Athens, like many other urban centres in the world, is a city of contrast. Not, however, as in many Latin American cities (and increasingly in US cities), a contrast that is due to the close juxtaposition of the very rich and the very poor. Certainly, there is more poverty in Athens now than anytime since the days of the junta. Stand on any street corner for fifteen minutes and at least a dozen people will approach you to either beg for money or sell you worthless trinkets nobody in their right mind would buy. But you don’t see the opposite. You don’t see ostentatious displays of wealth (as you still do here). No flashy, expensive cars cruising for attention, no bevies of high-coutured, well-kept women power-lunching (like Sex in the City bimbos) or flitting among designer boutiques laden with shopping bags and lap dogs. Those boutiques in Athens are now vacant, their empty windows displaying only For Rent signs, while the mid-range shops are running permanent going-out-of-business sales.
No, the contrast that strikes your senses and intellect is the one between the beauty and grandeur of ancient Athens (the Acropolis, Parthenon, etc.) against modern Athens with its crumbling infrastructure, crippling traffic and pollution, dangerously neglected pavements and roads, inadequate public transportation (though the Metro, what little there is of it, is beautiful and efficient), its graffiti-covered public buildings and churches, the general filth and stink of its streets and its threatening armies of junkies, wandering crazies blathering about the apocalypse and legions of homeless people of every age and nationality.
Corruption is so thick in the air you feel it descending upon you like a hard rain. There seems to be a general feeling among the populace of having simply given up. In nearly every restaurant I visited, they tried in one way or another to cheat me. Even such transparent ruses as trying to confuse you about your change when you pay the bill. And when you pay, you’d better study that bill with due diligence. It will almost always contain items you never ordered. When you discuss this with local people, they only shrug and say, that’s how it is now. It seems it has become accepted that you have to fleece people in order to survive!
This hopeless, negative attitude also manifests itself in other ways. I haven’t seen so many obese people since I was last in the rural south of America (where they eat nothing but stodge and plenty of it, as they have nothing else to do). And if you are in any sort of crowd (the Metro, the bus station), you are made well aware that many have given up on personal hygiene. Most unsettling and unattractive, however, is the aggressive way people behave towards one another, especially in the street, in shop queues or on public transportation. I haven’t had so many elbows poked into me or been so violently shoved since the days of civil rights and anti-war protests in the US. And that was coming from fascist police and soldiers, not my fellow pedestrians looking for a seat on the train.
Most disconcerting to this writer was the very poor service, the low quality food and the inferior wine in restaurants. In otherwise attractive wine cavas, the proprietors tried to push undrinkable wine on me even after I had told them that I wanted to review it. In one such cava, I told the owner I was tired of all the weak, astringent, vinegary Agiorghitiko I had so far tasted in Athens. I wanted a wine of substance, something with depth and character, a good example of the best of what Greece had to offer. The man nodded in understanding and insisted that the wines he chose for me (at €13 and €16) were two of the best red wines in Greece. I trusted him and shelled out the shekels. After tasting one and then the other, I angrily poured the remaining contents of both bottles down the sink—and I don’t even do that with two-day-old Othello.
Even in (or especially in) the supermarkets there is a paucity of drinkable wine. At a large Carrefour, with very tight and very annoying security, reminding me of airports in New York just after 9/11, there were fewer choices in the wine section than I enjoy in my local periptero (corner store). There was almost no wine from outside Greece on the shelves, and the labels from Greece were all ones I’d already tried and rejected. It seemed most customers were bringing their own empty plastic water bottles and filling up from spigots attached to fake barrel fronts: a choice of red, white or rosé plonk. It made me think that Cypriots shouldn’t take up collections of food or clothing for poor Greeks; better to send them a few thousand cases of good Cypriot wine. How can a once thriving, heritage-proud nation such as Greece ever recover if they have only swill to drink?
Athens does have its charms—the new Acropolis Museum is worth a visit, and it’s still possible to find old-style bouzouki tavernas to remind you of the golden era of Greek music—but I was very happy to get back to the honest, flavoursome food and excellent wine of Cyprus. Let’s hope I can say the same thing a year from now.
Med-trotting American poet/writer/bon vivant/dreamer Matthew Stowell is based in Limassol, where he writes what this editor regards as the best food and wine features in local media such as THE FINANCIAL MIRROR every week and for many glossy publications. Currently involved in film scripting, too.