in Greece 2015

Blocks and squares, and lounging as a way of life


The plateia in the southern Athenian suburb and beach-town of Voula, on a Monday night, 10 pm, July 2015.

πλατεία (plah-TEE-ah) — n.: the center of a town, usually a plaza surrounded by cafes, restaurants and shops

VOULA, July 23 — In Στερεά Ελλάδα (ste-re-AH el-LA-tha: mainland Greece) at last, the heat is no less intense. I’m hearing that all over the world, it’s hot. It’s in the 90s across America. Iran has reported record-shattering heat indices. The heat in the bus from the airport is enough to melt travelers’  luggage. Every time I think, oh, maybe today I can wear long pants, I find myself regretting it.

It’s partly because the place where I’m staying is kind of not near anything. It’s the first place in Greece I’ve been where there hasn’t been retail within a couple of blocks — a περίπτερο, a παντοπωλείο (Greek equivalent of a convenience store), anything. 

And now I have to define “blocks” because I realize my definition is very different than here. When I think of a standard city block I think of the Square in downtown Bloomington: about 275-300 feet. Most American cities had some initial planning, their centers based on a grid of streets placed at regular intervals, with the assumption that people would very likely be getting around on horses, perhaps with wagons. (My nephew, born and raised in Massachusetts, one of the oldest American states at about 400 years, likes to deride the Midwest because all the roads are straight and totally boring. I suppose there are more than a few cow-defined roads in Beantown.)

Chania, Heraklion, Athens, and most smaller places in Greece appear to have been designed entirely by livestock. You look under the Acropolis Museum — which you can do because they’ve put glass windows into the ground over yet more ruins they discovered while building it — and you don’t see roads at all, just sidewalk-wde paths that slither between randomly placed 2500-year-old homes. The other day I went to the Heraklion Museum, which traces the history of Crete and Greece back 10,000 years. People have lived in these places for a long. Long. Time.

Let’s just say, then, that “block” is not a standard here. Some blocks are 20 feet apart, and some are 500 feet. The blocks in Voula appear to lean toward the latter. The five-block walk to the center of town is a full kilometer. Without a car, in the 90-plus-degree — excuse me, 32-plus-degree — heat of late July, this becomes an ordeal, your clothes drenched with sweat, and you with a need to sit down and cool off. (That also explains things like why so many buildings are white, why there are so many cafes, and perhaps why so many Greeks around the world own so many restaurants.) The sidewalks are narrower than an American pedestrian would expect, thick sidewalk trees often requiring one to walk in the street. With the economic crisis in full sway, there’s not going to be a Greek equivalent to the Americans with Disabilities Act anytime soon.

But even the suburbs of Greece are more humane and sociable than in America. There are no mansions (or McMansions) on Basileos Pavlou Street, just white and tan apartment blocks of four and five stories that are standard throughout Greece. They’re set back from the street, but not that much. And then you get to the plateia, and you would never mistake it for America.

The plateia in Voula is something Bloomington can only dream of. Imagine four or five square city blocks of open space, surrounded on the long sides by buildings just like on the Square. The open space is colonized by the tables, chairs, tents and arbors of restaurants, cafes, patisseries and ice cream shops. On a Monday night at 10 pm, there were at least 500 people of all ages enjoying themselves in a city of less than 30,000. There were dozens of children on bikes, scooters or just running around, yet they weren’t annoying; they were comfortably a part of this socially organic space.

And yet, Basileos Pavlou runs right through the plateia. The lanes narrow significantly, causing the cars to crawl through at less than 20 mph — excuse me, 30 kph. There is no need to close off automobile traffic to have a good urban place; you just have to tame the cars. Many streets in Greece are one-lane: cars share them with pedestrians, motorbikes, stray animals, chairs and tables. Many plateias have no defining curbs: cars roll through very slowly amidst the cafe patrons. It’s almost like the basic unit of the Greek built environment is not the pedestrian, but the loiterer, smoking, drinking, chatting, or just sitting and watching the rest of the world go by.

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