ATHENS, Greece—A gypsy girl sits on the side of a tiny Athens street. I learned from my program director that in Greece, gypsies like this girl are usually part of a community of nomadic beggars who sleep under the stars. I’ve seen the shopkeepers give them extra food and water, just as they do for the stray cats and dogs.
As my friend walks by, this girl deftly scoots her cup of change into his path. He kicks it over, of course. The change flies everywhere, and we all swoop to put it back in the cup. But when he won’t give her something extra, she chases after him for a bit, pushes him, and yells something we can’t understand with a pout on her face.
She’s disappointed her trick didn’t work this time. But is she ashamed?
My studies here have enlightened me with regard to this region’s past. The Athenian Empire, the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire—so many great men have fought for this land. Byron literally lived and died for Greece in the war of independence. On some level, I feel like I can understand. Saying goodbye to the mountains, the sea, the olives, the stray dog I befriended—even the ancient sites, which have been there for centuries and will continue to exist long after I’m gone—feels akin to ripping out an organ. But in leaving, I wonder: do I know the Greece that is in deep financial trouble?
They say there’s a crisis here. American news footage of the country always seems to inexplicably show a forest fire, and makes it sound as if the Greeks will have to get along without much more than the Elgin Marbles. But here, it’s not always easy to tell—sometimes I feel like it’s a game in which I’m supposed to pick up on clues that lead to a bigger puzzle. From a bus window, I see the barefooted women holding a naked baby on a highway. I see the empty cafés everywhere. I see the anarchic graffiti that covers Athens and other major cities—it almost seems like a relic of the past in the daytime because the artists are nocturnal. And my dinners in the square are interrupted nightly by gypsies that do everything from playing the accordion to outright begging for some cash.
There is so little required of a tourist. Admire the land, go to the beach, experience the native cuisine. We don’t often see the crisis here, save the occasional snags in our “perfect” Greek experience. Then again, I doubt that most travelers ask about it. They could if they wanted to—you don’t even have to speak Greek here.
To truly know a country is an ambiguous idea—I adore what I’ve seen and eaten and done, but I make no claim to know much more about the modern Greek culture than that they eat olive oil with everything and smoke a lot. Even so, I can’t help but think about the similarities between the gypsy girl and the country she inhabits. Just as Greece is plopped between East and West, developing and developed, that gypsy girl sits astride poverty and stability. Both oddly comfortable but forced to beg, they know they have a right to something.