The riots came like a tide, in regular intervals. It was always something or other, the economy, the pension cutbacks, something.
But the clockwork riot was the one right before Christmas, at December 6. Each year, every year, like clockwork. It started in 2008, right before the Greek Crisis. When two special officers, policemen in the eyes of the people but not really officers of the law, shot and killed a 15-year-old student called Alex.
The ensuing protests boiled into full-scale riots. It was the drop that spilt the glass of bile, the feather that tipped the scales of social power.
And our little shop was right in the middle of it.
We have a periptero, it’s a small everything-market crammed down into a few square metres on the sidewalk. We have everything, smokes, tourist maps, magazines, soft drinks, ice cream, bottled water, souvenirs, frappe coffee, lighters, cellphone cards. Everything.
You don’t have them elsewhere, and it’s funny to watch tourists coming to Greece for the first time and being amazed by little shops in the corners of the streets. I have been in more strangers’ selfies than a minor celebrity.
It’s my father’s job, and it’s the one thing that supports us, we have nothing else. Naturally, growing up I wanted nothing to do with it, and now that he’s gone, I run the thing. And now it’s my son’s turn to want nothing to do with it.
Just as it’s customary, my son bears my father’s name, Petros. And I’m named after my father’s father, Nico.
It’s a family thing. Entire familial relationships have been wiped out over naming kids.
I remember the first riot. It was the worse one yet, with a wave of looting and destruction coming from the Technical University, rolling down Patision Avenue and then spilling out on Panepistimiou towards the Parliament, two blocks away from our periptero.
We couldn’t get my father on the phone. We saw the news and we were worried, my mother was shaking. I went to the centre through blocked roads and shut down metro stations. I walked and walked and followed the fires.
I found my father beside our burned periptero, trying to salvage some of the wares. Up until that day, I avoided even getting near the little shop, silly and rebellious as I was. At that moment, I ran next to him and helped him out. The rioters were thin now, having moved further along to their target of hatred, the big royal house we call a Parliament. Their point was valid, their angers and fears we felt too. But we had bigger problems now. My father was exhausted and had a thick layer of sweat and soot on him, as if he’d gone through a chimney.
Without a word, I helped him salvage our livelihood.
The day went past and riots broke out in Thessaloniki and Cyprus too. Then in solidarity, people protested around Europe. The face of the murdered young man was everywhere.
Revolutions are all well and good, but they leave everything in flames.
After that day I helped out in shifts on the periptero. We got some money from the insurance, but it came in months later and we had to sell yiayia’s golden jewelry to a pawn shop to repair the periptero. My mother tried to hold out, but the pawn shops that popped out in every corner were taunting her each day, so she finally caved. The insurance people paid us after eight months, but by then we were so deep in debt that we couldn’t afford to buy back the family heirlooms.
My mother never got over losing them. I think yiayia would understand, though. She had lived through the Nazi occupation, after all. She reminded us at every opportunity till she died.
The shifts at the periptero weren’t that bad. Customers came by all the time. I had to mind for shoplifters through the curved mirrors, but I could occupy myself with my Playstation. We had everything installed in there, air condition cause the Athens summer heat was unbearable, internet, backup locks, a bottle to pee in. Me and my father peed in the bottle. Different ones, naturally. My mother during her shift went to the coffee shop right next to our little shop. But you couldn’t leave the shop unattended. Everything was so exposed, merchandise rolled out, emanating towards every direction on the compass. It was a pain every day to unfold the whole thing, then roll it all back and lock it down like an armadillo every night.
If you didn’t do it neatly, as per my father’s system demanded, nothing fit and it took you twice as long. So despite my protests I learnt the system and did the same folding/unfolding every day. I was the young one and my father hadn’t been the same after the riot, so I took the hard shifts and let the midday one for him. He always came about and checked up on my openings of course, and even years after I took over, he’d walk by at night and check the padlocks. He couldn’t sleep otherwise. My mother tried to fool me by telling me she’d send him out for milk or something, but I knew he was going to check my locking down.
The next year the riot came again. This time, it was armadillo time. We had reinforced the periptero with aluminium shutters that rolled down and locked everything neatly. The fridges had their own metal hood that covered them up good, but their upright position somehow taunted the rioters and they always tried to kick them down. So I brought the car over and we emptied the contents the night before December the 6th. We didn’t really care about the fridges because they were sponsored by the soft drink companies, but as father said, it was the broken windows effect. If they saw one kicked down, they would all fall on the periptero like vultures and break everything apart. So we rolled the fridges close to the shop and tied them up with chains around it. We pushed them a couple of times, they couldn’t possibly be kicked down by one or two people. More than that and nothing was safe, really. I climbed up a borrowed ladder and removed the ribbon of advertisements on top. Everything that drew attention to the shop was removed, we turned it into a dirty-white, nondescript aluminium box that simply stood there in the middle of the sidewalk, not bothering anyone, not inviting anyone to tear it down.
The Molotovs hit it anyway. We helped out the coffee shop owner lock everything down and we stood vigilant with him right next to our property. It was a harrowing day, I could see the years dripping from my father’s face. The worry had eaten him alive. We were ready with sticks and heavy jackets. We had three fire extinguishers at hand.
But the Molotov cocktail works because you can’t put out its fire.
The riot came like a tide once again, exactly as expected. Amongst angry people we fought, not anarchists mind you, for there were ordinary people in there, teenagers and scientists and grandmothers and aunts, and we fought back the looters and protected our livelihood.
Exarcheia was once again, on fire. Looking back it was the worst one yet, because it culminated with the official coming of the Greek crisis. Not that it died down the later years, but it felt like the end of the world. When you witness old people getting beaten down by riot-control batons, that’s when you think it’s all over, chaos has befallen, democracy is dead.
And then the morning came and it was all normal once more.
Yet the shopkeepers wept.
The large chain-stores bore the brunt every time. The banks. Everything corporate. But they were the ones who could wait for the insurance to pay, my father said. Remember what happened to us last year? Of course I did. We didn’t even buy a Christmas tree. We just brought out some lights and put them in a lamp that had the appropriate frame. It was very artsy. No turkey either. Too expensive. Mother cooked gemista, stuffed tomatoes and peppers. I didn’t mind, I didn’t need any gifts.
Only now do I realise that it could have been me. Alex was 15, just a kid marching with a peaceful protest, like so many rebels do at that age. I was 17 back then and I could easily have been at that very same protest. I only went another way because of a girl. The girl didn’t even bother to look at my general direction in the end, but she might have saved my life.
2011 was a mess. Syntagma had the Indignants, a peaceful movement organised via social media. There were 200.000 protesters literally camped out in Syntagma Square, where supposedly the politicians couldn’t ignore them. Ironically enough, it was a good time for business. Immigrants went up and down with bottled water and other supplies, selling to people. They bought full retail from us and they marked-up terribly, but beggars can’t be choosers. We restocked ten times those days. Smokes, anti-bacterial nappies, umbrellas, phone chargers, power banks, you name it, we sold out. It was rather quiet, yet the media found a way to spin this as anarchy and chaos. I looked at the news on the small TV inside my periptero and saw a burning building and garbage cans tipped over, and then looked outside towards the street and saw everything was fine. They kept showing the same burning building over and over, the same garbage can over and over, the same tiny group of protesters who made a mess over and over. It was laughable.
We fell into a routine. Armadillo-up the shop for early December, submit insurance claims during the holidays. I even bought a good DSLR camera so I could take clear pictures and submit them. Stock, receipts, electronics, everything in triplicate, ready to be filed. The insurance manager back in Syggrou hated us. We could see him seething quietly as we presented every obscure bit of paperwork he demanded. Mother kept things organised, I looked online for the necessary stuff and talked to other shopkeepers, so it went well for us. No delays. Scratch that, no delays from our end, the insurance always found out something to drag it out.
Then father died. Stress, the doctors said. It didn’t matter, we knew what the cause was. It was the worry that ate him up every day after that first severe riot, where he fought the tide by himself, keeping the angry mob at bay, failing.
They say the worst kind of monster is a human. I say, the worst kind of monster is a mob of humans. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. It has a life of it’s own, it’s no longer people, individuals. It’s a hysteria that takes over, huddles them up into a writhing mass of limbs and guides them to break, to kick, to smash, to throw, to burn, to scream, to spit, to bite. That being was like the Hecatonchires of mythology, the unbeatable monster with a hundred arms and fifty heads that helped overthrow the Titans. A mob was just like that, a monster worse than any other.
That’s what father witnessed, that’s what finally took his life. Living, breathing, next-door neighbours, strolling-by customers, quiet accountants. Faces of the monster that fell upon his only means of supporting his family, tormenting him ever after in his nightmares.
You know that no one is to blame in particular, but deep down I think they feel the guilt. The day they lost control and joined the monster with the hundred arms.
I always had trouble with thieves. Honestly, I didn’t know what to do with them. Some dropped everything and ran when they saw me getting out of the shop’s booth, others ran with the loot. Candy bars, frost drinks, potato chips. I’m not gonna chase after someone for a bag of chips, that’s ridiculous. Some kids I let steal, they only grabbed a bar of chocolate or something. If they asked, I’d have let them have it. Kids of all skin colours, with parents from all backgrounds, all ending up getting born in the same tormented place. I just looked away. What’s one less lollipop to sell?
Every time they saw me gathering up broken glass and painting the burn marks, people asked why I didn’t move the periptero. Oh I tried. But the licenses are specific to locations and you need to get special paperwork. The other two periptero next to us moved away, out of the line of sight of the clockwork riot. But our application never seemed to go through. It’s a very tight thing, having a periptero, they only give out licenses to people with disabilities and such. My father only got one because he had an old war injury.
So we stayed there, right in the middle of the Panepistimou avenue, a hair’s breadth from Syntagma and the ire of every angry person in the country.
Two years ago we lost everything. The riot appeared as expected, we had everything covered up and bolted down and chained together, just like always. But something had cracked. People were too angry from the beginning, citizens were fed up with the government, families were evicted and had no other choice but to protest. The wave of destruction smashed and burned everything in its wake. That day, we couldn’t stay and protect our stores, me and the other shopkeepers. There was smoke and fire everywhere. We feared for our lives. Oh, you fear for your life every time, but this was like a warzone. Motolovs fell everywhere, flames engulfed buildings, heavy things flew and smashed next to us. It was a matter of time before one fell on one of our heads and injured us deeply. The masked anarchists, that’s what the media liked to call them, covered up their faces and simply riled up everyone, simply tore up everything.
We abandoned our shops and ran away.
That night, none of us wanted to be the first to go back. Because the first to go back would have to call the rest and report on the damages, and nobody wanted to be the bearer of bad news. After an hour or so, we decided that we couldn’t delay it any longer. So we all went, and we all cried out as we saw our property being smoldering ash. I had removed most things that could be moved easily from the shop, like small electronics, but the bigger stuff had to stay, so they were gone.
When I got home, mother waited for me on the couch, biting her nails. I didn’t even need to say anything, she saw it all in my face. She hugged me tight and told me it was all just stuff, and that all she wanted was for me to stay safe.
That felt nice for a while, of course, but the reality was that it would be three months before we had another payday.
But I rebuilt everything. I even made it nicer, my little inherited shop on the sidewalk. I made it green, this time. The others grunted and asked me why would I even bother, it was all going down next year anyway. I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t want to give in to the pessimism. Yes, the country was going down the drain. Yes, the economy had already tanked. Yes, people lost their jobs.
But, so what? What are you gonna do? Lie down and give up?
So I rebuilt my little shop and made it pretty. There were things that bothered me from the old design, that I couldn’t really change. It suited my father nicely but I needed a few extras. I got glasses that shut nicely for winter and summer insulation, I got a sponsor that gave me video ads that played on two bolted-down tablets. Ads for cigarettes, even though half the people had given up smoking. I got a better-illuminated ribbon up on the roof that was very easy to see and easy to swap out for new advertisers. I got a better power box that didn’t short a fuse every time I plugged in the fridges.
It was nice.
I only hope father could have seen it. Would he be proud, or would he think I had ruined his little shop?
I honestly don’t know.
This year they say it’s gonna be worse. The new government that promised so many things didn’t deliver, naturally. So the protesters are the ones that are there every year plus the ones that believed the lies they were fed. I watch the online groups and the marshallings to riot. Mother spits out curses when she sees my screen but I don’t know. I can’t really hate the people. After all, I see them everyday. Yes, the Hecatonchires is scary and destructive. Dangerous, even. But working the periptero gives me a lot of time to watch the news and watch the people. Some like to chat, to ramble about their opinions. I smile and listen. The people are disappointed. But people are not a faceless mass. They are individuals, and individuals cook and smile and paint. They are not the Hecatonchires, that’s the dark side. We look away and pretend we don’t remember, but it’s part of all of us.
I pack things up for tomorrow, for when the clockwork riot comes. I can already see people walking about, carrying placats and writing their messages with big markers. Groups of teenagers run around spraying walls with graffiti. They are brazen, they do it in broad daylight even though it’s illegal. The other shopkeepers scream at them and send them away. One came up to my face and sprayed the glass on my shop, then ran away. I just shrugged and kept watching the news.
Glass is easy to clean up, after all. Let’s see first if it survives the next day.
Note: On December 6, 2008, Alexis Grigoropoulos, age 15, was shot and killed by an authority figure. The ensuing outcry resulted in a riot that rippled out to European cities.
I don’t want to comment on the tragic event or the distortion it got as it ballooned, but I was tempted to write a story. A story about a simple guy caught in the middle of all this.