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20 May, 2024
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The charms of a forgotten neighborhood

A flight with unwanted conversations and surprising views

Eleni Xenou

Eleni Xenou

In Seat 7A, I don my mask and fasten my seatbelt, opening my book. To my right, a gentleman of around 70 sits with his lady. I sense from their glances that they wish to strike up a conversation, but I'm not in the mood. There was a time when I might have obliged, but these days, I'm more guarded with my interactions.

Their decades of excess trouble me. I close my book and press my face against the window. The stewardess pushes the trolley, offering coffee or water, but I decline. I seek solace in gazing at the shapes of clouds and islands, wondering if that's where we'll find our destination, a form suspended in the sky.

At the airport, a bustling crowd from all corners of the world navigates a meticulously designed maze of blue ribbons. I observe the myriad faces, each a unique tapestry of features, attire, hairstyles, bellies, and chins. Perhaps even the thoughts wandering within our minds are as diverse as our appearances. We resemble ants in search of a crumb to store, but it seems there's nothing left from anywhere.

The taxi ride begins, and I have no choice but to feign interest in the driver's chatter. I dissect him through the lens of literature; it's a defense mechanism. He's around sixty, with a golden tooth and a balding pate. His monologue starts with the lamentation of bad weather and soon spirals into political discourse. "Mitsotakis can't manage a thing," he proclaims. "Tsipras was the best, but the Americans paid off Katrougalos to betray him at the last moment." He longs to return to Crete, insisting it's better there, where children beg at traffic lights. But I've heard such tales before, and my empathy is exhausted. His diatribe, the absolutism, the conspiracies – they're all too toxic. It's better to be guarded.

I ascend to the fourth floor, where E. has kindly offered me a place to stay. We hadn't crossed paths in years, but our recent reconnection has depth and familiarity. She treats me as she always did, with colorful towels on the bed and breakfast provisions in the fridge. She's careful to ensure I don't stumble on the steps.

In the evening, we dine at a cozy restaurant on Anagnostopoulou Street. P. joins us, a delightful coincidence in our shared existence, reassuring, like all things unchanging. We share a chocolate dessert before retiring for the night.

The next morning, I rise early for a neighborhood stroll. First, I pass by Filion, a place redolent with the essence of old Athens. I glance at its patrons, mostly elderly, each with a distinct style, as if determined to preserve the essential. Then, I proceed past the church and reach a small square. I stand there, capturing a photograph of the pavilion. I can't quite explain why, but in these Athenian pavilions, I feel I've left the fingerprints of my youth.

An elderly woman seated on a bench behind me beckons for my assistance. She's dressed in black, surrounded by white and gray pigeons, like a scene from a Fellini film. "I can't get up, my dear," she says. I offer my arm, her hair white, her eyes dark. "I'm ninety," she proudly declares. Her doctor has advised her to take occasional walks, and today, she's found help. "God bless you," she repeats, as if wishing me well will make it manifest. She walks away, her steps faltering, and I hear her mutter, "Kucha-Kucha."

I choose a quaint café called "Nice and Easy," ordering a steaming cappuccino. The weather is unbelievably clear. In the apartment above, a piano resonates, and across from me hangs a large poster of "Casablanca," featuring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman locked in a timeless embrace. "We'll always have Paris," I ponder. But my reverie is interrupted by another elderly individual.

"Take some tissues, my dear," he says, holding a bag full of them, his hand trembling. He offers them for sale. I initially decline, but he persists. "Aren't you going to cry?" he asks, and his question pierces through my reluctance. I apologize and purchase a few packages, just to have...

[This article was translated from its Greek original]

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