Michael’s voice sounded distant over the phone as I was talking nervously in a garden near Basel, discussing the specifics of our Athens trip that would take place a few days later. At the time I did not know what to expect of him. Before we meet someone the excitement and the anticipation becomes almost agonising. We tend to project ideas about them that are probably larger than life.
Michael showed up in a silk olive polo and white games blazer. I felt underdressed, like I always feel in the unforgiving hot summers of Athens. We sat down at Anana for a cold coffee, every wall I had built prior to our meeting collapsing. We went up in the elevator to my sister’s shop, admiring the modernist architecture of the building. Next stop was the fish market for some tsipouro. Michael felt at home, chatting with the locals that were having a meze (greek tapas). I declared: ‘’You are a local by now.’’
We drank the hard liquor and chatted with the fishermen and walked along the bright lit corridors of the market to find ourselves on our way towards Diporto, our next stop. An establishment from 1875, a true Athenian landmark that is the city itself. The cool basement was a welcome change from the intense heat. We sat next to the old barrels of retsina, a stack of newspapers resting on the them. Who knows how old the news on these pages is. The retsina arrived in a DIY cooler, which is actually a plastic tray filled with ice. Genius and simple, like the food here. Unpretentious and original. No menu. No napkins. Just some hard pieces of paper tablecloth and all of a sudden this magic appears on your table out of the tiny kitchen without you even ordering. Small sardines, chickpeas, a potato stew. Cuccina Povera as the Italians like to call it, but here it’s even better... as Michael pointed out.
When this place perishes, Athens will die with it. The retsina was flowing and the conversation was ardent. We climbed the old steps out to the sun and walked up to the Kolonaki area and a quick visit at Mah Jong, one of the few places you can get decent tailoring in Athens. Oh and Aldens! We found some unusual styles that have probably been there for ages. A quick nap and off for a drink at the Alexander Bar of the Hotel Grand Bretagne, another Athenian landmark, that has witnessed cataclysmic historical events. Michael showed up in a navy linen blazer (I remarked that Athens weather is not for made for that weight of fabric) and fatigue pants with a chambray shirt. A style I like to sport a lot when weather allows. A gin and tonic was perfect for me, while Michael enjoyed a masticha cocktail.
Our next stop was Oikonomou, another landmark of Athenian tavernas situated in the area of Petralona. Beautiful posters and artworks from Tsarouchis and Moralis on its old walls. A cold beer and saganaki (fried hard greek cheese) to start with. The stuffed cabbage was a highlight. We were both so full and exhausted that we kept quiet. The smell from the bitter lemon trees across the street lingered, strong and sweet like the Athens from another time. Time stops here. It makes no difference.
Michael and I renewed our schedule for the next night and Galaxy bar, one of the oldest bars in town, an institution for drinking, home to early morning birds that enjoy a scotch instead of breakfast, to regulars and hipsters that just come here to feel part of something bigger. The bar was empty. We thought to go old school and Michael chose a Gin Fizz and I a Manhattan with Laphroig instead of Rye, a drink I suavely enjoy at Harry’s bar in Paris. Toasted bread with oregano, olives and cheese appeared magically behind the bar, where the retired owner, Mr Giannis, was preparing with effortless orchasted moves like a conductor. He drank whisky with water an ice, the choice of seasoned drinkers to keep sober. Old liquor ads on the yellow cigarette stained walls that have witnessed so many friendships and break ups. We parted with a feeling of contentment. Knowing a new friendship began in the city of Athens.