Of all the places I’ve travelled to over the past few years, Greece has always been a bit of a special one to me. I first visited in 2007, right in the middle of my big solo trip of Europe. I caught a ferry over from Italy and spent two weeks there that were so perfect that I wish I could replicate them and enjoy them again, exactly the same as the first time.
For me, there was something about Greece that just clicked. I was halfway through my trip and had finally gotten into the groove of travelling; I wasn’t checking on the location of my passport every thirty seconds anymore. I was relaxed, finally seeing a bit of sun and I was coming from Italy, a country that took me a while to like.
In comparison, I loved Greece from the get go. When I was waiting for a train in Patras to whisk me to Athens, a little old lady dressed in black accidentally dropped a plastic bag at my feet. The bag was moving, and inside was a very alive little lamb. Dinner, I figured with a smile.
Unlike many, I found myself really liking Athens. It’s not like I’d put it in a top ten or anything like that, but I appreciated the place. For three days I stuffed myself full of moussaka and gyros, walked up and down countless hills, checked out the two Olympic sites and got lost in the little neighbourhoods in the shadows of the Acropolis. It was April, right in the middle of spring and the city was full of the brightest flowers, seemingly all in full bloom during my visit.
Sure, there were some downsides to Athens. Two girls in my dorm were victims of crime – one lost all her cash after we went out one night and had to get more wired from the US, and another had her passport stolen. There was a grittiness to the city, but I found it no dirtier than Barcelona or Nice. It was only three years after the Athens Olympics, so the metro was shiny and tourist infrastructure was pretty much perfect. I headed off to the islands after three nights, content with what I’d seen and experienced.
I hadn’t been back to Athens, and Greece more generally, until I headed back last summer. Things had happened in Greece since those wonderful, carefree days in 2007. A Global Financial Crisis and a Greek Debt Crisis, namely. I would hear of today’s Athens from fellow travellers and passengers I’d guide elsewhere in Europe and it wouldn’t be good. They’d talk about the graffiti, the crime, the strikes and the rip-offs. In my two years of guiding in Western Europe, I don’t think I heard one good thing about the Greek capital.
So when I went back in May last year, I expected the worst. I kind of didn’t want to go back actually, I didn’t want to see what such a proud and historic city had become. I wanted my memories to remain pure, and not be tainted by any changes I’d witness this time around.
And yes, Athens had changed. It strikes you straight away as the change is visual; it’s the graffiti. It is everywhere downtown, and it’s not just confined to alleyways, train corridors and abandoned buildings like elsewhere in the world. It’s on every flat surface conceivable, layer upon layer. It was the first time I’d seen countless cars graffiti-e. Shop windows and even the road weren’t spared either. And it wasn’t street art; it was mindless scribbles and tags. I’m sure Athens had its share of graffiti back in 2007, but I can’t remember it. This time it was the first thing I noticed.
I spoke to one of our walking tour guides one day about the graffiti. She was a local and of middle age, and she hung her head as soon as my question sunk in. ‘It’s horrible, we hate it,’ she sighed. ‘The kids, they have nothing to do, no prospects, no future here in Greece. They’re bored and here, we can’t afford to clean it up.’
It was something I heard many times from the Greeks I met last summer, plus the Greeks I’d met during my Masters studies at Leiden. They were the biggest grouping in terms of international students and one day I asked one of them why they thought that was the case. Again, she talked about having no future in Greece. She was a trained music teacher, and nobody was paying for music lessons anymore. Instead, she was taking advantage of her EU passport while it lasted (she was sure time was limited) and living in the Netherlands. She was studying a Masters, learning Dutch (her English was perfect) and looking for local work.
I asked her if she would ever go back to Greece. ‘To visit, yes,’ she told me. ‘But not to live. There’s no future there.’
I contemplated this many times last summer, the future of Greece. Despite the graffiti and the general defeatist attitude, I still loved the country. I still really enjoyed my time in Athens. I was lucky enough to have almost a full day off there every two weeks, and I’d spend my free time wandering around the city. I checked out some of the sights I’d seen in 2007; the Acropolis, Syntagma Square and the Plaka, trying in vain to find that perfect taverna from last time, which served me the best moussaka of my life.
But there were new surprises this time. I found a little sandals shop in Monastiraki and had a pair custom-made for me, which I hardly took off for the rest of summer. I spent half a day in the brilliant National Archaeological Museum, definitely worth the taxi ride out to the random, slightly dodgy neighbourhood. I found some great little bars hidden down laneways and behind fading edifices. Paul met me one time and we headed out to one of Athens’ pristine beaches, just a tram ride away from Syntagma Square.
And I spent many evenings up on the rooftop of our hostel, sipping a cider and watching the sun go down behind the Acropolis. You can’t beat that panorama; Athens’ sprawl is so white it practically glows.
There are still a lot of tourists in Athens. They’re not the same kind I remembered from 2007; back then I remembered heaps of backpackers, more than the usual amount. This time around it was mainly cruise ship passengers, who would descend on the Acropolis and the Plaka area by day and would disappear as soon as the sun went down. As a result, I’d often save my walks around the Plaka for the nighttime, where the chances of banter with restaurant owners was high and the temperatures were nice and cool.
It was one of the things that endeared me to Greece that first time, and I’m happy to report that it hasn’t disappeared in the slightest. It’s the friendliness, the banter, the chatter. The Greeks are blessed with a long history of being used to tourists, perfect English skills and a relative living in every corner of the world. Time and time again, I would reply to their greeting with only a word or two, only to get back, ‘Australian! You are Australian, yes? My [insert relative here] lives in [insert city here], he owns a [insert business here, often a fish and chip shop].’
I’ve always loved bantering and bartering, and Greece was where I was introduced to it for the first time. Some people hate it and call it fake, but as someone who travels a lot by herself, I came to delight in the little conversations with friendly strangers. Often they’d be bored, wanting to pass a bit of time, and not solely intent on just trying to sell you something.
Paul’s often telling me that I stick up for the Greeks. I suppose I do; when I would give my talk about the debt crisis I would tell it from both sides, about how the Germans knew the Greek drachma wasn’t as strong as their government was making out but let them in on the euro anyway, keen for better access to the largely Greek-controlled shipping industry. I don’t think there’s one main bad guy in this. There’s a whole lot of them, and some Greeks are getting richer while my classmates leave their country in droves.
Meanwhile, horror stories of how horrible Athens is doesn’t help one iota. Sure, it’s nothing like the islands. But stop comparing the birthplace of democracy with blue domed churches and overworked donkeys! It’s a city that has its share of problems, but when hasn’t it? It’s almost three and a half thousand years old, dammit! It’s seen plenty more ups and downs than this current crisis. A bit of graffiti ain’t going to dent my appreciation for one of history’s most important cities.
Have you visited Athens, either recently or before the debt crisis? What were your impressions?
This week I’m connecting with some other travel blogs through #SundayTraveler. Click the below link for some other great stories through chasingthedonkey.com.