Alternative Athens: Air BnB and Exploring Exarchia

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.

Night Cafe: mkhalili, Flickr

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

The Ahava Protests: A Victory for BDS?

On the sunny April afternoon I’m invited to check out the fortnightly protest against Ahava’s Covent Garden store, it’s clear that this week – perhaps more than most weeks – emotions are running high. It is just one day after the body of peace activist Vittorio Arrigoni was found by Hamas forces in an abandoned Gaza house, allegedly murdered by radical religious fundamentalists, and it’s clear that this tragedy is serving to add yet more fuel to the animosity between the opposing sides gathered here.

I arrive on Monmouth St just after midday to the sound of one of the boycott protesters yelling “fascists” at the Israel supporters. A few minutes later a minor scuffle breaks out, ending with several police officers holding one of the pro-Palestinian activists against a wall while two of the Israel supporters begin shouting “Hamas terrorist” in his direction. Moments later one of them guffaws “Vittorio sleeps with the fishes,” and soon, the handful of protesters on either side of the metal barricade are trading insults; “No Nazi boycott in Covent Garden!” shouts an Israel supporter. “That’s right; go home” retorts someone from the Palestinian side.

Having researched the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement before coming here – a movement that advocates non-violence – I have to admit the level of agitation on display from both groups of protesters takes me aback. While the passion on both sides is undoubtedly emblematic of how much the activists care about the Israel-Palestine issue, at several points the trading of insults between the two groups seems almost comical; at one stage three men stood watching the commotion next to me whisper to one another “is this actually serious?”

And yet, as curious as these scenes might seem to the average Londoner, this is serious. Ahava is the target of this boycott action not simply because it is an Israeli-owned company, but because the beauty products it sells in over thirty countries worldwide are manufactured in Mizpe Shalem, an Israeli settlement roughly six miles inside the Israeli occupied Palestinian Territories. As Rose, one of the pro-boycott activists tells me a little later in a quieter café on Shaftsbury Avenue, “every time someone purchases those products they’re supporting that illegal settlement, and helping to entrench the occupation of Palestine. This conflict does not happen in a vacuum, it persists in part because this kind of economic support from the West.”

And that is the point of the BDS movement – to stop international complicity in the sustained Israeli occupation of the West Bank which both undermines the human rights of Palestinians and holds the region back from attaining a meaningful peace. But more importantly, it wants to remind us that it is a conflict we can do something about, in this case simply by being more conscious about where we shop.

But is it working? The Palestinian solidarity protesters say yes. For a start, just two weeks ago Ahava announced that this particular shop will close in September as a result of the protests which, Rose tells me, the boycotters see as a victory; “this will be one less place taking money from London shoppers and investing it in supporting Israeli settlements”.

What is more significant perhaps is that Israeli authorities are taking notice of this campaign. Last year, Tel Aviv’s Reut Institute presented  a report to the Israeli Cabinet singling out the BDS movement as one of the most significant global forces threatening the security of the Israeli state (something I blogged about at the time). Furthermore, when I asked Omar Barghouti – one of the movement’s founders – about the Reut Report at last month’s 6 billion ways conference, he stated that Israeli authorities had responded by tabling a motion in the Knesset last year stating that any boycott activity targeting Israeli companies should be made illegal. The law hasn’t passed, yet, but with that kind of alarm-bell it’s no wonder some pro-Israel supporters are working hard to fight the movement.

However, when it comes to Ahava, it’s worth questioning whether this ‘success’ is as clear cut as it may seem. For a start, the closure does not reflect a decision on the part of Ahava to pull out of the UK altogether; in this case their landlord has simply decided that the protests are causing too much disruption to the wider area. Ahava may simply relocate elsewhere, which suggests that this is perhaps a somewhat less noble victory for civil disruption caused by the animosity between these two opposing groups of protesters, and not a true signal that the BDS message is succeeding in educating people and affecting public opinion.

Furthermore, as I stand watching the taunting from both sides, I can’t help but think that were the tone of these protests more consistently in line with the reasonable and non-violent aims of the movement, even in these trying circumstances, it might be more successful in doing so. And half way through the protest, something powerful happens which proves this point.

For just one minute, the boycott protesters turn their backs on their pro-Israel opposition and hold silent vigil in honour of Vittorio Arrigoni. The street, previously noisy and chaotic, packed with the sound of offensive jibes and campaigners enthusiastically thrusting leaflets in the hands of bemused passers-by, becomes deafeningly quiet. The Israeli supporters stop shouting, watching the vigil with what seems to be a mixture of interest and confusion, and a group of London shoppers approach a police officer and ask him what’s going on. He explains in hushed tones that people are protesting against Ahava because they support the Palestinians. That someone from the protests was killed in the region, which is why everyone is more upset than usual. And for a moment, it feels like we all get it.

Ahava is important. But isn’t finding reasonable means of educating people about the situation in Palestine, of engaging in intelligent discussion and rising above the knee-jerk reactions that have fuelled this conflict for decades, even more so? Shouldn’t our protest movements reflect this ethos, and not just in words and grand statements, but in behaviour too? I think so. Regardless of the provocation. And particularly when Londoners are watching.