Across the Pond:

Jamie Lin

By my last day in Athens, I had run out of money after spending it all on absolute necessities like fake silver rings and baklava. In search of something free, I wandered around the city and ended up in the Exarchia district, the hub of the students, leftists and fringe society. The area was dingy and covered in graffiti. One street was plastered with yellow signs displaying the day’s date and images of gas masks. I asked a woman what it was for. “It’s today’s protest, calling for the release of the people still imprisoned for the December riots,” she told me in heavily accented English. “Come on, I will show you.”
As we meandered through Athens’ congested roads, this woman, Natasha, explained her version of the situation. “The prime minister is in denial,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “The people are unhappy, always rioting – and he just sends more cops.” She sighed and shifted her shopping bag from one shoulder to the other. “We citizens have rights, but only on paper. We must do something. Otherwise we will be turned into slaves.”
After about 10 minutes, she pointed at a building. “Go down there, to the front of the university,” she said. “Be careful. Don’t go off by yourself.” I thanked her, and she strode off. She was pessimistic and matter-of-fact. The city, she was sure, would always be lined with police, the most hated demographic. “Athens is safe,” Paola, a hostel worker told me, “unless you are a cop.”
I eventually found the protesters gathered in the square outside the train station. Each group handed out pamphlets and held up red-lettered signs. “These things sometimes – usually – end in violence,” a waifish, gap-toothed girl admitted, passing me a newsletter, “but only at the end, because of the most militant protesters. Chemicals and stuff, you know.”
I asked her who organized the demonstration. “Many organizations – leftist, anarchists – it’s just a show of solidarity, in support of the prisoners. And to promote many other issues. Ideals.” She waved her hand around emphatically, but spoke in broad, vague terms. She walked away as young students began to chant faster and faster. Fifteen hundred people flooded into the street and marched towards the Parliament building, only to be blockaded by dozens of gun-toting policemen with shields and gas masks. I was a little worried. In true tourist fashion, I alleviated this anxiety by buying an iced coffee and taking dozens of photos. The energy, however, was passionate and contagious, and I followed them down a side street, where the march ended as peacefully as it began.
“I love this city,” Susan, an expatriate from Michigan, mused one night over a plate of moussaka. “It’s my new home.” And it is a beautiful home: the Parthenon looms overhead, the hills are lush and green, there are ancient ruins on every corner. But people throw broken bottles in bank windows, and old, crippled women lie on the cobblestone with empty cups, begging for a few cents. The touristy sides and the grungy sides of Athens mix; each part is inextricable from the next. And at night, standing on the slopes of the Acropolis, looking down at the city, it all blurs together.