Haris Vlavianos on Athens

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Mike Kemp / Corbis

Athens is a city with a famous past but unfortunately an infamous present. As the capital of Greece, she still enjoys the prestige that the Parthenon and other “glorious ruins”—Greek and Roman—bestow on her, but as the seat of the discredited Greek government, she has in the past few months been at the center of a storm. TV channels around the world have been showing, almost on a daily basis, pictures of a city under siege. For most Europeans and Americans, Athens is no longer the sunny place that hosted the Olympic Games a few years back, but the “center of corruption” where shrewd and ruthless politicians, like a group of mafiosi in a Scorsese movie, engage in reckless, irresponsible acts that threaten the stability of the euro, and by extension the entire European economic structure. A city where every day there are demonstrations, strikes, clashes with the police, burnings of public buildings, beatings of innocent civilians—in short, chaos.

The scars of this wounded city are evident everywhere. In all parts, whether rich or poor. If a tourist takes a stroll around the popular, chic neighborhood of Kolonaki, famous for its expensive boutiques and exclusive clubs and restaurants, within a stone’s throw from the Maximou—the office of the prime minister—and Constitution Square (the meeting place of the enraged citizens who for months now have been protesting outside Parliament, demanding a change of government and of the country’s austere economic policies), he will experience a slight shock. Empty offices, apartments, department stores, and clubs carrying the sign “for rent” on the front entrance, its owners and business managers the first victims of Greece’s sudden impoverishment (some would say of its “fake” prosperity); beggars and junkies clustering on street corners asking for money to buy their dosage or a piece of bread; broken windowpanes and marble sidewalks, a reminder of the riots that broke out three years ago, sparked by the killing of a young student, Alexandros Grigoropoulos, by an “overzealous,” mindless policeman; and finally no public figure sitting among those who are still enjoying their espresso under the clear skies of Attica. Politicians these days are a very rare breed and are not to be seen anywhere. Whereas in the past they mingled freely among the Athenians, now they are almost in hiding, a few having already experienced the rage and wrath of their loyal supporters—beating, cursing, egg throwing, etc.

For an Athenian, however, life must go on. Despite the bleakness of the situation, with the International Monetary Fund and European bankers and speculators announcing in ever-increasing cynical, and sometimes vindictive, tones that the “day of reckoning” has finally arrived, that the country will for certain go bust (which means a return to the old currency, the drachma) the mood of its citizens is not entirely one of dejection. There is still some resilience and pride left. As a friend of mine told me a few days ago, “if we are heading toward the iceberg, let us at least drown in style.”

So there is still a spark of life left in this gloomy city, especially during the night hours. That loud, easygoing, fun-loving, “unquiet” Athenian, as Byron called him, who has recently become the target of Northern, hard-working, disciplined Europeans, can still be seen eating or drinking happily in tavernas, restaurants, and cafés, around Plaka, Theseion, Monastiraki, or Makrigianni—neighborhoods at the foot of the Acropolis—or taking a walk with friends in the national park, in Mount Lycabettus (a hill rather), in Philopappou, or Kaisariani. Perhaps the food and wine on his table are not as exquisite as they used to be, but there still seems a need among the anxious, debt-ridden citizens of this city to affirm that not everything is lost. To paraphrase Cyril Connolly, one might say that in every Athenian “there is an optimist struggling to get out of a pessimist,” and against C. P. Cavafy, who admonished Antony to “bid farewell to the Alexandria he was losing,” the Athenian will stay on, “not mourning in vain for his fortune failing him now,/ his works that have failed, the plans of his life/ that have all turned to be illusions./ As if long prepared for this, as if courageous,/ as it becomes him who was worthy of such a city,” he will endure and endure.

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