At the weekend, I tried — and failed — to get some money out of an empty cashpoint near Omonia Square. The Eurobank cashpoint was covered in fresh anti-German graffiti: ‘No to the new German fascism,’ it read in Greek, ‘No to the “dosilogous”.’ That’s the Greek for Nazi collaborators in the war. For any cashpoint users who couldn’t speak Greek, the graffiti artist helpfully added, in English, GERMANY= 卐. If the new, German-led EU austerity package goes ahead, the swastikas will keep spreading through Athens. I felt sorry for a German family eating ice cream in the deserted Estia café in Plaka. The couple, with four strapping children and granny in tow, looked the picture of six-foot-tall, blond, Teutonic health. The Greeks are too gentle to take things out on German tourists directly. Still, you can hardly blame Germans who don’t want to spend their holidays surrounded by Nazi symbols. Anyone who still thinks the euro is a magic weapon for ever closer European union should come here soon.
In Syntagma Square, opposite the Greek parliament, the Ethnike Trapeza bank cashpoint did have some cash. But the poor customers couldn’t move for cameramen filming the queue. Athens is a big city, but the journalists don’t stray far from Syntagma Square. On Sunday evening, I found a secluded spot, just below the Parthenon, to watch the sun cast its dying rays over Mount Lycabettus. Suddenly, the silence was broken by the clatter of steps from the narrow stone path winding up to the Acropolis. Who could it be? A lone Orthodox priest heading for the little chapel behind me? A stranded mountain goat? Nope — it was the BBC’s Robert Peston. He took a photo of the sunset and went on his way, in the eternal quest for a real Greek.
He might have found one at St Paul’s Anglican Church, where I went to the 10.15 a.m. service on Sunday. Several Greeks were at the church — the only Gothic building I know in Athens, built in 1843. It’s handy for Syntagma Square — I’m surprised there weren’t more journalists there. Together with Holy Trinity Church in Corfu, St Paul’s is one of the two hub churches for the 11 Anglican congregations in Greece; all part of the Diocese in Europe, the Church of England’s biggest diocese, covering a sixth of the Earth’s landmass. Christina, the church organist, is Greek Orthodox but has become expert at English hymns. She played ‘All People that on Earth Do Dwell’ and ‘Be Thou My Vision’ beautifully. Since the crisis hit six years ago, the congregation has more than halved, from 85 to 40. The church is solvent for now, but the treasurer is worried about future income. Despite this week’s deal in Brussels, my hunch is that the collection box — piled high with euros on Sunday — will be filled with drachmas within five years.
Athens feels like Britain in the 1970s. There were no working ticket machines in Larissa station, the main Athens railway station, when I went there. Long queues formed for the one-manned ticket booth. The ticket machines have been turned off on the metro, too. To take the edge off austerity measures, the metro is free, even for the long journey to the airport. A delight for rich, freeloading foreigners; crazy in a bankrupt country.
On the metro to Piraeus — also free — the beggars work in careful cooperation. Only one works a particular carriage at any time — and then, at each stop, they move in lockstep to the next carriage along. A blind man seamlessly gave way to a young junkie, who yielded to an old man selling Biros in an ironed blue shirt and immaculate cream slacks.
I learnt ancient Greek at school 25 years ago, and now cobble together my patchy memories of it to speak modern Greek. I worry whether I sound like an ancient fogey to Greeks. When I asked the way to the loo in a Piraeus café, did I sound Shakespearean: ‘Prithee, noble sire, where art thy privy?’ But then again, so many modern Greek words do still have such wonderful ancient connotations. I love asking for the way out of places — or the ‘exodus’.
For all the sadness here, I’ve felt completely safe, walking around with hundreds of euros in my pocket. Anyone who’s booked a holiday will be fine. Even the demonstrations in Syntagma Square are friendly. The street vendors rush there every time there’s a demo. The souvlaki and corn on the cob — cooked on portable grills — are said to be particularly good at the communist protests; not normally the case with communist food. The demonstrations have been peacefully absorbed into everyday life. The homemade posters, saying ‘Ochi’ (‘No’) to austerity, have been paraded so often that they now have big, triangular rips in them. Even the riot police are relaxed. I saw one cheerfully feeding the sparrows on Kolokotroni Street.
The only problem for tourists is lack of cash. Stock up at home — and not at any airport, British or Greek. Foreign exchange rates at airports are a scandal — soon to be killed off by the internet. Order euros online before leaving and save yourself a fortune. Please do come on holiday to poor, broken, lovely Greece — how they need you. Emulate the jolly, blonde, Greek yummy mummy I saw this week, shopping with her children in Ermou Street. ‘I am not a shopaholic,’ her black and gold T-shirt said, ‘I am helping the economy.’
Harry Mount’s Odyssey: Ancient Greece in the Footsteps of Odysseus is published this week (Bloomsbury).