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MODERN GREECE: Athens is a vibrant city.
ATHENS - I believe today’s global media depicts Athens, and Greece as a whole, not in the most flattering way, especially in the light of recent events in the euro zone. We see Athens burning in violent protests, we see Greeks going on strike against austerity measures, and we see Greek politicians pleading for new bailouts from its creditors. The only thing that is probably missing behind this informational muddle is life. The ordinary life of ordinary people, which appears to be extraordinary when one gets close to it. Despite tension and instability, it is vivid, diverse and full of surprises.
Media frequently distort the image of Greeks by stereotypically illustrating them as riotous and throwing Molotov cocktails, but this is only one side of the story. Indeed, Greeks seem to be rather active when it comes to politics; however, some of them, especially the younger generation, accuse the rest of being too inert and unconscious to bring real changes. The situation is undoubtedly sad. The economy has contracted, workers and pensioners have had their income cut, and unemployment has tremendously grown, whereas more and more austerities are coming as the only viable option considered by the government. Obviously, Greeks feel resentful about this. They want to live their lives as they used to. They protest.
I remember that my arrival in Athens coincided with Angela Merkel’s official visit to Greece, which provoked tens of thousands to go to the streets, moved by a strong anti-German feeling from Germany having been the driving force beyond the austerity framework imposed on the Greek government. Full of excitement, I headed to Syntagma, the main square in the capital where demonstrators, holding banners saying ‘Merkel, get out,’ gathered in front of the parliament.
As a post-Soviet foreigner, I was somewhat confused when I saw red colors flood into the square. ‘The Communist Party, who won 4.5 percent of the votes in the last parliamentary elections in June. When it comes to real action, they are the first to do something,’ one of the protesters told me. While the general mood of the crowd was quite peaceful, the only possible threat of violence seemed to stem from the nearby group of demonstrators who were smiling and distributing eggs among themselves.
Afterwards, the situation started to change drastically, as the first sounds of stun grenades emerged in the forefront, where policemen were guarding the parliament building. As rioters replaced the overwhelmingly quiet public, the square was soon plunged into turmoil. Hooded insurgents – a considerable part of them were obviously youngsters – threw firebombs and stones at security forces, whereas the latter fought back with flash bangs and tear gas. Since that moment, it seemed that the whole spectacle was supposed to only satisfy the hooligan barbaric obsession with crashing, burning and throwing – whatever works for this purpose.
All in all, it looked like people got used to such scenarios. They knew that tear gas would probably be deployed, for the majority wore surgical masks. To be honest, during the first days of my stay in Athens I thought I would need to constantly have one in my pocket, so far as wherever you would go – be it a demonstration or a football match - you could have been subject to a tear gas attack. But soon I got accustomed to it. Everybody does, as it is, for example with regular general strikes.
Going on strike is another widespread way of opposing government cuts. It especially refers to public transport. So, if you are a newcomer or particularly a tourist in Athens, make sure you ask locals about the schedule of upcoming strikes. There are days when public transportation is shut down partly, but sometimes all modes, from buses to taxis, stop working. And that might be a hell of a day. See it does not pop up as a funny surprise when you will be having a flight, say, tomorrow morning from Thessaloniki, at the other end of the country. This is exactly what happened to me one day.
Imagine 9 a.m. tomorrow you are supposed to fly from the city which is 500 km away from Athens, and, therefore, you need to take the night train to this city. Shining and happy about having spent such a wonderful vacation in such a beautiful country, you arrive at the train station, and all of a sudden a dozen taxi drivers almost literally jump on you like a bunch of hyenas, mumbling something in Greek. You can barely understand what they are saying and why you are drawing so much attention. And only when you wade through this crowd of utterly committed people and the officer informs you that the train is cancelled due to the strike, you finally realize that, apart maybe from North Koreans, you are the most unlucky person in the world.
This is Greece. It happens. Transport workers, teachers, doctors – everybody goes on strike. It is a way of life now. A couple of months ago, my university was requested by the government to cut its administrative department, which basically implied a dismissal of 18 or so employees. Driven by solidarity, all the workers went on strike for a month, having closed all the offices and the library for the whole period, which paralyzed a substantial part of academic activity. However, the students were not frustrated. Taking it easy, they felt relaxed, as all Greeks usually do. It seems that this nation knows how to enjoy life. And that is what I appreciate very much. All in all, however, in spite of the attempts to oppose the government’s decision, the employees were fired.
The socio-political life in Athens is dynamic, but it definitely reaches its extremes. While working in a library, you might be approached by a student with a reddish newspaper. ‘Hello, I am from the Communist Party, and this is our newspaper,’ he would say. While drinking wine in an ouzerie (a place where old Greek men consume ouzo), you might enjoy the company of tumultuous drunks who would wear hammer and sickle t-shirts and yell out loud: ‘We have guns! We have people! We will fight the government!’ But make sure you do not get stomped by neo-Nazis from Golden Dawn, which is less likely to happen if you are not an immigrant from Africa or South Asia. Otherwise, even North Koreans will feel sorry for you.
Encouraged by supporters of the Greek military junta that was in power from 1967 to 1974, the ultranationalist party Golden Dawn emerged in the early 80s. It has been trying to enter parliament since 1994, but finally managed to do so only in 2012, having now 6.9 percent of the votes. It is difficult to say whether Golden Dawn will arise as a real political power in the country, but it will definitely keep bringing violence to the streets of Athens under the rebranded Nazi colors. The party members have repeatedly been accused of assaulting and beating immigrants.
Since Greece is considered as an entry point to the rest of Europe, undocumented migrants, who mostly tend to settle in more economically prosperous Western Europe or Scandinavia, find themselves in a very troubled situation, particularly in the light of economic recession and increased unemployment. Homeless and unregistered, they get stuck in Greece, being victims of racist gangs, police brutality or both, as the far right, some argue, receives considerable support from law enforcement services.
To cut a long story short, political extremism is somewhat unavoidable in today’s Greece, a state that presents quite a vague instance of contemporary European democracy. Anyway, whatever they say, with its colorful life, interesting and diverse people and heavenly beautiful women, Greece is a fascinating country.