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A late Athenian winter

Omaira Gill (Issues)
Filed on November 30, 2014

Winter has landed behind schedule in Athens

WINTER ROLLED into Athens this week. In true Greek style, it arrived horrendously late and all of a sudden. Last week we were walking around in T-shirts. This week it’s big coats, scarves and Christmas decorations. When I first moved to Greece, I was sun-starved and sick of the cold after 10 years in the UK. I kept wishing I could live somewhere where it never got cold. Over the years, winters in Greece have come to be one of my favourite times of the year.

Greek winters benefit from certain characteristics that make them very different to the soggy, sleet-lashed affair of good old Blighty. For a start, they are dryer. They also have their own specific aroma of burning wood as people light up their fireplaces in the evening. This year, that particular smell is a bit more pleasant compared to that last. Last year, and a few years preceding that, winter was a hazardous time for anyone in Athens with a respiratory condition. The crisis had financially squeezed families to the point where they couldn’t afford the slow-burning, clean wood that is designated specifically for buring in fireplaces.

They took instead to burning whatever they could. Leftover fruit crates, paper, whatever was flamable from the recycling bins, even plastic and items branded with pigments that turn toxic when burnt were all thrown onto the pyre in an attempt to keep freezing families warm.

Apart from some serious tragedies where sleeping children suffocated on carbon monoxide fumes, these additions to the fireplace made the air in parts of Athens practically unbreathable in the evenings.

This year, so far at least, things seem a bit better. That heavy, acrid smell no longer tinges the air when I pop out in the evening for errands. This doesn’t necessarily mean that things have got that much better in Greece - as I write this, my son is hanging around me, showing me his play-doh creations because his nursery is on strikes, as is much of the country - but it might hint at the tiniest hope of things perhaps not being as unbearable as they were last winter.

Another charm of Greek winters is the cosy little vendor stands that pop up this time of year. I’ve seen in lamented in various travel writings that Greece doesn’t have a street-food culture. This isn’t strictly true. An enormous culture of on-the-go food exists here, it just might not be set up in a street cart which most people connect street food to.

This time of year, fat, brown chestnuts make their way down to the capital from the surrounding mountains to be roasted over open coals and handed to you, piping hot in paper bags. They make for a delicious snack as you stroll in the crisp, cool air. Another treat are the hot salepi carts that turn up.

The hot, sticky, aromatic beverage, lingering somewhere between a liquid and a solid, is served to the public in white polystyrene cups out of large brass boilers. Nothing better to warm the heart and get the blood flowing to your fingers and toes.

We’re less than a month away from Christmas, and coming to the time of year when protest season is nearly over. October 28th, November 17th and soon December 6th all mark a series of violent events, from Greece’s refusal to give passage to the Nazis, to the massacre at the Athens Polytechnic and the shooting of a teenager in Exarcheia.

These will soon give way to more peaceful times as we, the residents of Athens, prepare to spend time with our nearest and dearest and hope for better times to come.

Omaira Gill is a freelance journalist based in Athens


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