Comedy and tragedy in Athens
My first visit to Athens as a student gave me a set of impressions that the present crisis has only validated. The man designated to meet us at the airport did not turn up. I will never forget his name. It was Nic Katsoudis. So we got in a taxi anyway. It crashed twice on the way to our apartment in the Vouliagmeni resort south of the city. Once inside, the plumbing was Periclean in age if not in grandeur.
That was when local colonels and not German bankers were the devil. Since then I have been back often, en route to my sister-in-law’s house on lovely, neglected Skopelos — an island not so much unspoilt as unimproved in the first place.
Athens is where you change planes, get on a bus or find a boat.
At the end of last year, we stayed at the Grande Bretagne, the stately old lady on Syntagma Square. Here, long ago, I learnt in the Greek way that a generous tip to the concierge could buy disproportionate access to useful facilities.
This time, our designated room stank of cleaning fluid from a recent attempt to freshen the curtains. We refused it and went to dinner to let the hotel sort it out.
On our return we were given the presidential suite, which included a dining room for 12 and more bathrooms than could reasonably be used over a two- night stay. In its mixture of hospitality and recklessness, this gesture seemed typical.
Athens can be grim. But ambitious locals talk now about a “new’’ Athens emerging from the smog of ages and the rubble of a collapsed economy. The Stavros Niarchos Centre, with the National Library and Opera, is due for completion next year. There is a selfconscious hipness, too. Beyond the Plaka and Monastiraki, wine bars and amusing shops are breaking out in the Kerameikos district and the squares of Agia Irini (the old flower market) and Karytsi. Hipsters do what hipsters do on Ipitou Street. Here we looked for a