Kiwi Abroad

Matt Kennedy-Good extends his OE and follows his heart to Finland

The anarchist's guide to Athens

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"I hate that city," the man driving our taxi said, when we told him we had just arrived from London.

"Surveillance cameras are everywhere... In Athens we smash those cameras."

Sanna and I nodded politely while we careered up a one-way street in the wrong direction, searching for our hotel.

It was not our taxi driver's fault, the manager of the hotel explained to us when we finally found it, but rather the map we were using.

"This map is full of mistakes" he said, shaking his head.

"I don't know why the tourist office keeps using it."

Over the next couple of days as we wandered around the humid, car-choked streets trying to make sense of the Greek alphabet, London felt like a world away rather than somewhere that had just voted in the same EU elections.

Of course every European country is different in its own way, but given that Greece joined the European Community over 28 years ago, I expected it to be closer to an imaginary "average" European country.

There are the obvious differences - shops openly selling fake designer labels, smoking in bars (Greeks smoke a world record of eight cigarettes each per day) and the chaos on the roads.

Below the surface we noticed a different attitude; a disdain for authority extreme for even Mediterranean countries.

Our taxi driver told us that the Greek mentality is typified by what happened when the Government tried to reduce the congestion in the historic centre of Athens.

Cars were only permitted to drive in the area on alternate days, based on whether their number plates ended with an odd or even number. Laughing, he said that it didn't work.

Everyone who drove in the centre simply bought a second car, worsening congestion and causing a parking problem as well.

The more serious side to this contempt for the Government was evident six months ago, when the city erupted after police allegedly shot and killed a 15 year old boy.

Over the course of a few weeks the world watched as thousands took to the streets in demonstrations and rioting, causing NZ$250m worth of damage.

As we relaxed in a cafe in the narrow, flower-adorned streets of Plaka it was hard to imagine unrest on such a scale.

But based on official statistics, Greeks do have a lot to be angry about.

Along with impressive tobacco consumption, Greece has the highest rate of youth unemployment in Europe, with one quarter out of work.

Twenty per cent of the country lives in poverty, although you wouldn't know it given the cost of food and eating out which almost matches Finland.

The Government spent over NZ$20 billion on hosting the Olympic Games, yet basic services like the forestry and fire service are in such a shambles that they were incapable of controlling the fires which scorched 640,000 acres of forestry and farm land in 2007 and killed 60 people. (Some claim that land developers started many of the fires to take advantage of the fact that Greece is the only country in Europe with no forestry registry. This means that if someone builds on forest land it is very difficult to evict them.)

In the birthplace of democracy, politics is soiled with graft, corruption and incompetence.

Not that much of this bothers typical tourists like us, only in town for a few days before heading to the islands.

Although I don't smoke, I enjoyed soaking up the hazy atmosphere in a few of the hundreds of cool little street-side cafes and bars, drinking the expensive beer and watching Athens go about its chaotic business.

So what if the Government is incompetent? I thought as we squashed into the new metro with other tourists bound for Piraeus, the gateway to the islands. There was something romantic about the free-thinking Greek spirit exemplified by our taxi driver, a quality which suited the stifling heat and relaxed lifestyle.

We were only on the train for a few minutes before my peaceful day dream was interrupted.

"What are you doing?" Sanna yelled at an innocent looking girl standing beside her. The girl said nothing.

"Her hand was in my bag!" Sanna said, turning to me.

Suddenly I remembered a group of men who moments before had pushed their way past me to stand amongst the tourists, despite it being the most crowded spot on the carriage.

"Everybody watch your belongings," I said in a loud voice, while checking our bags.

"We just caught this girl trying to steal from us."

"You're crazy" said the girl, maintaining her demure innocence so well that my face began to redden.

"My wallet is gone!" a grey haired woman behind us suddenly wailed.

"One of these men who pushed over here will have it" I said, now noting how big and menacing the men were.

I wasn't about to make a citizen's arrest and neither was anyone else: The other people on the carriage were all looking the other way.

When the train stopped at the next station the gang all hopped off.

A stop later they were replaced by another suspicious group from the carriage behind us, pushing amongst the tourists with the same impunity.

Relaxing on the ferry as we pulled away from Athens, I decided that as far a few extra police and security cameras might not be such a bad thing.

Anarchy is fun in theory, but in practise the novelty wears off quickly.

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