By Hayley Roth
It has been seven days in Athens, and the experience is somewhat like eating an exotic fruit for the first time. Its surface beauty is striking but bite into it to discover the real content. Our task, as six student journalists from Princeton, New Jersey, is to get to the core of the city in five weeks.
On day one, I was picked up from the airport by the soft-spoken middle-aged Mr. Panayiotis, and we walked together into the blistering Athenian heat. It took me about 30 seconds to realize that he was soft-spoken because he could understand only a smattering of English words, and didn’t like trying. But he loaded me and my suitcase into the little taxi and we zoomed inland in silence on a dusty, near-empty highway with a stunning overlook of the white city below.
The city of Athens.
It was midday, and the streets were empty. The heat had driven people into apartments and cafes and even beyond the city limits to the beaches and islands. The buildings, stuccoed and whitewashed, were maddeningly reflective. The sun felt different here– not just hotter, but bigger. Closer. Brighter. The cars were reflective, too. Most are gray, white, or yellow, managing to invoke the colors of the sky and the asphalt together. “Dingy” and “garish” are adjectives that came to mind. But lift your eyes and there is the glistening Acropolis.
Of the dozens of images of the Acropolis that I’ve encountered in literature, academia, and travel guides, not one conveyed the steepness of the ledge on which it is perched. It’s as if there’s a mini cliff-faced mountain in the middle of the city whose peak was sheared off and replaced with a citadel of colonnaded temples. It was razed by conquerors and reconstructed multiple times, the latest of which took place in the fifth century BC. It is still visible for miles. And on day three, we scaled it. The marble columns and facades were once painted gaudy shades of red, gold, and blue, but millenia have stripped these colors away. Now, no one knows them as anything but white and broken.
The Parthenon, a former temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena; the most dominant structure on the Acropolis.
On day five, the other side of Athens emerged– the headlines rather than the history books. We visited four refugee camps, including the informal agglomeration of tents just off the Port of Piraeus, the gateway to Athens. The three others– Schisto, Skaramagas, and Ellinikon— were heavily-regulated makeshift artificial towns with canvas walls and chain-link fences, general stores, specialized shops, clothing exchanges, commons areas, health clinics, playgrounds, and kiosks. Rudimentary conditions made it easy to forget that the fences were open, and the refugees could come and go as they pleased. They actively choose to stay because they had nowhere else to go.
A makeshift barbershop at Skaramagas camp, advertised by a hand-drawn depiction of scissors and a razor.
A young boy pushes a toddler around in a stroller in a parking lot near the Port of Piraeus, where his family is currently living.
On day seven, we left the camps for the beaches. The sudden change was jarring and powerful. Clusters of affluent tourists mingled with Greek couples and families along the shores– sunscreen, cocktails, volleyball, sandcastles, and big beige umbrellas. People looked sunburned and happy.
The Aegean Sea, as seen from the southernmost tip of the Attic peninsula.
As visiting students from Princeton, we are permitted to choose which world we wanted to live in for the day. Would it be the world of sunbleached ruins and Aegean beaches, or the world of makeshift tents beneath an overpass? And when we exercise the ultimate privilege to board our flights and leave these worlds behind, what will we take with us?