December 2015. I awoke to a bright but freezing Greek morning at the Centrotel on Peoniou, ready to explore the city. My mind was crammed with images of the Parthenon on the Acropolis. I had been relishing the thought since I arrived in Athens the night before, while I searched for the hotel around the dark streets of Victoria Square. “I’ve seen the Elgin marbles in London. Was I ready to take in the rest of Athenian history?” I asked myself.
I walked briskly along Peoniou Street, a cold breeze nipping on my ears. The road changed to Cheyden Street after crossing Acharnon Avenue. Deserted Peoniou was in sharp contrast to crowded Cheyden. I had to navigate around groups of men who congregated in front of shops. I dodged others who walked absent-mindedly in my direction. A row of women and children sat on the curb in front of a luggage store. “Hanging out on a cold December morning under the shadows of the surrounding buildings didn’t seem practical,” I thought.
The crowd thickened as I emerged onto Victoria Square at the end of Cheyden. On benches and under trees, men and boys gathered with backpacks and luggage in tow. Few spoke with each other, most stared blankly at nothing. A few police officers stood by around the perimeter to maintain order. A young Greek man dispensed coffee to those who would take it. A young woman conversed with some in English.
I had heard about the struggling Greek economy, but the size and ethnic composition of the crowd suggested that this scene had nothing to do with it. My mind was on overdrive while I crossed the square toward the Metro station. Then it struck me. I was in the middle of the Mediterranean refugee crisis that had been engulfing the continent for months!
I made my way up the Acropolis. The crisp, blue Athenian sky couldn’t clear up the shadows that I just witnessed. It was tough to fully engage with the past when the present demanded equal attention. I tried to replace the images of Victoria Square with those of Ancient Greece. And it worked for an hour or so while I sat on a rock beside the Parthenon. I savored the sun-splashed perfection of the old ruins. Up there, one could glorify the past and forget the refugees at Victoria Square who were struggling with their present and future.
Darkness approached quickly that evening. I steeled myself for what awaited me at Victoria Square on my way back to the hotel. The square was empty! Cheyden was eerily deserted. On Acharnon, the last denizens of Victoria Square boarded buses for a shelter somewhere in the city. For one night, the rest of the world could forget about the present.