Athens in Limbo

View of the city from near the Acropolis, with the temple of Hephaestus on the left
Alex Matthews/Staff
View of the city from near the Acropolis, with the temple of Hephaestus on the left

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Edinburgh got pretty frigid in February, so when I discovered that we had the third week off, I jumped at the chance of a getaway. I wasn’t picky. I figured any place further south would solve my vitamin D deficiency. When I told my friends and family that I was Athens-bound in mid-February, however, I think they all wished I had been a little more choosy.

While images of picturesque beaches, weather, ancient ruins, vibrant nightlife and Greek men filled my mind, I was warned by (in my opinion, jealous) friends of soaring homicide rates, economic collapse and of course, riots. You can probably discern from the fact that it is now March, and I am still writing for the Daily Cal, I survived. But Athens wasn’t exactly the fantasyland I envisioned either. 

We arrived on a Monday night, and being that most people in Scotland were willing to brave the frigid rain for the pubs any night of the week, Athens’ Berkeley-esque, off-season, weather would mean the locals were out in droves. Not quite. but on our first night, we could barely even find a bar because so few were open. We found two or three that were completely empty, and settled on the Legacy “Rock Bar” where we found maybe six other patrons.

The bartender told me it wasn’t always like this. He had just returned from living with his wife in Texas for a few years, but before he left, the streets were packed every night. The economic downturn in Greece (and in other European countries, according to friends who visited other destinations during the break), means that people are less willing to go out and spend money drinking. They might buy some booze to drink on the street (legal in Athens in case you were wondering), but the economy has simply calmed things down, in almost every aspect of daily life.

Protesters standing outside parliament

Those riots everyone warned me about didn’t quite live up to the photos of burning trashcans and riot police that make front page news in the U.S. There are riot police everywhere. But rather than beating back furious citizens and filling Syntagma (Greek for constitution) with tear gas, they just stand there. They hold their riot shields in one hand and drink their “riot lattés” from the other. There have been protests, and they have gotten dangerous, but for the most part, life goes on.

I wouldn’t even describe the attitude of Athenians towards the Eurozone crisis as angry. Indignant, perhaps. But more than anything, anxious.

Everyone continues to live their lives, but there is an underlying consciousness of the country’s dire situation everywhere you look for it. Whether it is just in the face of a beggar, who’s homelessness is quite evidently a recent change, or in the signs on a storefront that say they are having a “crisis” special today. The presence of the riot police is sort of an expression of the state of the country as a whole. The people are idle and unemployed, waiting for a chance to make their livelihood, but more importantly, they are unsure. No one knows what is going to happen to Greece for the time being. I went there expecting to understand better, but I left feeling even more unsure.

Changing of the guard

Image sources: Alex Matthews/Staff