I've been struggling with my thoughts about Athens and whether or not to post them. I really don't want to disparage a whole city and generally I prefer to follow the creed if you can't say anything nice...however, this is a blog to record my experiences and thoughts about travelling so it doesn't seem right not to post my honest feelings about our time in Athens.
I know that I am incredibly fortunate to have lived in all the places where I've lived, traveled to all the places to which I've traveled and for the opportunities of all the traveling that is surely yet to come.
I also know that I am fortunate to have been raised in a way that makes me curious about the world and gives me appreciation for all the people that I meet and all the places I go.
Both those things being said, it is impossible for me not to quantify places I've been in terms of favorites and lesser favorites. I say lesser favorites because there is no place I've lived in or traveled to for which I'm not happy to have experienced whether or not it was one of my favorite places.
So, um, yeah, you've already guessed where I'm going with this haven't you?
Athens is not a city I have fallen in love with.
Athens is dirty, hot and very loud and it is all of those things day and night. It is also overpopulated like many big cities. Most of Athens seems haphazard as if there are no zoning laws or guidelines for how or where to build or how property should be maintained. The city is a jumble of business mixed with light industry and housing all next store to one another with seemingly no rhyme or reason. There is much blight throughout Athens and this city is plagued with riff-raff who are intent on covering every surface in graffiti, even the historical sites and natural wonders. It is heart breaking.
There are beggars everywhere in Athens and the city is home to a large Romini gypsy population. The Romini children walk from table to table in the tourist areas and up and down the streets throughout the city begging for money or offering things like packs of kleenex for sale. It is very interesting to watch the Romini children. They will approach a person to beg from them with the most sad and distraught look on their faces and then a moment later several of the kids will meet up with each other around a corner and you can see them laughing and playing together. I am fascinated by the Romini gypsies (there is also a large Romini population in France) but that is a whole other subject.
Here is a Ramini boy who I came across several times during our stay. He nestled himself into my heart the first time I saw him and he seemed to know it. He gave me a mischevious smile with a sparkle in his eye and a wink each time I saw him.
Athens is also home to large illegal African and Sri lankin populations many of whom sell junk goods on the street from cheap plastic toys to fake designer handbags. These peddlers are everywhere and mixed with the hawkers who stand outside most restaurants and shops trying to get you to enter their establishment they make for a raucous and unpleasant environment.
There is a constant police presence all about the city but there is no way that the illegal hawking of pirated goods could continue the way it does both with the itinerant street vendors and in the fixed stores and market places if the government had any care about what was going on.
Yes we have the same hawkers in New York and Chicago and other large American cities and yes I have seen it in Paris and surely will see it in Prague but I have never seen it in another city to anywhere near the extent of what I saw in Athens.
My Dad and Step-mom recently spent time in several large cities in India. When they came home my Dad spoke of how overwhelming the constant "chaos" was and that by the end of the trip he just wanted everything to stop for 5 minutes so he could catch his breath. That's how I felt in Athens which is making me wonder if I will be O.K. going to India but, that is yet another post.
Also, one of my brothers visited my sister in Athens and then spent a few days in Paris shortly before Steve and I left for this trip. He told me that he couldn't understand how I am so in love with Paris. He thought Paris was a filthy, loud city and he didn't think the Parisiennes were particularly friendly. He LOVED Athens. The whole time I was in Athens I kept laughing at how different my brother and I are in how we perceive the two cities.
There is a nice café right across the road from my sister’s flat. I went there every morning for our coffees. The woman who works the espresso machine at the café and I got to be friendly and on our last day she asked me how I liked Athens. I told her that I liked it. She asked “Do you like it a little or do you like it a lot?” I smiled as I lied and said, “Oh, I like it a lot”. To which she said, “I hate it!” Oh, my goodness did I get a laugh from that. I asked her why she disliked her home city and her reasons were exactly the same as mine. The constant noise and how dirty the city is and the illegal population of vendors that one just cannot get away from and how packed everyone is living in the city bother her. She told me that she would like to leave the city and live on one of the islands. Amen, sister friend, amen.
The most important thing about Athens is how incredibly kind, sincere, generous, gracious and thoughtful the people are. We experienced that everywhere we went in Athens and outside of the city as well. The French have a saying that “Paris is not France and France is not Paris”. I think the same thing can be said about Athens and one can go even further to say that the people are not Athens and Athens is not the people for the people are so much more than Athens, history and all.
Of course it was amazing to be in the cradle of civilization as we know it. To be in the place where the rights and value of the individual were first recognized and brought to bear on a new way of governing and seeing the world and our place in it, well, that was awe inspiring.
I see the irony in my appreciation that it was ancient Greek culture that brought to the world a way of life where the individual matters but at the same time being dismayed by the chaos of Athens and wanting the city government to clean up the town and do something about the illegal vendors and riff-raff that plagues the city. But, remember, the ancient Greeks also recognized the need for order so that the whims of each and every individual would not create chaos and make life unbearable for all. Balance, that's what they were attempting to create through the development of democracy and I don't see balance in Athens.
I would like to go back to Greece to see the islands and more of the country outside of Athens and I would love to return to our idyllic little spot we found on the beach of Iria. I will also forever hold in my heart a love and fondness for the Greek people, their immense kindheartedness and goodwill is something rare to experience.