13 March 2012

No Need To Worry

We almost didn't come to Athens at all. It felt like we'd just read too many things about Greece's capital on the bathroom wall. That she was that sort of city. A Bad Apple, like the Big Apple circa 1970. We'd heard it was crime-ridden and unappealing, but couldn't put our fingers on just where this nasty rumor had gotten started. Even more worrisome was the possibility of, once in Athens, not getting out. These fears were more founded as reports of strikes have peppered the news for weeks (with a few riots thrown in). Every mode of transportation has been shut down at one point or another. This has, I'm guessing, kept visitors at bay. The state of Greece is a hot button issue at the moment and that doesn't always scream Vacation Spot.
On the day we arrived, Greece was right there on the New York Times' front page (or their website's home page at least). Bailout measures had been passed - Greece's economy would live to see another day. Germany and France fit the roles of hero or villain, depending on who you ask. Batman and Robin or Boris and Natasha. It's an intense time for the European Union and the Eurozone. When we started this trip a year and a half ago, we would look back in amazement about using francs and lira in European travels past. Now, we wonder if the fact that we've used a common currency in seventeen different countries will be remarkable.
It was Friday and a police swat car was parked beside a public park. Men sat inside, in full riot gear, their plastic shields piled up outside. Slouched in seats and chatting about Lionel Messi, they seemed altogether casual. Either there wasn't much to keep them on their toes or they were just so used to it all. Signs of previous riots sprung up here and there. A cracked glass security stand stood across the street from this smashed in car window. A few storefronts on the same block had new paint jobs, used to cover up who knows what.
But the beautiful, balmy day wasn't to be disturbed. The closest thing to an angry mob we saw was in the fish section of the Central Market. The classic Lenten Friday scene. Scoops of squid filled big paper cones. A big fish was tossed from vendor to gutter out of pure necessity, not Seattle style. One of a dozen old women vying for his attention could have snatched it right out of his hands, had he not. Outside, this butcher worked in peace - his glasses giving his white coat a dash of 'laboratory.'
There were no shuttered store fronts and picket signs. Just a lot of people very hard at work. We saw men all over the city, pushing grocery carts full of scrap metal. They gathered the pieces near train tracks and outside of warehouses. We saw one man, either incredibly forward thinking or particularly lazy, waiting outside of a metal working shop with an empty basket. The trash had to be put on the curb at some point. This man was sitting under the shade of a tree, an afternoon's work complete. He came over to pose with his collection, proud. Metal is worth a lot these days.
Of course, there were workers with more traditional jobs. The florist, relocating to an outdoor table in such fine weather. The sidewalk portrait drawers and handmade jewelery sellers. Men selling donuts and koulourian (identical to the Turkish simit) from carts set up at the wee hours of the morning - the perfect food for early-to-rise commuters and late-to-bed clubbers. Taking "traditional" job a step further, we saw a man sitting cross-legged amidst a pile of long reeds, weaving baskets.
The youth were not in revolt, they were in cafes drinking iced coffee and playing nard. I was amazed at how many teenagers were hanging out playing board games - being social without media. I had visions of a New York coffeeshop where people reached into their pockets and purses to grab that familiar rectangle filled with endless possibilities. A deck of cards. (A girl can dream). But that's just the sort of city Athens is. Bustling and convivial, confident and brash. It charms you with its ability to hold on to the best elements of eras past. Whether that's playing backgammon instead of Bejeweled or organizing a rally instead of an online petition.
We saw a little bit of action at the very end of the day, but it wasn't bailout related. A man with a bullhorn led a short multi-aged procession in a few chants. Syrian flags were waved. Their route probably wasn't too long, judging by one woman's choice of stilettos. As much as strikes are a nuisance and riots are scary, there's something wonderful about the possibility for one or both to pop up in Europe at any given time. I think it was unfair of us to hold it against Athens. It's been doing this democracy thing for a long time - being vocal is a tradition. Though it is fun to come up with jokes like, "Athens is very workaday." "You mean work a day per week?" I think strikers get a bum rap. Still, I'm sorta glad everyone decided to show up for work while we were in town.

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