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.