Myth versus reality: Athens during the peak of the crisis

Athens isn't as bleak as student Anastasia Tsirtsakis expected. Moving through protests, strikes and tons of graffiti, she finds the embattled capital still shows glimmers of hope.

“Make sure you watch your bag when you’re travelling on the metro! Things are difficult in Greece at the moment; people are not what they were, they will do anything for money!”

So went the warnings from family before departing for Athens in January this year. I was being asked by friends in hushed tones, “Oh, you’re going to Greece… how do you think it will be? I hear things are tough there at the moment.” With Greece receiving such negative media attention with the economic crisis, rather than well wishes, people seemed to be afraid for me.

I was presented with the opportunity of a lifetime to do a two month stint in Greece at the Kapodistrian University in Athens. I had travelled to Greece many times before but I knew this time would be different, with reports of racism in Athens being high on the radar, political instability and many out of work. Trying to think on the bright side, I dismissed all the warnings and quashed all the fear-driven questions with my enthusiasm for spending eight whole weeks in one of my favourite cities in the world.

Up until airport security, everything seemed to be just as I’d left it. Upon entering the arrivals lounge I was instantly struck by loud and colourful music, though it was neither Greek nor English – rather it sounded somewhat like Roma music. The song was being played through someone’s phone in the waiting area. As I walked through the crowd of people with my oversized suitcase, scanning the array of faces for my relatives, I noticed something. First of all, there was a disproportionate amount of males, and secondly, I could hear various foreign languages being spoken, none of which were Greek. Why were so many people coming to Greece from abroad, to stay and live, when there were such high numbers of unemployment?

After leaving the airport however, things started to go more the way I had anticipated; I was being force fed by family, going for frappé with new found friends and discovering the happening bar scene of Athens. Everyone told me it was such a shame that it wasn’t summer – that’s when Greece comes alive – but to me, even in the heart of a European winter, Athens’ nightlife seemed to be thriving more than Melbourne’s in the middle of summer. Crisis? What crisis? I was tempted to call my mum and say “Sell all my things, I’m not coming back!”

And then the strikes started. The metro workers were protesting against cuts to their wages and stopped all services during peak hours. Day one and day two of the strikes, I was understanding, even a little inspired that such unity existed amongst the Greeks. However, as the strikes continued throughout the week and into the next, the inconvenience started to reform my opinion. The reality seemed to be that if the crisis was in fact so severe, protests were futile. All citizens were feeling the crunch and they were just creating more chaos.

The crisis was very real and confronting, especially if you knew Greece as it was before. As a teacher at the university remarked one day in class: “You can see a change in the people. You look around at the faces on the bus, and they look angry, as though they are ready for an argument.”

As time went on, I noticed lots of signage, big banners for buildings that were being leased or on the market for sale, dotted all around the city. I saw shops that had been abandoned due to loss of revenue – that bar you went to last year may no longer be there. Graffiti was sprawled all over buildings and chances are by tomorrow morning there will be something thought provoking scrawled on that wall. One tag in particular that struck me on my daily trek along Odos Vouliagmenis from Glyfada to Agios Dimitrios were the words ‘WAKE UP’ in big, bold print.

Away from all the troubles, a friend took me to the theatre one night, an experience I longed to have in the birthplace of drama. Along a narrow street in the centre of Athens, known for being frequented by theatre goers, there were people spilling out everywhere. For a Tuesday night this was somewhat surprising, and there was not one empty seat in the house. People of all ages, from young teenagers to retirees, were all going to see the same production – and the thought struck me: Greeks may be experiencing an economic crisis, but this had inspired their creativity. The content of the production was very current, the writers explored issues of racism, cuts to pensions and the negative effect the crisis was having on the institution of the Greek family.

All these themes became even more relevant when an older Greek gentleman told me about his son’s friends and their break ups. Without much future prospect for work, taking their relationships that next step to marriage and children didn’t seem like a possibility. He explained that people are feeling as though they are backed into a corner – unable to support another, they can only focus on number one. To me this seemed extreme; money is of course important, but surely relationships could surpass the emphasis on financial stability. A lack of funds, coupled with the loss of meaningful relationships – how would these people get through such a difficult time?

But hope has not entirely faded. Despite the harsh realities and an increase in the number of Greeks migrating to other countries, there are still many trying to make it work. Despite the protests and the businesses closing down, there were still new enterprises opening up.

One thing I realised is that the perception we have in Australia is pretty far off. Athens is still a habitable city – a lot of people still have jobs. Getting rich is probably a little ambitious in the current climate. However, this is not the first of the immense difficulties Greece has had to face; rather, it is another link in a series of challenges. Experiencing Greece first hand as a Greek Australian was very significant. The initial warnings of “people are not what they were, they will do anything for money!” could not be further from the truth. Rather, there is a need for compassion and as Giorgos Seferis proclaimed: “In our gradually shrinking world, everyone is in need of all the others. We must look for man wherever we can find him.” I still have hope.

* Anastasia Tsirtsakis has completed a Bachelors Degree in Modern Greek and Spanish and Latin American Studies and is set to commence her Honours Thesis in Sexism in Language at The University of Sydney.