Last time I was in Athens was eight-and-a-half years ago. It might as well have been a lifetime.
Everything about the situation was different. It was Christmas. I was fresh off studying in Florence, and meeting up with my college boyfriend to visit his parents who were stationed in Greece. We had a gorgeous room at the storied Grande Bretagne. Because of Ryan’s dad’s rank, the US government had my body and bags frisked upon arrival, and our room cased before bed. For a week we were whisked about the city and countryside in a procession of tinted window vehicles, and were given space to enjoy the sights to ourselves. It was a trip.
But even with the surreal happenstance of my last visit, the Athens Cliff and I visited this summer was even more dreamlike. Only this time the Athens dream took on an austerity fueled dystopian theme.
At our 4:00 am arrival Athens was just as magical as I remembered. Our Airbnb was small and cramped, but as we stumbled out of the stairwell to our rooftop door we felt like kings.
The view proved equally satisfying in the light of day, and we eagerly set out to explore the childhood home of democracy.
But from the moment we took a wrong turn and ended up the recipients of some very unfriendly looks on an all male, all immigrant street, I realized I was about to experience a different Athens.
Once we righted our compass and returned to tourist stomping grounds we felt safe, but surprisingly alone. Athens was a ghost town.
To be fair, it was the week of Aug. 15, Greece’s biggest bank holiday. So this was a particularly desolate midsummer weekend. Most Athenians (like the girl whose apartment we rented) take the holiday to visit their home villages. This explained a lot of the store, restaurant, and bar closures, but not the for sale and for rent signs on buildings everywhere we turned.
All the vacant buildings create a serious blank canvas for street and graffiti artists. Lisbon still wins the prize for raddest urban gallery, but Athens is a close second. The city has loads of good street art, including an impressive collection by the artist Sonke. Unsurprisingly, Athens’ streets are also home to a growing collection of political and general rant graffiti. Most of it was literally Greek to us, but the overall message of civic malcontent came through loud and clear.
The threat of a class war came across as more than a spray paint slogan. Growing poverty is a stark reality and making its presence known. We experienced nice looking kids begging on the streets in a way I’ve never seen in a European country.
As everyone knows, wherever high (male) youth unemployment goes, unrest is sure to follow. The holiday weekend and conspicuous absence of city masses obviously over dramatized the feeling of impending doom, but, a submachine gun window display next to a sneaker store would stand out in Times Square on Christmas Eve.
And because financial strife never travels without its thuggish sidekick racial tension, being in Athens means you will see some work or mention of the Golden Dawn. The greatest shock of my first Athens visit was looking out our window at the Bretagne and seeing a full on Nazi demonstration. I remember being taken aback and then reasoning, “OK, them’s the allowances free speech must make”.
Nearly a decade later, its clear that Golden Dawn wants more than free speech. The political party’s relationship with the city and its citizens (and non citizens) is complicated, polarizing, but in the eyes of many Greeks a distraction from the real issues Greece faces. That was before five top Golden Dawn members were arrested in connection with the murder of left-wing anti-fascist rapper, Pavlos Fyssas. While the party’s fate plays out in court, street art illustrates that not all Greeks fear or respect the party.
But Athens is not all doom, gloom, and automatic weapon props.
There’s a fascinating Journeyman Pictures episode about out of work Athenians returning to their villages and a more agrarian and in places even barter based economy. It’s a really encouraging trend, and the 20 min video is definitely worth a watch. But young Athenians haven’t given up on their city yet. Restaurants and bars that were open over the August 15th weekend had a cool, tenacious vibe and hip, engaged patrons to match.
Every time I read about the citizens of Detroit and their innovative moves to utilize their city, I think, “man, that would be such a cool place to live. Too bad it’s so cold”. Well that’s Athens, a once great power struggling not just to survive, but to redefine itself in the face of some pretty unfaceable odds.
At the end of the day, the wonderful thing about a city built amidst so much ancient history is a sense of perspective. Athens had created, lost, and rebuilt so much before North America was even on a written map. Even with all that Greece faces today (and as everyone we spoke to said, it will get worse before it gets better) Athens’ historic riches are undeniable. Sites like the Acropolis and the new and extremely well done Acropolis Museum are as stunning as ever.
Athens remains a living shrine to democracy. No austerity measure, and not even Angela Merkel, can take that away.