Wednesday February 2, 2012
Where to even begin? One of the main concerns that my parents, friends, and loved ones had for me prior to this trip was whether or not it was safe for me to come to Greece for three months. For a while now, there have been riots and protests flooding the news stations in America and in turn, tricking the world into thinking that something absolutely horrible is happening here constantly. Now that I am here and have experienced my first official protest, I think it is safe to say that you can’t always believe everything you see or read in the news.
Unlike many of my classmates, I wanted to experience this day full-throttle. Right after our Greek language course, a few of us ventured into the streets of Athens where we were soon surrounded by thousands upon thousands of people. Not knowing what to expect, a part of me was worried. A riot could break out right in front of us at any moment. Another part of me was willing to take that risk. Call me crazy, but in the end it was all worth it.
For a while we followed the crowd marching down the street chanting things we couldn’t understand and holding signs we couldn’t read. We were afraid to take pictures because we didn’t want to be stereotypical Americans…but we took them anyway. Hayley, Lauren, Carolyn, and I walked alongside the crowd quietly and as subtly as possible. People were speaking through megaphones and there were hundreds of banners in sight. Later, I sent my mom some photos of the banners, which we were able to translate to something along the lines of “No to capitalism and no to being taxed on inheritance.”
We walked swiftly past the crowds that filled the main streets and side streets, and even on top of fences, poles, and anything that they could possibly stand on. We soon got the hang of things and realized that the chances of getting hurt or something happening were slim to nothing. What it comes down to is that a whole lot of people like you and me are just upset that the government is cheating them.
We finally were able to escape the crowds to grab a bite to eat: gyros of course (they have been our go-to meal). In the midst of all the craziness, we found the perfect gyro with moist, tender pork, tsatsiki that was freshly made with cucumbers and spices, and to top it off there were thin, crisp french fries inside that added just the right amount of salty flavor. I think we have found our new favorite gyro shop in the area.
By this point, police were lining every street corner and blockading nearby streets. Everywhere we turned we saw police or army men; guns in hand and shields in front of their bodies. From what we had witnessed so far, we thought it was incredibly unnecessary for them to be so prepared for battle. We wondered what was going on around us and what could have possibly changed so drastically in only a matter of twenty minutes.
Sitting on the concrete walls above the entrance to the Syntagma Square Metro station, we tried to get a sense of what was going on and why the police were so prepared for something to happen. After watching for forty-five minutes, one of the policemen told us to get out of the area. Suddenly, there was a bang. We thought it might be a bomb exploding. Down the street, people started running. I realized maybe this wasn’t such a great idea.
Bang, bang…two more bomb-like sounds. We couldn’t see anything on fire. We wondered if people were being shot at? There was no way to find out from where we were. Being the daring girls that we are, we followed the noise (not such a smart idea, but here I am telling the story now). We walked down the streets the crowds had just run from. We saw silver tin cans with writing on them, slightly bigger than soda cans. The metal was split all along the sides. Right beside each can was a five-foot diameter circle of white powder on the street. It was as if someone had dropped a large bag of flour from a window above. It turned out these were powder bombs that are used to scatter crowds.
I couldn’t help thinking if the police hadn’t thrown the bombs, or if they hadn’t lined the streets so prepared for action, the protests would have continued as peacefully as they had been for the previous two hours.
We continued to follow the ruckus and wound up right near our apartment on Zoodochou Pigis Street, where we found trash dumpsters knocked over and on fire and people with white powder caked on their faces. Their eyes were blood shot. From this point on, our main concern was walking into tear gas. Curious about tear gas, we decided to walk toward the crowd of people walking by with tears flowing down their faces. We were walking toward Exarchia Square when we began to sneeze. Our throats started to tingle. We were experiencing what we were itching for all along…the down and dirty reality of what happens during the protests.
Around the corner from our apartment, we discovered a restaurant that had been torched. The owners of it yelled at anyone who tried to get a better look or take pictures. (The next day I tried to get the name of the restaurant but the letters had been scorched so much that it was illegible.)
Palm sized flaming rocks were scattered in the street. We wondered if they were covered in gas. In Greece, there are dumpsters on every street for pedestrians and homeowners to put their trash. Almost every street the dumpsters were pushed over and the contents were burning. Police swarmed the street we were on, wearing gas masks, carrying batons and tear gas guns. They raised the tear gas guns and sprayed. People began to run in our direction, since we had been standing at a safe distance. Someone pulled us into a hotel lobby. We watched through the windows as some people ran by, while others just sat on the benches along the road.
Throughout our time in Greece, whenever we are iffy about a situation, we tell ourselves “you’re only in Greece once.” That had been my attitude until I was standing in that lobby. I wanted to be in the safety of our apartment. We left the hotel lobby and searched for the quickest, safest route back. Three hours of risking our safety was enough for us girls.
Later we were sitting in our beds telling the rest of our roommates about the day, while our faces tingled from the remnants of tear gas. Before coming to Greece, many people warned me that these things would happen. The way I looked at it was that it would be an experience of a lifetime. I’m glad that I got a chance to experience my mother’s homeland. I can now say that I was there to witness what actually happens as opposed to what we see on TV back home. We will probably experience another protest before we go back to the states. And I am ready for it.