There’s a lot of graffiti in Athens and a lot of boarded-up, shuttered shops. English language Athens News reports that a third of city centre businesses have closed down since the economic crisis hit. There are more prostitutes around Omonia Square than when I was last here fifteen years ago and at 6am this morning – pre-dawn, an hour I now realise belongs to the night – I was nearly mugged walking streets that I remember with nostalgia. A feint across a road followed by a dash towards an early-opening newspaper kiosk saved me from the guy creeping up behind me and his mate lurking behind a pillar.
There are more cappuccinos and frappuccinos than last time I was here, too. Then it was “Greek coffee or Nescafe?” The new cold coffees are sold in disposable plastic cups with huge bubble-shaped lids.
There’s a metro station in Syntagma Square now. The McDonalds on the corner (still useful, as always, for its loo) has swapped its garish red and yellow frontage for the supposedly sophisticated bottle green version. There are police in the square and some of the marble slabs have been torn up, to be used as missiles during strikes and protests.
Greeks still ride motorbikes without helmets and shop in traditional fresh food markets, buying olives and nuts, cheese and meat and fish and fruit by the kilo, weighed out on a traders’ scales rather than prepackaged in superstore cellophane.
Tourists still throng the Plaka and flow through Syntagma and you wouldn’t guess, on Saturday afternoon, that on Wednesday molotov cocktails were being thrown… except that there’s a large plastic gazebo, some kind of promotional booth, still standing ragged and melted and blackened between the fountains.
On this Saturday in late September, central Athens’ streets are vibrant despite the boarded-up shops. Teens wear neon pinks and greens, women’s sandals are encrusted with gleaming plastic jewels. Feelgood fashions rule in the Age of Austerity. Street artists, musicians and breakdancers busk along Ermou. Crowds gather, to listen and watch and smile and applaud and throw change into hats and bouzouki cases, while sipping on bubble-topped frothy coffees.
Then, in the late afternoon, dozens of shabbily dressed men hit the streets with shopping trolleys. They rifle through bins and rubbish heaps in the backstreets. Cans, bottles, broken furniture and anything else that can be fixed or sold goes into the trolleys.
At the Acropolis at dusk, a Greek friend tells me that up here – looking out over an Athens bathed in soft pink, gold and lilac – she has hope for humanity. “It’s an ugly city,” she admits, but points out, amongst the dirty-white concrete tower blocks, an ancient church, an even more ancient Hellenic temple and a large mosque. History and diversity, visible and palpable, multi-layered and robust.
Apparently Athenian anarchists are joining gyms, toughening up in preparation for fighting Golden Dawn fascists. The blame-game has been set in motion and if it’s not the dirty foreigners to blame then it’s corrupt politicians and if not them, inept management of public services or tax evasion or or or… perhaps it’s the whole warped system, stupid.
In rural Crete, abandoned villages are coming back to life as city folk re-evaluate the value of land; of goats and olive trees and crumbling family homes, where food can be grown and gathered and reared. Traditional knowledge lives on in village octogenarians and perhaps this crisis will prevent its loss.
Cretan coastal towns remain largely unaffected by the crisis. Northern Europeans continue to rent apartments and sun-loungers but now the shops selling souvenirs and tourist tat are pushing local produce – honey and herbs gathered from the mountains, olive oil and olive wood hand-carved bowls and fiery tsikoudia spirit.
I think I want to live here.