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Athens, an anthropologist’s view


Our world is a global one, they say. International standardization of various aspects of life – from media formats and mass produced commodities all the way to political parties and art forms – creates an illusion that we all live in a common experiental sphere, the same aesthetic universe. Almost like living in the same “global village”; by now an expression proliferated in legio. In my part of the world, Sweden is my country of residence, this impression is further augmented by the political process of European unification. Now that it is definitely underway it is easy to indulge oneself in thoughts of common European heritage, streamlining of administration and monetary union, thus forgetting the great diversity in life forms characteristic of that continent along with its many discrepancies and discontents. Thankfully, once in a while, you can still get blown of your feet by diversity… One such area where differences are apparent, especially along the infamous north-south fault line, is that of urban architecture and city planning. If nothing else these differences are forcefully felt by thousands of tourist recursively sampling the capitols of Europe every year. Athens for example, though a European city of great import, is a rather peculiar experience if set against the background of most other European cities. More than one tourist I have met has actually experienced this difference and commented on it and several ones have felt an unexpected discomfort borne out of the discrepancy between what they expected to see and what they got. This difference is mainly an aesthetic one, a kind of ‘culture shock’. Somehow Athens represents a different type of city and for those who really want to understand and enjoy it it demands a different set of cognitive skills than those habitually used to apprehend and decipher other European cities. What kind of city is Athens? The question of course does not have a singular correct answer but one that immediately pops-up in my mind is: an organic city. What kind of city is that and how can you understand and appreciate it? What constitutes its difference to other kinds of European cities?

Athens: the case of an ‘organic city’

For those who have lived in Athens or been there before the city has its obvious merits. It has a night life that would even make New York and London seem low rank and provincial, a social life that despite its exorbitant urbanism is more reminiscent of the warmth and cosiness of a rural town and a commercial life with room for both the picturesque bazaar and high class shopping facilities that would satisfy the most jet of jetsetters.

But for those that haven’t been there before the city of Athens can be a hard-to-swallow treat. For the truly unsuspecting ones the encounter could be ambivalently memorable: at best thought provoking and at worst emotionally upsetting. Pre-empting misunderstandings I should hasten to add that there is nothing wrong with the city in itself, but it just happens to be so different from all the other European cites I know of. And probably so different from what most people would expect. And expect most people do, since Athens comes with strings attached. People think of Athens as the cradle of civilization, they have heard of the Golden Era of Pericles, and picture it as the land of mastermind philosophers and architectonic wonders. Of course this builds up various expectations: of orderliness, tidiness, love and beauty, logic, conscientiousness, city planning, aesthetic elegance, care for the environment etc. etc. When it comes to architecture and city-planning these expectations fall disappointingly short.

For one thing most major Greek cities have not retained their old city centres. They were either destroyed during the Second World War or, more to the point, demolished by Greeks and replaced with new buildings. So the occasional stroll in the old city centre is almost without exception exceptionally short. In Plaka, the part of Athens old town still standing, the stroll can be consummated in less that 10 minutes of not so brisk walk. Of course the fact that Plaka stands in the shadow of the Parthenon can make one really stand still in awe and astonishment over the heights of ancient Greek civilization, thus prolonging the Plaka experience, but it does not substantially alter the sorrow fact that the hallmarks of more recent Greek architecture, equally splendid, where they can still be seen and sighted, have so heartlessly and remorselessly been eradicated and shrinked to a petty neighbourhood. Similarly, in Thessalonica the old town is just an oasis in a dessert of modern and not so modern buildings. And so it goes for most Greek cities with a population larger than 500.000 inhabitants (with the probable exception of Melbourne, Australia). Of course the sea of cement that is the unfortunate trademark of all large Greek cities is sometimes punctuated by the occasional architectural masterpiece, like the Acropolis, living its elderly days in the solitude of a kinless existence.  But this too does not alter the general picture.

Another difference to most other European cities is that the new parts that were built in place of the old ones were mostly done so without any plan at all. Anyone could build anywhere and anyhow. Well, not exactly but almost, and almost is bad enough. The disorderly end result could best be summarized by the word Chaos. Because of this the impression that the resulting dwellings and building blocks give of to the not so accustomed visitor is of a bewildering anarchy, a confusing city image lacking inbuilt collective sensitivities and frustrating in its burlesque explosion of noise and pollution. The city is actually a mismatch of building materials, colours, angles, dimensions and conceptions thrown together without any modicum of integration, no red line, not even a thin one, no nothing, nada. The only thing that unities the architecture of Athens historically, joining the diverse buildings and neighbourhoods in an unholy alliance of sorts, is the complete lack of city planning. So if you are a flaneur seeking to devour yet another instance of wondrous city planning, Athens is not the city for you. Athens has no city planning and the aesthetic pleasures that can be derived from the thought-out and well-proportioned architectonic layouts of other European cities are conspicuously lacking there.

Does it sound unbelievable? Do you doubt my words? Well, here is a not so uncommon anecdote proving much of the above. When I was a teenager living in Koridallos, Pireus, an entrepreneur decided to build a three story high block of flats in the choosing of his heart. What could be wrong with that? Well the choosing of his heart was one of the major roads of our poor suburb! One cannot stop wondering how he got the land owning rights for that spot or why the city choose to build a road on it (try finding out who’s the chicken and who’s the egg in this one!). Anyhow that’s where he wanted to build his little empire. Soon he cut the road in half and the building stood there almost finished, three stores high and totally irreverent to the loud protests from the outraged city council. The half finished building was in the end demolished, what a waste of resources (!), but only after bitter feuds and tons of resentment, and after top rank politicians from PASOK, with Melina Mercury in the fore front, were called in to help out. They even held protest meetings in front of it with banners, loudspeakers and the customary “overly upset” activists… As a kid I sat at the balcony and watched the bizarre spectacle.

Despite all this Athens is a wonderful city. And you should visit it. If you understand it in its own terms it is in many ways an architectonic marvel, one scholar actually called it the only living city in Europe, and as such it can certainly offer you many memorable experiences. Still it can be difficult to get into the right mindset for appreciating this town if you are accustomed to the nice and tidy, almost dollhouse like, cities of northern Europe. I know it took me several decades to understand it and I have lived in Athens for many years! But now I have a grasp of it that serves me nicely and leads me into to its hidden secrets and pleasures. And I thought I should share it with all prospective visitors to Athens or similarly amazing cities (Mexico City is the Mecca in this league). There are three truths about it and three metaphors that every visitor should keep in mind always, less he wants to loose his mind.

How to understand a city like Athens

The first fact about Athens that a prospective visitor should realize is that this city is “owned” by its citizens. In comparison to most other European towns there are exceptionally few publicly owned residential areas or large scale private housing projects. Almost everyone lives in a house that he has built himself or bought/rented from a middle-range building entrepreneur (often a relative or a close friend). Similarly the hand of the state in regulating the day-to-day residential occurrences and happenings has historically been very short in its reach, one could even say invisible. But not in the Adman Smith sense of invisible but effective, but in the sense of invisible and invisible (like in non-existent). There are of course local mayors and city councils which try their best to fill this gap and serve their citizens responsibly but their efforts are not always enough and as often they are sabotaged by a conflict seeking political opposition. Thus people go about more or less as they want, or as they agree upon, and this creates striking differences, discrepancies if you like, from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, suburb to suburb. The resulting variance can be bewildering: different building standards, idiosyncratic garbage disposal methods, divergent standards of street cleanliness and so on, ad infinitum.

The second crucial fact about Athens is that it has been build like a rural village despite the fact of it being a metropole of five million people, and growing. After the second world war, when urbanism started to gather momentum, large numbers of people moved in to the large cites with Athens of course bearing the brunt of this veritable invasion. So far this is not different from what happened in most other countries in Europe or North America. The difference is though that the city of Athens had no capacity to handle such an influx. There was no organizational readiness or architectural visions able to accommodate this violent influx. Thus, with no effective city planning or residential policy in place, most people coming to Athens were left to manage on their own. And so they did. Since most of them came from the countryside they started to build their houses more or less as they were used to back home in the village. With the same mentality and similar style. And who can blame them? Anyhow this has left a strong imprint in the way Athens looks to the eye. Greeks build their houses close to their neighbours, densely, wall to wall, with the village ending up like a tightly packed lump of matter thrown out in the landscape. This is after all not northern Europe, with the houses wide apart, with the farm system nicely carving up the landscape in the name of capitalistic efficiency, with parks and gardens between the houses as an endowment from the romantic era, with half an ours walk to the closest neighbour. This is southern Europe and the Balkans.

But wait a minute. Did you say village? Athens is not a village, I think…Well truly it is not, nowadays. But it started out like one. Athens as a capital actually has a very short history, less than 150 years old, and it actually started out as a small village. Further, even when it became the capital and grew considerably, it was still treated as a village by its incoming dwellers, due to the lack of city planning. Destitute people came, they built their houses best they could and what was supposed to be the capital ended up looking like a rather twisted kind of village. A village with elephantiasis.

The final fact worth keeping in mind when visiting Athens is that the climatic conditions of the Mediterranean tend to exacerbate the picture created by the abovementioned factors. Hot summers and humid winters tend to have a heavy toll on the material structure of the city. This combined with the fact that many buildings and facilities are built out of cheap and low quality material makes Athens look like it is in constant need of a face lift. I remember when I was a student at high school. We had moved into a new school building, fresh and good looking, and we were all very proud and happy. Five years later the building was a wreck, and I wonder if it would be better to restore or demolish it. An ungrateful dilemma and sorrow sight for a former student. This situation is also worsened by the fact that there generally is a hypotonic interest in restoration and conservation and a very limited environmental consciousness among modern Greeks. At least thus far. This is a bit confusing given the tremendous amount of ancient monuments and material remnants that exist in Greece. But it is still a fact. Greeks in general are not much interested in old stuff. They prefer new stuff. This is among other things evidenced by the fact that the so lucrative marked of antiquarian objects that is flourishing in the rest of Europe is conspicuously lacking in Athens. You will search long and partly in vain for a good antiquarian bookstore in Athens. They are few a far apart.

Three metaphors for Athens and other organics

Given the above situation what could one do? Well, since everything is in the eye of the beholder the above situation, horribly as it might sound to some, could be turned into something else. With the right mindset Athens can still be a feast for the eye as well as the heart. But how? You just have to endow yourself with three mighty metaphors, three magic amulets if you like, which will beautifully change your perspective and thus beautify your stay in Athens.

Firstly think desert. Then think oasis. Athens is actually a desert of cement and together with its remorseless summer heat it can have a heavy toll on ones physical and psychological resources. Your vision might get blurred, you can easily get a headache and you will almost certainly get a blackened face; the noise, pollution and general disorderliness of the city will make sure of that. But every desert has its oasis. And so does Athens. After an innocent turn you suddenly enter a heavenly realm of calm and beauty. You have stumbled onto one of Athens many wonderful little corners replete with taverns, picturesque facades and a blooming street life. You are saved! Well if you happen to hit on such a goldmine stay put. Get you a fine meal, rest your limbs from the heat and exertion of the journey, take a good piece of the locals in some friendly interaction and enjoy the city. This is how Athens is supposed to be enjoyed. Ala carte and al dente…

The oasis thing also has a parallel in social life. The Greeks as a people have a certain aversion to the public sector (which hasn’t always been benign to its citizens). In this little stretch of land there is no wholehearted devotion or conformity to the collective good the way it is found in other parts of Europe or North America, and people generally prefer to build their own small worlds, their private oases of friends or relatives, away from the omnipotent gaze of the Big Brother, in secluded corners or cosy backyards, where they can be undisturbed, rule ruthlessly, or roam free. If you have to meet a public servant or a bank clerk be prepared: he might look uninterested, bored and even be rude. Greeks even have a saying for this: “The bastard! He looked at me as if I had killed his mother” But that’s just because you are engaging him in the public sector and that is not when he is at his best. If you had the opportunity to meat him in his retreat, his own little empire, the oasis he has built for himself he would present a very different picture. Much more hospitable and friendly. I promise. This is the oasis thing once again but in a different disguise, in the social realm. And of course this civic mentality also connects to the architectural oases mentioned above. Greeks do not care primarily about the whole city; they care about their neighbourhood oasis. The stance toward the greater collective and the city as a residential and architectural unity interlock. If you keep this in mind and patiently look out for those beautiful oases you are in for a real treat.

Secondly think small. Athens is not the city of panorama (even though this might have changed a little with all the grand Olympic buildings in place). Even if you climb up to the Acropolis or Lycabettus you are not going to see much more than a vast, actually terrifying, desert of cement, and that only if you are lucky. If the smog is reigning, as it usually does, you are not going to see anything. Athens is actually the city of small views, composed of small fragments of splendour, Byzantine mosaics of gold and amber best viewed from close-up. Looking from afar you will miss them. Take the right turn and you might be delighted at the view opening up in front of you. Athens is actually a city best viewed from a peephole. That’s what you need for Athens, a peephole perspective. Look around the corned, down the hill, behind that railroad station, explore that little church in your neighbourhood,  venture into the backyard, dig into that nasty building quarter and see what’s inside it, look down your balcony and you can have a piece of wonder in your hand, look for the heart of gold in the chest of the beast. If you are prepared to look this way you will find much to please you.

Thirdly, and finally, think living organism. Athens is actually like an amoeba. It is alive, it grows (by illicit building among other things), it expands and it eats everything in its way, forests, mountains, rivers. But still it is alive and that is quite refreshing if you compare to many other cities, especially in northern Europe, which are more like petrified dollhouses or residential museums, the vanity of human resistance to change in all its splendour, cities where you cant even pee on the street without needing a permit, let alone build your house on the middle of a road. This is not Athens. This city is alive and if the fuzz and buzz of a booming social life can not prove it for you just take a look at it. The roads, the buildings, the parks, all of it is just a big proof of the above. They have to a large extent been built without serious premeditation, on the spur of the moments, with pressing needs making themselves heard and acted upon by people of flesh and blood. Athens is not a city pulled out of a city planner’s drawer or an armchair philosophers grandiose visions and pushed down the throats of the Athenians. In Athens you are in charge of your residential life yourself. For better or worse. So get in touch with you lively side, put aside maps and tourist brochures, and mingle with the city and its inhabitants without high seated abstract preconceptions.

Concluding remarks

The above exposition although inspired by the special case of Athens, a city recently high-lighted in a cleaned-up and dressed-up fashion as hostess of the last Olympic Games, is hopefully of general value. Many other cities I have visited seem to have common features with it, features which collectively set them apart from qualitatively and quantitatively different cities like for example Stockholm. Even in case my particular focus on Athens is non-informative my contention that clever metaphors can aid understanding and aesthetic appreciation is still a valid one. Different ways of life usually get expressed in different ways of dwelling, and though the apprehension of this difference is not always “nice and easy”, many times not even conscious as a difference in kind but just as an aesthetic aberration, it is certainly an increasingly important aspect of our modern, set-in-motion, instant access, kind of world. The increased incidence of tourism and relocation thus places extra demands on our hermeneutic and semiotic skills, and taking on the challenge posed by this new situation, may be a vital test of our ability to “live and thrive” in this new environment of transnational connectedness. Creatively utilizing metaphors in the service of increasing understanding and aesthetic appreciation may be one strategy conducive to this superordinate goal of functional cohabitation. At least such a stance and practice could decrease the potential bewilderment of tourists and make their stay in an “organic city” more pleasurable. Every visitor and every city is worth that much.

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