By Dimitris Rigopoulos
Two ladies stood by the side of the road looking not quite agog, but in wonderment at the human river that was making its way down Adrianou Street in downtown Monastiraki. When it became clear that staring would give them no answers, the bravest of the two asked a small group of young people, who could have been students: “Where are you going? Who are you?”
A young man in the group stopped for a few seconds, looking over his shoulder at his friends who kept walking: “It’s a walk around the Jewish monuments of Athens. We’re going to the synagogue now,” he almost shouted before running off.
The two women looked at each other; the young man’s response had confused them even more. And who can blame them? It was a beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon and there were 600 or more people taking part in a tour of the capital’s Jewish monuments organized by urban activist group Atenistas.
The tour aimed at highlighting the few remaining traces of the Jewish presence in Athens, from the little-known Jewish Museum on Nikis Street to the Holocaust Memorial toward the bottom of Ermou, and from there to Melidonis Street, where there are two synagogues, a small one, the older of the two, and bigger one.
On that same day, the founder of the Friends of the Tatoi Estate, Vasilis Koutsavlis, was conducting a tour with residents of the suburbs of Holargos and Papagou of the former royal mansion and its grounds north of Kifissia. Participation here also defied all expectations.
But these two instances were not the first: Last November, when Atenistas organized a walking tour of Athens’s Ottoman-era monuments, it was on the same day as a bicycle tour of the city’s monuments organized by Giorgos Amyras, a popular television host, municipal councilor and fanatical cyclist. The number of people participating in both events was phenomenal on that Sunday too.
Equally successful are the events organized by an online initiative known as Every Saturday in Athens, which invites people through social networking sites to participate in a variety of events in the center of the capital.
So what is going on? What are we supposed to make of so many people showing up for events like the above in a city where public participation is something of a rarity? Have Greeks been bitten by the sightseeing bug, or is there something more profound at work?
Three or four years ago, similar initiatives would, at best, attract a few dozen people. Who could have imagined a tour of Athens’s Jewish sites attracting more than 50 people back in 2000 or even in 2008? The 600-strong crowd that gathered on that Sunday in late February is something new, something different; a statement. It is a statement of support for the city, an act of solidarity and unity, an exercise in urban self-awareness. The crisis and the feeling that we are poised on the brink of an abyss have helped kindle these sentiments.
Maybe people feel that they have to make up for their losses of money, luxuries, goods and acquisitions some way, maybe by gaining something new on a spiritual or intellectual level.
The people who attend these events do so in order to acquaint themselves better with their city. What they don’t know is that they are part of a silent revolution that is slowly but steadily changing the personality of Athens, even if on the surface everything appears the same as usual.