Athens: A City in Lights

Parthenon

Photo credit: Tim Baker

December is not the usual or intuitive time to visit Greece, but Christmas in Athens is full of unexpected and joyful surprises. With azure skies and bright sunshine without the searing heat of summer, the weather is perfect for wandering through streets decorated with giant stars strung overhead, Christmas trees, and lights dancing from every surface. A vibrant city, Athens revels in its glitter and sparkle, celebrating the season on every corner, every balcony, and in every taverna.

In a city with history and soul, even in this time of austerity, Athenians go about daily life with resilience and a kind of grudging acceptance. Many Greeks refer to their economy as a “mattress economy” (from many years of distrusting banks and keeping cash in mattresses), and many transactions are cash, and only cash.

Now that we’re home, I carry images of a band dressed in crimson uniforms, playing carols on Christmas Day near the Acropolis, of bakeries and pastry shops with towers of glistening cakes, of flower shops knee-deep in white cyclamen and red poinsettias, and the Plaka neighborhood, redolent with aromas of souvlaki and gyros. Perhaps the most vivid image is from Christmas Eve, in the apartment of a close friend, and from the window seeing the Parthenon, illuminated, simple and elegant, a symbol of the fortitude, endurance and the soul of this city and its people.

And a coincidence: this article appeared in the New York Times this Sunday, surely with the implicit message that Greece and Ancient Greek are the bedrock of so much of Western civilization and thought.

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