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Monday, 26 March 2012

Safe Sex (1999)

Have you read any news about Greece as of late? Of course you have. For a start, you can't miss it. Greece is on the front page headlines of most mass-media press sites. It's the European country where HIV/Aids is on the increase, malaria has resurfaced, tuberculosis is running rampant, newborn testing is under threat, food is being distributed among the poor, homelessness has risen exponentially, potatoes, lamb and olive oil are being sold in bulk on the streets, illegal migration continues unhindered, state employees rob the state coffers, potential tourists have cancelled their holidays, strikes are a regular part of the country's schedule, ministry officials accept bribes to hand out state-approved loans, medical supplies are stored without ever being used - the list is endless. it gives a picture of a country having nothing to do with Europe, but more like something 'Out of Africa'. It reminds me of a Greek joke (invented by Greeks themselves).

Greece had so much catching up to do once she got into the European Union. In essence, that was both her comeuppance and her downfall. It was a time of 'out-with-the-old' and 'in-with-the-new'. It all came too easy: both the state and the people were being handed out the money to modernise, but not the advice on how to go about it.

The catching up process culminated to its peak in Athens, a city populated by provincials living under the shadow of Pericles. Modern technology - and of course money - began changing Athens' shabby look. The veneer was so well applied that Athens had begun to look like any other European capital: chic, sexy, raunchy, cultural, civil, and above all, modern. If it weren't for the Acropolis perched on a hill high above the urban sprawl, Athens would have been dismissed as just another European capital.

I remember walking home in the centre of Athens at seven o'clock on a Saturday morning after a night out on the town (my one-and-only all-nighter - I really am are a morning person). Even though I was alone, I never felt scared, threatened or uncomfortable. During the week, when I'd be returning home late in the evening (I finished work at 10.20pm), there were children walking home too, often with their parents, sometimes alone, after they'd finished their private lessons from the para-education system. There was no fear of being robbed or mugged.

Let's take a moment to remember when Athens was a respected modern European capital, at least in appearance. The film Safe Sex epitomises this time with its urban-anywhere images depicting the modern lives of a range of not-all-so-modern characters, often small-town/village people who came to Athens to live the dream of the modern Greek, a life away from provicialdom. The characters all come from different walks of life, but what is most important is that they are all tied by a common denominator, which is not that they are merely Greek, but that they are all embracing the new Greek identity that was in some way being forced on them at the time. There is the havoc of the tiny Athenian apartment where full Greek meals were being cooked, the transplanted village housewives whose lives were enriched by the daily soaps, the desire of the modern young Greek to be 'liked' and 'likeable', and above all, the concept of attaining what was once an inaccessible lifestyle for Greeks, now all within easy reach.



Safe Sex is one of my favorite films. It reminds me of the people I was (and sometimes still am) surrounded by. It also reminds me of people I've come across while living in Greece, and why I never regretted moving away from Athens. The film screened for the first time four years after I moved permanently to Hania, in the year I got married. It is available with Italian, but sadly not English, sub-titles. It is a very 'Greek' film, but despite its huge success when it first screened, it was not popular among all Greeks; perhaps the people complaining about it being mediocre, unoriginal and full of bad jokes were not looking in the mirror, but out of the window instead. It's not about laughing AT others, it's about laughing WITH them, and ultimately with ourselves.
 
Food-wise, Safe Sex illustrates some remarkably unique Greek phenomena, precisely delineating where Athens found herself in 1999, which shows where she came from in the first place, and where she was trying to head to. Here's a partial analysis of the culinary parts of first 35 minutes of the film: 
  1. Coffee: always served with a glass of water - everywhere (with cigarettes, usually) - 0:02:47 
  2. Peeling vegetables: provincial Greeks often use a knife rather than a vegetable peeler - 0:03:27 (Kastanis' role is a provincial housewife living in a central Athens suburb in a modern apartment) 
  3. Breakfast: that is a concept that rarely exists in Greece, yet we see two homosexuals enjoying a modern looking breakfast, complete with English-style teapot. Supposedly Greece was heading in this direction, but never quite got there... - 0:08:05 
  4. Lunch in the private clinic's staff cafeteria looks like a three-course meal - and so it should be, since the Greek midday meal is still considered the main meal of the day. Note that the main course consists of something that looks like pasta and mince (for both actors), a modern-shaped bread bun, with a side dish of salad and another of fresh fruit. The traditional wine is swapped for a modern fizzy drink (due to sponsor advertising, no doubt). It is often claimed that the traditional Mediterranean diet is not being followed by Greeks in modern times, but this clip shows quite the opposite - Greeks are more likely to eat their traditional meals together with a side order of junk food - 0:12:17
  5. A modern (unmarried) Greek couple is carrying a boxed store-bought torte to take to a friend they are about to visit. Store-bought sweets as presents have been de rigeur for a long time in Greece, especially among provincial Greeks - 0:14:15 (you can see them eating it at 0:15:27, after they've been drinking beer straight from the bottle - at the time, a very modern trend moang modern people, like the homosexual couple)
  6. A modern Greek dining scene - note the crockery. The guests are all upper-middle class professionals. Smoking was still tolerated at this time, hence the abundance of smoke and cigarette packets in full view - 0:18:15
  7. A very modern Greek kitchen: most kitchens in Greek homes, both in the countryside and the city, are still modelled on the fitted-cupboards style. Among the Greeks, there is no desire for retaining anything that looks old, so don't expect to see an Aga oven and cottage kitchen when a house is being renovated, not even in the countryside - 0:24:10 (a similar, yet very much lower-class kitchen is also seen at 0:33:56)
  8. The taxi driver comes home for his midday meal - virtually a copy of the clinic's staff lunch meal, minus the fruit, reflecting the global trend that the lower classes consistently show signs of worse nourishment than the upper classes - 0:30:14 (note his evening meal at 34:01 - it's very similar to his lunch meal)
  9. A typical in-office Greek meal: tiropita and a fizzy drink (HBH is obviously one of the sponsors of the film - a frappe would probably be the norm here). It's not much too different from an office meal in any Western country, with a slight Greek slant - 0:34:50
  10. The provincial urban housewife is making home-made filo pastry for a pie - 0:35:08
Just 35 minutes in a 95-minute film, and we already have 13 scenes where food plays a reasonably prominent role. That's one food scene for every three minutes. You can check out more food scenes for yourself (there's a good one of a modern restaurant, quite unlike what you would expect to find at a vilage taverna - more on the urban/rural divide).

The 1990s were a decade of glossy facade, but they were also a time when people felt very secure. Even though the system (ie the way things ran in Greece) was just as unfair then and it still is now, people weren't reacting to it in those days, possibly because nearly everyone had found a place in it. Some had a better place in it than others, but everyone did actually have a place somewhere, unlike now, where there is a greater divide between the rich and the poor, and the middle class has practically disappeared.

Athens is often taken for granted as the representative of the whole country. But Athens is nothing like the επαρχία, and certainly nothing like Crete: in fact, Hania and Athens are like two different planets. You'd have to look hard to find HIV/Aids, malaria, tuberculosis, food distribution and homelessness (although you will see illegal immigrants) here. Crete has never resembled Athens in the first place - but it's the same kind of people populating both places. One group moved north, while the other stayed put.

Safe Sex was, in my opinion, one of the best films ever made in Greece. It showed the development of contemporary Greece from many facets. It's painful to watch it, because it reminds me of Greece's history. One group built, another destroyed; all those facets of life depicted in Safe Sex are no longer with us, since Athens - and indeed the whole of Greece - was smashed to smithereens once again by a new enemy, economics, a word she invented for the whole world.  

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