Observations from Athens

To a casual eye, Athens does not look like a city in strife. If you take the metro to the centre of the city and hop off at Syntagma Square you’ll find it full of beaming street vendors, children hollering to one another in the fountains, and the drone of skateboards taking advantage of civic architecture. Head down flashy Ermou Street towards the tourist Mecca that is the Acropolis and its clear that business is still booming. There are no sloganed banners, no midnight vigils, no angry anarchists. There’s nothing to indicate Greece’s economy is tottering beyond the pale and that its people are suffering. But of course, the tourism industry doubtless conceals a great deal of the pain.

Outside the tourist zone, once you penetrate the rambling whitewashed Lego blocks that comprise the vast majority of the city, there is a slightly different story. Coffee shops and restaurants are perhaps a little quiet of an evening. Graffiti is ubiquitous; shop owners seem unwilling or unable to remove it, but these angry, slapstick colors don’t really feel out of place in the urban wilderness. Athens isn’t a pretty place, but it’s not unwelcoming.

There are, however a few pertinent signs of a bankrupt government. There’s a technical university right next to the National Archaeology Museum that’s been shut down: it has a heavy chain on the gate, long grass growing through the concrete and a head that’s fallen off a statue lying in the courtyard. The National gardens around Syntagma are unkempt, and there are plenty of shuttered shop fronts.
The first real sign of human hardship, however, is the idleness of the Athenians floating around the public spaces. Anyone who has travelled to a developing country will notice that people seem to sit around a lot, all day. They smoke, chat with their friends, stare at tourists, and appear to go about their lives simply by inhabiting a human shaped space in the cosmos. They’re not lazy ‒ they’re unemployed, and have no recourse for occupation. There’s a lot of sitting around going on in Athens. As you’d expect, the sitting intensifies the further you are from the Acropolis.

Many of the Athenians who are on their feet are mendicants. In my experience, they fall into two categories. First, there are those who initially act with a show of confidence, deploying some practiced hook to draw passers by in. Monastriki is filled with African guys giving fist bumps to every passer by yelling “Hakuna Matata’ before trying to weave a tale and a colorful bracelet around your wrist – the routine is identical in Paris and Rome. Occasionally however, you’ll come across something very different, and it is much more upsetting: someone who is visibly ashamed of what they are doing. It seems to be the mark of someone who has become destitute comparatively recently and has had to become a beggar out of absolute necessity. You come to expect this on the Athens metro, at just about any time of day.

The metro is also the place to find pious gentlemen handing out religious pamphlets. Athens has a surfeit of tiny Orthodox churches. Many of these structures sit a metre or more below the surrounding street level, which has risen steadily since most of them were constructed in Byzantine antiquity. Inside every one of these musty time capsules you will find Athenians praying, lighting candles, kissing frescoed images of Christ and the Virgin, or just fiddling with Komoboloi (prayer beads) on the steps outside. It’s not just the older generation: there are young families with children, and even teenagers, skateboard in hand, frequenting the churches. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are doubtless of even greater importance to the faithful in difficult times.

I spoke to more than a few Athenians about their national finances and the thrust of the conversation was always the same: we are proud of our country and our people will endure, but “the government” sucks, a lot. Despite the fact that Greece has been in the dumps for at least five years now, Athenians seem to feel that this is a temporary state of affairs. There is no sense of incipient revolution, no fear that civil society will collapse. Greece was once the friction point dividing Iron Curtain and the Marshall Plan. Perhaps it is a lesson of the post-Cold War world that economic crisis no longer invites the serious threat of revolution, but rather moderation and reform. Athens remains a brilliant city to visit, rich in history, great food, and a launching post for adventures into the mountains or the Cyclades. Euro-crisis be damned, it’s plodding along fine.