Late night in Athens

  • Author: Jim Toner
  • Date: Oct 14, 2013
  • Location: Athens

Imagine: The three of us at midnight around a campfire in the backyard of a home in the outskirts of Athens. Dinner is served. Above us are the faint pinpricks of stars that are barely visible through this city smog. Wine is poured, wine made by a neighbor down the street. This is our life, our strange life that never knows what other strangeness is there around the corner or around the curve of midnight.


We were guests of Dimitri and Jennifer, the lovely couple whose apartment we are renting in Athens. To meet them we took the subway far out of the city toward the airport, and then Dimitri met us in their small car that pushed his knees toward his chin like a grasshopper. His voice was a bit slurred from a party in the afternoon. “What was the occasion?” I asked.


“There was no occasion,” he said. “We Greeks do not need an occasion to get together. Getting together is the occasion.”


He stopped at a market for tomatoes and mushrooms for the night’s meal, a splendid fruit and vegetable market without doors that spilled its colorful rows out onto the sidewalk. One more stop for milk, at which point Dimitri asked Liam if he’d like an ice cream. Liam did some kind of calculation in his head—will my parents allow it? It’s already 8:30pm and we haven’t had dinner? But an ice cream always sounds good—when Dimitri said, “Come with me, Liam, we’re going on an ice cream mission. You’re only in Greece once.” Dolora and I, alone in the tiny car, liked that Dimitri just ignored us mere parents and took Liam on this date.


Back in the car, with Liam happily licking his ice cream cone, Dimitri gave us a tour of this small town, Pannini, that’s been his home since childhood. “That café, my cousin owns it, he has a lot of nice art in it.” Later: “This is my grammar school. I hated it, absolutely hated it. Didn’t learn a single useful thing. Liam, the school your parents are giving you by traveling the world is the right school.” Later: “I love that wall.” Later: “This is my friend who makes the wine. He doesn’t make any money off of it because we drink it all before he can sell it.” Later: “There used to be a very tall tree right here in the center of this intersection.” And still later: “We should probably go home and eat.” I secretly looked at the time—9:12pm—and calculated that it would be a long time before we ate and that we’d miss the last train back into Athens. Oh well. As Herodotus said, “All is flow.”


I love entering people’s homes. In an instant you can size up a person’s history and aesthetic, their struggles and indulgences. We walked past the front gate and entered a yard that in the darkness seemed full of shrubs and herbs and life. Dimitri opened the front doors of the home, and the doors themselves were a microcosm for the entire house. The two ten-foot-high doors that slid sideways on tracks were cut at an angle, like the sides of a triangle. “Did you build these doors?” I asked Dimitri.


“I designed them but no, I had them made. What do you think?”


“I think you’re a character.”

On the home side of those doors were two rooms that had a look and feel of a barn. The floors were either packed dirt or rough cement, and a waist-high wall separated the two rooms. In one room was all the makings of wine: two oak barrels, a very old screw press, and many other things that were probably part of the process. Dimitri leaned on the press. “This is the center of my universe. My grandfather, my father, me—all the men of our family have used this to press the grapes.”


“Do you have a party on pressing day?”


“Of course. This room is full of friends.”


Dimitri rhapsodized about the making of wine—about the exact age of the oak barrels, about the smells, about the joy of filling your own wine bottles throughout the winter. We asked about the black-and-white photo on the wall.


“My grandparents. My grandfather, he died when he was thirty, was sick for two hours and just died of some stomach ailment.”


“How old was your father when he died.”


“Fifty. The men in our family, we are big and hardy and we die young. I hope to outlive my father. I have a few more years before fifty, but if not, well then you’ll find my photo on this wall.”


The other room was the kitchen. The stove was a two-burner job hooked up to a propane tank, and I wondered how full meals—our full meal—can be cooked in such a primitive way. There was a refrigerator, which surprised me, and when he opened it I saw that it was so stocked that it blocked out the light. That surprised me too.


“We just got electricity,” Dimitri said. “For years we lived on just candles and gas.”


It was now past 10pm. The last train was in ninety minutes and the propane wasn’t even fired up. Would food pass my lips tonight? Would I ever get home? How would I get home? What is my home? How could I do this to my ten-year-old son?


Dimitri led us away from those two primitive rooms and into their garden, a chaotic explosion of vegetables without any rows or reason. Very Greek, very Dimitri. From there he showed us the rest of the house, a couple of rooms with walls partially built. Their two-year-old son Nosos was asleep in one room, and in the parents’ room the central item were three turntables on a table. “Do you use those?” I asked Dimitri.


“Oh yeah,” he said. “It’s where the magic happens.”


He went to help Jennifer with the dinner—it was now 11pm—while we three sat around a campfire. Dimitri came out to cook the mushrooms over the fire while I wondered if I’d ever get home that night. In time the food arrived, and it was spectacular: a salad with pomegranates, the mushrooms on their own, and pasta with hot Anaheim peppers straight from their garden. Our conversation included the following: Dimitri doesn’t see the point of celebrating birthdays since it’s a melancholic day for most people; Jennifer was a ballerina in New York and Geneva; Liam knows the seating capacity of the Airbus A-380.


To wrap this up (because I have to awake in five hours to catch our ferry to the Greek island of Santorini), long after all the trains had ceased for the night, and long after I squashed the idea of going out to the nearby airport to see if the buses into Athens were still running, Dimitri drove us to a taxi stand. In case I haven’t said this yet, let it be knows that I am loving taxis more and more. And on this night, for a mere 13 euros, our cab ride took us from a distant spot full of uncertainty and fatigue right to our doorstep.


Okay, time to sign off. Just one more quick image: Liam and I roamed the streets alone this afternoon, and at one point he said, “I know this sounds crazy but I just want to sit at a sidewalk café, maybe you can have an afternoon coffee and I’ll have a Sprite, and we’ll just play cards. Good idea?” It was. We found his wish and played cards with our frappe and Sprite, and while playing I thought, This is so fantastic, me with my son on a Monday afternoon in Athens, playing gin rummy. In a rush it hit me that I am spending more quality time with Liam in a month than I do in a year… or a couple of years.


He beat me at gin, by the way.


PS. Oh, this important event. While walking with Liam up some steep steps lined with tables and Greeks drinking, Liam caught his sandal and took a tumble onto his knees and nose. Suddenly young people on both sides rose to help  him, to make sure he was okay. The restaurant owner immediately brought him a towel to dab his bleeding nose, then returned with ice wrapped in a towel.

And there in microcosm is Greece; such kind and sincere people. On the other hand, Athens in microcosm showed itself at its most significant square. There in the center was a nondescript fountain without water and filled with debris and graffiti.


Okay, off to bed. Goodnight, Athens. You’ve been lovely to us these past five days.





  1. Jennifer

    Hi guys,
    we loved having you! For the record, the town we live in is called Peania, for any of your readers who might be familiar with Athens… Pannini (almost an italian sandwich), is a good mash up of Pallini, the train station that precedes ours, and Peania

    And I can’t help mentioning (since we think about it a lot) that the garden, chaotic as it seemed, is designed. There are 4 plots that rotate annually. But within those plots we experiment more and more actively with polyculture- that is we try to create systems of various crops, herbs, flowers, trees, and some weeds. This minimizes the need to fertilize, since the variety creates an exchange of nutrients in the soil, and also controls pests naturally.

    We’d love to see your garden one day!

  2. Andrea

    Dimitri’s tour of Pannini is very similar to my tour of Sonora, from the ice cream cone to the favorite wall. (Theall). I could happily hand there.

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