#8220;I want to tell you something if you care what’s going on here.” The man was in 60s and his frankness surprised me. I did want to know — in fact, I had been waiting to know. With a nod, he pulled up a chair.
I was in Athens, lured by $600 airfare promotion. The price was too good to resist. Greece, known for its ruins, crystal waters and clusters of islands, would be beautiful in spring. But what would I see in country so weighed down by economic woe? It was an opportunity to find out.
After deciding on an itinerary, I boarded the plane and arrived without a hitch. I found my hotel and walked the streets, trying to discern the mood. Teenagers ran raucous, as teenagers are apt to do. Tourists pulled their luggage or wandered around, their maps open. Vocal and enthusiastic vendors sold tickets to bus tours.
But what was the underside to all this?
I saw it at Syntagma Square, the city’s centerpiece. The park and common areas were neglected. Weeds grew through tiles and pavement. Gardens were overgrown and unkempt. Litter was strewn and lodged in bushes and shrubs. Graffiti was sprayed on buildings and walls.
On side streets, I noticed elderly men smoking and wandering aimlessly. Many were skinny, their clothes barely clinging to their frames. My first thought was that they were migrants, but they seemed like locals whose situation I could only guess at.
On the subway, passengers were somber and dispirited. Was this their subway face or a reflection of national mood? As an outsider, I wondered if I was looking for things that weren’t there. Maybe I was seeing things through the lens of recent news.
I toured the Acropolis and perched myself alongside the Parthenon overlooking the city. It’s a stunning sight. I wandered along the ruins of the ancient Agora, past the haunts of Socrates and Plato. The history staggered me.
Still, I longed to find a local willing to talk not about the “then” but the now.
On my last day, stopping for a coffee, I finally got the back-and-forth I’d been searching for.
“Where are you from?” asked the man from behind the counter.
“New York City” I answered.
“You’re lucky,” he said. “You don’t even know how lucky you are.”
He served my coffee and pulled up a chair across from me. This is when he asked if I wanted to know what was going on.
“I have two sons. I’ve worked my whole life sacrificing for their well being, their college, their future. But now in Greece we have no future.” His eyes were heavy as he continued. “I told them to leave this country. Can you imagine, a father telling his sons to leave? I want them here with me, their mother, with family. But if they can find a place with a future, I say move. It’s better than staying. Because here we have nothing. Not even hope.”
I was moved and saddened. I was also grateful. He’d given voice to what I’d seen and sensed on the streets of the capital of Greece, a city that has existed for 3,000 years and gave birth to modern democracy.
Walking away I wished him well, though the good cheer felt a bit foolish. He was right. I was the lucky one. I was returning to New York City later that day.