Tastes and Troubles in the Cradle of Western Civilization

If you ask a Greek what their food is like, be prepared for a vivid and expressive spectacle. Like a master painter weaving, contorting, extending their arms and creating flowing brush strokes, the Greeks take a particularly animated approach to their cuisine descriptions. (Think Leslie Knope from Parks n’ Rec when she gets into a wildly optimistic frenzy about her latest government project and has to win over her less-than-enthused colleagues).

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Upon arriving in Athens I met up with Cathy, who had arrived the day before.  After dating for three wonderful months, I was happy to meet her in this beautiful country and spend a week touring through the capitol and a few of the Greek islands together. Cathy and her mother, Yupei, had planned this trip several months ago and it lined up perfectly with my euro-tour.

That evening the three of us set out for some grub. It wasn’t long before eager restaurant promoters were in our face doing the eat-here-because-I’m-wildy-waving-my-hands dance. Within just a few blocks we had heard a dizzying array of claims to being the best food in Athens (hint: if you’re all the best, none of you are).

My favorite was the dude who tried to differentiate himself with a shoulder shrug and toothy smile:

“We don’t have the best food, but we try the hardest”

Though endearing, we ultimately went with the guy who had an iPad showcasing the amazing Acropolis views from his rooftop terrace. When everyone is asserting that their food is the best around, it comes down to the amenities. The view did not disappoint.

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Acropolis is lit AF (is it still cool to say “lit”? What about “AF”? Feel free to chime in, hip younger sisters of mine).

We start off with Greek salads. I was keen on trying one while here due to a ringing endorsement from a good friend (thanks, Camel). 

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Big ole slab o’ feta

Yupei graciously sprung for dinner. The three of us split a heaping seafood platter featuring calamari, sea bass, prawns, anchovies, potato salad, and hummus.

Born and raised in China, Yupei immigrated to the US as a young adult and has worked in the medical field for decades. When Cathy was twelve, her and her family were living in California and her father was struggling through a bout with cancer. He passed away while Cathy was at swim practice.

I can’t begin to imagine losing a parent at such a young age. Cathy’s resilience and ability to open up about it were things that drew me to her. In Yupei, I see where she gets it.

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Yasss fish yasss

The following morning we joined in on a free walking tour of the city. I was eager to take in historical Athens and learn firsthand about the birthplace of democracy.

The recorded history of Athens spans about 3,400 years, making it one of the oldest cities in the world. It is aptly known as the “Cradle of Western Civilization”, due to its progressive achievements in maritime, finance, culture, arts, literature, entertainment, media, and education. It was the home to such institutions as Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, ancient places of learning and intellectualism.

Led by Cleisthenes, Athenians established what is generally regarded as the first democracy in 508–507 BC. Called the “Athenian Democracy“, this new form of government featured a legislative assembly consisting of all Athenian citizens. All were allowed to speak and vote in the assembly, which set the laws of the city-state.

(It should be noted that “all citizens” meant the exclusion of women, slaves, and non-landowners. So Athenians weren’t THAT radically progressive. Still, America’s self-proclaimed “greatest modern democracy” even now practices voter exclusion on a massive scale. Millions of independent voters are denied the right to vote every election cycle. Voters without ID can’t vote. Voter suppression has been riddled in this primary cycle in the form of ill-equipped voting sites and long waiting lines. Plus, the whole delegate/superdelegate system is democracy’s bastard stepson…at least the Athenians had a true direct democracy. I could go on, but it’s another topic for another time…)

The walking tour met near the Hellenic Parliament, the current location of Greece’s governing body.

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Hellenic Parliament Building

Once a great and prosperous land, Greece has since fallen on severe hardship both economically and socially. Our tour guide is quick to address some of the issues.

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After a series of transitions over the last several hundred years, modern Greece is a shell of its former self. Beginning in the 15th century, three centuries of Ottoman occupation ended in 1821. Greece gained independence, but a military coup followed in 1909 in which a Prime Minister was elected. A series of wars and attempted expansion ended up setting the Greeks back economically, leading to another coup in 1936 which installed a Dictator as the head of state. Authoritarian rule would last until 1974, when the regime collapsed and a democratic constitution was reinstated.

The guide explained it better than I ever could.

“Though this was Democracy’s birthplace, Democracy is a strangely new concept to us”

He leads us to several ancient Greek, Roman, and Byzantine monuments across the city.

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Byzantine church in the heart of Athens.

 

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Tower of the Winds, an ancient marble clocktower.
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Entrance to the Roman Agora.
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Temple of Hephaestus overlooking the Agora.
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Hadrian’s arch

Our guide explains that Greece never really recovered from the economic crisis of 2007-2008. Their two biggest industries, maritime and tourism, were hit the hardest. He told us he was laid off from a company that gave tours all over Greece, despite having worked there for several years. After a brief sabbatical he took up giving free walking tours for tips and has been doing it ever since.

Today’s Greek economy has seen stagnant GDP growth, a widening trade deficit, and massive job loss. Our guide says that the unemployment for citizens aged 18-35 is a whopping 76%, alongside an overall unemployment of 25%. This has led to Greece being a major debtor to the Eurozone and IMF. In 2015, it became the first developed country to fail to make an IMF loan repayment.

Investors have pulled away from Greece due to their poor credit ranking. Young people are leaving the country in droves (our guide says that over 250,000 left for greener pastures in 2015 alone).

A major creditor to Greece has been Germany, the richest country in the European Union. Greece’s debt to Germany amounts to 57 billion euros, the most of any EU country, followed by France at 43 billion.

As I walk around I see a raggedy looking older man wearing a hilariously crude shirt, clearly he is a benefactor of the expanding Greek welfare state. The shirt said (you’ll have to excuse my language):

“Yes I do have sex, I am fucking Merkel”

(Angela Merkel, that is, whom is the current Chancellor of Germany. Recently the 9-time Forbes most powerful woman in the world has had to deal with a large migrant crisis, aiding the struggling EU countries like Greece, and even weathered scathing attacks from our beloved Republican nominee for President. Still, she continues to further Germany’s powerhouse status in the face of opposition.)

Perceived misuse of funds from Germany, other EU countries, the IMF, and privately held creditors, by the Greek government has led to public protests and plummeting approval ratings for Parliament Members.

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A square near parliament building where our guide tells us many anti-government protests have occurred over the last several years. 

Luckily the crisis has not deterred the Greeks’ passion for good cooking. After a long day of walking around in the beating sun, we were ready for a meal.

We chose a quiet spot overlooking some cool-looking ruins. The promoter who lured us in had a quiet, soothing cadence to his voice as he told us about his menu.

(I’m telling you, the Greek tongue was made for describing food. The way the words hit your ears complemented with the obligatory hand motions are a combination destined to make you hungry.)

As the waiter sets our appetizer on the table, and again when he brings our entree, he delivers a wonderful line with a raspy voice which would become an inside joke for our trip:

“Good appetite”

It’s like he took what he thought was the direct English translation of “Bon appétit” and just rolled with it. I didn’t dare correct him. His wide smile indicated he was proud of the dishes his kitchen had prepared for us. I certainly appreciated the wholly greek combination of salty olives, savory meats and cheeses, and perfectly seasoned french fries and rice.

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Good appetite, indeed.

As we eat we are joined by several stray cats lurking around. The promoter walks by and sarcastically says “looks like you have some company for your meal”. Cathy tells me she learned that many stray cats and dogs were given collars before the 2004 Athens Olympics to keep tourists in the dark about how many there are. Today you can still see many of these poor animals, clearly strays, walking around with collars on.

Though ceremonially important, the return of the Olympic games to Athens is seen as a spending failure by many Greeks. Though it provided an initial boost to the economy, the stadiums and much of the infrastructure that was built are hardly used today.

The government continues to raise taxes to try and leverage itself into recovery. Cathy tells me a guide from the day before had much to say on the matter.

“Every day we wake up and there is a new tax”

A taxi driver is also very forthright with me about his distaste for government misuse of funds:

“Our tax money goes to a black hole never to be seen”

As he goes on his hands wave wildly about, hands pinching together and apart, eyes wide, his voice raising as he melodically sings the condemnation of his country’s public officials.

It seems the Greeks have two passions above all: delicious food and detest of government.

I am certainly enjoying the former. But as I gaze out at the glorious nighttime view of the Acropolis from Cathy’s hotel rooftop terrace, the Parthenon ablaze with light, I truly hope that the latter changes as the Cradle of Western Civilization hopefully returns to its former glory someday.

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