ATHENS, part 2
Dec 11 - Dec 16, 2016
We are at Omonoia Square riding the magic from the success of the four group pieces. Photos are taken forever documenting the time we spent learning from each other. Members of the ‘audience’ join us in the photos. Though we felt a unique high from the experience, we knew that the next part of Athens would be a very different feel. As we said goodbye to our new friends a certain anxiety swept over me. We were getting ready to go to the squat Monica had arranged for us to teach in. All I knew of the squat was what their Facebook page stated, “… refugee families and adolescents are provided with accommodation, food, wi-fi and clothes.”
People escaping destructive circumstances, now in foreign countries trying to piece together home. A home within a new culture. A home far away from what they had happily called home. The action piece and interview at Stalingrad (Paris Métro), the collaboration with the great artists from Club Al-Hakawati نادي الحكواتي, the tour with Refugee Voices Tours Berlin and our experience interacting with the incredible people at Berliner Stadtmission, the workshop with people from all over the Middle East at Brunnenpassage in Vienna, the detailed outline by Melinda Meyer of EXIT program in Oslo; all these memories now crashing into each other. This was my attempt to get ready for what would be expected of me.
A student from The Theater of Changes described ΕΞΑΡΧΕΙΑ - EXARCHIA to me. Exarchia is a region which has become a symbol of resistance and a home for Greek anarchists. It blew my mind that such a place existed. I was obviously naive, because here I was being taught (maybe reminded) that the beautiful struggle continues despite what others think. Especially when others have seemingly left an entire population of hard working people to figure it out for themselves.
Monica had scouted the squat earlier in the day. She gave us a brief history on the place. A few months earlier this building, where many families call home, was attacked by arsonists fuelled with hatred for others; trying to erase the existence of the residents. One local paper had described the squat as a storage space, instead of a home, and thereby minimized the cowardice of the attackers. It was the neighbors, the volunteers, the fire department and most importantly the residents of the squat that fought bravely to protect not only the building and connecting buildings, but also to save the lives of the 120 to 140 people living in the building.
When we arrived to the squat, the bolt-heavy front door was ajar. We walked into the common area. The room had sofas all along the perimeter; a white board in a corner suggested lessons or meetings were held here; a table was in the middle of the room with remnants of bread and other foods. Maybe communal meals took place here often? This was the room where we would hold our workshops with the residents. I should have been encouraged, but the state it was currently in was a worrying. Food, trash, cigarette butts were scattered and mashed all over the floor. People had certainly walked through the mess without the thought of changing its condition. Again, this is where we would be holding our workshop with the people of the building. We walked further into the room and through some doors was a small recreation space, fitted with a futbol table where a group of handsome men played. “THWAKA, THWAKA, BAK. THWAKA, THWAKA, BAK!”
One of the men shared an enormous smile when he saw us. It might have been quite interesting from his perspective to see this group - Monica, Brad, Leah and myself - four young and curious individuals taking in this new surrounding. “Were they lost?” is what I imagined echoing in his mind. Nevertheless, he took it upon himself to lead introductions. We shook his hand, and followed the domino effect of introducing ourselves to the other futbol ninjas. Monica tried to speak a little Arabic to them. Their smiles doubled. Ours did too. Familiarity is something we all find comfort in. We asked if they knew where we could find Jim Morris. This was the moment where familiarity would take a backseat.
The men pointed us to another room where the repeated sound of metal on wood was being made. “KLACK, KLACK, KLACK, KLACK, KLACK!” We poked our heads around the door and were hit with an ungodly smell. The burst sewage pipe that Monica had warned us of had now made its own steamy introduction. The floor here had a thin veneer of moisture, and two pipes worming their way back into the toilets on the right. On the left is where the knocking of metal to wood was coming from. Two lanky youths - one brunette, one blonde - with scraggly facial hair, were bent over planks of wood, working through the smell. They worked with an urgency. I wasn't sure if the urgency was from trying to meet a deadline, trying to escape the smell, or both.
The man from the futbol table whistled to the men, and the brunette carpenter stopped, got up and smiled with a soft nod. This was Tom, whom Monica had met earlier in the afternoon. The same Tom who had waited almost a week for some wood to build rooms in the squat. Looked like he’d finally received his wish. He was a 23 year old lad from London. I’ll give you gist of our conversation:
“Hey Tom, we are here to do theatre workshops.” we said.
“Yes, Monica told me.”
“Have you heard of or seen, Jim Morris?” we asked.
“That’s what we were told his name was”
“Never heard of him.”
“Great. You’ve never heard of Jim Morris?”
“No. You’ll find out around here that people rarely show up when they say they will, and they rarely are who they say they are.” Tom advised
With no Jim Morris in sight, with an exploded sewage pipe, and with no one in the building knowing anything about our workshop the uphill battle seemed a little steeper. I was busy looking around the place noticing children’s toys, and what seemed to be a fort built on the other side of the futbol lounge. This is the current situation for the families living here. There may indeed be “accommodation, food, wi-fi and clothes”, but was there still hope within the package? At that moment I couldn't answer my own question.
As we talked to Tom, we met a man calling himself 'Phivel'. He was a sinewy guy with a beard, and alert eyes behind glasses. 'Phivel' was one of the volunteers at the squat who arranged daily activities within the building and also held meetings with residents and other volunteers. For instance they would have greek lessons for children and adults, and discuss how to better improve the situation for the residents. All activities went through him, and yet he also had never heard of The Living Theatre doing anything with the residents. Jim Morris was also unknown to him. We wandered back through the room to walk out and the blonde carpenter quickly came to meet us. We introduced ourselves one last time for the night.
“Nice to meet you. What’s your name?” we ask.
“Tom.” the blonde guy says.
"Your name is also Tom?"
“We are Tom” they both say simultaneously, each with a downward arching smile.
We finally leave and take a walk deeper into Exarchia. Taken by the stone architecture, the kiosks that sell cheap tobacco, the tech stores that stay open till 11pm, the many stray cats that feast on the nocturnal and enjoy the blankets of darkness. We feed a few felines hoping to make friends with them, but they meow and purr us up just enough to get the food they lust for. Once they achieve their goal they disappear back into the blanket without so much of a thank you. The anarchist, anti-facist graffiti that lines the walls are immediate and precise. They tattoo up and down the community like a tapestry, each wall holding a different part of resistance’s story. Once we get to the quad in Exarchia we sit down and soak in the energy. Watching little gatherings around bonfires. Giant signs hang in the quad offering support “From Athens to Standing Rock…”. It’s the first time here for a lot of us, and all of this self governing energy is a lot to take in. We move to The Black Cat, a bar we stumble across on our walk, and we park our little asses down to decompress - so we could diligently plan for the next three days of workshops at the squat; and so we could enjoy the soul, blues, jazz and rock’n’roll blasting from their speakers.
Though we sense nothing here is really going according to plan, and that everything is shrouded in mystery, we decide we will show up the next day prepared to teach and prepared to learn. First we promise to clean the entire place and wait to see who shows up for the workshop that we’d been preparing for the past two months. Maybe the word had gotten out. So far, throughout the tour, we have been able to do the work we came to do, and receive little nuggets of golden wonder along the way. With that we head home to our accommodation. The street’s name coming from the man who developed the equation for a hypotenuse.
It’s the day of the full moon today in December. It’s also Leah’s birthday. We’ve created an image heavy exquisite corpse (cadavre equis) as a birthday present for her. In the morning we decided to visit the Acropolis of Athens, one of the famous high points that houses The Pantheon dedicated to Athena, goddess of wisdom, craft and war. As we walk through the lush markets that lace the lower parts of the mountain we play Erykah Badu’s latest album through a portable speaker. Everyone that comes in contact with the music stops to take it in. At the Pantheon, Monica and Leah create a swirling improvisational dance in the goddess' honor, only to be stopped before their procession. “Dancing is not allowed here”, we are told. Crafty Athena believes differently, and so do we for that matter.
On the descent from Acropolis we run into more markets selling arousing wooden souvenirs, stores selling calendars like “Cats of Athens” which were simply cats photoshopped into different monuments. There were Nigerians promoting a dance at Acropolis in the early evening. No one was quite sure the time the dance began though. In that moment Wisdom told us a lot, but She mostly reminded us we wouldn't be able to attend either way. We continue to the squat for the first day of workshops. Well, hopefully the first day. We clean the room for the workshop. Still no sign of Jim Morris. The only people around us are the children playing in the fort we saw the day before. There are about ten of them between the ages of 11 months to 11 years. They watch us mop the floor, throw away rubbish, sweep up dust. Quickly they start to help us. We sage the place to cut through the smell of sewage creeping in from the back rooms. As we clean, the children play their own games. The one game that stuck out most for me was when all of a sudden seven crutches appeared, and the children used these crutches as machine guns, pretending to blow each other’s heads off. My head got blown off at least four times. It is a result of witnessing war. This moment reminds me of the C.S Lewis quote, “What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.” We take the crutches away from them, handing them to some parents. Someone somewhere in this building probably needs them. Half an hour of cleaning later we are done and it is now the time the workshop should start. About ten minutes pass and the only people in the room for the workshop are the ten children, all staring at us as if to suggest “What now, newcomers?” What now… we take the children through a workshop that we tailor on-the-spot to suit their ages. Pinna Nobilis joins us to help with the workshop. She seems pleasantly surprised we are now workshopping solely for the children. So am I. We end up teaching them theatre name introduction games, exercises that focus on awareness, tableaux vivant, mimicry, pitch placement, stillness and of course to end it all, duck-duck-goose. We teach for three hours and promise the children we’d be back. They respond with, “Bukra.” At the time I thought “Bukra” meant “tomorrow”, but found out it really means “sometime in the future, but not necessarily tomorrow”, which is a slight but significant difference. From the squat we eat, then make our way to The MIRfestival being held at Trianon (Τριανον) Cinema. Our friend, Lisa Gilardino is in town and has invited us to watch Eva Neklyaeva’s "Periodonero”. This is a piece by the Cosmesi group. Using a white screen and the idea of human-shadow puppetry, we see an actor interact with two dimensional objects that are projected onto the screen. It seemed that these shadows of the actor's past were attempting to completely cover the white canvas which would end the actor’s present. It was cynicism with a touch of humor. As we walked back home we passed a university called National Technical University of Athens Pinna shared its significance with me. The most prestigious engineering school was also the location of The Athens Polytechnic uprising, a demonstration in 1973 that was protesting the Greek military junta at the time. A tank was sent though the university gates to prevent the message of the students reaching the rest of the country by radio. This ended with over a hundred people injured and the bloodshed of young students and even young children. As I learned more of the bravery from the youth back then I questioned how this sort of past could remain in the shadows of the present. Today November 17 is observed as a holiday in Greece for all schools.