Pages Navigation Menu

Athens, Greece: A City on the Edge

 

I’ll admit I’m shocked.  I was first and last in Athens in December 2013 and only for a few hours.  That day, on a layover, I made a beeline to the Acropolis, staying entirely in the tourist zone.  This time, things are different.

 

I’m staying in the center of Athens, near Omonoia Square. The area has a reputation for seediness but I’m pleased to be within a 20-minute walk of the Acropolis. My walk yesterday took me on side-streets that resembled a third-world country more than anyplace else I’ve seen in Europe. The Greek economic crisis has hit Athens hard and the pain is visible.

 

Athens, Greece

Athens, Greece. The scaffolding needs scaffolding.

 

There is a crouched woman snorting drugs in the doorway. The jagged glass of broken windows resembles open mouths agape at the sights of the streets. The contorted man lying face down on the sidewalk, his handicap causing a leg to jut out midair like a weathervane — he’s crumpled on the sidewalk in front of a wheelchair, an accident frozen in time — hundreds of people pass. I’m not sure if he’s alive. I watch and wait until he moves.

 

Busted sidewalks, cracked and missing pieces, are a patchwork of tiles filthy with birdshit, grime, gum and cigarette butts. Garbage overflows in bins and collects around them like beaches to an island. A man on crutches, with one foot encased in bandages as big as a basketball, moves forward at tortoise-speed. A gray grime seems to cover everything. Maybe I’ve walked down the worst street in Athens but truly, this street reminds me of Cambodia or Nepal.

 

Owners stand in the doorways of empty shops, their arms crossed, waiting for customers who never come. With so many businesses taken down by eight crippling years of recession, doors are shut permanently, their spaces now empty, or worse, full of garbage and remnants of inventory covered in dust.  Unemployment has reached 25%.

 

Athens, Greece

Athens, Greece. The Acropolis in the background.

 

After traversing the seedy neighborhood, admiring graffiti along the way, suddenly the street opens up, the Acropolis is in view now, towering over the city as it did when democracy was born 2500 years ago in this very place. The streets are immediately cleaner. Now I am in Monastiraki Square which is teeming with activity.  Seeing a sign for the Athens Flea Market, I veer that way, passing stores overflowing with all the tchotchkes one expects in a tourist zone. Not my scene so I’m quick to divert.

 

Cats in Athens

Cats in Athens with oranges.

 

Climbing the hill on my way to the Acropolis I see so many cats, a reminder that Greeks generally don’t believe in neutering animals (yet many have no problem poisoning them when the population, inevitably, gets out of control). There are black cats, brown cats, spotted cats and striped cats. Cats mating and howling. Cats in trees. Cats in the grass. Cats eating sassafras. Ok, I made that last part up. Bowls scattered in doorways indicate they are fed by locals. So they can make more cats.

 

Arriving at the Acropolis, I feel victory in my grip. This time I will get in. Or not. Because I failed to research, I arrive half an hour before closing time at 3 PM. I decide I’m not paying 12 euros for half an hour of rushed sightseeing. Another day it will have to be. Third time is the charm?

 

Athens, Greece

Athens, Greece. Free Food for All.

 

Walking back, I pass through Monastiraki Square again. A group of people has set up a table. They slice crusty bread and a gigantic soup cauldron sits beside them. Their sign announces “Free Food for All“. I see blankets and bedding on the streets near the square. A pigeon has found a stash of peanuts on a vacant street bed.

 

I pass through a covered meat market as big as two city blocks. Amongst all types of fleshy products, bloody and skinned goat heads are piled in buckets. I’m guessing it’s hard to merchandise bloody-skinned-goat-heads in their best light. One would have to have a special eye for such things. Men in white coats stand in front of their displays beckoning shoppers. As a vegetarian, I find the whole market quite sickening but hey, I tried.

 

Athens Meat Market

Athens Meat Market. Get your goat heads here.

 

An elderly man selling newspapers greets me and in Greek, asks me how I’m doing.  Momentarily bounced out of my meat-gazing trance and trying to practice I respond in Greek “Good, and you?”  He asks me where I’m from.  “U.S.”, I reply.  He points to himself. “Putin. Rousio (Russia)”.  He is talking fast and I don’t understand.  And then he points to me and afterwards mimes drinking.  “No” I say.  Somehow interpreting this as encouragement, he points to me and then points to himself and asks: “Hotel?”.  “Nyet! Nyet! Nyet!” I say as I walk away nearly gagging.  It’s good to know I’m still a hottie to elderly Russian street vendors.  And by “good to know” I mean yuck.

 

Athens, Greece

 

As I walk the larger streets back to the hotel, I notice the faces of so many are sullen, a cast of doubt and struggle hangs in the air. Things feel edgy. Maybe it’s the overcast weather, but I don’t think so.

 

Returning to my hotel, TV reports deliver grim news. Today, Greece was given an ultimatum from the European Union — it has six weeks to stop illegal immigrants moving through its borders or the country will be quarantined from the rest of Europe and the thousands of refugees arriving every day to Greece’s shores will be stuck inside the country. Some politicians suggest turning the frostbitten and half-dead refugees back at the sea or letting them drown (seriously) as a way to discourage more from coming. So much for the European Union. It’s a political kick in the gut to a country already on its knees. It’s a blame game. It’s not a solution to a humanitarian crisis.

 

For now, I can’t reconcile that this great city, the cradle of democracy, appears to be nearing shambles. And I wonder if it’s not foreshadowing of the coming world for all of us. History is unfolding today.

 

This post is dedicated to my high-school English teacher, Nick Ferentinos, who passed away this week. He was a great teacher and a great man and  I will always remember his compassion.

 

Photos of Athens, Greece:

2 Comments

  1. Hi I found your blog through the MMM interview series. What a nice gem your blog is. My friends and I will be going to Greece in 2 months and we can’t wait to embrace the greek culture. Have only read a few posts and I have to say your writing and pictures are amazing. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks Sally. I’m happy to have you as a reader. Greece is a fantastic country and I’m happy to be a resource should you have any questions in advance of your trip.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons

Pin It on Pinterest