ATHENS, Greece — Omonia means “togetherness” in Greek. It’s a fitting name for a neighborhood that represents where Greece is as a nation right now.
On one side of the large urban area, out-of-work men line up at the soup kitchen on this chilly December morning. Austerity is just a word until you see it on the street. Just a few blocks away, past vacant office and apartment buildings, bankers in lavish suits stroll through the square leading to the National Bank of Greece, resting among the ruins of the Mediterranean nation’s economy. And in the middle of these two places, there’s the Athens Central Market, the largest of its kind in the city.
On Wednesday morning, I was invited to experience the humming fresh-food market with the mayor of this city, Brooklyn-born Giorgos Kaminis. The floor was wet from the melting ice keeping rows of fresh salmon, squid, mahi-mahi, shrimp, lamb, and pork cold for its 3,000 to 5,000 daily visitors.
“Come, come, come!”
“Calamus is here!” another man shouts in Greek, ashing his cigarette next to the stand containing his latest catch from the nearby Aegean Sea.
(Matt Vasilogambros)Today, however, it wasn’t the fish I’d share with the mayor. It was grilled lamb, goat cheese, and olives at a shop inside the market called Mezedopololio, translated as “the place where they sell meze,” another word for tapas.
The grill snaps and pops as the cook flips the lamb and sausages on the open skillet; old men in the small shop drink their ouzo and eat the rich finger food. Kaminis, short and plainly dressed, takes a bite too large to start giving his pitch for the market that has seen a 40 percent drop in sales in the four years of the Greek economic crisis.
He swallows his bite. “You see, here in the market,” he says in the shop, standing close enough to smell the fried cheese, called saganaki, he had just eaten, “my plan is to renovate this market to become something like the market of Barcelona. We’re ready to help the city, even though we’re in a crisis.”
The mayor, although optimistic for the future of his city and country, doesn’t repeat the talking points heard from Greek business and government leaders — that the economy is making a turn for the better, citing a surplus in the country’s budget. He says the economy might get worse in the coming months: Pensions for municipal workers are down 60 percent, and unemployment is still at the astronomical 27.3 percent. Even so, Kaminis recently announced his intention to run for reelection next year.
To dull this shot of reality, his press assistant offers a shot of the Greek brandy tsipouro for the mayor and the accompanying journalists (the stressed-out spokesman had three shots of his own this morning).
(Matt Vasilogambros)”Yiamas!” we toast.
An old man with white hair and large darkened ears walks in with his glass of tsipouro and plate of assorted olives, lamb, tomatoes, and cheese. When he sees the mayor, his eyes widen, he smiles, and the mayor pinches the old man’s cheeks the way that’s only normal for two Southern European men.
“I try to come here for psychological reasons,” the mayor says in his sharp English. “You have to work through the traditional ways, but at the same time, people want to see you.”
As the sun comes out for the first time this week, two Roma children start singing traditional songs — the brother plays the bouzouki guitar, while his sister joins in the soaring vocals that rise above the 500 vendors in this market that’s been around since 1906.
“Where are you from?” one young man holding two crabs asks me.
“Amer (Matt Vasilogambros)ica,” I respond.
“Oh, I like America. Obama!” he exclaims smiling. I smile, nod, and say the Greek pleasantry, “Yassas.”
A dozen blue-and-white Greek flags flap in the open air. The market is bustling, the men smile and shout, a butcher cuts lamb chops, taxis honk on the main thoroughfare, workless men loiter, and working Greeks walk to lunch — a complete picture of the people living together in this urban setting.
It’s a fitting day in the Omonia neighborhood.