For my first trip outside Spain this summer, I chose a place I’ve wanted to see since I first mispronounced Hippocrates: Athens. I booked my ticket to the home of western democracy in March, taking for granted that everything would be perfect.
Then came the Greek austerity measures, used to help the country secure aid from other members of the European Union and prevent the growth of a debt crisis in Greece. Their introduction here by Prime Minister George Papandreou ended up in burned banks and lost lives, most particularly on May 5, when rioters set fire to Marfin Egnatia Bank, resulting in three deaths.
With this and similar news, a few parents and study-abroad organizers were unsure about students traveling there. But plans weren’t cancelled, and my trip for June 3 and 4 with three friends went ahead.
We flew into a strike.
A public transport and newspaper strike, to be exact. The first group protested Papandreou’s austerity measures, while the second decried the cuts to social security programs and salary reductions. The word “strike” (both in English and in Greek) ran down the computer screen bus schedules, and we relied on help from an English-speaking Greek named Vasilis to get a taxi to our hostel.
But despite the lack of buses and trams the first day, Athens seemed not to be the city I had grown to expect from photos of protesters and plumes of smoke. By every obvious measure, the city was working. Transit was back up the next day, the Acropolis was still open and free for students from European Union schools, and the generous blocks of feta cheese with dinner were well-priced. There was even an ethnic dance show at the university downtown. I saw no students protesting, although another friend who was in Athens the day after I was ran into a peaceful one outside a Metro stop.
The small details showed that Greece was still suffering, even after loans from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union.
I never saw one used, but I saw a police officer pass a riot shield to another officer outside the door of a building across from the university.
Beggars roamed the streets, as they do in any large city. The Athens variety, though, were not trying to sell the lighters and gimmick sunglasses I know from Madrid, but travel packets of tissues.
While eating in an open-air restaurant by the Acropolis, a few girls approached us and asked for money after playing some notes on their toy accordions. They couldn’t have been more than 8 years old. The waiters shooed them away from the tables.
It’s easy to view the country’s troubles and play armchair economics when you’re watching the news at home. And from a normal tourist perspective, the city doesn’t seem in such dire economic straits, and its rich history shines through.
But once you hear a too-young Greek accent asking for spare change, things aren’t so clear and easy.