I tripped over a syringe yesterday as I walked past a shopping trolley which was half-full of empty cans; recycling other peoples rubbish is a good way of making money in a financial crisis – I flashback to my meetings with the hordes of homeless in Japan – but this shopping trolley is padlocked to a post so precious is it and its contents. Nearby two ‘homeless’ guys sleep slumped together awkwardly. As I make my way home I become aware of an eerie silence permeating the streets and the boarded-up shops.
The silence is broken here and there by moments of quiet action as I pass small groups of people sitting outside still open cafes. Is this the new face of Europe I ask myself as the crisis steamrolls onwards unabated uncontrolled towards an end that no-one really knows.
Here in Athens people still like to live life as much as possible – with a strong emphasis on eating and drinking – it takes ones mind off the bleak harsh reality of life.
Tonight, In the anarchist run square where I am staying a live band entertains a massive happy crowd into the early hours of the morning until a loud boom is heard, and suddenly people start to move. There is a strong stench in air and my eyes quickly become weary and irritated – “It is tear-gas!” someone announces, and the crowd pushes out of the square, groups of once happy party people are forced to cover their faces with handkerchiefs as they head off in the direction of the police who (although they remain outside the quarter) have made it clear that the party has gone on long enough, that now it must end. I decide to return to my room.
As I enter the hotel I joke with the hotel manager that check-in should include a gas mask, he laughs but I am kind of serious. This is nuts. A country at war with itself in a doomsday international economic crisis never seen before in history – but the manager laughs and tells me to wait for tomorrow night “You will get used to it soon” he says bidding me goodnight as I head upstairs to watch the night from my balcony.
What a day… It feels like I’ve never stopped since I got to Athens, I was told about Exarcheia, a wonderful vibrant neighbourhood populated by anarchists, students and leftists for 40 years, so I have got myself a 4th floor room overlooking a noisy anarchic square. The square (which seems to be getting ready for a concert) is filled with amazing café’s and bars, it reminds me of East Berlin the air is filled with ideas, bubbling with alternatives to the “failed” economics and politics of Europe. The counter-culture. The killing of a 15 year old boy here sparked off a month of riots across the whole of Greece in December 2008.
Today I met a local Kostas who drove me around the town, highlighting the division that exists between leftists, and anarchists from the neighbourhood where I am staying, and the Neo-Nazis in another square, in another area of town.
I’ve only been here a day or two but it is clear that Athens has an air of fragile calm that could explode at any moment, with up and coming elections on the 6th May things don’t bode well. Support for the main parties has collapsed while support for ‘radical’ parties has grown. The experts predict a hung parliament while the Neo-Nazis hope to see their leader go into parliament for the first time in Greek history,
“This far-right ‘Golden Dawn’ party are not like Le Pen in France, they are Nazis” Kostas tells me… “They have copies of Mein Kampf, and salute like Hitler”. Earlier today they had a meeting in a neighbouring hotel and Kostas invited me to take a look, it was scary – I saw (the usual, expected) skinheads but there was also lots of families too, they were complaining about the economic crisis but also the lack of any effective immigration policy.
After we left Kostas took me to an ‘immigrant’ neighbourhood, it was once an area for the richest Greeks in Athens, and has one of the biggest church’s in Europe. Immigrants sit around looking hopeless, we watch as a little black girl plays hop-scotch on some massive graffitied letters at the entrance to the church that read, ‘Greece is for the Greeks all immigrants go home’. “It has been there for 2 years” Kostas explains, “but no-one dares to remove it, because of the power of the Neo-Nazis in this area of Athens.”