A letter from Athens

I'm walking late at night up the side of Syntagma Square. There, just across the road from the Greek parliament, stands a prostitute, self-consciously overdressed and waiting for clients.


    I'm walking late at night up the side of Syntagma Square. There, just across the road from the Greek parliament, stands a prostitute, self-consciously overdressed and waiting for clients.

    She's a young black woman perhaps one of the many Nigerians trafficked into Greece by ruthless gangs in recent years.

    I happen to know the owner of the imposing building right next to where the woman is standing. He is a wealthy Greek, but these days he is a worried man.

    The ladies of the night on the pavement are symptomatic of ominous changes. His commercial tenants have moved out of the building, fed up with riots, vandalism and strikes.

    He has lost a valuable source of income, and although he's dropped the rent dramatically, he can't find another firm that wants to move in.

    Remember, this is Syntagma Square, the ceremonial centre of Athens, overlooked not only by that pale pink parliament building that we've probably all seen a bit too much on our television screens, but also smart hotels, a grand department store, and the finance ministry.

    But Syntagma is now changing, and apparently for the worse. The post office in one corner has had its windows smashed so many times that the authorities have admitted defeat, and have replaced them with ugly sheets of metal. Other premises stand empty, walls covered in graffiti.

    Tourism down

    I'm struck not only by the physical deterioration, but also the sense of anxiety. An expatriate friend who has lived in Greece for 30 years tells me she now walks around with "a permanent ball of tension in her chest".

    Not because she's worried about being mugged, (although there's plenty more of that these days), but because she doesn't know what is going to happen to the country she loves.

    "I have a good life here", she says, "but for the first time I'm actively thinking of where I would move to if the worst happens". I too have a new sensation.

    Seven per cent of the Greek electorate voted for a party that embraces a racist ideology and is prepared to use physical violence.

    Greeks have always been warm and welcoming to me, but now as I walk up the street, I look at passers-by, and try and guess who voted for the neo-fascists, Chrysi Avgi.

    Amidst despair, there is also hope and courage. In central Athens, I go to a government-run training programme for young unemployed people. The statistics are daunting- more than half of Greeks aged under 24 are now unemployed.

    There are only 25 students on the course I attend 611 applied for this precious opportunity. They are learning skills to help them in the tourism industry.

    "Tourism is all we've got left" says one girl with a broad smile.  When I visit, they are learning Russian, which seems a useful skill given the apparent downturn in German tourists, who are traditionally an important source of income.

    So, I ask the students, do they feel demoralised?

    “No, we don’t give up”, says one girl, “we are looking forward to working”.

    Another girl agrees that times are tough, but she is emphatic that Greeks “will solve their problems, and be strong again”. 

    Later the same day I meet an interior designer in his mid-30s who has two degrees, lots of work experience, and fluent English.

    But he can’t find a job and in July, his meager government unemployment benefits will expire.  Does he think of emigrating?

    “Of course if I got a good job offer I would be tempted”, he says, “but part of me feels that this would be admitting defeat, running away from a problem. Greece is still a wonderful country, and it’s where I want to live”.

    Follow Barnaby Phillips on Twitter: @BarnabyPhillips



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