Thursday, 26 July 2012

Letter from Athens: 26 July 2012

Greece is divided. 
Not in the way you might think, between haves and have-nots, or between the powers that be and those who have to put up with their machinations. But over the ill-judged quip of one of its Olympic hopefuls.

As the world’s top athletes started limbering up in London for their events in the 2012 Games, triple jumper Voula Papachristou opened up her Twitter account and posted a not very funny ‘joke’ about mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus and the increasing number of African migrants in Greece.

Presumably it was meant to make someone laugh – though who would be amused by such a weak attempt at humour is debatable.

They certainly weren’t laughing in the offices of the Greek Olympic Committee when they heard about it. They were so upset by the offending tweet, deemed racist by some, that they expelled her from the Greek Olympic team and sent her packing. Papachristou, they said, had expressed herself in a manner that is contrary to the ideals and values of the Olympics.

In truth, her comment was probably no more offensive that hundreds of so-called jokes bandied about in cafes, bars and even the media every day in Greece.

Whenever someone hits the headlines who is not a Greek national, their country of origin will always be reported regardless of whether it is relevant to the story or not. Kids throw around names in fun that would have many a northern European bleeding heart liberal covering their ears in horror. The terms 'Albanian', 'African' and 'Pakistan' are rarely used as complimentary or purely descriptive adjectives. And Mitsos in the local coffee shop has a whole repertoire of immigrant jokes to keep his pals amused as they battle it out on the backgammon board.

It’s harmless fun, many a Greek will tell you, and not indicative of any deep-seated animosity to foreigners.

They’re right. Up to a point. Despite the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in the current tough times, and the new presence of the extreme-right Golden Dawn party in Parliament, most Greeks are not racists. But casual verbal racism does persist in the
kafenion, in school yards, the workplace and – as illustrated by the case of Voula Papachristou – on social media, where many young Greeks are enthusiastic participants.

The thing is that Papachristou is not Mitsos from the

As an Olympian, she is a figure head, a role model and – like it or not – a representative of her country. When she opened her Twitter account this week and decided to make her wry remark, she failed to consider the weight that her sporting prowess would give her words in the public domain. She also failed to consider that the eyes, ears and translation tools of the world were now on her and her fellow Olympians, and that what might be a harmless throw-away remark in her neighbourhood could be perceived as highly offensive elsewhere.

She tried to put it right with a public apology, but it was not enough for the Greek Olympic Committee. As a result, she has paid a high price for her foolish remark.  She has lost her chance to compete against the world’s best in the biggest sporting event – something she has spent years working towards.

Some say it’s too high a price to pay. That whatever her personal political opinions, her comment was as innocent as it was ill-informed. Others say she has no business expressing such an opinion when she’s representing her nation at a time when its image could do with some positive vibes.

However you see it, Papachristou has learned the hard way a lesson we should all take on board: “
Think before you tweet!

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Letter from Athens: 12 July 2012

Greece is in the grip of another heatwave. 

When the temperature soars to more than 40 degrees Celsius during the day and stubbornly refuses to drop below 30 even in the dead of the night, it’s hard to stay focused on the job in hand (if you’re lucky enough to have one).

Those that can have abandoned the city. But for those who can’t, due to obligations or lack of funds, it’s a struggle. 

Refuge is sought in air conditioned shops or offices, fans are pulled out of storage to move the lethargic air around, sweat-soaked workers flop onto armchairs the minute they reach home, dogs pant madly for relief in the streets, a million cold showers are taken, cats refuse to budge from the shady spots they've stretched out on, and those who have to venture out into the sizzling heat bouncing off the city's cement and marble find it hard to put one heat-weary foot in front of the other.

Like many Athenians, I take the city’s public transport to get to work. It’s relatively cheap (though who know how long that will last), it’s eco-friendly, it saves on petrol and eliminates the problem of where to park once I arrive at my Piraeus office. On the downside, it’s slow (60-90 minutes one-way from my home in the northern suburbs to the office), often crowded, sometimes bumpy (I have the bruises to prove it) and with air conditioning that’s unequal to challenge set by this week’s weather.

But it’s one of those things you accept, warts and all. The inconveniences are as much part of the Metro, bus and electric rail network as the conveniences it offers…

…unless you’re an MP.

This week, New Democracy MP Adonis Georgiadis went on record saying that it would be an unacceptable humiliation for Members of Parliament to take the bus. (Presumably, he doesn't feel the need to win any popularity contests now that he has been voted in once again.)

That’s why they accept the complementary hire cars afforded to them by the Greek system. That’s why your chances of seeing a Greek MP riding the Underground like New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, or even pedaling round the streets like London’s Boris Johnson, are about as strong as they are of Angela Merkel being named Athens' favourite blonde. They won't be found hanging onto the straps on the crowded train, sharing body odour and reminders of last night’s tzatsiki with fellow passengers. 

Greek MPs apparently are worth more than the people who voted them in – and they certainly can’t risk be confronted by a tired, sweaty constituent while riding the No.040 to Syntagma Square.

But we mustn’t condemn them for stinginess, for they’re saving none of their own money by refusing to join the common people in the public transport system.

MPs get to ride for free - unlike the unemployed, who aren't even entitled to reduced ticket prices.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Letter from Athens: 5 July 2012

This week, I managed to escape the city. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I’m now slaving over a hot keyboard as I sit at a battered kitchen table several decades older than me, under the shade of a feral grape vine in the back yard of my in-laws’ small country house an hour’s drive from Athens.

And yet, although the insistent buzz of the cicadas has replaced the city’s shouts and sirens as my workday soundtrack, my escape is incomplete. The noisy insects have a rival for the attention of my eardrums – the relentless drone, and occasional explosion, of wall-to-wall TV news from the moment my husband’s parents make their morning coffee til late at night when they head for their bed.

Like many things in the country, the Greek way of delivering broadcast news takes some getting used to – especially if, like me, you’ve been raised on a diet of BBC’s Radio 4, ITN’s News at Ten or (on particularly daring days) Channel 4 News.

Greek news broadcasts are an entirely different beast. Though the main channels aspire to the standards set by Auntie Beeb, CNN, even Al Jazeera, with fancy opening titles, dramatic music and somber-faced anchormen, they don’t quite deliver.

For domestic news, especially politics, the main order of the day – every day – is shouting. Loudly, insistently and without a care for whether viewers can actually make any sense of what they’re watching. In a news technique particularly loved by the country’s private TV channels, a panel of guests are invited to (ahem) ‘debate’ the issues of the day, with each talking head shown on screen in a separate ‘parathyraki’ (little window). Perhaps it harks back to the days when the news of the day was passed from window to window in the villages that many Greeks still consider their ancestral home.

In reality, guests will probably be seated around the same table in the studio, but on screen we see each one in their own little box. And even before newsreader finishes their intro, we know that that three or four of squares will spend much of the following debate staring blankly out at us, saying nothing but looking increasingly frustrated and taking sneaky peeks at their watches, while the two most vocal – or extreme – members of the panel with go at it hammer and tongs. Most times, it’s little more than a formalised slanging match, a legitimised form of a schoolyard brawl (quite literally in a recent case), that viewers can justify watching in the name of staying abreast of the news of the day.

Almost everyone complains about the news programmes, whether it be for their sensationalism, political bias or obsession with plunging necklines for female newscasters. But the older generation, a highly-politicised group who built their lives against a backdrop of post-WW2 hardship, civil war, military dictatorship, the return of democracy and a period of prosperity before the current storm, stay loyal.

Not so, however, their children and grandchildren. They have grown up with, or been born into, the digital age. More and more, the theme tune of the morning, midday, early evening, mid evening and late night news is their cue to switch off, change channel or head out of the room for a toilet break. It’s not that they don’t want to be informed – though many would love to be able to simply turn a blind eye to the daily diet of doom and gloom – they just don’t trust the TV to deliver anymore.

Civilian journalism is on the rise. Countless blogs and portals have sprung up to keep the citizens of Greece – and beyond – abreast of what’s going on, and what’s not, in the country. Some are reliable. Others little more than rumour-mills. Some are highly professional. Others would make a fifth grade school project look good. Some strive to maintain balance. Others have a clear (or worse, hidden) political axe to grind. Here, as elsewhere, the extreme open access nature of the www is both its blessing and its curse.

Since I first arrived in Athens 23 years ago, the news landscape has changed beyond recognition. Then, TV was a stark choice of what was on the menu of the state-sponsored broadcaster, ERT. Today, myriads of private channels vie for the attention of your living room, and more and more people go online for their updates.

Babble is the order of the day, even in the idyllic Greek countryside. Most humble country retreats are equipped with antennas, so even when sipping your frappe over a game of backgammon on a balcony with a view of the Aegean, there’s always a timely reminder of the impending doom to compete with the shimmering summer heat and incessant cicadas.