Athens under our skin

Athens is a difficult place to live, but rating it the least livable city in Western Europe seems a bit extreme – unless this conclusion comes from a poll of Athenians on a particularly bad day. On another day, we might have reached another conclusion. And that’s an integral part of Athens: Most of its residents complain about what a terrible place it is and yet they don’t do much to try and leave it behind. Which means? Either Athenians are all masochists or the city does have charms capable of keeping people around. That’s why we debated whether Athens Plus should follow up on the recent Economist Intelligence Unit livability survey of the world’s cities. One view was that it would not be a good idea to elaborate on Athens’s woes just as the tourist season was getting under way. Another was that the low ranking was news that needed further investigation. So we decided to take a closer look at Athens as a whole – both the pluses and the minuses. The livability survey ranks cities according to five broad categories: stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education and infrastructure. Looking at the issues objectively, it seems natural that Athens would get bad marks. The city often looks like a war zone because of demonstrations that sometimes turn violent and because of frequent bomb attacks on symbolic targets (usually minor, but enough to give Athens the undeserved image of a battleground). Healthcare, as everyone who lives here knows, is either free – if you go to a state hospital or clinic – or very expensive – if you want the better conditions of a private hospital. What does not register on the livability ranking is the fact that visitors and immigrants are provided with full treatment, for free, in an emergency. In terms of culture and environment, Athens may be dirty, congested and messy but it does have great museums, unique open-air theaters and the Acropolis, which rises above the city like a crown. The education system, like the health system, is either free or expensive. Mismanagement and decades of political feeble-mindedness have eviscerated the state system, pushing those who can afford it to seek private tuition. Infrastructure is bad but much better than it used to be. When the rest of the mass transit system can provide services similar to the metro and get Athenians out of their cars, then this problem will be solved. An «objective» evaluation of Athens is a superficial reading of the city. This is a place that has suffered many sins, with no sin greater than the mindless construction work that began after the years of great poverty following World War II and the Civil War. Even then, the building works were aimed at providing a displaced population with affordable housing, so it is difficult to condemn this policy out of hand. But the rush to build destroyed the fabric of a beautiful city in a lovely location – something that suddenly hits you when the scent of jasmine rides a cool breeze out of a hidden garden on a summer night, when Mount Hymettus turns lilac in the dusk, when rapturous applause erupts from the Herod Atticus Theater at the foot of the Acropolis, when the beauty of Greece is a short drive or boat ride away or when just about everyone packs up and drives off into the country, leaving behind a city transformed into a delight devoid of cars. The greatest sorrow of Athens is that it still bears enough traces of lost beauty to remind us of how things might have been if our parents, our grandparents and we ourselves had taken care for our future. If only we had protected the urban environment and looked after our education and health systems and ensured that we had the infrastructure necessary for a great city. But in the end, the city’s greatest sorrow plays a part in its greatest joy: the fact that we share Athens’s woes (and its pleasures) with wonderful people – many of whom are our friends.