Even though she became an Athenian several years ago, this French artist still finds charm in those typical city moments such as when her local kiosk owner cheerfully calls her “Darling.”
“I decided to move from Paris to Athens five years ago, after a difficult period in my personal life. I was handling health problems, a divorce, and a massive disappointment in my professional mentor. Out on a limb, without anything to hold onto from my previous life, I needed a change. I spent a wonderful summer on the Greek islands and met someone who inspired me to live in Greece, supported my artistic efforts, and introduced me to many of my current friends.
“In contrast with Paris, where you feel you can’t escape the concrete, Athens has the sea close by, which liberates you. Also, as a woman, I feel safe here. I’ve never been followed on the street, insulted, pressed to give my telephone number, or groped on the metro – all of which can be daily occurrences in Paris. I like the Greek language, especially the slang, and the kiosk owners who call me ‘Gorgeous’ or ‘Darling,’ terms they might use with their niece or a passing cat. I like the familiarity in the energy of Athens and how close you can get to its rich history. It’s amazing – you can sit on the same slab of marble that someone sat on thousands of years ago. What I don’t like at all is the heavy traffic!
“I’ve recently become a member of Sektor30, an artist-run workspace with workshops for sculpting and engraving. I go to Neos Kosmos on my skateboard daily, working alongside other artists. I would definitely not be able to afford such a space anywhere else. Many artist friends have been able to rent workshops and homes in Athens for far less money than they would have to spend in London, Paris, Berlin or Rome. I’ve also observed that, in Athens, when you say you work in the arts, everyone shows respect and interest, something that does not often happen in France, where you might be considered lazy or even a little strange. One of the most valuable gifts from my time here is that ‘Greekness’ that has become an inexhaustible source of inspiration, investigation and creation for me. My sculpture is deeply influenced by Cycladic art, and my emotions have become built around a specific Greek concept, ‘harmolypi,’ which literally means ‘joyous sorrow’ and is used to express a bittersweet feeling. Athens has gifted me this emotion.”
Klaus Jürgen Schmidt
Half South African and half German, the ceramicist-textile designer explains why he remains loyal to Athens, even though at times his family begged him to leave.
“I lived in East London, and then in Milan and Naples for many years. In mid-2015 I came to Athens for a short vacation and never left. Nightlife in London was over for me when all the legendary bars began being converted into shoddy, outrageously expensive apartments. London and Milan sadly became more like New York, very strait-laced cities that were all about money.
“Athens looked like the perfect choice, and I allowed it to charm me. Its youthful vibes remind me of the simmering energy of East London in 2005. It also reminds me quite a lot of Naples, the most absurdly impressive and dangerous city I’ve ever known. Athens and Naples are like ancient twin sisters. Everyone in my professional environment was shocked when I chose to move here. My family, too, begged me to leave. But you can’t leave Athens when you love it just a little more than you hate it. The reality I experience here as an artist is a sense of insecurity, as if I’m caught inside some sort of personal bubble. My studio is in Kerameikos, a neighborhood near the city center where ancient pottery workshops once stood. I work on fabric for men’s clothing for both Greek and international markets, and I also exhibit and sell my modern ceramic items. I’m very fortunate to have the support of a brilliant curator, Panos Giannikopoulos, who spurs me into action and helps me overlook the fact that Athens can be quite a harsh city. Although it exhausts me, I cannot imagine creating anywhere else, at least not for now. It may be that my ‘somewhere else’ turns out to be a remote bucolic village in the Greek countryside – the present-day European dream!
“The city, Greece in general, and the eastern Mediterranean region as a whole, are all significant influences for my work. In whatever I create, you’ll find elements of injustice and tragedy, grief and loss, concepts inevitably shaped by the turbulent Mediterranean and this hypnotic, melancholic creature that is Greece.”
A producer and director of animated films, Thomas doesn’t feel that Athens is “the new Berlin,” as it’s often called, but that’s another reason why he likes the city.
“I grew up in Rome and studied cinema in the UK. At university, I became friends with two Greeks, Dimitris Lambridis and Antonis Kitsikis, and I often visited Athens to see them, spending long periods here.
“In the summer of 2015, I decided to go on a pilgrimage of my own, traveling on foot from Rome to Athens. Fifty-one days in, I realized I wanted to live in Greece. I split my time between here and Rome for three years, and I learned Greek without taking any lessons, just by listening to Greek friends talking and, of course, to lots of Greek music. I moved to Athens permanently in 2018 and rented a house in Gyzi. Today, all my friends and contacts are here, and I’ve found the right professional environment to pursue my creative goals, thanks to the attention that my stop-motion animation film ‘Rebetiko’ garnered. I’ve lived in different neighborhoods in the city, from Plateia Amerikis to Ano Patisia. At present, I’m living in the Neapoli district. What I do miss in Athens are parks and easy access to green spaces where I can exercise. I’d like to be able to play soccer without having to drive to Acharnes in the northwest or Glyfada in the south.
“Another thing that I had difficulty getting used to was the sight of police units in full gear on the streets; now, when foreign friends who visit ask me ‘What’s wrong?’ and I reassure them it’s normal. In any case, Athens is the place I now call home. Artistically speaking, I know it’s not the new Berlin, although some have dubbed it that, but that’s why I like it even more. I’m totally in harmony with the city’s creative community; it’s small, and we all know one another, which is why we’re ready to support and help each other. If I were to wish for something for the future, it would be for our work to be taken more seriously and not seen as a hobby. I would like the city to become better educated regarding beauty and poetry, in the things that genuinely elevate the spirit.”
A visual artist and co-founder of Noucmas, a non-profit studio and exhibition space in Kypseli, Vincent believes Athens is special because it has an emotional effect on its residents.
“I moved to Athens in 2017 after completing my studies, driven by a need to make a new beginning far from Paris. I found a city full of life and creative people, such as Katerina Charou and Olga Souri, with whom in 2019 I co-founded Noucmas, a space we use as our studio and gallery for other artists. I came into contact with many talented Greek artists, primarily young, around my age, who had either returned after studying abroad to support their country or who had never left, struggling through economic hardship to realize their dreams, working with some very impressive ideas. I was stimulated by the willingness to act collectively that I found here. After a while, of course, I realized that this willingness goes hand-in-hand with a prolonged state of collective disappointment, making me feel lethargic when I stay here for an extended period. Athens has this ability to mix such contrasting elements and make it appear as if they’ve always co-existed.
“Although I learned to speak and read Greek, the longer I spend in Athens, the more I feel I’ll never understand what’s happening around me. This city is like a house that belongs to no one. Everyone’s from somewhere else. This is true of my neighborhood, Plateia Amerikis, too. All my neighbors are so unlike one another that it’s our diversity that connects us.
“In my eyes, Athens is beguiling because it intensifies emotions. Here, you experience everything more powerfully. Its energy is in constant flux. It appears to inhale the light and exhale the darkness at a frantic pace. Why does Athens breathe so quickly? One might say because it is tired. It is trying really hard.”
Her quest for experimentation and her own artistic voice brought the ceramicist to Athens, where, she feels, time seems to move at a slower pace than elsewhere.
“My roots are based in both France and China. I studied product and textile design in Paris, after which I wanted to try and live somewhere else to experiment and find my own artistic language. I moved, on instinct, to Athens to work in ceramics, which is now my principal activity. I also work with beeswax.
“My time here has helped me develop my sculpting abilities. I’ve collaborated with local artists, designers and organizations on many projects and exhibitions. For the first few years I lived in Plateia Viktorias, then in Peristeri, and later in Votanikos, before finally moving to Merkouri Square in Ano Petralona. It’s a charming, diverse neighborhood where I feel that I’m at the center of everything. I’ve made friends of all ages and origins. I enjoy daily walks on Filopappou Hill, where you find a different sense of time and space. All over Athens, time seems to move at a slower pace, and everyone treats public spaces as extensions of their home. You find friendly, hospitable people everywhere, ready with a warm greeting, as well as individuals who genuinely care about the neighborhood strays.
“What I don’t like is the traffic and the fact that no provision is made for wheelchair users. I wish the city were more welcoming to all. From an artistic viewpoint, Athens is an unlimited source of inspiration. Of course, being an artist here can be challenging, especially when selling your work. I find it difficult and rely on my connections in other countries. Nevertheless, here you can easily find affordable space to work, which is virtually impossible in Paris, for example. Athens has a sense of community and mutual support, which I find moving, and the city allows you to experiment, to think and develop an idea with complete freedom.”
For the Italian founder and owner of the clothing brand Acero, Metaxourgeio is the neighborhood with the most intriguing imagery.
“My creative self has many facets; I’m involved in different media and focused on social practice, all while running Acero, where the garments feature designs painted on silk fabrics.
“I studied in London and lived for several years in Argentina, but the pandemic outbreak found me in Colombia, collaborating on an opera production based on the stories of trans sex workers, which was unfortunately canceled. I decided to spend the quarantine period in Athens with a lover I had, but I ended up falling in love with the city, where I immediately felt at home.
“For the last two years, I have been living in Metaxourgeio, in an old industrial warehouse which I’ve turned into a home and workplace. I’ve never been to any other neighborhood in the world with so many fascinating images. Every evening when I go out to water the plants, I see three Chinese men playing mahjong at a table in the street under the neon lights of a seafood store. At the Chinese mini-market nearby, sacks of rice have been placed in the street to reserve parking spaces, while just a block away, there are fancy café-bars where you can chill while listening, for example, to tropicalia and bossa nova. Interestingly enough, this diverse universe is also where the Greek President still resides; passing her home, you might see members of her security staff taking a break, snacking on potato chips.
“I can’t deny it; I now feel that I belong entirely in this complicated and perplexing neighborhood. So what if a number of taxi drivers have tried to persuade me to leave the area? I feel much safer in Metaxourgeio than I did in South America. It was only when I moved to Athens that I realized I’d been living in a state of constant alert because I could have been stabbed at any time of day or night. Here, even though I might find some drug addict’s used syringe lying on the pavement, I’m more relaxed.
“Athens is the only European city I know with so many artisans and so many small shops with plenty of treasures hidden in their drawers, both of which are extremely useful for my creative process. The city has an energy that you absorb but can then discharge on a trip to one of the enchanting Greek islands. At every opportunity, I try to improve my Greek. I’m now beginning a new line of clothing for Acero, which I intend to make available exclusively in Greece, and I’m looking forward to visiting the village of Soufli, near the country’s northern border, to check out its top-quality silk production.”
Settling down in Athens was more challenging and less affordable than he expected, but the visual artist gradually fell in love with the city; rebetiko songs reignited his passion for music, too.
“I grew up in Naples and moved to Paris in search of work. Shortly after, I enrolled in the Beaux-Arts de Paris, where I studied for five years and began to paint. I’ve been living in Athens for almost four years, first in Gazi, then Plateia Viktorias, and now Exarchia. I came to be with the person I love, which was undoubtedly one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
“I gradually became acquainted with the city, made friends, learned the language, and I’m delighted that I’m still here. Athens is very different from Paris but quite similar to Naples. I’m fascinated by the style of its buildings and the excellent food. I feel fortunate to have discovered rebetiko songs, which prompted me to start playing music again, as I did when I was younger. On the streets of Athens, you can meet the most talented musicians!
“I like the people and the language, and I enjoy getting around on a scooter or on foot. I don’t like it when I see Athens feeling ‘obligated’ to achieve the goals of other European cities, imitating realities that have no place here. On the other hand, city taxes are really high for the quality of services provided.
“After months of searching, I found a studio to rent in Kolonos, with excellent light, the best thing for a painter. Finding an affordable place in Athens to live or work has become very difficult. Many came here thinking it was a cheap and beautiful place, but my reality was very different. If you’re on a Greek salary, things are even more difficult. And being an artist means that at times you have enough money to live on and other times you don’t. In Athens, it’s difficult, though not impossible, to sell your work. To help me get by, I play rebetiko in coffee shops and tavernas some evenings. I’m not particularly inspired by the city itself, given that my work involves familiarity and emotions. I’m more inspired by the people around me, a phrase I will hear on the street, or the light that falls on a face, a hand, an object.”