A quick way to irritate an Athenian: refer to their city as 'the new Berlin'. Yes, Athens does have cheap rent, graffiti and an art scene that's especially hot since the edgy Documenta show expanded from Kassel, Germany, to Athens in 2017. But the city is plenty more than the next trendy capital. It has its own struggles and history, its own fight-the-power attitude. There's plenty more going on here, evident to anyone who stays more than a day.
Taking in Athens' busy streets and lively cafes, you may not immediately see i krisi – the financial crisis that Greeks have been labouring under since 2010. Conditions here are better than many other parts of the country, but tax hikes and drastic pension cuts – imposed as terms of a series of bailout loans from the EU and the International Monetary Foundation – have touched everyone. Greece suffers some of the highest unemployment rates in Europe, so many have fled Athens for jobs in other countries.
The austerity measures have also widened Greece's stark economic and social disparities – the hedonistic lifestyles of Athenians taking weekend jaunts to Mykonos bear no resemblance to struggling pensioners whose pensions have been cut by 40%. Homelessness, suicides, drug use and once-rare burglary and even violent crime have risen. Disillusioned young Greeks, the most educated generation to date, are bearing the brunt of years of economic mismanagement; youth unemployment hovers around 45%.
There was brief hope in 2015, when the Syriza party came to power and promised to take a strong stand against austerity measures. But just three days after Greeks voted a resounding 'no' in a referendum on accepting bailouts, prime minister Alexis Tsipras capitulated to another bailout deal. People reacted with rage, mass strikes and violent clashes with the police.
Still, one positive aspect of the crisis is that many Greeks have come to, out of necessity, appreciate home-grown culture and traditions. In the booming noughties, chic Athenians adored sushi, French fashion and vacations in Asia. Now those same people are appreciating rare Greek goat's cheeses, traditional embroidery and, of course, all the great beaches right at home. On a grittier level, the crisis has been a sort of muse, as musicians produce fresh interpretations of old songs of trauma, and graffiti has flourished into dramatic murals that are a vivid critique of the world as much as an adornment to crumbling mansions and abandoned construction.
August 2018 marks the end of the last bailout period, and, theoretically, the point at which the economy may again begin to expand. So far, the economic indicators are showing faint promise. But it will be years before the despair and anxiety fully lifts. And riot police are still stationed in front of the Syriza party offices in Psyrri.
Starting in the early 1990s, Greece saw an influx of immigrants, at least 600,000 people in a decade, most of whom came to Athens: migrant agricultural labourers from Punjab, domestic help from the Philippines, Albanians and Pontian Greeks from the Black Sea fleeing the postcommunist collapse, asylum seekers from all over.
Then, in 2015, refugees fleeing conflict and persecution in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea and various countries in West Africa suddenly began arriving in Greece by the thousands every day. For a time, the port of Piraeus and Plateia Viktoria were informal encampments, as NGOs, government and independent volunteers sought to find people food and shelter. The crisis abated somewhat in spring 2016, when the EU struck a multibillion-euro deal with Turkey to police the borders better.
Now Athens is actively working to absorb an estimated 160,000 refugees. City government has embraced the change, stating that immigration is not a problem but an opportunity for growth. And indeed, immigration over the past two decades has reinvigorated previously tired neighbourhoods and brought new businesses – Psyrri has a strip of Bangladeshi and Pakistani shops, and Metaxourgio bursts with Chinese wholesalers.
Newer arrivals have enlivened the squat scene in Exarhia as well as the Viktoria neighbourhood. Further north, the blocks around Plateia Amerikis have attracted immigrants from West Africa and Eritrea.
But even though Athens has been progressive on the refugee issue, xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment are not unknown here, especially as the financial crisis has deepened. It's common to hear people express resentment that the refugees receive more support than Greeks do in this difficult time.