The best cure?

No 732874

Greece is a country rich in coastline and mountains, with a Mediterranean climate and an incredible variety of vegetation. In the coastal and more low-lying areas olives and citrus fruits are cultivated, and vines extend to higher elevations, especially on the sunny slopes. The roadside stalls and the street markets attest to the wide range of seasonal fruit and vegetables produced in different regions, but the most striking feature of the countryside are the wooded areas and the scrub-covered grazing lands. Some of the mountains boast oak or beech woods and black pine, and in the higher ranges, below the barer alpine zone, there are forests of fir, but the tree that epitomises the Greek coastal landscape is the Aleppo pine, Pinus halepensis. The brilliant green of the Aleppo pine and its contrast with the blue of the Greek summer sky and the turquoise of the sea linger in the memory and the photographs of traveller as “Greece”.

The forests of Aleppo pine provide protection from erosion on the slopes. The wood of the Aleppo pine is not highly valued, but the mature trees in some areas continue to be a source of resin, of which the island of Evia produces up to 90% of the Greek crop. The “retsinades” (resin-men) patrol their allotted trees throughout the summer, slashing the bark to open a strip that bleeds the resin into plastic bags skillfully stapled to the trunk to catch every drop, and replacing the full bags which are emptied into the nearest resin tank. The technology may have changed a bit – 50 years ago the resin was collected in little tin cups – but the process remains labour-intensive, hot and sticky, and mules are still the best way of reaching some of the stands of pine. Beekeepers also erect their hives in the clearings.

Every summer there are hundreds of forest fires in Greece. It is estimated that about 50,000 hectares of forest are burned each year. The Aleppo pines, with their high resin content, burn particularly well, and the explosion of the burning cones spreads sparks far and wide, igniting other trees in a wide circle, often giving rise to elaborate conspiracy theories of multiple arson. The pattern is as often as not a natural one, even if the first spark is ignited by human action.

When a major forest fire gets under way, a predictable series of events is put into motion. The fire service responds to the call and the appropriate dousing measures are activated. The media appear soon after, eager to fill their airtime in the quiet summer months (I mean, inform the public). The videos accompanying the first breathless TV descriptions usually have a faint “archive footage” watermark in one corner, as one shot of an ageing yellow Canadair dropping water on flaming Aleppo pines is much like another. A Government Minister cuts short his vacation and is rushed to the scene to “coordinate the operation” (I say “his” because it always seems to be a male minister on such occasions, and he makes sure that the TV cameras are rolling to capture his arrival). The same, or another, minister and the local MP are subsequently filmed looking serious, meeting with the representatives of local groups whose property or livelihood have been affected, and making concerned statements. Soon after this, an opposition leader and/or local MP visits to be filmed expressing outrage at the tardiness and incompetence of the government efforts and the lack of sensitivity to the interests of the local population. Occasionally, things turn ugly.

tsironis
“Quick, look concerned!”: Environment Minister Yiannis Tsironis on the site of the Limni forest fire.

Meanwhile the TV, radio and newspaper coverage consists of a recombination of stock phrases: “πύρινη λαίλαπα” (pyrini lailapa, fiery whirlwind), “δύσβατη περιοχή” (dysvati periochi, difficult-to-reach spot), “θυελλώδεις άνεμοι” (thyellodeis anemoi, gusty winds) the last two used as explanations for why the fire engines and planes/helicopters, respectively, have not yet extinguished the fire. The firefighters are making “υπεράνθρωπες προσπάθειες” (yperanthropes prospatheies, superhuman efforts) and the pilots are all heroes. There is the inevitable “vox pop” with a distraught homeowner clad in baggy shorts and flip-flops wielding a small hose or broom. “Where is the State?” they cry, as they try to protect the house they was happy for the State to ignore when they erected it illegally on forest land (a common land-use pattern already noted by the archaeologist of the future).

When the wind drops and the flames are replaced by charred stumps, comes the announcement of the vast area of forest and scrub that was burnt, along with the beehives and sometimes olive and fruit trees or flocks of sheep or goats “but fortunately there was no loss of life, and no homes were damaged”. There are promises of compensation for the local communities, and an opportunity for a demonstration of largesse by those in control of the funds or enforcement mechanisms, with the implied expectation of deferred political reciprocity somewhere down the line. The next event, sometimes avoided, takes place when the first torrential rains arrive and wash down the hillsides unimpeded, denuding them of soil, and carrying rocks, rubble and mud down to block the roads and flood the fields and villages, and the drama resumes.

This series of events was re-enacted this summer, when fire broke out on 30 July near a village in central Evia and in high winds spread rapidly through the magnificent Aleppo pine forests that the area is famed for. There had been a similar fire in the same area in 1977, and the forest was just regaining its former splendour; Aleppo pine regenerates naturally when protected from humans and goats. Within hours the flames had crested the hills to the west and were threatening the attractive coastal town of Limni and a well-known neighbouring seaside monastery. The nuns were evacuated along with holiday-makers camping by the sea. The town was saved and the politicians duly arrived, in this case the local MP and (coincidentally) Minster for Agricultural Development, Vangelis Apostolou, who wrote an account praising the efforts of the responders and promising special easements to those affected. The Environment Minister Yiannis Tsironis, also paid a visit, during which he promised the retsinades compensation and gave the rights for retrieving firewood from the burnt areas to a local cooperative. The Forestry Service was charged with organising anti-flooding measures on the burned hillsides. Opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis put in the obligatory appearance and inspected the area in a freshly pressed smart-casual shirt and suspiciously clean tennis shoes.

mitsotakis
“What’s the damage?”: opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis visiting the scene of the Limni forest fire.

The fire at Limni was by no means exceptional; large fires in Greece this summer destroyed large parts of the islands of Chios and Thasos, including extensive cultivated areas. An article about forest protection entitled “Bitter Lessons” written by the then head of the firefighting department of the Forestry Department was republished to mark the occasion – as relevant today as it had been at its original publication in 2008, and a reminder that the lessons haven’t in fact been learned.

It is no exaggeration to say that the elaborate ritual of fire response described above actively discourages the learning of any lessons. The clamour of the fire engines and the human drama of evacuations serve as a noisy distraction from a series of crucial policy failures around forest management that have unfolded in Greece over recent decades. The formulaic language used gives us some clues. The lens through which the media and political culture present forest fires almost seems designed to sensationalise the event itself, and invoke an emotional reflex rather than a reasoned response – to render the audience helpless so as to capture its eyeballs and votes. The fire is a “natural disaster” and the appropriate response is first heroism, followed by sympathy, and eventually a handout. This tweet by a governing party MEP in the aftermath of this summer’s fires exemplifies the genre:

We know what he is getting at, of course; this is a clearly styled and branded political message to the EU. But the clichés in which it is cloaked, and which are routinely trotted out on such occasions across the political spectrum, are not merely tokens of sloppy thinking but are actively harmful. At best, they encourage unquestioning passivity and the shrugging off of responsibility; at worst they fuel destruction in exchange for financial compensation and political patronage. Indeed, recent research has shown a link between the severity of forest fires and election cycles (areas burned in election years have been 2.5 times the area burned in non-election years) that suggests anything but a natural cycle. We would be well advised to heed the well-publicised verdict on a major disaster in another part of the world, Hurricane Katrina, that “there’s no such thing as a natural disaster”, and ask the tough questions about the human factor in such events, the extent to which our individual and collective choices, economic, social and political, have shaped the catastrophic outcome:

If a tree falls in a forest – to make illegal firewood or build a holiday home – and no one is around to hear it – for their own reasons, perhaps a backhander, a vote, or simply the desire for “a quiet life” – does it still make a sound? We should really be considering the impact it has on everyone’s pocket and quality of life. When an individual choses to put themselves and their property in harm’s way by illegally encroaching on a high risk zone – where they also consequently increase the risk of fire – can they truly be considered victims of a “natural disaster”? Or are they in fact passing on the risk and cost of their actions to the rest of society? When a local official or national politician turns a blind eye to encroachment or tacitly rewards its outcomes, is that just a cheap inconsequential favour, or is it in fact a very costly one for those not directly involved in the transaction? And what do we prioritise through our democratic processes? Are we allocating our dwindling national resources in the wisest way? It should quickly become apparent that you don’t have to be a card-carrying tree-hugger to care.

The overwhelming emphasis on safeguarding life and property, which is also made to seem “natural” in the context of fire reporting (because what kind of misanthrope wouldn’t be concerned about casualties?), has its own policy and political hinterland. Before 1998 the responsibility for extinguishing forest fires in Greece was shared by three independent agencies: the bulk of the responsibility lay with the Forestry Department of the Ministry of Agriculture, which complemented this activity with extensive prevention and protection measures; the aerial means, which came under the authority of the Air Force (Ministry of Defence), but was coordinated by the forestry service; and the Fire Department (Ministry of Public Order) which was responsible for residential areas, and whose vehicles were restricted to paved roads, and which being a uniformed service did not take orders from others outside their hierarchy. The army could also be called in to help on the ground.

Legislation passed in 1998 by the Simitis government under the direction of the EU separated the responsibility for the extinguishing of forest fires from that of prevention, and allocated it exclusively to the Fire Department, ostensibly in the interests of conforming with the practice in most of the other member states (N.2612/1998). The Fire Department was also allocated generous funding for equipment and training of staff. The accumulated experience of several generations of foresters in controlling fires in the forests and their knowledge of the local terrain and network of forest roads, were lost overnight. The younger foresters were probably relieved to be spared the extra firefighting duties, which typically involved shift work over the holiday period. The Fire Department, accustomed to easy access to flaming buildings took a long time to adjust to the very different circumstances of wildfire in the forest, and have never really appeared to relinquish their original priorities – hence their much repeated statement that “there has been no loss of lives or property”, and their apparent reluctance to leave the paved roads. The efforts to control fires in the forest now rely heavily on the aerial means and become concerted on the ground only when a village becomes threatened. The division of funding – 35% for protection and 65% for fighting fires – has curtailed the Forestry Service’s ability to apply effective protection measures.

Almost 20 years later there has been no systematic effort to make a proper assessment of the results of the transfer, but the conclusions of the one published attempt are negative, based on numbers of fires, hectares destroyed, means deployed and cost. Every year, an average of €357 million is spent on forest protection, of which €230 million goes purely to extinguishing fires. In addition, the study highlights that the annual cost of fighting forest fires in Greece dwarfs the equivalent expenditure in the US and Canada, countries with a much higher incidence of wildfires per head of population.

It was probably unfortunate that in the first years in which the Fire Department took charge the summers were particularly conducive to forest fires, and some particularly rapidly-spreading fires occurred, including some with loss of life to fire-fighters. Following these events, there seems to be a tacit agreement that the appropriate terms to describe their efforts are heroism and tragedy, rather than inexperience or, dare we say it, lack of competence. And in the apparent gaps left by the official response, some of the volunteers keen to take on the hero’s mantle have less than pure motives – witness the recent appearance of Golden Dawn groups in insignia among the first responders, and their eagerness to publicly mourn those fallen in the line of duty.

But there is an even more fundamental misplacement of priorities behind the vicious cycle of forest fires. Yiayia happened to visit Limni a few weeks after the fire in the company of a friendly expert, who had this to say:

“In the last 30-40 years there have been extensive forest fires, which have destroyed large areas of coniferous trees and shrubs in the Eastern and Western Mediterranean. These fires have sometimes been caused by lightning in summer storms, but are usually anthropogenic. Forest fires are not 100% avoidable, but their incidence can be managed. The opening up of road systems in mountainous areas has allowed easy access of more people to the forest areas (though also facilitating the approach of firefighters). In the critical dry windy summer months when the low vegetation is dry, the danger of fire is greatest and the conditions are ideal for rapid spread and unfavourable for easy control, despite the deployment of large numbers of firefighters and their variety of equipment (fire engines, aeroplanes, helicopters, etc.).

Forest fires of this extent and intensity cause incalculable damage, economic and ecological, to a region. All the resources and the beneficial effects for the people and for the stability of the environment (enrichment of the atmosphere with oxygen, provision of forest products, regulation of the flow of rainwater, protection from erosion, natural conservation of biodiversity, not to mention human enjoyment and recreation) are obliterated in the course of a few hours. It is estimated that the reestablishment of these forests takes 30 to 50 years, depending on the type of trees and their capacity for regeneration, and the soil and climatic conditions in the area. Especially where the area is characterized by steep slopes, when there are heavy rainstorms soon after a fire, there is danger of even greater damage through soil erosion and landslides, and flooding in the land below.

In the management of forests as a national natural resource, we seem to have our priorities wrong, focussing on the emergency response measures of extinguishing forest fires rather than investing in preventive measures. This would be a less expensive approach, resulting in less damage to the environment.

Preventive measures would include: a good network of firebreaks; maintenance of the forest road network for easy access; annual clearing of the dry roadside vegetation; defence measures in the summer months such as forest outlook posts and patrols; enforcement of restrictions of hazardous activities in the summer months (burning of rubbish, campfires, welding, etc.); better public education on the importance of the forest for our health, physical and psychological, and how to avoid hazardous activities; and, long-term, cultivation in schools of love and respect for the forest and the environment in general, by people who themselves know and love the forest. None of this is new of course, but it has never been consistently applied.”

This all agrees nicely with the Yiayia philosophy on preventive medicine, which also takes a back seat in our national allocation of priorities to rampant antibiotic use. Here, too, we need a change in the prevailing wind. For now, let us hope that the anti-flooding measures are in place by the time the autumn rains come to Limni, bringing the first wild cyclamen from the corms that will miraculously have survived the fire.

With contribution from Atlantis Host and a forestry expert who wished to remain anonymous.

Photos from ethnos.gr, ilamia.gr, voriaevia.blogspot.com

The best cure?

Earth-like planet “already discovered” by Greek explorers

 

proximab

The discovery of an Earth-like planet orbiting the solar system’s closest star, 4.22 light years away, has caused great excitement among the scientific community and excited the imagination of ordinary people across the globe. Proxima Centauri b, as it has been dubbed by scientists, has characteristics that suggest that it may offer suitable conditions for hosting life, and as such may, in time, offer an escape destination for humans once they have depleted the usable resources of their home planet and/or are driven to escape by intra-planetary strife.

Much of the initial reporting has focussed on the practicalities of establishing the physical characteristics of the newly discovered “exoplanet”, with the viability of human colonisation being seen as a very distant prospect by serious researchers. However, new evidence has emerged to suggest that even this seemingly distant haven has already been “discovered” by enterprising Greek explorers.

paralia

Images retrieved from the European Extremely Large Telescope and subjected to detailed analysis in the laboratory have revealed hut-like structures closely resembling the Aegean “Type 1” buildings of the Middle Anthropocene, including evidence of Greek script. Although scientists were initially excited by the prospect of discovering life on another planet, epigraphers were able to confirm that the etchings were in fact modern Greek writing. One translated as “Freddo €4.50”, apparently refers to a cold beverage popular in the early 21st century AD, whose distribution is confined to the southern tip of the Balkan penninsula. Archaeo-economists note that the price, quoted in the currency of the time, is vastly inflated compared to that prevailing in surviving records from the mother-planet.

Although scientists were initially hopeful that Proxima b offers a water-rich environment, finds in the area of the makeshift structure suggest that bottled water was imported to the site in small plastic bottles, labelled €1.50 each (approximately three times the regulated Earth price of the time).

Other features appear to confirm the Greek origins of the early colonists of Proxima b. There is a hastily constructed track on the approach to the structure that appears to have been cleared by a bulldozer under cover of darkness (incidentally confirming that the planet did indeed rotate about its axis, another condition for supporting life). Concrete bollards made from used 5-litre olive oil tins and rebar demarcated a flat area, clearly destined for “reserved” space vessel parking. The rusting remains of after-market modified beach buggy (circa 2003 AD), with decals advertising surfing gear and Camel cigarettes were also identified at the site.

Scientists are torn as to the significance of this latest find, and some clearly feel that they have been robbed of the joy of discovery: “Just when you think you’ve found a quiet unspoiled spot in a friendly galaxy where you can really get away from it all, you find some wide boy has got there first and ruined it,” said one bitter boffin, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of jeopardising his research grant for three months’s prime telescope time in Hawaii or Mallorca (“depending on the weather and the availability of female co-researchers, but definitely NOT the Atacama desert. No beaches, you see”).

IMAGES: Artist’s impression of the surface of Proxima Centauri b (ESO); artists’s impression of the hut-like structure on Proxima Centauri b (@atlantis_host).

 

Earth-like planet “already discovered” by Greek explorers

Vapour, smoke and mirrors

polakis1

It is now one year since Yiayia first voiced her concerns on the alarming dimensions of the tobacco epidemic in Greece, and the Sunday edition of Kathimerini thoughtfully reported on the latest figures on smoking and “vaping” (“άτμισμα”, “atmisma”, i.e., electronic smoking) in Greece. This report was also well-timed, because the present Minister of Health, Andreas Xanthou has recently announced the planned introduction of legislation to forbid the use of electronic cigarettes in public places. Meanwhile, his Deputy Minister, Pavlos Polakis, a surgeon by profession, openly flouts the smoking ban in work places by lighting up in the canteen in Parliament and at press conferences in the Ministry – part of a lovingly cultivated “Cretan mountain man” persona which also includes composing threatening verse in the traditional mantináda style directed at his adversaries, and Berlusconi-style rants alleging corruption in the judiciary.

The debate over electronic cigarettes continues, with evidence to show that their use as a source of nicotine helps smokers to quit, and other evidence to suggest that new users will get addicted to nicotine and then graduate to smoking “the real thing”. Nicotine itself is harmful to the blood vessels and other elastic tissues, so “vapes” themselves are not entirely harmless to the user. Regardless of the debate, “vaping” has caught on in Greece, and the sales of electronic cigarette products is one of the few domains that has flourished during the crisis, with 300 registered specialty stores and over 1,000 sales points now operating throughout Greece. Kathemerini quotes current estimates of 200,000 systematic “vapers” among the Greek population.

Yiayia, being suspicious of what she reads in the newspapers (ever since being misquoted by the local rag at the tender age of 10), resorted to the primary source, in this case the Hellenic Statistical Authority ELSTAT, which publishes information on all aspects of life and death in Greece (no wisecracks about “Greek statistics” please; no doubt there is the inevitable conspiracy angle here too if you go looking for it, but in my professional experience I always found them reliable, professional and cooperative where population and health data were concerned). Every 5 years a Health Interview Survey (HIS) is conducted, and the findings of the most recent survey in 2014 were published this year (in English). The report shows that the percentage of regular smokers in Greece has fallen from 32% in 2009 to 27.3% in 2014, continuing a welcome trend that we noted in an earlier post. Is it possible that the Ministry of Health warnings on cigarette packets, the health education activities, the anti-smoking campaigns and the restriction on smoking in public places are actually producing results? Perhaps it is also the decreased spending power of smokers in the crisis. Although these findings are encouraging, the idea that more than one quarter of the population are still putting themselves, and the rest of us, at risk, is still alarming and is rightfully described as one of the biggest public health problems facing Greece today.

The rationale for restricting vaping is not clear. Second hand vape may be annoying to those at the next table, in the way that taking selfies or dowsing oneself in Poison are, but at least it is not loaded with the carcinogens of exhaled cigarette smoke. And arguably the government’s efforts would be better directed at enforcing existing laws, starting in their own back yard, rather than issuing new edicts. Although the existing smoking ban is largely observed in public offices and banks, it is acknowledged that its enforcement in bars, coffee shops and eating places has met with spectacular failure. This failure is confirmed by the report cited above, whose figures show that of the people who chose to eat or drink out, nine in ten had recently experienced passive smoking in coffee shops/bars, and eight in ten in restaurants/tavernas. If these numbers are anything to go by, the “vapers” have no more to fear than the traditional Greek smokers from the introduction of legislation to restrict their habit…

Image via kathimerini.gr

Vapour, smoke and mirrors

“Comrade Tsipras, say something left-wing…”

CarracciHercules

What follows is a translation of an op-ed article published in Ephemerida ton Syntakton, a left-leaning independent newspaper, on the 21st August 2016. The author is Dr Stelios Stylianidis, Professor of Social Psychiatry at the Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences in Athens. Stylianidis is a campaigner for mental health reform in Greece, and commented extensively in the media on the spike in suicide rates during the economic crisis, which became a rallying point of the anti-austerity movement that ultimately brought Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza to power (twice) in 2015*. The article presents a critical perspective on Greece from within Greece that is not often given an airing outside the country,  where much of the commentary, particularly from the left, falls back on the overly simplistic and ultimately unhelpful story of an unequal contest between externally-imposed austerity policies and internal suffering, resistance and capitulation. 

I only know the author from his published writings. I have taken the liberty of inserting clarifications [in square brackets] where I felt they were helpful, and adding hyperlinks to previous posts and external sources where they illustrate the arguments put forward. My interjections do not necessarily express the the views of the author, and vice versa.

“On the 29th June 2013, on a well-known political programme on Italian TV, the left-wing film director Nanni Moretti [of Caro Diario fame] addressed the then secretary of the Partito Democratico [the Italian centre-left party whose current incarnation is governing Italy under PM Matteo Renzi] with a phrase that became etched on the thwarted world of the Italian Left: “Comrade d’Alema, say something left-wing, or at least say something[in fact, the iconic outburst in which Moretti shouts at his TV screen where d’Alema is being steamrollered by a bloviating Silvio Berlusconi, first appeared in Moretti’s 1998 film Aprile, as recounted here].

After eighteen months of government by the “first time Left” [as Syriza refer to themselves, despite being preceded by several years of Socialist government under PASOK, and governing with the support of the right-wing nationalist party ANEL], and coming from the ranks of the Reformist Left, I would like to put forward three basic questions regarding this brief but historic experience for our country.

My questions do not claim to evaluate the totality of government, but set out in outline certain matters that are connected with historical culture of the Left.

1. Does the Left really have the moral advantage over its historical rivals?

A basic distinction between the anomie, corruption and clientelism of the old political system and the new one should be one of values, what [the influential Italian Communist Party secretary] Enrico Berlinguer termed in 1981 the “moral superiority of the Left”, with reference to the capture of the state.

I often hear friends and members of the governing Left put forward the fundamental argument that if we do not replace the old cadres and mechanisms that resist all progressive reform with our own people, then the imperative for change that the Left represents will remain unfulfilled.

However, to the extent that the age-old means of clientelism are being reproduced toward another end, that end itself is cancelled out. Some illustrative examples:

  • The “war on oligarchy” is being fought selectively and piecemeal, through a replacement of the old entangled establishment with a new generation of market players, who are not themselves distinguished for the transparency of their business dealings nor for their independence from government.
  • The replacement of many high-ranking civil servants of proven technocratic experience and a track record of effective delivery with officials whose CVs are limited to party titles is a strong indicator of a corruption of conscience through the voluntaristic capture of the state. The traditional cultural affinity of the Left with meritocracy and progress is replaced by a vulgar contest of party cliques.
  • The imperative of social justice, of redistribution of wealth and the protection of the impoverished victims of the neoliberal onslaught is not well served by the uncritical over-taxation of the middle class (the salaried and the pensioners, the self employed and the small businesses), which leaves intact the shadow economy, black marketeering and parasitic practices which are still entrenched in the state.

2. Why is the Left afraid of knowledge and innovation?

With the advent of the third Memorandum [the creditor agreement signed by the Syriza-ANEL government in July 2015], we see the continued absence of a national plan for the productive reorganisation of Greece, the encouragement of islands of innovation, the creation of a benign environment for new investments, the creation of research institutions connected to the development needs of the country.

What is it that prevents the Ministers responsible and their teams from creating a broader circle of collaboration and knowledge-sharing that would enable them to set targets and assessment mechanisms, and develop an alternative national development plan?

How can one explain the institutionalised distrust towards a multitude of innovative proposals that are being put forward (for example with regards to the use of EU structural funds) to every relevant government department, and which could transform the recessionary climate as well as our country’s credibility in the eyes of foreign partners? From what possible credible working hypothesis on the improvement of education can we draw the sly argument for the abolition of university entry standards that would boost acceptance rates into low-demand university departments?

Is it possible that the wariness towards any form of public-private partnership that might benefit state universities and support our collapsing educational infrastructure is based purely on an ideological dichotomy of public = good, private = bad?

Can tackling of the humanitarian crisis (a central campaign slogan of Syriza) possibly be limited to the support of food banks and social clinics in local authorities, without the existence of a national plan to improve healthcare, mental health policy and welfare?

The international knowledge-sharing on offer, and our own accumulated experience in higher education establishments from participating in international research networks, cannot possibly be leading us to reinvent the wheel in the year 2016.

Islands of innovation and good practice do exist in our own country, and are recognised by our international partners, but are obscured domestically by the guardians of party-political correctness.

3. Can left-wing populism truly offer a rational means of analysis of our reality and its pathologies?

The proclamations of a return to the pre-memorandum state of being, the excitation of collective sentiment, the rewarding of simplifying and primitive thinking, the manifold divisions, the shallow courting of the crowd by the leader, are these really left-wing imperatives?

By accepting that the international balance of power was weighted against the Left, trumping their original self-deception, they nevertheless let it be implied that the maturity and wisdom of the people will eventually triumph through some muscular guidance from the Left.

This narrative of the Left obscures the basic observation of many scholars that the country not only faces an enormous accumulation of problems, but is itself a begetter of its problems.

A devastated society, inundated in self-delusions, denials, ignorance, self-centredness, depression, despair and passivity must once again be educated through new types of populist delusions.

Is it really possible that we can continue to protect special interest groups, party politics, and clientelism, and promise growth without radical change, without deeper self-awareness of our collective failures, and without acknowledgment of individual responsibility?

I am deeply convinced that there can be an agenda of progressive, left-wing reforms, even in the midst of economic hardship, that would signify the new exemplar of government that this country so badly needs.

Sadly, Massimo d’Alema never did respond to Nanni Moretti’s entreaty.”


* More recent evidence thankfully shows the prevalence of suicidal thoughts among the Greek population to have retreated to pre-crisis levels as early 2013, however the broader crisis in mental health provision continues.

IMAGE: “The Choice of Hercules” by Annibale Caracci.

 

“Comrade Tsipras, say something left-wing…”

Monumental evidence of wealth-destroying “tournaments of value” in the Middle Anthropocene

Abstract

This paper puts forward a new interpretation for the monumental earthworks recorded across the continental masses of the planet Earth, dating to the Middle Anthropocene period. This study seeks to refute previous interpretations in favour of a new theory, namely that these monumental structures represent the material remains of symbolically charged ritual events which can be seen as an expression of societal stress in a period of rapid transitions and environmental decline.

canoekayak
A well-preserved earthwork of the early 3rd millennium AD, with elaborate ditch-and-bank features, usage unknown (Athens).

Introduction

Monumental constructions and earthworks have been documented on the outskirts of a number of large conurbations dating to the Middle Anthropocene period (late 2nd/early 3rd millennium AD) in widely separated parts of continental Earth. The mystery surrounding these structures has been enhanced by the paucity of the contemporary documentary record due to the Great Solar Storms of the mid-3rd millennium AD, which erased most of the predominantly digital records of the period, leaving only fragmentary texts from which to reconstruct the contemporary literary, political and economic milieu.

The monuments have in common a massive scale but show a variety of shapes and functional forms. Some are simply banks of spectator seating arranged amphitheatrically around flat areas and circuits of varying shapes and dimensions; others contain trenches and water-filled lustral basins of unknown purpose; the most puzzling ones include elaborate curvilinear ditch-and-bank earthworks, combined with mysterious mounds (see above). They were often located on the margins of existing habitations, after the land was extensively cleared, perhaps in a ritual purging, removing all traces of previous activity.

swimmingpool
Abandoned lustral basin, usage unknown. It is believed that the chair is a later intrusion. (Athens).

Stylistically, the structures are defined by a collection of common traits which has come to be known as the “International Startchitect Koiné”: exaggerated monumentality, the use of rare materials and elaborate construction techniques, the labour-intensity of the construction, the dominance of form over function are all features of this universal style, which becomes more elaborate as the period progresses. The structures could accommodate several thousand people and are believed to have taken years to construct using imported labour that may have been drawn from lower castes, forced or indentured, and there is some evidence to suggest that the grizzly custom of human foundation sacrifice was practiced to secure the buildings’ foundations. Mysteriously, most of the structures appear to have been put to very limited use, as attested by the unusually light wear patterns in their furnishings.

aquaticcentre
Artist’s impression of a ritual structure in the “International Starchitect Style”, housing several lustral basins of unknown usage (London).

The function of the monuments has puzzled archaeologists and the fascinated the general public for generations. Earlier scholars posited that such structures were the remnants of extra-terrestrial civilisations, so alien did they appear within the human landscape. However, through recently published cross-cultural studies with our extra-terrestrial colleagues we are now able to discount these rather fanciful theories. The argument that the monuments are “visible from outer space” is in our view an ex post fact rationalisation reflecting an Earth-centric bias in the scholarship of the time. Another interpretation suggested that they were defensive structures; however, evidence of damage by artillery fire and mass burials has been shown to post-date the initial phase of their use. We use the fragmentary documentary evidence in conjunction with the archaeological remains to propose a radically different interpretation that does not require the presence of alien visitors, but rather explains the extraordinary structures in the context of complex ideations and value systems of contemporary societies, as they sought to respond to increased global interaction, social pressures and rapid climatic change.

Towards an alternative interpretation

Previous scholarly attempts to explain the purpose of these structures have tended to focus on functionalist interpretations, for example that they were defensive in nature, or that they were initiated with the aim of mobilising labour for productive purposes, on the model of Amish barn-raisings. We have found very little evidence to support such theories. Instead, we would argue that the immense mobilisation of labour and resources for ephemeral or even single-use purposes have more in common with the types of practices that anthropologists refer to as “total prestations” or “tournaments of value”, systems of gift-giving with political, religious, kinship and economic implications. These are are marked by the competitive exchange of gifts, in which gift-givers seek to out-give their competitors so as to capture important political, kinship and religious roles. Examples of this include the “potlatches” of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada, during which chieftains competed to distribute gifts such as blankets, animal skins and ritual instruments, and enhanced their social standing by ritually destroying them in large bonfires. In contrast with western industrial economies, status in these societies was achieved in such events not by accumulating wealth, but by giving it away or destroying it in a conspicuous manner.

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Artist’s impression of Middle Anthropocene ritual. The female priestess (?) is thought to be lighting a torch to be used for the conspicuous destruction of wealth through incineration (a ritual known as “The Burning of the the Money”).

It may be seen as a paradox that such “primitive” practices could be found in “advanced” human societies. It is useful to bring to bear here the documentary record, which, though fragmentary, offers glimpses into a sophisticated ideational construct surrounding these mysterious material remains. Studies have shown that the official religion of the Middle Anthropocene centred on the dogma of “economic rationality”, which at the height of the construction of these buildings had entered the phase known as “late capitalism”. Within this value system, the driving force was the individual’s (or group’s) maximisation of material wealth by the most efficient means. This appears to be borne out by meticulous administrative documentation relating to the preparation and building of the structures. In these documents, the priestly castes frequently invoke religious terms such as “cost/benefit” and “economic impact analysis” in order to present the projects in an “economically sound” light.

At the same time, a seemingly contradictory body of evidence associates the very same projects with metaphysical concepts such as “regeneration”, “sustainability” and “legacy” – a clear nod to the mystical Dionysiac concept of death and rebirth. It is clear from the literature that this belief system viewed the structures as part of a cosmogonic ritual aimed at summoning up “world peace”. An apocryphal text known as the “Olympic Spirit” exhorts participants “to build a peaceful and better world […] to promote tolerance and understanding in these increasingly troubled times in which we live, to make our world a more peaceful place”.

Despite being mutually contradictory and internally inconsistent, these belief systems seem to have coexisted in tandem for over a century, and were surprisingly resilient to critique. We have, for example, ample contemporary evidence of criticism that the structures and the rituals associated with them did not in fact deliver the promised economic salvation but instead guaranteed balance sheet damnation, while others pointed out that there was no correlation between the rituals and world peace, or that the events resulted in debt, displacement, and militarisation of public space” and some accused the elders entrusted with organising them of corruption. It is thought that such criticism was regarded as heretical and its exponents punished severely, but the fate of the critics is not recorded.

wenlockmandeville
Wenlock and Mandeville, the Cyclopean guardians of London.

 

Little is known about what actually took place within the monumental structures. From the associated waste dumps it is clear that ritual feasting played a great part in the activities. With time, the paraphernalia associated with consumption became increasingly formalised, and ritual vessels more often than not bear the mysterious “Golden Arches of Consecration”. It is also known that those attending the rituals partook of a beverage served in a distinctive steatopygous glass vessel, whose recipe was closely guarded in a temple vault – perhaps an aphrodisiac or a fertility elixir. Each ritual site seems to have been presided over by a distinct monstrous deity or anthropomorphic animal spirit (above), clearly intended to induce a holy terror in the participants. Some claim to have found evidence of athletic contests, however we believe that such evidence is too scant to merit consideration here.

A car driven by a student of a driving school slowly moves around the carpark in front of the deserted 2008 Beijing Olympics venue for the cycling competition in central Beijing
A “sacred ruin”, venerated by later generations; note the preservation of empty space around the monument (Beijing).

The resilience of the belief system that fuelled these “tournaments of value” is further evidenced by the respect with which the monuments were often treated after their initial construction. Although subsequent generations appear to have forgotten the original purpose of the structures, they often venerated them as sacred ruins by preserving them intact and allowing the land around them to lie fallow. It is likely that only the more prosperous hosts that were able to do this, while others were forced to adapt and reuse the structures as their circumstances dictated. Occasionally, the structures were put to temporary use, as is evidenced in Phase VIIb of the Hellenikon Rhomboid Structure which appears to have been repurposed as a temporary habitation site during the “great migration” of the early 21st century AD (below).

 

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Artist’s rendering of Phase VIIb of the Hellenikon Rhomboid Structure, showing densely packed temporary habitation structures.

An ancient precedent?

Recently, scholars have suggested that the structures and and the rituals associated with them find a direct antecedent in religious festivals dating two and a half millennia earlier, and have adopted the term “Olympic” to describe them, alluding to the largest of these earlier festivals. However, despite sharing many features with these earlier practices, the long hiatus between the two sets of events leads us to posit that we are in fact dealing with a Hobsbawmian “invented tradition”: by adopting self-consciously archaising practices, emergent elites seek to legitimise their status by demonstrating their continuity with a quasi-mythical past.

It is suggested here that such practices arose as a way of bolstering a fragile global hierarchy and establishing social cohesion in an era when a rise in the overall living standards on the planet was accompanied by increased competition for resources and the looming threat of catastrophic climate change. Testing this hypothesis, however, is beyond the scope of the current paper.

Further documentation of the mysterious structures and their history of re-use here, as artillery defences and as a prison.

Further reading on the future archaeology of the Middle Anthropocene: “Our Piece of Paradise: Patterns of Coastal Habitation…”


IMAGES: Athens 2004 canoe/kayak venue by Milos Bicanski; Athens 2004 training pool by Associated Press; London 2012 Aquatics Centre by Zaha Hadid Architects; Wenlock and Mandeville, the London 2012 Olympic Mascots via Rainbow Productions; Beijing 2008 velodrome by REUTERS/David Gray; Athens 2004 baseball stadium by Jai Mexis & Partners via This American Life.

Monumental evidence of wealth-destroying “tournaments of value” in the Middle Anthropocene

SPOILER ALERT: CIA behind anti-austerity riots in Greece, or worse?

Video footage has emerged on the internet which appears to show covert operations carried out by the CIA in Greece during an anti-austerity protest, thought to have taken place around 2011. Its release has caused uproar in Greece, where it is seen as confirming long-held suspicions that interference by the US has been behind key events in the country not only in recent years, but throughout the postwar era.

The video shows a man who appears to be covert operative inciting riots during a peaceful demonstration outside the Greek parliament. In one scene, the man is seen to take a petrol bomb from a masked rioter and smash it on the ground in front of police. He is later seen wielding a gun in the midst of the protest, before stealing a police motorbike to make his getaway with a female accomplice. In separate scenes which appear to be unfolding simultaneously, the footage appears to show evidence of an extensive CIA surveillance operation using facial recognition technology to identify individuals in the crowd from a darkened “situation room” in an unidentified location, thought to be CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Finally, a separate video has emerged which appears to show the same alleged operative entering a Metro station in Athens for unknown purposes.

Screenshot_1Screenshot_3Screenshot_4

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Still frames from recently released video footage appearing to show an armed CIA operative infiltrating an anti-austerity protest in Athens which turned violent.

“This is classic CIA provokátsia,” nodded taxi driver and self-described “independent thinker” Sophocles as he reviewed the footage on his smartphone. “Their agents infiltrate our legitimate homegrown protesters who are marching peacefully with just a few petrol bombs for self-defence, and manufacture chaos to destabilise the government and scare away the tourists.” He also pointed to the video as evidence of blanket surveillance by US agencies. “I always knew that white box on the top of the US Embassy is a listening device. And I’ll tell you something else, they are not just watching us, they are reading our minds and giving us cancer,” he nodded emphatically as he flicked his filterless Camel out of the cab window.

More sceptical observers have dismissed this interpretation as hopelessly naïve, arguing that there is clear evidence the video is fake. “C’mon, man, these guys faked the whole moon landing, do you think they would stop at this?” chuckled Nondas, a retired long-distance lorry driver. Skeptics like Nondas point to apparent discrepancies in the footage. “OK, so he’s riding a bike without a helmet. That looks convincing enough for downtown Athens. But look at this photo where the guy is supposedly getting on the Metro – that totally screams fake.” “First of all there are no strikes, and secondly (he points to the foreground of the photo) there are ticket barriers. Ticket barriers. These are rookie errors, my friend, this is clearly NOT Athens. Only a total idiot would fall for this. Wake up, sheeple!”

Screenshot_5
Still frame from a video which appears to show a CIA operative entering the Athens Metro. In the foreground, the ticket barriers which give it away as a fake.

In recent years, the US and its secret services appeared to have ceded their position as #1 coup orchestrators in the Greek imagination to the Troika of the country’s creditors. As one prominent Greek left-wing critic described it in the midst of the heated bailout negotiations last summer, “The situation is reminiscent of Chile in the early 1970s when U.S. President Richard Nixon decided to overthrow Salvador Allende to prevent spillover effects elsewhere in America’s backyard. ‘Make the economy scream,’ was the order the U.S. President gave the CIA and other intelligence services, before the tanks of general Augusto Pinochet entered into action.” This latest revival shows that, like a first adolescent love, the Cold War-era CIA is never too far from the Greek conspiracy theorist’s fertile mind.

A more prosaic explanation circulated in the mainstream media, namely that this latest “evidence” is in fact a trailer for a summer blockbuster, set in Athens but filmed in Tenerife and Woolwich, left experts undeterred: “Why would they not film in our beautiful country but instead chose a pale facsimile? How else can it be explained?” asked Orestes, a political science student, pausing to polish his iPhone screen on his rakishly draped keffyieh-style scarf before answering his own question. “This is clearly a conspiracy of the Hollywood establishment, which everyone knows is nothing but the propaganda factory of the CIA and a cover for spying, just like in that film with Ben Affleck in Iran. Also, they resent us because we refuse to debase ourselves with tax incentives and filming permits so that they can make their filthy commercial disinformation. Greece will not become a sweatshop of the Zionist-capitalist-imperialist running dogs of…” he stopped himself, seemingly unnerved by something on his screen. “Sh*t, man, did you see that Pokémon? Over there, by McDonalds! Got it!”

Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama has explicitly denied any US involvement in attempted coups in the region, and the world breathed a sigh of relief as democracy triumphed. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump stated that, “I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country”.

In Moscow, the presumptive puppetmaster watched the latest developments on the US presidential elections and congratulated himself on ushering in the new era of “democratic” tradecraft. “Good boy, Julian,” he murmured as he stroked his newest acquisition, an Australian white-haired cat curled up in his lap, and dropped a Garry Kasparov lookalike into the foaming tank of cyber-trolls. Democracy, it would appear, is safe.

[The full 123 minutes of US-sponsored disinformation will be on general release in most of the world in the last week of July 2016. Orestes and and his posse will have the added thrill of sticking it to The Man by viewing pirated copies in advance of its Greek release date on 1 September].

Images: Universal Pictures, Woolwich (Community Page).

SPOILER ALERT: CIA behind anti-austerity riots in Greece, or worse?

A late education

APDK

What follows is a translated transcript of a segment from Parole, a late night variety show on E (Epsilon) TV, a private free-to-air channel, first broadcast on 11th May 2016 (transcript starts around 34´30᾽᾽). The segment was randomly obtained through the methodology known as late-night channel-surfing (or “zapping”, to use the Greek terminology). We have previously noted the potential usefulness of this methodology for forecasting Greek political trends.

The main presenter is Anita Pania (AP), a veteran of the variety TV genre (slightly out of date Wikipedia entry here). Her shows combine teleshopping, matchmaking, Jerry Springer-style couples counselling, talent show, gameshow and old-school variety entertainment. Although the format often walks a fine line with exploitation and is no respecter of political correctness, it is worth noting that the name Parole is used in the Italian sense of “talk” (in tribute perhaps to the enduring influence of Silvio Berlusconi on Greek light entertainment TV), rather than the more familiar US sense of “prisoner release”. Anita’s trademark cheeky blonde persona owes much to stylings of the Greek “national star” of the 1960s Aliki Vougiouklaki and thus resonates deeply with the modern Greek soul, but in true postmodern style, Anita builds rapport with her audience through asides, innuendo and knowing looks to camera. The extract presented here is on the mild end of the scale, and relatively light on Anita’s own peculiar argot, making it possible to translate almost verbatim. As the format has evolved and the advertising budget has shrunk, much of the time on air is spent promoting dubious cosmetics and inviting entries to prize draws via premium phone lines. Anita’s co-presenters in this segment are Nikos Samoïlis (NS), a financial journalist best known as a personal finance guru, and Dimitris Korgiolas (DK), a pop singer who affects the look of a middle aged raver.

The first exchange takes place in front of a flipchart on which NS has outlined the latest tax measures due to come into force.

Flipchart

NS: “Now let me tell you about an amendment that has just come through about the pricing of toll roads.”

AP: “Niko, can you please explain to me what an ‘amendment’ is, we keep hearing about amendments and amendments, what is this damn amendment?”

NS: “It is a document that essentially becomes a law of the land, it gets incorporated into a bill and gets turned into law.”

AP: “So its, like, a con?”

NS: “No (chuckles) it’s an actual law.”

AP: “Yes, it’s like a con that becomes a law.”

NS: “It’s a special text that’s separate from the law, and gets attached to a law so that it also becomes law.”

AP: “So it’s like a prologue?”

NS: “No, listen, normally what happens with amendments, let’s say for example they tack on to a bill that has to do with the Ministry of Health fifty amendments that are all about different issues.”

AP: “Do they supplement the existing law then?”

NS: “No, they are just incorporated, but they may have nothing to do with Health.”

AP: “And when will these get voted on?”

NS: “By the 24th…”

AP: “And are there amendments that don’t get voted in?”

NS: “Of course there are amendments that get retracted, that don’t reach the voting stage because MPs have reacted, or because they are totally unrelated to the bill being voted on, so it could be, I don’t know, an amendment to do with gambling and casinos that gets attached to a bill on…”

DK: “… the Health Ministry”

NS: “Tourism, or Health, something unrelated.”

AP: “Now these amendments, who do they come from?”

NS: “From the government. The government brings amendments and attaches them to bills.”

AP: “But why do they do it this way? Why bring an amendment, and attach it to the bill etc., why not do it once and for all?”

NS: “Because a lot of these appear in the middle of the night, on irrelevant bills, for reasons you can well understand.”

AP: “So now we know what ‘amendment’ means, we have added to our vocabulary, it’s a new-fangled thing. Listen, now I have an amendment for you…”

AP: “There is a person, who will be joining us, who understandably didn’t want anything to do with the kind of things we are talking about, and so he decided, as a young man, to dedicate his life to God, to remove himself from temptation and sin, and whatever might be going down on the scene, as they say, and go to Mount Athos and find a perch for himself. So, this person is Father Nikitas, and he has come here to tell us, and I would really like us to hear about his decision to dedicate himself to God at an early age, because he has been doing this now for twenty-six years, and he has removed himself from our daily life, our secular life that is full and temptation and sin and lovely things like that, and difficult things. So at the early age of twenty-something, he decided to remove himself, to stand back. Can Father Nikitas join us please.”

Groupshot

Father Nikitas (FN): (enters to the theme tune) “Good evening.”

AP: “How are you? Welcome.”

FN: “I am very happy to be among you.”

AP: “And I am happy that you are with us, and we are honoured to have you in our company.”

FN: “It’s a great pleasure.”

(NS and DK snigger)

AP: “Now this ‘Father’ business… because you’re…”

FN: “… young.”

AP: “Yes, how old are you, Father Nikitas?”

FN: “Forty-two.”

AP: “So you’re a young person, like, and you look even younger than your forty-two years, but that is now your appellation. Should I address you somehow?”

FN: “Father Nikitas is the correct way.”

AP: “Father. (Pauses flirtatiously, flicks hair). But you’re not my father.”

FN: (laughs nervously) “Call me whatever you want, Father, Pater, Elder…”

AP: “Ah… so the Father comes from Pater, it’s because you’re a priest…”

FN: “A monk.”

AP: “Do you want to tell us, Father Nikitas, about your decision to leave the secular life.”

FN: “I had the great blessing, after doing my army service, to meet Father PaÏsios.”

AP: “At what age?”

FN: “Nineteen going on twenty.”

AP: “At nineteen, eh? And you met Father PaÏsios, Saint PaÏsios? Isn’t he our most modern saint?”

FN: “So when I was discharged from the army, my life changed thanks to this simple, illiterate, enlightened man. Because the first time I visited, I went there with a friend whose mother had cancer in her bones and they were expecting her to die any minute.”

AP: “So you had gone with your friend to help him pray?”

FN: “Yes.”

AP: “But your friend was the one who was most insistent.”

FN: “Yes. But when you go to the hermitage of PaÏsios there are a lot of people there.”

Annita

AP: “Nikita… just so I don’t have to call you Father Nikitas, Pater etc., (flicks back her hair, sits back to expose her cleavage) can I just call you Nikitas? Would that be OK?”

FN: (shifts in his seat) “Look, from the point that I wear the cassock, it’s correct to use Father Nikitas, Pater, Monk etc.”

AP: “I just need to find something that I find comfortable with.”

FN: “Look, don’t worry, we’ll find it in the course of things.”

AP: “OK, so Father Nikitas, you’ve gone there with your friend who has a sick mother, so he influenced you to go there.”

FN: “I would have gone anyway.”

AP: “Were you a child brought up in the church or were you, like, a worldy child?”

FN: “I would say I was a normal child.”

AP: “So you didn’t have any tendency towards…”

FN: “Look, when you grow up on an island like Kos, I have done many jobs, jobs related to tourism…”

DK: “… in bars and the like…”

FN: “… in restaurants, beaches, I have done all sorts of jobs.”

AP: “So, a young man who was normal, enjoying a modern way of life…”

FN: “I served in the special forces… I was in the midst of everything.”

AP: “Right.”

FN: “My parents were religious, but it wasn’t like we were fanatical. Simple folk, my family were fishermen and the like. So I went to Father PaÏsios’s hermitage and there were a lot of people there, and I asked my friend, ‘how are we going to go and talk to him and get his blessing when it’s so crowded?’”

AP: “Did you know at that point that this old man…”

FN: “We were aware, we had heard…”

AP: “… that he was a special case, that he was on track for a sainthood, did you know that?”

FN: “Yes, that’s why we went.”

AP: “So the word was already out there…”

FN: “Yes, the word was out. So then the old man stands up and calls us by our names.”

AP: “…without knowing who you were?”

FN: “Without knowing us, it was our first visit, so he told me, and at that point I thought I’d just served in the special forces, I thought I was hot shit, I’d reached the moon with my youthful arrogance, he said ‘this is where we’ll see what kind of commando you were’. At that point I didn’t understand what he was talking about. In the meantime, he said to my friend, ‘Don’t worry, your mother has a whole decade ahead of her.’”

AP: “Without knowing the reason for your visit, without having discussed it with him.”

FN: “Not at all. And then my friend’s mother, who at that point was a mass of bones…”

AP: “A mass of what?”

FN: “A mass of bones, she had cancer in her bones, they were expecting her to die any minute. She revived and she lived exactly ten years.”

AP: “Po po po…”

FN: “So after that I went to Athos many times and met many monks, little old men, living in shacks, living on nothing but they had the whole world inside them.”

AP: “So Saint PaÏsios, he saw things, he had a gift…”

FN: “He saw things. And I’ll tell you one more thing, an event I lived as I was returning. There was a father who was holding his little child in his arms, and it had a problem walking. Coming back from seeing Father PaÏsios, the kid was walking, right as rain. Of course, what happens now, when various people come out and talk about prophesies and that sort of thing, that is extreme. When we do that we are taking advantage of the name of Father PaÏsios. He really did make some prophesies, some came true, others not yet, God only knows if they will. It’s best not to use his name unless he has actually said something, because this regurgitation doesn’t honour anyone.”

AP: “Are there other Fathers like him, with a gift?”

FN: “Yes, there are. In there there is a family of 2,500 people from different backgrounds, rich families, poor families. You can’t just be there because you had a moment one day. It is a great sacrifice to dedicate yourself. Personally, what I felt was, in the vernacular, like I had a big crush on God. I lived such great joy that I could not express it.”

AP: “Did you experience that the first time you visited?”

FN: “The very first time, and then I kept going back.”

AP: “So when you went with your friend to pray for his mother and you first met Father PaÏsios? And you were so taken, so charmed by this person who seemed to know you and know why you were there before you met… and that is why you decided to dedicate yourself to God.”

FN: “Yes, I experienced a joy I couldn’t express. God has made it possible for us to experience such a blessing that I wish I could take my heart out and give it to the world so they can understand what I am experiencing at this moment. It sounds nice, it sounds like a fairytale but I’ve lived it, and that won’t change. And right now there are men in their that are of the stature of Saint PaÏsios…”

AP: “Aha!”

FN: “… and that for us is a blessing, because there are many young people in there and we draw our strength from those guys.”

AP: “OK, I suggest that we take a little ad break, and when we come back I will ask Father Nikitas to explain what exactly it was that make him ‘click’, because there is something specific that made you leave the secular world at the age of twenty-something…”

FN: “Yes, there is.”

AP: “OK, let’s go and we’ll be right back.”

[There follows an advertising break featuring ads for household products, psychics, processed dairy and condoms. The conversation resumes, in which FN reveals, somewhat underwhelmingly, that he became a monk for “many personal reasons which we won’t discuss here.”]

AP: “The fact that this is an all-male situation has at times generated some weird chit-chat. So we have heard for example that it is a gay hangout. Like, there have been various embarrassments coming out of there at times…”

FN: “Listen, Athos is a hangout of people, right? There are 2,500 people there. In the years I have been there I have never seen anything crooked. At the end of the day what someone does in his bed is his business, I can’t know that, no one can know that, right?”

AP: “The issue is, when you go there, you don’t go there to do things in your bed, you go there to do other things. If you want to do something in bed you don’t go to Athos, you go anywhere else in the country.”

FN: “Look, if someone comes who really wants to repent and wants help, we can do that but no more.”

AP: “No, I’m not talking about the people who come and visit, I’m referring to the possibility that there are some monks who have gone astray, there have been a lot of scandals…”

FN: “When someone sets off to do something in their life, to do a job or to dedicate themselves, like me in a monastery, and you know what you want, you set solid foundations and you get down to it. But if you start off to wear the cassock to ensconce yourself, then the game is lost.”

AP: “Have you, yourself, seen anything like that?”

FN: “In my years there, no. There have been times for example when I have seen visitors who look like they are after something else or look like something, but nothing beyond that. From then on, whatever one choses to do… because where I am, right, I’m secluded, I’m in the forest, the people I see are those who come specifically to see me, from then on I don’t…”

NS: “What is your view on the prohibition on women visiting?”

FN: “Look, in the old days, all the monasteries were not visited by women, like the convents were not visited by men, because we are fighting temptation, we are fighting our flesh. On Athos, there have been many incidents, many miracles of the Virgin Mary that have prevented (women). Every time they tried to enter something befell them. This has been proven.”

DK: “They made trouble, right, just say it. They make trouble generally (laughs).”

AP: “Next, Father Nikitas is going to demonstrate some recipes from his book of Mount Athos cooking…”

If you want to know more about Greek TV, you can start here.

 

 

 

A late education