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At the Becks and Boris show
A British Airways jet of bilious yellow hue stood waiting for the off at Athens’s Venizelos International Airport as our afternoon flight from Naxos touched down on the rainsodden runway last Friday afternoon. “That could do with a bit of the Mrs Thatcher treatment,” I said to Rosemarie, recalling how the former PM, angered by the national carrier’s 1997 livery change, had cloaked the tailfin of a model 747 with her hanky.
Only later did I discover that the Athens visitor was BA’s newly painted Airbus 319 Firefly, there to bring the Olympic torch to Britain for the start of the 2012 Games. Behind the flickering flame sat, among others, The Princess Royal, David Beckham and London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson.
The notion that we were leaving behind company so august did not occur to us as we sped away from the airport by taxi to begin a 24-hour mini-holiday in the Greek capital.
That night there were drinks in a couple of our favourite bars in Plaka. In between came dinner — a fine vegetable soup, moussaka, veal with courgettes — in an excellent restaurant, long patronised by us, that takes its name from this delightful district at the foot of the Acropolis. Opening ouzos were ‘on the house’; so, too, was the fruit that completed the meal.
Most around us — Plaka’s usual mix of locals and visitors — seemed in jolly weekend mood. True, they were comparatively few in number but this was perhaps to be expected on a cold, fitfully showery evening.
Saturday dawned much brighter and warm enough to take us out on to the sunny balcony of our room in the Central Hotel — a tad over £100 a night, with excellent breakfast.
That meal consumed, we were out on a morning stroll to Syntagma Square, one side of which is dominated by the Parliament building, and then down the main shopping street of Ermou towards Monastiraki and its famous flea market.
A military band played cheery tunes from the shady side of a red-tiled church as we passed. In front of the Metro station were stalls piled high with cherries and strawberries. Round the corner, in the characterful cafés beside the railtracks, hundreds of locals smoked and harangued each other over their coffees.
We took up a position at a table outside one of the oldest of these meeting places, established, so its sign said, as long ago as 1828 and packed with pictures and artifacts from that period. Rummaging through the racks at a music shop opposite, I was pleased to find a CD of early Tom Jones hits and a double CD of 50 soul classics, which I bought for just two euros each.
It was after shortly after this lucky purchase that we witnessed the only unsettling sight of our two-week stay in Greece. This came in the sudden passage past our table of a group of 50 or so political demonstrators. From their flaunted national flags, black T-shirts and a threatening demeanour of the sort displayed by right-wing thugs the world over, it was evident these were supporters of Golden Dawn.
On first hearing of the group some months before, I thought it hard to take seriously a political party whose name links it with the mumbo jumbo of a coven of occultists that included Aleister Crowley. But the sight of this dangerous-looking bunch made for a hasty revision of that view.
Readers hoping I might be in a position to offer insights into a situation making headlines around the world will be disappointed — though surely, with my record, not surprised — that none is forthcoming today.
It does need to be said, though, that it was quite apparent to me that through all their troubles, the Greeks remain characteristically stoic. There was more sadness and bewilderment than anger in the eyes of those talking to me about their plight and the politicians that had caused it. These include, of course, not only their own but those in their fellow (thus far) Eurozone countries, among whom Germany’s Angela Merkel is Enemy Number One.
That her country — like many others — has a capacity for minority thuggery, incidentally, was evident in the disgraceful scenes of crowd violence shown on television during the ‘needle’ football match nine days ago between Berlin and Dusseldorf. These contrasted wildly with the jubilant celebrations I witnessed a day earlier in Naxos when Piraeus’s Olympiakos beat favourite CSKA Moscow in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague basketball final in Istanbul.
On the subject of sport, it has always seemed fairly clear to me that a major reason for Greece’s troubles has to be the lavish expenditure on the Athens Olympics eight years ago.
In this connection I was interested to read a recent opinion of Labour’s former (now shadow) Olympics minister Tessa Jowell. She told leisure chiefs: “Had we known what we know now, would we have bid for the Olympics? Almost certainly not.”
Something for Boris and his associates to chew on as they flew back with the flame. Except that the mayor was perhaps busy at work on his Monday Daily Telegraph column wherein was described a broken, ruined Athens very different from the one I saw on the same weekend.