Conversations about Syntagma Square

I was reading a book about a garden in Helekion outside Athens and the horticultural intern mentioned a day trip to Athens and Syntagma Square. That brought back a flood of memories, since it has been well over twenty years since that  I walked on that marble paving.

When we first used to visit Greece and stay in a hotel in the city, we would have an obligatory visit to Syntagma Square to confirm our return air tickets even though we had just arrived for a six week holiday. My father was very particular about confirming return flights. Much as he loved Greece, he did not seem to want to be stuck there. We always thought it would be cool to spend a few more weeks exploring the village or if we were lucky a few more days at the sea, snorkelling, paddling and eating at tavernas. It never happened.  My father was never bumped off a flight, although there were many horror stories about South African Greeks, or worse still, first time travellers from the villages who had never been on a plane and then were bumped off as Olympic Airways was  always overbooked. It helped that my Godfather was a pilot on the national airline. It also helped that my father nurtured the family’s relationship with the lady who worked at the Olympic Airways office tucked into a corner behind grey marble columns on Syntagma Square.

Syntagma means Constitution and the square was formed on the foundation after independence from the Ottomans and specifically after independence  of the Hapsburg advisors to the new king, whose palace on the northern aspect of Syntagma is now the Greek parliament. It is a large oblong square with its length leading toward the sea away from parliament. It is ringed by busy roads and a main road, Amalia, which tries to bisect it at the waist. Many times I imagined the frustrated buses and taxis driving straight through the square to avoid the snarling traffic that blocked the Athenian roads. As slow as the traffic seemed it was still difficult to cross the road from the inner square. Traffic lights were suggestions for drivers and Zebra crossings were distorted strips on the melting tarmac that mirrored the neo-classic columns of the parliament in sympathetic decoration but did nothing to slow the traffic for a mere pedestrian to cross. I soon learnt that it was all about attitude when crossing a road in Athens. Put your foot into the road without hesitation and walk confidently, head up, without so much as looking at the cars threatening to drive over you.

If you stood at the parliament and looked toward the sea, which was invisible for the buildings and smog, at the bottom of the slope lay a few open cafes, where we would be treated to iced lemonades and ice creams as children. Tucked in between the cafes was the American Express office, where we used to change travellers cheques.

When I started going alone as an adult I loved Syntagma. Occasionally I would walked up to the square and see the ominous gathering of the crowds threatening a demonstration and turn and go back. Other times I would sit and drink a frappe and enjoy some people watching. Once I dived into the Olympic Airways office and on a whim booked myself a flight to New York and Los Angeles. That my father knew the staff meant I got a good deal without any questions being asked.

Syntagma is worth a visit. I am going back this year, even if there is a protest.

A photograph of my father's from the sixties in Athens

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