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Street People of Athens

More than the ruins, the traffic, the food, and the history, Athens is about people. Not just the Greek people. Athens has been a center for displaced people since ancient times when it attracted the great minds that had outgrown other towns or whose homes had been over-run by barbarians. Today, people who have fled wars and poverty in their own country try to begin a new life in this ancient city. Because jobs are hard to find many of these people are on the streets selling flowers, cigarettes, tissues, anything they can. Some of them were professionals in their home countries and some of them are children. There are also musicians from Romania, Serbia, Russia, Albania and Turkey, who go from restaurant to cafe entertaining tables with music of such high quality that sometimes it seems that whatever you give them is not enough and you wish you could offer them more or even a recording contract. Scattered among these foreigners are Greeks, some from the mainland and the islands, and others from Eastern Europe. There are Greek-Moslems from Thrace and even a European and an American or two, trying to make a living on the streets of Athens. I don't know their stories but these are their pictures...Matt Barrett

A night out in the cafes and restaurants of Psiri or the Plaka usually means good, food, wine and conversation. It also means an army of children with flowers coming to your table. I always bring plenty of change when I leave the hotel for this purpose. This girl always finds me and I always buy a carnation from her. I can't help it. First of all they smell so beautiful. Second of all she is so lovely that I can't resist her. I think she told her friends and now whenever any of the gypsy flower girls or boys spot me in the taverna their eyes light up because they know they will make at least one sale.

This little girl came to play her drum at our table at the Naxos in Psiri one rainy afternoon after a visit to the flea market.

This is Victor at the Platia Iroon in Psiri on a Sunday afternoon. My daughter Amarandi has a crush on him. Sometimes he plays this drum and sometimes he sells kleenex. But he is always happy to see us. Not because we always give him money but because I think he likes Amarandi too.

Here is Victor again, this time a year later on Aiolis street with his little sister selling roses. As a rule I always make sure I have a pocket full of hundred-drachma pieces and a couple five-hundred drachma bills for flowers.

These two kids hunt me down every night. They wait until I have had a few retsinas or ouzos and Andrea has gone back to the hotel to read.They know that I will buy at least one flower for any girl left at the table.I would not mind if they had not told all their friends and now they all search for me. Well it is only money and I get to smell a beautiful flower and it makes the girls so happy when they get it so I guess everyone wins.

One sister plays the drum and sings and the younger one dances and they make a fortune. Everyone stops to watch. I think they are from Turkey or Eastern Thrace in Greece, where all the Greek Turks live. Amarandi saw them and decided that this is what she wants to do for a living too. It reminds me of when I was a kid and me and my brothers and sister would dress up like the Beatles and put on shows for our parents and grandparents. But this is the real thing.

I wonder about these kids. Do they go to school? Do they have parents? Some of my friends think it is a terrible crime that these kids are out on the street working. (They call it begging) But I see the children together, smiling and laughing and having fun. Maybe it is a hard life. But they are children and they can find enjoyment in whatever they do and the streets are also their playground. So I tell my friends to just give the kids some money and stop thinking about it. They can't change it and if they could who is to say it would be for the better.

Sometimes I am amazed at the beauty of some of these children. I don't know where the money goes. Do they give it to their parents? Are they part of a syndicate and they pool all the money in return for food and shelter? I don't know whether to feel sorry for them or not. Yes, they are out selling flowers or tissues or whatever. But they are interacting with the world. They are doing what is necessary to help their family survive in a strange land. Whatever they are doing and for whatever reason, it probably is better than watching TV all day.

This angel puts on her wings and comes every day to the Church of Kapnikarea on Ermou street and just stands there for hours without moving a muscle like a statue. I don't know if she is Greek, Russian, or even American. But I see her performance as a sort of prayer for peace and I give her money whenever I see her.

This old man can be seen walking around Monastiraki and the Plaka dressed in the traditional foustenella. Think this is done for the tourists? Nope. Try to take his picture. He has been eluding cameras for decades and this is the best I could do without being obnoxious.

There are all sorts of street vendors on the streets of Athens, selling jewelry, African art, paintings and other interesting things. Mostly they spend as much time packing and unpacking their goods because of constant harassment by the police who apparently don't realize that people have stood in the Agora below the Acropolis and sold their goods on the street since before the days of Pericles. Nick Nikolau is an American who works the streets during the weekends and supplements his income by finding antiques for the museums. Says Nick about the harassment of the police: "They know it is bull and we know it is bull. They come around and make us tear everything down and then they leave and we open up again. But the cops are just doing their job. What they want and what we want is for someone upstairs to realize that having street vendors is a good thing and an added attraction to the city. Then we can make our living and the cops can go chase real criminals".

One of the most popular street gifts to buy are these little balloons filled with flower that you can mold into different faces. My daughter buys one every trip and spends hours with the people who sell them, learning the techniques for making different expressions. They are only about a thousand drachma and since they usually help support refugees like Michael from Serbia I usually buy at least one per trip.

And of course the girls who for one thousand drachma will write your name on a piece of rice are popular. Though it is hard to imagine, these are really nice little gifts. They are worn around the neck and Amarandi is quite proud of hers.

This man comes down from the village every Saturday and Sunday to sell his pumpkins and mellons. But I would like to know how much he wants for the truck.

On Sundays in the flea market people gather round to buy souflakia from the grill that someone has set up in the street.

These old grandmothers selling lace slipcovers and wool blankets are everywhere, wandering the streets and coming into the cafes. I have never bought one but I pay them for letting me take their pictures. I mean... how can I resist? This one found me in a seaside restaurant in the harbor of Microlimano on a sunny day in January.

You will see these guys all over Athens selling lottery tickets. You can buy a ticket and check the date and then go to any lottery shop and they will tell you if you have won. I have bought lots of tickets but I have never once gone to check if I was one of the lucky winners. There may be a small fortune waiting for me if there is no statute of limitations.

This is the local photographer of the Plaka who has been walking around taking pictures for at least the last 30 years. He has taken a few photos of me with his polaroid, some of which I have used on this website. This time I turned the tables on him.

On Good Friday and Easter Eve the gypsies who sell the flowers in the Plaka and Psiri, station themselves near the churches and sell candles.

This man sells nothing but bananas every day, pushing around this giant cart and going wherever the crowds are.

I spotted him on the day after Easter from my balcony in the Attalos Hotel walking down a deserted Athinas street with not a soul in sight.

Athens is the place to hear some of the best street music in the world. Many of the musicians come from Eastern Europe where they may have played in symphonies and been fairly well-known. But in Athens they play on the street and have to keep a sharp look-out for cops. Seems silly really. Athens is lucky to have these musicians and if someday they get tired of being harassed and leave for a city that is more tolerant it will be a major loss. Because unless you pay $50 a ticket to go to Carnegie Hall or to hear one of the visiting orchestras at the Herod Atticus theater it is unlikely that you will hear the quality of musicanship some of these people display.

You will find the same musicians walking around day and night in different formations. The violin playing Romanian brothers are two of my favorites as are the violin playing Russian family who I have not seen in a year or so. If someone made a CD of some of these street musicians it could be a masterpiece.

These two guys are braving the rain to entertain the crowds in the cafes on a Sunday in Psiri. Most of the best musicians seem to come from Romania.

This old Greek man has been playing on the corner of Kydatheneon and Voulis in the Plaka for about ten or twenty years. Not the world's greatest singer he still does have a certain charm and I always give him money though sometimes he does not accept it and instead plays a song for me for free.

This man plays the laterna, a piano-organ played by turning a crank, many of which are antiques, made in Constantinople and covered in decorations. These guys are all over the streets sometimes several working in shifts with the same laterna. Some just go through the motions while others are totally into it.

You can't really call this guy a musician since all he plays is a cassette player. But what he lacks in talent he makes up for in charm. And who knows what kind of history he has? You can find him near the Athens Market on Aeolis street.

Being a street musician is a stressful job and until the authorities realize what a treasure they have walking the streets of Athens, life will be difficult for them. So support your local street musician. Who knows? One day you may be one of them.

Let me know how you liked this page.
Matt Barrett

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