The London Years: Greek London (8 of 20)

Byzantium in Bayswater was such an old cafe that I would not be surprised if part of their story was that Onassis dropped by when in town back in the days of the Greek shipowners. This is not a joke since the infamous Elysée restaurant/ bouzouki place on Percy Street did have black and white photos on the wall of someone from the Greek – now deposed – royal family smashing some plates. So you see, back in the early 2000s, the old money and the old glory days still counted for something.

Don’t know what’s going on? I’m leaving London soon so this is one of my 20 London stories – a celebration of 20 years of my life here.

I’ll be explaining some things about the Greek community in London as I’ve lived it and we need to agree right now that I will be biased, seeing everything from the lens of my own experience and probably unaware of a number of things. This should be fine, considering this is a *very personal* account of my 20 years in London and I welcome all additions and new information in the comments.

A good place to start is the first time I went to Bayswater. I’m convinced that this was sometime in 2002 or 2003 and one of my Greek friends took me to see old school Greek London. I was personally gagging for a frappé coffee which you could not find in London for love or money and the Byzantium cafe obliged.

Bayswater in those days was rich-brat central. As the historical neighborhood of the Greek shipowning community, Moscow Road was where you could find anyone who was anyone. Everyone else just went along because you could get frappe in Byzantium, actual Greek produce in the Athenian Grocery, Greek newspapers at one of the corner shops and Greek food at the Santorini restaurant. The impressive church (which everyone translates as St. Sophia – even themselves – but actually it’s the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Divine Wisdom) is where the well heeled and the wannabe well heeled celebrated Easter and baptised their children – ideally by the Archbishop.

I don’t think anyone who has come to London after 2010 can really understand how difficult it was 20 years ago to find Greek things. You could laugh. You could question why the hell I moved if I missed Greek things and to be honest… you’d be an idiot. Making a choice to live somewhere else does not mean you stop missing the tastes and some of the things you loved about your home country. So… spare me.

Coffee was the thing I missed the most – it’s not that you couldn’t get Greek coffee, you couldn’t even find a decent coffee shop because coffee culture was only then beginning to flourish in London. Flat white? Forget about it. This was still in the future along with checkered shirts, hipsters and the rise of Shoreditch.

Greek restaurants were also – in the main – absolutely terrible. Competition was limited and some things just didn’t exist. You couldn’t find souvlaki outside of North London for example (and even then it was probably just a couple of places making gyro). Santorini was expensive and bland and the only people enthusiastic about Lemonia were not Greek. Still, beggars can’t be choosers and so I drank my coffee at Byzantium as if it was nectar and chewed on my fish at Santorini as if I was cutting into cake. By the way, I don’t like fish.

Fun fact. All of my non Greek friends would tell me how much they loved hummus which I ONLY ATE FOR THE FIRST TIME IN LONDON in a Cypriot restaurant. Hummus is not really a thing in Greece.

In those days, our parents used to send us care packages that included such essentials as olive oil, spices and chocolate spread. Let me be clear – ALL those things were and are available in London, if you know where to look. But there was no facebook, there was no twitter, we knew what our friends knew which is why we had big lists for our parents and got excited to drink the watery frappe we could find.

This changed for me with my eventual foray into North London where anywhere in the vicinity of Green Lanes one could and still can find EVERYTHING that is required for Greek cooking in Cypriot and Turkish shops. The Turkish shops always being cheaper and stocking a better baklava by a mile.

North London is where the Cypriot community flourished. This was old school of a different kind with second and third generation youngsters driving lowered cars with music blasting through the speakers.

London Greek Radio still has its studios up in North London and I SWEAR TO GOD, they used to have a show called “Fellow émigrés who left us” where listeners could commemorate their dead loved ones. I was FASCINATED by this show as the format was also like a tiny history of the Cypriot community in London. It was always something like “Our fellow émigré Androula Kyprou has departed this vale of tears on the 21st of February after a battle with a long illness. She leaves behind her husband of 60 years, Pampos Kyprou, her daugher Chrystalla, her son in law Kostas, her son Andros, his wife Polla, her grandson Melis and his wife Samantha”. Did you see it? As the generations changed, someone from another culture always married into the family.

You might think I’m making fun but I am decidedly not. The people who can afford to make fun at that stuff are the people who came to London recently and are spoiled by the abundance of Greek coffee shops, restaurants, souvlaki places and delis – all the result of the Greek financial crisis, pushing people abroad. Greece’s loss was our gain, I’ve eaten spectacular Greek food in London (at Mazi if you must know) and even 20 years ago that would have been unheard of.

The pre-existing diaspora community maintained a core of Greek and Cypriot places for the decades that preceded the nouveaux Greeks descending into London poo-pooing on the North London churches or the incredibly yummy koupes in the Cypriot delis. And for all the pretentiousness that I know for a fact I had (possibly still have) I’ve found so much support in all the Greek and Cypriot old school places, when I missed something from the old homeland.

One of the most legendary underground haunts was Jimmy’s in Soho – now long gone and honestly missed by a huge part of the Greek London population. Jimmy’s was accessed through a tiny door, you then had to descend to what felt like the bowels of the earth and you were then in a basement fulls of arches – the most surefire way to know you were somewhere close to the Lady Door. At about one in the morning – AFTER THE SMOKING BAN – they locked the door upstairs and everyone would light up their cigarettes and their… not cigarettes. Two men played bouzouki and guitar, smoking and drinking non stop, inserting their own lyrics into popular songs. They had this waitress called Sofia, average height, slim and always bustling up and down. They would always call her to sing the song about a waitress and she did so matter of factly with one of the best Greek folk voices I have ever heard.

But that’s another story. And this one is about a hot summer – so hot that I had taken off my tights and I was wearing my green slingbacks. I was single and I seem to recall that I liked someone – the infatuation filling me with that whizz pop bang that infatuations tend to. I met my friends at a pub and then we proceeded to Freud for the legendary cocktails, this being a favourite Greek haunt mainly due to the cocktails and the ease with which you could meet people. I think that was the evening the huge Jamaican Mule slipped from my hand and smashed on the floor scraping my legs, tiny beads of blood gently blooming.

Later, much later, we went to Elysée which was half empty – this being the summer holidays and the Greek university students being back home. This is a place for smashing plates – you understand but that night I refrained and instead danced on the table. I still recall that I felt giddy and excited and impulsive. I’ve made my biggest mistakes in this state but I’ve also gotten by best stories.

At the end of the night I took a taxi home – this being a time of better income – and I smoked one cigarette before going to bed.

Looking back, there have always been these explosive moments in London. And you have to wonder… would it have been possible to thrive here without them?

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My #20LondonStories

  1. Grexit/ Brexit 
  2. The way to anyone’s heart is through the stomach
  3. The night bus 
  4. Words save our lives… sometimes 
  5. The rest is noise 
  6. How not to bite your nails in the Officials’ Box 
  7. Always have a sister 
  8. Greek London 
  9. This green and pleasant land 
  10. The bridge of aspiration 
  11. The knight in well travelled armor 
  12. Carpets in the toilet and other adventures in housing
  13. Moments in Art 
  14. The NHS hunger games 
  15. In nocte consilium
  16. The friends we found, the friends we lost
  17. Blogging tips for beginners 
  18. Lord of Gondolin, Bane of Gothmog, mighty beater of his headboard, conqueror of the slide, aka our child
  19. γνῶθι σεαυτόν
  20. How to leave London

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