The unexpected joy of saying no

A Letter from Athens, a city that refuses to compromise its integrity

Phoebe Greenwood writes from Athens, a city that refuses to compromise its integrity
Panaghia Kapnikarea, one of the oldest churches in Athens

Not long after I moved to Athens I started talking about energy. It was the taxi drivers who started me off, constantly asking why I’d quit a good job at a newspaper in London and moved alone to Greece without speaking Greek or having any Greek family, or a job. They looked at me aghast or uncomprehending in the rear-view mirror and I would try to explain. I just like its energy, I said.

Then I kept saying it – about those wild city parks with their cliffs that you can fall from to certain death because no one would ever put up a barrier. Like you just missed Pan scampering about in the trees. You can even feel it at the airport, in the Arrivals hall. And at the Parthenon, obviously. Huge, massive energy.

Friends correct me. Didn’t you say you were moving for the men who look like Poseidon? And the immorally cheap, compared to London, rents? All the different fried cheeses! Yes, yes. Initially yes, it was those things. But now, it’s mostly about the energy, I smile. They look uncomfortable, and I don’t care.

I wasn’t always this way. Athens is changing me, but as the Greek woman at the visa office told me, I needed to change. “You need to learn patience, miss,” she said, as I protested about the four-hour delay to my appointment. What she meant was, if I wanted to stay, I would have to adapt, and of course she was right.

Like Athena sprung from Father Zeus’ skull, Athens has been birthed from the word no. Take a recent interaction at my favourite restaurant. May I sit at one of these empty tables? No. What do you mean no? Your restaurant is empty. Wait, the waitress instructed, then removed herself to engage in a protracted conference with her manager. OK you can sit, but only for two hours.

At a pharmacy, the shop assistant asked me with concern what I wanted. I had walked past her without consultation towards a display of lipsticks. I need a lipstick, I told her. No, we don’t have any lipstick. But I’m looking at them, they’re right here. Oh, she admitted, those lipsticks. What are you doing, the florist demanded? I was looking at his fresh-cut flowers. No, you have to start here with the pot plants. Look at the plants first, then you can move towards the flowers.

The Athenian “no” isn’t rude, it’s just a system that won’t accommodate you. It doesn’t matter if it makes no sense or doesn’t work. If it means empty restaurants and unsold lipsticks, so be it, financial hardship cannot subordinate this city.

In 2015, the national debt to GDP ratio had risen to 179%, banks had shut, unemployment was at 60%, and still Greeks voted to reject help from the EU rather than be told how to run their country. A full year before Britain voted for Brexit, Greece voted oxi – no – because it would sooner take economic annihilation than do things your way. On this occasion, the government chose to ignore the no and accepted the Brussels bailout anyway. But that’s the point of the Greek no, it doesn’t always mean no. Its utterance is enough. It means that community will always come before capital here. And until you prove your adherence to the community’s rules, however nonsensical, you will be regarded as an existential threat.

The Greek church has not yet forgiven Rome for splitting from Orthodoxy in 1054 and nor has my neighbour, who no longer speaks to me

“Oxi ” day in Athens on 28 October every year, to mark Greek resistance to fascism. PHOTO: COURTESY WHYATHENS.COM

The elderly woman who lives in the apartment downstairs from mine is very religious. She moved to our building precisely because it is directly opposite a huge Greek Orthodox church where she spends most of her time and whose priests chant and ring bells at an unnecessarily loud volume from 7am. I wanted to find common ground with my neighbour. I explained that my Irish Australian family are Catholics and also fond of saints, bells and the lighting of candles. Her sweet face transformed to a mask of terror, she backed away from me crossing herself, repeating the only word she seems to know in English: “Schism!” The Greek church has not yet forgiven Rome for splitting from Orthodoxy in 1054 and nor has my neighbour, who no longer speaks to me.

The woman two floors down explained to me that the front door of our building must be kept locked at all times because of thieves. But why would you care about the building’s security, she pointed out, you’re not Greek. I protested. What happens if there’s a fire? Wouldn’t we be trapping anyone without a key in a burning building? There will be no fire, my neighbour told me, there will be an earthquake and because you live on the top floor, you needn’t worry about making an exit. You will already be dead. But of course, you wouldn’t understand that because you’re not Greek.

This attitude could be mistaken for xenophobia, and sometimes it is. But when you’ve been occupied so often – by Romans, Venetians, Ottomans, Germans, British, the EU, arty hipsters from London and Paris – you might feel unapologetic about your xenophobia. Maybe you’d think it’s fair enough.

A café on the top of Lykavittos Hill, overlooking Athens. PHOTO: COURTESY WHYATHENS.COM

You might also feel disinclined to correct your white-knuckle-ride pavements that are so slippery, broken and potted with unannounced gaping holes that the inattentive pedestrian will certainly break a limb if not their neck. Why feel the need to apply speed limits to the cars and mopeds careening down your narrow alleyways? Why not smirk at the pedestrians you have narrowly missed? If you own a dry cleaner’s, you might instruct your brother to take the strange foreigner to the laundromat on his moped because she seems not to realise it will be cheaper for her to clean her clothes there.

Athens refuses to kowtow to your pretensions or prissy expectations. Turning up on time is an act of aggression. Therapists interrupt sessions with clients to have their coffee delivered. Ferries run fifteen hours late and ferry operators will tell you they have no idea why, perhaps you should ask a fisherman. A friend visiting from Paris, confused by the number of emails it had taken to confirm a hotel booking, found the Athenian attitude “aggressively incompetent”. But it could equally be understood as a fierce assertion of civic identity.


A London friend told me spitefully before I moved that Athens was a city of Turks who think they’re Italians. He thought it was funny, but he couldn’t have been more wrong. Athens is in fact molecularly, fastidiously, uniquely Athenian. Bureaucratically, yes, it’s Balkan. From some angles it looks a bit Middle Eastern. Esoterically, it’s a Mediterranean Dublin, if we consider that the Greeks were the first peoples to overthrow the Ottomans like the Irish were the first to overthrow the British. But Athenians are built in opposition; Athens is a fortress of Athenian-ness that is violently defended.

Most Sundays, Athenian anarchists still fight Athenian police. In 1973, Athenian students launched an uprising against the military junta from their Polytechnic. The army sent in a tank but the students refused to stand down, many were killed and in 1974, the junta fell. On October 28, 1940, prime minister Ionannis Metaxas refused an ultimatum delivered to him by Mussolini demanding free passage of his army through Greece. Instead, he launched a Hellenic counterattack on Italian invading forces in the Pindus mountains. In April 1941, when Nazis finally raised their swastika above the Acropolis, Athenians stubbornly locked themselves in their houses. Greeks celebrate their resistance to fascism every October 28 on Oxi day – a national holiday for the word no.

The Athenian no is not rude. At least, it’s not only that. It is the city’s refusal to compromise its integrity of self. So I believe that in my own way, I am slowly becoming Athenian. Fuck it, no, I’m not just here for the fried cheese: this city has super-amazing energy.

Phoebe Greenwood is a former assistant editor and foreign correspondent at the Guardian, now reporting from Athens. She has written and broadcasted extensively from the Middle East and the Balkans

More Like This

Get a free copy of our print edition

Life, October 2022

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed

Your email address will not be published. The views expressed in the comments below are not those of Perspective. We encourage healthy debate, but racist, misogynistic, homophobic and other types of hateful comments will not be published.