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Life below Mount Olympus

Like any other tourist city around the globe, Athens springs surprises every now and then with its bewildering mosaic of contradictions, writes Srinand Jha.

india Updated: May 05, 2007 01:31 IST

Alexander’s presence seemed less than comforting in that split of a moment when a disconcerting sight emerged: A strapping youngster leapt down the wooden stairs as we turned to leave the Romeo nightclub at the Athens’ bay area of Maicrolimano at 3 am.

The man’s sinews showed he had the strength of a whale. In that groggy but excitable mental state after a heady brew of wine and song, he had seemed to us like a modern day Samson. But there were no pillars he smashed down. He only started to fish out visiting cards from a wallet he carried in his hands.

A mythical reality

“This belongs to one of you?” he questioned — just as one of us noticed a familiar name on one of the business cards. “Not again”, uttered someone, as realisation dawned that Som — our companion — had done it once again. The other day the staff at the Titania had gone through the trouble of locating him as the owner of the handbag left behind after a meal and had had it delivered next morning.

To escape being mugged or cheated in the middle of the night on a foreign soil was understandable. But what of this thought: Is there more reality than myth to the Greek trait of honesty and integrity of character?

The idea persisted, but not for long. Aged cab drivers steering their way through traffic snarls on the streets of Athens compel one to view things differently. Depending on whether one is taken as a Turkish, Indian or Brazilian — the fare from Syntagma to Kolonaki (or anywhere to anywhere) might cost one, 10 to even 20 euros.

Vendors peddling their fare at Plaka and the flea market of Monastiraki are also not the right candidates for the Socrates scroll of honour. These are places where one can actually get robbed out of one’s pockets sometimes, whispered our driver Alexander — often doubling up as a part time interpreter, historian and guide.

Like any other tourist city around the globe, Athens springs surprises every now and then with its bewildering mosaic of contradictions.

Ghosts from the past

So how is it to live on a soil where the Acropolis stands? Where the cave of Socrates exists? Where democracy and modern political thought and the sciences originated? A land that bears the legacy of a Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aristophanes and a Xenophon? A place where Homer created the Iliad and the Odyssey depicting the battle of Troy? The best, and the only most common answer from Greek citizens: “It is intimidating”.

With contemporary Greeks, the problem lies in the legend of Zeus — the God of Gods. As the lore goes, Zeus — in his passion to seduce a Phoenician woman of high lineage called Europa — altered himself into a tame white bull and joined the herd she maintained. Europa climbed atop the white bull one day — a moment Zeus seized upon urgently. He carried her on his back to the island of Crete and made Europa his consort. Thus was born Europe.

Today’s Greece — impressive performance on economic indicators in past few years notwithstanding — cannot even put claims on being a front liner EU country. An Aristotle Onassis descendant or a Yanni manages an international splash still. But is that all on offer? This is one question the Greeks ask themselves silently.

“Choliades” (traditional guards at the Presidential Palace) have four hundred folds on their skirts depicting four hundred years of struggle against Turkish rule. After centuries of dominion by Romans and Ottoman Turks and protracted hostilities with its neighbours over past decades, Greece is once again at the crossroads.

Does the EU threaten to submerge the Greek identity? Nestor Tirohouce, government official, attempts to answer: “Traditional bonds are weakening and the American way of life is increasingly catching the fancy. But the Greek culture has survived everything else; it will survive this as well”.

It isn’t Greek to me, anymore

Greece is truly beautiful with its pristine beaches and luscious greenery. Tourism represents 18 per cent of the country’s GDP with annual contributions of $16 billion, with annual tourist arrivals at 16 million — substantially more than the country’s population (11 million). And the real boom is yet to start happening. Such a growth trajectory has ostensibly been possible because of the kind of people the Greeks are. Athenians love their life and show it abundantly.

Come Friday, the goddess of night comes alive at the bay that surrounds the Aegean at the outskirts of the capital city. The cocktail is heavy at the taverns: music, dance, song and the ‘Ooza’ (Greek equivalent of the Tequila). Could one want more?

Next morning, the streets are clean as a washed utensil. Though Kathimerini — the morning newspaper — has all the disconcerting information: Spreading prison unrest; labour minister Savvas Tsitouridis’s alleged involvement in the Bonds scandal; student protests against privatisation — but not even one late night brawl is mentioned. “We stay a little longer and we will be stubbing cigarette butts in the right places,” remarked a fellow scribe. Try implanting the same attitudes of cleanliness in India? The Greeks have a saying for such situations: “On the dead man’s door, knock all you want”!