Greece. A glimpse into an Athenian

The Greeks want to share their current stories as much as their past glories. Lily is our guide in Athens for half a day. Lily has stories to tell, the recycled textbook tales about her city and its antiquity, asides on olive branches and insights on rows of shuttered stores, her personal weakness for the overpriced coffee in a star hotel (for the ambience), her take on the government. They often fall on deaf ears and eyes jaded rigid. She knows when to shut up.

At first sight, she is a dissatisfied person, pissed in general at the universe for having to work well beyond her retirement years, particularly pissed at having to herd a large group of people in a schedule as tight as a bodycon gown. Pissed no end, but she has nowhere to run. Her crumpled face framed by sparse strands of dyed auburn hair, her slanted green eyes, and her shriveled figure in retro-wear are loaded stories in themselves.

She senses my interest in her rather than her Wikipedia. She lives far away from the centre of Athens, she tells me. She commutes in her car but has to park her vehicle at a distance. She has a house with a garden, which her father left her. “It was the norm in Greece, I don’t know what happens now.’” Her sister too has inherited a similar house but is having a ‘taxing’ time because of the current regime’s fiscal laws. Suddenly, she is a proud little daddy’s girl, her papery old lady skin lighting up. Her father, she says, was one of the ‘last gentlemen’ of Athens. They had a beautiful life right here. Parties. Walks. But they had to leave. She describes a scene of her father in a perfect hat, walking stick and coat out for a stroll on a perfect day being mobbed without a warning by a gang of Albanians. But it wasn’t really without a warning as the buildup was there, she says. They were only trying to wish it away. She holds back from using the I-word. It’s hovering somewhere above her tongue. Today’s Syrian immigrants are yesterday’s Albanians. That day seems to have changed it all for Lily. It pierced at the heart of the make-believe lives that the gentlefolk of Athens were hanging on to. Her resentment is hard to gag, her inner battle so transparent. She veers back to her ‘I will not complain’ persona, her defiant public stance. She betrays herself in the very next sentence. She is a widow, she says. A good man, he was. Yet memories of her husband are perhaps not as nostalgia-tinged as those of her dad, her glowing childhood. She talks a bit about her two sons, who stay away from her and are doing fairly well.

She has found a way to pay a lower inheritance tax by transferring the house’s title to her son, she says. She has to keep working, she repeats. Her sons do come down and visit her in her suburban home with a garden from London or wherever. She comes back to her father, as if looking for a pillar to lean on. ‘It’s he who named me Lily,’ she says. And she grants me a rare smile. ‘You Greeks not just live off the past but also in the past,’ I tell her lightly, taking a chance, hoping she gets me, feeling a kinship with her, coming as I do from a place like Kolkata (crumbling, geriatric). She nods, maybe understands.

It’s time for lunch in a rooftop restaurant serving American sized portions and food to match. French fries, chicken, largely unconsumed, resolutely un-Greek. Lily is quietly munching away at her single table. She gives them regular business. Soon, she is giving us a few tips on the locality. Done for the day, she is walking off to her vehicle parked at a distance, leftovers of the large lunch in a parcel dangling from her insubstantial shoulder. Her danglers, perhaps a gift from her dad, are winking in the sun.