When you’ve planned and saved for more than two years for a "once-in-a-lifetime" family vacation, you want everything to go off and it was no different for the recent vacation to Italy and Greece, aka The PIGS Tour. But the latter part of the trip involved several days in Athens and it was while we were in Rome that global news caught and showed footage of the rioting in Athens’ Syntagma Square, outside of the Greek parliament and we were left wondering – well, me actually – at what point we pull the plug on the latter portion. With two teens and a child, precisely when does it become unsafe to travel there? Even if it’s physically safe, is it justifiable to take the kids to see a politically polarized site during what’s supposed to be a "get away from it all" experience?
If you’ve been out of town for awhile, the nightly protests in Syntagma Square are the public’s response to multiple factors, mostly the Parliament’s move to adopt painful austerity measures in order to obtain the next portion of the European bailout money to the tune of about 15 Billion Euros. In this case, the Parliament voted to adopt the measures while we were in Italy and it was during this time that things spiraled out of control for an evening. Although we left our computers and most of the cellphones at home, I still took a few moments on hotel computers to check the State Department website and find out if there was any travel warning, which there wasn’t. Our tour guide, a multi-lingual German woman, called a colleague in Greece and passed along that any issues were localized solely to the Syntagma Square vicinity; the remainder of Athens and the rest of Greece weren’t experiencing unrest. The final point was a review of our travel insurance policy. We discovered that the policy doesn’t cover changes due to civil unrest and we would not be reimbursed for the prepaid costs of hotel/flight should we choose to dump any part of the Greek segment. Fortunately for us however, it did reimburse us for the cost of emergency evacuation. Great. I’ll get back the 15000 Euros that I had to put on the credit card for the taxi to the airport evacuation site…Given all the factors, we were in for the trip and fortunately for us, things had calmed down by the time we were to leave for Athens.
The ride from the airport to our hotel took more than a half hour and we talked with our driver, an engaging middle-aged Greek gentleman, who explained some of the average Greek’s perspective of the economic difficulties. The politicians from both parties have had 40 years to screw things up and they’ve succeeded. The demonstrations are the work of the communists, damn them. We’re screwed…When my wife inquired about finding a decent taverna where the locals eat, he directed us to a city section called Plaka, one of the earliest residential sections of modern Athens and located immediately at the base of the Acropolis plateau; he stated that we could find any number of decent restaurants there without all of the tourist schtick. After we checked in and unloaded our bags, we studied the map and found that Plaka was perhaps 1.5 km due west and immediately on the other side of…Syntagma Square. Since it was still in the mid-afternoon, and the cabdrivers were on strike that day, we thought to hell with it and hoofed it westwards.
The square itself was anticlimactic at that hour of the day. We walked west along Leoforos Vasilissis Sofia, a main thoroughfare notable by some museums, an embassy and attractive apartment buildings and we only became aware that the square was coming up by the increasing presence of one or two policemen, with another carrying a submachine gun another block ahead. In the distance, a block away from the square was a dark blue school bus that had carried in the riot squads, who were clustered along the fence of the National Gardens as they kibbitzed and smoked. At the corner with Leoforos Vasillis Amalias, on the left, was the Parliament building with the Memorial to the Unknown Greek Soldier on the side facing Amalias. Across Amalias from the tomb was Syntagma Square, notable by the number of banners and posters hanging up. The great majority of these signs were in Cyrillic and a handful of early protestors milled around as though they were awaiting the opening gate for a concert, chatting and smoking as well. When a handful sitting nearby did start a chant, a cellphone would ring and one of the chanters would answer it and sit down to chat with the chant dying away. We continued through the square and as I started to doubt the big deal, we passed another building whose front window had been shattered, apparently by a brick. Other buildings suffered minor damage such as graffiti and cracked windows, but these became fewer and farther between as we moved away from the square. Our after-dinner return was much closer to when things began and it was at this point that we saw the street between the square and the Parliament cordoned off to traffic as the number of protestors had swelled. Ahead of us was a shoulder-to-shoulder line of several dozen protestors, each of whom was wearing a plain mask, albeit not the Guy Fawkes mask from the movie V For Vendetta. As it turned out, they were lined up for a photo op and when the photographer was finished, they removed their masks and dispersed in knots and it was then that I realized that some of the protestors were actually children, some younger than my youngest child.
When we asked a protestor what was being yelled, the laconic response was they’re yelling against the government and he then simply walked away. Two young policemen on the corner, dressed in simple outfits and leaning on plexiglass riot shields, were more talkative and explained some of what we were seeing. The protestors began to arrive in greater numbers at about 6 PM and they would finally disperse around 5 AM and excepting the televised coverage, the crowds had been peaceful for the remainder of the nights. As we spoke, they went on to say that while the riot troops were available in case of problems, they were generally out of eyesight so as to not provoke additional difficulties and their own job was to assure that some order was maintained. Honestly, the cops were friendlier and more talkative than the protestors as we had further conversations with the riot police further up the block; one of them even joked with Youngest, who was a bit uncomfortable in the presence of real automatic weapons. It was a very different proposition to see a fully operational submachine than the Nerf and virtual weapons wielded while playing online and with friends. The remainder of the hike back was uneventful, apart from seeing a sandbag gun emplacement hidden behind the trees of the National Gardens, and when the next morning rolled around, there was no second thought about safety and we again returned to that vicinity.
For all of the talk and news coverage, it really was a non-event and honestly something that I’m glad that the kids got to see. There was serious discussion about what’s causing the unrest and I’m gratified that when we spoke with Greeks, all three listened. One of my personal goals for the trip was to help the kids understand that there’s far more out there than what they see in smalltown America. Likewise, they need to see that there is such a thing as non-violent protest as average people vent their anger at those in power when the standard channels become uselessly dysfunctional. Because when push comes to shove, my fear is akin to the old saying: As we once were, you are now. As we are now, you will become.