Still @home


‘Nuns fret not at their Convent’s narrow room;
And Hermits are contented with their Cells;
And Students with their pensive Citadels;
Maids at the Wheel, the Weaver at his Loom
Sit blithe and happy; Bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-Fells,
Will murmur by the hour in Foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.’


William Wordsworth


These days it’s a plus to be someone who likes being alone and takes pleasure in their own company. Sometimes it can even be easier than being cooped up with others, especially if you don’t get along particularly well… Be that as it may, we’re all in this together, as the press does not stop reminding us. And it’s true, globalisation has never been so pertinent. So we must all try to find ways to embellish our living conditions as much as possible.

Seeing  as the coronavirus has been unable to stop the coming of spring, I have been enjoying painting the daffs and tulips in my vases in various ways. In the drawing below, the ink marks were made using a stick I picked up outside. 

 



For a bit of news from Greece, every day at six o’clock people have been turning on the TV to listen to the health bulletin read by the new national guru, Professor Sotiris Tsiodras. Harvard and MIT educated, the self-effacing and mild-mannered Professor Tsiodras has been appointed by the government to manage the coronavirus crisis as well as communicating to the public about it. An austere, almost ascetic man (he is father to seven children, and a psalm singer in church), he seems unsuited for the role of television personality. However, he has managed to gain the trust of a people usually very suspicion of those in authority. This is just as well, because Greeks do not take kindly to obeying rules; and of course there is the inevitable faction of rebels who do not hesitate in accusing him of trying to instill fear in the population for political reasons, going so far as to troll him on social media. However, in general the Greek government has been following the French example of confinement and things seem to be reasonably calm.

Professor Sotiris Tsiodras



Nevertheless, there is great worry about the day after, since Greece has been trying to emerge from unprecedented crisis and the EU is now widely seen as not being up to par in its obligations. As for the refugee problem, it will not abate anytime soon, given the continuing wars in Syria and Libya.

In better news, the Ministry of Health is taking delivery of a large amount of protective material (masks etc) from China, the cost of which has mostly been covered by the Onassis Foundation.


Finally, Greece is mourning the death, at 97, of Manolis Glezos, left-wing politician and Anti-Nazi resistance hero.
He will always be remembered for his feat, as a young man, of ripping down the swastika from the Acropolis. On May 30, 1941, aged 18, he scaled the walls with a companion in the dead of night, to remove the occupyers’ flag. He was arrested and tortured, and subsequently sentenced to death multiple times; due to his political activism, he spent sixteen years of his life confined to a prison cell. Later he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize, and vociferously campaigned well into his 90s for German reparations as compensation for the atrocities Greeks suffered at the hands of the Nazis.
Glezos lived with his wife Georgia in a little house in Athens filled with books, and was a great believer in the afternoon nap – the legacy of a life of exile and imprisonment.



Going back to Wordsworth, and his ‘host of golden daffodils’, here a cartoon by the inimitable Matt, to make you smile: 

And to finish off, I’d like to share a little video I came upon, about musical twins in Italy. Who could be gloomy with these two in the house!

Staying home

 

It’s difficult to know how to describe the situation we find ourselves in. A mini-apocalypse? A plague? A warning for the future?
It’s been hard accepting how dangerous the virus is, and how contagious. Most of us, if in good health, kept up normal activities for a while, thinking it was just a bad kind of flu. Some are still not taking it seriously enough, obliging governments to impose confinement, curfews and fines.
In retrospect, it was a disaster waiting to happen, given the global amount of traveling that goes on, with no health checks whatsoever. The proof has been the rapidity with which the virus has spread worldwide.

However, this too shall pass, as have all previous epidemics: the object now being to limit the devastation it will leave in its wake, both in terms of deaths and financial.

 

I made this happy painting using natural powdered pigments, and loads of pink!


It’s interesting, and sometimes weird, to see how people are reacting. I still have friends who are on holiday, blithely ignoring the fact that they might be blocked from going home, maybe for months. Thousands of travelers, of all nationalities, are stuck abroad as we speak.

As with all extreme situations, this has brought out the best and the worst in people. Every day we witness incredible scenes—some of outrageous selfishness, some of great kindness.

 

Sketching what’s in front of me



Indisputably, we must come to terms with the new reality facing us for weeks, maybe for months to come.

I find myself back in confinement after the weeks when I could put no weight on my broken ankle—but this time without a cast! Bliss. I can now cook, and, as everyone knows, food is a great lifter of spirits. Improvising with what we have in the fridge, freezer and store cupboard. And I’ve been doing some foraging. There’s a little stream nearby, and its banks are full of wild garlic and nettles. Good for pesto, and soup, perhaps. There was a little yellow frog hopping about, and for a minute I thought ‘Frog legs!’, but then, Noo. No way 🙂

 

Another of my powdered pigment experiments


I feel so thankful and privileged to be able to go out in the garden. It’s such an escape from feeling like murdering the loved ones. I think of people stuck with small kids in tiny appartments. People worried about losing their jobs or going bankrupt. The refugees, piled in camps with no hygiene. People stuck in prison. The elderly who cannot see their families because they risk being contaminated. Africans who have no access to clean water with which to wash their hands. The list goes on.

I also have so much respect for the people with no choice but to continue working in very uncertain conditions. Nurses, doctors, policemen, firefighters, couriers, pharmacists, cashiers and many more.

 

Floral study

 

Apart from cooking, and reading, I’ve been drawing and painting, color being another spirit booster. Amazing how many ways there are of describing one cheerful vase of daffodils.

And let’s not forget that laughter is the best medicine. People’s sense of humor is flourishing, I’m pleased to report, with a spate of jokes, memes and caricatures flooding the web and my social media.

 

 

And I’m sure his mum was hovering just out of sight, in case he needed something else…

Greek cops can sing


Here’s a little news story that brought a smile to our faces today, amid all the depressing articles about the economy, the refugee situation, Brexit, the wars going on everywhere and the usual spate of crimes: A young policeman in uniform in the Monastiraki quarter of Athens joined a busker playing guitar in the street, taking the microphone and belting out ‘Stand by me,’ – in English – to the delight of passers by. The video of his performance has gone viral.

See below:

 

Disclaimer: I didn’t mean that ALL Greek cops can sing, nor was I suggesting they take music lessons in working hours!

 

Archaeological detective work

While some people’s job is to look for burglars or murderers, forensic archaeologists Christos Tsirogiannis spends his time searching for looted antiquities.
He has identified 1,100 such artefacts in 13 years, and accuses the major auction houses, such as Christie’s, Sotheby’s or Bonham’s, of failing to properly check the provenance of antiquities in their catalogues. He asserts that they don’t take the necessary steps in due diligence by contacting the authorities before buying or selling antiquities.
Of course, the auction houses deny this, and insist they do work with authorities in order to establish due diligence, but that they don’t have access to the databases of seized objects, something which Tsirogiannis contests.

 

Photo: Google

 

Be that as it may, Bonham’s has recently withdrawn an ancient Greek drinking vessel from sale amid accusations that it was illegally excavated. Tsirogiannis alerted Interpol after producing evidence linking the Bonhams antiquity to convicted traffickers in stolen artefacts. He recognised lot 95, an ­ancient Greek vessel from 375-350 BC, in Bonhams’ catalogue for its July 3 ­antiquities auction at its flagship London salesroom. The 8in-high Apulian red-figure kantharos or drinking cup was estimated to fetch ­between £20,000 and £30,000.
Dr Tsirogiannis has access to images confiscated in police raids and he found a picture of the vessel, still with soil on it, in ­archives seized from ­Gianfranco Becchina, convicted in Italy and Greece of illegally dealing in antiquities.

 

Example of kantharos vase. Photo:Google

 

Cambridge-based Tsirogiannis also works for the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow. He is determined to draw public attention to the irreparable damage done by looters of antiquities from archaeological sites.
Christos studied archaeology and history of art at the University of Athens, and received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, on the international illicit antiquities network.
He has worked for the Greek Ministries of Culture and Justice, excavating throughout Greece and recording antiquities in private hands, and has voluntarily cooperated with the Greek police Art Squad. He was also a member of the Greek Task Force Team that repatriated looted, smuggled and stolen antiquities from the Getty Museum, the Shelby White/Leon Levy collection, the Jean-David Cahn AG galleries, and others. In 2013, he won the annual Award for Art Protection and Security from the Association for Research into Crimes against Art.

Tsirogiannis believes that to loot and trade in stolen goods is a crime against humanity, because it is the cause of a major catastrophe: the irreparable loss of knowledge about our past. He has built a secret archive of tens of thousands of photos from the antiquities underground traffic, where illicitly dug artefacts pass from tomb raiders to smugglers to dealers and then on to museums, collectors, and auction houses. He has been given most of his images from prosecutors in Greece and Italy who have obtained them from police raids; he matches the photos with objects that surface at auctions or museums and then works to repatriate the pieces.

 

 

Tsirogiannis is somewhat of a thorn in the side of auction houses, but his work has forced them, and other dealers, take due diligence much more seriously. Nevertheless, the auction houses contend that the industry’s due diligence would benefit if the archives, which are technically owned by the Greek and Italian states, were to be made public, which so far they have declined to do. As for Tsirogiannis, he says that publishing the records could alert bad actors and push the market for illicit antiquities further underground.

Greek Storm

One of the best things about living in Greece has always been its climate. Mild, sunny and dry, with a short winter and an absence of violent weather. Unfortunately, this has been gradually changing over the last few years, with more rain in the spring months, warm winds and a muggy atmosphere. Sand storms blowing in from the Sahara have also multiplied (I wrote about it in my post, An Orange Sky  – https://athensletters.com/2018/04/11/an-orange-sky/), as have summer wildfires.

 

Photo:Google

The latest manifestation of this phenomenon was a terrible storm that hit the northern province of Halkidiki a few days ago, killing six people and causing a lot of damage. At least 100 others were injured, with 23 people hospitalised. A state of emergency has been declared, with dozens of rescue workers dispatched to help.

   

A study conducted by the Crowther Lab at ETH Zurich university, anticipates that by 2050 global temperatures will have risen by 2C from pre-industrial levels. Under these conditions, three quarters of the world’s 500 largest cities will experience dramatic changes in climate (a lot of large cities are near water, who’s level keeps rising.) The worst hit, among them Singapore and Jakarta, will develop weather patterns so extreme that they don’t currently exist anywhere on earth.

Weather patterns have always been cyclical, and are not only affected by the  antics of mankind. However, this is getting rather scary…

GREECE GOES TO THE POLLS

Greeks have voted for the change in government that had been widely anticipated before the elections. A lot of the people who had voted for Alexis Tsipras, hoping he would get the country out of the mess previous governments had brought it to, turned their backs on him to punish him for broken promises.

 

The Greek Parliament (Photo:Kathimerini)

Tsipras’s detractors refer to him by the unflattering nickname ‘kolotoumbas’, which means backtracker. This started with the 2015 referendum, when he led the vote to leave Europe, having convinced  Greeks to reject another international bailout and the onerous austerity that came with it — then acquiesced and fell into line  with the demands of the Troika. (Thus Grexit never happened—reminds you of something?)
Twitter feeds have been going wild with lists of his broken promises. Along with the chronic financial grievances, mainly from Greece’s shrinking middle class, Tsipras’s government has also been criticized for mismanaging the response to a devastating fire near Athens last summer that killed 102 people, and for brokering a widely unpopular deal to resolve a never-ending dispute over the name of neighbouring North Macedonia. Also, he never came through with a pledge to allow Greeks living abroad to vote.
However, he cannot be held responsible for all the woes that have befallen the country, many of which were the fault of previous administrations.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis (Photo:Google)

The centre-right New Democracy party, led by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Harvard-educated, 51-year-old scion of one the most powerful political families in Greece, has won nearly 40% of the vote, guaranteeing him a comfortable majority. Mitsotakis has been painting a bright(er) picture of the future, promising growth-oriented policies, including lower taxes to encourage investment. However, it remains to be seen how feasible these are, because fiscal restrains still remain.
Let’s hope at least some of these plans will come to pass.

New elections in store

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras suffered a severe defeat in the European Parliament elections last Sunday, his party Syriza trailing the opposition New Democracy party by about ten points.

Syriza stormed the Greek political scene on an anti-austerity platform six years ago, then suffered a backlash after imposing cut-backs as part of a third bailout in 2015. This month the government introduced more than one billion worth of handouts in the form of tax cuts and pension payouts, unwinding some of the austerity measures—but it proved to be too late in the day, although the handouts may have averted an even steeper defeat.
Let us not forget that Greece lost a quarter of its economic output during an eight-year depression, which economists record as the worst contraction of any developed economy since World War II. Unemployment peaked at 28 percent in 2013 and remains at 19 percent.

 

Prime minister Alexis Tsipras

Voters punished the ruling Syriza party for broken promises but also for a deeply unpopular agreement signed by Tsipras to resolve a long-running name dispute with North Macedonia.

Tsipras has now announced a snap election, to take place in the coming month or so. The government’s current term was due to expire in October.

The high score of 33.2 percent of the vote won by the opposition party New Democracy suggests it might manage to energise a greater voter base in the coming month. It would need about 40 percent to rule outright, without a coalition partner.

New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis has promised a restart of the economy. He says he will lower tax on businesses from 29 percent to 20 percent in two years and lower income tax on farmers from 22 percent to 10 percent.
He also says he will seek to create 700,000 new jobs in five years and has pledged to bring home at least half a million of the 860,000 skilled workers who, according to the Hellenic Statistical Service, have left the country since 2009.

 

New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis

 

Of course, such promises are founded on the assumption that the economy will achieve an annual growth rate of around four percent per year, a goal which might not be so easy to achieve. The economic plan mostly hinges on a key promise to negotiate a new deal with Greece’s creditors, which would allow the government to spend less on repaying external debt and keep more money in the economy for reinvestment.

In his talks, Mitsotakis sounds optimistic if not bullish—but we’ve heard it all before. We just have to keep our fingers crossed.