A house in Athens

After five years in Athens Mike Sweet reflects on his time in city and country in limbo

An elegant long-handled knife sits under glass at the National Historical Museum, the old Greek Parliament in Stadiou Street, Athens. Beside it lies a leather bag with a monograph.

It reads ‘Diligiannis’. This personal effect of a late-19th Century Greek politician Theodoros Diligiannis would have passing interest for most, myself included, but for the fact that the knife – which could so easily be an ornamental letter opener – was used to murder its owner.

Diligiannis, who was prime minister of Greece twice, was assassinated on the 13 June 1905 in revenge for reforms he had taken against gambling. His attacker, a professional punter, stabbed Diligiannis as he was entering parliament.

The villa that Diligiannis built in the northern suburb of Kifisia, has for the last three years, been my home. The plaque beside the iron-gated entrance to the garden shows his dates – 1826 to 1905. It often causes passers-by to pause, perhaps to reflect on Diligiannis’ place in Greece’s political evolution.

At the time the house was built in 1850, the fashion for the Athenian establishment was to escape the stifling heat of summer in the metropolis, to Kifisia, fifteen kilometres to the north. Today’s owner of Diligiannis’ retreat is Lilaka Kritikos, the widow of an Azerbijani Greek businessman who made his fortune as a trader in Cameroon.

The house and the grounds in which it sits, were bought from the Diligiannis family by Kritikos in the 1970s: Lilaka lives in the apartment built by her husband beside the property. “It was a house ‘paysan’ for the summer – not a grand villa.

It was a ruin when we bought it,” says Lilaka who spends much of her time at a second home in Paris.

The house at 19 Levidou is near the swanky shops of central Kifisia, where the well-heeled sate their craving for expensive branded fashion accessories, seemingly immune to the deterioration of the economy.

But business is down for the traders in Kifisia. Walk up Diligiannis’ street to the Kefalari Plateia, and you come to Trikoupi Street named after Diligiannis’ nemesis, the reformer and modernizer Charilaos Trikoupis.

The enmity between these two men, who vied for the leadership of the Nationalist Party, defined Greek politics in the late 19th Century. Living at this intersection of political history, one can’t help but reflect on today’s Greece, beset by its huge economic and social challenges, and with a political landscape as fractious and polarised as Diligiannis’ time.

As the second decade in the 21st Century gets underway, Greece is in limbo. For the first time in generations, young people face a future of fewer opportunities than their parents. Confidence in politicians has eroded, tarred by the irresponsible actions of past governments of all persuasions.

Deep resentment and loss-of-face is felt by Greeks at having had to go cap in hand to the European Union and IMF. Downtown, a world away from Kifisia, tensions are high.

A recent report by UNHCR has described Greece’s treatment of refugees as a humanitarian crisis. Vigilantes bully the immigrants that have nowhere else to go. A few days before Christmas at the church of Aghios Pandeleimonas near Exarchia, a classical music concert took place attended by the Greek President and Archbishop of Athens.

It was a brave, symbolic event, to encourage tolerance of immigrants and the issues they face. Outside and inside the church there were protesters urging against this call for toleration – many of the local resident protesters were infiltrated by extremist nationalist groups. Greece’s largest right-wing political organisation Xrysi Augi (Golden Dawn), with their Nazi salutes and rhetoric of intolerance took 5.8 percent in recent local elections. In the district of Aghios Pandeleimonas it was closer to 20 percent.

The house Diligiannis built in Kifisia was used to hide Jews during the Nazi occupation in WWII. Today, as racism stalks the streets of Athens, it is a time for courage and humanity; a time to denounce these neo fascists, and to fortify a society under immense pressure and to offer a safe-house to those refugees in need.

The summer of 2010 was long in Greece. It lasted until almost year’s end, but as Christmas arrived, so did winter. With a sudden, chilling force, snow fell on the houses of Kifisia. These are times to wrap up warm, gather strength, and do what you can to prepare for better days.

For a revealing insight into Greece and illegal immigration, see ‘The Battle For Attica Square’ on YouTube.