerusalem’s Arab quarter. They instantly made me smile – they seemed so fun and colourful. I asked one of the guys selling coffee next door to this one what they meant, and he told me they were there to commemorate that someone from that house had embarked on the Hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca which all Muslims are required to make once in their lifetime. I loved that this was an example of ‘graffiti’ being used to celebrate a religious tradition.
3. A photo that…makes me dream
What you can’t see in this shot is that I’m staring at the London Olympic Stadium directly in front of me. I had honestly thought that at this point – July 2011 and a year before the Games – that the stadium would still be long off completion. But it wasn’t. It looked sorted. I was impressed and happy. Meanwhile, behind me is one of Stik’s biggest projects; a huge huge stick man painted on the floor of what was a bit of no man’s land in Hackney Wick. I was there with my friend Heather dancing the night away at a local art and music festival – I don’t think it’s on this year because of the Games.
4. A photo that…makes me think
I was working on a UN event called ‘Cartooning for Peace’ in 2006 when I first heard of Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali, whose work regularly featured the image of Handala, a barefoot child with his back to us, silently watching what’s going on in his homeland. In 1987 al-Ali was gunned down in London; Ismail Sowan was arrested for his murder although it was never clear whether he was acting for the PLO or Mossad – both of whom he admitted working for as a double agent. The image lives on however – it’s painted here on the Palestinian side of the Separation barrier near Bethlehem.
5. A photo that…makes my mouth water
Slightly tenuous, but I was starving when I took this photo. I had just climbed to the top of Lycabettus Hill in Athens – everyone had told me there was a cafe at the top, but no one mentioned how expensive it was. By this point my stomach was really grumbling, but I liked that someone had bothered to draw the words ‘Antifa Hooligans’ on the stone slab – I remembered someone telling me once that this was an anti-fascist football song of some kind. The view was gorgeous, and here I was thinking of anti-fascist football songs. With a rumbling stomach.
6. A photo that…tells a story
This mural is right around the corner from my house and was painted way back in 1985 based on the Hackney Peace Carnival two years earlier. I love it because it has loads of energy – something which the area still has in bucket-loads. Here, Ray Walker’s mural show the community coming together against the bomb and the threat of nuclear war. There are a lot of things Hackney residents come together on here in 2012, but CND isn’t usually one of them.
7. A photo that…I am most proud of (aka my worthy of National Geographic shot)
I’m not sure it’s so much this particular photo I’m proud of – it’s not like the composition or even the subject matter are particularly unique now. I do however like it for personal reasons. While at uni in Bristol we saw Banksy stencils and artwork pop up all over the city, so it was great to see how, ten years later, similar images of resistance and satire were finding themselves on the Separation Barrier between Israel and the West Bank. Quite a long way from the rat stencils he printed outside our local Somerfield.
At first glance, Athens’ off-centre neighbourhoods do not look particularly enticing. Beyond the hubs around Monastiraki and Syntagma squares, neo-classical architecture quickly gives way to a mishmash of concrete buildings, narrow laneways and uneven pavements. Add in persistent strikes, protests and the occasional burning building and it’s perhaps understandable that tourists tend to hole themselves at the base of Acropolis in picturesque Plaka and Thissio, conveniently bypassing today’s Athens in favour of the spectacle of millenniums past.
Admittedly, as I’m waiting for the lift in the ubiquitous apartment block near the less than salubrious Larissa train station, there is moment where I too think that opting to stay in the city’s Northern sprawl instead of its Greek island-esque historic centre might not have been the best plan. This doubt lasts for about three seconds however, until the moment Air BnB host opens the door to the place I’ll be staying for the next few days.
The apartment is lovely, and I instantly feel happy to be here. There is a bright open plan living area, floor to ceiling windows and huge terrace all creating a warm and welcoming Mediterranean feel, while the avant-guard fashion photography on the walls looks oddly similar to that in my own Hackney houseshare. The best bit however is Eleni, my host and housemate for the next few days, who is friendly and open, immediately inviting me to make myself at home while handing me a cup of tea and an epic supply of fresh fruit from the local Carrefour. She’s just returned from a weekend in London, so we chat about how the two cities compare (Athens is smaller with better weather, beaches and outdoor cafes. London has better architecture).
AirBnB was perfectly designed for travellers who want to get a local perspective without breaking the bank. To stay in one of the large rooms in Eleni’s apartment costs just £26 a night; a bargain when you think that you not only get a home from home feel but also instant access to insider knowledge. As Eleni talks me through maps of the city, I immediately see how valuable this is in somewhere like Athens, where with the perceived turbulence on the streets it would be easy for visitors like me to play it safe and stick to the obvious tourist areas. However, as we discuss the recent riots, she smiles; “That was just one day! One hour! Those areas you saw on TV – Syntagma and Exarchia – are perfectly fine most of the time! In fact you should see for yourself, walk through them at least – Exarchia is just near here. It’s funny; tourists see that image of buildings burning and think it’s all that Athens is. It isn’t!”
She’s right of course. I’ve done enough of these trips to know that what you see on TV rarely if ever captures the real spirit of a place, and that the crisis points upon which the media so enjoys turning the spotlight are often just one small part of a much more complex picture. Keen to explore this for myself, I pull myself off the sofa and hit the streets, waving goodbye to Eleni as she heads off to work in a local café while I aim myself firmly at Athens’ anarchist hub.
Home to students, artists and activists, Exarchia’s laneways have attracted resistance movements ever since the Polytechnic uprising in 1973 – where twenty four people were killed when military forces stormed the university – in a tank – as activists barricaded themselves inside in protest against the then dictatorship. Walking down Stournari Street and past the uni it’s hard not to be reminded of the blood spilled within its concrete walls in defence of democratic ideals, though it’s also clear that this defiant spirit is still alive and well today as a group of students crouch down on the pavement painting black protest banners with white lettering; Public Enemy blasting out from some nearby speakers.
While locals complain that the area is succumbing to inevitable bohemian gentrification, as a first time visitor to the area it’s hard to see it. I veer left towards Kallidromiou Street the graffiti encrusted walls, crumbling pre-war townhouses and post-war apartment blocks still have an unkempt, gritty feel. And while Exarchia has been described by some as Athens’ answer to Dalston or Williamsburg, it still feels quiet and residential, with bric-a-brac stores, pharmacies and grocers sitting next to occasional vinyl record shops specialising in hard rock and metal.
There is, however, a sense of the usual vintage/art/music scene that you often find in the more counter-cultural, student neighbourhoods, and soon enough I’m in second hand clothes store Yesterday’s Bread – rummaging through nylon dresses and a mountain of old converse trainers while chatting to Charlie, an American student digging through the coats. I ask her about the local art and fashion scene, and while she confirms that there are other areas of Athens like Gazi and Psyrri which also have an urban edge, Exarchia is holding its own. “There’s actually a new arty-style vintage store called ‘Les Broderies Anglaises’ opening up near Exarchia Square next weekend,” she says, holding a leathery-style jacket, “There is stuff going on if you know where to look.”
Leaving several Euros lighter, she points me in the direction of the Pro Art gallery down the road, and after this, several bookshops and a fat chicken souvlaki pita wrap, my post-flight head is weary and caffeine is definitely in order.
Eleni had already told me that putting the world to rights over a coffee is something of a national pastime in Greece, and when I walk into the Floral café on the corner of Exarchia Square, I see what she means. Students are squeezed onto benches piled high with papers, buzzing with conversation and surrounded by hardbacks from the alternative bookstore downstairs. A book called ‘Debt-ocracy’ seems popular, and as I search for a seat and order a double cappuccino, a young guy hands me a leaflet advertising a meeting on ‘fighting the rise of the European dictatorship’.
It’s here that I meet Yannis, a journalist friend who moved to Athens to cover the crisis. We decide to share a fresh Greek salad and as I connect to the wifi and scan the place’s event listings on my smartphone, I note that with everything from live music to political debates Floral seems to be more of cultural centre in its own right than just a café. “This is typical in Athens,” says Yannis, “It’s just like in the time of Socrates. The food and drink is important – and of course it’s excellent – but what Greeks want are places to come together and exchange ideas. Things might be difficult, but this is part of how we manage. Art, debates, music – these things are happening everywhere.”
“Everywhere”, I smile, nodding my head sideways to draw Yannis’ attention to the table beside us, where a group of twenty-somethings are locked in an intense discussion. He gets that my lack of Greek is making eavesdropping a bit tricky, and starts talking to them, presumably explaining that the nosy British girl wants to know what they’re getting so exorcised about. Luckily, this isn’t seen as being particularly rude and a guy with folk trend beard immediately switches into English, “We are talking about food. That with this crisis we need to eat natural things. Not American burgers. Things we make here.”
Again, I smile. After all, beyond its pretty tourist centre Athens seems fairly grey and ever so slightly decaying. And yet here I am, with just one afternoon in Exarchia showing that just through the doors of the shops and cafes there is still an undercurrent of cultural action; new ventures, political and philosophical debates, art, music. That perhaps protest isn’t the only way people are responding to this crisis. And later, when I get my first glimpse of the Acropolis Hill lit up against the dark sky, it’s good to know that however breath-taking the ruins, there is something more to this city than just its past glories.
Featured Image: The memorial to Aleksandras Grigorópulo, by Jose Téllez, Flickr
Athens is very good at cafes. It needs to be; as my friend Yannis says, Greeks like nothing more than gathering together over a good espresso and putting the world to rights. Which means than not only are there a lot of cafes, but that cafes need to be more than just place to grab a drink and a snack in order to attract the crowds. Cultural centres in their own right, if you will.
It’s also fair to say the lines between cafes and bars are quite blurred in Athens; bright homely places where you might go for lunch and a catch-up seem to transform as the sun sets into dark, atmospheric spaces where the music gets louder and the drinks get significantly stronger. So, for no other reason than because it’s impossible to separate them, I’ve bundled cafes and bars together here.
You’ll see what I mean. Here are my top five.
1. The Art Foundation (website) – Monastiraki Metro
‘TAF’ is a bit of a challenge to find; located around the back of Monastiraki on a small laneway and through what I seem to remember was an unmarked door. This of course makes the whole experience of actually getting inside all the better – the cafe section is set up in a beautiful outdoor courtyard (covered over in winter) surrounded by old townhouses housing art installations, which you are free to wander through while enjoying any number of strong cocktails or a spirit-fuelled hot chocolate. While I was there they were hosting an exhibit called The Blog Diaries, where local bloggers were invited to exhibit work from their personal blogs, but the programme includes everything from theatre to live music.
A self-proclaimed ‘multiplarte’, the Black Duck is a slightly classier kind of establishment, with a cafe on the ground floor, a restaurant on the first floor and a gallery in the basement. It’s slightly upscale without being in any way pretentious; very much the kind of place you could feel very comfortable spending hours typing away on a laptop, then meeting friends for coffee followed by food and wine from the gorgeous Euro/Greek menu. The filo feta with honey and poppy seeds is definitely worth stopping by for. And like TAF, the Black Duck isn’t short of live music, book tours, poetry readings and intellectual talks to keep you entertained.
Bliss is just lovely; a caring, sharing, brightly coloured, slightly hippish kind of place serving Indian yoghurt, buckwheat muffins and ‘theraputic’ herbal teas. The cafe is a riot of pinks and oranges with tables covered in what seemed to be fruit inspired wrapping paper, while the back section is all big comfy cushions and low tables. They also have a packed seminar programme, covering a huge range of ‘good living’ topics from Mexican cooking to laughter yoga.
Housed in a Bauhaus inspired blue building on the corner of anarchistic Exarchia square, Floral is part cafe, part university common room. The place is usually packed with students from the Polytechnic enjoying standard cafe staples like omelettes, crepes and of course good coffee, while the alternative bookshop downstairs gives the place an intellectual vibe. Definitely the sort of place you could feel comfortable sitting in for hours reading Chomsky or Sartre. Again; music, talks, debates. You get the picture now.
The rooftop cafe/bar at the A is for Athens hotel is quickly getting a reputation among locals and tourists alike as being one of the few places in the city you can enjoy the incredible Acropolis view without spending a fortune or booking a table. That said, by early evening the place is packed, so it’s probably worth going down as early as possible to secure a prime spot. Again, in summer the place is open air, but in winter the temporary roof gives the place a warm and cosy atmosphere.