Athens: The Cracks in the Concrete

Cracks in the sidewalks, cracks in the buildings, cracks everywhere. I’m on my sixth day in Athens, and so much of what I’ve seen so far is shabby. Crumbling. And concrete. Lots and lots of ugly, broken concrete. 

I’m really selling a visit to the city, aren’t I?

Despite the shabbiness of the area I’m staying in, which is considered a trendy location, I like it here. My visit to Athens will last a total of five weeks, which is the same length of time I stayed in Madrid. But I’m already more comfortable than I was there. The city seems to be friendlier to English speakers—I’ve yet to visit a café or restaurant where I’m not greeted in my native tongue—and I like the rhythms of the city much more than Madrid, where many places shut down for large chunks of the day due to the ever popular siesta. 

And that’s the best difference so far. Who wants to have an amazing city to wander around and not be able to enjoy it because everything’s closed?

But Athens truly isn’t a pretty city. The building facades are mostly unattractive, unadorned concrete with balconies that jut out like particularly aggressive underbites. Most of the second levels of the buildings extend over the sidewalks supported by large square pillars, which provide great shaded places to walk, but also make the streets seem smaller and more cramped than they actually are. Small metal-covered openings march down the center of the often crumbling sidewalks, presumably giving access to things that have to do with city utilities in the adjacent buildings. But walking on them is an ankle-turning exercise, as are the concrete tiles with raised lines that run down the middle of the sidewalks. (I think those have to do with helping the visually impaired navigate the streets.) 

Not all of the buildings are ugly, though. I’ve seen a few with new, attractive facades make an appearance. And there are trees everywhere. At first I thought the trees lining the sidewalks were lime because of the small, pebbly green fruit that blended in with the leaves, but apparently those are oranges! I once visited a city with orange trees on the city streets, and the smell was amazing. When the season is right I imagine the streets of Athens are filled with the fresh, heavenly scent of citrus.

The best part of Athens so far? The amazing restaurants, cafés and cocktail bars that grace the streets like jewels peeking from between the prongs of a concrete crown. I can’t seem to go a block without running into one that I want to try. And they all take advantage of the trees and awnings to create fantastic outdoor seating, because even 90°F is comfortable in dry heat and leafy green shade. Coffee shops and cafés also welcome laptop users, or at the very least tolerate them, which was not an acceptable practice in Madrid. That makes the work I’m trying to do while here a lot easier.

I’ve only seen a fraction of Athens so far, so I’ll be happy if I’m surprised when I explore other parts of the city. But it does line up with what I often heard about Athens before I visited. And yet, in its own way, I find the city beautiful. I’m reminded of a village in one of L. Frank Baum’s many stories about Oz that featured homes with plain and even ugly exteriors, while their interiors were beautiful, warm and inviting. Even magical. Because what we see on the outside is often not what’s most important, right?

Greece has had a rough go of it for a long time, but their economy is growing. Hope seems to be growing. And I love seeing the green shoots of life pushing through the cracks in the concrete.