Don’t ask where I’m from; ask where I’m a local – Taiye Selasi.
Athens, Greece, is where I call home. And I need Google maps to find my way around the labyrinthine inner streets, and I cannot speak the language, and I have never tasted those famous Greek dishes of souvlaki or moussaka. Many famous sites remain un-visited. Places I have never been include the Athenian Agora, the very best remaining example of an Ancient Greek marketplace, and Zeus’ temple, one of the largest temples in the Ancient world conveniently located in the centre of Athens.
So, as someone supposedly interested in culture, history, food and travel, what the hell have I been doing for the past seven months? And how do I feel entitled to write this feature?
Before I can answer such questions, I want to ask you, honestly, where are you a local?
This doesn’t necessarily mean where you come from or where your passport says you are from. I mean where you feel at home, where people recognise your face, where you know exactly where to buy and eat the food that you most enjoy and where you carry out your routines and rituals that make up the fabric of your life.
My routine often begins with a morning run. The pretty National Gardens are chock-filled with tourists and so Pedion Areos Park, with its clearer air and wide walkways is my usual choice. I can point out the exact spot to avoid street dogs basking in the morning sun and the precise moment when families will spill from the Orthodox Church on a Sunday. If I feel up to a challenge then I make the steep climb to Lycabettus Hill. To avoid the crowds milling around the summit, I head for a hidden platform just below where I can savour views over the city completely to myself. Tourists pay 5 euros to enter the Panathenaic Stadium, the only one in the world built entirely of marble, but join the joggers encircling it and, again, you get better views, and the knowledge that you are running in the footsteps of Ancient Athenian champions.
If you want to find me in Athens then I am probably more likely to be found in a café than in my own home. Athens is a coffee lovers’ paradise but for the best of the black stuff, try Tailor Made which has its own micro-roastery and does a mean espresso martini. If, like me, you like to be surrounded by books while you work, then try Little Tree Books, which serves up a wonderful cake selection. And for pure decadence, head to The Darker Side of Chocolate in the well-heeled Kolonaki area, for the best hot chocolate that will ever grace your lips.
Talking of food, I am a happy vegetarian in the meat-opolis of Athens. I have discovered that even in traditional Greek tavernas, there are always plenty of plant-based delights such as the blended split-pea dip, traditional Fava, crispy courgettes and tangy tzatziki. I can’t get through a week without visiting at least one local farmers’ market. There are many dotted in different spots throughout the city every day, bringing food-lovers olives fresh from the groves and potatoes that are still dirty with mud. And I have to mention my favourite restaurant in the city, the vegetarian haven of Avocado, which serves hearty portions of delicious veggie dishes and all sorts of intriguing fresh juices.
Although I haven’t set foot on the lawns of many of the ancient sites, Athens is a city where the history and ruins are all around you; they blend in with the graffiti-tagged landscape and reach up into the sky. I peer at Zeus’ temple from the bus to work every day and marvel at its half-fallen wonder, even if I have never and probably will never buy an entry ticket. I visit the mighty Acropolis every national holiday when entry is free, along with many other curious Athenians. I love the fact that this is a city where the art and history are on display for everyone to see, whoever you are and whether you are passing through or here to stay.
So, despite the fact that I am often lost in the winding roads, have never sampled the national dishes and have paid for very few tourist attractions, I would answer ‘Athens’ to the question ‘where are you a local?’ And I have My Athens, which will be very different to Your Athens or the Athens of any other resident of this vibrant melting pot of cultures and nationalities.
So, in the words of Taiye Selasi, I don’t ask where you are from, but where are you a local?