A drink at the fringe of history

I’ve never smelt tear gas before. It smells vaguely like that stuff that pours out of smoke machines at live music shows and dance parties, only more acrid and accompanied by stinging eyes, a slow, pernicious deadness at the back of your nose, and the urge to sneeze, only the sneezing doesn’t help a great deal.

The smell comes wafting through the door of Baba Au Rum. It’s around the corner from Syntagma, the area of Athens where the riots are going down in earnest.

It’s a surreal experience to hear history unfolding around the corner, to hear stun grenades and tear gas bombs to the soundtrack of quiet jazz over a vodka tonic. I’m not joining the demonstration because this is not my fight. I’m not Greek — I don’t feel well-informed enough to have an opinion either way about whether a default would be a disaster for Greece or a route that might pay off in the long-term. I know enough about the country, and hold enough love for it, to find it terribly sad to see it in such a sorry state. But I don’t feel that it’s for me to get involved.

But involved or not, it feels like we are on the margins of history tonight, like pivotal moments are unfolding on the other side of the glass. Earlier in the evening we’ve walked up to the rocks underneath the Acropolis, and sat watching the panorama of this ancient city bathe in the soft dusky light of the sunset, listening to strident protesters with megaphones and the first of the detonations that we’ll hear again and again tonight. There’s a strange emptiness to the atmosphere — the calm before the storm is an oft-abused cliché, but it certainly feels like something’s about to go down.

As the sun sets we walk down toward Syntagma, where the protesters are gathering. People pass us on the way, some wearing gasmasks or surgical masks in anticipation of the tear gas.

We’ll later hear that the police fired tear gas grenades into a quiescent crowd outside the Parliament building. But when you’re in the midst of these things, it’s impossible to know what’s going on. You just hear whispers and snippets of conversation, word of mouth from the people who make their way past the bar, eyes streaming, faces covered with what I first take to be some sort of tear gas residue but turns out to be a kind of lotion that apparently mitigates the gas’s effects.

The gas bomb detonations get closer, and the barman draws down the metal shutters over the window onto the street. We get a call saying that apparently anarchists are firebombing shopfronts, and the proprietors are concerned that those on the run form police might seek refuge here. More gas wafts by. A woman comes in and tries to wash the gas out of her eyes. There are whispers that it’s the police themselves who have incited violence, in the same way that police agents provocateur have started trouble at Occupy Wall Street protests in the US and within the environmental movement in the UK. Later we hear that the police and the anarchists were wearing the same police-issue boots. We debate going or staying.

We stay. For a while, at least. But the tension is palpable. Word arrives that the rioters are just up the road — two blocks away, in fact. You can hear the clamour of buildings being damaged. It turns out that shops are being burned and looted. As ever, the lunatic fringe has taken over. We start to worry about getting trapped in the city — all the roads are closed, as are several metro stations, and it’d be a brave taxi driver to venture into the midst of what’s now looking like a full-fledged riot. And so we make a run for it.

It’s a mad 15 minute dash through the fringes of chaos to the metro at the Acropolis. Outside in the streets, people are milling around, some trying to work out an escape route, others clearly heading for the trouble. We pass old women with their faces smeared against the gas, a few bewildered tourists, and — most bizarre of all — one veteran street performer who’s set up his show in the middle of the tram lines. He’s proud to remain where he is, apparently. He smiles when we give him a couple of euros.

The frightening and saddening thing about any situation like this is the panic. Tear gas is thick in the air, a smoky haze that looks more like Beirut in the 1980s than the cradle of civilization. Streets are blocked with burning barricades. When we look more closely, it turns out that the bonfires blocking the streets are constructed from the chairs and tables of local tavernas. A country burning itself.

Whoever started the violence tonight, one thing is clear amongst the confusion — there is guilt on both sides of the fence here. For a country whose economy is heading rapidly down the shitter, torching the businesses of local shopkeepers and custodians is surely the worst sort of self-destruction. And whatever the economic sense of calling for a default and departure from the euro, it’s clear that as ever, this protest has been co-opted and derailed by the lunatic fringe who consider that beating up firemen and attacking irreplaceable old buildings is a constructive way to voice discontent.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, Athens is burning on the other side of the glass, turning on itself as we watch from the margins of history. It’s needless and it’s lamentable and it’s dreadfully, dreadfully sad.

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