What I Saw in Athens [Repost]

Note: This is a post I originally put up at TPM online here.

The World Congress of Philosophy concluded this past Saturday in Athens. This year’s theme was Philosophy as Inquiry and Way of Life. It’s a theme that is tailored to the strengths of the event. For any who are interested in seeing how philosophy is a living and global practice, the Congress is essential. This year’s Congress was also host of a significant number of Big Name Philosophers, and hence was also an attraction for philosophers whose interests are more provincially-minded.

While there were plenty of interesting talks that are worth reporting on (both good and not so good), I would prefer to take a moment to make a few personal remarks about what I saw in Athens. Hat tip to commenters at Feminist Philosophers for the idea and encouragement.

***

I arrive on Saturday. It is hot and arid. Looking out of my hotel window, I am at first startled by the view. The landscape looks like an overexposed photograph. The buildings are crumbling and saturated with graffiti.

Greek society is in turmoil, their government put under administration. An unhinged neo-Nazi party known as the Golden Dawn is gaining power and popularity. One of my fellow speakers at Congress tells me about Operation Zeus, a heavy-handed effort to jail ostensibly undocumented migrants at detention centres. Heavily armed officers are stationed near tourist havens and government buildings.

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I decide to take a walk. It’s not until I am a few blocks away from my hotel that I notice the barking. I turn around and see that a dog has followed me all the way along my journey. The dog looks as though she is barking at any pedestrians who get too close to me. When I turn to go back to the hotel, the dog races back to reassume her place across the road, presumably to keep watch. My little protector.

The week is beautiful. The hotel is nice, and I feel reasonably safe. The people of Greece are down-to-earth, and Athens glows at night. I see the Acropolis and the temple of Apollo up close. I swallow salt water from the Aegean Sea and wash it down with iced coffee. I am genuinely happy.

Somewhere along the way, I overhear a little girl say, “It’s hot and like a dream.” I know what she means.

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But even the best of dreams have a nightmarish quality to them. The people of Greece are understandably angry, and self-aware about their anger. Most cab drivers have harsh things to say about Germany and Angela Merkel. There is also no shortage of acrimony about their own Euro-imposed government, and plenty reserved for the socialist government that led them into the collapse. (As one cab driver who spoke virtually no English memorably repeated: “Boo to Papandreou“.) The people suffer and depend on tourists with Euros.

***

Friday evening. About forty professional philosophers were traipsing merrily around the ruins of the Lyceum. While moseying around the ruins my eye caught a hold of a black rock. I picked it up and cleaned off the grass and dirt. It was thin, long, with a concave blackened surface. The edge had the colour of clay. A shard of ancient pottery.

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We should not have been allowed to walk in the pit. There should have been velvet ropes and armed guards and signs, but for whatever reason — and whatever the consequences — we were allowed to walk the grounds.

Standing there in the 34 degree heat, in the dust, listening to cicadas and sprinklers and the bustling of Athens in the background. Eventually, my new Greek friend forces me to return it to the dirt. But for a moment I was immobile, transfixed. It felt right to hold onto that little bit of history as long as I could.

The sound of an exasperated voice over the speaker system is enough to break my from the reverie. “Please don’t step on the ancient wall,” a droll voice says to some naughty wanderer.

***

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I get out of the cab into the heat, clad in a white Canadian hat and a World Congress of Philosophy lanyard around my neck. I look up at the impassive but modern-looking government building — the Kentrikou detention centre. It appears deserted. A few towels hang from the windows, but otherwise it is devoid of life.

Then I pull out my camera and start taking pictures of the empty exterior. At that point a policeman appears out of nowhere and asks me what I’m doing.

I tell him I’m interested in seeing the migrants in the facility. I say I’m writing a story about how Greece is handling the austerity crisis. The guard smiles. “Greece is on fire,” he says. I’m not sure he is referring to the weather.

He radios up and asks permission to let me in, and I am denied entry.

Just then, I look up and see some arms moving in one of the windows. I carefully step back into the street, onto public space, and snap some photos. In the first photo, it looks as though a detainee is showing me a card of some kind. Two faces emerge from behind bars, both visibly happy for my attention.

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The fact that I have taken photos of actual detainees seems to have changed the parameters of the situation. At that point, the guard says: “Wait just a moment. Someone is coming to see you to take you upstairs.”
Sure enough, a burly Greek comes down. His hand is on the butt of his pistol. He exchanges words with the guard. Eventually they decide that I’m not a terrorist, and I’m told to follow the burly Greek. I’m led inside. I pull out my camera to take some interior shots, and am immediately told to put it away: “This is a military facility.”

Inside, I meet some bureaucrats who are watching television. I notice little things: a shitty photocopier, a pile of traffic cones. They ask me for my papers. I give them my Canadian driver’s license.

While they decide what to do with me, I’m led into a dirty white room. The room is bare, apart from a table, some benches, and a desk for the cop in charge. There is measuring tape on the wall and handprints all over the wall behind me. I figure that it is the processing area where migrants have their fingerprints taken.

Not liking the direction in which matters were headed, I quietly removed the microchip from my digital camera and hid it in my pocket. Just in case they decide to start confiscating my things.

Eventually I am led back to the bureaucrats. I am told that I need an appointment in order to interview any migrants. I am given a number to call to arrange an appointment. Then I am invited to leave.

I suppose I picked the right place to visit. Later that day, on the other side of the city, the Amygdaleza detention centre broke into a riot.

***

I saw my protector dog again that day. This time it was up close. Her eyes are bloodshot to the point where they look like they are bleeding. She lay in the street baking in the hot sun. I pour some water for her, and she doesn’t move. I worry that she might be dying.

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