How Do You Discuss the Economy With the Mayor of Athens? Over Ouzo and Lamb, of Course.

In a humming central fresh-food market, the leader shares laughs and pain with Greeks.

National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
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Matt Vasilogambros
Dec. 5, 2013, 3:09 a.m.

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!”

“Fresh fish!”

“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.

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