Athens is an amazing place of contrasts. It’s a real center of intellectual activity and talent from all over the world. I’ve never attended talks packed with as much academic firepower as I have in Athens (which is a terrifying thought; I’ve given two talks here in the past couple of months!) and there’s no place in the world with this density of archaeological institutions: all the foreign schools, the University of Athens, the Archaeological Society, the National Museum, and so on. There are multiple talks, every. Single. Night. Besides the foreign schools, there are seminars devoted to every single chronological and thematic region: the Palaeolithic Seminar, the Minoan Seminar, the Cycladic Seminar, the Mycenaean Seminar, etc. When I was a student at the School (2003-4), I didn’t take advantage of hardly any of this. Indeed, I was only marginally aware of it. Maybe it wasn’t as intense back then? I doubt it.
This intellectual activity is taking place in a radically different context from 2003-4. Then, Greece was a booming economy (GDP growth was 5.8% in 2003!); now, not so much. Athens is chugging along, but for those of us who have known the city for years, the signs of economic downturn are there. And of course everyone’s talking about the refugee crisis. My friends are volunteering at centers who need people to sort and deal with donations. The foreign schools are all collecting materials (canned goods, medical supplies) that they’re donating to refugee aid centers, a practice with deep historical roots. There are announcements before lectures start, reminding everyone to do their part. Meanwhile we keep hearing news about borders being shut, the horrible conditions in the camp at the border, and the rise of anti-immigrant parties and sentiment in Europe. This in a Greece where the local population is suffering economically, where pensions are set to be cut by 1% of GDP, and whose government can hardly afford additional expenses. After the past five years of crisis, it seems clear that the political class of Europe has been a colossal failure.
But I’m an archaeologist, not a policy wonk. I read Paul Krugman and nod, donate money to humanitarian organizations, and draw comfort from the history of the modern Greek economy, which is a story of setback and recovery. I am also amazed at the reaction here in Greece, which is incredibly noble and generous.
And through all of this, Athens is as amazing as it ever has been. I know many of my archaeologist friends don’t like Athens. I like to tell them that if you don’t like Athens, you don’t like Greece. Greece is a nation of many regions, each of them different: Crete is not like Messenia, which is not like the Argolid, which is not like the Corinthia, which is not like Thessaly, and so on. And the only place where people from all parts of Greece live together and break bread together is: Athens.
But besides that, Athens is a city of intellectual might, with plenty of grit and frenetic energy. There’s not a drop of Disneyfication here. I’ve barely scraped the surface of her depths and can’t imagine a better place to spend my sabbatical.
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I like the simplicity and honesty of your post, mainly because you put things in a way that I did not know how to say them. Many of my friends, archaeologists or not, tell me also that they do not like Athens . I tell them it is because they do not see it and experience it like true Athenians.
This is a city with no true north; it is replaced by the Acropolis that dominates the skyline and is the reference point for all movement in the city. A city that always moves, changes and remakes itself so you have to be ready to follow, find it every time it regenerates itself in another neighborhood.
Athens is the city where past, present and future meet; cliche statement sure but there are a few cities in the world that confront you with the past so unexpectedly and so consistently. You are going down to Ermou to a journey leading to the Byzantine period in the steps of Kapnikarea, you make a left and you find yourself moving forward centuries next to a magnificent mosque your back to a late Byzantine church and your eyes looking ahead, seeing glimpses of the Roman Agora; and all this is happening while you have no idea how close you are and how unexpectedly you are going to find yourself in the Ancient Agora. Is that not a metaphor of the human self? Are we not an amalgamation of collective and individual memories, mixed haphazardly with our aspirations and fears?
That element of surprise and discovery is so inherent in the city; even when there are demonstrations and garbage strikes, it is still there.
You write: “And through all of this, Athens is as amazing as it ever has been.” I would say that is still as inspirational as it has ever been. The motivation of Athenians to come together, to fix, repair, re imagine and protect their city – things that no newspaper writes about- filled me with questions about Byzantine Athens and its citizens. Without witnessing the grassroots initiatives happening right now in Athens , I would have never thought to ask what is the role of ordinary, non-elite people in the making of Byzantine Athens.
I dream of my own sabbatical in Athens in two years, passing the gate of the Agora on a daily basis and reconstructing Byzantine Athens. So enjoy Athens and let the city be the inspiration the true north of your sabbatical! Let other people see it with you, they will like it better.
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