Marcus and I decided to visit Athens on a long weekend trip during the European financial crisis in 2012. It’s springtime for the rest of the continent, but sizzling hot in Greece when we arrive.
We both had no expectations of Athens at all prior to our travel. After exploring the city for a few days, we were both shocked and delighted by how much the environment reminded us of Berlin and what we’d heard about its history. Athens displays all the hallmarks of urban poverty: graffiti, abandoned housing, shutdown commercial space in the city center. Like some sort of anachronistic joke, the symbol of democracy – the Akropolis – towers over this modern, yet lost city.
Athens in 2012 is in the middle of a catastrophic financial crisis, almost tearing apart the European Union over the handling of state debt, and on the news cycle pretty much all the time. I’m too young to understand what all of it means, but it’s right there, in the back of our minds. It’s not often that we think of the historical and cultural context of a city when we go on vacation, but it’s hard to escape the bleakness of Athens while we’re there. We witness protests, we listen to people arguing on the streets. That’s not to say that Athens isn’t beautiful as well: it’s just hard to ignore the political restlessness.
Will the next generation make possible in Athens what once happened in Berlin?
Athens reminds me a lot more of Damascus than of any European city. The Mediterranean climate, the outdoorsy vibe of the people, the coast and yes, the staring gaze of the macho-men, they’re all rather typical for where I’m from. On the other hand, the incredible food and the warmth of the Greek cancels out any negative sentiments I could have.
Inevitably, we come back to comparing Athens to Berlin. It’s hard not to: turn back time to ’89 and you can see the similarities. Berlin, back then, was just as much lost and between places (quite literally between East and West) as Athens is today – between Greece and the EU, somehow between moving forward and going back, and between left and right. But there is a glimmer of hope: as the money backs out of the city, youths gain space to spread out. Will the next generation make possible in Athens what once happened in Berlin? Will the artists, the outcasts and the poor who remain in this urban canvas rise as powerful people? Is Athens – like Detroit, for example – a new city, re-invented from the scratch?
We won’t know until it happens. But I’m rooting for it.