By Harrison Blackman
From June 15 to June 19, the daily high temperature for Athens jumped from 82 degrees to 102 Fahrenheit. From June 19 forward, the heat has been on.
Taverna operators hustle to rope overheated tourists into their air-conditioned restaurants. The city’s ubiquitous street kiosks — the periptera — are stocked with bottles of Zagori mineral water, Mythos beer and Coca-Cola. In the morning, Athenians crowd into Metro trains, looking tired with anticipation of the heat outside and above. The city’s cafes are packed and, by the university, they are packed with students sweating in a different kind of way as they pour over textbooks and hunch over laptops, cramming for merciless exam schedules.
Even the buildings are sweating. Across the city, Athenians turn on the A/C. Water dripping onto the sidewalk does not indicate rain—most of the time, precipitation is from water used to cool the air.
If you have money, you flee to an island for a weekend, where the sea breezes sweep across the barren rocks of the Aegean, in some ways evoking the shrub-clinging hills of Southern California, except these hills emerge directly from the sea. Perhaps these weekend getaways involve the party-island of Mykonos, to the quiet high-end luxury of Hydra; perhaps this leads, inexorably, to the romantic island supervolcano, Santorini.
If you don’t have the resources to get away, you bear the heat in the city. At various points, Athens can smell like freshly-rolled cigarettes; it can smell like “kebab,” a melange of lamb and beef,; or the rotating, oily spits used to cook souvlaki, a pita wrap stuffed with meat, fries and veggies. Athens can also smell like Alpha beer poured from the taps of rooftop bars in full view of the Acropolis, it can smell like Nescafé, the wildly popular instant coffee, that when iced is known as “frappé,” equivalent in popularity to the Starbucks frappuccino in the states. By the busy roads, the streets smell like the exhaust of yellow cabs and reckless motor scooters. But mostly, the common currency is sweat.
The air is not cool and shade is hard to come by. Furious heat in the afternoon evaporates by the late evening, replaced with a slight, life-invigorating chill. The humidity is low and Mediterranean. The Athenian climate is not unlike that of Los Angeles with, to put it lightly, a more intense ancient history. It’s true that both cities saw most of their growth in the 20th century, and both saw their principal growth occur after the Second World War. Both, incidentally, have “meteorological inversion” problems. That means smog.
The mountains of Penteli, Imittos, Parnitha and Egaleo surround the city. From the peak of Mt. Lycabettus you can practically see it all; the white city nestled in the basin stretching to the Saronic Coast, the home of 6 million people out of a nation of 11. It is not a white city like the White City of the 1893 World Columbian Exposition, not the splendid, neoclassical vision of Western nationalism—few are. In 1834, King Otto, the first of a short line of German royals of Greece, relocated the capital from Naflplio to Athens. He strove to endow the city with a Western European, Bavarian character. There are reminders of this—Syntagma and Omonoia Squares serve as terminal points for grand boulevards that stretch across the basin, but in the end, urban entropy rules the day.
Athens is a chaotic, expansive, metastasizing cluster of white high-rise apartments creeping into the sides of the mountains that surround it. Pockets of greenery like the Philopappos Hill or the Ancient Agora appear as lush oases, landscaped so that they seem to be pulled straight from scenes of sword-and-sandal epics such as Gladiator or 300.
Around these areas and the Acropolis, the narrow and historic district of Plaka, you can’t tell there is 25.6 percent unemployment, [according to Eurostat]. The many white and blue-collar workers emerging from the Syntagma, Omonoia and Monastiraki metro stations give off the appearance of prosperity. There are scattered homeless about, but nothing that you would not be able to see in an American city. The economic crisis, and the refugee crisis, for the average visitor, are off-site and off-view.
Yet in the summer, countless international tourists and summer programs extol the classical city, the city in the time of the Athenian city-state’s golden age, often overlooking Greece’s more recent history.
You can pick this up from what people are selling. Gift shops sell reproductions of ancient Greek amphoras, paintings of heroes and myths emblazoned on them. There are more curiosities: icons of St. George slaying the dragon, St. Nicholas looking stern and non-Santa-like, t-shirts crying out, “This is Sparta!,” risqué postcards of ancient art depicting erotic acts, evil eye charms and Greek soccer jerseys. The books in the bookstores are all describing the apparent secrets of classical Greece, what it was like back then, yet the references to modern history are almost entirely absent.
Yet, despite this, world events continue to inform Greece’s fate. On June 16, Ekathimerini reported that 7.5 billion euros in funding had been secured from Eurozone finance ministers, ensuring some semblance of financial stability, for the time being. On June 23, the UK’s decision for “Brexit” quickly overshadowed the “Grexit” fears and Greece’s own controversial referendum a year prior. On June 27, a terrorist attack struck Istanbul’s airport. By July 20th, the refugee camps at the former Ellinikon airport are scheduled to be shut down and the residents relocated to other camps. In the meantime, Athens waits.
The heat is on, and everyone is sweating.