Policemen

Policemen throw tear gas at protesters during riots around Constitution (Syntagma) square in Athens June 15, 2011.

Last week, I was in Athens, Greece, lamenting my departure from a city with which I had fallen in love.  In a brief seven day trip, I grew incredibly fond of the people, the food, the history, the atmosphere, the weather, the personality, and even the language, despite its challenges.  The one thing, however, that confused me, was the constant presence of the upset and the striking.

I witnessed a peaceful demonstration and a Syntagma Square full of camped-out Grecians in tents in protest of the government.  As a naïve visitor, I admired it all from a distance, but had little understanding of what the conflict involved.  A local enlightened me on the situation and I left understanding that Greeks were unhappy about the debt and the misrepresentation of what they owed in comparison to other countries.  Some felt the media had expounded a debt issue to a crisis level that was not warranted.  Others felt the EU and the Greek government were not properly supportive of one another and that Greece might be better off on its own again, sans the EU.  Still more felt that the government needed to make reforms within Greece to help pull the country out of its problem in a way that did not cut the legs out from under the middle class, working people.  And then, there was the issue of general unemployment rates.

Ergo, I was able to continue enjoying my seven day vacation like any other tourist to any other city: parading around, strolling up and down the streets, drinking my strong Greek coffee at cafés and pretending I could speak Greek because I knew Yiasas and Efharisto.

I returned to my comfortable home to find this article posted on latimes.com, shedding a quick spotlight onto the upheaval that hit the city I had just left and loved so much.

I missed the tear gas and the hours of conflict, the arresting of 12 protestors and the fleeing of tourists to side streets as the main government square turned into a brawl.  I missed the police lining the streets and the shouting that filled the city.  But more than that, I missed the true understanding that would have enabled me to empathize or truly comprehend the heart of the Greek youth, a heart that beat so strongly that it led the people to demonstrate and revolt for the inequalities they felt they faced.  It's not that I missed the protest, per se, but rather that I missed the cultural awareness that it takes to be present in a city that I now understand I was merely passing through.

In a matter of days, the environment in Athens had changed drastically from a tourist-friendly city to one focused back on itself.  And maybe it's not wrong.  Maybe it's what Greece needs, or what the world needs to open its eyes to the problems people are really facing - the true reality, not the one we want to see in passing.

Yes, I loved the Parthenon, and the Temple of Zeus, Santorini Island and the wine tasting in Crete, but in order to love those things, I need to not only understand the culture that created them, but also the one that supports them now.

***Stephanie Caprini is the author of Living with B: A College Girl's Struggle with Bulimia and Everyday Life, and a blogger at www.truthsc.com. She also writes for the Darien Patch, an online magazine based in Darien, IL, and is working on publishing a second book.  Outside of writing, she is an Arbonne Consultant and a Spanish teacher for middle and high school students.