Its summer in Athens, and its hot. By heavens its hot. Being Scottish, I’m not used to this kind of weather, the sun is an infrequent visitor to Glasgow, and I’m missing the old familiarity of rain. Athens empties of the locals for the summer, who head back to villages and islands of their families, escaping the stifling heat and muggy air. In their place the tourists arrive seeking sun, sand and culture, but they look so dreadfully out of place.
Greece is a well known holiday destination. Most people head for the islands, but with the wealth of archaeology and history that Athens is steeped in, many take a couple of days on first arrival to see the sights of the city. Athens is certainly amazing. From the big tourist draws of the Acropolis and the Parthenon, the Byzantine churches dotted hither and thither and archaeological cutaways in the street revealing the ancient ruins below, you cant wander round the city without tripping over its history, so its no surprise that people would make a stop here. And naturally hotels spring up to cater for the trade. Many of the hotels look incongruous in 2013 Athens, with their large front windows giving you a glimpse into the luxury within – leather sofas and expensive soft furnishings; well groomed receptionists behind solid wooden desks, and at the more expensive end, over-dressed consierge may wait outside.
Austerity has sucked the life from the city from the inside out, even in the most popular shopping area of Plaka, empty shops sit, while in less salubrious areas, vacant lots and the evidence of poverty abound. The hotels, however, buoyed up by their internationale clientle survive – or at least most of the more expensive ones have. The more run-down establishments have turned into “pink hotels” where rooms are rented by the hour by the women who wait below for someone to pluck them from the street. Sometimes both sit side by side – next door to a respectable family establishment, another may have converted to the pink; the tourists and locals interweaving and indeed sometimes crossing, as you see men emerge alone from one type of hotel to disappear into the other type with company.
Living fairly close to a number of hotels, I see the tourists arrive and wonder what they must think. They look so well fed and well scrubbed compared with the rest of us. Their gleaming luggage emerging from a battered taxi, passing by the street debris, and on into the well lit, air conditioned residence. They are easily spotted – their clothes, although not untypical or unusual convey an impression of understated wealth which has gone in Athens. Greek women pay a great deal of attention to clothes and generally aim to be very well dressed (and indeed several men have informed me, with seemingly no trace of irony, that the entire Greek crisis is down to the women of Greece forcing their husbands to buy expensive clothes beyond family means) but the clothes of the tourists are different somehow – with the kind of superior quality that is at the same time imperceptible but blatantly obvious.
In the main tourist centres of Monsteraki, Psirri and Acropoli, they blend in – sitting outside cafes laughing and chatting as the cafe owners chase away the peddlers and try to shield their clientele from the reality of the city. The occasional busker or entertainer may be allowed to stay, to encourage trade and make them stay for one more drink, but watching them make their way back to their temporary dwelling, they stick out like a sore thumb, past the huddles of blankets, the women working the streets, the guy shooting up down the alleyway; past a gaggle of men being rounded up by the police to be taken for processing, the man holding his baby son, with his colostomy bag on one side and a cup for coins on the other, avoiding the overspill of refuse and the people picking through it looking for things that can be sold to make a few euros to keep a roof over their heads and food in their bellies….and you wonder what they think.
Most of the graffitti in the city centre has been cleaned off now, as the municipal authorities have gone into a cleansing overdrive in anticipation of the summer influx, but once you go outside the immediate centre the graffitti returns, the old and beautiful murals and street art mixed with revolutionary slogans are starting to be covered over with fascist slogans and tags. I doubt if the tourists can read the demands for foreigners to get out the country, and if they would heed them if they could – for after all they are not aimed at foreigners with money who are welcomed with open arms, but the swastikas and the circles and crosses are unmistakable international symbols of a country which is fucked. Although people do a valient job of painting over them or attempting to transform them into something less offensive, they are simply too numerous to completely erase. In the area in which I live they are everywhere and more and more spring up each week, even the local school has fascist graffitti on its side wall.
I wonder if they know not to venture from their hotels without their passports. Most are white, so such a transgression could be relatively easily sorted without serious consequences, but for an unsuspecting dark-skinned tourist, getting detained or beaten should they be found in the street temporarily sans-papiers is a real risk. And if the women know that should they suffer sexual violence, going to the police is possibly one of the most damaging things that they could do, with years long legal battles ahead of them. After six years – the “cheese pie rapist”, who systematically drugged and abducted women from the streets of Athens has only just been convicted, amid a culture which portrays female tourists as alternately sex-crazed and money grubbing liars who concoct tales of sexual violence for compensation.
There is no way that you can visit Athens at the moment without seeing the consequences of the crisis. Even the term “crisis” is a misnomer. A crisis is something bad that happens, that ends, and then the recovery begins. This isnt a crisis, it is a despondency. It isn’t over and there is no end in sight – each bailout fends off the inevitable, but with the vast majority (98% in the case of the most recent one) going straight back to debt repayment, while the terms of getting the bailout mean larger and larger cuts, the mess just keeps on getting worse. The faded writings on the marble, cleansed but not quite vanished are like the homeless and the drug users who have suffered a similar fate. The municipal authorities have attempted to clean up the city, to make it presentable, but the stains of their mismanagement and its consequences linger on – not perhaps as obvious as they were a couple of months ago, but unavoidable nevertheless.