Through foreign eyes

The arrival in Athens on a Sunday evening brought surprises. It was near midnight, but the electric railway and metro stations were as noisy as if it were morning. The streets were brightly lit. There were potted olive trees in Omonia and bright banners on every post. The taxis were unchanged: With their signs unlit, they fished for customers. But the hordes of official visitors to Olympic Athens won’t see taxis. They’re already traveling in special lanes, protected, comfortable and well pleased. Athens has truly been transformed in the past few days, a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. Foreigners also saw it, those who like us to appear quaintly oriental, those who feel we are contemporaries, those looking for ancient robes, even those who never miss an opportunity to make fun of our lack of discipline and our (real) lack of organization. The press reports used to be ironic, cautious, at best reserved. Now they are warm, almost rhapsodic. Habitual critics arrive in the city and are surprised by what they see: speedy transport, great accommodation, exemplary stadiums, a warm welcome and hospitality. Some skeptics are now convinced we will watch the best Games, with a history, culture and atmosphere no other city has had. We have all those in abundance, as well as the concomitant faults and virtues. We’ve always had failings like contentiousness, indecision, prickliness and whining. The contentiousness and self-pity was evident when Greece hosted the first modern Games. So were the pomposity and closing of the ranks when outsiders dared to criticize. And when they praised us? At last they got it right. How the 19th century resembles the 21st. There was plenty of criticism this time round and too much fault-finding. We couldn’t believe it. We’re still worried about the morning after. But for now, we hope it will all go well. Not for the sake of the foreigners, but for our own self-esteem.

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