Over the centuries, Athens had become harder to love. After the heights of its Hellenistic phase, full of chiselled harmony and Golden Ratios, this concrete jungle of wannabe graffiti scribbles now suffered from tattered self esteem. What did it have to show for itself? Where could hope and better times be found?
October 28th was ‘Oxi Day’, traditionally a source of national pride. Some still cried “Ζήτω η Ελλάς!” and beat their chests like broken tambourines. Was this all on offer? Bad pageantry, and living in the past? There’s no doubt it was easier to pick out a good moment in time, than to look around at the now.
If cleanliness was next to godliness, then Athens had joined the ranks of the godforsaken. The city was a scroll, with entire blocks covered in the scribblings of a shackled and desperate citizenry. If no one would listen to the inhabitants of this debt colony, they damn well would hang out capitalism’s dirty laundry for all with eyes to see.
Thus began my dialogue with the anonymous chorus of the city walls.
“Wake up. Rise up.”
The walls here tell you everything you need to know. Athens wears her heart on her sleeve. And her heart is seething from awakening to the cruel realities of our world.
“Fire to the meat industry”
Even her compassion is vengeful. This mistress you love carefully. Mindfully. Fully aware of her history and her power to shape the cultural destiny of entire continents.
“The last laugh will be mine”
She is resilient for sure. Those who were not strong enough to go the distance have washed up like broken driftwood on dark street corners and dusty city squares. A laugh stirs like thunder, deep in the recesses of her belly. She wakes.
“Freedom to those in cells and cages”
She has Stockholm syndrome. She is already free, if only she chooses to be. Don’t tell her though. She will get mad and bitter that you are the one who is heartless. Not the system. Not the one imposing the austerity.
“A smile on the lips is a monument to humanity”
You ascend the stairs out of Gotham City-esque Exarheia, and the struggle for hope and humanity exists even in the rarified air of classy Kolonaki and leafy Lykavito. Yet all the ground and first floor flats have bars on doors and windows. Who is truly in the cage? What does freedom mean in a fortress of wealth and privilege?
A people. A civilisation. In total ruin. Euphemisms don’t work here. There is no romance in the despair. It takes strength to love the rubble. How much easier to cling to the romance and glory of our past. Or the broken heartedness of the present mire.
How much harder to sift through the ruins and love the glimmers of hope. To dig your hands into the soil, and turn it over until you feel the possibilities forming.
“People have always been good at imagining the end of the world, which is much easier to picture than the strange sidelong paths of change in a world without end.”
Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark
“Athens, the Great Nowhere”
‘People don’t laugh as often,’ said my father. He remembered when good times flowed like wine (did I mention he used to make his own?) and laughter hung in the air like bunches of grapes. He tells me this over dinner — a broken Dionysus on the mend.
He tells me stories of court battles and corruption, such that would make you despair at the depravity and wickedness of people. Note to self, injustice and greed go hand in hand in this land of no industry, no prospects, no hope of self actualisation. In the Great Nowhere, you are nothing unless you know someone — and you must scavenge off the dreams of others if you are to survive.
And yet, I find hope in the strength of his perseverance to win a rigged game. I think to myself, if he were Sisyphus he’d build a pulley system. And from this resilience I learn to see this time in our history as the sorrow of the deepest happiness. The lowest octave of hope.
You see, the flipside of being nothing, is the space to create everything. In this place, to imagine that things could change for the better is pure audacity. It is to rebel with dignity and empowerment, and to seek freedom from a toxic present. We don’t need permission to change the game.
To journey through Athens today and to find love for her, is to journey through the underworld of all the things modern Western culture has swept under the carpet. It is to have your heart shattered, and discover love in the nooks of possibility as you put it back together.
The love letter becomes legend
And so, in this place of no role models, my dialogue with the city chorus became a love letter that will kick off Oi Polloi’s crowdfunder. It goes something like this:
Legend has it that just when we thought all hope was lost, Athena returned to her city in its time of need. The goddess of strategic warfare, wisdom, courage, and civilisation came bearing a new gift — a new tool for greatness: the walnut tree.
Just as she once bestowed the olive tree upon them, she now deemed the walnut a more appropriate gift for the flourishing of her city. In kinder times olives were liquid gold. But days had turned dark and harsh. “Debt colony,” some said. “Wage slavery,” others shouted. Regardless, times like these called for a tougher gift that held within it the seed of further nourishment and creation.
And so, Athenians set out to build a temple to the imagination that paid tribute to the strength of the mind— in honour of wise Athena who was born of Zeus’ brain.
What follows after this?
- A crowdfunder for a virtual reality temple that serves as a beacon of hope, and kicks off Oi Polloi’s innovation Olympics.
- An impact investment fund to fuel community innovation, called, you guessed it, the Walnut Fund.
- And the building of a property portfolio of community innovation hubs to bring about urban and rural regeneration.
And so this love letter ends somewhat unpoetically. But if you love Athens like I love her, you’ll learn that the wound truly is where the light enters. And that what it illuminates might take you by surprise.