Psiri is one of the most central neighborhoods in Athens—that means lots of tourists wandering throughout the streets in a sort of theme park. But one can randomly come across traditional workshops.
By Xavier Sole Salvat
Most people just follow the “social media rules” about what to do or what places have to visit to accomplish their particular “bucket list”. Similar pictures with similar smartphones of the same nice spots with extravagant poses and with similar perspectives too.
However, Psiri deserves some attention due to the role it had in the city and its relevance throughout the history of Athens.
Early in the morning, the streets are quiet. Some shops have the stuff ready waiting for the lazy customers. Bars and cafeterias start to arrange tables and chairs outdoors, cushions, multi-language menus, ashtrays and maybe some flower bouquets.
Those who are just arriving, pull similar suitcases with their distinctive noise over the tarmac or cobbles and look carefully at Google Maps to find their accommodations. At the time the streets are more crowded, strolling in backstreets and alleys one can spot other different places rather than boutique hotels and city suites.
Among the pretentious restaurants, opulent shops and bars decorated conspicuously —that means everything is noticeable— one can randomly come across traditional workshops. However, you should raise your eyes from the screens.
Paladios Street, which connects Athinas and Miaouli is a narrow, less jammed and mostly covered with graffiti street. You can take a look at the different businesses there such as barbershops, tattooists or shoe shops. Suddenly, I notice a small entrance to somewhere.
Above the main door, there is a placard with a name, address and phone number and just below one can see three small handbags hanging down from the top. I approach the doorway and can see an elder man working at the end of the stairs. It seems to be a workshop. I stay there a few moments and finally, when the man realizes my presence, he invites me to enter with an energic movement of his hands.
Psiri once became a hub for craftspeople and artisans, particularly those involved in leatherworking and metalwork
I go down a flight of marble stairs carefully because the space is cramped and the ceiling quite low. As you descend to the bottom, it is like going back in time. The workshop is full of antique leather suitcases that sink into oblivion.
“I used to do all these bags many years ago. But since Psiri once became a hub for craftspeople and artisans, particularly those involved in leatherworking and metalwork most of the stuff comes from China, I had to find other choices”, says Georgios nostalgically.
Now, all those dusty suitcases are just a legacy of ancient times. It turns out that the neighborhood once became a hub for craftspeople and artisans, particularly those involved in leatherworking and metalwork. The area’s narrow streets were lined with workshops and small factories and Psiri was known for its skilled craftsmen.
Nowadays things are completely different and Georgios bitterly regrets not being younger to go on working. “I have worked here fifty-five years, almost my entire life. I cannot recognize the neighborhood now as it used to be”, he replays laconically.
I bet that every day hundreds of people walk up the street in front of Georgios’ workshop. But I guess just a few —being optimistic— are aware of these hidden gems that should be preserved. As the old suitcases —of all colors and sizes, with silver or gold buckles and locks— lie on the shelves, many years ago Georgios started to make wooden trunks to make ends meet.
When I visit him, he is finishing a medium one green-painted and beautifully adorned with golden edges and embellishing nails.
“But it still lacks the handles, now I am going to put them”, he adds as he continues his work methodically. He is so proud of his work and no wonder why. He switches on the radio and an old Greek song with a soft melody but an unexpected crescendo fills the basement, echoing memories from other times.
“I cannot recognize the neighbourhood now as it used to be”, Georgios replays laconically.
A few days later —during one of my aimless morning strolls throughout Athens— I end up in Psiri again, coming back on foot from Thesseio. I head for the old workshop to pay a visit to Georgios while I am in the neighborhood. He is working peacefully, conscientiously
measuring some wood pieces for his next work. He is delighted to see me again and I show him some of the photographs I took here.
When he sees the green-painted wooden trunk, he claims: “Yes, this one, here it is completely finished.” It is, robust and entirely handmade. We chat for a while about the past and present.
“It has nothing to do with forty years ago. Here it used to be shoemakers, hardware stores, repair workshops or leather artisans. Now just hotels and bars and too much tourism”, he states explicitly.
It remains to be seen how much time will these existing ancient businesses resist. Georgios, for “I cannot recognize the neighborhood now as it used to be”, Georgios replays laconically.
He will take his retirement this year. “And what about this workshop”, I ask him curiously. But he has no answer and just shrugs his shoulders with resignation.
Once in the street, people keep on taking pictures of this eclectic panorama, with dozens of Xmas trees, hanging reindeer or elves attending customers at the tables. I leave Psiri with a bittersweet feeling.
I will preserve Georgios’ photographs as a valuable treasure, without neither rules nor bucket lists or extravagant poses. Just people as they are. Meanwhile in my head, still sounds an old Greek song with a soft melody and unexpected crescendo.