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Athens at Full Blast

Even drug addicts are bothered by the heat in Omonia Square, so one of them, a balding guy in his mid-twenties, has gone to the baker’s, Katselis, to buy an ice cream.

Off to work

From a freezer, he chooses a tub with red-striped contents which a helpful saleswoman puts into a Cornetto machine. Out comes delicious soft ice cream, served in a cone. The guy searches his pockets for money, quite fruitlessly, so he gets the ice for free. Right away, he drops it on the floor, then tries to pick up the smear with his fingers, unaware that we’re all following his efforts from our breakfast tables on the balcony.

Outside, people rush off to work, without disturbing the kiosk owner who is sorting out wristwatches, placed helter-skelter in blue plastic baskets as if sold by the pound. The kiosk is hung with watches up front, four or five end to end, and at the bottom edged with watch straps. Fancy coloured sun glasses adorn the sides of the kiosk, while its back is covered by hanging belts. The white canopy roof seems to rest on all the merchandise.

Thundering Traffic

Passing in review

Omonia is teeming with cars, enveloping the square in exhaust fumes. By accelerating and braking violently, the drivers try to intimidate people into staying on the pavement, but the Athenians are too busy for that. If having the necessary self-assurance, crossing against a red light can be done with ease and elegance, as demonstrated by a well-groomed elderly gentleman who walks straight into the chaos. With his head high, authoritative eyes and directing gestures, he controls five rows of thundering cars and continues unimpressed on the opposite pavement.

The cars keep swarming in and out of the large streets radiating to and from Omonia Square. The streets Stadiou and Venizelou connect Omonia with the other main centre of Athens, Syntagma Square. The 28th October street, starting from the Venizelou just nearby, passes a beloved sight, the Archeological National Museum. The Athinas street tempts with the Acropolis in the distance. A more comfortable way to the Acropolis, as well as to the Plaka, is the pedestrian street Eolou, parallel to the Athinas.

A woman is cleaning around the stairs leading down into the metro, the pride and joy of Athens. It’s always a relief to leave the surface, move underground, floor after floor and tear along in the modern trains. The work on the metro has marred Omonia for years. At long last, the tall cranes are gone. The surrounding buildings have been renovated. Shining in glass and agreeable colours, they try to surpass each other. My own favourite is the stately yellow old building of the National Bank. One thing is still missing, though: the decoration of the square’s centre – Omonia’s heart.

Omonia’s New Look

Things not working or not ready, are promised to be in perfect order by the Olympics 2004. Omonia will definitely be completed long before. Should the politicians fall short of ideas for the decoration of its central part, they could pick up inspiration down in the metro hall where giant photos depict what Omonia looked like in the early 19 hundreds. In those days, the Athenians were strolling under shady palms among neat flowerbeds. There are palms in Omonia even today, but out in the corners.

Keeping Cool
When temperature exceeds 30 degrees centigrade, the hunt for cool air begins. Going underground doesn’t cool appreciably, whereas in the actual square, there are several possibilities. The National Bank has an efficient air conditioning which still cannot beat the Neon, a stylish self-service restaurant with a nearly freezing temperature. The department store Hondos Center combines cooling and shopping, while various smaller places offer a combination of cool air and fast food.

Fuming in Omonia

In spite of the crowd, it’s possible to study the Athenians one by one. A suitable lookout post is Pyxida, a fast food bar on the same side as the Hondos Center. Its doorway is a scene where the Athenians pass in review, on the pavement or the metro escalators, each of them visible roughly ten seconds. Long enough to establish that they are not only in a constant hurry, but also manage to maintain their style, despite the heat. Three smashing young ladies, descending into the metro, awaken audible passions in two sandwich-chewing guys.

Magic Moments
The only two pavement cafés in Omonia are the sloping Le Metro at the Hotel La Mirage and the elegant La Cafetiera outside the Omonia Grand Hotel. Traditional taverns are hiding in the side streets. Although Omonia never sleeps, most eating places close around midnight. The baker’s and a couple of others, though, are on the go day and night, exactly like the cars. Papers and magazines are at night sold from long tables at the Athinas street, also a nocturnal meeting place for the druggies.

Those were the days

In rare moments, just seconds long, the night traffic comes to a complete standstill. It’s like magic, and you can dream yourself back to the days when cabs were horse-drawn, inspired by the faded photos downstairs. However, the cars are certainly here to stay, so I put my trust in the unfinished centre of Omonia. Its decoration will hopefully be a true eye-catcher, causing motorists to slow down and drug addicts to raise their eyes from the ground – to enjoy the sight of Omonia’s new heart.

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