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About Athens

Both East and West converge in this vibrant metropolis, lively and brimming over, just like its inhabitants - and home, too, to some of the country's most important historical sites. If there is one quality which Athens should be credited with unreservedly, it is elasticity. It might be compared to an indestructible old sweater which has shrunk and stretched repeatedly through the centuries, changing its shape as circumstances required.

Athens is a city that has grown haphazardly, and too fast. It never had a chance to mellow into venerable old age. Old and new have not blended too well; you can still sense the small prewar city pushing through the huge sprawl of today's modern capital, like the proverbial thin man struggling to get out of every fat man. Occasionally, you come across what must have been a country villa, ensconced between tall office buildings, its owner still fighting against the tide, its windows hermetically closed against dust, pollution, the roar of the traffic. Traffic in Athens can be unbelievable, particularly when there is some protest demonstration going on and traffic is forced off the main streets. The new metro, however, has worked wonders. From the day it opened, huge numbers of Athenians have been using it, making journeys of just a few minutes through the heart of the city that once took well over an hour by car. Suddenly, central Athens has become accessible.

But branching off from the frenzied central arteries are the minor veins of the city, relatively free from congestion. Most apartment blocks have balconies and verandas, and there you can see the Athenians in summer emerging from their afternoon siesta in underpants and nighties, reading the paper, watching the neighbours, watering their plants, eating their evening meal.

The hot weather makes life in the open air a necessity; this in turn means gregariousness - it is no accident that there is no Greek word for “privacy” - though nowadays the pale-blue flicker of television draws more and more people indoors. Yet even television sometimes turns into an excuse for the Athenian's unique brand of social exhibitionism: there are improvised World Cup parties and election-night parties, collective viewing while eating, drinking and playing cards.

There is a constant struggle to catch up with the West while still clinging to the old traditional ways. Tavernas, competing with pizza and fast-food shops, try to keep up a semblance of couleur locale (which is fast turning into couleur internationale: you find better taramosaláta in London supermarkets than in Athens). Arranged marriages are still going strong, but the matchmaker is now competing with a computer service. Doughnuts and koulourákia, popcorn and passatémbo; a priest, majestic in flowing black robes, licking an ice-cream cone or riding a motorbike - unthinkable ten or 15 years ago. Coexistence - but the edges are still jagged.

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