“But you’re not a car!” by Christina Manolatou

HAUniv Sustainability Club

Friday morning, September 21, 8a.m., and we’re looking for a parking space on Skoufa street –an adventure by definition. Cars come and go filling up the empty spaces with such speed that Sabine and I can’t help but admire the drivers’ scouting skills while we ponder about the most appropriate parking spot. Until we find it on the corner of Skoufa and Massalias streets.

A few minutes later, S.’s bike has transported her to the nearest market where we can get batteries and other supplies for the day, and I am standing alone in that same parking spot. But not for long, because as soon as I drop my bag and make the move to pick it up, I am “face-to-face” with a car that has just stopped where it shouldn’t, since that first space is not part of the parking zone and is therefore, illegal. The driver is informed about this minor detail and instead of driving away, she opens her door and (this is the interesting part) comes right towards me, clearly enraged as she screams: “And what are YOU doing here?” “I’ve just parked,” I respond with a mischievous smile on my face. And then I hear her voice – at a noticeably higher pitch – “Do you know I’ll have to pay for my spot?” Honestly I don’t get how my parking activities have anything to do with her having to pay for a spot, so I very calmly answer: “I am paying for mine as well,” while I discretely raise my hand – the one holding the parking ticket – to the level of her eyes, which by the end of my sentence are wide open and perplexed, starring at me with disbelief as she mouths her last phrase before turning her back on me: “But You are Not a Car.!!!”.

Now, I don’t see how it would ever be possible for a human to be a car, but I guess this YOU refers to what occupies the parking spot she is eyeing, which is now…a park.

Because today is September 21st  — aka Park(ing) Day. Meaning, a global annual day of action that started from San Francisco in 2005 and has spread all over the world since.

The aim?! – make us reconsider the allocation of public space in our urban environments.

How?! – By turning a metered parking space into…a park!
(for more information about Park(ing) Day visit www.parkingday.org )

So, we, “the sustainable fellows” a term Eirini came up with (aka HAUniv’s Sustainability Club) rolled up our sleeves and made a public park for the day from 9a.m to 9p.m.

–This is the third consecutive year this happens in Athens, since the previous two years parks popped up on Skoufa street by the “Lunch Street Party” group.

It is well after 11.00 -2 parking tickets and counting, and S.’s bike decorates the background of our park, which is by now complete.

Our choice of location has proved ideal for a number of reasons. Starting from our friendly neighbors, working at the building right above our park, who supply us with anything from bins and wooden crates to their positive energy and offers for coffee and snacks. Then there’s the attention that this spot attracts. Such a busy street guarantees a load of cars passing in front of our park – the downside is that we inhale exhaust fumes that burn our throats from the first few hours of our stay in the street.
Most of the cars slow down as the puzzled drivers leave with a flyer and a short explanation of what is going on. While for pedestrians and bikers there’s always the option of a glass of home-made lemonade/tea and organic cookies to go with it.

In return, we receive (in most cases) warm-hearted smiles, positive feedback, enthusiasm and the occasional thumbs-up by surprised yet happy faces who happen to stumble upon us. Even the municipal police shocked us with their comment: “It’s beautiful what you’ve made here”. It is remarkable how easily a street can be transformed with color! All it takes is a crazy idea, a bit of creativity and the urge to fight inertia. The same street we pass by and general ignore until yesterday has now become warmer and more flavored.

The afternoon is upon us and our park is at its fullest; chairs and burlap occupied, while my hedgehog has never received so much attention in his life. E. has finally finished with her classes –you can tell because there is an ongoing laughter accompanying our music. Friends stop by for a quick drink, or a not so quick one. S. has saved the day; her lemonade is a tremendous success and the basket of cookies is always being refilled. Time for painting and the artist in us surfaces as we decorate the park and transform it a bit more. We discover that N is a natural though she won’t admit it –she’s afraid of publicity getting out of hand. At the other end of the park P struggles to make his drawing pass for a creation of a 5 year-old, and we say he did an excellent job.

We never get bored of telling the story of the red toy which Mrs. L. saved from a garbage bin, as we are incredibly proud of our resourcefulness. The reaction is always the same: “Why would anyone throw away a perfectly functionable toy?” And that question never fails to initiate discussion — but perhaps perceived obsolescence (if we guess right) is another story.

Peak hour has come and gone and we, the “sustainable fellows” have been alone for some time now in the park. K. has left his drum to keep us company for the time being, so it’s just S., E., and I. Little do we know that we are about to receive the most interesting visit of the day (I’m exaggerating a bit). There are two of them, dressed in similar outfits: sandals, dresses and expensive oversized bags. One of them, the shy one as we are about to learn, stops next to me (I’m sitting on my hedgehog now at the corner of our park). The other one, who admits she just wants to embarrass her friend by talking to us, stops in front of S. and E. who with smiling faces begin to describe our little “happening.” To our explanation that this is a park she replies: “It certainly doesn’t resemble one”. And as soon as she gets what we’re doing she declares: “I would protest for more free parking spaces.” So S points out that this is a way to think of an alternative, more just way of allocating public space, while E adds to that with her argument on space: “Think how much space a car occupies solely for one person. On the contrary, a park is for everyone.” The woman responds with her own argument “But I like cars and…technology and the internet.!” Okay. I like whales and typewriters but I don’t put them at the end of my sentences when they clearly don’t belong there… Before leaving she hands back the flyer and tells us she hopes we don’t get run over by a car, given that we’ve decided to park in the middle of Kolonaki (imagine that said with the appropriately pompous attitude that goes with the word “Kolonaki”). Hers was the only flyer that was returned to us that day.

It’s getting dark, and J’s visit has left us discussing the power of grassroots movements as our park is being transformed for one last time under the faded light of the street lamps. We’re still deciding on S’s perfumed burning sticks, but the smell of our vasilikos (basil)plant won our eventually… Our park is full again thanks to the visiting students, the guys from Franklin Pierce College who keep us company –our lemonade and tea are long gone so we have just cookies for them. The conversation is interrupted by the two Ks and their friends who come to check out our park before they’re off for drinks.

The final visitors of the day underline the beauty of the unexpected; a biker, N, passes by and decides to join us for a long conversation, while the second one puts our park on the map of the social media (the FB page of the Athens Voice) a few minutes before we start its deconstruction. Melancholic yet fulfilled, we begin bringing down a piece at a time, what has been our creative niche for the past 13 hours. Beers at K’s place are in order as we have almost finished packing. One last bag lies on the floor. As we pick it up, a car moves closer. The window is rolled down and we hear a voice from the driver’s seat: “Guys, are you leaving?”. We look at each other, the smiles appearing on our faces. “Sure”, we say. Just don’t take it for granted anymore –I am certain we all thought to ourselves.

About akalfopoulou

Author of three poetry collections, a book of essays, Ruin, Essays in Exilic Living, and most recently, A History of Too Much (Red Hen Press 2018).
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