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COMMENTARY: Smells like athens



WHOAH! There I am, unassumingly drifting down Kolokotroni Street in central Athens on an ordinary weekday morning when the smell of kotopoulo psito (roast chicken) tweaks my nose. It's only 10am but out of the blue I'm overcome with hunger for crispy roasted chicken skin drenched in salt and lemon. And what's more, suddenly I nostalgically recall the exact same smell that danced out from the sidewalk vents outside Vassilopoulos supermarket in Paleo Faliro, summers of 1976 through 1983, when, on my visits to Greece I used to accompany my dear granny during her local shopping expeditions and eagerly soak everything in. I stop by the Psitopoleion O Vizandinos and take a deep breath. Mr O Vizandinos sees me from the corner of his eye but keeps them fixed on Eleni Menegaki on the box and lets me feel free to enjoy the smell for a while, "yeah, go on, enjoy it, just don't bother me."

The olfactory sense is perhaps the most amazing of all for its ability to irrevocably bring back a universe of clearly defined and strongly felt memories. Visitors to Athens often complain about the noise, the disorganisation, the over-cluttered architectural foundations, the traffic congestion, cigarette smoke and the pollution which can be seen and smelt. In their quick dip here they feel disappointed that it wasn't as clean as the surface of their glossy tourist brochure. But it is elements like chaos that longer-term Athens residents grow to love. The noises, the jaggedly contrasting angles of buildings, the driver letting off black fumes that we can all do a moutza to and curse, are all part of a secret recipe for deep, unshakeable passion. And the smells, those very smells, each one depicting a different era, philosophy, taste and revelation.

Try it. Take a smell-directed journey through Athens and you'll discover how each odour indicates the society surrounding it. There are the musty shops throughout the city which smell like old Athens , like the homes of people past who collected furniture from generations ago, the homes of those alienated, few remaining elderly folk who still sweetly wear their suits and hats or well-ironed A-line skirt, coiffed hair and beads to walk to the laiki. Mostly, there are the shops that smell new, like the new money, the new values, the new identity, of second-generation city dwellers who answer " Athens " when asked where in Greece they're from, carelessly forgetting yiayias, cousins and theies in their village or island. There are shops that smell of mystery and nature - musky wood and cool dusty glass, selling trinkets, charms and furniture, and then gaudy tourist shops that smell of antiseptic.

Most prominent of all in this journey is the part involving food aromas. Starting with junk-food smells, the MacDonald's smell is the same worldwide; regardless what the company says on its justifiably paranoid TV adverts desperately trying to reassure consumers that ingredients are indeed pure and healthy, the artificial pong-cloud of these "restaurants" is a nauseating reminder of what we have thoughtlessly resorted to ingesting. Ditto for Wendy's. But tell me, where else in the world can you find the smell of Everest? There is no one smell of this food-chain, but anyone who lives here would recognise it with a blindfold on; it's the smell of salami with French fries, tirokafteri and cheese, or ham, tomato, omelette, florina peppers and onion, or any other weird toasted sandwich combination. Talking of junk-food, I guess souvlaki should be mentioned, although it pains me to call this 300-calorie snack junk. Plaka (musky old trees and houses, and honeysuckle in the Anafiotika) and Monastiraki (leather goods, dust) are the places to experience gyros, tzatziki and lemon-and-oregano-sprinkled kalamaki me psomi, but as Athens is so full of surprises, the familiar aroma will make itself felt just about anywhere, usually making your mouth water even if you are a vegetarian (that's why stores Athens-wide have created the potato-and-veg-filled oikologiko souvlaki for non meat-eaters).

Like souvlaki, the smell of roasted chestnuts and corn on the cobb spin through the air all around the city.

Psyrri, which used to be not only a red-light district (stench of immorality?) but also a central area for shoe-manufacturers (leathery air) and DIY nuts an bolts (mettalic breezes) now smells of food. The spirits of mezedes, Indian cuisine, ouzo and trendily exotic concoctions fill the air.

Visiting the sights can also create an aroma-experience. Surrounding the Acropolis are caves where earth, wind and fire meet and share a gentle sleep. The smell is dark and dank. Standing below the Parthenon may be an experience itself, you may be able to smell the silent presence of the past in earth, air and marble. Lykabbettus Hill, however, smells fresh and vibrant, possibly owing to the valley hidden behind it.

Extensive research has proven that whether we are attracted or repelled by others is pre-conditioned by smell. It has happened to me to be wildly drawn to someone whose smell I hadn't even consciously noticed, and whom a friend says "smells really wierd" to her. Surely this must be true for cities as well. And like a lover whose odour lingers in the nostrils even days after an intimate clinch, the originality, familiarity and beauty of that smell becomes all the more addictive. You can acquire a distinctly ageless sense of Athens at the National Gardens, which, being a place I also visited as a child, I can reassure always smells the same - deliciously musky and moist vegetation, animal excrement, feathers, fur, stale water, earth and trees.

Walking along the bottom half of Vas Sofias Ave, you're bound to experience the fresh zingy zest of flowers from the cluster of dimly-lit little florists. Gusts of jasmine, roses, tulips, carnations and other lovelies are a magnificent refreshment from the traffic smell beyond. And if you're further down in that area, around Syntagma Square at the right time, you may be fortunate enough to get a feel for tear-gas, generously provided to protesters as well as on-lookers and passers-by.

Work is on your mind, maybe that's why you're in Athens in the first place after all, so where can you smell the coffee and face the day with sufficient bravery? everywhere is where you will find practically any kind of coffee under the sun in this murky-coloured caffeine-loving country, but smelling it whilst simply walking along is another story, as you'll have to go to Omonia Square at the corner of Panepistimiou St (or Eleftherios Venizelou as it's sign-posted) to Papagallo for that, and get a gust as the door flaps open and shut.

If your nose is in need of a little work out, head towards the spices and herbs, which pierce the nostrils with their exquisite poignancy can be visited on Athinas St or on Evripidou street , where there is a market and little shops selling huge varieties of these, as well as coffee.

The sea, however, is the best part of Athens you can possibly get a good smell of. No sea in Athens ? Take the train down to Paleo Faliro (jasmine, dust-bins and, at a certain point, roast chicken) and walk down to Bati Beach . Smell the sand and the water, and there you have it, sea! Of course you won't smell as much coconut-oil, innocence, freedom and youth as I did, but you can't have your cake (chocolate, deep butter, vanilla) and eat it too, can you?

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