Athens, the City of the Bitter Orange Trees

04/24/2015 03:46 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015

I am in Athens this spring and the city is drowning in the fragrance of the bitter orange trees that flood its sidewalks. The aroma is intoxicating, numbing the mind and the body's senses. As you meander its sweet smelling streets, the city makes you want to cry out for joy amid the heavenly scent that makes you completely transcend what is happening around you.

For, Athens is a troubled city, tortured from the festering debt crisis that is squeezing its citizens, forcing them towards the penultimate stage prior to suffocation, as the country's lenders insist on a new austerity deal while its government plays up the trump card of a possible bankruptcy.

In most places, the roads are dirty with overloaded garbage containers strewn around like a bad joke. It looks like it's been years since the city has had a good cleaning, both inside and out. It appears as if it is hiding the deep pain of its residents who prospered until 2010 when, suddenly, the economic crisis hit, mercilessly sinking 45% of them to the brink of poverty.
Many downtown shops remain closed, around the central core of Panepistimiou, Stadiou and Academia streets, or in posh Kolonaki, where decrepit "for rent" or "for sale" signs abound after five long years of recession.

When you approach the center, from Constitution to Concord Squares, through the Patissia and Kypseli areas, your heart can not help but pound from pity as dozens of homeless immigrants and refugees seek shelter, food and a future for themselves and their children.

The Greeks spy them suspiciously as they see them as having arrived to partake in daily labor that no longer exists for themselves. It is left to the soup kitchens of the municipality and those of the Greek Orthodox Church to provide a minimum for the thousands of destitute.

The Syriza government was elected with much hope for the aliens, given its sympathetic stance towards immigration, but without any real plan of action. Trapped by its election promises, it proceeded to quickly shutter many squalid immigrant camps, resulting in a flurry of illegal immigrants on Athens' streets. At the same time, the European Union has been reluctant to provide further funding, leaving the administration boxed in by its good intentions and the relentless daily reality of hundreds of new arrivals by land, from Greece's border with Turkey, or from the sea to the south.

At the same time, the city is marked by the spray of the anarchists that have blackened the universities and the central governmental buildings with graffiti. The statues of the country's national heroes are hidden behind protective netting, most of which are continuously being cleaned by specialized teams. The city stands victim to these cowardly attacks that are on the rise.

The Acropolis is the only bastion that stands unnerved by the events and the overwhelming developments, untouched by the circumstances. The Acropolis Museum, a work of art that houses the culmination of Athenian classic art, is the only obvious contemporary work of the Greek people that connects their glorious past with their troubled present.

Bravely, the Athenians, themselves, flock to the cafes, enjoying the rays of the sun, shining brightly, as if illuminating their souls. Bombarded by the debt crisis, with a government on the brink of bankruptcy, they seem to be trying to enjoy any precious moment as the reality remains fluid, like a thick messy liquid.

Their way of living, day by day, spreads to the fashionable restaurants offering wonderful Greek dishes that marry tradition with more "trendy" adaptations. The Athenians, tired of worrying about the waves of refugees sweeping their city, the garbage or the squatters overwhelming their public institutions or the looming bankruptcy, choose to enjoy life.

They are determined to appreciate what the moment brings, under the smell of the bitter orange trees in their lively capital!

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