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.
The next day we visited one of the nearby islands. Since the day before at the squat was such a surprise, we thought we could do with a bit of unwinding. At the port an encouraging message “Refugees Welcome” is scrawled on one of the walls. The journey to the island, the meandering through its streets and the jump into the cold ocean (despite strange stares from on lookers) had us feeling refreshed and excited to get back to the squat. Maybe the children told their parents about us. Hopefully we would have moms and dads interested today.
When we arrived there were now people sitting on the sofas enjoying their cigarettes and conversations. The children from yesterday popped out of their fort and tackled us. They were ready for day two, while we were hoping their parents might join. That didn't quite happen, but we were joined by three young men who were ready for a workshop. Name introduction games, mimicry, tableaux vivant, pitch placement, games that expanded imagination, stillness. The adults gave themselves over to the work, and the children enjoyed seeing their elders in a playful setting. The adults around the perimeter also enjoyed watching the lightness of the moment. We tried to coax them to put down the cigs and join us, but they kept on smoking. Pinna joined us again to work. Soon the adults with us disappeared, leaving the kids. Since yesterday I noticed that these children were further out of their shells. Their voices held more confidence, more flexibility, and less tension. There were much less fights than yesterday. Maybe it was the presence of the adults, but I believe it was more than that. I believe the promise held by us - that we would be back - meant a lot to them. That our playfulness and patience was inviting. That this workshop we had molded for them, which is based on The Living Theatre’s A Day in the Life, had empowered them. The workshop does work if followed. I believe that.
We worked with them for three hours. “Bukra” they said again when we finished. No Jim Morris, but we do see the Toms on our way out. They ask the residents if it is alright for us to go upstairs. Normally outsiders cannot see too far into the building for the safety of the families, but the people here trusted us. We saw the people working to create homes. It was beautiful to behold, and we were honored to witness it. At the forth floor we saw the work the Toms had put in. they had created three separate rooms with the minimal wood sold to them. The families living in the rooms were glowing. It touched our hearts seeing these two blokes from London, filled with love and a desire to help, smiling and joking with the people benefitting from the help.
Third day at the squat has arrived. First thing in the morning we scale Mount Lycabettus and walk into the pristine chapel named after Saint George. A powerful old lady maintains the area with absolute grace. She hands out candles for prayer purposes. We take eight. Seven to commemorate the seven countries we've visited and the generous people we met along the way. The eighth candle we lit to honour family, friends and those who were no longer with us; those not sharing this present time with us anymore. It is not often one is afforded the chance to travel like we have. Our little prayers over, we all collectively feel our journey is almost at its end. Tomorrow we take flight back to New York to share as much as we can. The burning candles and the wax melting... our pause for reflection eating away at our time.
We walk down to meet Evdokimos at a restaurant. He has just come back into town and we are excited to share lunch with him. He is a giant man with a giganticr spirit. We thank him for the accommodation he allowed for us, and laugh like children at his wonderful sense of observational humor.
Back at the squat we are burning with even more tenacity for adults to join our final workshop. With the help of the internet we translate our three hour long workshop into Arabic and Farsi. We also translate an invitation for anyone to join us into those languages. Outside the squat we make friends with one man that agrees to help us recruit. We go floor to floor with our translations, our big eyes and our smiles, talking to every single adult we could find. To our surprise about 80% of them say are happy to join. After going through all four floors we rush into the upstairs common area and set up for the workshop. Nine adults meet us there. Foteini Venieri and Christina Ilia join us. Though the number wasn't as high as we had earlier anticipated we are ecstatic. We work with men and women and we see the joy, the brilliance, the zany, the rhythm, the laughter from all of them. We also see the awe with which the children behold their elders. All the struggles, all the heartache seemingly melted away within this day’s work. Even with a multi language barrier we were flying. More people joined as we went along. It was perfect.
Then a door burst open. A large group of men walked through the workshop. One of the men walked in front, hand over his face, blood leaking out between his fingers. Another man comforted him. Fifteen men with worry and confusion on their face followed past the workshop and into the infirmary. The children followed their curiosity. Speaking only for myself, I thought the workshop wouldn’t be able to regain its focus, due to this frenetic energy. To my shock the people in the workshop continued without missing a moment. They refused to be distracted from their work. We finished out the workshop wth a chord to bring us closer, while next door a man who had been mugged and beaten for his differences was being tended to. The chord was as much for those in the infirmary as it was for us.
With the workshop over we said our farewells to everyone we had met in the three days. It was hard holding back tears after such a three days. We had fallen in love with the children and the parents. We felt hurt we couldn't do more. We felt hurt that people can be so cruel to others who are trying their best to survive. At Black Cat we continue to be there for each other through the difficult closing of this chapter. We take more time to be further comforted by live music at Cabaret Voltaire. We have been traveling for 24 days. It feels like many months have passed. Tomorrow we leave, today we cry.
Hopefully though, the people at this particular squat and all the others like them are able to continue building their homes and building their dreams. Hopefully they continue to laugh, play, create and learn, despite the current struggles. Hopefully they continue to be accommodated in their new country. Hopefully they receive the protection needed to achieve all of this.
“Bukra” now feels a lot more promising and much more comforting with hope.