What’s It Like in Athens?

When people find out that I choose to live in Athens they are usually surprised, if not outright shocked. Generally, they ask how it is to live here during the crisis, especially as a German citizen. 

Typical Athenian architecture. (Pixabay)
Unsurprisingly, Athens has its good and bad sides, like any other place on earth. It’s true that you feel the omnipresence of the crisis in the atmosphere – homelessness, unemployment, and open drug use are just some of the symptoms. Every foreigner who lives here is aware of the fact that the nationalist far-right party Golden Dawn has a large following, and this leaves us with a bitter taste. However, these problems are not exclusive to Athens or Greece.

So what’s it like in Athens? Athens is mainly a city of contrasts. You can find extreme beauty as well as real ugliness, the modern and the ancient, the sea and the mountains, the city and small oases of nature, noise and silence.

The crisis means higher taxes and lower wages. Prices for everything except rent are quite high compared with the average salary. This leads to regular strikes and protests that have an effect on those of us trying to make it to work and back. Trolleys often have to stop in the middle of their journey because roads are closed for demonstrations; strikes affect buses regularly, and, of course, this increases traffic as even more people feel obliged to commute by car. The streets are in horrible condition, and, particularly, the sidewalks look as if somebody were playing a practical joke on the population: They are way too narrow, completely run down, and are used as parking spots. Likewise, there is no money and/or willingness to sterilize animals, and the population of strays appears to be growing. However, Athenians regularly feed these stray dogs and cats rather than chasing them off as is the case in many other European countries. As I said: contrasts.

I’m a person who has always loved places that are close to the water, either in the form of a big river, or, the sea. Athens is really close to the Mediterranean sea, so you can easily spend time on the beach or even on one of the islands close by, as it only takes about an hour by ferry to get there. The sea just has a special atmosphere and wonderful air which I’ve always appreciated. It gives me a sense of freedom with its openness all the way until the horizon.

It must be said that the majority of Athens is really ugly, and the architecture is simply tasteless. That’s why it’s all the more wonderful to walk through the charming streets of neighborhoods like Plaka with its beautiful architecture. In the rest of the city, you will walk past neoclassical buildings that have been left to perdition by the owners. It’s such a shame because there are some truly stunning buildings that could improve the overall look of the city immensely if they were to be renovated. Instead, we have to live with tacky buildings from the 1950s.
Unfortunately, there is very little green here in the form of parks or even just trees by themselves. A very shocking sight for anyone from Western countries will be playgrounds and schools. They look like a hybrid between hospitals and prisons from the 1970s. There is very little color, everything is made of metal – not child-friendly whatsoever. It’s a truly depressing sight for those of us from other countries.

The Athenian lifestyle is a lot more relaxed and focused on the little joys in life rather than work. A lot of life happens outdoors. What always bothered me about life in Germany was that it was concentrated on the indoors due to the weather. In Athens, you can spend time outside all year around. Nevertheless, you can just as easily do things indoors, such as exploring one of the many museums or exhibitions. Athens doesn’t have as many cultural events to offer as German cities, especially given its size, but there is enough happening to avoid boredom. As with everything else, it really depends on what you are used to. When I hear or read people raving about the nightlife in big cities I’m always puzzled. Having lived in Hamburg for many years, it’s just not possible to get me excited about the nightlife of any other city. I don’t even mean the famous red-light district, but simply the fact that for every taste there will be at least one event every weekend, various live shows every year, and the parties don’t stop until breakfast time. No matter which city’s nightlife people glorify, I have never been able to agree, and the same goes for the nightlife in Athens. As a hip hop fan, I have not even heard of a handful of international artists performing live within the last two and a half years. In Hamburg or Montreal, there were hip hop shows at least every few weeks, and I would randomly walk past places that were playing high-quality hip hop.
Likewise, there is a lack of diversity in the Athenian food scene. Aside from the fact that there is not a single exclusively vegan restaurant in the entire city, there is also a severe shortage of international options. Greeks love their own food and are not adventurous with trying out other cuisines. There are a few sushi places, a handful of Indian and Chinese restaurants, one Mexican restaurant, and one authentic Italian restaurant in Glyfada. I have yet to find a good Vietnamese place, which, in Hamburg, is pretty much the most normal thing in the world. Hamburg has entire streets dedicated to Portuguese and Spanish cuisine, Pakistani restaurant chains, several decent Chinese places, and I’ve been to Caribbean, Korean, Lebanese, Egyptian, Afghan, Persian, Ethiopian, and Mongolian restaurants. There is a reason Hamburg is known as the Gate to the World. This kind of open-mindedness and interest in different foods and cultures doesn’t exist here in Greece. To a tourist, this shouldn’t be an issue, because they are probably more curious about Greek food. But if you live here and are used to more international options it can be quite frustrating.
There is a lot to be criticized about Athens, in particular, and Greece as a whole. There are people who feel that foreigners have no right to criticize another country. Interestingly, those are often the same people that will criticize Germany or the US, and in many cases without ever having been there. Due to my mixed ethnic background, I have always felt like each nationality has its pros and cons, and I have always been comfortable addressing them. There are many things that are awful about Germany (and there is a reason I decided to leave), but that doesn’t mean that I think Greece is perfect, but something about the light in Athens is just different, especially before sunset. In the early evenings, on my way home from work, I see the parliament building in that special light which is somehow unreal. The mountains surrounding the city glow in the light of the setting sun, and when you walk Ermou street from Syntagma square in the direction of Monastiraki in the sunset, it looks like the city is on fire. It’s a truly magnificent sight.

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