Having a public opinion on absolutely everything is no way to live.  This is a particular problem in an era of social media where, sometimes, too much is shared.  “You are not compelled to form any opinion about this matter before you, nor to disturb your peace of mind at all.  Things in themselves have no power to extort a verdict from you,” said Marcus Aurelius, and those are words to live by.

A few months after Dublin, I took a trip to Greece.  Whereas I hadn’t been to Dublin before, my trip to Athens came on the anniversary of my first visit in 1995, which was organised as part of the Erasmus exchange programme.  Erasmus enables you to study in other European cities, for a term, semester or a year; in my case, I went to the National Technical University of Athens.

I flew from Heathrow’s Terminal 4 when it was brand new and still fresh.  The flight took us across Europe at night: the sky was clear and coastal cities shone like strings of bright beads.  We arrived in Athens early in the morning.  The sun was up but it was still cool, and I discovered there was no Metro line to the city centre.  It hadn’t been built yet.  There were no buses, either, because their drivers were on strike.

When I met my fellow students later that day, they were amazed I had walked from Olympikos airport into the city centre: but when the Metro is a construction site and all Athens’ bus drivers are sitting under café parasols smoking tabs, what else would you do?  Certainly not give in to the taxi touts.

As the heat rose, I explored the quarter around the hotel we were staying in.  It was quickly evident that Athens has an Anglophone culture – adverts, TV stations, music, announcements on the Metro.  The architectural coursework was in English, too, and Athens dispelled any notion of difference.  The idioms, accents and details differ but at heart all architecture students are good, bad, indifferent; committed, apathetic, and sleep-deprived.

Athens was where I first realised the goodwill which folk in the wider world feel towards Scotland.  My nationality was greeted with smiles and excitement, and in return I was delighted to feel part of a greater whole.  That, I guess, demonstrates the nuts and bolts of what the Erasmus programme is about.

Too quickly I said goodbye to Kathryn from Ireland, Crista from Finland, Marco from Italy and a dozen or so others – along with the Greek students we worked with – and returned home.  Niki, who was so kind and obliging and Maria, who gave me a lift back to the airport.  She drove an old Volvo 340 with whining variomatic transmission - but she really wanted a big enduro motorbike.  She smoked Camels all the way to Departures, and told me all about motorbikes in a husky voice … my heart could have melted.

I wonder where they all are now, and what they’re doing?

I revisited Athens in 2014, looking at Athens through two lenses.  Firstly weighing the perception of memories from almost two decades ago against the present reality, and secondly how external forces like the 2008 crash has changed Athens.  As with Ireland, the European Project has had an impact on Greece. 

Despite the economic collapse and riots, Athens is still working and still striking too – during my second visit, the rail workers stopped work for a couple of days.  There are three metro lines now, not just the one which was under construction when I studied here in 1995.  Then, one of those stations was a construction site close to Syntagma Square, and a vast hole had been dug with sheet-piled sides perhaps 20 metres deep.  The excavations left a palm tree stranded on a column of soil, like the sea stack known as the Old Man of Hoy.

In 2014, the metro line from the new airport carried me through miles of arid exurban land before we hit Athens proper.  At Syntagma I got off the train and walked past the local Phase One dealer’s storefront.  Phase One make medium-format digital cameras and software which professional photographers use – and of course they are priced to suit. 

I checked in to my hotel behind a brash Chinese-American with a broken suitcase, who complained loudly about everything – then went exploring to see what had been changed by the Riots.  They were a moment, as William Hazlitt would have it, “When the heart is kindled and bursting with indignation at the revolting abuses of self-constituted power.”

Around the National Technical University of Athens, walls were still covered in graffiti.  The slogans were political with Antifa and anarchist sentiments; much of the graffiti declaims the “Troika”.  In addition to murals the thousands of posters, stickers and pamphlets say that Athenians care about politics in a way that we had forgotten, at least until our independence referendum of September 2014.  Their violent feelings have left their mark in still-shuttered windows and the remains of arson attacks which years later are still raw wounds.

However, look beyond those and in the quiet streets around the NTUA, where ripe oranges fall to earth in thundery heat, little had changed.  The newspaper vendors in little kiosks, smiling policemen carrying sidearms, scrawny strays and Crazy Frog mopeds were all as I remembered from 1994.  Nearby lay the squats and rancid alleys of Exarchion and dozens of stray dogs laid out flat in the baking sun. 

Across the way, the prehensile arm of a concrete pump was delivering screed to the upper floors of the Acropole Grand Hotel.  As I mentioned before, the spinning drums of truckmixers are a universal measure of how well a country’s economy is doing – and by that measure at least Athens was slowly recovering.

Near the old airport, Olympikos, was the brash suburb of Hellenikon, its avenues lined with car dealers and impex firms.  Before I left for Greece, I read that Calatrava’s nearby buildings for the 2004 Olympics had been abandoned, and were overgrown with weeds.  As I discovered, they aren’t derelict – but are certainly under-used.  I suspect the rumour was black propaganda from our London-biased media, put about to contextualise the similarly under-utilised facilities at Stratford in London’s East End.

As with most other cities, Athens “improves” as you go higher.  The gentrified Kifissia and Kolonaki areas sit above the city’s heat haze and pollution.  The apartments are concrete-framed, clad in stucco and pale stone.  Some have floor-to-ceiling glazing, with sliding timber shutters.  At dusk, the lights come on and for a brief time you can sneak a glance at the lives of Athens’ professionals – but now the white Pentelicon marble-paved lobbies have security doors.

Go further uphill and the buildings give way to vetches, laurels, black pines and cordyline palms.  Finally, you reach the top of one of the many hilltops and from there you can see tier after tier of apartments, the major roads terraced across the hillside and short steep flights of stairs stitching them together.

So what of the things that set Ireland and Western Europe apart from Greece and countries in the southern and eastern Mediterranean?  There’s no difference between the underlying results of their economic trials, when you look beyond language, cuisine, and climate.  Construction is a barometer of each developed country’s economy, whether politicians read Juvenal and adopt his “bread and circuses” approach to government – or let the Lords of Misrule have their way in the financial markets.

No, the things which differentiate Athens and Dublin are long-established patterns of development.  Each is stratified by wealth, dividing the population along income lines.  There’s the Anglo-Saxon culture of buying detached houses, against the southern European habit of renting apartments.  In Athens the derelict buildings are being squatted; in Dublin they’re secured with steel sheeting and CCTV.

So I don’t have an opinion on how Athens and Dublin might be “fixed” – how could I with brief visits to two European capitals, one as a student and the other as a travelling photographer – but on reflection I realised that we sometimes need to stop.  Think a little more deeply and look beyond the instant opinions on the screen.  Speak to people, do some research, digest it, then form a thesis, which doesn’t necessarily have to be shared for re-tweeting…

Thanks for indulging me by reading this.  It’s a journal entry which I chose to share, and I guess the chance of Maria reading this are infinitesimally small: but despite those odds, it would be great to hear that she got her wish and is riding a big Triumph Tiger. :-)

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