Old Greece, New Europe, Tomorrow’s Greece

There are two western approaches to the Greek capital, Athens. The first, the Sacred Way, has been in use since antiquity for linking Elefsina, the holy site of the Eleusinian Mysteries, to the centre. The route had been trekked by hierophants in tunics and pilgrims in bare feet to become initiates under the spell of the underworld deities, Demeter and Hades. The congested roadway today cuts through Haidari, a suburb of deserted factories but also lively cafes and tavernas. It’s where respectable middle-class folk commute underground on the recently built metro, and where trees lining the laneways have grown to a great height to provide ample shade for community gossip, evidenced by the plastic chairs on the footpaths in front of densely packed apartments. The Sacred Way peters out at Kerameikos near Omonia, the site of the ancient cemetery where, as the name suggests, ceramics were manufactured by craftsmen: funeral urns and Attic vases primarily (though no vase depicts the Eleusinian mysteries, sacred rituals shrouded in secrecy). Fittingly, in 2021 Elefsina and not Athens will become Europe’s Cultural Capital, a recognition of the importance of this sacred place to the development of ‘Europe’.

From the other approach, a roadway that skirts the southern flank of the craggy mountain range Aegaleo, the Gamma 18 bus departs at the foot of the Schisto freeway, en route to Omonia. The Roma were regular passengers on the Gamma 18, which I frequently caught on Lambrakis Avenue. Their weekly bazaar sold bric-a-brac, cribbed from the black market. The Roma’s supposed mobility masks their enduring presence; they have resided within Greece since Byzantium. In fact, the Roma snub their noses at recent immigrants from the Caucasus and the subcontinent, regarding them as foreign interlopers who’ve moved in on their patch, namely, the trade in scrap metal sourced from the mountain dumps, and ending up in foundries around Schisto. The foreigners could be anyone from the natty Afghans or Pakistanis without a loose button or a hair out of place, to the drably attired Bangladeshis, whose back-breaking labour is offered for daily hire beneath motorway overpasses. It’s ominous territory, this being western Attica, as branch offices and billboards of the neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn are prominent in and around Schisto.

The view from the Gamma 18 is over Nikaia, but it provides a glimpse of the Acropolis in the far distance beyond the Village Entertainment Park. Old and new Greece merge here and one recalls opposition to Americanisation as a lost cause of the twentieth century (consumer brands light up the night with neon splendour: Disney, LIDL and Jumbo). The soft power exerted by Western culture ultimately won the day, with Greeks pacified by The Bold & the Beautiful. Aboard the bus, COVID-19 protocols are strictly adhered to. Masks, plastic gloves and tracing apps are de rigueur. Greece successfully managed the first wave of the pandemic by giving proper respect to health professionals and the science of containment. But as in the rest of Europe, a second wave has spiked an exponential increase in cases, and a second drastic lockdown has been instigated until mid December (youth and social media are being blamed for the spread, a trusty moral panic for the old media).

In an urban setting of few green spaces, the iconography of Pavlos Fyssas looms large. Scrawls, stencils and murals of a bearded Fyssas with microphone in hand are easy to spot. The rapper and vocal anti-fascist, slain by Golden Dawn’s rank and file in 2013, has finally had his assailants brought to justice, seven long years later. The Golden Dawn party was tried in absentia and convicted on 7 October, to the relief of the general population. The leader, top brass and enablers were imprisoned with varying sentences, criminalising the organisation. Fyssas’ mother, masked, her arms thrust in the air upon hearing the verdict, became a worldwide meme, a potent reminder of speaking truth to power and the pursuit of justice.

In the absurdist theatre known as Greek law enforcement, Golden Dawn’s top brass evaded arrest, however, failing to surrender to the police. Who’d have thought? The main thoroughfare where Fyssas was brutally knifed intersects with Lambrakis Avenue, which commemorates Grigoris Lambrakis, assassinated in 1963 for his leftist politics (and especially his anti-war opposition to NATO), a prelude to the authoritarian violence of the colonels’ junta. The thoroughfare has since been renamed in Fyssas’ honour, signifying a passing of the baton (Lambrakis’ CV is impressive; he was a distinguished gynaecologist and an Olympic Games athlete). When symbols age, they require renewal. As does the iconography of a changing nation. Shifts are occurring within Greece, as is evident on the city walls. My research documenting the graffiti art highlighted political slogans as well as explosive designs. It should be remembered that ancient Greek art and rituals possessed a therapeutic quality, with health spas, common in antiquity, forming an essential part of the sacred and theatrical experience. Graffiti art thus acts as a balm to crisis, a modern form of therapy in public view. Graffiti today depicts the everyday heroism of healthcare workers with images of the coronavirus and an array of PPE, spreading in tandem with the disease.

Under-resourced public hospitals have managed to contain the impact of the virus, with casualties minimal compared to the devastation wrought on Greece’s European partners.  The pandemic has highlighted the inequalities within the European Union’s core member states. It’s an ageing continent, which doesn’t help. Greece, Italy, Germany and Portugal rank high in infection numbers and deaths. As the pandemic has shown worldwide, without a decent healthcare system and sufficient healthcare workers, many hospitals and clinics run on less than skeleton staff. Immigrants provide the Greek aged-care sector with a supply of specialists, nurses and home carers. Russians, Romanians and Bulgarians have become fixtures throughout Greece, servicing the elderly and thus replacing filial duty with cheap post-Soviet labour.

Population intake has altered Greece in the twenty-first century. The Georgians are the latest wave to have emigrated since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And yet even in the second and third generations, questions of nationality haunt the Greeks, some of whom are still bound to ideas of purity. What does it mean to be Greek in an ever-changing century? Golden Dawn had of course appealed to blood ties to unite Greeks in a fractured period.

Refugees and immigration intakes have consequently opened a Pandora’s box within the body politic, and views have hardened where they were once laissez-faire. Mutterings of discontent among the general population have become especially amplified on public transport. Aboard the Gamma 18, commuters were never shy about weaponising Orthodoxy to better scapegoat the Other, targeting Middle Eastern migrants (refugees detained at camps at the land or sea borders avoid the ire of city dwellers). Western Attica’s abundance of immigrant labour provided a pretext that Golden Dawn took advantage of. Across Europe more broadly, the Far Right has entrenched itself. Existential reflections on nationhood have become a pan-European obsession.

The question of Europe, though, is a bigger one than your everyday Greek can answer, or the European Union can ever agree upon, strive though it may to use its highly subsidised cultural festivals to shore up its credibility. Interestingly enough, Greeks regarded ‘Europe’ as starting outside their borders until a shift in perception placed their country centre-stage. Last year, when travelling to conclude my research, I felt it incumbent upon me to read Douglas Murray’s 2017 The Strange Death of Europe. Why the fuss, I wondered, given bestseller lists? An entire continent on death row, no less? It’s an apocalyptic and reactionary read if ever there was one: the author takes his cues from The Camp of the Saints,a 1973 French dystopic novel depicting the destruction of the West through Third World mass immigration to Europe. In Murray’s neo-con universe, where the West only brings freedom to the world, paranoid claims about a dying Europe struck a chord with the Far Right. The likes of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán spruiked it to the skies. The book was garlanded with praise by the late Sir Roger Scruton, the even later Clive James and, lo and behold, The Smiths’ cantankerous fossil Morrissey. The company one keeps!

Murray’s historical amnesia better buttresses his arguments. There is little mention of the eclipse of reason during the Dark Ages, when Arab preservation of ancient Greek scripts in mathematics and science kept the flame alive, eventually leading to the Enlightenment. And there is absolutely no mention of Christianity’s split into two across Europe. The fault line of Byzantium, which is an essential component of the Greek DNA, is never mentioned (ask any Greek and the Fourth Crusade in 1204 is considered as bad as the Fall of Constantinople in 1453). Remember that Greece is a country that views the Catholic Pope as the anti-Christ, so any plea to renew Christendom as a panacea for European despair, as Murray stridently spouts, is ill-founded. But why is ‘death’ the go-to word to evoke the continent’s malaise? High hopes were invested in a new Europe just decades ago with the culmination of the European Union and the single currency. In Christos Tsiolkas’ Dead Europe but particularly in the alarmist writings of Michel Houellebecq, left and right diagnosticians only differ on the causes of death. Europe’s cultural jamborees will of course say otherwise. Perhaps what James Joyce said of Rome could equally apply: Europe lives off displaying its grandmother’s corpse?

At the mid-point in Athens, where the dual western approaches become entwined, lies Omonia. The heart of the city, Omonia is encircled by a string of kiosks, grubby two-star hotels, pimps and shady traders. But a recent makeover removed the blight that had descended ever since the 2004 Olympic circus rolled out of town. In the early 1990s it became a meeting point for Albanians who, having left their country en masse, sat glumly on a concrete slab awaiting any menial jobs on offer. In 1991 the population census registered 167,000 foreigners in Greece out of a population of 10.3 million. Albanians entered southern Europe and soon comprised 50 per cent of all immigrants to Greece. At the beginning of the twenty-first century there were Olympic stadiums to build, and the demand for unskilled male workers increased rapidly; Albanians made up 72 per cent of that workforce. The Greek economy prospered, the vitriol lessened, and a grudging acceptance of immigrants prevailed. Scars were left, of course, causing second-generation Albanian-Greeks to be excessively proud or to hide their humiliation. This particular ethnic group regard themselves as street smart, sharp of tongue and suit, and particularly nimble with their hands (it is said that every trade can be mastered by an Albanian). Prior to COVID-19 tourism to Tirana was booming, too, with Greeks taking advantage of Albania’s untouched natural wonders, and Albanians, flush with euros, returning to invest in their homeland. A qualified success story, after much dragging and screaming.

The Alpha 10 departs up the road from where the Gamma 18 terminates. The route heading east is dotted with Chinese retail outlets and light industry, and bypasses Menidi-Gefiri, a stronghold of the Roma. In this desperate zone, poverty is endemic and criminality not far behind. Buses are said to roar through red lights, rarely stopping for passengers deep in the night. The Alpha 10 terminates at the foot of Mount Parnitha, where I dropped in on longstanding friends. They have lived in Parnitha for decades, finding affordable housing in the scrabbly terrain at the foot of the mountain. Parnitha’s casino is perched on the mount like a gilded monastery atop Shangri-La. My friends have fought the good fight over the years, against right-wing oppression and austerity budgets. This time, though, things had significantly changed. They had taken Murray at his word and found him of greater relevance than Marx. They believed that a strange death was occurring under their very noses. They are living at the coalface. The economic crisis has ripped through middle-class families like theirs over the past decade. And since the idea of revolution has well and truly disappeared, they’ve reassessed reality. They consider that their neighbourhood has been overrun by women in headscarves (echoes of France), so they have turned against Islam, the current bête noire. The ratcheting up of fear and social alienation is disturbing to witness, especially in those you believed were immune to it—my friends were determined internationalists, rusted-on Communist Party (KKE) voters, in fact. Many Greeks of their generation believe that globalisation (the bitter twin of Europeanisation) is part of a grander plan to fundamentally alter the population of nation states in Europe, diluting ethnic homogeneity. The refugee crisis is one more layer of the loss of a Greece they once believed in. I wonder if their attitude is symptomatic of the disillusionment of the Left? The shifting of Europe’s tectonic plates has shaken the very ground under their feet, creating insecurity (metaphorically, of course, but also literally, as Menidi was the epicentre of the 1999 earthquake that devastated Parnitha).

Demographic change has occurred throughout Europe. Nothing new in that. When the going was good, Europe sourced its member states (Greeks went to Stuttgart, Albanians to Rome, Romanians to Paris, Poles to London). Somehow that process worked for all concerned. Now that the well has dried up, immigrants from Latin America, Asia and Africa have taken up the baton, emigrating in reasonable numbers and consequently enduring the backlash (Ecuadorians in Spain, Laotians in France). But rarely are the success stories told. I’m thinking of the Nigerians too, who’ve made Greece their home since the nineties. The parents of basketballer Giannis Antetokounmpo’s generation have dealt with Golden Dawn’s toxic racism from the start, but they’ve also endured the low-lying racism and discrimination voiced by a decimated middle class reeling from a decade of economic destruction. A generation after arrival, not only have the Nigerians produced sport stars of note but also chemists and doctors, nurses and fashion models.

Most would applaud the presence of the Greek Freak, Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks. Greeks were reluctant to fully embrace his success. He should have been praised to the skies, but on his return to Athens as the first Greek to win a US championship title and the only Greek MVP to boot, the mood was subdued. Where were the teeming crowds of basketball fanatics? Or the city mayor crowning Antetokounmpo with a medal, as is done for national sporting teams? Check out his family’s elation at the return of the victorious hero to his homeland Greece, as though Homer was finally updated. Antetokounmpo is Greek born, a proud citizen at eighteen, baptised in the Greek Orthodox Church the following year, his brothers having fulfilled their national military duties. How many boxes do you need to tick to be regarded as truly Greek? Consider, second- or even third-generation immigrants are not automatically entitled to Greek citizenship. Greece has the toughest residence requirements for naturalisation in Europe. Making the conditions and procedure even more cumbersome, an application fee of €1500 has been introduced. In addition to that, authorities are not required to reply within a specified period of time and need not justify a negative decision to the applicant.

Hurdles remain in place. Push and pull factors predominate. The pull: Europe requires immigrants on one hand but deters them with the other, so you get a conflicted nation within a conflicted Europe. The push: a recent book, The Scramble for Europe, Young Africa on its way to the Old Continent, details what is in store for Europe this century. The population of Africa has increased tenfold over the past 100 years. As more and more Africans attain a level of income that allows them to emigrate and as they acquire techno-savvy to the lures of Europe, I suspect that the futures of the two continents will be entwined even further. Africa is on Europe’s doorstep; the European ambassador to Niger even referred to the Sahel as the southern border of the European Union. Europe is unprepared, since Europe has never had an immigrant narrative in any case, unlike the United States with its rhetoric of the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. The dream of a better life open to all humanity may be a false promise in the United States, but Europe’s narrative of ‘homecoming’ (be it from Homer to Kundera via Heidegger) is predicated on longing, nostalgia and restoration rather than going forwards with optimism. The two adjacent continents need a forthright conversation as they prepare to navigate the future. If Greece is a portal to the soul of Europe, then the entire continent is ageing, insecure and anxious. If Greece continues to be locked into Old World tropes, then the new will continue to terrify it (this from a nation ever keen to embrace the latest gizmo or the newest BMW). It will be a challenge for Greek and European youth to reinvent its raison d’être, or else the Far Right will enhance its credentials. I return to the plethora of graffiti scrawled over city walls, hopeful for signs of an alternative. This battle of graffiti over marble is an age-old one befitting a crisis: youth versus the old, the anarchy of one versus the solidity of the other. The old order is crumbling, but the new one has yet to emerge.

About the author

Jorge Sotirios

Jorge Sotirios’ Graffiti Over Marble: A Portrait of Greece in Crisis covers the economic, generational and psychological fallout that Greeks have endured since the sovereign debt crisis exploded. He can be contacted at

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