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  • Writer's pictureMellissa Briley

Athens: From Olympic Euphoria to the Struggle for Survival

Athens experienced a period of euphoria surrounding the 2004 Olympics, which quickly gave way to economic struggle and social unrest.

Modern Athenians have a complex relationship with their city, ranging from euphoria to embarrassment, blind rage, numbness, and burnout.

In 2003, while the country basked in celebration of hosting the Olympics, I was at Piraeus port boarding a ferry destined for Santorini. A nighttime journey across the Aegean, a night that happened to be a peak of a meteor shower. Along with others, I leaned against the rail, the Athenian lights shimmering through the smog before me. Ships prepared for journey, excited passengers eager for destination. Amidst all this excitement suddenly a replica of an ancient Greek ship was making its way around the port. One by one, ferries blare their horns, filling the air with thunderous tones. The ship was bringing home the Olympic flame; she had returned to her birthplace. 

People on other ships cheered, but those around me fell silent, staring deeper into the horizon. A single light, growing closer grew in magnificence, slowly it relieved itself to be the most beautiful cruise ship I'd ever seen, Queen Mary II, aboard was the Queen of Britain, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President Jacques Chirac, and former president George Bush. 

I felt so proud and happy for Greece, I wanted to cheer, shout and scream my congratulations but their silence was unnerving and somewhere in me, there was a reason I could not grasp. What were they thinking? I  swallowed my excitement in frustration. 

Finally as my ferry departed and began its journey over ambient  waters, a brilliant fireball swooshed across the sky with a hiss.  If this had been ancient Greece, the ancients would have taken this as an omen from the gods. Of what, I could not know. But in a year to follow, a young boy would be shot dead in the center of Athens, and the city would burn in riots, the citizens choke on teargas, something they would get used to over the years as they found themselves struggling against the black hole of economic crisis, hunger, confusion, and betrayal. 

To anybody who speaks poorly of Athens, I remind them that Athenians are the modern warriors of our times. But as with anything in life, to truly understand something is to live and breathe the situation. 

Still we are left with questions. 

Now, during everyday survival, we are forced to look into our souls. Wants and needs are put into perspective. We understand that there is something deeper to this existence, something the elite, who suck on their fat cigars overlooking Syntagma Square from the Grande Bretagne, will never understand. 

I am witness to many who are looking into their souls, turning toward their communities, while offering food and a warm blanket to the alarmingly growing homeless. In a city where many have already taken their life, it has become common to hear tales of people talking the man next door out of committing suicide. 

It is heartwarming to know that there are people out there that will ignite the warm glow that somebody does care – a life has been saved. 

Those who do not have the resources to relocate abroad, or wish not to depart from their homeland return to their villages in the mountains, countryside, or islands. They plow a small patch of land and grow their food. Some have returned to the loving arms of yia yia and embrace her love and lessons from surviving war. One is reminded that though your country may feel lost, you still have yourself.  Experience and knowledge will never cease to provide for the future- our children- whom it is our responsibility to remind them of identity and history- we must teach them not to be victims to what they inherited but will remember everything your yia yia taught you, and rebuild with imagination and determination. 

May these children not know how to whisper, but how to shout with the cry of their ancestors. May the ancient soldiers smile from their graves and nod in approval that Greece still shines bright.

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