“Greece is at the crossroads, it either sinks or swims,” says Panayiotis, the taxi driver who is pushing well over 100km-per-hour on the highway from the Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport to the centre of Athens.
Look at the Acropolis. We look back and say ‘We were once great’ and we ask ‘What happened?’ But that’s wrong. People forget that after Pericles’ reign, after the Golden Age, Athens collapsed, but it rebuilt itself again and again.
“Things are bad, I am down 50 percent in income from last year. I can’t remember a period which has been as bad for us,” he bemoans.
Panayiotis is a young father and, like all the Greeks I speak to, is a confident English speaker.
“The previous government and many of its rich friends destroyed Greece. They stole billions, not millions, billions of euro!” he proclaims.
This is my first visit to Athens since 2001, a time when the economy was humming along and The Economist declared Greece to be a Prometheus unbound.
It is hard to think of crisis as the azure sky and the Mediterranean sun greet my son, my wife and I, as we head towards Athens.
Later, the young man in his early twenties who served me my souvlakia at Kavouras souvlaki grill in the inner city suburb of Exarhia asked where I’m from.
His response to my being from Down Under is simple and direct: “Australia… an economic paradise.”
“I want to get out of here. I am finishing an IT degree and there are no jobs. I’m not going to waste away in a souvlaki joint,” he adds.
I downplay Australia’s economic resilience and suggest he should not migrate because Greece needs him.
It’s hard to know whether this pessimism is founded on the reality of the recession, or Greek fatalism – I suspect a mix of both.
Two young women, Mary and Nike run a Vodafone shop, in the scenic suburb of Thesion.
They believe the psychological impact of the recession is more real.
“Business is slow,” says Mary, “but the whole of Europe is going through a crisis.”
Nike agrees: “We are entrepreneurial and intelligent. What are we going to do, fall apart?” she asks rhetorically.
My friend Rita, who is driving us through the chic Kolonaki area cramped with Hermes and Louis Vuitton shops, is angry.
“Look at these people, they are the ones responsible for the crisis,” she says as she points to a tanned blond, driving her BMW convertible into her apartment’s garage.
Most of the cars in Kolonaki are BMWs, Porches and Jeep 4-wheel-drives.
Machine gun totting policemen, policewomen and countless doctors’ suits are all part of Kolonaki’s landscape.
“Most of the doctors around here declare less than 10,000 euro income a year! Less than a poor pensioner” says Rita as she vents her anger.
Petros, an English language teacher, has had a 30 percent reduction in his salary.
“In Australia, you pay taxes and you get results. You get roads, hospitals and education. Here the salaried pay taxes yet the elite end up with villas and declare a pauper’s income to avoid taxes.”
He tells me Greece has the largest number of privately owned luxury yachts in Europe and describes the lenghts their owners got to not pay tax.
To avoid the new luxury yacht tax, imposed by the Papandreou government, Petros claims owners are declaring their yachts are used only for commercial purposes and make their offspring hirers to avoid the new tax.
Antonis, 78 years old, lives off of his savings of 100,000 euro, ($140,000AUD), but he’s scared of the future.
“I am better off than some,” Antonis says.
“But I have spent hundreds of thousands over the last three years on a kidney operation, on pharmaceuticals and my regular check-ups.”
His one bedroom apartment is full of objects from a more affluent time.
Oil paintings of his wife from the 1960s, a beautiful singer adorn the walls.
Kristina passed away five years ago.
“Kristina sang for Khrushchev and toured the Middle East,” he says, while showing me photos of her singing to a young Gamal Abdel Nasser, the then president of a ‘new Egypt’ in 1957.
Antonis was a sales representative selling children’s clothing who, by his own admission, loved the “playboy lifestyle” in the 1960s.
“I stayed in the best hotels in Europe and have played in casinos from Monte Carlo to Paris.”
He takes me for a drive in his 15-year-old Citroen across the dusty, rundown neighbourhood of Patision, once an affluent Athenian area.
“I never walk around here anymore, look at it!”
Patision is now home to mainly Pakistanis, Africans, Russians and Iraqis.
Greek restaurants and cafes have been replaced by kebab shops with names like ‘The Green Crescent’ and teahouses called ‘Moldova’.
Antonis reflects on older Athenians’ fear of ‘foreigners’.
Greece is a staging post for hundreds of thousands of undocumented refugees from the third world, looking to find a way into more affluent nations of the EU, but who end up living in the shadows of the Greek economy.
My family and I are staying in an elegant renovated apartment across from Koumoundourou Square next to the trendy area of Psiri and 500 metres from the Monastiraki Flea Market.
The view from the balcony of the Parthenon is awe-inspiring, but it comes into sharp relief as itinerant young Pakistani men bed down in the park below.
The police are a regular feature as the Pakistanis play cricket during the sweltering heat of the night, before they bed down on cardboard mattresses.
The apartments around the park, once representative of the 1960s middle class, have been abandoned to old people, like Antonis, by the new middle classes who left the city for the new outer suburbs of Athens in the 1980s.
Yet, some apartments show signs of renovation and the square reveals nascent gentrification.
While there is some discomfort walking around Koumoundoourou at night there is little real danger.
“Poverty, aimlessness and homelessness breed danger” says James, the Australian Greek tour operator.
“What you see here, is no different to other parts of Europe, it’s just that the Greeks are not used to it.”
However, James is an optimist.
“We’ll get though the crisis.”
He points to the fact that Greeks below 45 speak fluent English and an array of other languages and possess high-level skills.
“Look at the Acropolis. We look back and say ‘We were once great’ and we ask ‘What happened?’ But that’s wrong. People forget that after Pericles’ reign, after the Golden Age, Athens collapsed, but it rebuilt itself again and again.”
While tourism income has fallen by 20 percent this year, he believes it is because Americans and Europeans do not have the money to spend anymore, due to the global nature of the crisis.
The increasing numbers of Chinese and Indian tourists may be a sign of the future of tourism to Greece.
James is aiming to go to China and India next year.
“We need to remember that we were the crossroads between the East and West,” he says.
“Let’s not just focus on Italy and France.”
Fotini, an architect, who has been living in France for over 20 years, compares Greece and France.
“France is not owning up to its financial crisis. It maybe better than Greece, but not by much,” says Fotini.
“When Greece revealed the real state of affairs, Sarkozy did all he could to hide the reality of our unemployment and deficit. Why do you think there is a focus on the burka and Muslims?” she asks.
During the day, 500 metres from the Square, is the remarkable Monastiraki flea market with its labyrinth of alleys and excellent shopping.
At its border is Psiri with is great kebab and souvlaki grills.
Athens sparkles under the bright sun.
I sip on a cold takeaway frappe while my eight-year-old son negotiates the price of a trinket featuring the head of Alexander the Great.
Across from where I sit is the new Museum of Islamic Art.
I detect a slight accent from the shopkeeper.
“I am from Algeria,” he says.
When I ask if he is looking to leave, he says, “Are you crazy? Why would I want to live anywhere else? I love the Greeks. I love Greece. This will all pass.”
As I watch my son walk away with his trinket, reduced from seven euros down to two, I reflect on the ability of Greece to endure and survive challenges.