01/13/2014 04:49 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2014

Athens in 1 Day, 2 Locals and 6 Questions

Katherine LaGrave

Greece has been a country hit hard by austerity measures, and no city more prominently than Athens. Here, police routinely march with gas masks to combat protestors, a homeless population has doubled in number since 2009, and approximately 27 percent of the population is unemployed. Curious to see how residents in the capital viewed these issues, I walked the streets of Athens and spoke to two locals -- same day and same questions.

Katherine LaGrace: What positive changes have you seen in the city in the past two years?

Vasilis, 32: Pessimists -- myself included -- will say there are none. But as I see how things are, I think there are some. Prices on rent and several products have dropped a bit. Prices on entertainment have also. New restaurants offer great food for less than 20 euros, when two years ago you would pay 40 euros for the same thing. Young businessmen know how to evolve during these times, unlike the old ones who still think people can pay. Greek products are becoming more popular than ever before and bars seem to realize this better than other businesses.

Another change is with people, and the way they see politics. A large percentage of citizens have finally realized that have been tricked. They are becoming more aware of how things work and at least they have learned to question some of the politicians' rhetoric.
There's also been a tremendous artistic movement the past two years and I believe it's because young people are trying to find ways to suppress the negative mood.

Konstantina, 24: Young people are trying to do more things -- cultural things. You've got quite a few theaters organized by younger people, and music, and things like that. They're also trying to open shops and cafes, but with a friendlier environment. They're creating atmospheres that are more down-to-earth and less fancy, and opening spaces where people can meet and exchange ideas.

KL: What negative changes have you seen?

Vasilis: The first is homeless people. Athens never had many, but this number has risen so much that it's now one of the top social problems. Also, what I experienced last year was something I never thought I would: As oil prices went up, many used their fireplaces and stoves to seek warmth. But the smoke was so thick that a mist covered the whole city! The police had to arrest people for cutting down trees in parks.

Something that has affected people and not the city itself is the way some have turned their beliefs far right. A political party, Golden Dawn, has promised to reform the system, and has taken 10 percent of the vote. Now that they have been elected, stupidity seems their biggest ally because people with no critical thinking are easily manipulated.

Konstantina: First off, I'd say homeless people. This is now a huge problem in the city. The city seems a bit more dangerous, and crime has gone up. Not just crime how it used to be, either, where people would break into a house and steal one or two pieces of jewelry. It's crime based on people being desperate to survive -- stealing food, for example. We've also got some scary things happening with our political system, and a party called Golden Dawn is currently in the spotlight.

KL: Compare Athens two years ago to Athens today.

Vasilis: A visitor won't notice much, but maybe the presence of the homeless, which is more obvious now, along with some closed stores and low mobility at the rest of them. There are other changes that can't be seen as clearly.

Konstantina: Two years ago it was definitely busier. There were more people out shopping and spending money, which is something you don't see so often. You might see people downtown and think it's busy, but not many people are buying things. They're just going for a day out to walk and feel like times are how they used to be. Many shops have closed.

KL: How would you describe the Greek spirit?

Vasilis: If you ask teachers or philosophers, the answer will be one or two phrases in Ancient Greek: Know yourself... do not exaggerate or overreact. Be balanced. But time has passed and we have changed, and I think we are very similar to other Mediterranean people. We exaggerate in all of our expressions -- good or bad. We are strongly connected to our place and family, and we still think we are the best in the world.

Konstantina: They are proud. They are a proud people, and there is a lot, historically, to be proud of. There haven't been so many positive changes recently, but the younger generations are trying to make something of it. You can see that. You can see that they're changing and creating. The negative aspect of having a lot of educated and creative young people is that a lot of them are leaving and going abroad because of a lack of opportunity. They can do so many things, but they aren't being helped here.

Another point is that Greeks, despite all of these problems, have a spirit of community. Even with the economic crisis, you see that people gather and try and help each other when they can. They're hospitable, and that's something wonderful to see -- that this still remains, despite hardships.

KL: In what ways has the economic crisis influenced you or your family?

Vasilis: I'm one of the very few that have had no salary cuts, which I guess makes me belong to one percent of the working class. But now I have no one to share it with because most of my friends are broke or not willing to spend money on a vacation, for example.

My parents' and sister's salaries have been cut 60 percent. My brother couldn't find a job for almost two years so he decided to continue his education and started a Master's degree in Sweden. We all help with his expenses.

Konstantina: My parents are both out of work, and we still live together. I was working as an English teacher, but now I'm also out of work and it's not easy to find. I was getting money from the unemployment office for about a year, but that finished and I can't get any more money. I'm trying to find a private school to teach at, but that's also not easy. Financially, if you think about it and look at the paperwork now, it's not worth going to a school, spending money to get there, and being paid money that doesn't even cover transportation expenses. It doesn't help, because you're not accumulating anything and because pay is consistently being decreased. Apart from that, you've got all of these new taxes to pay. So it's difficult.

KL: What do you think Greece has to offer the world?

Vasilis: You mean what Greece has offered. Laughs. But now? That's a hard question. The last century has come with global changes. No longer do the physical boundaries of a country distinguish the identity of people, as it used to do. Even so, I still think Greece has a lot to offer. Unfortunately, research and opportunity are low here, so we see a lot of bright people leaving this country for others that can offer more.

Konstantina: Well, we have offered the world quite a lot if you look at our history in science, history, theatre, art and numerous other things. Now, I'm sure it would be easier to offer some of our cultural accomplishments and innovations if the situation were a bit different. It's also unfortunate that a lot of our brightest minds are going to other countries.

Apart from that, we've got the same things we always have: nice weather and nice beaches. Nice places to go out, nice museums and nice theatres.