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Athens & Environs

People ask me these days, “Is it still safe to visit Athens? I’ve heard there are all these riots and strikes and civil unrest in the Greek capital.” And these questions invariably come from New Yorkers and Londoners and Los Angelinos, who have, arguably, suffered more “unrest” of late own in their home-cities than any Athenian. (That said, I have included in this chapter a new essay detailing my husband’s October, 2010 robbery on the Athens Metro, so even your wily travel writer here has been surprised at how fast Athens has become “just like other world capitals” in some sad ways.)

Up until the mass migration, East to West, and North to South, of Central Asia’s, the Middle East’s and the Balkans’ underemployed and sanctuary-seeking “nouveau nomads,” Athens was as safe as houses . . . before the Greek capital’s population swelled well past the bursting point with impoverished, “illegal” immigrants, crime flowed down from the former USSR, and the economy went south (right along with the economy of The Greater West in general).

Athens has become, of late, a sort of canary in the mine for the financial world: a cautionary tale for Wall Street and The City and Main Street, as well. (But Athens’ problems are the problems of the world at large: the Greeks couldn’t escape the evils of the 21st century any more than could the Spanish or the Icelanders or the New Yorkers.)

But then . . . Wall Street doesn’t front up on The Parthenon.

“Of COURSE, Athens is safe,” I tell my friends taking off on trips to Greece, “as safe as London or New York City or Paris. I don’t think you’ll necessarily fall in love with the city, as I did, long ago, and I think the smog, and the noise, and the smokers, and the overcrowding, and the traffic (!) will overwhelm your other impressions of the metropolis, if this is your first visit. But just take the precautions you would in any other huge urban center, follow my lead, read up on the history of the place . . . and give Athens a fighting chance to woo you.”

For Athens IS the cradle of Western Civilization (now, itself, in far more danger of succumbing to annihilation than Athens), and what was fostered there in the 5th century BC is still writ large and lovely on the city’s skyline.

Athens is, also, the magnet towards which all Greeks—and all things Greek—gravitate. Athens has sucked the Greeks out of their villages as you’d drain a summer orange of its sweetness: perhaps half the country calls the capital home today, legally or not.

I, too, have called this vibrant crossroads of ancient and new, Orient and Occident, enlightened and primitive, home, willy-nilly, since my parents first brought me here in 1960. It is a city that first burns itself on the senses in indelible ways and then, given half a chance, sears any human heart with its essence.

No marble pavements but those of Athens smell quite so pungent after the first rains of autumn (which also bring the chestnut roasters out onto the city’s street corners). No coffee tastes richer than that brewed just off Omonia (“Harmony”) Square. No guitars will prove more haunting than those played by three-men-of-a-certain-age at Plaka’s Xynos taverna. No conversations (about politics, of course: the Greeks invented the word, and all others, seemingly) will ever sound as intense and exuberant as those overheard in the Zappeion Gardens.

 

Athens is an addiction I tried to resist (without hope of success) as a child, but succumbed to as an adult. When I arrived, a privileged daughter of Pasadena, I viewed every gift Athens had to offer, cultural and tangible, as alien and other. Now, everything Athenian is second-nature to me, if not first-. Here, despite the hordes of Albanian, Russian, Chinese and Kenyan “guest-workers” and refugees, the rare, quintessentially Athenian things remain the same.

The capital may be smoggy, deafening in certain districts and plagued with inefficiency and corruption (as though “home” were now any different), but the swallows still return to nest in Plaka’s sooty rafters every spring, the Parthenon still sparkles like Aphrodite on her half-shell, and the many Saints’ Day festivals ensure at least one feast of faith and fun per month.