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Thursday, 14 July 2016

Athens 2016: Lost grandeur (Χαμένα μεγαλεία)

Running through the centre of Athens are two imposing avenues that connect the two major Athenian landmarks of Syntagma and Omonoia Squares. Stadiou and Panepistimiou Streets were where, a quarter of a century ago, I would come to go shopping. Stadiou is where, I was told by my boss, the expensive clothes and shoe shops were, if I wanted to buy something finer in life than what our working class neighbourhood of Egaleo could offer. I remember buying my favorite pair of shoes somewhere here - high heeled wooden sandals, with a peep-toe dark brown matt leather upper and cross-over straps with a firm buckle on the covered heel. They lasted for ages. I even remember the price - something in the range of 25,000 (~73€) drachmas, which the owner of the shop told me would drop to 20,000 (~58€) drachma if I didn't issue a receipt, a discount which I am sure I gladly accepted at the time.
 Panepistimou St, at the Vivliothiki (Library) bus stop

Despite the sweltering July heat, since I was in the area of Syntagma Square, I wanted to walk down those glorious roads again, to experience the grandeur that I recalled in my first few years of residence in Greece. I did not really know myself what I would find on Stadiou and Panepistimiou Steets more than two decades later. But it is only now, when I think very hard as I try to force myself to remember what those days were really like for me, that I recall the dirty buses, the rude bus drivers, the anxious faces among the throngs, the lotto ticket touts, the myriads of kiosks within a few metres of each other all selling the same things, and the cries of the hawkers as they tried to entice you into their businesses to consider their wares. I remember living those days in darkness, despite the bright sunlight that the Acropolis always seemed to be drenched in.*

We sat on the wooden benches of the pedestrianized area of Voukourestiou Street, as I pondered which street we should take first. Wendy's burger restaurant was long gone, the landmark replaced by the pricey and soulless Attika Mall. Stadiou is full of contrasts: some buildings still look imposing, and they still house many branded as well unbranded stores, interspersed with a few trendy (and some not so trendy) looking cafes whose staff all wear uniforms now in the colour of the business's logo. It didn't take long to come across the first of the boarded-up buildings on both sides of the street. Walking by the Bank of Greece's behind (its front is on Panepistimiou), we passed by a homeless couple that was still sleeping. Lying on rags, lined with cardboard boxes, their eyes were closed, as one hugged the other. They were lying in front of what seemed to be a boarded-up hotel with the impressive words 'palace' in its name. It is said that just one homeless person is too many, and in this particular location, the image stuck out like a sore thumb.

Pretending that we didn't see them, we stopped to admire the enticing sleek modern display of the IANOS bookshop. On entering, we realised that we would have to choose between high fashion and food for our thoughts. At least we could still afford to eat; we are confident of that. Apart from the many Greek titles, there were also many Greek translations of English books. A linguistics title by David Crystal caught my eye - didn't I read that while I was studying at VUW? But I was completely gobsmacked when I saw what was sitting prominently right next to it with its cover showing, bearing my VUW sociolinguistics professor's name on it. I'd read that one too in its earliest edition! We bought one of the cheaper Arkas volumes and continued on our way.

Patision St (aka 28th October)

Pausing just a little at Plateia Klafthmonos, I imagined who cried (κλαυθμός - klafth-MOS: cry), and who may still be crying here,** before passing through Korai to get to Panepistimiou, which is also called Eleftherios Venizelos Avenue (a spade is not necessarily a spade in Greece). I remember sitting here with a friend, who had driven me all the way from Egaleo to go out for drinks in this very spot. "It's nice here, isn't it?" she kept saying, implying Egaleo's shabbiness, and I always agreed with her, even though at the time I felt uncomfortable among the stemmed-glass candle-lit atmosphere. Athens' regular destruction by 'activists' had left this building intact; not even the omnipresent Greek graffiti was gracing its exterior. A number of tourists were taking photos on the steps of the main University building. I amused myself with the thought that they might have mistaken it for another of Pericles' works, built not in modern times, but in the Golden Age of Athens.

From here, the road descends into the chaos of Omonoia Square, once considered a central meeting place in Athens, with transients and provincials all being lured to it in the past, whether on purpose or by accident, as it was almost impossible not to end up here when coming into the centre of Athens, no matter which part of the country you came from. All roads led newcomers to Omonoia Square:
"They come, all the oppressed and ruined, from the whole of Greece... Indeed, where the monsters grow... they are small places. They first tyrannize and then ostracise those people with erotic variations, in particular. They force them to leave, to go to the large urban centres, and mainly to Athens. And when they arrive in Athens, very quickly they will come by Omonoia Square too, where a certain percentage will stick around."
My own memories of Omonoia Square are bittersweet. I did not want to be reminded of my days of having to bump into the ruined and oppressed as I went about my business. My nostalgia for the streets of my past ended here. Luckily for my children, they will never need to hang around here any longer than it takes to cross the road - they will be able to avoid it altogether.

First photo ever taken in Greece, 1839
Bonus photos:
Our walk took up north of Omonoia Square, up Patision Street, which is officially named 28th-October Street (Greeks never quite Westernised in their street naming style) where we walked past the (barricaded) Polytechneio (the one that started the fall of the junta in 1973), and visited the National Archaeological Museum. Despite its old-fashioned layout, the NAM contains some of the most fascinating collections of the oldest European civilisation. You won't be disappointed visiting this building. And while you're there, check out the wonderful ground floor cafe in the delightful museum gardens. 

* no wonder I left Athens and moved to Crete. For as long as I lived in Athens, I never felt like an Athenian.
** google it: (click here)

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Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Athens 2016: Syntagma Square (Σύνταγμα)

On first glance, Syntagma Square may look like an ordinary busy square that's a good place to get photographed in the centre of Athens, just as any large imposing square is in any other European capital city. Sometimes, it feels like the heart of Athens; but there are also times when can feel like Athens' arse. Whatever the case, a visit to Syntagma Square is a must, every time I go to Athens, just to get a feel for the city at that moment when I was visiting.

If you get to Syntagma Square by metro, you may not realise that you are about to exit utopia. The metro (still) looks like it was built last month and opened last week. That's Greece, land of contrast, country of extremes. Walk up the stairs to the viewing gallery where you might catch an exhibition or trade fair. Go and see the ancient graves and water pipes that were sliced through when the metro station was being built. Take in a bird's eye view of the people on the platform as they are going in and out of the trains. There's something here that will please everyone.

Take the escalator to get to the square itself above ground level, where you will see the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, standing next to the mighty tall body-fantastic Evzones dressed up in skirts and stockings. If you thought your wife spent too long getting dressed, think about these guys: they need at least half an hour just to get the uniform on, never mind make-up, and they can't even put it on all by themselves.

Where is that melodic music coming from? It's as if it was being played to welcome you. And those delicious aromas? Surely not from the McDonalds across the road. Walk down to the square to find out, but don't step on the grass. That's the ear-tagged stray dogs' turf. Their lives have been greatly enriched - not terminated - by the kindness of strangers. They are just hanging around, like the man (or two) who you will see resting on one of the benches. Don't spend too long staring at him - it's impolite. You  know he's homeless, but you don't know how or why he ended up like this.

Instead, try to soak up the atmosphere of what is happening in the square. If you are lucky, you will see a protest march passing through the square. What do those placards say? Perhaps it's all Greek to you. What's that stuff being sold at the various stalls? Don't confuse it with the paper paraphernalia of the various politicky grass roots movements which don't actually sell you any stuff - instead, they sell you ideas. Who are all these people on the square? Can you tell the tourists from the locals? And where are those migrants that everyone talks about in the news, whenever Greece is mentioned? Perhaps you can't tell them apart from the rest. Maybe they too are sunning themselves among the crowds; like you, they are soaking up the atmosphere, as they wait for the day they will bid farewell to Greece who gave them their first start of a new life in Europe.

Bonus photo:
Travelling on public transportation in Athens is very cheap - just €9 for five days on buses, trolleys, trams and metro trains, or €1.40 per single-ride ticket with a 90-minute duration. You only pay if you have a conscience - it is very very rare to have your ticket checked by an inspector, since no one wants the job, since an anarchist group began targeting ticket inspectors' home addresses.

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Wednesday, 29 June 2016

A very white view of Brexit

In all the Brexit discussions, I have not come across any discussion of the similarities between the Greek and the UK referenda. There are so many similarities, at least to me, and I wonder how the great economics analysts have missed this point, or maybe they have glossed over it. Since I haven't found anything written about it, I'll give you my thoughts on it in this post. If I don't do it, who else will?

A friend recommended to me that I watch the 'Lexit' film (click here if you wish to see it: made by UK left-wing thinkers that wanted a Brexit outcome (and they got it). It's probably the most balanced Brexit debate I've seen as it doesn't use scaremongering or immigration fears. Probably this is its greatest downfall: it bases all the Brexit arguments on trade and markets. That is not what the EU is all about.

Lexit is, naturally, very biased against the EU, but it reminds me uncannily of the Greek left's idealistic beliefs before SYRIZA came into power. Syriza kept highlighting its desire to stay in the EU, but essentially, Syriza was covertly against the EU. We all know full well how strongly Tsipras fought against everything the EU tried to get him to do, and he STILL supports the Greek public during strike action against his own government, when it passes measures to meet the EU's demands. SYRIZA/Tsipras couldn't state publicly that they were against the EU for mainly one reason: Greeks, generally speaking, do NOT want to leave the EU and they do NOT want to leave the euro and go back to the drachma. This should have been the first sign pointing to SYRIZA's feeble-mindedness: historically, it's always been the left that has been against the EU, in all parts of the European world.

In many ways, Lexit seems to make sense when it says that the EU is a choice between the market vs society. It's mainly right-wingers who will choose the market (ie the EU), while left-wingers will choose society. The film mentions some of the greatest UK advocates of society: Tony Benn, a staunch Labour MP, and Bob Crow, a trade unionist, are among them. Bob Crow reminds me of Arthur Scargill, another trade unionist who fought against Margaret Thatcher; he is also anti-EU. These men are all said to be pro-workers' rights, but in the end, they are/were in essence supporting 'closed shops', something Greeks know about quite well from pre-crisis times. Mention was made in Lexit about the loss of workers' rights, aka the rules that trade unions insist on for workers, which often go against sound business practices. Trade unions had great clout in Greece's recent past (pre-crisis); they could (and sometimes still do) bring the country to a standstill and hold it to ransom - but only because the country 'had' money back then. Now that the government is not free to spend the meagre resources it has available in a random way, trade unions' power has been broken. It sounds a little Thatcherite, doesn't it? Indeed: Greece was just 20-30 years behind the times.

Trade unions are just another form of a market, a less open one, with their own specific rules and regulations that support their own members. By supporting trade union policies, we were not really being democratic. Lexit argues that the EU is made up of appointed members, not elected members, so it's undemocratic. But for the most part, members from one state are appointed by the elected government of that state. Isn't that what we elect governments for? We elect them to get on with the job, and not to have to keep asking us what to do every time they want to do something. Sometimes they get things wrong, other times they don't tell us everything (Lexit claims that TTIP - another trade agreement - is being discussed in secret); but we should all know by now that politics is a dirty game, and at the present time, we do not have an alternative to traditional politics when it comes to running a country. Having said that, politics is much more transparent these days - technology (the rise of the internet) have really helped towards this effort.

The Greek referendum showed a clear split between the left and the right, which is not quite how the UK referendum turned out. The UK referendum also saw right-wingers that supported the LEAVE vote. Of course, there is a huge difference between the Greek and the UK referenda, the main one being that the Greek one was based on a question that was very open to interpretation: the question of the Greek referendum, which went something like: "Should the Greek government agree on a particular loan agreement?" got a resounding OXI (NO) outcome. So the government didn't agree to enforce that particular agreement... they decided to agree to something else instead... which to many analysts felt much worse than the 'original' agreement. Most people would agree that the OXI of the people was reinterpreted as a NAI by the government, giving rise to many photo memes based on phone conversations between David Cameron and Alexis Tsipras.
David Cameron is speaking on the phone:
Hi Alexi! If the British vote OXI to the union, could you make it NAI? 

What might have happened if the Greek referendum question had been 'leave the EU or not', or 'leave the eurozone or not'? The answer would probably have been REMAIN in both cases. Take note: I am remembering what the mood of the time was back then. Even as late as September 2015, during the second general election of the year (the third national election if you count the referendum), the candidates/parties wanting to see Greece out of the eurozone were not voted in. Things may have changed now almost a year later - but in my opinion, not by much.

In the Lexit film, Greece is regarded as crushed, with vicious austerity being imposed. If a country doesn't have money, even the word 'austerity' is being misused: Greece is BANKRUPT. It doesn't have the money to spend on basic state infrastructure, which led to a loss of jobs in the over-inflated public sector, which in turn scratched off the veneer: Greece looks so unkempt. Greece had been crushing itself before becoming bankrupt and begging others for money; in the past, money appeared magically whenever it was needed, but this is no longer the case. No wonder Greece's public assets needed to be 'flogged off' (as lexit claims). Greece's referendum result was also regarded as crushed by the EU. But OXI remained OXI - at least for the referendum question. The NAI was only given for another agreement - but that something else wasn't subjected to a referendum result! So the fireman-trade unionist is not just biased but blatantly misleading when he says that Greece was forced to sign an austere bailout package: Greece wanted more and more money by the time it had come to that stage!

In my opinion, Lexit looked more like a trade-unionists' opinion about the EU. I found that I couldn't trust everything the speakers said - they are using their own forms of 'popaganda' to make their claims sound believable. They used Varoufakis' claim that 'EU = terrorism', but they dislike Varoufakis' support for the EU. They insist that the ECB created last year's bank run in Greece just before the referendum. These British Lexiters are totally clueless about Greeks' love of hoarding cash. It really wasn't feasible to have millions of euros outside the banks, in homes, buried in fields. We are talking about 2015 - no Greek government till then had even attempted to engage citizens to learn how to use plastic money. And citizens on their part were preferred cash, a bit like King Midas: they liked to see it and count it - because they were not educated in how to do the same thing with their plastic cash. But even that has caught up with Greece now: as of 1st of August 2016, only plastic payments will be accepted in some businesses.

Lexit concentrates on the UK fishing industry and blames the EU for destroying it. With a Brexit, the UK will supposedly be able to build up their fishing industry to its former glory, and ports will start working again, and so will all those workers like porters and fish cleaners who now don't have jobs because the fishing industry has been decimated. I really wonder if the EU (if it were indeed at fault here) is truly responsible for the demise of the fishing industry. Young people move away form small towns because they aren't as exciting as big towns - in short, they don't want to live in small towns, and when they are forced to move back to small towns for economic reasons, they generally wish they were living elsewhere. Reviving coastal northern towns like Redcar, Hartlepool and Sunderland (which all voted overwhelmingly for Brexit) will take a lot more than building new homes and providing more state services: you have to make people want to go and live there, and from what I know of small Greek towns, I don't think there'll be many takers.

What's left in the UK is to pull the trigger and start the Brexit procedure. But no one is in a rush to pull that trigger. I don't even believe that the trigger will be pulled. It will have to be done by the head Brexiter (whoever that will be, once the Tories elect their new leader) ... who will be living and working in London... which voted overwhelmingly to BREMAIN, not to BREXIT! We are probably just about to find out that the Greeks and the Brits aren't much different after all; that Brexit just might have to be reinterpreted, so that it will end up looking like a Bremain. There may be huge differences between the countries of Greece and the UK, but since the UK referendum, it's pretty obvious that 'we all different, but we all froot'.

Brexit was not just a Lexit: it was also a Rexit - David Cameron was clearly a minority in his own party. Lexiters dislike banks, large corporations, capitalism - in short, they hate the right. But many people to the right of politics also supported Brexit. Left wingers don't want to associate with right wingers. So Lexit is actually ignoring its brothers in arms. Brexit has caused so many divisions in the UK - divided not just the country (Scotland wants to stay in the EU); it's divided traditional political groups - who seem to have similar ideas with each other. What is needed is to understand why the right also wanted to leave the UK - and who was actually voting for which side.

On the face of it, Brexit was a protest vote in much the same way as the OXI vote in Greece. Both referenda showed a very stark divide in the country. The groups who voted for OXI/LEAVE are very similar, as are the groups who voted for NAI/REMAIN:
  • OXI/LEAVE = 'I have nothing to lose': angry, poor, stubborn, idealistic, casting aside globalisation, nationalistic, nostalgic
  • NAI/REMAIN = 'I have everything to lose': elite, wealthy, anxious, scared of losing comfort, progressive
It's easier to understand why LEAVE won when viewed in this way:
- where is most of the money?
- where are most of the jobs?
- where are the most unemployed?
- where do the happiest people live?
- where do the most anxious live?
- which people in the UK have an inferiority complex?
- which have a superiority complex?
- where do most people who insist on making their main income from the arts live?
- how much will a person get if they sold their home?
- where do most 'educated' people live?
- what did expats vote?
- which areas of the UK do neo-immigrants go to for work?
- which parts of the country are the most exciting?
- which parts of the country are the most boring?
- which parts of the UK rely on the London bubble?
- which parts of the UK does the London bubble rely on?
The answer to the last question seems to be 'none'.

A shake up of old stagnant values isn't a bad thing. Every once in a while, we need a shake up. But what does Brexit tell us about the right wingers who want it? Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage were the main 'stars' of Brexit. On the one hand, we have a former right wing mayor of London; on the other hand, we have a UK MEP who heads a small far-right party that strongly opposes immigration. What made them decide that Britain will be Greater when it Brexits? I can only think of one question from my list above that encompasses their view: they have superiority complexes, and as politicians, they like to be heard - in short, they are power hungry. For some people, the incredible power that they have over weaker sectors of society is not enough - they want more.

What about immigration? Well, there was just a TINY bit of talk about that topic in the Lexit film. Immigration is not about blaming individuals, says Lexit: "free movement is, at its core, a neo-liberal attack on labour, on bargaining power, and on wage rates." That can really only mean one thing: immigraiton brings wages down. I guess that this is a bad thing in Lexiters' minds. No immigrant was given any air-time in Lexit. Why? Aren't immigrants a driving force in the UK? Are there no Lexiter British immigrants? Lexit shows no interest in them. Even the fireman trade unionist admits this: "Trade unions... have been far too silent about the issue." Lexit is totally biased pro-white British people. There was no BLACK speaker in the film: only Aaron Bastani had a foreign sounding name (apparently, he is of Iranian descent), but his accent was clearly British, and he had nothing to say about immigrants. Hence, Lexit is an ethnocentric view of Brexit. A claim is made that the EU underestimates 'our own people': white British people, I take it. The credits lists mainly English-sounding names (very few are non-English). Lexit is kind of racist, if you ask me.

I'd love to hear your views. I'd also love to add some more questions to the list I made above. But the end hasn't come yet. Article 50 has not yet been triggered. We all know what the Greek OXI vote ended up looking like. I can already see that I will not be needing to rush to get a passport issued. The UK will still be a part of the EU for a long, long time. Good luck, UK.

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Friday, 24 June 2016


Greece crossed a similar line to Brexit almost a year ago, when it came close to Grexit. 
The only difference is that Greece was at the time like the lame child of Europe which needed to be dragged along by someone stronger. Thanks to the EU, Greece was propped up, despite the difficulties that this entailed for both sides. Respect is due to the EU for forcing Alexis Tsipras to stay in the meeting room in order to come to an agreement with the EU without a Grexit. 
Life is always harder on the disabled but they too have rights which can only be exercised in a supportive environment. Greece's bailout terms are tough, but that's because Greece was in a very very tough position. 
The UK is not regarded as being in a difficult position. Its not regarded as lame, like Greece.  The UK isn't being treated as disabled, like Greece was. Its being treated as pig headed. That's why the EU isn't happy with the UK - it didn't have to come to this, as the message of the song (which was playing on my local radio station this morning, right after the UK's referendum results were announced) implies:

We took the wrong route,
and don't ask how or why,
we found ourselves in this deadlock.
You might be to blame,
maybe I am to blame,
perhaps it was just meant to be.

Now there remains no other solution,
but only separation
and if a tear does appear,
time will dry it,
time will dry it.

I can't, you can't
go back in time,
to not make the same mistake again.
We now both see it,
from this impasse,
whatever we do to get out of it is too little, too late.

Now there remains no other solution,
but only separation
and if a tear does appear,
time will dry it,
time will dry it.

Bye bye Mr Cameron, hello money-loving and black-hating leaders.

Coming soon: Boris Johnson as PM, and maybe Trump to follow in the US (now that he got a bit of oomph from Brexit), two nylon haired tossers that will soon be ruling the world.

I hear Scotland wants another referendum now. The United Kingdom was never really united after all. 

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Monday, 20 June 2016

Last Lands Conquered

My latest quilt project is about how the world was conquered. Many of the fabrics were collected from scraps, repurposed fabrics (eg curtains), used clothing and gifts from friends. The design of the quilt top is broadly based on a pattern I found on the web (Lantern Bloom by Fons and Porter). As I was using fabric scraps, I adapted the pattern to suit by scrap sizes, and added sashing to make it bigger. 

The fabrics were chosen with a specific story in mind: the race to conquer the last lands on Earth. 

The South Pacific's colours and patterns were waiting to be discovered.
The whole world had been discovered...
... and all the oceans of the Earth had been sailed...
... in the company of the animals of the sea and the land...
... with the knowledge gained from clocks and stars, using the sun and the moon as guides on those very long journeys.
The last great land mass to be discovered - New Zealand - was finally colonised in 1840 by the British (the French would have got it if the Brits hadn't got there when they did), and it slowly began to be anglified and eventually europeanised.

Not everyone was interested in the Far East - modern Greece had just come into being and was a popular stop on young men's Grand Tour, notably Lord Byron's, who died fighting for Greece's liberation. Greece's beauty and her monuments became famous to the point that some visitors - like Thomas Bruce, aka the Earl of Elgin - set their sights on taking some with them when they left. 

And in this way, the last undisocvered lands were conquered and pillaged. 

A lot of discovering was going on in the early 1800s. And in 2016, we are still talking about what happened 200 or so years ago, and still arguing about whether it was right or wrong. Whichever it was, one thing we can say is that it was the way of the world. What had to happen did happen. Many things that are happening today continue to happen even though they are not desirable. Time and tide wait for no man.

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