The suspension of disbelief

The politicians are at it again. Disregarding the huge problems looming over Greece, they’ve dropped everything to stand on their soapboxes haranguing the crowds. Their aim? To persuade people to vote for them, obviously.

Every other program or issue has vanished from TV channels, as politicians are monopolizing air time. Everything is at a standstill.
In one of the ‘shows’ I briefly watched, young people in the crowd looked positively catatonic as the would-be future leader – it could have been any one of them – trotted out the same, tired old platitudes. They all have identical weapons of choice: shouting as loudly as possible, and blaming each other for every difficulty the country is facing.  They obviously think this will make the audience overlook their total lack of credibility, the absence of any constructive proposal. Promises – how can they promise, with a straight face, to do the things they never did when they were in power last? Why should anyone believe them this time round?

imageDoes anyone believe them? Some are certainly turning up to listen – is it curiosity? Hope springing eternal?
The suspension of disbelief can only go so far. A quick poll I conducted over the last few days uncovered a startling fact. Practically everyone I asked is refusing to vote. I say refusing, because Greeks consider voting a matter of principle and pride. They’re certainly not abstaining because they can’t be bothered.
Possibly – certainly – my sample was skewed. But, in all my years as a voting citizen, this has NEVER happened before. Usually, Greeks love to argue, to try and persuade, to discuss politics for the fun of it. Now they’re just disgusted. They don’t want to know.

Will they resist to the end? On Sunday, we shall find out.

Photograph by Eleni Koryzi

White Smoke

After a long and episodic night (beats me why the session couldn’t start at 9.30 a.m. instead of 9.30 p.m.) the Greek parliament voted in favor of the rescue package.
However, in the process, P.M. Alexis Tsipras lost the majority in his own party (32 of his own ministers voted against him) so has now to decide whether and when to hold elections. Elections are obviously the last thing Greece needs right now. But what is certain is that he cannot implement the very difficult measures contained in this package with the present government.
The Eurozone approved a Greek bailout of up to €86bn in loans over the next three years, in return for  far-reaching reforms, essentially tax rises and spending cuts.

“Together, we have looked into the abyss. But today, I am glad to say that all sides have respected their commitments. Greece is living up to its ambitious reform commitments,” Juncker said in a statement. “The message of today’s (meeting) is loud and clear: on this basis, Greece is and will irreversibly remain a member of the euro area.”

Following the approval of the new deal, the International Monetary Fund has called on eurozone ministers to offer Greece debt relief.

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Should we Greeks feel relieved? Happy? Are we safe? Hard to tell. Readers’ comments in the papers show anger, anxiety, and general disgust with and mistrust of the politicians involved.

Jokes as usual, are proliferating. Most are untranslatable, but I offer the following two:
😆 In the end, the exact question asked at the referendum was: Are the austerity measures proposed enough for you or would you like more?
YES meant ‘They’re enough for us,’ and
NO meant ‘No, we want more!’

😅 Phew! Thank God, Greece will not go bankrupt now. Only the Greeks will.

Books and prizes

Amongst the usual spate of depressing news, some nuggets of positive information made the front pages of the daily papers:

Now that people have less disposable income to spend on small luxuries, a 9th Swapping Bookshelf has been inaugurated in Athens. The brainchild of two young architects, Lefteris Abatzis and Irini Emilia Ioannidou, these automatic lending and exchange libraries are freestanding structures made of steel and glass, where anyone can swap a book at all hours of day and night. There is no fee or subscription of any kind. At night they are lit up, and each can accommodate up to 350 books.
Usage is aided by a smartphone App – the swapping bookshelf – while updates and info can be found on http://www.vivliothiki.org.
The project was first presented at the international contemporary art platform Remap4 and at the 4th Athens Biennale. Its realization was made possible with the help of the Skrimitzeas construction company and artist Andonis Donef and has now been incorporated  into the central Public Library Organization of the City of Athens. Amazingly, the libraries, the first one of which was set up in 2012, have survived the usual vandalism of public property and are thriving. Who said the printed word is dead?

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In another article, a team of four students from the University of
Thessaloniki traveled to Seattle to compete in the finals of the
Microsoft Imagine Cup, billed as ‘the world’s premier student technology competition.’ They faced more than 30 teams from all over the world, selected from tens of thousands of students.

The Greek team won the Ability Award, featuring innovative projects that are intended to help people living with disabilities. This award was inaugurated just this year by Imagine Cup to recognize the team that has best addressed this important topic.
They also got third place in the World Citizenship Competition where students show the world new ways to think and to change, by creating new technology projects in fields such as health, education, and the environment.
Their project:
PROGNOSIS, an intelligent ICT-based approach for the early detections of Parkinson’s Disease symptoms. The application will also allow prompt intervention in people’s everyday life, promoting active and healthy ageing. This is achieved through a set  of health self-managing tools, set within a collaborative care context with health professionals.

imageDimitris Iakovakis, Vassiliki Bika, Despina Efthimiadou and Konstandinos Mavrodis with their mentor Leondios Hadjileondiadis

And finally, in the realm of sport, the Greek team has won the EuroBasket 2015 Under-18 Championships

With Vassilis Charalambopoulos, Giorgos Papagiannis and Dionysis Skoulidas as its biggest stars, the team of coach Ilias Papatheodorou came from behind to beat Turkey in Sunday’s final at Volos, central Greece, where the tournament took place.

Making the most of home advantage after downing France in the quarterfinals and Lithuania in the semis, the team defeated Turkey 64-61.

This is another golden generation for Greek basketball, as the men’s team is eyeing a place on the podium in next month’s Eurobasket.

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It is these, and many other, young people who are the future of Greece. We must make sure they do have a future here and are not obliged to seek it elsewhere.

Banana Cake

An update on the immigrant situation at Pedio tou Areos

imageWhile politicians and officials are sitting in air-conditioned offices, debating the Immigrant Question, on-the-spot action is being taken in Athens.
The ladies of the Melissa Network – an organization of immigrant women from many countries whose aim is to help integration and address all the issues associated with immigration – have rolled up their sleeves. Especially touched by the plight of the children present amongst this new wave of arrivals, some of whom are unaccompanied, they decided to lend a helping hand. Since last Monday, they are preparing breakfast for more than 200 kids daily: banana or carrot cake, cookies, sandwiches, cereal bars.
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These are women who rise at 5.30 a.m. and work for ten hours a day. Then they get home and get in the kitchen. They have no funding and pay for everything with their own money. Fortunately, they do get some assistance from the neighborhood: many shopkeepers as well as private citizens do what they can to help them.

Another organization is also there to support. The “A Different Person” Community Kitchen is a group of people who cook in the street. So that the needy do not feel embarrassed about receiving charity, everyone cooks and eats together.
They say:

The impetus for the “Different Person” community kitchen was when we saw people of all ages, nationalities, ethnicities, and social classes looking through the left-overs at Athens farmers’ markets in an effort to gather food that they could not afford to buy. The first response was to cook food at home and try to distribute for free at the farmers’ markets. We then asked vendors to each donate one product from their stands so that we could continue the next day. After that, we decided instead to both cook and eat together in an effort to combat the shame of receiving a free cooked meal. Another purpose of our community kitchen is to distribute any leftover funds (typically 30-40 EUR/month) to unemployed people who help us on a daily basis and, when possible, for our volunteers too!

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Of course new immigrants have joined their party. And they are now cooking on some islands such as Mytilini, where the huge number of arrivals is making life hard for everyone.

These are the sites of the organizations mentioned above:
http://melissamwnetwork.blogspot.com
http://oallosanthropos.blogspot.com

A boat to nowhere

Picture this:

imageThe Pedion tou Areos (Field of Mars), at 25 hectares the biggest park in the center of Athens, built to commemorate the heroes of the 1821 revolution. It was refurbished some years ago at a cost of more than nine million euros, but has since gone slightly to seed, like much else in Athens. Drug users lurk in shady corners. And now a new dimension has been added to this landscape: rows of small, colorful tents line the Avenue of Heroes, clotheslines are strung between trees. Afghan refugees started this camp a couple of weeks ago and their numbers are swelling by the day. Amongst them are small children and pregnant women.

imageThis scenario is repeated in squares and on pavements throughout the city. Shopkeepers around offer the refugees food, but they don’t want them there. It’s bad for business, and business is bad anyway. Charitable organizations do the best they can. There is little help from the state.

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Hundreds of immigrants are arriving every day on the islands across from Turkey. More than 48.000 have come in the first semester of 2015, compared with 43.000 for the whole of 2014.

Exhausted, scared and lost, they are forced to wait for days in difficult conditions before being ‘processed’ by overworked officials in understaffed and underfunded local authority offices. Sometimes fights break out between nationalities: if the Afghans believe the Syrians are receiving better treatment, for example. When cleared, they make their way to Athens. But they don’t want to stay in Greece, where people are already struggling under an unbearable burden. Their dream is to end up in Germany, or get to England via France. Some have relatives there. There is chaos at the Larisa train station, chaos at Patras port, where they try to stow aboard lorries going to Italy.

And  we are talking about those that have actually made it across. In the old days, slavers had to make sure the merchandise at least arrived in a fit state to be sold. Modern traffickers – or ‘brokers’ as they like to call themselves – demand to be paid in advance. Then they just pile the human cargo into boats made for a tenth of their number, if that, and set them loose upon the seas – sometimes with not even enough fuel to make land. Boats are left to the care of teenage captains, the tanks empty, people locked in the hold.

Many drown. The rest are rescued by the coastguard. Unfortunately, more rescue missions have resulted in increased traffic, as was seen with the Mare Nostrum operation in Italy. The traffickers are on a constant search for new routes, new methods of transport.

imageHow can Europe deal with such a massive transfer of populations, on a scale never seen before in history?

In the twenty-first century, in a society where the accumulation of material goods is a given, these people have NOTHING. It’s a concept difficult to comprehend. No clothes, no food, no papers, no home. Nothing. It is impossible to put oneself in the place of humans so desperate they are willing to leave behind everything they know, to risk life and limb, and who then arrive in a country where they are destitute, do not speak the language, and are repelled by all available means.

In an article entitled ‘You’re Better Than This, Europe’,  Nils MUIZNIEKS writes:

Europe needs to take a long, hard look at itself — and at the reality of the refugee issue. The European Union could start by overhauling its laws governing asylum and migration. By increasing legal avenues for migrants to reach Europe, with measures like eased humanitarian visas and family reunification rules, it would reduce the number of migrants taking perilous routes. That would help cut the ground from beneath the feet of smugglers, who grow richer when migration restrictions are harsh. (International New York Times, JUNE 28, 2015)

imageEurope, however, seems far from up to the task. Horrifying scenes are taking place on each side of the Channel. Meanwhile, the Hungarians are building a fence with Serbia to keep them out. Police and army are used to ‘secure’ borders. And each country, if you read the press, is mostly concerned with its own problems, while trying to foist the blame and the responsibility onto everyone else.

There is no doubt that the situation needs to be brought under control, especially since rumors abound that the boats are used to bring over ISIS militants from Libya amongst the refugees. There are no obvious or easy solutions, but the only way forward is for all countries to work together. Europe has to realize there is a huge, potentially explosive problem staring it in the face; a problem which must be dealt with quickly, decisively and, above all, humanely. 

We must never forget we are dealing with people here, people who today are mostly perceived as a threat. But a lot of them have escaped conditions so horrific it would be inhuman to send them back. And immigration, if properly managed, can enrich societies in many ways.

Greece had to deal with a major wave of immigrants in the years 1990-2011, after the fall of communism. These were mostly from Rumania, Bugaria and Albania, but also eventually from all over the world. Although there have been problems – notably a rise in criminality as gangs infiltrated the country – a lot of these immigrant integrated successfully. They learnt Greek, made friends, blended in, set up businesses. And if some report instances of racism in their work or social environment, a recent study showed that this does not extend to their children attending Greek school. A new law is in the process of being passed, which will ease the acquiring of Greek nationality for these children. Ironically, quite a few of these immigrants have now gone back to their countries, where conditions have improved compared to the deteriorating ones in Greece.

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Greece on fire


imageAs if we didn’t have troubles enough, Greece is now, literally, on fire. Huge blazes have broken out concurrently: around Athens, in the Peloponnese, and on some islands. The gods must be angry with us, indeed. Or perhaps it’s not the gods? There is talk of arson; of a plan to destabilize the government. More conspiracy theories? Heat and high winds are a dangerous combination for woods that have seen no rain for months. Rubbish such as glass bottles can also play a part, as well as people’s irresponsible behaviour. But we had a similar situation in the summer of 2007, in another politically unstable period under the Karamanlis government, when forest fires caused the death of 84 people and 4,5 million olive trees were burnt. Be that as it may, it’s another disaster, more damages for people and a country that can ill afford them.

Having lived through two fires myself, some years ago, I agonize for the people involved and, indeed, for the huge destruction of nature. There is nothing more heartbreaking than watching a mountain burn.
In our case, luckily our house itself did not burn either time, but everything around it did. At night, the hillside across from us was lit by a wall of flame, against which black silhouettes of houses and trees could be seen. An apocalyptic vision of hell. Bringing coffee to the firemen, we had to fight our way from our car to the fire engines in a storm of swirling ash flakes.
For days, trees or bushes you’d thought had been put out would flare up again. The lawn was black. Inside the house, however much you cleaned and scrubbed, bare feet would be black with soot. And the smell of burnt just would not go away. We’ve had to replant our garden twice.

I pray for the people fighting the blazes; firemen, volunteers, neighbors, even old ladies passing buckets of water. And for the fearless pilots who fly into the smoke and flames to dump water – that is how our house was saved – and then back down to the choppy, wind blown surface of the sea to fill up their tanks. A dangerous job indeed; and in these strained financial times, one can only hope the planes and helicopters have been properly maintained.

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