The art of belonging

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Parked in a seat in a media hub at Athens airport, a place that exemplifies the “non-places” discussed by Mark Fisher in a chapter about art fanzine Savage Messiah and its mission to rediscover London “as a site for drift and daydreams, a labyrinth of side streets and spaces resistant to the process of gentrification and development…”

This London Laura Oldfield Ford captures is a place that allows “an art of collective enjoyment, in which a world beyond work can – however briefly – be glimpsed and grasped. Fugitive time, lost afternoons, conversations that dilate and drift like smoke, walks that have no particular direction and go on for hours, free parties in old industrial spaces, still reverberating days later”.

My visit with Maria to Formaika in Monastiraki on Wednesday, a national holiday, brought to mind the contrast Fisher makes between public spaces where there can be “the slow unravelling of biopolitical identity” and “non-places” – the “generic zones of transit (retail parks and airports) which… increasingly dominate the spaces of late capitalism”.

Based on what I saw on Wednesday, the Greeks know how to do national holidays. For a start, they have a lot of them – 13 in all – and apart from taxi drivers, the restaurant staff, and of course all those whose job it is to prepare the traditional meal for the family – it seemed that everyone took the day off. Just about every shop we passed in the cab on the way was closed – something you rarely see in London. On March 25 each year Greece marks the anniversary of the 1821 revolution when it secured independence from the Ottoman Empire. There was a parade through the city – well attended this year as it was the first for a long while that people were permitted to watch – and afterwards people get together to eat the traditional meal of fish and potatoes.

Formaika, a small, intimate restaurant set up by people linked to Konservokouti, is a place where new arrivals are greeted warmly, and saying goodbye takes a long time when it comes to leaving. As two young musicians played and sang traditional songs we sat with two of Maria’s friends and ate cod, chips, and salads, all served with generous quantities of garlic. As afternoon flowed into evening, the conversation moved from the day’s parade, to Syriza’s performance in government so far, to the question of German repaying its wartime loan to Greece and the prospect of other reparations, which politicians had said what about the issue, psychotherapy and work and family problems. All this interspersed with fresh rounds of drinks, bouts of singing and dancing.

It was a good time. As always these days, it seems, there was a part of me that was in another zone, thinking about Mark, wishing he was with us, wondering what he would make of Formaika, this occasion, these people, sometimes catching myself preparing how I would describe the night’s events to him, before the knowledge that he isn’t waiting for me at home ramped itself up once more. But I was also looking back to times that I had experienced a similar sense of belonging, to the bar at the Everyman Theatre in Hope Street, where I knew that I could go on my own and meet people I knew there, about a party I went to with Mark at an occupied library when he was playing with Reggie. Such glimpses were always rare, but are rarer still today. The difference between Formaika and the places I go to in London, the independently-run places as well as the multinational coffeeshops, is remarkable. It was a sense of longing for more of this barely-glimpsed community that made Athens so appealing to me and Mark. Before our trip the Suburban Pirates played at a squat in Clapham that was closing after over 10 years, a victim of the frenzy of property development in London. Mark returned home that night happy and triumphant and, listening to the tales he told about the people he’d met there, people he’d felt at ease with and connected to, I’d felt a wistful desire for a sense of belonging.

Yesterday, walking around Athens, I felt acutely that I don’t belong anywhere, that without Mark I am not affiliated to anyone. In truth, I know this isn’t entirely accurate, but my return to London and the cold hard fact that Mark won’t be there to go home to weighs heavily. Wandering from Skoufa Street in Kolonaki to Syntagma Square in central Athens, looking for a cafe to sit in, I found myself drawn to the familiar logo of a Starbucks. It was certainly the sense that I didn’t belong that made the chain seem so appealing and the prospect of going into a cafe I didn’t know so difficult: This lack of affiliation I feel affects how I move around the city. Without the connection that comes from being with friends like Maria or Dora, I can feel intensely alone, that I am an outsider – and I probably act like one too.

Public space, to quote Fisher “has been consumed by something like the third place exemplified by franchise coffee bars. These places are uncanny only in their power to replicate sameness, and the monotony of the Starbucks environment is both reassuring and oddly disorientating; inside the pod, it’s possible to literally forget what city you are in.”

Fisher describes as “nomadalgia” the sense of unease that these anonymous environments, more or less the same the world over, provoke; the travel sickness produced by moving through spaces that could be anywhere. My, I… what happened to Our Space, or the idea of a public that was not reducible to an aggregate to consumer preference?”

The sameness of the multinationals can be unsettling, but this standardisation is also part of their appeal – you know what to expect, know what the score is – and it can be a relief not having to negotiate unfamiliar space, customs and language. Perhaps the appeal of these territorially neutral spaces is precisely that people who belong nowhere don’t have the discomforting experience of encountering difference, or risk exposure navigating spaces with unfamiliar rules of engagement. Deciding that I had to push back against this desire for neutrality, I chose to go to Benaki Museum in Kolonaki. Total familiarity proved elusive – I couldn’t sit on the terrace as we did the time Dora brought Mark and me here because it was too windy – but otherwise it proved a happy compromise.

I was careful, while married to Mark, to nurture relationships with others, aware that no one person could satisfy all my needs. But in this in-between space at the airport, feeling that I neither belong in Athens, nor in London, anymore, I wonder if being part of something – a marriage – was a buffer against a wider sense of isolation. With him gone, feeling unanchored, one thing I do know that to recover a sense of connection I’ll have to look beyond what Ford describes as “the translucent edifices of Starbucks and Costa Coffee [that line London’s] shimmering promenades [where] “young professionals sit outside gently conversing in sympathetic tones”.

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