On central Ermou Street on Saturday ? amid the crowds of Christmas shoppers ? a group of young people with wide smiles and big placards were offering ?free hugs.? Few people took advantage of the offer ? which drew many smirks ? but the gesture was in keeping with the festive spirit that we seem to have remembered rather late this year. It seems that anger and irritation are still the prevalent sentiments.
Just a few days before the hug fiesta, thousands of people walked off their jobs to protest the government?s ongoing austerity drive and thousands more took to the streets to rail against the inevitable reforms. The turnout ? of around 20,000 ? was neither overwhelming (for police) nor disappointing (for unionists). But officers did not have an easy day.
For me a strike day is usually a work day. Hopes of using this one to get some early Christmas shopping done and maybe catch up with a friend over coffee were short-lived. The walkout coincided with similar action in Spain, Belgium and elsewhere, and interest on foreign news desks across Europe was keen. Shoving a hastily compiled list of Christmas presents into my desk drawer, I grabbed a notepad and pen and set off for the city center. Arriving at the end of the tree-lined walkway linking Zappeio Hall to Amalias Avenue, I saw the usual riot police unit. ?Has there been any trouble?? I asked the officers before noticing that they were all decked out in gas masks and shields. One jerked his head toward an advancing crowd of angry looking demonstrators. Another, still fastening his mask, motioned at me with his hand to get back. Within seconds, a hail of stones descended, battering the riot police van. Ducking my head, I fled for cover behind a nearby tree. Next came the firebombs. One streaked past me, blazing along the ground. Another hit an officer on the leg, setting him alight as his colleagues batted at the flames with their shields. A couple of terrified-looking tourists sprinted across the stone-strewn thoroughfare, clutching their shopping bags close to their chests. My cellphone rang. It was a photographer friend. ?It?s kicked off outside the university,? he said. Another colleague, who had ventured into town for a tentative attempt at Christmas shopping, called from Stadiou Street. ?I?m trapped in a store. They?re smashing the windows,? she said. Helicopters circled overhead and tear gas stung my eyes as I tried to make out the wording on a banner. ?Fight the parasites ? eat the rich,? it read. Just a block away, I later learned, a former minister had been beaten by an angry crowd. So much for the Christmas spirit. Peace and goodwill seem rather remote concepts right now.