I’ve long been drawn to sketchiness. In the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, I always preferred the dodgy and slightly dangerous old-town Piazza area to the trendy and sanitised Bole area next to the international airport. But even by my sketchy-embracing standards, it was hard not to find the grim state of Athens deflating.
After all, this is the cradle of Western civilization. Now it appears to be the graffiti capital of the Western world. The luridly coloured scrawls are everywhere; Greek grannies air carpets over balconies marred by multi-coloured tags and swirls. The Parthenon temple still looks mighty grand atop the ancient Acropolis citadel dominating the skyline in the city centre, but down at street level there are a lot of people who look plain hard up and downtrodden. The tell-tale signs are hard to miss — the lined faces and permanent frowns, the hastened ageing, the dishevelled clothes.
Waiting for an ATM, an older gentleman with a small dog in front of me took so long, continually starting again and re-entering his info, that eventually I was driven to ask if I could help. Replying softly with impeccable English and troubled eyes, he thanked me while explaining there was some 'error' and he would have to go into the bank when it next opened. Even his dog seemed subdued and weighed down by fiscal considerations. Wandering through central Athens I passed two shuttered shops set back from the street. In the street-side alcove lounged about twenty homeless people amicably passing round substances to smoke and ingest.
Close to the Hard Rock Café Athens and amid the tourist trap at the base of the Acropolis, in the Church of Panagias Grigorousas, I watched a woman crisscross the interior in an extended act of quiet supplication. In front of each icon, she speedily crossed herself three times, then did a quick little curtsy before bending down to kiss it and then hastened to the next.
If one may speak candidly: after the 2008 financial crisis, Greece got truly shafted by the EU. The tough debt repayments rumble on and, faced with such inexorable economic constraints, it's no wonder so many Greeks are reaching for the bottle of ouzo. Economic decline and austerity measures since 2008 have contributed to significant depression and a rise in drug and alcohol abuse among Greeks, according to The Borgen Project, a US non-profit focused on addressing poverty and hunger. More than one-third of Greece’s population lives in poverty. A wage of 800 euros a month after tax is common. Furthermore, the country 'must manage an aging, ailing population that increases annually', coupled with a constant influx of refugees.
Despite all this, Greeks remain charming in the face of their hardships. Like the Portuguese, speaking a language that few foreigners have taken the time to master, many Greeks affably switch into English in an instant. The city’s vibrant markets — most Athens neighbourhoods host a weekly one — are excellent places to see the locals in fine fettle. For nearly a kilometre along Acharnon Avenue, I threaded down the narrow channel left by the never-ending stalls on either side selling everything from seasonal vegetables, fruits, olives and fish, to herbs, spices, dried nuts and sweet delicacies. The spirit of ancient Greek theatre that gave the West its most transcendent tragedies was never far away: along the market route there was always some sort of drama kicking off amid the dense mass of shoppers and sellers. The owner of one fruit stall let rip at his assistant — probably his son; many of the stalls appeared family affairs — over some lemon-related infringement.
I stopped at a food truck selling traditional souvlaki, skewered and barbecued meat soaked in marinade and sprinkled with spices. Two seven-inch kebabs accompanied by fresh bread made for a fine snack, especially with a can of local Aλφα beer. Two particularly grizzled men opposite me at a plastic table talked intensely over their souvlaki, perhaps plotting some minor infringement of the law. They gave me a friendly thumbs up while raising eyebrows questioningly as I made quick work of my two delicious skewers.
Even the graffiti can’t undo the light over Athens which, like Lisbon in Portugal, can bathe the city in a serene glow. Greece’s network of islands stretching throughout the Aegean Sea remains the treasure trove of exploration it was back in Odysseus’s day. Numbering thousands of islands and islets, of which an estimated 200 are inhabited, it puts my previous Canary Island hopping in the shade. It’s why so many Greek families have always done the staycation by default, I was told – when money is tight, why would you go elsewhere with so many domestic splendours to choose from?
Being able to share in that lifestyle is what draws many expats to settle in Greece. 'It’s a wonderful place to live—as long as you are financially secure,' I was told on my return flight by a Greek lady heading to re-join her British husband in London. My host demonstrated the Greek good life on a Friday afternoon when he popped me on the back of his scooter and we headed from Athens toward the nearby blue expanse of the Aegean. He and some of his work colleagues mark the end of each working week with a dip in the sea. Afterwards we warmed up by a log fire in a traditional Greek taverna as its matriarch on the table next to us with her mobile clasped to her ear devoured a steady stream of plates brought to her by an underling. She, at least, seemed to be enjoying the good things in life.
Greece's many tourists will be returning for the first time after Covid this summer to savour the great food and the natural glories that Greeks rightfully boast about. But the harsh reality of daily life for so many locals can no longer be hidden from view.
The Greeks are hardly the only European nation to have been subjected to authoritarian flourishes over the past few years. Nevertheless people here seem to have suffered particularly hard. When the birthplace of democracy isn't working you can't help but wonder what that says about the Continent's direction of travel.