The frightful economy

Fire is so delightful, especially when the firewood is for free

By Omiara Gill (SOCIETY)

Published: Wed 18 Dec 2013, 9:22 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 7:12 PM

Last week, we had some extremely stormy weather in Athens. The temperature dropped and fierce winds blew in, bringing with them rain, floods and all sorts of damage. And at last the ugly, functional-but-nothing-else architecture of the city came into its own.

Modern Athens is an ugly city. Its beautiful architectural sites sit nestled amongst some completely crazy town planning, like Maria Callas cast adrift in a sea of Miley Cyruses. Anyone who has ever flown in to land at Athens airport will know what I mean. The city looks from above like a giant ran through it on a joyful rampage, scattering handfuls of buildings in his wake to see where they’d land.

There is no logic whatsoever to how the modern city has been planned. The old city, like all old cities, is evocative and charming with its stone buildings and tight, winding pathways down which drivers try to force their cars with the determination and skill of an astronaut docking at a space station. The things that this city has seen and been through whisper to you as you walk through the old streets, tales of wars, loss, pain and love.

There is not much can be done about the old city, it’s just been there too long and there is so much archeology buried beneath it that building in Athens takes forever — all work must be stopped whenever a new archeological site turns up until the archeologists have excavated it. You can imagine how often this happens in a city built on top of one of the most bustling inhabitations of the ancient world.

Meanwhile, new buildings try to quietly creep up the mountainsides where it is mostly illegal to build, hoping that no one will notice that they’re there. To be honest, most of the time no one does, or has been paid to pretend that they don’t.

Planning permission in Athens means planning to get permission at some point in the distant future, preferably by which time your house has already been built and you can parade your children (dressed in suitably unfortunate clothing) in front of investigating authorities and dare them to make them homeless.

Up until quite recently, the flats built here came in one style — locally referred to as the box with a corridor. You won’t find any of the romantic wooden housing here. Buildings in Athens are universally made of concrete, screaming of Soviet functionality while sobbing that the place where awe-inspiring classical monuments were born is where the dream of architecture came to die.

However, ugly concrete proved to be a fabulous idea when the 12 Beaufort winds hit last week. Anywhere else and roofs would have caved in, houses ripped from their foundations and walls collapsed. Not in Athens, though. Through the howling wind and the rain, the ugly housing of Athens proudly stood its ground.

That’s not to say damage wasn’t done. Outdoor shades were torn from their awnings and sent on fantastical journeys across the city, some ending up wrapped around electricity wires and cutting off the power.

Houses flooded and trees blew over. Lots of trees. The day after the storm, I was on my way by train to a northern suburb of the city, when I spotted a tree that had been blown clean over, its roots desolately sticking out of the ground as it lay across a children’s playground.

What a sad end, I thought, to have survived growing so perilously close to a train station, and overseen so many children who had come to the park to play, grown up and then stopped turning up, to provide shade in the blistering summer to a passing cat or a tired grandparent, just to end up blown out of the ground by the wind.

On my way back home I noticed that the tree had already been taken apart and by the next day just the stump was left. I remember thinking it was a remarkably efficient operation on the part of the Greek authorities, until the news later reported that enterprising Athenians had taken advantage of the blown-over trees to help themselves to some free firewood.

Athens. You’ve gotta love it!

Omaira Gill is a freelance journalist based in Athens, Greece

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