It is now 20 years since I first arrived in Piraeus (the Greek port city which for this article is interchangeable with Athens) as a young shipping lawyer. I knew Greece a little from holiday visits and college friends from Greece, but thought I would be staying only 3 pleasant, island-hopping years.
Well, I took root, and some of the reasons for that continue to make Athens a great place to live and work.
First impressions for most people of Athens are of cement, asphalt, crazy traffic and a certain ersatz ugliness, sandwiched between Europe and the Middle East. But given a little time to look under the surface and peel away some layers, Athens isn’t just a big dirty city with a few relics of the true ancient glories. More “Big Onion” than Big Apple, the city is one of Europe’s liveliest, brash and busy in its modern shops, terrific nightlife and 24/7 pulse provided by the Greek people, one of Europe’s truly social and fun-loving peoples, and yet also full of quiet comers, shaded cafes and surprising treats (the cool forests of Parnitha 20 minutes from my home, medieval monasteries nestled into the city suburbs, the open air cinemas in the city centre, small ouzo bars tacked into the backstreets).
The ancient ruins are still marvellous of course but after you’ve (in my case) taken your sixteenth party of friends or family up the Acropolis or round the stunning museums, it is time to glory in the lifestyle that Athens can offer a family. Whilst the city attracts mixed reviews for its own immediate beauties, parks or facilities, it is the gateway after a two hour or less drive or ferry journey to ski resorts in the winter, or wonderful beaches and islands in the summer. Few major cities can offer so much variety on the doorstep.
When I first came to Greece, Athens (and the country) was changing, becoming more cosmopolitan in terms of food, culture and lifestyle and this continues to the present. As I write this, the international Athens festival hosting artists in all forms of music, theatre and dance from around the world is in full swing, and for those who haven’t acquired a taste for Greek popular music, or a talent for the Greek language, then the city still offers many diversions.
The Greek Tourist Office probably hoped Athens would join Barcelona as a city that re-invented itself after hosting the Olympics, and came to be part of the “cool weekend” circuit. Athens’ night clubs and the high quality and moderate cost of its many eateries are getting better known every year, but despite great improvements in the city’s infrastructure perhaps more needs to be done to improve its environment for its citizens. Much is being done and I sense the city’s future is bright.
If I ever thought that working in shipping in Greece would be more beaches than bills of lading, a couple of years experiencing the pace and intensity of the Greek shipping industry put that idea to rest. It is the country’s elite industry, and the working day in Piraues remains a long but endlessly diverse one, filled with the strong characters and entrepreneurs characteristic of this industry since the days of Onassis or Niarchos.
Twenty years on, I have been privileged to have had the opportunity to live and work here in the world’s greatest classical city but also to raise a family in a happy, human and secure modern city.
Patrick Hawkins, Partner and Head of Hill Dickinson International, Piraeus