|Athens: From above it looks so peaceful|
The plane began its descent over the blue Ionian Sea, buffeted slightly by the thermals rising from the land as we passed over the crusty landmass of the ancient Peloponnese. Already the mood in the cabin had started to tauten and matters weren’t helped by the stewardess issuing a terse announcement to the effect that any German passengers should remain on the plane after the others passengers had disembarked for a ‘consultation’.
A camera positioned on the nose of the plane relayed a video feed back to the LED screens set into the seats and we watched as Athens, visible as a dusty smudge on the horizon at first, hove into view. Even from this distance a faint blue pulsing was discernable, indicating the huge ground force of security services that awaited us. As we drew closer the airport appeared as a sea of blue flashing lights in the sun baked yellowish landscape. A child began to wail and its mother clutched it to her bosom.
We landed without incident and were ushered off the plane and into the arrivals hall, which was liberally populated with heavily armed whistle-blowing police. All the usual shops were there – Louis Vuitton, McDonald’s, Burger King – but most were shuttered and bolted. The crowd of tourists surged through passport control and some scuffles broke out when a stressed-out policeman thwacked an angry Frenchman with a baton. The Frenchman was enraged about some matter or other and slunk away with blood gushing down his forehead.
Outside, in the raw heat of the afternoon, taxi drivers grabbed at our luggage and fought over us as if we were loaves of bread tossed into a hungry crowd. After a chaotic ten minutes we eventually found ourselves sitting in a dilapidated yellow cab, speeding along a broken highway to Athens. It was only as we left the airport zone that we could see just how many people had gathered there – held back and kettled in by the police, but an angry mob nevertheless. Some held up signs in Greek while others just waved their fists and spat insults at the jittery looking officers - and at us.
A few minutes down the motorway we pulled up at a roadblock erected across the road. It was a barricade, jerry-built out of empty oil drums and two telegraph poles. Some men with guns – perhaps military – leaned in at the window and one asked for a ‘tourist tax’. The driver looked at us nervously in the rear view mirror, perhaps expecting me to complain and start a scene. But I have travelled around South America in the past and know better than to kick up a fuss with armed men at road blocks. Eighty euros lighter (20 each, pocketed by the ‘soldier’) we were allowed to proceed. My wife gave me an angry glance – she had wanted to go to France instead of Greece after everyone had warned her about how the country had descended into a state of lawlessness. Perhaps she was right after all.
Athens, when we arrived on the outskirts, looked like a city straight out of a zombie apocalypse movie. The driver told us to lock the doors as we passed through broken down neighbourhoods of shabby buildings and potholed roads. People wandered in the road, begging for scraps, and empty-eyed children sat on the dusty pavements stroking thin cats and imploring passers-by to put a coin or two into their tiny outstretched hands. I told my own kids, healthy and nourished, to look away as we passed by.
For maybe twenty minutes we drover deeper into the heart of that ancient city, passing by burned out shops, broken windows and abandoned cars. Men wearing business suits pushed broken shopping trolleys stacked with cardboard and empty drinks cans and hungry-looking teenage girls stood on street corners eyeing strangers and leading them into dark alleys. We passed by a supermarket with fat men sitting outside on deckchairs, their rifles slung across their laps. In the deserted car park I saw a heap of cardboard and newspapers and was horrified to see a brown shoed foot poking out at an unnatural angle while dogs snuffled around it. The taxi driver turned to me and grinned, revealing a row of black teeth. ‘My country, not good,’ he said.
Shortly after we passed the Temple of Zeus the driver’s radio crackled to life and an animated conversation followed between him and the controller. He looked alarmed and drew to a halt in the middle of the road before sticking the car into reverse and executing a three point turn. There was sweat dripping off his brow and fear in his eyes as he tried to turn the vehicle around. I tried to ask him what was going on but I needn’t have as I soon saw with my own eyes what the radio controller had warned him about. There, pouring out of every side street and alley, they came. Most of them were masked and some carried rocks and bottles. They were running, all of them, and silver projectiles spewing out smoke began to rain down on them. The driver tried to push through them but there were just too many. We clung together in fear on the back seat as the missiles began to rain down on the car. The police, driving powerful motorbikes, bore down on the protestors, firing rubber bullets and lashing out this way and that with their batons. I saw one strike a young woman who fell to the ground like a rag doll. Our driver floored the accelerator and we ploughed through the crowd, scattering them like ninepins. We pulled clear of the mob and sped away from the scene of carnage, our eyes running from the tear gas which had seeped into the vehicle.
Eventually we arrived at the hotel, a tawdry concrete affair down a side street in the area which, on my last visit, was thronging with tourists but was now more or less deserted except for beggars and stray dogs. It had looked far better on the internet. The driver got our bags and then threw himself down at my feet, imploring me for an extra payment for the danger we had encountered. He pointed at his mouth and at his flat stomach and then clasped his hands together in supplication. I tossed him a two euro coin and he grabbed at it greedily, slinking away into his car with it before anyone could take it off him.