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December 7, 2013
December 7, 2013

Athens: the edge of Europe, but still a protagonist of the present

Author: Valerio Pelliccia Translator: Stella Lehning
Source: Nea Polis Roma  Category: Letters from home
This article is also available in: deelesitpt-pt
Athens: the edge of Europe, but still a protagonist of the present

Athens. Just one word for five and a half million inhabitants. Just one city for almost a whole country. There are bigger metropolises in the world, but seeing the city from a privileged point like Lycabittus hill takes your breath away, leaves its mark and changes your consciousness. The city seems limitless below you, modern cement spaced out by few green areas and some classical ruins. The view leaves you amazed and thrilled, especially when the sun goes down between the hills and the unleashed colours, which completely satisfy your sight, contribute to create one of the most fascinating sunsets you will ever experience.

From the top of Lycabittus hill you can see all symbolic places of the city. And in one moment, like kidnapped and teleported, you experience it first hand: walking between the small houses in Plaka, a little village miraculously escaped the uncontrolled urban development; enjoying the swimming pool on a rooftop in the central and prestigious Kolonaki area. Or standing on the bipolar Syntagma square, one day an elegant European plaza, the other a battlefield where people’s rage unloads.

Exploring the overcrowded market in Omonia, a real melting pot thanks to the strong migrant presence; or why not sipping a coffee in one of the many cafes, which enliven the city. Walking until the far eastern suburbs, featurelessly and built in a rush, in order to accommodate refugees from Anatolia, reconquered by the Turks during the ’70; returning to the central Acropolis hill, pure nocturnal magic. Finally spotting the sea, lost on the horizon, between the smokestacks of the stell mills and shipyards in Piraeus, former national pride and now sold to the first foreign offer; scouting the Glyfadian suburb, the coolest seafront in Athens.

But, for sure, it’s not the architectural beauty that characteres the Greek capital. It’s rather the awareness of the infinite contradictions, of the myriad that keeps this pulsating heart alive on the eastern European border, which you can feel when looking down at the city; being the main protagonist in the ancient time during the democracy inception, Athens is still the protagonist in the present with the end of democracy, or at least its turning.

Many asks me: “Is this crisis real or not?”. The impulsive answer is yes. Aside from the terrible economic situation, it is discernible from omnipresent riot police and hundreds of homeless living in the shopping arcades. All this in the same city, which was proud of having the minimal amount of homeless in Europe before the crisis. The shops? Many went out of business. You recognise also the crisis by street dogs, which, still with their dog collars, ransack trash to search for food, now also competing with anybody who isn’t an animal. Silent fights among the poor. Being human and not. The drug addicts are not missing either, sitting in the crowded city centre all day long as a result of the drug use, which is spreading between the desperate slowly like a plague. Heating with wood, a cheap alternative to fuel oil, was highly in fashion until the government was forced to prohibit this in order to stop pollution and deforestation. It happens often in an unheated café or restaurant that numbed costumers try to wear their jackets at first, but shortly afterwards leave depressed because of the cold. There are countless suicides and anyone who has lost his mind meanders now through the streets railing against the pedestrians.

With this description Athens seem like a city descending into chaos in an apocalyptic scenery. But when you walk along its streets the atmosphere is anything but gloomy. The activity is everywhere and people’s faces aren’t too tensed, in a mood between relaxation and party. Coffee shops, clubs, tavernas? They become, already full in the afternoon, crowded during the night, making it impossible (especially during the weekend) to find a free table. Thanks to the Greek vivacity the night life is the strong point of Athens, being in no way inferior to other European capitals.

So which is the most accurate answer to the question, if at one moment you think: “They are in a very bad situation!” and at the other moment you’re exclaiming: “Oh my goodness what a beautiful place!”? To be able to answer this correctly, it’s necessary to overcome the obvious visual contra-position and so to explain it as a typical distortion of an economic crisis: the crisis doesn’t strike everyone in the same way. Actually, there are groups heavily hit and, on the other hand, groups which keep their wealth intact. For this reason it’s not only enough to look at the streets but also necessary to focus on people’s statements, or even better, to focus on what they don’t say. Endless rage, fights and demonstrations would be expected as a reaction against what is going on and for the absurd privations imposed by the Troika. The way the inhuman austerity programmes are structured are contradictory to the economic predictions, in evidence through the decreasing Greek economy, with unemployment and governmental debt increasing without any control. Ineffective measures are imposed for years by deeply corrupt politicians involved almost daily in various scandals. In consequence of all of this, the Greeks’ reaction was unanimously ferocious, able to bring the country very close to general uprising, or at least, this was the image drawn in foreign media. But the highly crowded demonstrations of recent years are now just memories. There are still the political parties, the anarchists and the political activists, but the ordinary citizen, from poor to middle class, seek shelter in their private sphere. Troubles and drama are interned inside the domestic walls and through the psychological repulsion the crisis theme is avoided in Greek households. “One year ago we always talked about it, searching for the causes and trying to find a solution. But now we’re tired and we prefer anything else but talking about what’s happening to us”. I heard these sentences by a Greek friend when I just arrived in Athens, and thus going out with her and her friends I realised how this statement is sadly true: the few times the crisis topic comes up, the guilty parties are never mentioned, not even random ones. The desire to protest is down to zero: “Once the demonstrations were more attended, but now it’s useless to join them…”. A general resignation remains, one solution is the possibility to escape abroad, if even not the only one: “Out of my ex-high school class, I’m the only one left in Greece. The others are working abroad.” It’s not unlikely to hear statements like this by unemployed and graduated thirty year old academics who are already thinking of following their ex-schoolmates route.

This is the Greek tragedy. The angry rebel yell has been turned into dejection and resigning shrugs. The wish to change, to rethink a new democratic concept or the simple right to imagine a future in your own country, all this disappeared into the void. Bankers, politicians and vested interests won against their fellow human beings, turning Greece into a political lab of neo-liberalism. This experiment is successful. Thanks to the media pressure, mixed with hard repression and draconian measures, they were able to move their crisis guilt to the Greek population, leaving the message that Greeks have lived over their possibilities.

And now the Greeks, exhausted and defeated after five years of crisis, are learning to accept this. Privileges and key roles in politics are saved, but only with huge costs. What remains if everyone throws the towel? What will remain of Greece, if its youth, defeated by resignation, by indignation and by shame, are dreaming of other countries?

You decide.

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1 Comment

  1. Valerio 2014/02/08 at 12:16

    A special thanks to Stella Lehning for the English translation.

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