I WAS in Greece during a period of unprecedented economic and political turmoil. I mean ours of course, not theirs.
It had seemed almost unpatriotic to abandon the motherland in her hour of need. But the annual works outing had long been booked and cancelling at the last minute seemed like a wasteful move in a tumbling gilts market.
I pondered that, if things took a turn for the worse and the nation needed my input, I could always “do a Kwasi” and dash back early.
The deciding vote came from my full-time carer, who announced: “For God’s sake, you silly ol’ sod! Get a move on, or we’ll miss the flight!”
It turned out to be a sobering moment to travel to the cradle of democracy and the all-day coffee break and to savour urban walks in Athens and to share idle thoughts with some of its citizens.
On previous visits, I had become used to having to sympathise with the plight of the Athenians as they limped from one meltdown to the next, scouring the backs of their threadbare sofas to come up with enough to pay for the next cup of frappé.
This time the papoutsi, as the Greeks say, was very much on the other foot. “What’s happened to your country,” a young lawyer declared, somewhat too gleefully. “It’s a complete – how you say? – basket case!”
“Who is this Trust woman?” asked a friend. “Why did the British vote for her?” “Er, well….” I tried to explain. “Er, we didn’t.”
Most conversations would quickly switch to Brexit. That’s when it all started to go wrong, I was told. Why had we done it? Were all the Angloi completely crazy?
I took to quickly downing my ouzo and claiming I had an important idle walk to get on with.
I had been in Greece in 2015 when seven years of problems peaked in what is simply called H Krisi – The Crisis – a time that global concerns about the country’s economic prospects sent bond yields soaring. Sound familiar?
With cash machines temporarily shut down, the population literally ran out of money. EU-imposed austerity measures inevitably followed as, just as inevitably, did widespread impoverishment and riots.
So how might we compare and contrast the fate of our two great cities at a time when London and the country at large faces its own self-inflicted Krisi?
Athens certainly took a hammering in the mid-2010s as people scratched a living and young professionals fled abroad for work or to the islands where they would try to make a go of it farming olives or raising bees.
The sprawling city became increasingly tatty, faded and litter-strewn. The urban rambler would encounter a beggar on the corner of almost every graffiti-covered street.
So how’s it looking almost a decade on? Pretty spruce actually, or at least as much as this sprawling and somewhat chaotic city ever will be. The bars and cafes were full and the formerly effervescent Athenians appeared to have a spring back in their step.
Some say that, on the whole, things have taken a turn for the better. Many have taken the opportunity of the crisis to change their lives by taking up different jobs and opening new kinds of businesses, even if that just means signing up with Airbnb.
Some venture that, in some aspects, life is even better than it was before.
“Look at this place,” said a psychotherapist friend as he surveyed the terrace of our cafe in fashionable Kolonaki. “In the old days it was full of celebrities and politicians and plutocrats. It used to be you wouldn’t be allowed in if you weren’t the right sort. Now look at it. They even served you!”
3 thoughts on “A tale of two cities: what can Athens teach London?”
A jolly good read, Harvey – simply ouzoing with wit and humour.
Excellent Harvey. From reading your excellent piece about the turn around for the Greeks it looks as if things will get better for us – eventually.
Harve…you’ve made me think of popping into Olympic Airways. You’re safe in your island, though. I have no intention of leaving Kolonaki.
When you get back I’ll wheel my barrer of pound coins down to the Market Porter and buy you a pint.