Isle In Athens – Les Flâneurs

Sylvain Tognelli, Nick Jensen, Chris Jones, Tom Knox, Paul Shier, Casper Brooker, Sam Ashley and Jacob Harris' recent trip to in Athens. From Kingpin Issue 124.

So here’s the format: you spend a week or so in a city, hopefully you’re perceptive enough to allow the sprawl to reveal more of itself to you than just the standard pedestrian observations, and so you write it.

Alternatively you can lend the reader your uniquely unique slant on life, skateboarding, the universe, local cuisine and the songs of Roy Orbison. Or perhaps interesting things happen to you and your interesting crew; you’re a bunch of skateboarders let off the lead in a new geometric wonderland.

Not just architecture but everything, appears fresh and thus an opportunity to bounce the ball of your unusual freedom off of in the pursuit of any transitory pleasure, no matter how small or remote. Perhaps struck by a peculiar ease of conversation with people at drinks kiosks, restaurants, in the street; the untaught ability to appreciate and spot patterns in pedestrian traffic systems, habits and manners, you reflect on your own habitat and its relative merits.

You’re the flâneur. Away from the peripheral anxiety that accompanies your everyday existence, the atmosphere has shifted. It’s also warmer, a lot warmer than where you came from. An aura all its own, found only on trips, has descended. More than what’s written in the ordinary script can play out.  Inevitably some of the crew will head out at night, get smashed, end up at the seediest bar on the strip, head back to some girl’s apartment, drinking vodka until everybody passes out from boredom and there’s almost a story in that.

Maybe people fight, somebody gets themselves in a headlock, broken up only by the sincere and lucid member of the unit. Or else he’s not there and glum faces and black eyes are painted on tomorrow’s skate. Things happen on trips, right?

Sometimes it’s just mellow though. Sometimes people just want to skate, eat well and sleep long. Sometimes the time passes at its leisure, people get on and things play out quite as you might imagine amongst a group of reasonably well-adjusted adults. It was the second Isle trip, the first happening exactly a year before in Valencia. This time Jon Ngyuen couldn’t make it across the Atlantic but we had Casper Brooker along for the first time as compensation. As you may have gathered from the photographs (I’m pretty sure nobody reads an article before looking through the photos) it was Sylvain Tognelli, Nick Jensen, Chris Jones, Tom Knox, Paul Shier, Casper Brooker, Sam Ashley and myself on the trip.

Isle is a relatively young team as far as board companies go and the team is geographically quite scattered, so trips like these function largely as a meet-up for everybody to touch bases and hang out. Though we are working on an Isle video, that you will likely become more aware of soon, it was hardly a scramble to get as much done as possible. The programme was relaxed; we wouldn’t try too hard to hit many more than a couple of spots in a day and nobody was about to kill themselves jumping on anything threatening. We made sure that we got time in the sun and the bar and there were no particular excesses. Everybody barring Casper having come straight from Berlin and the Bright tradeshow, deeply cold-bitten bones only began thawing roughly 3ft above the Athenian landing strip. This process lasted well into the 3rd day.

The four days in Berlin were made, as you’d expect, of alcohol. To begin with brains definitely weren’t working properly. Additionally there was the highly likely possibility that physically everybody was also functioning below the normal level. No doubt even further below the level that beer-swollen brains tend to imagine for their wearied and out-of-practice bodies. It’s quite impressive how deftly factors with a very palpable influence on how well you can actually use your body can be swept into obscure corners of the minds of skateboarders faced with the din of a new city.

The first night we cruised wide-eyed from the hill our hotel was perched atop, down the preternaturally smooth roads Athens is furnished with, to come to the famous steep bank spot that sits at the foot of some tall financial building. Cue a maelstrom of flailing limbs in a free-for-all to just interact with anything skateable no matter what. Incidentally Shier managed to log the only bit of coverage here after the collectively over-zealous start – I did come back with Knox one evening to film a line but a coach full of riot police showed up looking trigger happy with comedy-sized guns for reasons I can only guess at.

Having not done much research into how much of the tensions remained in Greece, it felt like one of those moments that could have felt incredibly stupid in retrospect and so we just got out of there. After this first session forced its way out of everyone’s systems we pretty much went directly back up the hill to our hotel ‘Dryades’, slept well and drank a lot of water ready for waking up to the light of day, a bit more lucidity and Athens.

As I’ve said you spend six days in a city and you want to be fair to it. Short of trawling news articles to give a well-informed but inauthentic and unoriginal commentary, you just have to run the risk of being reductive, writing glib observations and moulding them into an unfaithful portrait of a city. Or maybe you have no yardstick from which to judge your own perspective and somehow coincidentally get it bang on without realising? Either way I think I can only provide an assemblage of events and light reflections.

It would then be unfair to sprinkle this passage with anecdotes, generally giving this – what I hold to be – blinkered impression of Athens, but sometimes the narrative will arc itself over at your feet, nearly tripping you up, to reveal two dudes stooped down and shooting up on what is barely a side street, literally one second after Casper’s premonition of ‘You see a lot of smackheads… just on the streets here’.

Confirmed? I don’t know. There were sightings of more than one solitary guy, in full trip, on a stoop at midday at what is the busiest roundabout this side of the Arc de Triomphe, legs out, scabbed from ankle to thigh. I want to reiterate that this did not feel like the experience of the city. Though these sights offer themselves up in abundance, they feel more peripheral. But yeah, this was not a defining part of the trip, more something that you cannot ignore and the type of thing you might write about in a trip article if you haven’t taken any notes and you’re pressing your memory.

‘I can get you a blowjob for five euros, but don’t go with the black hookers unless you want mushrooms on your dick… you want anything this week just call me’ – this from our cab driver from the airport as he handed Shier his card. Can you draw inferences about the city from this? You could speculate that everybody’s hustling, people are clearly on hard times, there’s a thriving prostitution business? Or maybe just that this one cabdriver was trying to make man talk with some men? I couldn’t say. He also told us that there was a hotel always full with models, barely up the hill from us. I think he might have been keen to please and probably sharpen his English.

To the credit of our cabman there did seem to be an unusual amount of good-looking women right around our hotel, but this turned out to be no anomaly. I won’t forego sharing what is essentially the kind of observation that usually tacitly re-confirms the assumptions of male heterosexuality in the readership of these magazines  – the women in Athens are quite beautiful. I can’t really say about the men, though the ones I met were on the whole friendly.

I’m not sure if there is some sort of international conspiracy involving an Iceland/Greenland style stereotype dissemination scheme going on, or if I’ve invented it, but there’s a phantom of a stereotype floating in my brain that is specifically unflattering to Greek women.  Swiftly erased. Well, be part of an eight-man group for a week, the only contact with women being via Skype or a crappy flirtatious joke when you’re buying the 4th spinach and feta pastry of the day, and this might become a defining part of your trip too.

A word or two have to be said about the food in Athens. As with most European cities if you’re eating on the go then you’re going to be on a strictly yellow and pink colour scheme diet: cheese and ham pastries or sandwiches. Or you might try a suspicious looking pre-packaged croissant from one of the many vending machines about – a delicacy soon to be featured on Sylvain’s nascent blog dedicated to reviewing croissants around the world. Of course that’s all to be expected; laudably, fast food isn’t such a thing outside of the UK.

When you have the time to go to restaurants you’ll be rewarded though. Most meals are a hearty €5 brick of everything-moussaka bigger than your head, so that you can’t really finish your plate without feeling like you’ve been beaten up. Even if you keep it light and choose a Greek Salad they’ll give you a ten-gallon hatful of olive oil, red onion, olives and a slab of feta you could use as a headstone. The pleasures of mild-gluttony cannot be downplayed.

As always it’s exciting exploring new places to the music of a language utterly foreign to your ears. Added to this you’re navigating through a forest of half-familiar symbols that have been endlessly appropriated within English-speaking culture, evoking half-remembered meanings and generally puzzling your eyes. The Greek alphabet is no obstacle to the city though as most signs, menus and maps pander happily to English ignorance. And so it was with moderate success that we tried our luck at forging our own path for half of the trip, though we did visit the tramline spots courtesy of our host, the Athenian bossman Billy.

Athens is a very hilly city though which means two things – firstly that the angles create unpredictable architecture, skewing the proportions of normally un-skateable objects and forming rare setups. Secondly that it’s a ball-ache to get around if you’re laden with camera bags, flash stands etc. As it always happens we found quite a lot of spots roaming, some were duds and some were buildings you could backsmith off of. We just couldn’t roam as much as we’d have liked, faced with the ever looming Sisyphus’ punishment of rolling tons of gear back up the hill, only to descend and ascend again for food and beers straight away. Our hill was high enough that you could see the Parthenon from the roof of our hotel. We only went up once, which in retrospect I find quite surprising considering it was impressive enough a view for me to start smoking again.

We spent one day skating the University. Of course being January the days weren’t long, so one area pretty much consumes all the hours of light. We had miraculous luck here; the teachers had been on strike for a while and as such, to catch up, the students had to come in on weekends. So skating the main part of the building was out of the question. The bit we could skate is where Jensen has the manual sequence. ‘What did this used to be Billy?’ – ‘What do you mean used to be?’ – ‘What was it, you know, before it was abandoned?’ – ‘Err, it’s the University still’.

In my defence it looks completely derelict and the restaurant buildings etc. are plastered in posters and graffiti to the point where you can’t find the doors. Again I have no idea if this reflects well the climate of the city, financially, politically, or culturally. As was pointed out though, everybody in Greece must graff; the city is completely covered in a way I’ve never seen before.

The University was maybe the first full day and a clandestine damp patch took Shier out before he’d begun; in full Takeshi’s castle slam style he took all bodyweight onto hip and iPhone before he knew what was happening.

In one city I’ve never seen so many of those kind of half-spots that tease with the same cruelty as a pristine empty cigarette carton. When you do come up on something as singularly perfect as we did it’s doubly frustrating having to leave without being given a chance – A warm midnight and we stubbornly slip into an unspoken standoff with the owner of a discount clothing shop, situated directly above what must be Plato’s form of the ‘grindy-stairs-to-cellar-door’ setup, who was apparently far too aware that money never sleeps to sleep himself. We may as well have had a staring contest with one of the classical statues that I naively expected there to be loads of around the city.

We left after 5 minutes without any thoughts of returning. A shame since we’d been trawling for a lot of the day. Incidentally in all this trawling Chris Jones had gotten an unidentifiable goo on the bottom of his shoe that looked like dog shit but smelt like oranges. He concluded that it was oranges and therefore benign. Interestingly there are a lot of stray dogs in Athens, though there are more oranges that fall from orange trees than stray dogs. If I were a hungry dog I’d live mostly off of oranges, I’d imagine. I don’t have to imagine what my shit would smell like.

In choosing Athens as the destination for a January trip we had to consider the following – weather climate, airfare prices, local hook-ups and architecture. That is both the suitability of the architecture for skateboarding and the way it looks on camera. Needless to say the last factor was the most important to us. Athens definitely bears the scars of its recent history openly enough to have a large impact on the way it looks through a mk1 lens on the front of a vx1000.

It’s in the graffiti, the chewed up blocks and missing slabs, the starkly obviously replaced slabs, the damaged paving. Besides all this though it is marble heavy, but marble of a subtly different kind. The difference between a black marble Spanish plaza and a smattering of white marble in a busy Athenian street is striking when it comes down to it. If this is the type of thing that concerns you then I’d recommend Athens endlessly; but in short and in summary the skateboarding is great, the scene is healthy, the weather is always warm enough, it’s cheap, the women are beautiful, the food is hearty and the going is good. Go there?

That seems as good a place to finish as any. Thanks to Billy and his crew for helping us around.

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