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The Truth About Athens

Athens has gotten itself a bad reputation. A reputation that speaks of the unbearable pollution, dirt, and commuter chaos so apparent in the capital city of Greece. It is no surprise that many travellers either skip Athens altogether or merely pass through it on their way to the islands, without a second thought. People seem to forget that Athens was once the epicentre of a society that dominated the Mediterranean basin. Back then, a burgeoning Athens, together with other tribes or poleis (cities) around the Aegean sea, formed Greece. And until recently, the western world credited its citizens as originators of democracy. "The Greeks certainly coined the word demokrateia to mean a state where supreme power belonged to an assembly of all citizens" (1). But we learned that the Greeks excluded women from politics and relegated them to domestic or cult use; second class citizens were slaves to the rich elite, and outcasts were exiled to foreign lands. But inspite of its troubled history, Athens and the rest of Greece rose from the dust of its land to become a colonizing nation, spreading its influence around the Aegean Sea, Italy, France, and as far as Spain and Libya, to name a few. Athens, in particular, flourished in the arts, written literature, and politics.

Athens today is littered with reminders of its classical past. The Parthenon, the most recognizable sight in the city, is the shining example. It sits high on the Acropolis hill and 12 euros buy you an entrance to the entire complex. You can spend the entire day at the Acropolis, but be warned, there are no restaurants inside the complex, so bring plenty of provisions.

The Parthenon, a marble temple in honour of Athena Nike, is the highlight of the complex. You will most likely see scaffolding all around it because of the ongoing restoration work. The Greeks have been lobbying for the return of the Elgin marbles, taken from the temple by the British and displayed in London's British Museum. The Greeks, in turn, built a museum to house the said marbles. But for now, the space is an empty showcase, longing for the marbles' homecoming. Sadly, there is a semblance to that familiar movie catchphrase, "If you build it, they will come". Could this be just a dream for the Athenians?

Beyond the Parthenon, a balcony opens to a sprawling view of Athens. From afar, Lykavittos Hill rises above the city. And not too far from the Acropolis, Areopagos Hill provides great views of the majestic structures of the Acropolis. Meanwhile, a short walk down the hill gets you to the Roman Agora and the restored Stoa of Attalos.

Below the Parthenon, the lively Plaka district provides gourmandisms and libations for the traveller. The atmosphere in this old Turkish district is always high-energy. The sound of plates and glasses clinking, music and voices carried by the wind, the aroma of spitfire meats wafting through the air, and lights brilliantly strewn among the trees and old dilapidated houses... all provide a wonderful sensory experience.

Markets are enjoyed by Athenians as a social gathering point, much like their forebearers did. The Monastiraki area has a good flea market. The alleys are lined with small shops selling clothing, souvenirs, and foods. There is a dingy-looking foodstall in the market that we enjoyed, Ellhnikon, that serves up juicy plates of grilled meats (souvlaki, gyro, sausage) with tzatziki and fries. More shopping can be found on Ermou, just off the grand Syntagma Square, a popular shopping district for locals and tourists alike. It's not Via Veneto or Rodeo Drive, but it's just as fun to walk along the pedestrianized lane and amongst grimy buildings. There are also many interesting shops around the Plaka district, but most of them are geared towards the tourist industry. However, there is a fine clothing store (my favourite), Kourbela, that can satisfy your sartorial needs. This store has two locations in the Plaka. One is at 109 Adrianou, the other is at 12 Hatzimichali.

At night, we laid our heads down in Omonia, an area popular with artistes and intellectuals. A bit rough on the edges, it is also known to be the bohemian part of the city. There is a certain seediness and grit in Omonia that is either well-loved or mostly hated. Where you stand is, absolutely, your democratic choice.

While the idea of democracy was brought to us by the forefathers of this nation (but not necessarily practised), many of its denizens have lost faith in the current system. We were in Athens during national presidential election time, and quite a few people I met didn't care for politics. "I do not vote, because I don't like politics. All politicians are corrupt," said one bartender. But if you think the Greeks are apathetic, I beg to differ. The world watched a very involved Greece in 2004, which was a turnaround year for the country. First, there was Euro Cup soccer in June. A shocking championship win sent the whole country reeling in ecstasy while the rest of the world looked on in shock. Then, August 2004 also saw the Summer Olympics in Athens. The world waited to see if the whole country could get their act together for such an international event. And they did! Again, the world watched and took notice. And in the midst of it all, Athens has silently undergone a major facelift and has managed to breathe life into many of its aging neighbourhoods. There might still be hints of dirt, grime, and pollution in the city, but Athens is now a different place and it continues to evolve. Apathy may still be common among its citizens, but there is a strong sense of national pride. So the next time you are passing through Athens, remember to look around. It's a city far from perfect, hidden in a cave of shadows (might Plato agree?). But you can find Beauty, if you look beyond the surface and stare at the light. Will you be compelled to tell the truth? The gritty truth about Athens.

(1) F.Fernandez-Armesto, The World: A History (Prentice Hall, 2007), p.130.

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