During a recent trip to Greece, I found the situation there not exactly as they would have us believe. Over the last five years, Western media have been selling us the idea of a failed state, speaking of Athens as a dangerous city with constant outbreaks of crime and disorder. They make sweeping generalizations about the Greeks being corrupt and lazy people, who want only to free-ride off social services provided by the state. I even heard journalists blame the entire euro crisis on Greece, saying that kicking them out of the Eurozone would be a magic solution to the EU’s problems.
All this scaremongering obscures the actual situation of a proud people. The financial crisis afflicting this country has causes far beyond the rate of taxes paid (or not paid) by Greek citizens. First, the aftershocks of the US crisis in 2008 are still being felt not only in Greece but all across the old continent; some say it was the watershed in Wall Street that helped spark the Greek crunch. Second, many experts (including Spanish professor Jose Manuel Serrano) say that Greece’s political and economic suffocation is due to systematic control attempts by foreign governments.
It’s even harder to grasp the situation when you stop and think about Greece’s legacy in Europe and beyond. Anywhere you look in Athens you see mementos of thousands of years of human progress and urban development. From Mount Lycabettus, you have a panorama across the cradle of Western civilization. The view from the top of this hill gives you a sense of the scale and development of the first great city-state in history. With an open channel to the Mediterranean Sea, Athens is guarded by the breathtaking Acropolis. This, in turn, is flanked by the Agora, a legendary square and beating heart of the ancient city for everything from politics to art.
Further in, the central area of classical Athens bears witness to wave upon wave of urban progress. After the massive destruction caused by the second Persian invasion, Athens launched what may have been the first holistic urban renewal programme. Under Pericles, almost two and a half millennia ago, Athenians built several temples and public spaces, including the Parthenon, symbolizing the eternal nature of the city. Classical Athens had spaces for sports, theatres for art performances, outdoor markets and (crucially) meeting places for citizens to engage in discussions. These spaces together form the birthplace of democracy — that system of government that we are still trying to improve 25 centuries later.
Today’s Athens also exhibits many features of modernity. Three high quality subway lines link to a tram network opened for the 2004 Olympics. Well-maintained neoclassical buildings coexist with galleries and hotels to suit all tastes. Among the traffic chaos, pedestrian walkways reach various parts of the city: from shopping areas filled with expensive shops, to the stunning Panathenaic Stadium which hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896.
Athens is alive, thanks to its timeless monuments and many intangible legacies. They remind us that our actions always generate consequences for future generations (even though we rarely see them). Standing before a 2400 year old building reminds me of the ephemeral nature of life; a word which comes from the Greek word ephemeros, meaning “to last one day”.
by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 14 January 2013. Images: Flickr / Athens. Rioter; Wikipedia / Thermos. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson.