an Athens pre-election story: the biggest problem is a lack of diathesis

Athens, 29 May to 15 June 2012

dear Aaron

[in response to your letter about the “kafeneio” culture – people sipping leisurely coffee while “philosophizing” about life – and your annoyance at those blaming the current so-called Euro crisis on the “innate laziness of Mediterranean people”]

the first day already I got a good “taste” of the capital, where over half the population of Greece is crammed into, I started – purposefully not early – by the notary public, office still closed at past 10 a.m., then on to the lawyer, not in at 10:30 a.m., on to the insurance agent, not in at 11 a.m., on to Mr. Bird at the ministry of environment, the guy who wrote The Birds of Greece, not in at 11:30 a.m., was in some commission… on to Mr. Douros whom I did not find either – in his late 60s, he is heir to a hotel mini-empire, his 4-star Jason Prime is closed in spite of bringing down double rooms from 80 to 52 Euros, his 3-star King Jason is almost empty, and he has relocated his office to a third hotel (the smallest of all with only 22 rooms) in historical Plaka under the Acropolis, the last bastion of tourism in the capital, and I don’t know the fate of the other ones I passed lots of streets with dozens of stores closed, empty spaces, signs of For Rent and For Sale, there were even plenty of empty parking spots, something as unusual as the empty streets of touristy Delphi

I passed the big Plateia Klauthmonos, and my eye caught the sign on a building, Ministry of Tourism Development… hard not to smile for if they do anything at all it is totally counter-productive (see my previous post), then I read in the day’s free City Press (30 May) that Mr. George Dracopoulos, head of the Union of the Greek Tourism Companies, said bookings are down 30 to 50% due to the economic and political uncertainty, he added that “everybody should do his/her job the best possible, so that at least those who do come would make positive comments about their holiday in Greece upon their return in their country”, and the poor guy called upon “our politicians the need to show the required seriousness”… I smiled again

I stood in line at the DEH, the Public Power Company, the very well run national electricity (quasi-monopolistic) provider, waiting for a document for my income tax, a middle-aged woman was shouting while walking away, “How can you send me from one person to the other?! You will see what will happen!” Greeks like to bicker in public

I crossed Omonoia (Concord) Square with its hundreds of, mostly illegal, immigrants, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Kurds, Africans, Eastern Europeans, crowding the small streets of the center – hence the closed down Jason Prime and next door Best Western, and the nearly empty King Jason, and the rest, when my group goes out to eat, they send a guard with them

at the lawyer’s I waited for a few minutes in the lobby right on this big square, the young man who had replaced the old, surly doorman, was chatting with a middle-aged traffic police officer who sat in a corner and sipped at a big cup of coffee, his cap was on the table and he had his walkie-talkie in the hand, he did the main talk, about surgery services in a big hospital, “This is not a State (kratos) !! All Greeks should have health insurance” – (they mostly do though), I wondered if he realized the irony, that he was part of the problem, sitting out his duty time in this very busy, central area, I have also seen younger policemen on this chair

no, definitely not, there is much more than the “innate laziness of Mediterranean people”, but there is that too, I always remember one example even though it goes back at least to the early 90s, there was a young man doing some work at my aunt’s in posh Kolonaki section of Athens, so she said something about work, and the young guy responded at once, as if insulted, “But, who likes to work?!” – so, it starts early in life, you can recognize university neighborhoods or towns, such as famous Komotini in Thrace (half Muslim, half Christian), by their permanently overflowing cafeterias and bars

early in life? once I met a crazy guy, in Grevena, the most provincial town in the country, not far from Albania, he said Greeks should get a pension at birth, he was young and not totally wrong, provided beneficiaries use creativity in their spare time, especially in social sciences and culture, not sure at all, Belgium has unlimited unemployment coverage which recycles the money into the system, but I see my neighbor in Liege who has been in pre-pension since his late 40s and is doing nothing, not even going to a kafeneio!

I have seen sharp contrasts, from Salvadorans running from one end of the country to the other to do business or simply survive, to, recently, an Iranian friend telling a relative who had just retired, “Come on! Get out of the house! Go and work!” himself had started as a welder in Kuwait, working under 50 C ! and created a small business empire

a funny illustration of the Greek, how shall we put it, idleness? on Saturday I attended a conference by David Graeber (more on this in another letter) at the Polytechneio (the Engineering School has been the traditional seat of protests ever since the colonel dictatorship when the tanks smashed the gates in 1973, a date now celebrated), so, he started close to one hour late (he was there but the Greek audience was not) and talked for almost 3 hours, till midnight – even though the amphitheater was full with mostly students and black-shirted anarchists, not a single person took any notes (I came out with 5 tight-written sheets), two put a tape recorder in front of him, and all chain-smoked – the one and only time he received a round of applause, and a very rousing one, was when he answered to a young man who had asked how we could do better than Obama and create more jobs, “We don’t need more jobs, we need more free time, a 4-day week and a 4-hour day!” – which is by the way what I have always said, but to be replaced by creative work, as I said, not the kafeneio! I laughed so much in the Engineering School (Graeber was pretty jolly too, he wouldn’t be if he had understood the atrocious translation of the young woman next to him, so much that some other people joined in, in a very … anarchist way)

I like anarchists, if only for the great slogans they have been scrawling for decades on Athens walls with their logo, A over a circle – the last I saw was, “When injustice becomes the law, rising up is a duty”, it was near the cultural center of the City of Athens, in a neo-classical building with a large garden on one side of which was a board announcing an exhibition of high school student drawings and photographs on the theme of, Our City Tomorrow, The City in Which I Would Like to Live – poor things, they are first victims… on the opposite side of the lawn was the statue of Kostis Palamas, the Greek poet who wrote the words of the national hymn in the late 19th century (twice nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature), the man is sitting on a (stone) chair, his head resting heavily on his hand, looking quite depressed, they had crawled under him in capital letters, REBELLION NOW! (exegersi tora), a true antithesis in visual and mental terms, look up his photo in Wikipedia, he looks pretty down there too!

more funny and not so funny notes, on a deli store a sign described the benefits of a female donkey’s (a jenny?) milk, then a For rent ad for irrigated plots to grow vegetables, “in an location ideal also for walks” in the vicinity of the new airport (!)… better than to eat the widely publicized 1-Euro cheeseburger, “CHEEEESE, with such a price smile returns”, further away a restaurant established in 1929 was announcing it decreased its prices to adapt to the crisis, while another Kolonaki fixture, taverna Dimokritos nested in an old mansion, had a note on its door, “Due to the economic crisis, we cannot anymore operate. We thank our customers who supported us for 40 years”, to which various people had answered, “Too bad!”, “All the politicians and ministers should be arrested”, and “We will always be near you”, in the center, they had reproduced the words of Greek rock musician, Pavlos Sidiropoulos (died 1990), “Life is like an ass, if you don’t fuck it, it will shit on you”

actually there is a plethora of notes and posters (mostly about cultural and social events) covering the shut store windows, so the streets don’t look as empty and gloomy, signs are also at ground level, around these restaurants a man was lying on the sidewalk with a one-word board, “peinao”, I am hungry, my head full of slogans I crossed the street outside the crossing, traffic was slow, except for one car coming driven by an old guy, it was red for him yet he pounced on me, abundantly honking, they love bickering I said

the second day was not much better, the insurance agent gave me the (simple) contract finally ready after five days, “I just made it” I told them jokingly, a note in the elevator said this was the last day the elevator was running as most tenants of this 12-floor building were not paying their utility maintenance, to the point the Public Power Company I mentioned earlier is running out of money to pay his own, foreign suppliers of gas, and we are under the threat of blackouts – there is a good reason people are not paying, the ministry of the economy is charging the new real estate tax through the electrical bill (so, instead of say, 50 Euros, you have to shell out 500), for they would not have the manpower to collect from the reluctant or insolvent households and businesses… I guess their general staff is also down – both in numerical and psychological terms – the deadline to fill taxes is 15 June, I received my tax forms on the 12th

disorganization is not restricted to the public sector, the lawyer was not in, she had said, 10 a.m., 10:30 the very latest, today at least the clerk was in, “She is coming, she is coming, any minute”, past noon we called her from her own office, she could not make it anytime today…

next destination was my mother’s public insurance fund, it’s always a nightmare to go there, long and unruly lines, in an old, dark, labyrinthine building, you are in for most of the day, I mean morning, they don’t work past 1:30 p.m., at least that’s when doors close to the public, you have to write down your name on a piece of paper that circulates around, then you sit and wait till an employee comes out to call a bunch at a time, this time there was entertainment as a fat, middle-aged woman wearing a very flowery shirt was authoritatively talking and a couple of men chipping in, I “learned” that the Great Egyptian pyramid was actually Greek, Egyptians had no knowledge of numbers while this wonder of the world had precise dimensions and position, such as the height being a stadion and the perimeter of the base divided by 100 equaling the number of days in a year, she claimed in a strong voice she had done lots of research on the subject so I didn’t dare challenge her that maybe the Ancient Egyptians had the intuition and sense of geometry of the bees…

I am not sure at all about these numbers, let alone the stadion had a different length (as wide as from 157 to 209 m) depending if it was Greek, Persian, or Phoenician, but I know I waited 72 minutes to learn, in less than a minute, that they were now refunding burial expenses filed in last January, and so my mother’s would probably be in after the summer, provided there is a government, banks, and Euros… the Egyptian connaisseuse had also concluded that “The only thing they [IMF and European Union] are not able to take from us is our language”, you bet on

the way back I stopped by the notary public, office closed, I called on her mobile, and waited another half an hour, I was back by 3 p.m. with just one document in hand a whole morning of paper hunting, she told me I was probably going to pay nothing for the inheritance as the law had already given me 75% of the estate when my father passed away – in Belgium instead, I will have to shell out about 40,000 Euros, let alone apartment and house owners pay every year thousands of Euros compared to peanuts in Greece… up to last year when they initiated the real estate tax, this sobered the notary public

I did manage to see Mr. Bird a few days later, we talked about the three-toed woodpecker, which he is looking for in the Rhodope range separating Greece from Bulgaria but which I have never seen in fifteen years, and about the Rock Partridge – even though a rarity I have seen this one only three times in that same period, the hunters have enlisted an academic to “prove” there are hundreds of them and so lift the prohibition to kill them, the same hunters who managed to demote Mr Bird from his post as wildlife protector at the ministry, he is back in, but too much “in” as budget restrictions have impeded him to go out in the field for the last two years…

one who has been a lot out is Georgios Karatzaferis whom I bumped into on another morning at the … meat and fish market (fresh salmon went from 4.50 Eur to 8.50 a kilo), wearing a white, open-neck shirt like Greeks his age do, shaking hands left and right (especially far right!), followed by an all-smiling crowd, filmed by his TV chain, the president of the fascist Popular Orthodox Rally was mixing with the people ten days ahead of the second round of elections, un bain de foule as they say in French

earlier I had gotten back a document from Alexandra, a Greek-Belgian translator working for the Foreign ministry, seeing her hurried look I asked if she was busy (there is far fewer demand for French than for Albanian, Bulgarian, Arabic and other translations), “Yes, there is a lot of work with the scandal”, “Which of all?!”, “Akis”

just as they called the former, unlucky (U.S.-born) prime minister George Papandreou “Giorgakis” (Little George), “Akis” (from Apostolakis, Little Apostolos) refers to Apostolos Tsochatzopoulos, 73, founder of PASOK, since 1981 (when the Socialist party first came to power) successively former minister for Public Works, the Presidency of the Government, the Interior, Transport and Communication, Development, and… National Defense, when he bought Leopard tanks without ammunition, F-16 jet fighters without self-protective systems, and used German type 214 submarines, all at inflated prices, the result was he “became the highest-ranking Greek official ever to be detained [on April 11, 2012] on corruption charges, of pocketing at least $26 million in kickbacks” for these purchases, which he then funneled through offshore accounts to buy, among many others, in 2010, “a house for one million euro from an offshore company on one of Athens’ most prestigious streets, a few days before parliament passed a series of austerity measures aimed at increasing taxes and combating tax evasion”… [Corruption Case Hits Hard in a Tough Time for Greece, Rachel Donadio and Niki Kitsantonis, New York Times, May 2, 2012 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/03/world/europe/akis-tsochatzopouloss-corruption-case-hits-hard-in-greece.html?pagewanted=all, and www.enet.gr, 7 June 2010 in Wikipedia, respectively]

the German translators too bought luxury “items”, such as last model Mercedeses and BMWs, from this extra load of work Alexandra told me, throwing her hand upward to show the size of a huge pile of documents, referring this time to the Siemens scandal, which legal file is 10,000 page-long – this one happened at the time of the 2004 Athens Olympics when the German giant bribed the Greek Minister of Defense, the Minister of Athletics, and the Minister of Interior – under two governments, one socialist (1998-2004) and one conservative (2004-2009) – to get the contract for the Command and Control Center for the Olympic Games, all this through the local branch of the company – while Greeks are still investigating their top executives and politicians, a Munich court convicted Siemens already in 2006 and is continuing the investigation – right after the conviction, “Siemens decided to sue two former CEOs and nine other ex-executives for setting up a system of kickbacks to secure lucrative foreign contracts that financially damaged the company” ironically, Siemens’ internal guidelines expect the company “to go hand in hand with compliance with laws and regulations, and a sense of responsibility toward our employees and the environment”, as well as to respect its “code of ethics for financial matters, which was introduced in 2002 as a consequence of Section 406 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, […] to act with honesty and integrity, to ensure the timely and accurate documentation in the financial statements. Also, to act responsibly and in good faith, to ensure responsible use of all assets, to comply with all applicable laws, guidelines and regulations” (“Internal Guidelines,”2002, p. 1 & “Code of Ethics for Financial Matters,” 2002, p. 1)

yet, a “U.S. law firm found violations of the law in almost every division they have looked”, and “Siemens’ main executive board’s unethical actions created tremendous financial problems to the electronics giant”, which has more than 400,000 employees, a history of over 160 years, and operates in 160 countries, with bribes topping in Nigeria, Colombia, Kuwait, and… Greece (from 1998 to 2006) [http://a1.siemens.com/responsibility/en/framework/internal.htm Jennings, M. M. (2007) in Case Study #1: The Siemens Scandal, Siemens Hellas http://www.scribd.com/doc/14433472/Siemens-Scandal-Siemens-Hellas] in both scandals, Siemens and Tsochatzopoulos, the maze of international money transfers and seedy middlemen involved, from secret codes to Switzerland, Lichtenstein and Monaco, to the murder of Russian investigators, “could easily rank the case as a top class scenario for a future John le Carré novel” [Greek Ex-Minister Bribery Scandal Could Easily Become Spy Novel, Stella Tsolakidou on May 28, 2012, http://greece.greekreporter.com/2012/05/28/greek-ex-minister-bribery-scandal-could-easily-become-spy-novel/]

this is “just the tip of the iceberg of a broader culture that appeared to operate virtually with impunity”, said analysts in the above-mentioned New York Times article – “There were only crumbs for the rest of us translating the Swiss banks accounts of Tsochatzopoulos” (who was also involved in Siemens), said Alexandra smiling

right after her, I finally managed to see Mr. Douros in his smallest hotel, right in the middle of Plaka, the most touristy part of Athens below the Acropolis, towards the end of his life, he, the owner of four large, central hotels, has now taken over the duty of the receptionist – at the beginning, a couple of years ago, he had that optimistic attitude, “Don’t worry, we have had hard times, we will overcome it once more”, now he is utterly down, “The worst is, he said, I don’t see that Greeks have the inclination (diathesis, a hard word to translate precisely, desire is too much, mood is too little!) to do something to get out of this crisis”, back in the streets I saw the usual culprits, sitting at cafes, all over the capital, endlessly talking and arguing, in a touristy shop a t-shirt was hanging with the printed words, Greek Crisis, No Jobs, No Money, No Problem

just read the comments of a “Greek taxpayer” to the same extent on a Financial Times opinion, “The biggest problem, however, is that very few people find anything wrong with that [corruption] and most people just say “well, what can we do? That’s the way things are, doesn’t matter […] most people in Greece don’t see that it is we, us, the people, as a society and individuals, who have to change the way we operate. Most seem to think it’s someone else, someone “up there” or “over there” [Greek taxpayer | May 15 10:13am in http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/4bdda8a0-9dad-11e1-9a9e-00144feabdc0.html#ixzz1xIzO9Z1H Greece’s exit may become the euro’s envy, Arvind Subramanian, Financial Times opinion, May 14, 2012]

actually I bumped on this FT opinion scanning one of the main Greek site news (NewsIT – May 16, 2012) where my eye caught up the most recommended article (by 3605 people) and titled, Μήπως τελικά οι Έλληνες γελάσουν τελευταίοι; What if at the end Greeks laugh last?, where the author takes a different approach and says that maybe Greece will be the envy of Europe after it defaults, returns to the drachma, and recovers along the lines of a South Korea, Indonesia, Argentina close and Russia (erroneous comparison, but I won’t elaborate here, too long!)

they looked so calm, Eleni was much better, albeit thinner and exhausted from months of post-op colon preventive chemotherapy, Panayotis’ hair was almost totally white, and he was yawning, of course I was making a very Greek (or Mediterranean) visit, arriving at their place in my highschool neighborhood past 10 p.m., but when they started talking about Giorgaki… my gosh, they became electrified, “He should have been sentenced to death! They talk about the damage inflicted to the country by the Right, but Pasok did so much worst!”, personally their family income has shrunk by 2,000 Euros monthly at least (they are both near-retirement, architects at the ministry of public works), and that is only from direct factors, let alone the value of the small apartment they rent out has decreased by 50% (like mine), and sits anyway empty, with no solvent renters around (another example of indirect damage is my Dutch group which was canceled, only 3 were brave enough to register to come in a chaotic country, all the rest went to Portugal where they find similar birds), so my friends had to get a loan to pay for their two sons at university

even Strauss-Kahn admitted they had a plan for Greece before the October 2009 elections, i.e. before the true extent of the Greek public debt became public knowledge, “It was a plot”, my friends said, the country could have continued borrowing at normal rates, but Giorgakis handed them to the IMF, “They did the opposite of when we entered the Euro, they exaggerated the public debt”, then the so-called socialist prime minister sat for several months without doing a thing, saying “There is money!” (a sentence which became a joke) and that Greece would never go to the IMF, until it did

Greeks like plots but I also know that U.S.-born Giorgakis – who was in the same class as the mother of my son at Amherst’s – is a yes-man and more deferential technocrat than Greek politicians, listening to Soros and the like, I also know that Greeks used to vote en masse for Pasok since after the colonel dictatorship because it was the first post-WWII party to recognize the fight of the Greek resistance against the Nazis and because it gave money to the farmers and workers, and so many I talked to said, “Yes, they are not the best, but if we vote for KKE [the Communist party] our votes will be lost”, of course with such an attitude that party never went beyond 10% of the vote, I also lent a sympathetic ear as I know the seriousness of hard-working Panayotis and his involvement in collective affairs, decades in top positions of both the Technical Chamber and their professional union, he is now in the political bureau of Syriza, the leftist party (12 wildly diverging tendencies make up this Coalition of the Radical Left) leading for the first time, historically, in the polls, and second in these 6 May elections where Pasok took an unprecedented back seat in third position, breaking the Karamanlis (Nea Dimokratia, conservative) – Papandreou (Pasok, socialists – in name!) family dynastic duo which has governed Greece since WWII

Panayotis was yawning I said, due to numerous and endless meetings, “We are working all the details to be ready to rule from day one after the elections”, wow, such self-assurance, they even say they won’t need Nea Dimokratia, the #2 party in the polls, “We can make an alliance with other left or centrist parties and get a majority government”, when I asked their position with the “mnimonio”, the fateful word describing the memorandum containing all the harsh austerity measures, he said they are ready to negotiate, not outright reject it as some – Greek and foreign – media say to scare the electorate into voting to the Right, “The previous governments, since Giorgakis, never did any negotiation, they just said Yes, to anything the troika [IMF, ECB, EU] told them to do”

now, let us wait for these 17 June elections… interesting times but hard to make short-term predictions, it’s already hard to see the current and past reality through these many layers, even from inside Greece, so, how not to understand the “innate laziness of Mediterranean people” view that so many foreigners have, building on each other’s comments?

take Soros who said, “Let’s distinguish between Greece and the rest of Europe. Greece is a special case where everything that could have gone wrong did. The Greeks atrociously abused the advantages of EU membership” [Interview with George Soros: Angela Merkel is Leading Europe in the Wrong Direction, Der Spiegel, February 13, 2012, http://www.georgesoros.com/articles-essays/entry/interview_with_george_soros_angela_merkel_is_leading_europe_in_the_wrong_di/] the Germans are of course pretty good at cliches and Greek bashing, forgetting how much they have sold to the country, Joerg Hinze, senior economist at the famous Hamburg Institute of International Economics, said, “There is no point in pouring more and more money into Greece. What they need are not austerity measures, but dramatic fundamental reforms to reach the level of a developed Western European country” [Germany, with its economy booming, has little sympathy for Greece, Claudia Himmelreich, McClatchy Newspapers, http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/05/15/2800796_p2/germany-with-its-economy-booming.html]

his boss, the director of the Hamburg Institute, Thomas Straubhaar, went further, “The country is a “failed state” which is unable to raise itself “to a new start” under “its own steam.” Athens needs “help in establishing viable state structures.”” [http://www.german-foreign-policy.com/en/fulltext/58304, On the Relevance of Democracy 2012/05/21]

no wonder the leading German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung used the same words a few days later, “Should the country go bankrupt, it would then, as a “‘failing state,’ (…) be less in a position” to shore up its borders against migrants. Just recently, the EU Commission announced that it finds itself forced to prolong the mission of its EU border troops at the Greek/Turkish borders. If Athens “should no longer be able to pay its officials, or can pay only in Drachmas,” the situation risks becoming “chaotic”. The country could possibly “be rocked by rebellions”. “Help for Greece would then no longer be on credit, but be transformed into a sort of humanitarian emergency aid,” prophesied the journal in its front-page lead editorial. “Hopefully, an international protection force, such as the one stationed in the teetering countries further to the north, will not become an option.” [http://www.german-foreign-policy.com/en/fulltext/58304, On the Relevance of Democracy 2012/05/21]

no wonder others use the same condescending tone, talking about “a fiscal problem child like Greece”[Will the euro crisis lead to a ‘German empire’? By The Week’s Editorial Staff, The Week – Tue, Jun 5, 2012], Greeks themselves play the game, talking about Greece’s biggest port, Piraeus, taken over by the China Ocean Shipping Co. (Cosco) last June as an entry for Chinese goods into the European Union, Theodore Dritsas, its representative from the Syriza party, said “We spoke in Parliament about our fears that labor rights would worsen, but what has happened is beyond our imagination […] the main problem is that Greece is no longer a sovereign state in economic terms” [In Greek Port, Storm Brews Over Chinese-Run Labor, by Louisa Lim, NPR, 8 June 2011, http://www.npr.org/2011/06/08/137035251/in-greek-port-storm-brews-over-chinese-run-labor]

when I went to see Giannis who does the Athens transfers for my groups, he said business was brisk, he is servicing Cosco’s nouveaux-riches executives who want to be taken around in limousines and luxury vans while paying their non-unionized Greek dockworkers at 600 Euros a month with no overtime extra, he proudly showed me his books with dozens of contracts per month for thousands of Euros

 

yet, all this seems correct to me ! the political duo did terrible things to Greece, just like the Siemens executives ruined in part their company, if not financially, morally, and what Hamburg Institute’s Hinze added makes also sense, “Greece is 100th among countries in a ranking on the ease of doing business. Who’s 99th? War- and terror-torn Yemen”… same story from Straubhaar, “Greece must be transformed into “a European protectorate.” “The EU must do it, they would have to help Greece modernize its institutions at every level, particularly with administrative staff, tax experts, and tax inspectors.” However, refounding Greece would demand “intuition” to “overcome national pride, conceit, and the resistance of interest groups”

when my father passed away, I had to go to f-i-f-t-e-e-n offices in Athens to register and deal with the fact (city hall, civil registry, provincial registry, health insurance, tax department, pension office, lawyer, notary, etc etc ), in Belgium I simply declared it at the civil registry, and everything went smoothly and electronically on its own and through the mail, of course heavy bureaucracies were created in the medieval Balkans to employ people, namely the family and friends of those in political power

Finn Heinrich, research director at Transparency International which did a report across 25 countries found out that “Audit institutions are particularly weak and often not independent from the government, meaning that public officials probably know they can get away with cutting corners […] The report named Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain – the euro zone’s most financially troubled nations – as having deeply rooted problems in their public administrations, namely that officials are not accountable for their actions” [Corruption in Europe could slow recovery: study, Robin Emmott, Reuters – June 6, 2012]

is it a coincidence that all and only the Mediterranean countries are involved in this? but then, would we want everybody to be similar in a homogenous world?! all money and no philosophy? all New York and no New Kallikrateia? where would you go to find a kafeneio? thankfully perfect homogeneity does not exist on this earth, indeed “a German empire would actually be a “very banal outcome,” says Matthew Yglesias at Slate. Every large nation with a single currency operates “on precisely this principle — you have prosperous parts of the country and you have backwards laggards.” In the U.S., for example, the “coasts subsidize Appalachia and the Gulf Coast,” while in China there are “rich coasts and a poor interior.” That is “just how the world works” [Will the euro crisis lead to a ‘German empire’? By The Week’s Editorial Staff, The Week – Tue, Jun 5, 2012]

anyway, as I said, hard to predict the future, even near, maybe some unsuspected event will happen, like the focus is now as much on Spain as on Greece, or like an explosion coming from Pakistan and not Iran

on Sunday I saw my friend Takis from our times at the Athens French-priests highschool where he helped me a lot with ancient Greek when I was still struggling with modern Greek (arrived in Greece at age 10), as it was the colonel dictatorship all we learned from the ancient texts of philosophy and literature were the grammar and the syntax, formidable in themselves, hell forbids any subversive thought! but Takis is very knowledgeable as he reads a lot, books and newspapers, of course he is single and lives by himself in the big apartment his deceased mother bought in a 1935 building with art nouveau details

on his living room, heavy wooden table he had “La particularité grecque” from Istanbul-born, Paris-based Greek philosopher, economist, and (anti-Lacan) psychoanalyst Cornélius Castoriadis, and “The right to political disobedience – the Legal Defense in an Arbitrary Power”, by George Politis, a young lecturer in social philosophy in the Philosophy Department of the National & Kapodistrian University of Athens, and Vice-President of the Hellenic Society for Ethics (yes, it exists in Greece !), it probably does not go as far as the anarchist slogan I told you about, “When injustice becomes the law, rising up is a duty”

actually, the “particularité grecque” covered the courses Castoriadis taught at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, he used his Greekness to define democracy, “un processus libérateur et tragique à la fois. Il espère l’épanouissement citoyen mais conçoit aussi les risques qui lui sont liés, les explicite et les combat. Il est tout sauf de la peur”, Castoriadis believed the Soviet system was centralized capitalism, the funny thing even though he was a Trotskyist he served 22 years at the OECD as an economist, till 1970

Takis speaks very well English, Spanish, German, and French, but he had the Greek translation of the original French Castoriadis, feels more comfortable in his language, just like me in French or English, having to concentrate much more to read a Greek intellectual text, let alone make a presentation in that language

my friend took me out to sit at a kafeneio (!) on next-door square Aghios Panteleimon and we continued with politics, in spite of being an engineer he is a keen social observer, but which Greek is not?! even our old neighbor here was very politically conscious, a fisherman’s widow, actually Takis has followed the customary itinerary, being atheist in high school, Marxist at the Polytechneio, and back to the right in professional life, it is not only a question of individual age but of the times, Theodorakis also moved to conservative Nea Dimokratia after singing against the military junta, and more than anywhere else Greeks follow fashions (in the late 1990s I had told my first ecotourism collaborator not to over-invest in rafting equipment, and indeed the rage for this outdoor activity abated after a few years), so that aunt, who owned a whole, albeit old, building in Kolonaki, had once asked me back then if I was on the left (soon after high school and the dictatorship), and had at once answered herself, “Of course, why would you be an exception?” that aunt was not at all arrogant though, a bit nutty, waited for the late hours to go to the weekly open-air market to get produce at a discount while sitting on a multi-million Euro property!

BTW, to show you one aspect of Greeks related to easy money, when my wife and I stayed for a few months trying to establish a base in Greece after a decade in New York in the 80s we used to go and see her, she cooked wonderfully, except she was very Greek, i.e. disorganized and late, so we invariably had dinner past midnight, and she was very sweet and a widow and childless, and one day, a young relative of hers (actually she was only my aunt by alliance, the sister-in-law of my uncle) asked us, “Why do you go so often to her? Are your courting her for the inheritance?” we were so shocked, something that had never, ever crossed our mind, but it does happen so often in Greece, often nurses make old sick patient sign their property on to them, now the building still bears her name on the bell, even though she passed away in 1994 maybe they have not settled yet as she had no direct heirs

back to Takis who places Syriza’s president Tsipras between James Dean and Tintin, I asked if he meant the ideas, “No, physically, with his tuft of hair!”, politically he compared the man – a fellow engineer – with Herostratos, the guy who burned the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus temple, the same night Alexander the Great was born! he did it just to become famous and have his name immortalized, and he managed very well in spite of the Ephesians executing him and forbidding his name to be mentioned, for now there is even “Herostratic fame”, meaning “fame at any cost”, let alone Chaucer and Sartre make reference to him, down to my friend Takis in June 2012!

Takis has always interesting conversations, a while ago he had mischievously smiled, “This little country, Greece, is scaring the whole world!”, now he explained the Butterfly Effect, I had told him I had seen the night before my friend Panayotis who talked about his work at Syriza in preparation for a possible victory, Takis wondered how one individual, in a small party (16.78% now, but hitherto 4.6 percent of the vote), in a small country (2% of the EU GDP), could cause a worldwide chaos, just like Harvard historian Niall Ferguson explained in his new book The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World “why the origins of the French Revolution lie in a stock market bubble caused by a convicted Scots murderer”

chaos is the word as MIT meteorology professor Edward Lorenz’ 1963 finding led to a scientific revolution of the 20th century as great as relativity and quantum theory: small changes can have large consequences, and forecasting the future can be nearly impossible, hence the chaos theory replaced determinism which “might give you short-term predictability, but in the long run, things could be unpredictable”, says Steven Strogatz, a professor of applied mathematics at Cornell and author of Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos [http://www.technologyreview.com/mitnews/422809/when-the-butterfly-effect-took-flight/]

actually I see the opposite now in the socio-political field, in the short term events are unpredictable, or hard to predict as I said earlier (like these coming Greek elections), but in the longer term, the West will follow down the Soviet Union, and we will experience a new and long Dark Ages, the wheel of History turns, chaos or not – financial crisis or not, Europe and the U.S. are meant to fade before the rise of the so-called emerging markets, the Euro thing is just one part of the problem, military overextension, ageing populations, hedonistic lifestyle, are just some of the others, I have seen it coming for a long time, thought it would be earlier and not so fast, but you seem to say all this is delusion and capitalism is here for good…

MIT is also the place where Takis’ niece Theodora is finishing her master in Design and Computation with a Fulbright scholarship, with her younger sister Rodanthi they are quite a pair, at 26 and 24, both in architecture, both the top of their class, both pretty and very reserved – positively astonishing, Theodora is now GPA 5/5 at MIT, started with 19.8/20, 1st in ranking nationwide, at the university of Athens, and finished with GPA 9.8/10, 1st in ranking not only in architecture but in the whole university, I counted over 20 awards on her CV, the latest being the MIT Merit Fellowship for the Academic Year 2011-2012

l’envers de la medaille? she never, ever said one word of thanks or sent news to her uncle Takis for all the research he did for her, including, when he took us all to dinner in an Athens high class taverna where they serve food from Mani, the strikingly beautiful, bare and rocky peninsula south of Kalamata, with the famous Peloponnesian olives, Theodora was preparing for her U.S. studies and I talked about my own experience at Columbia and New York

self-centered are what most young people are now, in a September 2011 Athens survey of Greek university students by the German daily Die Zeit, Fedonas Brotzakis, 23, did not see the irony when he said, “They always called us ‘the coffee-and-couch generation [!] Comfortable, non-political.’ Well you see, that’s not true. We are engaged!” – I see it differently, they are rising now because they are personally and most directly affected, with no (good) job prospects and no money, and no means to go on with their hedonistic lifestyle, “He once believed that he would achieve in this system a reasonably good standard of living, once he could go to the movies or a club, without thinking about it three times. ‘Today no one believes this.’ And that’s why his generation has no other choice, but to fight and finally to think for themselves”

think about themselves, very different I find than, say, the protests of the 60s for a better society-at-large, or the solidarity movement of the 80s, when people lived more frugal lives and fought for other people’s problems – of course some people always participated out of personal interest, like a middle-age New Yorker who told me she protested against Reagan’s wars because she did not want her son to be drafted into the army

in fact, I see something similar in the Occupy movements – when exploitation and genocides and misery plagued far away populations, such as Central America, few participated in the solidarity movements (I was in charge of promoting our monthly political paper to the U.S. public so I know about indifference…), now that the West experiences the same attacks, many more rise as they are directly implicated, but I won’t get into this now

the high-IQ sisters also prominently figured in the Die Zeit interview, where the older said she felt bad being privileged far away from her struggling family and friends, none of her former university mates has a job except some as waiters, her own father said “I never thought that I would ever say that in my life, but I really wish that you stay away”

in Cambridge, MA, Theodora is part of the I-Teams (Innovation Teams), “a unique MIT course that assembles cross-disciplinary teams of students from across MIT. The goal of I-Teams is to teach students the process of science and technology commercialization focusing on how to judge a technology’s commercial potential”, and they are producing a solar cooker using “a Fresnel lens to harness the sun’s energy to melt down a container of Lithium Nitrate. The Lithium Nitrate serves as a solar battery. Due to its phase change reaction, the thermal energy is able to be stored at longer periods of time and at higher temperatures”, and that would not be only for U.S. backyards but for… Africa, to replace reliance on firewood and eliminate not only deforestation and respiratory problems from the inhalation of smoke, but also… numerous rapes occurring while the women gather the firewood (UN stats, 55 percent of households in sub-Saharan Africa depend on firewood, Barbecue Industry Association stats, 75 percent of all U.S. households owned a barbecue grill in 1999, and 40 percent owned more than one) – Takis, quite old-fashioned, is wondering what an architect as to do in all this!

at 4 p.m. solar heat was properly cooking us at past 40 C (an early heat wave), we left the kafeneio on the square which takes its name from the church on it, the biggest in the Balkans, he lamented that this central neighborhood used to be family oriented, with kids playing out till past midnight, now it is filled with immigrants, mostly Afghanis, Pakistanis, and Africans, who don’t create trouble by themselves, but by being attacked by mobs of the Golden Dawn, the far-right, openly fascist party which symbol is reminiscent of the swastika and which spokesperson slapped two women (one Syriza and one Communist) during a debate live on Greek TV last Friday !

then I continued my slide to the Right and went to see my first wife who did not have the qualms – never has, extremely outspoken – to tell me she votes for… the Golden Dawn, she laughed about the guy who slapped the women live on TV, “He is from Pyrgos too!”, her hometown, known for the roughness of its people, “The Commie had insulted him!”

as she is very passionate I just let her talk endlessly, her usual litany, hard to bear because the poor thing is highly delusional, believing her second husband, a rich Parisian, was abducted and killed by … Carlos, you know, the Jackal! in a highly convoluted plot involving many people, the Air France Airbus Christmas 1994 hijack by the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) who intended to blow up the plane over the Eiffel Tower, the famous French aviation industrialist Marcel Dassault whose “boss was my father-in-law”, her cousin Zouvelos who prosecuted the torturers under the colonel dictatorship, etc etc etc, her imagination is fueled by worldwide experience as a diplomat who has lived from Canada to Zimbabwe, last in Algeria where she spent one day at the Greek embassy and four months in bed due to a terrible back problem

I asked her how she could vote for people like that and she came up with the traditional excuses, her salary had been cut by a third and she could not find the medicine she needed while thousands of immigrants had access to free care – Golden Dawn had 5.3 percent of the vote in the November 2010 municipal elections in Athens, but in “neighborhoods with big immigrant communities it even reached 20 percent”, such as in Aghios Panteleimonas district where we just had coffee with Takis [Attacks on Immigrants on the Rise in Greece, Niki Kitsantonis, New York Times, 1 December 2010], and, of course, her husband had been killed (I think he simply left her) by Muslims, as Carlos worked with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, so she hated all of them and Golden Dawn would thrown them all out of the country

she was a nice girl though, my second love but first fuck at 16, I left home and roamed for two months with her as my strict father was against our relationship, was almost expelled from high school (another example of Greek works, my father wrote to the ministry, asking for forgiveness of my long absence, offering his previous voluntary teaching of Greek immigrant children in Belgium, and met refusal based on the number of days out of school, her father had army connections and they waived it), went to court (the lawyer represented me for free as I came forth as a witness for the bombing of his car by the riot police during the Polytechneio 1973 uprising) and got the authorization to marry her

for five years we had big, big fights, and longer and longer separations, when I was later married again as a student at Columbia, my fellow students said I had done it all in reverse, child, marriage, studies, work, anyway at divorce with No. 1 my uncle, former honorary consul of Greece, found her a job at the Greek embassy in Belgium, and she was launched in her career, not all well, now she told me they don’t even have ink for their printers at the foreign ministry…, despite the fact her salary was cut from 1,750 to 1,150, a single mother with two adolescents she adopted in Russia where her brother was first secretary at the Greek embassy, a nice and very smart guy too, first of the Law school

stop me! I have answered more from your last letter but I want to send you this now as you should read it before this Sunday elections!

best, Alexander

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