In the Streets of Athens, a Cook for the Poor

An unemployed office worker creates a roving soup kitchen in Athens.

Each day on an Athens street a little hope is cooked up. It’s made in a 30-liter pot and served with plastic spoons. The cook is Constantinos Polychronopulos, and he won’t be found with the members of the troika who prescribe the economic diet for his country, but he knows all too well its effects. Since December, he’s been organizing daily meals for people who have no table to sit at. He has served some 15,000 meals.

“I lost my job in 2009. I worked at a private company, doing marketing. I locked myself up at home for a year. I wasn’t doing well. You think you’re finished, but one day I walked out the door.”

He walked out the door and went to Syntagma square.

“I saw two kids fighting for some rotten potatoes and onions in the garbage. I told them to leave them, that I would go home and make them a snack. I did it but they said they didn’t want it. Another man said the same thing. After an hour, starving, he grabbed one of the sandwiches and another elderly man came and asked for one. I thought that if we cooked together and ate together people would accept that.”

In the past eight months, people have been joining his project. Stores, restaurants, farmers and citizens donate materials and ingredients.

Polychronopulos likes to laugh. He likes to laugh at himself, like when he says he’s sent out 500 job applications in the past two years without success.

“I’m 47 years old. I tell people I’m 28, but no one believes me,” he says with a laugh as he stocks his cart with the day’s ingredients: two salt shakers, a mixture of spices, lentils, tomato sauce, onions, and a bottle of cooking oil.

“We are not an organization– we just cook,” he repeats, gesturing with hands swaddled in latex gloves. Today it’s lentil soup.

“People call me and ask where I’m cooking,” he says. Each Sunday he publishes his plan for the week in a blog called ‘O Allos Anthropos’, or ‘The Other Man’.

Today dinner is at eight in the evening below an underpass in the Metaxurgio neighborhood, where the grey, low income housing dominates the skyline.

About 15 people, mostly undocumented immigrants, have built their home amidst concrete pillars, using a tree as a closet and throwing some mattresses on the ground. They live outside but can’t get out. It’s a prison without bars and the guards are their fear.

“Here the police hit hard,” says one man.

Polychronopulos’ helpers today are 38-year-old Alexandra and her eight-year-old daughter, Fotini. It’s impossible to know what will remain in her memory from these days. The flames below the pot light up the street. A man approaches and leaves a bag full of bread.

“We are trying to help everyone, not just the Greeks. But there are also Greeks here today, at least four or five of them. They are our new poor,” he says.

It’s the opposite of what militants for the neo-fascist party Golden Dawn did last Wednesday, handing out food in Syntagma square to only those who could show they were Greek, identification cards in hand.

At Polychronopulos’ table there are no papers, no nationalities. There is just soup that is handed out in thirty aluminum bowls. The guests form a line that is illuminated by the headlights of the cars passing by, a ray of light in the darkness of a crisis that these people are fighting with solidarity.

Mariangela Paone