Organized chaos: this is the only thought racing through my mind as I walk the streets of Athens. As an outsider to this city, it is next to impossible for me to find the patterns and organization I am used to seeing in large cities in the United States. Everywhere I look I see people walking in every direction, cars speeding by, and motorized scooters testing their luck by weaving in and out of the fast-paced traffic. I will be the first to admit that I was not entirely eager to pack up from the island of Aegina and head to Athens for a week, but somehow, by the weekend I had fallen in love with the city. I had come to realize this was a city caught in a constant waltz between the new and the old.
My first impression of Athens was that it was filthy from top to bottom. I wasn’t able to look past the trash covering the streets, graffiti lining the walls, and the thick smog that blanketed the city and choked me. I witnessed open drug use, public indecency, and several heated arguments, and was convinced I was never going to find beauty in such a city. As the week progressed, I found myself noticing small details I had previously overlooked. The streets, which before had looked as though they were constantly on the brink of a ten- car pile-up, started to seem more like an organized dance. The cars before looked to be driving in the middle of two lanes, swerving to miss the moving obstacles, and honking up a storm. After spending time carefully observing this, I realized that there was a system and a pattern to this driving. The honking wasn’t angry honking, but instead a simple way of communication between cars. When one car wished to move into another lane, it was not necessary to use a blinker, only to start merging. This created an understanding for the surrounding cars and they moved over to make room. The scooters seem to have their own place on the road. They whiz in and out of the cars with ease. There is an unspoken rule that they have the right to head to the front of the pack. Even though the driving seems to be chaotic, it is actually organized with a deep understanding of the rules by all of the drivers on the road.
When walking around Athens, graffiti lines the walls of the buildings in an overwhelming display of artwork, originality, and creativity. It is easy to overlook this graffiti and think that it is just words spray painted by angry youth. I took the time one afternoon to sit and observe this graffiti and discovered that there was so much more to it; it was a message from the younger generation of inhabitants of the city. The most dramatic of the pieces painted on the walls would be the black and white characters that stood ten feet high. They were strictly black and white, with detail that mimics some of the great artwork found in museums. The eyes of these characters reflected the pain and hardship that could be seen in the eyes of the people living all over Greece. The words and phrases painted on the walls also stick out in my mind; they were the words of the youth of Athens calling for change. Some of the phrases were so powerful and painted such a picture that I was able to emphasize with them, and feel their pain and struggle.
While the buildings, traffic, and graffiti add detail and character to the city, it is the people that give it life. At first, it is difficult to notice all of the diversity of the people in the city, but I found myself observing all types of life while in the metro station. With the economic difficulties that Greece is facing, there are many people struggling to get by. They walk past, begging for a single euro to grab a lunch, or sit on the side of the road attempting to sell items that hardly anyone gives a second glance at. These people look like they are living the hard life that many people in America will never experience. Their haunting eyes and pleading voices pull at my heartstrings, but they have become a part of Athens that will be there for many years to come considering that fifty percent of young adults are unemployed. While there may be a large amount of the population that is struggling for money, there is still a prominent rich population. The wealthy section of people in Athens dress from head to toe in class clothing, and carry themselves with a sense of pride. The women wear beautiful dresses, purses, and jewelry, while the men wear nice shirts, pants, and shoes shined so spotless that they could serve as a mirror. The store and restaurant owners in the Plaka stand in front of their stores with warm smiles and gesture inside while shouting how they serve the best Greek salad, or that they are positive that they have just the t-shirt you are looking for. I learned that going into the shops and having a five minute conversation helped me learn more of what life was like for these people of Greece.
One warm afternoon, I found myself in a shop filled from top to bottom with t-shirts of all kinds. The store owner, a man comparable to the size of the men in the movie 300, stood eagerly anticipating a good conversation with the four Americans that had just walked into his store. He explained to us that he had lived in South Carolina for several years. "The people of Greece say ‘God bless America’ because we love America! If people don’t love America then they have never been there. Europeans wear American, eat American, watch American, and act American, of course we love it!" He then eagerly smiled at my classmates and I, wanting to know more about our lives and who we were. I introduced myself and received a handshake more like a death grip. "You look Greek, you even have a Greek nose!" he exclaimed while tapping my nose, slapping my cheek, and handing me a penny he said would find me a Greek husband. He then greeted Katie by pinching her cheeks so hard, that mine ached just by watching. "Here is a lucky penny for you, so you can meet a nice Greek husband. I will introduce you to my son!" He then turned to Sharri and slapped her arm and exclaimed she would soon find a nice Greek man like Brandon. Brandon was his next victim, who had the look of fear in his eyes, because he knew what was coming. "This is a nice, sexy, strong man!" he exclaimed. While I may have been manhandled for a couple of minutes, I walked out of the store chuckling about the overly friendly shop owner. By making these connections, I found myself falling in love with the bustling city and all of its inhabitants.
Besides the people of Athens, perhaps the most interesting part of the city is its battle between the old and the new. When walking through the streets of Athens it is easy to get lost in the maze of apartments, stores, and skyscrapers when all of a sudden you stumble upon an ancient ruin hidden between the buildings. The shock of finding such a beautiful memory of the past tucked into the hustle and bustle of the city is enough to make anyone stop in their tracks in awe. The tall columns of the Temple of the Olympian Zeus stand in graceful silence compared to the dirty buildings surrounding it. The significance and history hangs heavy over this temple as if to remind every passerby that the ancient Greeks, who created the base for the knowledge we hold today, once walked there. The Acropolis is a divine example of this mixture of the old and the new of the city. The Acropolis can be seen from almost any part of the city, standing tall, almost as if to watch over Athens. Once on top of the Acropolis you can walk around the crumbing ruins as the great philosophers once did while also having a bird’s eye view of Athens. The simplicity of the new buildings of the city make the ruins seem that much more detailed and impressive.
These two generations of buildings play off of each other and add a dynamic to the city unmatched by any other. The people, graffiti, and bustling traffic make it a confusing city that is filled to the brim with excitement and an unmatched diversity. While it may have taken me several days to piece together my experiences in the extreme city, it was a trip that shaped my views of Greece.