This trip is really different than my visit to Athens last summer. Then, I was part of a study abroad trip, made up mostly of undergrad students, and our time was very regulated. We were essentially tourists, albeit tourists who hoped to learn something.
This time, I’m here on “business” — that is, to work. It’s strange, being in Athens and not planning a trip to the Acropolis! But I have several meetings scheduled, and they are all over the city, so I’m spending a lot of time going from place to place. Yesterday I spent zero time popping into shops and restaurants, and I still managed to be late to two of my three meetings (I got lost. Multiple times. It’s OK.). I have next to no experience navigating big cities without a car, so this is a new challenge. But it’s the only way! Driving in Athens would be a huge mistake.
So I wander around, tacking back and forth among the tangle of streets like the path of a sailboat, eventually finding my way to each destination.
And during my wanderings I am more like a tourist — Athens is so different from Nebraska that even the small details catch my eye. As it did last year, the ever-present graffiti grabs my attention, from the chaotic tags to the gorgeous art that enhances the space its in. Graffiti would be considered an affront in my neighborhood, but here is seems just part of the ambiance. I wonder if the Greeks feel the same as I do?
I caught up on the Greek news this morning. Among the stories about the wrestling match between the Greek government and the EU, there were articles about “the tourists’ experience in a Greece in free-fall.” Mostly they talked about oblivious partiers on Mykonos, and worried travelers being reassured by enigmatic Greek shop owners. My experience is a little different: yesterday, I met with two researchers, and with a member-owner of a collective cafe. We met to discuss my dissertation project — the researchers to help me find my way doing research in a foreign country, the cafe owner as a potential project participant. But it was inevitable that in each case we would discuss the never-ending crisis.
Like I said yesterday, they were all three tired of what they saw as political game-playing and attempts to protect the powerful. They can’t tell which move — staying with the euro, or the “grexit” — will be best for themselves and their families. One, who is at retirement age, hears the young people say that “the older generations have ruined everything for us” and is frustrated at their blame game. Another, a young woman, says it would be nice to “move to the country” like the media claims so many people are doing, but: “if you don’t have land to move to, you can’t afford it. No one can.” I know the situation here is dire, but it’s funny, too, how familiar those concerns sound.
Today I had two more meetings. One was with the owner of a small grocery store that sells organic food, both local and imported. His shop, Bathoskipos, is not cooperatively owned but is still an example of efforts by the Greek people to support farmers in their own country. He expressed sadness when I told him how few Nebraskans “buy local.” “Without their support, how can you succeed?” he asked. Indeed.
I also met with my contact at the Hellenic American University. HAU organized last year’s Athens experience, and have been so helpful over the last year as I have gotten closer to figuring out my dissertation project.
Between meetings, I enjoyed a late breakfast (at my hotel) and a casual lunch (at a street-corner souvlaki joint), and sailed my way across the city, leaving myself plenty of time to get lost. I still find myself in a perpetual state of confusion making my way here, but somehow I don’t think it’s that unusual right now.