A year ago, before meeting the eminent Canadian musician Mick Lynes for dinner in London’s not-very-genteel Shepherds Bush, I got my friends at eBay.co.uk to send me a walking stick, thinking I might use it to smite persons intent on relieving me of my iPhone or wallet. Best to be prepared, thought I, as I am down to one working shoulder since my right one was re-replaced in the spring of 2015. For many months, my walking stick languished in a closet, but then I and my spouse resolved to visit Athens, which I surmised was full of hungry, unemployed Greeks crazed with anger about the austerity measures the Germans have tried to impose on them for having got themselves so woefully in debt.
Didn’t see a single such person.
Did, on the other hand, eat at a succession of chic eateries at which men with beards and manbuns dined happily with their attractive dates, few of whom seemed to have the flaring nostrils a provincial boy like myself had imagined to be typical of Greek women. And just up the street from what we came to think of as The Taverna Quarter, a street lined by smart retail establishments selling luxury goods (including an ensemble my companion and spouse Dame Zelda coveted, but couldn’t persuade herself to spend nearly 200€ on) seemed to be doing brisk business.
If there wasn’t much rage on display in Athens, there was a great, great deal of graffiti, all over nearly everything — buildings, automobiles, and even people. It’s hard to imagine a purveyor of spray paint not prospering in this ancient city.
The main road in Monastiraki, the district in which we were bivouacked, was lined by lavishly graffitied shops selling absolute crap, the sort of stuff one could buy by the bucketful at flea markets for 50 cents. When I asked the proprietor of one such place how much she wanted for her CCCP (USSR to you and me) badges, though, she said three euros each. We went on a sightseeing bus, and learned that our district was very near one that has traditionally been popular with immigrants and plumbers. I’m not sure we glimpsed a single Syrian refugee.
Dame Zelda’s is commonly acknowledged as the most impressive collection of refrigerator magnets in western Europe, and a big part of our every foreign excursion is tracking down exactly that which most vividly and attractively evokes where it was purchased. We have been known — as in Budapest — to spend countless hours tracking down exactly the right magnet (in that case, a pewter-coloured one depicting the novelist Franz Kafka). Since foolishly neglecting to buy a magnetised likeness of Jesus with a little thermometer in his belly at a monastery in Cyprus in 2004, we have perpetually fretted about being too circumspect, and have always made very careful note of the location of a vendor selling something comparably wonderful. Athens’ fridge magents may be the least expensive (1€ each in many cases) in western Europe, but Dama Zelda bought only one.
On our third and last night in town, we went into a local bar, smoke-filled though it was in the process of becoming, to enjoy some live music. A local duo comprising a guitarist and a keyboardist, each of whom stayed mum during the other’s performances, performed a programme of indistinguishably lugubrious laments about God-knows-what. Between us, Dame Zelda and I speak no Greek.