My ears are accosted by the skull-piercing sounds of electrical drills on dry cement. A seemingly hesitant, intermittent staccato as the drill attacks and retreats, attacks and retreats, attacks – and pause. The construction worker lays down his machine and goes on a cigarette break.
Leaning against the cold, bland wall of the neighboring building, he brings the cigarette to his mouth and lights it with an old, flickering lighter. The grey-blue smoke exits his lips violently, like he’s trying to evict the cancerous substance from the confines of his lungs. It’s a bold defiance of death, the ultimate taming of our biggest universal fear, as he hungrily takes a long pull from this little rolled up piece of paper with its burning red edge.
This is home. A symphony of contradictions. The simultaneous invitation and rejection of death. Finding serenity in an amalgam of loud, persistent, unwelcoming ruckus.
I’m sitting at my usual spot, my favorite dirty corner cafe at Psyrri, a few minutes walk from Monastiraki Square, where the shadow of the Parthenon falls onto the ugly, dirty architecture of modern life in Athens. I’m sipping on a lukewarm green tea, provoking the surprise of the waitress, who is accustomed to a set list of coffee orders. I’m carefully observing the passersby, trying to imagine who they are, what they do, what they desire and dream and fear.
I feel a pressing need to photograph this scene. I want to paint it in the vibrant colors of the beautiful graffiti art around me and in the cold, mismatching shades of nearby cafes and hookah bars.
I want to translate the feeling that takes hold of me into all the languages of the world, and see if any of them can capture its essence, an essence only ever accessible through the tidbits of interaction that I catch in that brief moment of intimacy when strangers share their conversation with me as they walk past my table.
I don’t know why, but I’ve always thought of this obscure street, whose name I don’t know, as the best portrait of my city. This is where my mind’s eye takes me when my heart is craving the familiar buzz of home.
The smells of car emissions, cigarettes, burned coffee and sizzling meat make something in me stir to life and awaken. Every ten minutes or so someone will stop at my table and start up a conversation. They’re not new, the conversations. They’re familiar, scripted but comfortable. Some want to sell you roses, some tissues, the odd one an illustrated book by recovering drug addicts.
Most of them will be kind, friendly almost. They smile, address you in the second person plural (a form of respect) and ask for “however much your heart desires, but the girl around the corner gave me a ten.” Occasionally they will get angry when you refuse, the old gypsy lady might cast a curse (or two) on you, but usually they take “no” graciously. Besides, no matter where they turn to, no is all they ever hear.
This is what makes my heart flutter at the thought of Athens. Above all else, it is a real city. The pulse and beat of its heart resonate through every avenue, every neighborhood and home. No one can escape it, in all its glory, grace and Greekness. Its charm captivates even the toughest of hearts, soaks them in its magic aura and turns them into hopeless romantics. Simultaneously and inextricably, the ugly truths of its pain and suffering will knock on your door every morning, reminding you that you are a part of this supra-human organism.
The people of this city have a lot of flaws. They’re short-tempered, rude, defiant of authority and reckless. But above all else they are so defiantly alive. As they drink excessively, smoke ceaselessly and devour their every minute with passion, they remind me that this is the only place where my own juxtapositions fit in, where my loud laughter gets drowned out by the cursing, yelling, honking and chattering that is the soundtrack to our life here.
This is my home. The only place where I am ever completely, utterly, unabashedly and proudly me. This is the city of life — the city of my life.
Sophia Catsambi | firstname.lastname@example.org.