Daniel Butler remembers with a shudder. "At first, I thought it was a big truck coming down the street," says Butler about the earthquake, registering 5.9 on the Richter scale, that struck at 2:56 p.m. on Sept. 7. "Then everything was shaking. I just ran from the apartment, trying not to think about the Turkey quake." Butler and others in central Athens escaped with unsettled nerves, small cuts, and bruises, and the city suffered relatively minor damage. Those nearer the epicenter, in ramshackle suburbs some 20 kilometers north of downtown, were less fortunate. One hundred and fifteen people lost their lives; 100,000 will be homeless until their homes are safe.
But the most remarkable thing about the quake is how fast things are returning to normal. There has been little of the soul-searching that pervades post-earthquake Turkey. And part of the reason is that Greece is on something of a roll. The economy is growing at a healthy 3.5% pace, after posting 3.7% last year. The stock market is booming, with the Athens Stock Exchange General Index up 133% year-to-date, fueled by the hot economy and interest in privatizations. Greece is on track to qualify for membership in the European Monetary Union, with its budget deficit under control and inflation projected to be running at a rate of just 2.4% by the end of 1999. Christos Avramides, chief economist at Sigma Securities in Athens, estimates the cost of the emergency relief measures at about $65 million this year and $260 million more over the next two years' budgets--not enough to affect the deficit. Privatization is moving forward, with the Corinth Canal, the national Public Power Corp. utility, and the port authorities of Piraeus and Thessaloniki all due to be sold. "The way the market has been growing suggests Greeks are looking at fundamentals and getting the investing habit," says Avramides.
Athens, one of Europe's most chaotic cities, is also in the midst of an ambitious drive to reinvigorate itself, something it badly needs. Crawling through traffic in the western suburbs on a rainy day in clouds of fumes brings to mind Dante's Inferno, and the drive in from the cramped, decrepit airport is reminiscent of Sofia or Belgrade, not a major Western capital. But over the next few years, a more European Athens may emerge. The new metro, covering most areas of the city, will start running in late November and should ease traffic congestion. A new airport is scheduled to open in late 2001 or 2002, while the building of a village in the Mount Parnithia suburb for the 2004 Olympics should start soon, the first of several games-related projects that will beautify Athens. "The metro should make a huge difference--if people use it," says resident Nikos Tsouchlos. "As for the airport, the worry is that the road network won't be upgraded in time, which will make it almost impossible to get there."
Well, Rome wasn't built in a day. Maybe one shouldn't expect Athens to be rebuilt in one either.
Some things in Athens never seem to change, and one of them is the fury over the Elgin Marbles. Since August, visitors to the Acropolis have been given a pamphlet entitled The Parthenon Marbles in Exile, rekindling the long-standing row with Britain over sculptures removed by Lord Elgin in 1801 and bought from the occupying Turks. Greece maintains Britain has no right to hold on to the sculptures, currently housed in the British Museum in London. Britain begs to differ, pointing to the precedent that would be set in the art and antiquities world if the marbles were to go home.
"In an ideal world they should be returned, but it's a complex legal issue," says Simon Keay, professor of archaeology at the University of Southampton (and the brother of this writer). He gives as an example St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice, which is adorned with horses and a tetrarch taken from Constantinople in the 13th century: Should these be torn off and returned to Istanbul?
One solution has been floated: putting a new building atop the Acropolis to house the marbles. If it were designated a department of the British Museum, the whole thorny ownership issue could be evaded. At the very least, it would be a grand gesture--and Britain's own contribution to the bold new Athens of the 21st century.