May 3, 2010

Impressions of Greece

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Greece is collapsing. So says the media. The news regularly shows riots in Athens; the papers discuss the dire economic straits. A person here in London could easily form the view the precipice is near.

Having spent a week in Athens last month, I didn’t leave with the impression disaster was imminent. People generally seemed to be going about their daily business. There were no clear signs of distress (apart from one incongruity). Indeed, other cities I have visited appeared to be in worse situations. While a large amount of my time was spent in busy tourist throngs around the archealogical sites, I also travelled out into the surrounding areas. What I saw appeared to be a working city. There were numerous storefronts with decent traffic and many business offices. The streets became busier after work hours. Bars and resturants were quiet during the day, but became busy late in the night. At one point we saw a crowd blocking a street near Syntagma, it could have been a well behaved protest, or just as easily people waiting for some celebrity. There was a lot of graffiti, but also a lot of graffiti art. Not so different to London really and there was probably about the same number of unused/abandoned buildings. Although unlike London, many of the occupied buildings appeared quite run-down and not well maintained.

There was one indication of possible problems. On a quiet side street North-East of Omonoia we walked past trees, parked cars, buildings that looked like apartment blocks, and little shops. Then there were two burnt out cars next to each other. They were completely wrecked – the fire destroyed everything. However, there was no damage apart from the cars. Either the fire was somewhere else and then the wrecks dumped there or the immediately surrounding area was cleaned up (but the cars left). Both seem strange. Apart from these wrecks, Athens did not feel different to most cities I have visited.

Cities are ususally places of vibrant activity – normally business related. Visit London, Paris, Sydney, Barcelona or Milan and you feel you are in a working city. There is the sense that the locals are busy getting things done. Travelling around London, I am constantly amazed by the number and variety of business nameplates outside buildings. You can walk for hours from the Shoreditch across to Hammersmith and it is busy offices the entire way. Washington and Rome feel more dominated by tourism and government, but there is still lots happening around you. Two places I feel didn’t match this description, at the time I visited, are Lisbon and Tunis. There was a general lack of activity in Lisbon, it seemed almost empty. Never have I seen so many empty, decrepit buildings. Tunis was similar, full of people, but they didn’t seem to be doing much. There was always a large number of men sitting in cafes, presumably un- or underemployed. These two cities felt like they were in dire economic straits. Indeed, Portugal is currently mentioned in similar financial terms to Greece, but that situation was clearer on the streets of Lisbon than Athens.


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