Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Changing Greeks (Οι Έλληνες αλλάζουν)

I've been doing a lot of really thought-provoking reading for the project to get an insight on those timeless quintessential elements of Greekness, but on my recent trip to Athens, I was able to see some things that can and do change. They are usually more 'tangible' than the timeless elements. 

If you haven’t seen Athens, you’re a fool, wrote Iraklidis o Kritikos, a Greek writer and traveller from Crete living in the third century BC. Even though I don't crave urban life, I still regard any trip I take to Athens wit some awe; a trip to the capital of Greece is a reminder of my Greek roots. Cretans are τοπικιστές (to-po-ki-STES - 'localists'), and the highly interconnected global world allows them the privilege of being self-sufficient in terms of their basic needs. So a trip to Athens is a way to remember how small we are, and more importantly where are roots come from: the original inhabitants of the island of Crete, often referred to Eteocretans, became Hellenes when the Mycenaeans conquered them.

This year's trip to Athens took me to the same place that I visited last year. This time, it was strictly business, and I did not visit any exciting places as on my last trip. But a visit to exactly the same place at exactly the same time as last year gave me the chance to make some comparative observations. Some are nice, others not so. Generally speaking, they show changing attitudes with a firm Greek imprint.

Let's start with the port of Pireas, where we landed after our overnight journey with the ferry boat. Last year, the benches by the waiting area were packed with homeless people and their possessions, including their animal companions. This year, there was only one person sleeping on the bench. The rate of homelessness may be rising, but there is more solidarity being shown to the homeless, and more accommodation is being provided by shelter services.
Our first destination was the train station, where we were to take the oldest train line in Greece, known as the 'electric' (see the green line in this map).
Graffiti is an integral part of Athens. But judging Athens (and by extension, Greece, and the Greeks) by the amount of graffiti on the road and viewing graffiti in the way that it is viewed in the western world is very misleading: you need to look beyond the graffiti to understand what is going on in Athens. 
Outside the station, you are greeted by the timeless Greek image of the quintessential koulouri seller. There has probably been a koulouri seller outside the entrance to the station ever since its inception. The koulouri seller, together with the kiosks (περίπτερα) selling cigarettes, newspapers, snacks and refreshments (and all sorts of bric-a-brac), are timeless elements of Greek daily life, and they provide a reassuring sign of normalcy.
During our journey, various beggars boarded wagons, for the duration of one station to another. Most were asking for money directly (they were spieling out the same classic lines such as: 'i'm handicapped, my wife is sick in hospital, we are very poor, we live on the street, we have 3 children, one's a baby, i just want to buy them some milk and bread'). The accordion player is my favorite: I like the music of this instrument, and the musician is always offering people something. For those that want to, they can give him their small change in return. But when you're on an inner-city metro train, you're not sitting down, you're accompanying children and you're carrying bags filled with expensive sports equipment (fencing swords and uniforms), it's inappropriate to put down your things and take out your purse and bring out your change. You still see people giving beggars money. But not a lot.
We got off at our station and walked to the indoor sports facilities at the OAKA park, where the 2004 Olympic Games were held. The facilities haven't been maintained in the way that one would expect of facilities of such greatness. Paintwork, tiles, glass panels, decorative shrubbery: let's just say they are kind of lacking. But the grounds are clean and they are being used by Athenians who come with their children, bikes, dogs and skateboards to run, walk, ride and play in a safe and clean environment. People are less prone to littering.
On the subject of litter, people still drop it on the ground, and it gets carried away in the wind. I saw a lot of train tickets on the ground. There's a bit of goodness to be read in that too: more people are buying train tickets, despite the fact that there are still no barriers in place to prevent non-payers from entering the platforms. This may have to do with the highly publicised cases where a passenger died after forcing the doors open and jumping off a bus after a ticket inspector caught him without a ticket, and the harassment of ticket inspectors in general by non-payers. The truth is that such incidents have caused a shift in attitude about paying for mass transportation services. In comparison to last year, I also saw more ticket staff at the stations whereas last year the cashiers were closed and we had to buy tickets from machines.  Most of the time, we needed to go from one stop to the next one (Eirini to Neratziotissa, and vice-versa). Needless to say, I did not bother buying tickets then. But this time, since the cashiers were open at both stops (which are considered significant ones - one leads to the 2004 Olympic Games facilities, while the other leads to the biggest shopping centre in Athens), I did.
The sight of the contents of a rubbish bin spilling over onto the ground also has its good side: it shows people are looking for a rubbish bin to place their trash. There were cleaning staff at the sports centre, so how can one explain the sight of a bin spilling its guts out on the floor? If you take a good look though, the rubbish is not here, there and everywhere: it's all around the bin, and some of it has even been bagged, in acknowledgement that there was no more space in the bin. There was no rubbish on the floor elsewhere in the sports centre - nearly everyone picked up their rubbish from the seating areas, too, after they left the sports centre. That's a sign of social responsibility - but we also need to keep in mind that there will always be some pigs among us.
During last year's weekend trip, I do not recall a preponderance of computers or tablets at the competitions. People carried smartphones, but nothing much bigger than that. This year, every family seemed to be using at least one tablet among the members. Greeks are now accustomed to living in a highly connected world. 
Last but not least: Greeks' cars are getting smaller. There were very few SUVs in the parking area. We're learning not to bite off more than we can chew.
As for the food that I saw being eaten over the two days we were there, admittedly I was on the road, but that hasn't changed much since last year - Athenians eat global food when they go out. Crete is recognised by most Greeks as the last bastion of traditional Greek food - wherever you find yourself on the island, there will be quite a lot of non-global food to pick from, among the food choices. It is understandable why we are topikistes.
The hotdog/souvlaki stand was set up specifically for the football match that was to take place at the stadium near to where the fencing competitions were taking place (just next-door to us). The big Athens-based team AEK was playing a virtual unknown - Ermis Zoniana (would you believe it, for those that know a thing or two about  Zoniana). 

Greeks are a nice bunch, really. The problem is trying to tell this to others. Perhaps you need to see it for yourself.
All photos were taken in Athens on 18-19 January 2014.

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