By Sharon Rosner

It’s the cutest apartment in the coolest neighborhood in Athens. Marios, my Greek photojournalist boyfriend, found it, and stressed the fact that the landlady, a chic fabric designer, was fluent in English and very cosmopolitan.

“Milai thn glwssa sou, she speaks your language,” he said, encouraging me to rent the tiny furnished garciniera. I had heard stories about this type of apartment and its connotations. Since Greek men lived with their parents until marriage, they needed a place to bring women. Renting a garciniera was the obvious solution. I hadn’t cared. I’ll be starting a life in Athens, after three months traveling around Greece. At this moment I love my apartment, I love my neighborhood, and I definitely love my boyfriend.

The four story brown brick building is situated on the corner of Mavromichali and Vatatsi in Exarcheia, the old anarchists’ area. My balcony overlooks two crumbling, faded neoclassical houses and, if I lean over and look to the right, I can almost see Mount Lykavvitos. Spray painted political slogans adorn the landscape. Along the broken streets of this once homogenous neighborhood, the sounds of Ukrainian and Albanian, motorcycle engines, and accordion playing gypsies peddling their wares mingle with the aroma of souvlaki, stray dogs, and rotting garbage spilling out of overflowing dumpsters. Shoemakers and green grocers share storefronts with the Leftist party office, tattoo parlors, and Goth music shops.

The previous day, arriving by taxi from the hotel with all my belongings, I noticed that the ground floor of my building houses a bar, its front door heavily padlocked. Later that evening, three men sat drinking and watching sports on TV, while a lone woman stood behind the bar. As I passed, they watched me with great interest, a new face in the neighborhood. I made a mental note to approach my house from the other direction in the future.

The glass front door and large adjacent window looked into a marble foyer, with a full view of the elevator and spiral staircase to the right. I dragged my bags through a pile of mail, slid carelessly through the outdoor slot, gathering dust on the floor. As I waited for the elevator, I could feel the searing eyes of the neighbors. “H xenh! The foreigner!” they were probably whispering. I imagine the gossip starting among the black clad women keeping vigil across the street as they sweep their balconies and hang the laundry. I gratefully opened the door when the elevator arrived, escaping their scrutiny. I stared at the posted warning limiting its capacity to two people. My luggage alone was the weight of two people. Nevertheless, it uneventfully transported me to the third floor, where I passed three other apartments that share the hallway.

Apartment 33 opens into a bright, sun filled space with a slippery smooth worn marble floor. Directly opposite are the sliding glass doors, draped in sheer white, leading to the balcony. I visualize the vivid red and pink geranium plants, fragrant white gardenia from the farmers’ market, wandering Jew picked from the street, and traditional basil plants, given by friends to bless a new home, which will fill it, creating my own private garden. Next to the door is the sliver of a kitchen. Between that and the balcony, stands the highlight of the apartment for me – a wonderfully deep brick fireplace, complete with tongs and poker. Cords of wood anticipate the first hint of a chill. A graceful ceramic vase holding a white candle sits on each side of the hearth. At its feet lays a plush white sheepskin rug, or flokati, where a slatted wood and rattan seated rocker and armchair congregate, sharing a small table.

I stand in the center of the 27 square meters, having finally finished unpacking, sighing contentedly. The crystals I purchased at the Monastiraki flea market, now suspended from the light fixture, catch the late afternoon sun streaming into the room, casting prismatic color across the walls. I turn slowly, surveying the space I have created, with satisfaction. I somehow transformed the bare, functionally furnished garcinera into my home.

Behind the cozy living room, one step up leads to the polished wood floor of the bedroom, in reality just a platform. The double bed looks regal dressed in the shimmering embroidered white cover I bought on Ermou Street, turquoise pillows strewn with strategic abandon. I placed my books, Greek language and grammar, travel guides, plays, scripts and novels, carefully on the two shelves above it, supported by a blue enameled vase bursting with multi-colored carnations. The windowless bathroom, tiled in putrid brown and featuring a fandisplaying the warning, “Achtung!,” holds soft new white towels and the terrycloth bathmat edged in blue that I lifted from the Hotel Cecil.

I want to buy wine at my local cava to celebrate and realize it will be closing soon. Grabbing my wallet and keys, I go over to shut the sliding glass doors leading to the balcony. As I pull the drapes aside, I see a young blonde woman on the balcony opposite mine, frantically trying to climb over the railing. A man’s gruff voice, shouting angrily, precedes his appearance on the balcony.

He is middle-aged, with a swarthy beard covering his face and a scarf wrapped around his head. The woman begins screaming as he approaches, and hurls herself over onto the ledge, clutching the railing as she makes her way around the perimeter of the balcony. The man chases her, striking out with an open palm. I freeze, not knowing what I should do, hoping they haven’t seen me watching them. Miraculously, I hear the police arrive. I see one officer running up to the apartment to confront the man while the other coaxes the woman back to the safety of the balcony.

Shaking, I slide the doors closed and slam down the shutter. This is my neighborhood, the one I thought was so cool. I hadn’t anticipated witnessing anything more dramatic than a sunset from my balcony. The rumors I imagine the gossips creating about me pale in comparison to the reality of my neighbors’ lives. The energy of the beautiful little space still feels safe, but something has shifted.

I need to leave the house. I walk fast, maneuvering between motorcycles haphazardly parked in my path. I relish the thought of a good cabernet from the barrel replacing the acrid taste lingering on my palate. The three long blocks to the cava push the past hour behind me. I enter the store, thankful to be the only customer at this late hour. Removing an empty plastic liter bottle from the shelf, I hold it under a spout and watch the dark ruby liquid languorously fill it. I avoid the proprietress’s eager attempts to engage me in conversation, fielding her prying questions politely as I pay for the wine and head home. There will be other opportunities for her curiosity to be satisfied.

I allow the warm evening air to fill my lungs. My pace slows to the rhythm of my breathing, the anxiety diminishing. Children’s laughter drifts around corners. In a café, old men sit playing backgammon, their wrinkled faces deep in concentration. I will myself to relax.

At the the corner of Mavromichali and Vatatsi, a crowd of onlookers has gathered, spilling off the sidewalk and into the street. There is an ambulance, and two parked police cars block off traffic. As I approach, I catch snippets from the neighbors, derogatory comments regarding foreigners and the state of things in Greece. Their condescension lacks any knowledge of the horrors this girl had endured to escape her homeland and seek hope in their country. They grasp only the reality that one more undesirable has been removed from their midst. I escape into my building unnoticed.

When I get off the elevator, I can hear Santana coming from my apartment. I had presented Marios with a set of keys yesterday. “If you give me gold watch, is not better present,” he had said. My hands tremble as I fumble with the lock. I open the door to find his camera bag on the floor, the scent of Nag Champa incense and Assos unfiltered cigarettes wafting toward me. He is
sprawled on the bed, long blonde hair splayed across the pillows, arms reaching for me. Candlelight plays on his smiling face, sparkles in his seductive blue eyes.

“I want to make surprise. I use the key. Is okay?” he whispers. I
unscrew the wine and, as we pass the bottle between us, the balcony scene
becomes a dim memory. Nothing exists outside of this room. I draw him close and bury my face in his neck. “Is very okay,” I murmur.