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Myrto Aspioti

It’s been a three-and-a-half-hour flight. A one-and-a-half-hour bus ride before it, a fifteen-minute walk before that, five hours of sleep. Four months. Coming home helps me keep track of time. My time away feels progressive, busy, productive. Time at home is different.

From behind the car window I silently greet my old friend, the urban jungle that I know is there beyond the highway from the airport home. Industrial buildings lining the highway like a preamble of city, some built and then abandoned, some half-built, some, few, still in use, lonely storehouses echoing with the cars wheezing by. In the weeks to come, I’ll take that same highway, and the one that intersects with it vertically, a million times. I’ll notice the blue neon cross of a chapel flashing 24/7 amidst the unruliness of apartment blocks. Smoggy balconies with faded tents and pots of flowers that won’t survive the scorching summer. Posters peeling off the bridges on the highway, an international tattoo convention, a local underwear brand, a music festival in two months. Within a week, I’ll have heard all the songs on the radio. Twice. Some of the rock.fm staples, reliable since 2005: The Scorpions, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Eric Clapton, Oasis, Led Zeppelin and James, a British band that has inexplicably enjoyed two decades of adulation at home. Is it because song rights are too expensive for the station? Because they have been too expensive for a decade now? How sad is that? But everyone knows all the words, that’s not sad. Welcome back. We’re still standing. We’re still on! You could switch us off, but you won’t, will you? You’ll sing along. The sunshine helps, always. The car — an automatic 1980s BMW that a friend of my grandmother’s gave to her a few years ago after her husband passed, three out of four seat belts in use, one out of four doors, windows manual, lock manual, the driver’s seat tilting lopsidedly backwards, magnifying mirrors, perhaps in all respects uninsurable — heats up like a greenhouse.

My home is half in the suburbs and half in the city centre. Polar opposites. Their changing landscapes fill me in on everything I need to know. Home is not just the apartment or the family in it, the dog, the heaps of stuff I store there and add to each time, the memories, the familiar contents of the kitchen cupboards, the cleanliness. It’s the whole area surrounding it, what it was, what it meant, and what it says about us and the way we are now. Half my home is in a leafy, villa-dotted suburb: security cameras, drawn blinds, porters’ booths, state-of-the-art alarm systems, gardens with guard dogs who take their job very seriously. I am grateful for my own dog’s aloofness as she struts before them and pees on their manicured lawns and thorny iron fences. Until the middle of the twentieth century, the place was a foresty slope my grandma remembers visiting on day trips from the city centre with her husband. In the early 1980s my great-grandfather bought three flats in a newly-built apartment block there for his widowed daughter and two grandchildren. The area was up-and-coming, the green much coveted. It seemed like a good investment, and for decades, it was. The children grew older, had kids, had cars, had jobs far, far away, but enough money for gas and the maintenance of their cars, flats and kids. Like everyone else. We have been walking the dog (three different dogs, actually) around that block for thirty years, different constellations of people but the same route, sometimes in reverse, up the one hill, down the other, sometimes back through the shortcut with the General’s house. It is a calm, pretty neighbourhood, too safe for its own good. This time, I’ll count the abandoned properties, remapping the well-trodden route. They have huge balconies, overgrown gardens, swampy swimming pools. Some have broken windows. All are hung with banners like prizes. For Sale, if interested call X. Let’s just say, X doesn’t get that many calls, and those he does have foreign country codes. Wealth paying the price of its former obscenity. It’s hard to feel sorry for people’s villas. But then, I know, it’s not about the villas. It’s about businesses that have run aground, and pension funds that have been sucked dry, jewellery sold, furniture sold. No property left. Not a big deal if you’ve never had any, or probably never will, like my generation. But a huge deal if you’ve always thought you would die in your house, and pass it on to your children.

Property. The currency of the 1960s, our grandparents’ language of love, and proof of a business acumen unmatched by subsequent generations. The second half of home is a smaller (but still pretty spacious) flat in the fourth floor of an apartment block built in the 1950s by my engineer grandfather, which was re-floored, re-painted and refurnished completely three years ago. Next to it, a dance school, on the other side a corner shop, across from it the display of a toy shop, attractive to children, bewildering for adults. There used to be a pastry shop my other grandmother would buy chocolate éclairs from on Mondays, but it has closed down now. The bakery in the corner, too. The pavements are chapped, lined with aromatic citrus trees and never-ending queues of cars, populated by stray cats, dogs, and scraps from the overflowing rubbish bins. Cramped balconies overhead, but in daily use, some tended to with care, each other’s only view. What you can’t see: there are inner courtyards with wiry staircases for the domestic help of the post-war metropolitan bourgeois that used to live in the area, now home mostly to cleaning products or families of pigeons. The building pulsates with their comforting cooing and the distinctly digestive sounds of the lift going up and down all night. The lobbies of the apartment blocks all smell the same: old people’s cologne, carpet, and sometimes freshly cooked stew. You can only guess the existence of basements in these apartment blocks from the street, from the barricaded shutters at your ankles, the underground window sills sometimes piled with rubbish.  In between the apartment blocks there is the occasional decrepit, neoclassical family home in which the locals take great pride (‘this is how it all used to be!’), sometimes hidden under a dark green canvas that keeps parts from falling on people’s heads. In the summer things do fall on people’s heads, mostly thick streams of water from overworked air-cons. People from everywhere. Poor people from everywhere, crammed in trams, stuck in traffic, selling lottery tickets or roasted chestnuts or selfie sticks and iPhone cases in the pedestrian area in front of the train station. A man missing a leg asking for change amongst the cars, opposite a run-down, turn-of-the-century villa with blood-red roses in its otherwise unkempt garden. Poverty in the sun. The radio with its reliable classics, the car heating up, wondering where the man goes after dark, wondering at the roses in the deep city. Pity is not quite the right word. This city is dirty, sprawling, inhumane in so many ways. It changes slowly. It has been playing the same songs for years. Always late. Long and wide, huge distances. But it is honest, and tolerant, mostly. Hospitable, even.

And time passes differently there, it doesn’t progress, it digresses. A city like no other, like nothing else. I call it home, it feels like home, but I know that’s not quite fair. I have missed so much of its suffering, read about it in The Guardian, heard about it from others. I only see its before and after. I am neither responsible for it nor helpful to it in any way, except perhaps through the little money I spend while there. I only observe it, and whatever I feel about it while observing, which is a lot, is of little interest to others, and indeed sometimes offends people who feel more responsible and more helpless than me. But this time, this time that I really walked it, the rich bits and the poor bits, the ancient bits and the brand new bits, the European bits and the Oriental bits, the suburbs and the centre, again and again, I was stunned by how completely the crisis has permeated its social fabric, and how visible this is on the apartment blocks and the streets and the highways. Our family history written all over it. And we’re the lucky ones. My mother tongue has a saying to the effect of ‘home is where you are’. Coming back home to Oxford from Athens, I always need a few days to adapt to progressive, busy, productive time. And I always do. But this time, maybe out of guilt or simply because I stayed there longer and saw more, I felt the need to remember the images of home in crisis, to record them, share them, and maybe in this way try to make up for my convenient absence.

Myrto Aspioti is reading for a D.Phil in German literature at St. John’s College, Oxford.