(by Daniel B. Wallace)
There’s an old Hollywood movie about touring Europe titled, “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium.” In Greece, if it’s Wednesday, this must be a demonstration. Today is May 11, 2011. A Wednesday. I’m in Athens right now, looking at manuscripts of the Greek New Testament at the National Library. Paul Wheatley, a former intern, is with me. We’re staying with some friends. Last night it was announced that today there would be a general strike. Strikes and demonstrations are frequent in Athens. Greeks view their right to demonstrate the way Americans view their right to bear arms. It’s just a part of life, and everyone gets used to it. Many Greeks get so frustrated with their lives that they demonstrate and protest and strike as a way to vent their frustration. There was a strike at the elementary school, too, where our friend’s son attends. Some teachers strike; others teach. This day, the boy’s teacher was on strike so thirty minutes after he was dropped off, his dad picked him up again.
Paul and I left the apartment this morning and tried to take the Metro to the National Library, but it was blocked. We could go a little ways, but no more. Demonstrators were in the subway yelling their complaints about whatever. We then took a taxi as far as we were allowed, then walked a few blocks to the NL. When we arrived, Communists were marching in front of the library. The police were in riot gear, watching and waiting and probably praying that nothing would flare up.
Walking up to the National Library we saw some tents on the property. These housed Afghani refugees who snuck into the country then promptly went on a hunger strike until they got permanent visas. Some of them actually sewed their mouths shut.
As we went into the library, everything was calm. It was a different world inside. We declared our purpose, checked in our backpacks, took our computers, and walked through the main reading room. (To have Paul with me was a godsend, since he is fluent in modern Greek, having lived here for two years.) At the end of the reading room we went through a door and walked up a marble-floored staircase to the first floor (what Americans call the first floor is called the ground floor or zero floor in Europe). The staircase doubled back toward the main reading room, one flight up. Passing through a narrow hallway, with lockers and manuscripts in burlap sacks on either side of us, we arrived at the manuscript reading room. A man and a woman greeted us there. The small room seats about twelve people, though not comfortably. It’s never been full in all the years I’ve visited it. Paul and I were the only visitors there this day.
We examined just two manuscripts, one a tenth century copy of Paul’s letters and the general letters; the other, a fourteenth century copy of Acts, Paul’s letters, and the general letters. We found some interesting things in both of the manuscripts which I hope to report on later.
The manuscript reading room is open only from 9 AM to 2 PM. About 1:30, the demonstrators got a lot louder. One of the workers opened the window. But he quickly closed it because tear gas was getting into the room, which, we were told, could hurt the manuscripts. 2 o’clock came and went. We were still in the room. About 2:15, the woman told us that we needed to finish up. This was a first for me: every time I’ve been here before we needed to pack up promptly at 2. We suspected that the librarian was concerned for our safety and let us stay a little longer, till the brouhaha blew over. She warned us not to go out front but to get out of the library through the back door. The demonstrators had gotten a little feisty and were causing trouble.
We went back downstairs, through the main reading room, and collected our backpacks. The front door was locked. We had to leave through the back door. A library official escorted us to the rear entrance and showed us the way out. As we left we immediately turned toward the main street to see what all the commotion was about. Tear gas streaks were seen on the street in front of us. It got in our faces and irritated our eyes, nose, and throats. I had wanted to go to Starbucks across the street, but the riot police were in front of it. It was locked up. I guess Starbucks couldn’t have had much business today anyway, since no one would want to sip an espresso in the outdoor café while tear gas was filling his lungs and irritating his mucous membranes. We tried to get on the Metro, but it was chained shut. The demonstration had gotten a little out of hand.
More Communists were marching down the street. We headed back the other direction, behind the National Library and up the hill. As we approached a little café, we were interrupted by two squads of riot police marching on the street. Several streets were cordoned off. Demonstrators have to follow certain regulations. Break those rules, and the riot police get called in. We finally crossed the street, sat down at the café, and enjoyed the Greek sun, reminiscing on the day’s finds, listening to the sirens of an ambulance as it crawled past us, and hearing the demonstrators in the distance. Because of the congestion, the ambulance could hardly move. I quipped to Paul, “Whoever’s in that ambulance ain’t gonna make it.”
When we were ready to leave, a young lady from Canada approached us. “Oh, it is so good to hear English again!” she beamed. She was stuck in Athens for a couple of days, after having visited Santorini, one of the most beautiful, other-worldly islands of Greece. She just wanted to go home. This was her first experience of Athens, and it was not one she ever wanted to repeat. She had tried unsuccessfully to get a taxi back to her hotel. But every time she asked for a ride, the taxi driver indicated that he would not take her to that part of town. The hotel was in a seedy section of the city. As is often the case, hotels look better on paper than in real life. Because of the demonstrations, the hotel staff had advised her just to stay in her room and lock the door. A bit melodramatic. Paul assisted her, speaking to a taxi driver and getting her a ride. Other people were already in the cab, and she got in with them. It’s illegal for taxi drivers to pick up more than one party at a time. But many of them break the rules anyway, charging the full price for each person. Since this taxi driver was at least willing to take her to her hotel, we thought it was her best shot at getting back. Either that, or walk a couple of miles through demonstrators, tear gas, and bad neighborhoods.
After repeated failures at hailing a taxi ourselves, we finally got a ride. Made it back to our apartment in one piece. All in all, this was a great day. The only thing I regret is that I didn’t bring a camera to take pictures of the events unfolding before us. I used my iPhone 3G, which does OK in a pinch.
More reports from Athens coming later. Tomorrow will be calm again. No demonstrations. That’s because it’s Thursday.