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New Psiri Restaurants, Bars and Politics

It took 8 days but I had my first swim finally, on the beach below the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion in front of the Hotel Ageion. I was in the sea for about 20 minutes while the girls sat in the taverna eating squid that Yaya had them make specially with no salt because she has vertigo and disorientation which everyone knows comes from salt combined with being old forming ice crystals in the ears that melt and drip on the floor causing you to slip and break your arm or nose, eventually killing you. So it is better just to avoid salt which makes even the best kalamaraki taste like deep fried garden hose. Usually my first dive into the sea is a sort of epiphany as if the moment summer officially begins is when I am baptized in the Aegean. This time I did not feel that, maybe for the first time ever. It felt nice to be swimming but I also felt like I had either lost a connection with my body or with the sea, I am not sure which or if there is even a difference. The hotel had hundreds of sun beds lined up neatly in rows on the beach but there were not more than a dozen people using them, and nobody except me was swimming. It is early still but I am guessing rooms there will be on sale this summer.

It felt good to be out of Athens even though the energy level there was at least as intoxicating as the intoxicants I was consuming. The city was wild this weekend. A block from the Hotel Attalos is a small street called Odos Avramiotou where there are a series of bars called 6 Dogs which are all a little different from each other and attract a young crowd. There were live bands in several of the bars and a DJ in another and there was a CD-vinyl shop on the end and about two thousand kids packed into the clubs and filling up the small street. It's the kind of scene that young people love but reminds people my age of the movie Blade Runner. Actually parts of Athens at night reminds me of Blade Runner in that dark way NYC looked and felt in the years before Gulianni. Not that I am a Gulianni fan but sometimes it takes a tyrant to make the kinds of changes that need to be made if a city or country is to survive and prosper.  But life in hell is not as bad as it may look from abroad. In fact it can be a lot of fun and after awhile you get used to the idea of people going about their business and even enjoying life in this decaying downtown of deserted five-story buildings, closed down shops and graffiti. Even at the height of the Lebanese civil war you could probably still go out for a falafel or a coffee or dinner and dancing with your friends and Athens is nowhere near as bad as Beirut. In fact it is not that different from how it was last year or the year before. Both Friday and Saturday nights we were out with friends and I took them for a walk through Avramiotou Street to see what a happening scene looks like. Despite the financial crisis young people are going out and drinking but on closer look many of the people in the streets did not have a glass of bottle in their hands. Only a handful of them did. So even though the clubs are packed who knows if they were actually making any money? But why is this any different than the Plaka in 1970 when we all sat on the steps outside the Krisso Klythi (Golden Key) with the beer and wine we had bought in the shop down the street so we could enjoy the music and not have to pay for the expensive drinks inside?

Around the corner on Aeolou Street is a restaurant-bar called Mamma Roux, owned by an American jazz drummer who is supposedly married to an MP from Lesvos. They have brunch on Sunday at 1pm and live jazz at 5:30. The food is a mix of American bistro, Mexican, Indian, Asian and Middle Eastern and we had lunch there several times. My inclination was not to list them on my site since even though jazz drummers are probably the lowest paid musicians in Greece, being married to an MP certainly makes up for it and I would feel better about sending people to eat at some traditional restaurant that is hurting and needs help surviving the crisis. But the food at Mamma Roux was so good and the atmosphere was so friendly that if I did not mention it I would feel guilty anyway. 

Oinopoulion Taverna, PsiriThere are several new places in Psiri and I have discovered some old places I never knew about. Right next door to our regular haunt, the Taverna Psiri, is a new restaurant called Oinopoulion Taverna which opened in the town of Spata in 1928 and moved to Psiri over the winter. On Thursday night they had a live band playing traditional music, un-amplified, and the place was packed. Every so often people would jump up and dance and the band was terrific. I sent out an SMS to my family and friends that I had found the best taverna in the world and they should all drop whatever they were doing and join me but the only one to show up was my daughter and she took two hours to get there because she was washing her hair, and was only interested in the food, not the atmosphere or the music. I had already eaten a politiki salata, which for the uninitiated is a pepper, cabbage and carrot salad from Thessaloniki, which is slightly spicy, and I had a loukaniko (sausage) which I tried to save for the arrival of my friends, who never showed up so it took me two hours to eat and by the time I finished it I was hungry again and ordered paidakia. Because we had this big table some young guys joined us and we shared each other's dishes. They had a plate of tigania which was a spicy sauteed pork that they shared with us. One of the guys was a fireman who had been laid off because the government had no money to pay him but he expected to be rehired after the elections. He was a clarinet player who did not like traditional Greek music but loved jazz. The girl singer in the band was the singer in his brother's jazz band but quit because she wanted to sing laika and rembetika and didn't really like jazz. She was beautiful and several times got up and danced with the customers. The other guy at our table was an Apple tech guy but because there were no jobs he was an operator for the Greek telephone information, a pretty boring job for an Apple expert I would bet. Andrea showed up with Yanni Lambrou around 1am and Yanni had brought me a case of Methymnaos wine from Lesvos. Andrea and Amarandi left and Yannis and I stayed and talked and listened to music until 3am. People were still dancing when we left. The next night we went back and we were the only table in the restaurant for the entire night. There was no live music either. But the food was still good and we had enough people at our table to make it seem like a party and probably pay one or two salaries.

Krasopoulio tou KokoraOur new favorite restaurant is called Krasopoulio tou Kokora at 4 Aisipou street which is just down Karaiskaki Street from Platia Iroon. We ate there at least three times in the week or so we were in Athens. All three times we ordered the kreas pikilia (mixed grill) which had filets of chicken, pork loin, loukaniko, and soutzoukaki piled high on top of really great fried potatoes. We ordered a lot of other delicious things as well and they had some really nice bottled retsina from Thessaloniki. The restaurant is one of the oldest in Psiri and I had walked past it hundreds of times thinking it was some silly yuppy place that was not worth writing about because it would be out of business in a year anyway. Shows you how much I know. It has been here for 16 years. The owner is a great guy named Yannis who has decorated the restaurant with about twenty years of stuff he has found in the Monastiraki flea market. It is like a museum and they play a mix of old rembetika and jazz peppered with show tunes and even some popular hits by people like David Bowie. Sort of like putting your ipod on shuffle for all genres.

Mavro Gato Ouzeri, PsiriA couple buildings down on the same street is a Jewish kosher restaurant called Gostigo. I planned to eat there but did not get the opportunity but the menu looked great and there was even a small kosher shop inside. It is the only kosher restaurant in Athens, probably in Greece so if you are kosher I suppose this is a good place to know about if you are strict and want to avoid starving to death on your holiday. If you keep going down Aisipou Street and turn left when you get to Takis Street there is a small ouzeri called Mavro Gato (Black Cat-photo) that has delicious mezedes. We went here a couple times too for the spicy peppers, herring salad and keftedes (meat balls). In the Iroon Square there is a new restaurant/bar called Beer Time which has the largest selection of beer I have seen in Greece, including a dozen or so Greek micro-brews. You can buy a small keg of draft for your table and pour your own beer while eating German sausages and other beer foods. Just around the corner on Karaiskakis there is a par called The Party which plays decent adult music and has live jazz jams on Wednesday nights. People kept inviting us to their apartments for dinner but we kept making excuses because we liked going out in Psiri so much. The neighborhood has lost a lot of its lustre. Many restaurants and ouzeries have gone out of business and the rest are struggling. But when you find one you like and sit down and begin eating and drinking everything starts feeling right again and the crisis goes away for awhile. How many of these places will exist next year I don't know but so far very few of the restaurants I have written about have closed for good.

Athens GrafittiI wish I could say the same for the retail shops. Echogram CD shop has gone under and I searched for the music shop owned by Nikos Xylouris' son in one of the stoas on Panapistimiou street to no avail. Eleftherodakis has closed their bookstore on Nikis Street and moved into a smaller space on Panapistimiou. Being a small business owner in Athens these days is tough and it will get worse before it gets better. One of my friends explained it to me at dinner the night before we left Athens. They (whoever they are) are trying to drive the country down so that they can buy everything for cheap. Greece is considered unexploited when you look at its unrealized potential. Everything has been so poorly run that the global elite is chomping at the bit to sweep the Greeks out of the way so they can start all over and do it right. A plutocracy that has run the country for almost two hundred years, and plundered its wealth, is gasping its last breath and will do anything to remain in power because they know that without power, they are the walking dead. Obviously my friend is voting for SYRIZA, the coalition of the left, which now is leading in the polls with 30%, striking fear into the hearts of bankers and multi-national corporations all over the world.

Greek Economic ModelThe question of whether Greece will go back to the drachma is on everybody's mind. According to my friends it is unlikely. It will be too expensive for the Europeans to let Greece leave the euro so they will do just about anything to keep that from happening. SYRIZA knows that if they win and go back to the drachma that will enable all the wealthy people who spirited all their euros out of the country to come back and buy up everything and things will be just as screwed up as before only worse. They want to stay in the euro but want to rid Greece of the austerity that has destroyed the country. So what we are reading in the international and the Greek press is posturing with each side waiting to see who will blink first. But the simple fact is that it will cost about 350 billion to rescue Greece. But if Greece leaves it will cost trillions to rescue Italy and Spain who would be the next to fall. Greece knows that Europe needs them to stay and so they will try to get the best deal for themselves, something the parties who were running the country until now did not bother to do. SYRIZA which was used to getting about 7% of the vote and never had to have a plan for running the country because it never expected to be in a position where it would have to run the country, now has to come up with a plan. It is actually a pretty exciting time to be here. It may be the front lines of an historical change that is sweeping the world as a corrupt capitalist system falls, to be replaced by who knows what? When I asked my friend Yiannis Gianarakis whether I should just keep doing what I have always done, write about my experiences in Greece and encourage tourists to come, he said "Of course. In fact you should introduce a new kind of tourism. We can call it Revolutionary Tourism." I like the idea. But are Billy Bob and Mary Lou from Arkansas going to? Probably they won't even notice there is something world changing going on. Normal tourists will still come for Santorini and Mykonos and go on Aegean Cruises and eat in the Plaka and shop in the Monastiraki flea market and go to the Acropolis. But maybe a generation of young people who want change and don't know where to begin will come to Athens for lessons. Like the people in my town from Occupy Everything who can't find anything to occupy.

Monastiraki Square, AthensAnyway... Tourism is down but that does not mean there are no tourists. There are quite a few and also many foreigners here for international conferences and lots of college students too, on their own or visiting with their professors. There are fifty American college students from a study abroad program at the Hotel Attalos, their iPhones, iPads and laptops sucking up so much internet band-width that I can't even send an email and will have to wait to get to Kea before I can even upload this page to my website. But the girls are sunbathing in their bikinis on the roof, something I have never seen before at the hotel, so I guess I can forgive them. It does not really matter that I can't get on the net. I don't really have much time to be online, and why read about what will happen in Greece when nobody really knows since what is happening here? That is because what is happening here has never happened before which is what makes it so interesting to be here. And despite being on the front lines of what could be the collapse of the whole world economic system, things here seem kind of normal. People are still shopping and eating and drinking and going to the beach. If it is indeed a collapse it is going in slow motion. People who were ready to cancel their holidays have come and gone without seeing a strike or a demonstration.

My feeling is that the powers that be will come together and work with whoever is elected to keep Greece in the EU for the simple reason that if they assist Greece, (despite our spoiled bad-boy image portrayed by the press), they are showing it really is a union where each country's fate is connected in the same way that in the USA we support places like Mississippi even though someone from New York may think the people there are racist or stupid and don't deserve their tax dollars. (Don't be offended Mississippians. I just couldn't think of a better example and personally I don't have anything against you.) But we support Mississippi because they are in the family just as we would support our brother if he was poor and had to sleep on our couch or in the garage until he could get his shit together. The Greek people are the members of the European family that were abused by its politicians, like a battered housewife that doesn't know that there is a way out and sticks around because at least she is not on the street and one day decides enough is enough.

The Greek crisis is not because the Greeks did not pay their taxes. It is because the Greek government borrowed, and wasted and stole so much money, which should have gone to infrastructure rather than buying votes, villas and yachts. And the EU threw money their way recklessly since they did not care what Greece did with the loans, as long as it was paid back with interest. That is why the bailout is not a bailout of Greece. It is a bailout of the banks that lent the money to Greece. Austerity punishes the Greek people for the crimes of the Greek government and the banks. Imagine if you worked for a company and the owner and executives of the company borrowed money for new equipment and to upgrade the safety and the wages of you and your fellow workers. But instead they took that money and had parties, and hookers, and bought yachts and villas and opened Swiss bank accounts while the company fell apart and your life and the lives of your fellow workers got worse and you stopped getting paid and finally the company went out of business. Then the banks came to collect their money but instead of going to the owners and the executives they told you and your fellow employees that you were the ones who had to pay back the loans and the interest, probably for the rest of your lives and maybe for the lives of your children. What would you do in that situation?

Homeless person in front of Greek bankSo if Greek politicians are criminals then so are the banks that loaned the money for a criminal enterprise. The banks are not victims. They are accomplices. Why should the Greek people, the actual victims of the crime (since the money borrowed in their name never went to them), have to pay back the banks who were in league with the perpetrators of the crime? That is ridiculous. But that is why you see articles about the Greeks being lazy tax avoiding free-loaders, from the press, which is owned by the same people who made money off the criminal enterprise. You blame the victim and make them pay for the crime. If you knew that your tax money was not being spent on infrastructure or education, but on yachts, booze and bordellos, wouldn't you avoid paying your taxes too? In Greece many people are taxed at source, meaning the taxes are taken out of their salary, because who would voluntarily donate money to a criminal enterprise unless they were forced to? When Christine La Garde scolds the Greek people and tells them that if they want a good life they need to pay their taxes, she ignores the fact that the taxes that were paid did not go to creating a good life for anyone but the politicians and the tax collectors.

OK. I am simplifying and generalizing for the sake of people who have no understanding of the situation to be able to get some idea of it. But my point is that Europe should bail out those who deserve to be bailed out and that is the people of Greece who have suffered through years of austerity that has only made the economy worse. If the EU has to bail out the banks and the investors to avoid a systemic collapse of Europe then that is another story. They should do it. But the bill should not go to the Greek people.

After the election, regardless of who wins, financial assistance should come into Greece, while at the same time the corrupt system in Greece has to be fixed and become transparent so that every cent of the money will go to the people who need it. I would hope that there are politicians in the old parties that realize the game is over and are ready to roll up their sleeves and work with all the other parties to get Greece out of this quagmire and fulfill its potential as one of the most beautiful, amazing places on the planet. I don't know much about SYRIZA and Tsipras but I agree with him when he says that it is in Europe's best interest to assist Greece in becoming a productive, tax paying member of the community. I also agree with him when he says that if the Europeans sentence Greece to hell, then Greece will drag the rest of Europe to hell along with them. I don't take it as a threat. It sounds like the truth. And in the end even if Europe wants to punish Greece, as unfair as that is, they won't do it. Because by punishing Greece they punish themselves. And by helping Greece they help themselves. And even though they are politicians and bankers they are not so dumb that they have not figured this out already.

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Hotel Attalos, Athens, Greece

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