Acropolis Angst

As the Greek government pushes painful austerity measures on its citizens to receive more EU bailout money—taxing necessities like heating oil up to 450 percent—I wonder how the Athenians I interviewed three years ago are faring today. One interview, with Pavlos, an Acropolis restoration worker, resulted in an incredible opportunity: a behind the scenes tour of the Acropolis.

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My time with Pavlos, and the weeks I spent in Athens, also illuminated the financial hardships that have dismantled the middle class, forcing more and more Greeks into poverty. Several times after ordering food at street side cafes, I found myself handing off dishes to hungry passersby. Indeed, throughout the city it was not uncommon to see decently dressed folks rummaging through dumpsters. People who, only recently lost everything. 

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Athenians enjoy a free meal cooked by local volunteers in Koumoundouros Square.

*****

I was fixated on the clock at the Acropolis metro station. This can’t be happening again. Just one day after someone stood me up for an interview, I was seemingly destined for a repeat. Today I had an 11 a.m. meeting with an Acropolis restoration worker. It was 11:15. As I studied a man strolling up and down the steps, I realized it would be difficult to identify Pavlos in a lineup.

We met briefly weeks ago, while he was in the middle of a protest with other unpaid Acropolis staffers. The protesters brandished signs in Greek and English as confused tourists traipsed by. For many travelers, this was perhaps the first indication that people in Greece’s capital were grappling with deep financial uncertainty.

When I asked one of the protesters—who finds time to demonstrate on her 30-minute lunch break—why employees of the most famed locale in Greece had not been paid in three months, she threw Pavlos, their de facto spokesperson, in front of me for questioning.

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During the height of Greece’s economic crisis, unpaid workers could be found protesting at the gates of the Acropolis every day.

Back to the station. When the clock struck 11:30, I trudged back to my apartment in Petralona. There I wasted no time sending Pavlos an irate email. Turns out, Pavlos had not seen my last message confirming our meeting. He apologized profusely and asked if I would meet him the following day.

In between sips of coffee, Pavlos chain-smoked cigarettes. Deep worry lines creased his forehead and cheeks. More wrinkles appeared on his face as he explained that ever since the economic crisis began in late 2009, working without pay for months at a time has become a nightmarish reality for many Greeks.

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Behind the scenes at the Acropolis with Pavlos.

Why don’t they just quit? Because finding a new job is almost impossible.

So the Greeks keep working in hopes that eventually they’ll get paid. That eventually they will be able to feed their families and pay their bills again. This is the case for Pavlos, 54, who is married with two teenage daughters. As a skilled stone carver who restores the Acropolis, his salary has diminished by about half. The problem is that 90 percent of the funding to restore the Acropolis comes from the EU, but EU officials have voted to hold the money until Greece can fork over its 10 percent, Pavlos explained.

Pavlos’s predicament is emblematic of many people’s situations in Greece today—those who have spent painstaking hours sharpening their crafts and paying into pensions that have disappeared. For Pavlos, the irony is not lost—he accepted a job at the Acropolis because he loves his country, is proud of its rich history. But the love was not reciprocated.

Before restoring the Acropolis, Pavlos worked with his hands at a marble factory carving stone for fireplaces. When two stone carvers happened upon Pavlos’s work, they were impressed enough to offer him a job at the Acropolis. The pay was never good, admitted Pavlos, who studied psychology at an Italian university. But he was drawn to the work for its cultural significance.

After our coffee, Pavlos and I walked the cobblestone path to the Acropolis, where he ushered me past security like I was Athena. Ducking rope after rope, I saw what few see: dusty people bedecked in goggles chiseling stone columns while the Caryatid statues—the female figures that hold the weight of the stone on their heads—supervised.

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I began to understand what an honor it is to do this work—to spend interminable hours restoring an icon of Greek Antiquity, an architectural and artistic feat from 5th century BC.

Situated on a rocky hill that rises over Athens, the Acropolis, with its pillared monuments and classical sculptures that have endured almost 25 centuries, is not only the birthplace of democracy but that of philosophy, theatre and speech.

I just hope Pavlos’s situation hasn’t worsened. That he is finally seeing regular paychecks for the piece of history he is dedicated to restoring and protecting.

 

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