When 15-year-old Alexandros Andreas Grigoropoulos was arbitrarily shot by two police officers in Exarchia, a district of Athens, in 2008, a global economic crisis was already well underway and Greece was one of the biggest victims of the global recession.
The murder of a minor caused by police arbitrariness triggered nationwide protests and made the district the center of a post-capitalist movement in one of the "most crisis ridden" countries in the world. Today, the formerly "upper middle class" district Exarchia is a reminder of the failure of the EU as a civil community, but also of the free economic community as a panacea, in which has been believed in unconditionally for many decades within the EU.
Today the district is guarded day and night by riot squadrons in armored military vehicles and resembles an "East Berlin" shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. All walls and facades are covered with scribblings, manifestos and graffiti and many former shops are occupied or closed.
As if it wanted to "tease" them, Exarchia borders the government district, banking district and "chic district Kolonaki", which have also already passed their best years, but are kept in shape for the millions of tourists and for the wealthy minority of the big city.
The dog packs made of wild stray dogs don't care much, as they move pleasantly across the streets from one neighborhood to the other to rest in the shade of the luxury passages. The anarchist protest marches, which regularly start in Exarchia, leave a trace of devastation through the luxury neighborhoods of the city center. They have chosen the last status symbols of the city to be their enemy figure, since for most of the Greeks they seem like a joke, after all the hardships and deprivations due to the ongoing crisis.
Corruption and nepotism have probably also contributed to the economical problems of the country and the indignation of a large part of the Greek population. This is how I start my trip to Greece in the summer of 2018, while devastating forest fires rage in the south of the country with over 100 dead. A sizzling mixture, caused by the consequences of climate change and by urban speculation committed with arson. While the last clouds of smoke of the now extinguished fires, are moving over Athens, I am moving into my flat in Exarchia. This much-quoted, much-hated and diverse district that will be my home for the coming days.
Despite the first rundown impression, there does not seem to be a square inch that does not burst with creativity and hope. I was able to determine this during my three-week visit to Greece in August 2018. The winding arcades and narrow streets of Exarchia, which rise to the city mountain "Lykavittos", are covered with myriads of political and cultural manifestos. Street art has developed into a true high form of art here and you can discover real masterpieces along the crumbling house facades.
Creativity, solid ethics & culture: this is how the Greeks seem to be in Exarchia
There is no unnecessary luxury in the few shops that still survive here, but the many book stores and stationery testify to a high level of interest in culture and education. I also become aware of this during countless conversations with the residents of the neighborhood.
Since it is August and the residential areas are almost deserted despite the crisis, you can simply get into conversation with the few locals who stayed here in the district. In the countless small street cafes and bars, which are mostly very improvised and arranged as social associations, the Greeks meet you with their open-minded and joyful manner. There are always stories which testify to great difficulties but also to a great "joie de vivre" and the art of "reinventing yourself", which fascinate me in such places. The Greeks in particular are masters of the high art of life. Solid ethics and good general knowledge of local people amaze me, but it is not surprising here in the "cradle of democracy". And so the Greeks try to get the best out of their current situation. Even if there are many rumors and conspiracy theories handed around, much like in the current "Corona Crisis", there are still plenty of exciting solutions and stories of social commitment.
Guerrilla gardens alternate with "open air cinemas" and occupied "social centers". In many improvised bars and kitchens, you can enjoy eating and drinking, including the indispensable ouzo, at relatively inexpensive prices. Of course, one can already notice a creeping "gentrification", to which I also contribute through my visit, but it is still in the early stages and you are welcomed everywhere with open arms. The problem of "gentrification", which many locals have already examined with a critical eye, should have been stopped anyway for some time with the current "Corona crisis" and resulting travel restrictions ...
Two years after my trip to Greece with the current world situation, I have the feeling that many cities and communities might change into new "Exarchias". The economic decline of countless small businesses and the slow decline of the middle class will produce a variety of scenarios. Exarchia would still be a lucky scenario and might be even seen as a model. Because only together and with social commitment we can get out of this mess.
Athens has been a small preview of the world of tomorrow since the beginning of the 2008 crisis. But if you look a little deeper, despite many problems and concerns, the city offers a lot of hope and optimism, as blue as the Greek flag or the sky over the Acropolis. And while the well-nourished mass of tourists gather around the ancient ruins in the center of Athens, they avoid the districts that line the center of the capital with horrified looks. Everyone is happy to avoid social misery, apparent drug use and obvious grievances, especially on vacation. But one cannot dive into the real beauty of this world by simply sweeping difficulties and grievances under the carpet. To see true beauty, one has to look. Facing horror and fear for what they really are, because if everyone always looks away, the world catches up with everyone at some point, as we are experiencing during the current crisis. For too long the West has been working on a surface made of "bling and entertainment" which has been irreversibly damaged due to the ongoing "corona crisis". I hope that after our "house arrest" we will all concentrate a little more on the marginal beauties of the world and discover the little joys on the margins of society, because we will all be closer to this margin.
Instead of planning mass holidays through cruise ships landing on overcrowded holiday islands like "Santorini", where underpaid workers carry suitcases and groceries, climbing up steep stairs 7 days a week, I recommend everyone to look for more diverse destinations. A walk through the streets of Exarchia with a relaxing coffee break, reading a book and eventually climbing the city mountain "Lykavittos" would be such an alternative. When climbing the local mountain, you are rewarded with a breathtaking view of the timeless beauty of Athens and may be reminded that real beauty is often very close and hidden in the inconspicuous.