Thursday, 28 June 2012

Letter from Athens: 28 June 2012

This week should have been when those the Greek public reluctantly elected to run the country finally got down to business. 

It should have been. But it wasn’t.

It seemed like just moments after Antonis Samaras was sworn in as Prime  Minister when an announcement came that he was being admitted to hospital for emergency surgery for a detached retina.

Looking at it charitably, you might say “Tough break, Ant” and put his optical problems down to the huge strain of the daunting task ahead of him. Greeks, however, are not over-inclined to being charitable towards their politicians – especially these days. The moment the news broke, the cyber waves were swimming with cartoons and heavy satire about the one-eyed ruling the country of the blind.

If that were not enough, the Finance Minister was rushed to hospital after collapsing before he could be sworn in. Details were hazy – some say he fainted, others that he had a gastric problems, others yet that he was not happy with the make-up of the cabinet. But the result was the same - he resigned from his post and was replaced by (surprise, surprise) a banker.

So, the governance of the country was left to limp aimlessly along as Europe’s Big Wigs met again to try to sort out how to tackle the continent’s growing crisis, and the 83-year-old President of Democracy (a largely symbolic role) Carolos Papoulias flew Economy Class to Brussels to face the music.

Beyond the hallowed halls of Government, schools have now closed. The morning commute has become easier, now that hundreds of school buses and doting parents are not delivering the kids to class. Families around the country are coming to terms with exam results of varying quality and kids have their mind on their next trip to the beach. Many have been shipped off to relatives or summer camps in the countryside.

No such luck for elected MPs, due to be sworn in today, who are among the few to benefit from a cash injection. The same state that is figuratively pulling out the sofa cushions to look for spare change to keep the country’s health system creaking along has come up with 50 million Euros for its beloved political parties. 

The lion’s share goes to election winner Nea Dimocratia (15.4 million, down from the 17 million it received in 2009), followed by the leftist SYRIZA coalition which gets 14.1 million and former political heavyweights and now 'Yianni-no-mates' PASOK getting a mere 7.5 million. Smaller parties - the Independent Greek, the ultra nationalist Chryssi Avgi (Golden Dawn), the Democratic Left and KKE (the Communist Party of Greece) - each get between 3.4 and 4 million. And perhaps as a consolation prize, 750,000 Euros went to two more parties that failed to muster enough votes to enter Parliament.

Meanwhile, the mercury has been steadily rising to 'hotter than a handbag in Hades' levels. In temperatures up to 40 degrees Celsius, you're sweating before you stepped out of the shower, cats and dogs lie panting spread-eagled on the coolest spot they can find and ice cream melts before it reaches your mouth. In the city centre, tarmac on the roads sticks to the heels of your shoes and pigeons in Syntagma Square dive-bomb the fountains in search of a little relief. In shops, offices and homes that can afford it, air conditioning offers some artificial relief but the burden on the power grid has already bought the first (albeit thankfully brief) black-outs in some areas.

Things have started to hot up elsewhere too. 

Strong winds combined with soaring temperatures have put much of the country on high alert for forest fires, and the first of the summer’s blazes have already claimed swathes of green countryside and country homes.

Back in the capital, presumably in a misguided attempt to make a political point by targeting a big name multinational, armed arsonists set fire to the Athens headquarters of Miscrosoft. Apparently, however, they didn’t know that Microsoft Hellas is one of the few organisations offering practical assistance to small Greek start-up companies trying to make a new start in these trying times, by offering them office space and access to equipment. And it was the offices used by those Greek start-ups that were damaged by this week’s fire. 

Proof positive that the word 'irony' is Greek in origin. But then again, so is 'drama'.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Letter from Athens: 21 June 2012

A mass sigh of relief was let out across Greece this week – and it had nothing to do with the politicians who managed to strike a deal and form a Government.

School’s out for the nation’s schoolkids, and for those aged 12 and up, that marks the end of a grueling month of intense revision for their end-of-year exams to determine if they graduate to the next year of High School.

By yesterday evening, the ink was dry on the last of the exams in the nation’s schools (though some youngsters still face the tests set by foreign language institutes, taken through private evening schools) and the kids could finally let their hair down and enjoy being young.

In an ordinary middle class suburb of northern Athens, like many across the country, the class of 15-year-olds graduating from Junior to Senior High celebrated in a uniquely Greek way with a show that combined a spoof awards ceremony, self-penned songs, traditional folk dances and a full-on mini-rock show by the students.

It was a much needed release of tension for these adults in training. They’re part of a generation having to come to terms an uncertain future, the overturning of expectations and prospects, and the strain put on Greek family life by the economic woes of the country. These past two years have been more of a baptism of fire than an education for these teens now at an age when they’re becoming aware of politics and its effect on the society they live in.

Many have been caught up in the general anger of the time, fueled by massive disillusionment at mainstream politicians. Some have thrown themselves enthusiastically into the mob expressing their frustration in the most physical way at protests. Others have been even been charmed by the sinister siren call of extremism.

And yet, for most, teen life still goes on - albeit with some serious cutbacks. Fewer families than ever before have the means to head off for a week or two on an island or even their grandparents’ villages, take-away coffees drunk in the leafy shade of public parks have replaced hours spent in the city’s cafeterias, and jamming at a friendly house has taken the place of heading for a night at a club.

At their best, both Greeks and adolescents are irrepressible. They’re nearly always loud, frequently argumentative, often messy, and perhaps a little wayward – but their energy and lust for life is what they are all about.

Despite what some might think, it doesn’t take much to make them happy. A little respect, someone willing to listen to their point of view, the chance to express themselves without being slapped down by the Powers That Be (be they parents, teachers or the EU and IMF) and the right to have a say in their own destiny. Most just want to be left alone to enjoy the things they love – their friends, their family, their music and (yes, still) their beautiful country.

You’ll see their patriotism and passion on full display in the living rooms and balconies, coffee shops and bars of the country tomorrow night – when Greece and Germany go head-to-head on the football pitch in the Euro quarter-finals. Though few really dare to believe it, there’s a spark of hope that maybe (just maybe) the players in their national team might repeat the giant-slaying trick they pulled back in 2004.

Now, more than ever, they need a reason to celebrate.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Letter from Athens: 14 June 2012

Things are hotting up in the Greek capital – in more ways than one.

The mercury hit 39 degrees Celsius this week. Everywhere you look, Athenians are fanning themselves on public transport, seeking out shade and cooling breezes in the city’s parks and squares, swigging on bottles of water as they walk down the street and generally trying to keep their cool as another sweaty summer arrives with a vengeance.

They know how to handle the heat, and they embrace it by camping out on their balconies to catch a whiff of a breeze by night as they discuss the events of the day over an iced coffee or a chilled beer. After all, you can’t live here without becoming accustomed to scorching weather in June, July and August.

But what Greeks are NOT used to is the violent turn that the over-heated political climate has taken.

To most foreigners, the Greeks seem an excitable lot. You get off the plane at Athens airport or the ship at Piraeus port and all around you are people waving their arms and shouting at a rate of knots. Passions run high, voices are raised, moustaches (male and female) quiver, faces turn a delicate shade of magenta. Any minute, you expect to see daggers drawn and blood spilt. And then, they roar with laughter and embrace like brothers.

Greeks shout a lot, but they rarely get violent.  

However, since the last inconclusive election of 6 May, that has changed in a very real way.

Every day brings new reports of violence:
- A family of immigrants that has lived and worked in Greece for years is attacked in their home – one is so badly injured he had to be hospitalised;
- During a live TV debate, the poster boy of the self-styled Nationalist (critics call them Neo Nazis) Chryssi Avgi (Golden Dawn) party throws a glass of water at one woman politician and repeatedly punches another in the face when she smacks him on his arm with a newspaper in protest (he escapes arrest for assault by hiding out until the warrant expires, then emerges to announce he will sue his victims - and others - for ‘provocation’);
- A Communist party representative campaigning for this Sunday’s repeat election is beaten in the face with a knuckle-duster (or “iron fist” as the Greeks call them) when he challenges a group of thugs throwing water and juice around his party’s kiosk in a bustling suburban square;
- Reports of attacks in the street or train on foreign-looking people now so common they almost go unremarked.

This is a new and disturbing trend in Greek society. Of course, the potential for violence can be found anywhere, but despite the headline-grabbing images of rioting crowds throwing Molotov cocktails in Syntagma Square earlier this year, one-on-one up-close-and-personal violence has always been a rarity here. And even as police launched tear gas at protestors in Syntagma, just a few streets away people could be found sitting outside cafes sipping their coffee as they read the papers, discussed politics or battled it out on the Backgammon board.

There’s little doubt in most people’s minds what has sparked the latest rise in the frequency, severity and sheer nerve of the attacks in the past six weeks or so. Since winning almost 7% of the vote (presumably some of which came from desperate voters looking to punish mainstream politicians) and 21 seats in the Greek Parliament in early May, Chryssi Avgi have become increasingly vocal, volatile and – yes – provocative. Few think it’s a coincidence that the increase in violence has coincided with the rise of a party whose second-in-charge is a self-styled ‘street fighting’ specialist, and whose candidates openly give campaign speeches threatening to enter hospitals and childcare centres to throw out immigrants and their children.

It scares many a Greek. But there is a significant minority who justify such actions or even openly applaud them.

Fuelled by spiraling poverty and unemployment, rising prices, increasing tax demands on shrinking or non-existent incomes, and their beloved country being branded the bad boy of Europe, many Greeks are desperate for someone to blame and someone to punish. Illegal immigration is a huge burden for a country unable to support even its own people. The fabric of the state is close breaking point, with the health system almost collapsing and cancer patients unable to access the medication they need. Mainstream politicians are condemned by many for betraying their country and feeding the ordinary working folk to the wolves.

It’s a country haunted by fear for the future and a lost faith in the past. Little wonder then that there’s been a rise in support for the far right who condemn the powers that be and make grand (but vague) promises of restoring patriotic pride.

Three days before the next election, many Greeks still don’t know what they will vote. But most want the result to be conclusive this time. The uncertainty of the past two years, with Europe or the IMF dangling the Sword of Damocles over their heads, has taken its toll in many ways - including a worrying spike in the number of suicides in the past months.

If this Sunday’s election still fails to form a workable Government, they face yet another vote and weeks of uncertainty. And they will be robbed of yet another Sunday that could otherwise be spent enjoying one of the few things that are still affordable – the glorious Greek summer and a dip in the Med.