I’ve not long returned from a few days in Athens with my daughter where we enjoyed some glorious weather compared to our usual Scottish temperatures yet started the final day in a hailstorm as the Beast from the East struck even there! Torrential rain and a thunderstorm then followed; the Parthenon illuminated by lightning was an eerie sight and you could almost imagine the fury of the Greek gods as the Acropolis seemed to be a magnet for the phenomenon.
Something I couldn’t fail to notice was armed police whether it be the tourism police or traffic officers to the van loads of riot police that would suddenly appear in Syntagma Square and make their way down Ermou to some developing situation in Plaka that you had not noticed as you passed by some moments earlier. Coupled with chancing upon an army drill complete with rifles near our apartment, it was unnerving and not something that I felt comfortable with making me ever more thankful that the police in Scotland are not routinely armed and that soldiers with guns are not an everyday sight on our streets. The scenario with the riot police happened several times on the Saturday and indeed at one point, buildings in Syntagma appeared to be on lockdown, shuttered and closed with customers inside. Whilst deployment of specialist officers appeared rapid, I could not help but to imagine how quickly a situation could escalate with both sides armed from the outset or to wonder at what point in a situation with a police officer would the line be crossed that weapons would be used. What thinking time is there if a weapon is immediately to hand at all times?
Yet the Athenians treat these sights as normal, simply shrugging their shoulders when questioned about the presence – “Ah, yes, always”. Demonstrations with protestors numbering a million or more are common place in this most central Square that is home to the Greek Parliament and with such numbers involved, rarely peaceful. But still, the question niggles – does the presumption of violence actually engender it?
One such protest took place in the weeks preceding our trip; a row over Macedonia using the name Macedonia. For many Greeks, the name is synonymous with the ancient Grecian kingdom which was the birthplace of Alexander the Great and the argument with their neighbours has been ongoing from when The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia gained their independence nearly 30 years ago. Many see this as an attempt to appropriate not only land but heritage and steadfastly refuse to use the name, instead calling the country by it’s capital city, Skopje, and is the main reason why Macedonia has still been unable to join the European Union. With legal objections to the name, their flag and their constitution, Greece has blocked their accession to the EU and although FYROM have put forward several compromises towards their name, a stalemate still remains as Greece believes that in reality, Macedonia will be the by-name. It is perhaps, not too dissimilar from when Scotland gets absorbed into England during news reports or the general psyche of some of the population of the British Isles.
We also spotted the Greek Minister for National Defence, Panos Kammenos , one of the most vocal opponents over the Macedonian name, during a break from a session on the increased threat level from Turkey. Both countries have been increasing their defence budgets and Turkey has been pushing the boundaries with Greece to see how far it can get, recently arresting two Greek soldiers that had strayed onto Turkish soil. When one country cries espionage whilst the other claims an innocent disorientation, relations between the two are not going to improve any time soon.
Locally produced items appeared ridiculously cheap even with the pound having such a poor exchange rate but imported goods were far more expensive than you were used to paying at home. I found myself in the surreal situation where a sweetie for my daughter was more expensive than my bottle of wine (although each were less than €2!) With the way that food prices have been rising in the last few months in Scotland, prices in Athens were a sobering warning of what we will face in the not too distant future when Brexit finally happens.
A wonderfully warm and welcoming country, the blue and white stripes of the flag were a delightful reminder of the Saltire and of course, the omnipresent view of the Parthenon reminded you of our own National Monument on Calton Hill. With the links to St Andrew and a football team with an almost identical strip to Celtic, Athens was a joy to visit and somewhere that you immediately felt at home in, reminding me greatly of Edinburgh.