When I arrived in Athens there was a protest happening. As a result I couldn’t get off the metro at the correct stop. Instead I had to walk from a previous stop. As I rode up the escalator to street level my eyes burned from the residual tear gas. Thousands streamed by me, some carrying Greek flags, some with gas masks. I worked my way through the crowds towards the main square where my AirBNB was located. I ducked into a cafe for a little peace, and for wifi to get directions for the last few blocks.
I ordered Tsipouro, because now that I’ve heard of it I want to use the word when I get the chance. Greek grappa in hand, I discovered that my room was a mere 50m away. Real cities are so dense. Two blocks over 60,000 protesters were dispersing.
I googled the protest… “Syntagma Square”. Rumours put it at one million people. The country to the north (which I thought was just Macedonia) is officially called the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM for short), but the Greek government had just consented to a name change, allowing for the Republic of North Macedonia. This was the cause of the protest. The Greeks prefer to call the nation to the north Skopje.
At the sidewalk tables of the cafe there were several smokers, but inside there was only myself and what turned out to be another American named Matt. Matt asked the bartender about the protests, and the bartender began to explain what Google had just clarified for me: “You see Skopje wants to change their name”
I looked out the window and there in the midst of the busy one-way street was a developing problem. An older lady was yelling at a cab driver, but not getting in. Instead she held her rolling bag aloft and pointed to one of its wheels. Together they blocked the road and the line of cars began to honk in a random cacophony. This added to the women’s agitation and she shook as the shouted ever more loudly. The cab driver, a younger man, was exasperated. As the lady shouted he looked nervously around and occasionally raised his hand in that classic “why don’t you go somewhere else” motion.
A few cars back in the line that by now stretched out of sight another cab driver got out to act as referee. She was a woman, younger than the lady but older than the man. From my seat in the cafe I could hear people shouting from all sides. But I don’t speak Greek. The young cab driver, still seated in his car, offered the angry lady a Euro note (10, 50? it was orange) and the other cab driver, the referee, pushed his hand and the bill back into the car. “No!” she must have shouted. And then the referee yelled at the older lady. And the older lady yelled back.
From my cafe, one of the smokers jumped up to join the fray. A tall man in a leather motorcycle jacket. As they shouted in a round I watched as the angry lady allowed a small bump (not sure who did the bumping, they were all close together) to knock her over backwards. She fell stiffly like one of those fainting goats, backwards over her rolling bag, feet pointing skyward, and her head hit the pavement. She started crying. The bystanders helped her up. As they helped her up they moved from the middle of the road. And traffic began to move again.
A traffic cop arrived and tried to flag down a cab for the distraught woman. Two cabs passed at speed, almost knocking the cop down. The cabs were having a protest of their own. Finally one stopped, and the conflict, whatever the cause, was no longer happening outside my window.
I’ve heard that trauma spreads like an infection. Something bad must have already happened to the older woman, perhaps that day or perhaps many years ago. Whatever it was, it spilled over and for a little while I watched as the disease spread to everyone on that little street.
At the bar the other Matt was confused by the bartenders explanation of the naming controversy. Matt asked “Wait, are you talking about Macedonia?”. I giggled. The bartender frowned.
We sat just a few hundred meters from the birthplace of democracy.
“The boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave.”
- Thomas ‘Skopje has a nice ring to it’ Jefferson