Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Greece with Simon Reeve (BBC)

The month saw the screening of the much-touted BBC documentary about Greece with Simon Reeve. The videos were uploaded to youtube as soon as they were shown, which I found strange, as the BBC doesn't usually allow their copyrighted works to be shown freely on the web. (They've been taken down now, no surprise there!) This is how I got a chance to see them. The two-part documentary was really quite OK in most ways, and I must say that SR showed great empathy for Greece and the Greeks, but some aspects of the issues raised on the show seemed to miss their global relevance, perhaps showing a tad of the extreme side of Greek life. Sensationalism does sell, after all. Here are my thoughts about the documentaries.

I was really surprised that a such a big melodramatic deal was made in the first part about the sponge diver's loss of income - shouldn't the trade be banned in the first place, given its over-consumptive nature? Seriously, the Mediterranean Sea has been raped enough and has become sick and almost barren. The sponge diver needs to diversify, so to speak. As for his home island (Pserimos) which has 30 people living on it in winter, I'd be interested to know what he and those 30 or so people do to preserve their lifestyle on an island that relies heavily on another island (Kalimnos) for food (and possibly water) supplies - we can't expect everything to be handed to us by the government. I wouldn't expect life to be so stagnant and unchanging for future generations. We need to think more seriously about being more self-sufficient.

I'm not surprised SR chose to an island that has seen an influx of migrants. Refugee tourism has brought Hollywood actors and high-profile artists to the island in recent times. But SR visited the area before people started drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. So his visit there is already dated in terms of when the show was made public. Yes, the situation looked surreal with the tourists and refugees virtually side by side, and the mainstay economy of the island - tourism - could be affected. But from SR's conversations with some of the refugees, it is uncannily obvious that from early on in the refugee crisis, they were being somewhat 'misinformed' about what they will find on the other side. The border is free, the Afghan boy says. This myth is now being debunked by the returnee migrants from Germany, who decided to be repatriated to their homelands. The Euronews TVchannel showed Iranian and Afghan migrants at a German airport, discussing why they were disenchanted with Europe - they thought that they would get a home and job immediately on arrival to Germany, but they had spent six months in a camp by the time they decided that they would leave. This link alludes to what followed: http://www.wsj.com/articles/some-migrants-in-germany-want-to-go-home-1453672274 . By the way, tourism numbers on refugee hotspot islands were generally not affected by the refugee crisis in 2015 (the aviation authority publishes stats at the end of every tourist season), although it's likely that these islands will suffer in terms of prebooking numbers for 2016.

Concerning Cretan gun culture, the shots are being fired against the BBC's handling of this issue: http://www.candianews.gr/2016/02/08/412673/ I live in Crete, we have guns in the house, but there is just no way that we view guns in the way described in the show! SR mentions that holding a gun is not part of his culture - tell me about it! The gun-toting priest is an 'aberration' similar to the choice of the suburb of Exarcheia (Athens) to 'see' how Greek people are feeling. SR picked out places with 'action', in the same way that he chose Kiffissia for its wealth. All capital cities in the world have their rich suburbs and poor suburbs. But even a 'poor' person can live in a wealthy suburb. Greek poverty today is not about not having enough money to survive - it's about the rapid impoverishment suffered by people whose lives took a 180-degree turn in such a short space of time. As for that 'scumbag' who didn't want to be filmed - excuse me? Whatever this young man believes in, isn't it a global right to demand privacy? He couldnt see where SR's camerapeople were pointing, so he assumed that they may have been filming him too. As for the curses made by the young man and his friends, SR did not realise they were empty threats; Greeks make them often - just like the death threats that were made by the gun-toting priest.

It's interesting to note that one of the farmers SR spoke to in Crete mentioned how the mountain-dwelling Cretan is ταλαιπωρημένος - meaning 'very tired, very weary, afflicted by troubles'. He did not show the vehicles that were used by the farmers to get up to the mitato (mountain huts). I bet it's the kind of car I can't afford to own myself. Their 'weary' life is very prosperous. Whereas once a Cretan farmer would walk 18 km a day and drive 2km, nowadays, the average is 2km of walking and 18km of driving.

SR was shocked to see children working on the landfill site. No mention was made of the cultural background of these children. They were Roma, not Greek. Of course, all children are children, and we mustnt discriminate between cultures. But I'm sure that SR would be equally shocked to hear that some children of traveller people (the euphemism for gypsy-Romany) probably also dont go to school, like these kids, and are probably raised in not-so-sanguine environments. The container town that he visited is simply not Greek. It does not represent how 'real' poor Greeks live. But no mention was made of the Roma in the show. It was all Greek to SR.

A friend asked me what I thought of the bit where the priest mentions WW2 in connection with the economic crisis, and says something to the likes of 'Merkel and Shaueble can't forgive Greece for hindering Hitler's plans'. What was said by the priest shows how much he has confused historical events. The idea of the Germans taking over Greece is part and parcel of the conspiracy theories that Greeks often create, which adds to their delusion in their (mis)understanding of events. Germany is not trying to take over Greece: Germany is simply trying to get back (some of) the money it gave to Greece in the form of loans with signed contracts. there are many Greeks who think that Greece should not pay back those loans and they tend to mix up what happened in WW2 with the present crisis. But the two dont go together at all. The war was a terrible time and yes, Greeks were treated harshly by Germans during the 1940s, but this has little to do with the leniency that Greece was treated with in the 1980s when they first started taking out foreign loans. We generally dont like the idea of Germany telling Greece what to do with our economy, and Germany has hinted in many ways how Greece must change tact in this respect, but that doesnt mean that Germany wants to take over Greece. There are a small group of people who even think that Germany should come and run some aspects of the Greek economy, given the incompetence of our government at this time. No one can doubt this - this particular govrnment, no matter how loveable they are with our tie-less prime minister, or how much more desirable they appear given the conservative opposition's track record for similar brutality when it comes to lowering budget costs, SYRIZA cannot hide its incompetence.


SR discusses the lucrative Greek shipping trade, saying that rich shipowners have become richer while poor dock workers are poorer because the work has diminished and they are being run out of their jobs. But the jobs were lost well before the crisis, due to way globalisation has changed trade, and because of cheaper outsourcing. On a personal note, the video shows the ANEK ships from the Chania-based company at the ship graveyard in Perama, KRITI 1 and LATO - boy, has my family 'done' those two ships in particular, until they were FINALLY pulled out of service. SR probably doesn't know that ANEK, a once thriving company, got in financial trouble due to mismanagement of funds. Whereas ANEK's ships exclusively took us to Athens (because they scared away the opposition by providing a lot of freebies to their most important customers, mainly truck drivers shipping fresh produce up north, and allowing them to accrue debts, coupled with over-hiring staff, especially φίλοι of φίλων, if you get my gist), ANEK now works with BLUE STAR ferries (I returned from Athens using one of their ships last Sunday). When mismanagement has completely scratched off the surface, it digs down deeper, rotting the core.

SR mentions that he will be going to the Peloponnese, but I think he barely touched on the area. The Peloponnese is a main producer of olive oil, fruit and veges, like Crete, so the Peloponnese is our competition, and since they are connected to the mainland, they have the upper edge. SR (who says he loves Greece) chose the strawberry industry of the Peloponnese to showcase modern slavery in Greek agriculture. He shows the tents in the fields where the migrants live: isn't this similar to the problems faced by strawberry pickers in the UK, which were also highlighted in the tragicomic novel by Marina Lewycka "Two Caravans" http://marinalewycka.com/caravans.html? SR then makes the gravest of errors by comparing Greece with Bangladesh, tut-tutting that he's seen better living conditions in his travels there, completely omitting to mention that modern slavery involving desperate immigrants is in fact a worldwide problem, especially rife in all developed countries. And then he asks a migrant what happened to him once: "They pulled out guns?" SR sounds astonished to hear this. This is so staged: he makes no mention of the #bloodstrawberries scandal (see http://www.organicallycooked.com/2013/04/blood-strawberries.html ). The topic was treated as a crisis subject in Greece: the Bangladeshis say they get 22 euro a day in takings from a hard job, but one worker says he has been there 16 years. The low pay does not urge him to leave, obviously. Immigrant workers are undocumented migrants, so they are in a country illegally; it's a lose-lose situation.

I seriously wondered at this point if SR's boss (BBC) wanted to showcase the negative aspects of Greece using distorted truths. For example, he says that the Peloponnese is a prosperous European farming community: no it isn't - it's just a prosperous GREEK farming community. Greek agriculture is seriously underestimated by our European partners (mainly due to transportation difficulties). The human rights worker on the strawberry farm tells us that Greeks have moved away from farming jobs over the years. Yes they have, that's why we need migrant workers, because we are too busy doing 'higher level' jobs, or trying to start up businesses of on a 'higher' level than picking fruit. That's why we don't go back to these jobs unless they are family-oriented (eg picking olive oil from one's own fields, for one's own supplies). These jobs are seasonal, whereas the popular startups that are now trending are for work all year round. Fruit picking can still be regarded by some as a middle class way for white people to get experience in getting their hands dirty. It's seen as a temporary in-between kind of job, not a permanent lifestyle choice.

SR is also very deviant in his narrative: he gets on a train in the Peloponnese and goes to Thessaloniki, and you think it's the same time period. But it's summer in the first documentary and at the end of the train journey, he's wearing winter clothes at an OXI military parade on October 26 to be precise, on St Dimitrios' feastday, the patron saint of Thessaloniki...  So the first part of the documentary was clearly filmed in summer, while the second part was filmed in autumn. (At the end of the video, I confirm this: SR finds himself at an olive harvest, work done in autumn in the north of the country - in Crete, the olive harvest goes on in winter too, because of the warmer climate). The tanks parade is a good moment for SR to allude to the SIEMENS affair (where Greeks bought stuff which they didn't need from Germans who gave their clients bonuses for choosing them - Siemens had money to burn).

"Look at this," SR says, "the bars and restaurants are full!" Yes, they are Simon, because you are in Thessaloniki on October 26, which was a Monday in 2015, and a holiday in Thessaloniki due to the patron saint's feastday (hence Thessaloniki had a 3-day weekend then!) and two days later there was a national holiday (OXI day on October 28), and many people would have used the opportunity of the 'light' week to take a day off on Tuesday, hence they had a 5-day weekend. So no, it wasn't that Greeks find austerity hard to live with as SR suggests, that had anything to do with the full bars and restaurants in the town; it was St Dimitrios feastday, a holiday in Thessaloniki, and people were out treating friends and family. SR knows nothing about the meaning of γιορτές. And when he's in the bar, he says, "Look, they're throwing flowers!" Well, we throw rice at weddings, and leave the tomatoes, eggs and yoghurt  for protests - everything has its place!

SR says he's seen a lot of poverty in Greece but Greeks seem rich enough to enjoy themselves, but he doesn't realise that entertainment prices have gone down over the years. Seriously, just 5 euros for a pot of flowers to be tossed at the singer? It cost more in the heydays! This parody of the pre-crisis period may help explain what I am talking about, especially in the following verse:

"Στων μπουρζουάδων τα events και τα μασκαραλίκια
(At the masquerade parties of the bourgeoisie
αποζητάς να βρίσκεσαι με όλα τα καθίκια
(you seek to find yourself among the assholes)
μα ξέχασες ξυπόλυτη πως μάζευες ραδίκια.
(but don't forget how, barefoot, you once foraged wild greens)"

Greeks know very well that the good days are over. But that won't stop them from enjoying life, never. "I'm slightly hammered," SR admits. "It doesn't take much to be honest," he adds. Is he alluding to the English alcohol problem?! In his moment of truth, his inner German tells him to save money, while his inner Greek tells him to party while you can, and his inner Greek wins...

I learnt a few things about the bears used in circuses from SR's choice of topics about Greece, although I'm not sure quite what he was trying to highlight with them. SR possibly picked this topic to discuss animal abuse in Greece. But this has changed too, and in a big way. (See http://www.organicallycooked.com/2015/04/agia-marina-donkey-rescue.html). And the fact that we still have bears in Greece shows that biodiversity is protected not just by sheer luck, but because we do not exploit nature in the way that the rich north has done. For instance, the fact that we still have bears in Greece, while the UK's bears were wiped out long ago must say something about nature being allowed to take its course. Somewhere in my reading, I learnt that Greece has the greatest rates of biodiversity in the whole of Europe, precisely due to its low 'protection' levels for nature - nature is left to its own devices, and it can thrive in this way, as with the sheepdog example that SR mentions.

The mine engineer in the coal mines of the north mentions cold temperatures of -20C which means that SR is probably in Ptolemaida - why SR doesn't mention place names is anyone's guess. He does this consistently in the second part of the documentary. Check this photo: http://www.zougla.gr/assets/images/1643418.jpg - we see this exact scene in the video. But not once does he mention that he is in Macedonia. I wonder why? Is it because he's trying to avoid reference to a place which can be the name of a part of Greece or the name of another country, at least as the UK uses the term? I can't really answer that. When the earth was being blown up at the coal mine, we hear SR say "That's a bit worrying with Greek health and safety being what it is". Well, that did not stop him from becoming a modern day Icarus when he used a paraglide-bicycle in Iraklio in PART 1 of the documentary (see PART 1). Without being an expert, I'd say health and safety is quite rigorous on work sites of this nature in Greece; when accidents happen (and of course, they do, like they do everywhere), it's because someone was lax about following the rules.

SR seems to know all the sensational topics in Greece. For example, cremation. When he visits Mt Athos, he 'finds out' that you can't be cremated in Greece. But he is already dated on that one - you will soon be able to be cremated in Greece. Since the death of the Greek actor Hatzisavvas last year who wanted to be cremated ( see http://www.protothema.gr/culture/article/532492/minas-hatzisavvas-stis-12-i-kideia-tou-sto-exoteriko-tha-metaferthei-i-soros-tou-gia-apotefrosi/ ), the issue has come back to the fore, and even in a place like Crete, the idea was voted in by a majority ONLY YESTERDAY (!!!), while the church expressed its objections and took a backseat view http://www.haniotika-nea.gr/sizitisi-gia-dimiourgia-apotefrotiriou-sto-dimotiko-simvoulio-irakliou-antitheti-i-topiki-ekklisia/

Μt Athos is pretty much out of bounds for me, so I can't really comment on the no meat, no women rules of the area. I know enough homosexuals who have visited it. 'Nuff said... (See http://www.organicallycooked.com/2012/01/way-we-were-greek-girl-in-london.html ). I have no idea about the breakaway church on the peninsula who are being chased out of the area. No females, right? Won't be long, then... SR tells us that the monks have learnt to cope with just the bare necessities. If they are getting things smuggled in to them, I'm sure some luxuries will be finding their way in with those bare necessities. The north does really good sausages... As for that quip by the monk: "Orthodoxy without Greece can survive but Greece without Orthodoxy cannot survive", keep in mind the bullshit that the gun-toting priest from Crete said about nationalism in the first part of the BBC documentary (see Part 1 above) - these priests are just speaking for themselves. The church is pretty much losing its pull. If it really wanted to stay in power in the minds of the average Greek, it would have offered to pay property taxes. Since it doesn't, it now has to find a way to come to terms with its being sidelined. Same-sex cohabitation has been voted in, and cremation is on its way. Greek Orthodox priests fear that their public-service salaries will one day be cut. They know they are nearly over.

SR's final foray into Greek culture is a village in Thrace where we see only Muslim women wearing headscarves. Thrace is in fact two parts of a prefecture stuck in two different countries. SR chose to show the 'extreme' side of the Greek part of Thrace. There's plenty of Greekness about Thrace too. Whereas Western Thrace is in Greece, Eastern Thrace is in modern-day Turkey. During the population exchange of 1922, the Greek Thracians in the eastern villages left, but the Turkish Thracians on the western side remained. This is because of the Treaty of Lausanne, an agreement that allowed some Muslims to stay in Greece and some Christians to stay in Turkey. The Muslims remained in Western Thrace, whereas the Greeks stayed in the Constantinople of the time which is of course now called Istanbul. My Greek friends from Eastern Thrace are mainly to be found in America these days (see http://www.organicallycooked.com/2011/11/saragli.html ). The Muslim women doing a Greek lesson are actually speaking Greek very fluently, albeit with an accent. But regional dialects still exist all over the country. Cretans are regarded to speak Greek with a heavy accent, as are Mitilineans (see the video here: http://www.ekathimerini.com/205800/gallery/ekathimerini/community/we-know-what-it-means-to-be-a-refugee-say-lesvos-grandmothers ) People living in border areas are nearly always multi-lingual. My son's fencing instructor for example speaks Greek, Serbian and Bulgarian, having grown up in the Greek border town of Florina in Macedonia, Northern Greece. "When we're bored, we go and have coffee with friends in Belgrade," he joked to me the other day.

I liked SR's analysis of the Greeks being proud and strong willed and not getting mad about being told what to do. This is the reason why Greece is in such a bad state at the moment. Greeks know there is a 'better' way, but they aren't patient enough to go down that track. Modern Greece is indeed a young country, as SR mentions. Returning to the land is bringing Greeks back to their roots as they try to adapt to the changes that have been forced on them. But SR spoils it for me at the end of the video when he starts his condescending spiel about Greece's future. It's that do-gooder quality of the north European which gets to me. Everyone thinks they have the right solution for Greece without asking the Greeks if that's the solution they want for themselves. No more foreign intervention please: as Greeks, we've had enough of it.

Overall, I think SR did manage to show the Greek people's accumulated anger and their desire to see things change. But it's a show after all, and some extreme aspects of Greek life have been sensationalised. That's what sells, after all.

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