Battle of the Red Hot Flaming Divas

Emergency diplomatic protocol has been put in force at Athens airport this weekend to prevent a clash in the itineraries of two of the most demanding divas on the world stage, the Olympic Flame and the Holy Light. The two flaming hot dignitaries are both scheduled to be in Greece this weekend, and the rivalry between them has led the authorities to take special measures to ensure that their paths (and those of their extensive entourages) do not cross for fear of sparking off a diplomatic incident.

The Olympic Flame kicked off her world tour in Olympia on Thursday, scheduled to take in several key locations in Greece and the world, culminating in a two week residency at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro in August. The Olympic Flame is known to adopt a punishing itinerary, featuring spectacular stunts, and with numerous featured guest appearances by sports stars and other celebrities along the way. She famously favours an understated style ostensibly inspired by the timeless ideal of Classical Greece, but beneath the cultivated facade of elegant simplicity lies a high maintenance diva of epic proportions. While her entourage sport identical white belted chitons intended to evoke the image of a Grecian maiden, the Flame herself insists on a new cutting edge haute couture wardrobe by a different designer for each tour.

After being lit by means of a solar mirror in a solemn ceremony, she was photographed in the arms of up-and-coming Syrian Paralympic athlete Ibrahim Al-Hussein, following the path blazed by Angelina Jolie through the refugee camp of Elaionas, before heading off to the next point on her tour. The move was said to be a nod towards the ancient custom of the Olympic Truce, which as been systematically disregarded by the modern Olympic movement. The gossip pages are already speculating that there is more to the relationship between the diva and her much younger bearer after pictures appeared of them together on social media. But the similarities with J-Lo don’t end there. The Flame’s contract rider, leaked to the press a few days earlier lays out her backstage requirement which bear more than a passing resemblance to those of the Latina star, know for her insistence on an all-white dressing room and white rose petals in the powder room.

Meanwhile, the Holy Light, with whom she is known to be locked in a fierce rivalry, is scheduled to arrive in Athens on Saturday, on her annual visit from Jerusalem to celebrate Greek Orthodox Easter. The Holy Light is ignited by a process shrouded in mystery backstage in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, travels to Athens as a dignitary on a special flight, and is greeted at the airport with full military honours as a head of state. She is known to favour a celibate all-male entourage of Orthodox monks. The dress code at her events is strictly formal, with costumes based on a jewel colour palette and black with heavy gold leaf accents, while she insists that everywhere she goes the air is frangranced with her own label incense and her fans are kept behind the velvet rope. It is expected that she will be received by her self-proclaimed “biggest fan”, Greek “Call of Duty” champion Panos Kammenos, whose rotund form has been a regular feature of her recent appearances, sparking rumours of a possible romance.

The Holy Light has strict dietary requirements, which dictate that both her entourage and her fans observe a forty day detox (or “fast”) before her arrival in Athens. This is followed by a ritual “binge” on ovicaprid meat and offal, hard boiled eggs and chocolate. Many of her devotees are known to suffer ecstatic stomach cramps following the feast, during which they are said to find enlightenment.

image
A flaming diva and her biggest fan (as imagined by P. Kammenos).

The red hot rivalry between the two flame divas goes back centuries. While the Olympic Flame claims to be the original Torch Queen dating back to 776 BC, the Holy Light has been making much of the fact that Olympic Torch Relay was revealed as the brainchild of a controversial Austrian impresario and demagogue who took the world by storm with the modern torch rally in 1930s Germany. Her latest comment to the press seems designed to ignite a flame-fest, “Nobody throws shade on the Light of the Resurrection. Beeotch!”.

In fact, rumour has it that the real animus between the two is more to do with the fact that they both owe their eternal youthfulness to the rejuvenating treatments of the secretive Dr Zippo, who is flown in specially from his clinic in the Swiss Alps to minister to them during their frequent bouts of “exhaustion” on tour.

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Battle of the Red Hot Flaming Divas

Fear and loathing in Athens

shackled

Shocking evidence purporting to relate to a failed coup attempt has been uncovered in Athens in recent weeks. Less than 7km from the Acropolis, near the ancient port of Faliron (sometimes spelled Phaleron) and in the shadow of the modern Olympic Tae Kwon Do arena, redevelopment work on the site of an old race track unearthed over 1,500 sets of human remains. The finds include two mass graves containing “deviant” burials with evidence of violence. The remains are almost three thousand years old, dating to the period immediately preceding the “Golden Age” of Classical Athens, but their significance resonates strongly in the present day.

We excavate the evidence to uncover the hidden political agendas – past and present, large and small – behind the reporting of this discovery, and restore its true significance. For extra points, we will attempt to do this without resorting to the familiar mythological clichés of Greek crisis reporting (“Acropolis now!” “Lost their marbles!” “Greek tragedy!”).

Politics past

One particular find from this excavation has captured the popular imagination in Greece and abroad. The final phase of the excavations uncovered a mass grave containing 80 skeletons, many of which have their wrists bound in iron shackles. The skeletons studied so far belong to healthy young men who appear to have died an undignified death, evidently a mass execution. The excavator, presenting them for the first time recently, dated this group to the latter part of the 7th century BC, and went to suggest that they may be linked to a specific historical event, the so-called Kylonian Conspiracy.

An earlier excavation conducted in the early twentieth century during the first wave of modern development in the area had found a group of 17 skeletons that appeared to have been executed using a practice known as “apotympanismos” – an early form of crucifixion. The condition of some of the remains suggested to their excavator that they had also been subjected to violent lynching. The finds shocked early twentieth century Athenian society, and their excavator published a lengthy and detailed study of the practice that until then had only been hinted at in ancient texts. It is now suggested that the two groups may be connected.

The Kylonian Conspiracy is known as the earliest attested “historical” event in Athenian history, and several Classical historians recount versions of the story. In the early days of the Athenian city-state, Kylon was a successful athlete who, having won Olympic glory and consulted the Delphic Oracle, sought to use his father-in-law’s out-of-town muscle to install a tyranny in Athens (his father-in-law being himself the tyrant of the nearby city of Megara). Kylon and his followers were pursued by the Athenians and sought sanctuary in the temple of Athena on the Acropolis, where sacred law protected them from harm (the origin of the modern institution of “asylum”). They were besieged and starved, and were eventually cajoled into leaving the protection of the shrine, at which point they were attacked and most of them were slaughtered.

According to the ancient accounts, this act of sacrilege brought shame on the ruling family of Athens at the time, the Alkmeonidai, and also saddled them with a divine curse which followed them through the generations bringing epidemics and other disasters upon the city. The event brought a period of unrest, which eventually served as a catalyst for the first codification of Athenian law under Solon, which is considered the cornerstone of the political innovation that was ancient Athenian democracy.

The political symbolism of the Kylonian Conspiracy is not lost on the Greece of 2016, where the modern institution of democracy seems to be challenged and tested from many directions: from the perpetual election cycle as successive governments have failed to live up to the challenges of the financial crisis, to the traumatic experience of direct democracy in a controversial referendum and the hue and cry of #thisisacoup when the result was overturned, to the questioning of the democratic accountability of the supra-national lending institutions which supervise the Greek bailout, and the perceived threat from heavy-handed government interventions in the modern democratic institutions of the media and the judiciary. One humorist reacted by publishing a spoof story identifying the shackled skeletons with a group of journalists sanctioned by their union in connection with allegations of bias in their coverage of the July referendum.

You don’t need the Delphic oracle to tell you that there are more difficult times ahead for Greece, as a further round of difficult bailout negotiations looks set to drag on into another long hot summer, and more austerity is looming on the horizon. The political violence seemingly evidenced in the ground mingles all too readily with the whiff of political turmoil in the air in Athens, as the government seeks to quell rumours of early elections, new political parties are launched almost daily, and there is a general jockeying for position in expectation of political developments.

The grisly find serves as a reminder that the path to democracy was not a peaceful one, and that ancient Athenian democracy was not the scrubbed and sanitised ideal state we often like to imagine but a dirty, fractious and, yes, violent, regime which eventually exercised its punitive powers against most of the household names we associate with its Golden Age (Socrates – death by poison; Themistocles – exile; Thucydides – exile; Phidias – prison and/or exile, and the list continues). The gruesome punishment of apotympanismos continued to be practiced under no less a democratic luminary than Pericles, who used it on the captives of the Samian revolt in 439 BC. Even at its height, Athenian democracy would rank low in any modern human rights index, as in addition to featuring state-sponsored torture it was based on slave labour and excluded women from most areas of public life, including the vote. In an ideal word, these finds should shock us out of our reverential approach to the past. At the very least my unreconstructed exceptionalist friends should feel able to brag to the rest of the world that “when you were still in the trees, we were inventing new and unusual forms of punishment”.

Politics present

As is often the case, there is more to this story of ancient gore than meets the eye. Armchair archaeology is a practice fraught with more dangers than a booby-trapped Mayan tomb in an Indiana Jones film, however we can venture some general observations. The identification of an archaeological find with a specific historical event is tricky to say the least – for comparison, consider the burden of proof required to conclusively identify the remains of Richard III, only five centuries old and with several living descendants. The shackled burials have been dated based on the style of a couple of pots found in their vicinity, thought to be the remains of a sacrifice. Some controversy around the date may be based on misreporting. However, dating the finds to a specific year (e.g. 632 BC) will not be possible, given that inferring a chronological date from purely stylistic criteria is by its nature imprecise, and scientific dating techniques (when they come to be applied) will have a margin of error.

It is also worth pointing out that all of the historical accounts of the Kylonian Conspiracy date to at least a couple of centuries after the supposed event, which itself is only dated approximately by modern scholars to 632BC, based on the account that it was an Olympic year. The story has strong mythical overtones (the family curse, a recurring motif of many a Greek tragedy) and it also serves as a plot device, to explain the existence of the curse which was repeatedly used as a political slur against subsequent generations of the Alkmaionidai. Put simply, there is reason to believe that the Kylonian Conspiracy is not 100% historical fact, let alone connected to the finds in question.

But now, as then, it makes for a good story; and now, as then, it fulfils a purpose. The purpose is presumably to bring the finds in the Faliron Delta to the public’s attention, to ensure that the excavation continues to be supported and the finds are given due prominence. The excavation is the focus of a micro-political struggle of its own. The investigation of the 3,000 square metre site is being conducted as a rescue excavation, which started in 2012 to prepare the ground for a major building project, now nearing its completion. The project is the construction of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre (SNFCC), a €584 million landmark Renzo Piano-designed building funded by the estate of the late shipping magnate, which will be given over to the Greek state on its completion to house the Greek National Opera and the National Library of Greece. The Cultural Centre is eagerly anticipated, including by the top echelons of the present government; it was always intended to provide Athens with a world class library and performance venue, but in the years of the crisis that followed its commissioning its visible progress has offered a welcome contrast to the overwhelming climate of pessimism.

At the same time, it has attracted criticism from some quarters, particularly the left-wing arts community. Some (mainly on the left of the political spectrum) are sceptical of the motives behind the donation, concerned about the perceived appropriation of public culture by an expatriate shipping family (the rival Onassis Foundation has come in for similar barbs), particularly at a time when the Greek shipping industry is under scrutiny for its preferential tax status. Others (mainly on the right) fear for the future of the Centre once it is passed to the public sector, given recent examples of mismanagement and the inevitable squeeze on public funding for culture.

How does this affect the archaeology? Τhe Niarchos Foundation have been funding the archaeological investigations on the site, and are obliged by law to cover the cost of the storage and conservation of any finds, which in this case will be significant. Provision must also be made for exhibiting a selection of the finds, in the tradition of recent public projects in Greece which inevitably stumble upon ancient remains during their construction (passengers on the Athens Metro can see preserved or reconstructed archaeological sections as well as exhibition cases with objects found on the site in many of the underground stations).

As the SNFCC nears its completion (it is due to be delivered later this year), timelines are getting tighter, the magnitude of the find is becoming more apparent, and the relationship between the Foundation and the Greek Archaeological Service is evidently coming under strain. In a recent meeting of the Special Advisory Committee for the project (webcast live in its entirety – transparency advocates take note!) it was agreed that the last remaining section of the excavations containing the shackled skeletons, and fortunately located in the surrounding park rather than an area intended for building, would be allowed to remain open for continued investigation so as not to hold back the completion of the building works. But the tone was tetchy, and the Foundation’s President appeared to be growing impatient with the archaeologists. A few days after the meeting the latest finds were presented, and the theory of the Kylonian Conspiracy was mooted. Meanwhile, articles have begun to appear, critical of the Foundation for taking what is seen by some as a high-handed approach and failing to provide support commensurate to the status of the find.

In a recent article it was reported that the KAS (Greece’s Central Archeological Council) took the decision by a close vote to keep the remaining section of the excavation open and seek solutions for its conservation and exhibition. It is unclear where any further funding for the excavation will come from, what arrangements will be made for exhibiting the finds, and how these will fit in with the existing functions of the building which is now almost complete. The Niarchos Foundation has not made any further statement on the matter, but a resolution will need to be reached in the near future. The situation is complicated further by the sudden departure of the SNFCC’s Managing Director.

This will be a test not just for the Foundation, but also for the institutions involved in shaping cultural policy in Greece, which have traditionally resisted the involvement of the private sector but now find themselves deeply embroiled, given both the context and the scale of the find. Sensationalising archaeological finds in pursuit of funding, access or political favour, however tempting, is a risky strategy – as we have noted previously in the case of Amphipolis. The importance of this particular find is indisputable, but it is not because of the shaky Kylon connection.

The Faliron Delta cemetery may be one of the largest ever excavated in Greece. It was in use for almost three hundred years during a poorly understood period on the cusp between prehistory and the historical era. The large sample size will make it possible to reach significant conclusions about the population of Archaic Athens, its genetic makeup, its diet and its historical evolution. Moreover, the preservation conditions are exceptional, because the site lay in swampy ground in a river delta. In addition to the mass graves, it includes an amazing variety of funerary practices, including infant jar burials, funeral pyres, boat burials (with carved wooden boats fully preserved), and animal burials (including several horses) (further information and photos here). Archaeological techniques for recovery, conservation and analysis have progressed significantly since the first excavations on the site, but the sheer volume of material will undoubtedly pose a logistical, as well as a funding challenge for those involved (an international team based in the American School of Classical Studies in Athens has already been given permission to study the osteological material).

Although the present situation looks like a bind, it actually presents an enormous opportunity to overhaul the practice of archaeology and heritage management in Greece. Having excited the popular imagination with blood and gore, we hope that the public will be rewarded with access to the findings, breaking with the tradition of proprietorial neglect that characterises large swathes of archaeological practice in Greece at the exclusion of the public. At the same time, it would be a mistake to treat the private sector as a bottomless source of unconditional funding to make up for the shortcomings of the public sector. It would be a shame if the emerging tussle between public and private sectors were to condemn such important finds to the darkness of museum store room, so a constructive and innovative approach is needed from both sides. The discovery would also seem to present a unique (if unforeseen and unbudgeted-for) opportunity for the Niarchos Foundation to add a further dimension to its cultural project by promoting a thoroughly modern look into the past. The technologically forward approach which aims to deliver a zero-emissions building would find a natural extension in the scientific approach to the archaeology on the site, while the Foundation’s educational initiatives would harmonise with innovative practices of study and display.

This is a tremendous opportunity to give the public a deeper and perhaps more interactive understanding of the archaeological past and its relevance in the modern world. If in years to come we remember the Faliron cemetery simply as the site of a failed coup, it should be counted a failure.

Image by the Greek Ministry of Culture, via press release from phys.org.

 

Fear and loathing in Athens

Get your Schism on!

pope-patriarch

The Papal visit commemorative print-out-and-keep guide to the Eastern and Western Christian churches.

This week, after overcoming some minor technicalities, Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church will be visiting the Greek island of Lesvos with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and the Archbishop of Athens, to show support for the refugees arriving on the island and the local people who have been helping them.

If you have ever wondered how the churches compare on a number of key indicators, here is a handy guide.

Dogma

The two churches parted ways in the Great Schism of 1054, which marked the climax of series of disputes over issues as diverse as simple turf wars, through to who should pay whom their respects, and which bits of the Holy Trinity the Holy Spirit emanates from.

Semantics

Labels are important. Orthodox (meaning “correct”) vs. Catholic (meaning “for all”) suggests that the former are more concerned with being righteous even at the risk of remaining a minority, whereas the latter are overtly gunning for world domination. Orthodox Christianity is for religion snobs, the kind who are fond of saying things like “I prefer their early stuff, before they went commercial, it’s a bit more challenging but…” (strokes beard, takes sip of real ale, continues in same vein).

Open Hostilities?

Not since 1204, when the Fourth Crusade made a special detour on the way to Jerusalem to sack the Eastern church’s manor in Constantinople. In the last century there have been small steps towards reconciliation at the top level (mutual nullification of anathemas, to be specific) but in the ranks (especially on the Orthodox side) a particular brand of passive-aggressive anti-Papist propaganda remains a crowd-pleaser. Thus, an Athenian bishop announced that he was “praying for the Papal visit not to take place” (a known “activist bishop”, he was previously known for pronouncing the martial arts to be a gateway drug to the occult), while lurid warnings were issued from less official sources (this fringe news source warns of bad OMENS for Greece from the visit of the BEAST, noting for good measure that Pope Francis was anointed by the Rockefellers). Meanwhile, small snakes have started to appear in central Athens. Coincidence?

Pomp and circumstance

Neither church could be called “understated”. Both subscribe to the dogmas of “dress to impress”, “as big a gold cross as your neck can bear”, “no such thing as too much architectural gold leaf” and “more incense!”. The Pope has cool accessories, including his own patented “popemobile”. However, Orthodoxy has the edge here, for insisting on conducting its rituals exclusively in an archaic language. Much like Dylan going electric, one of the major signs of the Papists’ “selling out” was the introduction of guitars and modern-language mass. Points off for appearing both desperate and degenerate.

Nun appeal

No contest. It is possible to look good in the crisp monochrome contrast of the Catholic nun’s habit. A condoning attitude towards self-flagellation adds spice to the nun fantasy. A substantial chunk of the Buñuel canon pays homage to the discreet charm of the Catholic nun, while honourable mention also goes to Ken Russell’s “The Devils”, the guilty pleasure of many an “art house” fan. (“Nons!” as the infirm Father Jack in the comedy series “Father Ted” would have it. “Drink! Feck!”). And it’s not just for guys. My Catholic friends who were regularly beaten by the “penguins” at an all-girl Catholic school held regular viewings of “Black Narcissus” in rotation with “The Sound of Music” well into adulthood. Orthodox nuns on the other hand seem to come pre-aged and swaddled in a dusty all-black habit that would blend in at the more conservative end of the ISIS dress code. Negative fantasy factor, unless you are a priest on a remote posting. Catholics win.

Priest appeal

There is no Orthodox equivalent of Richard Chamberlain in “The Thornbirds”. Orthodox priests, sporting as they do the full beard and man bun, are destined to have only niche appeal. They tend to work better as postcard props posed against whitewashed walls or on donkeys, for the thrills of middle-aged German tourists. For a brief phase in the last decade, some younger specimens could have passed for that subspecies of hipster known as the lumbersexual, but soon it will be back to being mistaken for a member of ZZ Top. Catholics win, at least in fiction. And in case you’re wondering, ladies, rank and file Orthodox priests can marry. It’s a safe civil service job with a state pension – which counts for something in this environment.

Gross-out factor

Obviously, we both commit ritual cannibalism by imbibing the actual flesh and blood of Christ during Holy Communion. But while Catholics made it marginally more hygienic with the introduction of the dry communion wafer, we in the East have bread dunked in a petri dish of a chalice and administered on a shared spoon (incidentally, the dunking protocol is one of the finer points we fell out over back in 1054). Gross. The priest’s beard has been in there too. Orthodox win.

Body Politics

The Catholic church is very specific about what women can and can’t do with their bodies while they’re alive, strictly prohibiting birth control and abortion (aka. the “no soul left behind” policy). The Orthodox church catches you on your way out with a ban on cremation – but that’s for your surviving relatives to deal with. Catholics win for not waiting for the inevitable.

Accessibility Factor

To see the Pope up close, you need to book months in advance, or use binoculars in St Peter’s Square. Koutofrangos and I were able to walk casually into the Patriarchal Church of St George in the old Greek district of Fanari/Fener in Istanbul a couple of years ago to see Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew perform in front of a small gathering. My easily-impressed lapsed Catholic partner was so taken with the Patriarch’s accessibility he nearly joined the queue to kiss his ring, until he realised this would  pretty much guarantee an eternity spent burning in the abode of the damned. Not quite as impressive as bumping into Alan Rickman in the local Bayswater off-license, but kudos all the same.

Gore Potential

Catholics win hands down. Both churches venerate preserved bits of the human anatomy, but the Catholics have catacombs full of them. Also, for gore you can’t beat the concept of the Sacred Heart, a bleeding disembodied human organ destined to adorn a gang member’s bicep, or St Sebastian, a half-naked boy posing as an archery target. Add to this the endless elaboration on the horrors of purgatory and babies in limbo, and you begin to see where Alfred Hitchcock was coming from.

Scandal Register

Catholics win again, at least as far as exposure is concerned, by making their brand almost synonymous with pederasty. Although abuse is sporadically exposed in the Orthodox church, scandals are mostly confined to the church’s finances. They are either more virtuous, better at suppressing abuse stories, or perhaps it’s as simple as the ability to marry and the absence of altar boys, removes some of the more obvious temptations.

Conspiracy Potential

The Orthodox church (or at least some of its practitioners) are net producers of conspiracy theories (see above), whereas the Catholic church attracts them like flypaper. Dan Brown has been the main beneficiary of baroque plots featuring the Illuminati and Opus Dei, but somewhere deep in the bowels of the Orthodox-affiliated internet the Pope is sharing an aperitif of infant’s blood with the Freemasons and the Rothschilds after an energising session of hot yoga, in preparation for opening the floodgates to the Muslim hordes.

Worldly Goods

Tricky one this, as the churches do not comply with our earthly accounting standards. The budget of the Roman Catholic church in the United States alone is estimated to be in the same league as Apple Inc. The Church of Greece, on the other hand, is said to be close to bankruptcy. The Catholic church has been known to be more commercially-minded, pioneering one of the earliest innovations in financial engineering in the form of indulgences, which enabled them for the first time to monetise guilt. Regardless of size, however, neither church is a model of financial probity. The Vatican’s own bank is currently under investigation for money-laundering, while in Greece the Vatopedi affair revolved around a dodgy land swap, which implicated the abbot of a prestigious monastery and senior figures in government.

Demographics

Catholic: 1,200 million; Orthodox: 225-300 million (based on own estimates, so all the usual warnings apply, but you get the picture).

Which bring us to…

Common cause

A recent study estimated that by the middle of this century Islam will catch up with Christianity as the world’s most populous religion. Fellow smug secularists, atheists, agnostics and all-round fans of the Enlightenment, take note: it may feel like the march of Reason is unstoppable, but we will in fact “make up a declining share of the world’s population”.

Although both churches have voiced concern for the persecution of all refugees, they reserve particular concern for the suffering of Christians. When Pope Francis celebrated Holy Thursday demonstrating his humility by washing the feet of refugees, the ratio of Christians to other faiths was carefully calibrated at 8/4 – a bold symbolic gesture, but hardly representative of the fleeing populations. At the same time, it is not something one would imagine his predecessor doing. The Patriarch will also be taking the opportunity to celebrate the memory of “Papa Stratis”, a local priest who started a charity for refugees arriving on the island back in 2007.

Get your Schism on!

Jumbo nation*

This year’s most talked-about ad on Greek TV offers a crash course on modern Greek culture in the crisis years. It’s an Easter ad for a toy store that is totally unsuitable for kids.

Easter is the Greek family holiday. Most Greeks use the time to revisit their “roots” in their chorió (χωριό, their ancestral village) and engage in traditional activities. It may be the one time a year they go to church, for the candle-lit procession of the Epitáfios (Επιτάφιος) on Good Friday and the Anástasi (Ανάσταση, the mass of the Resurrection) on Holy Saturday. At midnight they will light their candles with the Holy Light which has been flown in from Jerusalem with the diplomatic honours of a head of state, engage in the semi-competitive sport of bumping red-dyed hard-boiled Easter eggs, and eat mageirítsa (μαγειρίτσα), the traditional offal soup served after the service. On Easter Sunday, they will bicker with their extended family over how to roast the whole lamb or kid on the spit, and the kokoretsi (κοκορέτσι), the offal skewer (yes, more offal), remember the few steps of traditional dancing that they know, bicker some more, and heave a sigh of relief when it’s time to go home again. It’s like American Thanksgiving – but with offal.

These are things you need to know to appreciate the Jumbo ad.

The ad starts with two women sharing the Holy Light, their candles equipped with a protective cup bearing the instantly recognisable logo of Jumbo, Greece’s biggest chain of toy stores. One of the women’s eyes widen as she recognises Angela Demetriou, high priestess of the Greek laïkó popular music scene. Angela is modestly dressed, in black glitter with a flatteringly high neckline (she is now in her 60s), the up-lighting from the candle illuminating her impeccably made-up and botoxed face to best effect, like a camp Mary Magdalen at the wake, a cut-price Angelica Huston at the wedding scene in Prizzi’s Honor. The Anástasi, normally a cheerful occasion where people light one another’s candles and bump eggs while dodging illicit firecrackers, is like a funeral procession for Angela. Pathetic fallacy. She sings in her best 60-a-day voice to the tune of her breakthrough hit “Ποια Θυσία” (“What Sacrifice?”), bitterly addressing her absent man who has gone to spend Easter in the chorió with the other woman, bumping their Easter eggs (oo-er) dyed with a recipe stolen from her, while she is alone with not so much as a shred of crackling from the Easter lamb for consolation. Through the windows we see happy families gathering around the steaming offal, but Angela walks alone. Fans in the congregation shower her with flowers, as they would in a nightclub. All of a sudden she is confronted by a (much younger) man dressed in his best suit. “You?!”. He offers her an egg. With a flash of a knuckle duster emblazoned “Lady” (her nickname – because she’s classy, geddit?) she takes the egg and offers it for bumping. She looks him defiantly in the eye. Then comes her punchline:

“Hit. Hit like a man”.

Unsurprisingly, equality organisations are calling for the ad to be withdrawn on the grounds that it promotes gender stereotypes and incites violence against women; others just don’t find it funny. It will certainly encourage hyperactive 6-year-olds to parrot the punchline until they’re blue in the face while pulverising hard boiled eggs (and one another) and trampling eggshells into granny’s carpet. In that respect it’s more likely to incite corporal punishment of minors, which is also an offence.

Angela herself is not a woman one would consider hitting, “like a man” or otherwise, without expecting to suffer consequences. She claims to have been the victim of domestic violence when she was younger – “Yes, there was a man who abused me, and he regretted it bitterly… A man who lifts his hand against a woman is not a real man.” In 2010 she was arrested at the nightclub where she was performing over debts arising from number of bounced cheques; it later emerged that a shady associate in the protection business (the “godfathers of the night” – νονοί της νύχτας – as the media like to call them) pulled strings with the police to speed up her release. With friends like these looking after here interests, you definitely wouldn’t want to lift a finger against Angela.

Angela herself is a colourful character, sincerely adored by some and ironically appreciated by others. Her art form is low culture – if rembétiko (ρεμπέτικο) is the Greek blues, Angela’s laïkó (λαϊκό) combines the down-home redneck values of country music with the arriviste in-your-face bling of hip hop – and its gender roles are similarly ossified. Men are macho, if broken-hearted; women are feminine but hardened by a lifetime of no-good two-timing scumbags. The economics of the laïkó (commonly referred to as bouzoukia, after the instrument, or skyládiko, dog-song, after its extensive use of melisma) revolve around live music venues of dubious licensing status, which in turn provide a fertile ecosystem within which tax-dodging, money laundering, contraband alcohol sales, organised crime (see above) and a whole host of underground activities thrive. As a result it is increasingly shunned as emblematic of the Greek mindset responsible for the current crisis: big-spending superficiality, anomie and the associated political language of corruption (for further evidence, see our previous post on the organised crime boss who was also immortalised in adland). A perpetual denizen of the tabloids and the gossip shows, it is well-known that Angela herself is not the sharpest tool in the box, once explaining that the black market in pirated CDs is so named “because they’re sold by black people”. A good portion of Greek cyberspace is populated by listicles of her epigrams. A diva, a survivor, a strong woman maybe, a guilty pleasure perhaps, but certainly not a role model.

The ad is for Jumbo, a big box store which specialises in toys. The spot, as you can probably tell by now, is only indirectly aimed at children. Easter is a time for gift-giving in Greece; specifically, children traditionally receive gifts from their godparents (godfathers in the original, more innocent sense). The de minimis gift is a decorated candle for the Anástasi; adults carry plain white, but children’s candles are a vehicle for ritualistic display and conspicuous consumption, more often than not featuring non-religious tokens such as toy trucks (for boys) and flammable Barbie Dolls (for girls). No children’s candles appear in the ad. The spot is cocking a knowing wink at its captive market, the poor beleaguered godparents, who sometime over the coming weeks will have to drag themselves up their own consumerist Golgotha to a toy store in search of a candle that they hope will not be a toxic fire hazard, to fulfil their duty as moral guardian. But whether it’s health and safety or moral tutelage that is your priority, Jumbo is probably the last place you should be looking.

A Greek company, selling cheap (mostly Chinese) imports, Jumbo has been one of the biggest winners of the Greek crisis. No matter how desperate their circumstances, no parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle or godparent wants the children to “go without”, even if it involves compromising on quality. Even the refugee crisis has been a gift to Jumbo, as their shopping bags pile up at donation points, full of cheap toys, nappies and toiletries donated by well-meaning Greeks. Between 2012 and 2014, as Greek households’ purchasing power retreated by 30%, the share price of Jumbo AE on the Athens Stock Exchange (ticker BELA.AT) galloped to a 500% increase and the company had an annual turnover of half a billion Euros. Despite retreating somewhat in the intervening years, it is now almost back at its all-time high.

The “joy industry” (as the founder refers to discount toy retail) has its risks, and in the course of its 48-month vertiginous ascent Jumbo paid €435,ooo in fines for offences ranging from selling unsafe products, anti-competitive selling practices and exploitative employment conditions. In one year alone, the Greek food standards agency ΕΦΕΤ issued the company with fines totalling €30,000. Even as the Easter ad hit the airwaves, ΕΦΕΤ ordered the recall a line of Disney-themed chocolate biscuits from Jumbo’s shelves. For Jumbo, this is just the cost of doing business, as they continue their expansion across the Balkans.

This is just the latest in a series of advertising campaigns for the store chain which have carved out a trashy-ironic niche all of their own. Jumbo ad campaigns are the only ones made for Greek TV that appear to have a real budget, their trashiness is invariably clad in high production values and they fequently feature B- and C-list celebrities, presumably on the run from the tax-man or the debt collectors. The same advertising agency was responsible for the campaign ads for Panos Kammenos’s nationalist Independent Greeks party (ANEL), which ironically featured more children and toys than most Jumbo ads (little Alexis and his train set, little Alexis with his broken left arm) and secured him enough votes to scrape into Parliament and back into coalition with Syriza. “Mr Jumbo” loves it, and is even said to write the lyrics to the accompanying songs himself (all too believable, as they invariably have the hollow ring of the boss’s jokes). Even if this spot gets pulled, it will have achieved its goal through notoriety.

Most commentators (particularly foreign ones) look for the artistic expression of the Greek crisis in the political graffiti and the lyrical street murals of the counter-culture. I sometimes think the Jumbo ads say so much more about who we are and how we ended up here. A rich, multi-layered trove of contemporary Greek cultural references. But totally unsuitable for children. As are the products that they sell.

*τζάμπα λαός (tzámba meaning free, as in gratis, but by extension worthless, wasted; laós meaning nation, people).

Jumbo nation*

7 takeaways from that Wikileaks IMF transcript

livesofothers

There’s nothing like a good controversy to kick-start the weekend. This morning (Saturday) whistle-blowing crusaders Wikileaks released what they purport to be a transcript of an internal conference call by the International Monetary Fund on March 19, assessing the status of the ongoing review of the Greek bailout programme. In the transcript, IMF officials discuss their concerns that the EU is too distracted by the refugee crisis and the Brexit referendum to focus on negotiations with Greece, and that without intervention this may lead to another cliffhanger negotiation, or even risk of default in July, when Greece reaches its next repayment deadline. Sensational interpretations have not been far behind (e.g. Paul Mason’s typically sanguine “IMF plots new ‘credit event’ for Greece – Neoliberalism does not give a shit – part II” – presumably part of a series), but what struck us about this document?

Regular readers will know we love a good leak. We wade tirelessly through turgid audio files to decipher conspiratorial Grexit plots; when duty calls, are not afraid to release (possibly unverified) explosive transcripts ourselves. Once again, we have done the hard work to extract the key “takeaways” (as we say in the boardroom) of the Wikileaks transcript.

1. The sense of corporate ennui and frustration that suffuses this transcript makes it seem all too genuine. Doubt has been cast over its authenticity (Wikileaks do not reveal how it was obtained or from what source, and it has some oddities that make it slightly suspect); however, anyone who has done time on a major project will recognise the slow death of the soul that comes from spending hours in beige conference rooms having the same meeting over and over in bureaucratese, wishing you were somewhere else and wondering when you’re going to see your family again. Stakeholders who can’t agree on the project objectives, let alone metrics and KPIs (“if you go out and say for this year for instance you say they will end up with what you say, -0.5, -1 or something like that”… “-0.5 lets say, if they do all the measures”… “Ok, let’s say -0.5 and the Commission will say that they end with zero or +0.25 or whatever they have”… “+0.5″…); senior management who won’t intervene for fear of losing face (“We should have another meeting like had in Brussels and agree how to proceed”); targets that are fudged (“But can we do what you suggested? Have two programmes with two targets?”); deadlines that drift; missions that creep. “This is going to be a disaster,” says the IMF’s chief negotiator in Athens. Sigh. I know where you’re coming from, my dear. The glamour of international diplomacy isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. All of a sudden, the IMF seems human.

2. What makes it slightly less familiar and therefore (maybe) less convincing? It’s all business. There is no smalltalk. Plenty of dithering about business but no deviating from it. No “going anywhere nice on holiday?” (the call took place just before the Easter break, after all). No internal politics, no bitching about absent colleagues or negotiating counterparties. No quibbling over expense forms. No swearing, not a single tiny F-bomb (this must be how the international institutions differ from investment banking, cf. “Wolf of Wall Street”, “The Big Short”). I suspect the IMF must fish in the same recruiting pool as the FBI. I admire their ruthless efficiency but I’m not sure I would fit in (sound of cv being balled up and tossed in the general direction of the bin).

3. Aren’t we forgetting someone? There is no mention of former Greek Finance Minister and self-appointed centre of the universe Yianis Varoufakis. Which may explain why he went ballistic within mili-seconds:

(= For anyone who doubted that Troika = shadow state battalion of ineffective pseudo-technocrats who undermine Europe).

4. The Troika never went away. Participants refer to the creditor institutions by the T-word throughout, despite a ban on the term issued at behest of the current Greek government after it took office in 2015. Naming disputes seem to be flavour of the month in Athens.

5. Move along now, there’s nothing to see… There are bigger experts out there than me, having their weekend ruined picking this apart, so no doubt you will get a more informed analysis in time. But from where I’m standing, the transcript mostly reaffirms what we already know or have suspected about the positions of the various parties in the negotiations: that the IMF and the EU disagree on the necessity and desirability of debt relief for Greece; the IMF has been suggesting lightening the medium-term fiscal targets in order to move to a restructuring of Greek debt (i.e. what the Greek government has been asking for, indeed supposedly Alexis Tsipras’s own private Ithaca); the IMF does not trust the Greek government, and trusts the Europeans even less; that the reforms being negotiated in the ongoing review are politically difficult for Athens (duh!); that there is the looming deadline of a debt repayment in July, so a successful bailout review and the contingent loan instalment has to precede it. The IMF officials even sound a sympathetic note on how it might affect the Greek people if agreement is not reached by July (“I hope for the sake of the Greeks that we are going to find a solution soon…”). The leak is compromising for the IMF in that it reveals their internal doubts about their own negotiating strategy and shows their hand in the negotiation more generally. It is slightly embarrassing for the Greek government in that it highlights what concession they have made so far on reforms, and also reveals the IMF’s hunch that the Greek side are more focussed on avoiding short-term political pain than attaining the Ithaca of debt relief. But to act like any of this comes as a shock is disingenuous.

6. Unless you are the Greek government. In which case it is clearly a conspiracy by the IMF, meriting this spirited but barely legible statement and an official demand for explanations:

… clearly intended for the home crowd in the hope that no one would bother to try reading the original transcript (very conveniently, since the IMF team is due to return to Athens on Monday to continue the troubled bailout review)…

… to which the robots manning the IMF emergency response line in the wee hours of Saturday (EST) responded thus:

And eventually this (Sunday evening) from Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the IMF:

  
Ouch.

7. Finally… Wikileaks gets its intel from the Greek press. Well, some of it…

… enough to undermine Mr Asantz’s* credibility somewhat – for future reference.

And the blustering and language confusion continues – from the deputy leader of Greece’s main opposition party:

 

*We have also decided to follow Greeklish naming conventions for the purposes of this post.

 

 

7 takeaways from that Wikileaks IMF transcript

Live your (urban) myth in Greece

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A new cruise operator is set to inject new life into Greek tourism this season with the launch of Atlantis-CON, the first conspiracy-themed sea cruise to feature tours of the Greek islands.

The organisers believe that a Greek cruise has unique advantages over the current offerings for this market niche, which mainly travel along the Atlantic seaboard catering to American conspiracy fans. “Friendly locals,” he says emphatically, “make this experience truly special.” What he means specifically is conspiracy-friendly locals. He explains that true aficionados of the “fringe thinking” genre are looking for something new, beyond vaccine cover-ups, the 9/11 Truth and faked moon landings.

The tour operator’s representative explained that a conspiracy tourist making landfall in Greece can expect to enrich his or her vocabulary of conspiracy beyond their wildest dreams: “This will be a truly mind-expanding experience. The way I describe it, you will land on a beach, and as the clear Aegean sea laps up against your sandalled feet (socks optional) the locals will festoon you with garlands of the most exotic blossoms of conspiratorial thought such as only flourish in this unique climate. They will then present you with complex devices of their own invention, crafted from the precious bedrock of ancient myth and refined through the modern technology of the internet. The Greek hospitality will instantly make you feel at home – i.e., questioning the last remaining assumptions about the world which keep you sane.”

“Also, you ain’t seen a chemtrail until you’ve seen a chemtrail against the azure blue of the clear Greek sky. This will, QUITE LITERALLY, blow your mind.”

The cruise, according to its promoters, is already popular with Russian visitors. At the same time they feel that it has a universal appeal, as, in their words, “everything is connected, isn’t it?”

The cruise brochure asks a series of teasing questions:

  • What do the ancient prophecies tell us about 9/11 and who has been suppressing the truth?
  • Why aren’t we told about the Atlantians’ role in Roswell?
  • Who are the Blond Race who appear in the Bible AND the Mayan scripts?
  • Why do the mainstream media refuse to advertise this cruise package?

Highlights of the cruise programme include:

In-depth seminars on the sacred texts of Saint Païsios, the patron saint of Greek taxi drivers.

Guest lecture by Demosthenes Liakopoulos, the renowned Hellenic national mysticist. “Professor” Liakopoulos will give an illustrated talk on the theme of “The Time Is Nigh” (“Ο καιρός γαρ εγγύς”), his own refreshing take on the coming apocalypse, grounded in the ancient philosophers and their true inheritors the Orthodox mystics, which revolves around Vladimir Putin leading the Blond Race in a final confrontation with Greece’s arch-enemy Turkey.

Oil and gas prospecting. The cruise route will follow the outline of the rich hydrocarbon reserves under the Greek seabed “which the New World Order suppresses in order to deny Greece its true greatness”.

Crypto-archaeological tours. The cruise will pause over the precise coordinates in the Aegean Sea thought to mark the location of the lost city of Atlantis, home of the advanced ancient civilisation believed to have invented space travel, the internet and new age spirituality, before colonising the New World. Guests will have the opportunity to study the interpretation of mysterious objects like the Phaistos Disk, whose true meaning has long been suppressed by so-called “mainstream science”. The ship offers a well-stocked library of seminal works of archeoUFOlogy and cryptozoology by Erich von DänikenGraham Hancock and David Icke for those wishing to pursue further reading.

Language lessons. In order to better appreciate the complexities of local thought, cruisers will be offered language lessons that go beyond the simple “kalimera” and “efharisto” to encompass more advanced vocabulary like “ifalokripída” (υφαλοκρηπίδα: continental shelf), and basic knowledge such as the lineage of the Nephelim, essential for establishing your credentials with like-minded locals.

Guaranteed GMO-free diet, patented 100% fluoride-eliminating on-board water filtration system, full disaster preparedness kits for all guests, including souvenir bug-out bag and anti-gun-control Molon Labe t-shirt.

Bespoke “experience” tours. More adventurous cruisers wishing to immerse themselves in the local culture will be offered tours of “Secret Athens” by a disciple of Païsios in a 100% genuine Athenian taxi. Tour highlights include masonic lodges concealed behind hipster bars in Aghia Irini (“my mate swears by his dead mother he once saw George Soros go in there with Henry Kissinger and Kevin Bacon”), a paganist grotto on Mount Hymettos thought to be the original “Bohemian Grove”, and an alleged CIA “black site” in an illegal scrapyard in the industrial zone of Aspropyrgos, culminating at a secret roadside canteen for a vrómikoρώμικο, lit. “dirty” – but don’t let the name put you off, as your guide will explain these are not your American hot dogs that are made with eyeballs and chemicals, but special Greek sausages following an ancient recipe by Epicurus which have curative properties – guide price €0.70). Throughout your tour, the guide will ensure that the taxi meter is switched off to avoid irradiation by harmful electromagnetic fields; seat belts are removed as they are known to be a deadly tool of US hegemony; the driver will smoke in order to neutralise the potential effects of chemtrails, while the radio dial will be locked on Derti 98.6FM in order to jam the surveillance frequencies of the agents of the New World Order.

The organisers have one final message for conspiracy buffs. The order form at the back of the cruise brochure features the slogan “Don’t wait too long. Come and experience the REAL Greece now before it is ISLAMICISED!” over a photo of the Acropolis with the iconic Al Zaatari refugee camp crudely photoshopped in the foreground.

Disclaimer: This post contains more than a grain of TRUTH. See Jezebelviolentmetaphors.com and Wired for EVIDENCE.

Image from thesalamandersailingadventure.com

Live your (urban) myth in Greece