Yesterday I met an old friend for a coffee and as usual these days the discussion revolved around the crisis in Greece. Then we switched gears a bit and started talking about our experiences growing up in Greece (mainly in Athens and Piraeus) in the 70's, 80's and early 90's and we reminisced of what Athens looked like in those years.
At the end we agreed that Athens (and Piraeus for that matter, and in fact I'd probably think Thessaloniki and maybe Patra too) are not European or Levantine cities. They're still what I'd loosely call Mediterranean cities. They're part of a long list of Mediterranean cities we've "lost" over the past decades or past couple of centuries, and will never see again. Just to be clear, when I say we "lost" I don't mean it in a nationalistic way. We collectively "lost" those cities as cultural beacons.
In my mind the archetypal Mediterranean city would have to be Alexandria, a cosmopolitan metropolis part Levantine, part European, part Egyptian where most of its people were multilingual. A multi-ethnic/religious society not seen since in this shape or form. I remember when I was a kid, the dad of one of my close friends had come from Alexandria. His family was part of that wonderful multicultural mosaic which made Alexandria what it was at the time. His family had moved from Alexandria to mainland Greece in the 1920s (much like my family did from Asia Minor) and he used to share beautiful stories of what Alexandria used to be like, based on stories he'd heard from his parents and grandparents. To me, as a kid, these were mystical and fascinating stories. A window to a world that will never exist again.
Similar stories were shared by my maternal grandmother about life in Constantinople in the late 1800's and early 1900's, before nationalism poisoned the relationships of people. Smyrna was not different either, and I have my paternal grandmother to thank for some great stories she shared with me about their life in Smyrna and the surrounding area during the turn of the century and before they had to leave their homes and lives to move to mainland Greece in 1922.
The world will never see those multicultural Mediterranean cities again, they're just a memory of the past, but in my mind Athens is still a Mediterranean city. During the last 20 years where I visit her as a tourist, as a visitor, I can see it much clearer. For those of you who have visited or lived elsewhere in Europe, be it the UK, Italy, Germany etc. what I'm saying here will most likely make sense to you. Visiting Athens doesn't feel like visiting any other European city. It certainly doesn't feel like visiting Rome, or Paris, or London, or Frankfurt, or Amsterdam (and I'm only listing a few of the European cities I've visited myself over the years and I can do the comparison).
Athens is different. With all its flaws it's a wonderful place to visit. A unique blend of ancient Greek, European, Mediterranean and Levantine culture. In my eyes it is still a Mediterranean city. One of the few we have left. So if you have the chance do pay her a visit, because much like Alexandria, Smyrna and Constantinople, today's Athens may not be around for much longer. It will be lost to the dominant trend of the past 100 or so years to "westernize" the Greeks' understanding of themselves.