A sleepy young man – in designer stubble and smart sunglasses – is sipping coffee and reading newspapers on Kolonaki Square in Athens. The guy suddenly hisses a curse towards me, busy quenching my thirst at a neighboring table. It happens one Sunday morning at Peros, a local coffee shop.
The Greek capital never received me like this before, so I shockingly wave it aside. Probably, my behavior doesn’t live up to the required standard of the fashionable Kolonaki where tourists aren’t exactly at a premium. And I’m certainly a typical tourist, dressed in shorts, just descended from the Lycabettus hill to study the locals.
From up there, Kolonaki Square was a tiny green spot, situated near the spacious National Garden. The sloping little square is largely occupied by a park with benches, a fountain and sculptures under shady trees. The square, whose official name is Filikis Etaireias, is centrally located; the short Kanari street leads down to Syntagma Square.
The balconies of Kolonaki are huge and luxuriantly verdant, like botanical gardens. On the ground floor, glossy boutiques of designer clothes compete to create a stir with their window displays. The numerous banks suggest that Kolonaki is an affluent neighborhood, as well as the foreigners, many of whom undoubtedly businessmen or embassy employees. At the newsstand, the cosmopolitans get papers from all over the world.
Usually, despair is never far away in Athens. All of a sudden, you almost trip over a begging woman lying on the flagstones parading her stump of a leg. Kolonaki is an exception. This square is so posh that neither beggars nor cats dare appear here. Certain dogs are allowed, well-trained little pets resting on their coffee drinking mother’s arm, not leaving the slightest trace on her white blouse.
The cafe and restaurant scene is concentrated on one side of the square. It has spread, however, due to lack of space, into the side street Tsakalof. Young people seem to prefer Milioni, a side street off the Kanari, below the square. The Milioni offers dark and intimate cafe atmosphere. Watching people at night is easier up on the actual square where the places are brightly lit; a mutual watching wrapped up in small talk and paper reading.
The waiter of Likovrissi, a restaurant at the top of the square, persuades me to take a seat. After seeing the stiff prices, I order the cheapest dish and wine, dismissing the salad. He has to go back to change the red wine to white, fuming with irritation, and when the cork goes to pieces, he’s close to exploding. “The wine is warm,” I point out. Prepared for my complaint, he has thought up a solution, “Ice cubes!”
I have a perfect view of the restaurant next door, Colonaki Tops, whose slender waitresses could be an example to my waiter; they combine self-assurance with politeness. Their well-dressed customers eat at tables laid with white tablecloths, seated on clean white cushions and cooled off by elegant metal fans. The canopy roof is decorated all the way round with strings of white fairy lights.
The lights are repeated at Peros, the cafe section of the Colonaki Tops. The fans, also identical, are turned off since a light breeze is now making itself felt. Much to my surprise, Mike Tyson comes through the bar, not caring about the Kolonaki dress code; he’s stripped to the waist. Just as his helpers are wiping the sweat away from his brow, they all disappear from the TV screen at the entrance.
An unspoiled young couple, apparently not locals, sit down in front of me. They’re out with a friend, perhaps the girl’s older brother. The amorous young guy, shy and impatient, cannot hide the fact that he would rather be alone with his girlfriend. She, on the other hand, masters the art of being sociable and simultaneously make her boyfriend relax, through soft well-chosen words combined with a loving touch.
Kolonaki is not opposed to self-service or fast food. At the lower end of the square, Goody’s is always busy. The coffee house DaCapo, on the corner of the Tsakalof street, resembles the other cafes, except for the self-service. The customers display their confidence by leaving their keys on the table before going inside to order. If forgetting they used them as table reservation, they expect the table clearer to take charge of them.
The canopy outside the DaCapo will never blow down, for its pole is a strong tree trunk, encircled by a white plastic roof. It’s common practice to appreciate the surroundings and the meal by leaving a tip which ends up in a big glass jar on the counter inside, mostly crumpled notes of five Euro, confirming that the locals are well heeled and don’t mind showing it, in their own careless way.
Should the oasis of safe affluence make them feel cramped, the residents of Kolonaki have the refreshing National Garden close by. And some day, when the funicular to the Lycabettus has been repaired, they could ascend the mountain to enjoy a perspective of the entire Athens – a sprawling patchwork where Kolonaki Square is nothing but a speck.