Sunday, May 03, 2009

Athens vs. Barcelona

I left Athens last Monday. I spent last days in Barcelona (my former 'hometown' before moving to Greece) visiting old friends and enjoying a city which I love. There are many contrasts between Athens and Barcelona, which of course are easier to notice if you have been living in both, like me.

I just found a very interesting article in Life in Capital A, a bilingual (en/gr) magazine about Athens that you can even download online, where they compare both cities.

First and foremost, cleanliness. The central parts of the city look well-taken-care-of. As if by magic, when everybody's asleep, all the cigarette ends and empty beer bottles are collected, the pavements washed and the public spaces tidied up. The same thing happens in the parks. Every day, thousands of tourists visit these places, but every trace of them disappears overnight and in the
morning all is sparkling clean.

Well, they should have seen other Spanish cities (for instance, Girona, one hour away from Barcelona), comparing to which Barcelona looks like a dumping site. Anyway, the lack of street weepers and cleaners is surprising for a Spaniard used to it. Athenians make it up being respectful with their streets and cleaning the pavement in front of their own doors.

Policing is done correctly [in Barcelona]. I need to explain what I mean by that. When you walk down the main streets, you sense the discreet presence of the police, who patrol either by walking the beat, on bikes or in cars. If somebody is determined to break the law, even if this just means making a lot of noise during quiet periods, then the police take over.

Although I don't like the policemen of Barcelona, being too strict in small matters such as drinking a can of beer on the street, they seem the best professionals comparing with Greeks. Greek policemen are either scary (walking around in big groups with heavy guns and bulletproof vests around the city center) or inexistent (I didn't see a single policeman in my neighbourhood for seven months).

And of course, facts as the murder of a 15-year-old boy by policemen don't improve the public image of Greek police. Rather the opposite.

There are many pickpockets [in Barcelona] - taxi drivers always tell foreign visitors to be careful- and petty crime is quite common.

Street crime is not common in Athens, and even in crowded touristic areas you can walk without being constantly afraid of being stolen. This is something that I really appreciate. Although Barcelona is not as unsafe as this paragraph suggests, in Spanish touristic areas (and especially in Madrid and Barcelona), you'd better watch your step!

It is out of the question, however, for a tourist visiting Barcelona to witness 30 hooded thugs breaking shop windows - as happened recently in Kolonaki, one of the best policed areas of Athens - without a police officer intervening.

Indeed, in Spain they would have been badly beaten by policemen (even in peaceful demonstrations happens!), arrested and sentenced to several years of prison because of 'urban terrorism' or something like that. Which is not a good solution, either.

Things aren't overpriced, compared to Athens, where you sometimes have to pay a bit more for food. In Barcelona, good quality food is often reasonably priced.

The insane prices of terraces and 'posh' places in Athens are only due to the typical Athenian behaviour: "I go to have a coffee and I don't mind paying 4.50 € for it because I need to show off. And of course, I leave the 50 remaining cents as a tip, because I'm worth it". Tourists and visitors should note, however, that in Greece, 'having a coffee' often implies to stay three or four hours chatting with your friends.

About the food prices, we can discuss... the quality and quantity of an average Greek 'taverna' usually deserves the prices charged (not to talk about the live music in many of them!). About fast food, Greece is just unbeatable. A Greek 'pita gyros' is healthier and tastes better than any 'döner kebab' in Barcelona, whereas its price is less than half.

Luckily, both in Athens and Barcelona you can find quite many bars and eateries which are traditional and not tourist-oriented. However, you need advice from the locals (or a vast experience on drinking/eating out) to get to know the best ones!

Everybody enjoys an enviable standard of living. The inhabitants look relaxed and happy as they rub shoulders with the tourists, knowing full well the many advantages brought to their city by 7,000,000 visitors a year. Before the 1992 Olympic Games, inflation and unemployment were extremely high. Nowadays, the city is the pride of Catalonia and Spain.

Neither the living standards in Barcelona are so good, nor those in Athens so bad. It's very expensive to live in Barcelona. Many of my friends have part-time jobs and study hard for their Engineer diplomas, whereas my Athenian colleagues drive the cars bought by their parents, enjoy a less demanding University life and of course are 'too busy' to think about a job. Of course, the average living standard is higher in Barcelona than in Athens, as it is higher in the whole Spain than in Greece, but there's not such a big difference.

Out of the question, tourism and infrastructures of Barcelona boosted incredibly thanks to the Olympic Games... which were held 17 years ago. In Athens, they happened just five years ago. The pace of the changes has slowed afterwards, but Athens keeps changing.

I really like both cities, but in my humble opinion there is still a way to go for Athens, before reaching Barcelona. The Catalan city should be the mirror for the Greek capital. Both of them held the Olympic games in recent times. Barcelona did it 12 years earlier than Athens, let's see if the ongoing changes are fruitful and in the next 12 years Athens is able to catch up with Barcelona.

In any case, I strongly recommend paying a visit to Athens and Barcelona to get two wonderful (yet different) samples of the European side of the Mediterranean.

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