Athens, July 2016.
Walking North West from Monastiraki, past small squares and open air cafés, the Athenian landscape changes gradually but perceptibly. Streets and buildings gain a shabbier and unkempt character. The open places and green areas become fewer and loose their charm. Our hotel, in the heart of Evripidou, stands out like the last stronghold against the advancing decline. Yet, it seems as if dirt and neglect could be scraped off with the tip of a knife to reveal traces of happier and wealthier days. The atmosphere is that of a quiet and bewildered effort to adjust to a new and not yet fully understood disgrace.
The hardship the Greek people have experienced in the past couple of years are known to all, portrayed in newspapers, TV news and international negotiations. They are here fully visible. Tangible almost. Restaurants and fashion shops are replaced by oriental general hardware stores, the homeless haunt the archways and clusters of people around street corners reveal where dealers and addicts make their business. Buildings crumble away and the debris remains uncollected, forgotten. No one cleans the street because anyway what’s the use? No one seems to know what the way forward is, no one knows what and who to blame.
At 2.00am, back from our friends’ wedding, the hotel receptionist tells us that look, see all those shut down corner coffee shops around the block? They were packed with people 24/7 up to a few years ago. Now, they’re just catching dust waiting for better times, or to be transformed into the next utility store. He can’t tell us where the problem is. Sure, newspapers point their finger and everyone has their culprits to blame, be them wealthy bankers, European institutions or young slackers, but where reality is no one can really tell.
The enemy has no face and no name, anonymous like electronic money moved around the globe in the blink of an eye. Here today, somewhere else tomorrow. At least this is what seem to think the artists painting their questions and voicing their hopes on the face of the city. Those walls portray the struggle between understanding, will to rebuild and to kick a new start, and the feeling of being trapped, rendered powerless by unknown and uncontrollable forces. As a young student was telling us in a bar, it doesn’t really matter who you vote for. Left or right, this or that programme, it makes no difference: in the end no one will be free to act, and will be told what and what not to do, supposedly, for the good of their nation. In the cradle of European democracy, the youth feel far from democracy by an extent as wide as their feeling of powerlessness. The fear is that discouragement and helplessness will push more and more people to give up the struggle to get on their feet, ending up sitting idly by, giving up on all dreams and ideas in wait for someone else to fix the mess.
Human strength and effort alone cannot be enough. Or at least not those of a single person. But starting up grassroot shifts in ways of thought, action and culture is as well beyond the reach of many. When things get as bad as they can get (or so one hopes), when that feeling of being stuck without a way out is at its worst, despair and will to get out give people the courage and resources to pursue change. Next, is to appeal for people to forget differences and discord in favour of a sense of common ends and interests. A silent prayer this time not directed skywards to any God, but earthwards to fellow people. Everyone’s hope is that ingenuity won’t be in vain, that everyone’s effort will be matched by that of others, that all will gather their strength and courage and will do their bit in the struggle to change everyone’s fate.
Walking around the block on the south side from our hotel, when leaving the deserted alleyways of Evripidou, ordinary life and people slowly start taking streets and buildings back. Effort to move on can be recognised, small and big alike. A freshly painted building, new benches and young trees in some square. Who has almost nothing left to lose finds ways of making something out of it: someone turned their front lawn in a strip of asphalt; now sells parking spaces. Humanity is reclaimed in every way possible: a clean mat on a doorstep, a freshly hand-painted sign welcoming tourists, a vase full of blooming flowers by a broken window, a painted tribute to a lost friend on a shut down workshop, telling us that “all dogs go to heaven”.
Struggle and hardship are as old as mankind. Societies confronted the tyranny of fellow men and nature alike, and got by somehow. If it is true that hope dies last, then hope is that soon this will be over too.