Stories about the Olive, part II: the urban olive

img_20141107_130704856Despite being a sprawling city of over three million inhabitants with more than its fair share of congestion and pollution, Athens has a strong sense of season. Its hills are capped with green spaces, and fruit trees are planted at intervals along its pavements and median strips. Roughly 2,200 kilometres of pavement are lined with around 80,000 trees, the majority of which are fruit-bearing, including Seville oranges, mulberries, and, yes, olives.

The olive is, of course, the sacred tree of Athens according to the city’s ancient foundation myth. When the goddess Athena and her uncle Poseidon were vying to become the city’s patron deity, her gift of an olive tree won hands-down over his less practical offering of a salt water spring. When Athens first became the capital of the modern Greek state in the mid-19th century it was largely pasture, and the planting of fruit trees was part of a planned project to transform it into a European urban centre in the course of the 20th century. The varieties were chosen mainly for their minimal watering needs.

The tradition continues. In the last couple of years, the construction arm of the Greek railway company ERGOSE S.A. expropriated and cleared a number of olive groves in the countryside as part of expansion works on its network. Thousands of trees were auctioned off, but a few of the more ancient specimens were saved for replanting in Athens. Trees with an estimated age of 1,500 years were donated to local authorities and planted in key locations, including the historic buildings of Athens University in the city centre, the glass sheet statue of the runner marking the final stretch of the Athens Marathon route, and the grounds of the Ministry of Defence.

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The latest addition to the city’s gardens, the park surrounding the Stavros Niarchos cultural centre in Faliron, also centres around native drought-resistant species and includes olives surrounded by herb gardens. Among the photographs documenting the project is a stunning image of a mature olive tree being lowered into the ground by a crane. The photo is taken from ground level looking up at the descending root ball, which eclipses the sun with a surreal Magritte-like quality (the image can be seen in this video presentation around the 1:06 mark).

Athenians have a close relationship with the fruit trees in their city. On dark winter evenings, it is not uncommon to see lone figures using self-fashioned reaching sticks to pick the oranges, which are known in Greek as nerátzia. The bitter variety was chosen by the city authorities specifically to deter picking and eating, but boiled down with sugar it is well-known that their peel makes excellent marmalade and preserves (or “spoon sweets” to use the somewhat inelegant English translation). In November, when the olives ripen, some engage in more open foraging. They come equipped with olive netting, which they lay on the pavement, and sticks, with which they beat the branches to bring the fruit down.

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You will hear a variety of reactions to these urban foraging activities. Some disapprove of them, objecting that the trees are the property of local authorities who pay to prune and maintain them, and that the foragers are in effect free-riding at their fellow taxpayers’ expense. Others thank the pickers for clearing what would otherwise fall and create a skidding hazard and a nuisance on the pavement, muttering that this should also be done by the local authority. Others still, express a degree of pity for those they assume are forced to scavenge for what is considered, in the case of olives, a dietary staple. Finally, many are concerned about the level of pollution in fruit grown at close proximity to traffic; however tests have shown that the soil does not absorb as many toxic pollutants as is often assumed, and that a thorough washing will rid the fruit of any airborne pollution.

Most urban Greeks have very recent roots in the countryside and can look forward to receiving a few tins of oil “from the village”, or even harvesting and pressing their own as part of an autumnal expedition back to their roots (or their holiday home). This link with the countryside and its produce has become even more vital to city dwelling families during the financial crisis. When the average Greek consumes over 12 litres of olive oil each year, access to “free” oil not only saves money but in most cases improves the quality of food on the table. For this reason, the urban olives probably haven’t been exploited as much as they perhaps could be, and it still takes a degree of audacity to shake down the neighbourhood trees.

The reality of urban foraging is probably more varied. The author has certainly partaken in a spot of recreational olive picking and curing in the local park (despite finding the actual taste of olives revolting, I am assured that the result was far superior to what you can buy in most northern European delis). Most urban olive-pickers are lone operators, picking from a single tree, but we have on occasion seen groups of men with pickup trucks gathering sacks of olives from trees in the university campus, presumably to put to more commercial use, perhaps at an out-of-town olive press.

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“Boutique hand picked, home cured, single estate olives” from the local park.

In recent years, the pressure created by the financial crisis and the rise of interest in volunteering activities has inspired a couple of local authorities to get creative and put the neglected resources in their ownership to good use. The municipality of Glyfada in the southern suburbs has been harvesting the olives from its trees for the past three years. In 2015 it produced 800 litres of good quality olive oil in conjunction with an educational initiative in local schools. Aghia Parakevi in the north of Athens called on local volunteers to participate in its harvest, and the oil produced was used in the municipal soup kitchen.

Athena’s gift to the city keeps on giving.

 


IMAGES: urban olive tree in fruit, photo by Koutofrangos; 1,500 year old olive tree transplanted to central Athens by ERGOSE S.A., photo via kathimerini.gr; urban olive-picking, photo by Koutofrangos; our modest olive harvest, in preparation for curing in brine, photo by Koutofrangos.

Stories about the Olive, part II: the urban olive

Hope is on the way (out) – Barry’s farewell tour

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Today, 14 November 2016, GreekiLeaks™  publishes a partial transcript of a briefing call between the outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama [OPOTUS] and a staff member at the U.S. Embassy in Athens [Athens] in advance of the presidential visit scheduled for 15-16 November, obtained through a confidential source. Only the Athens side of the conversation was recorded. 

OPOTUS: [inaudible]

Athens: Mr President, unfortunately we have had to cancel the Pnyx engagement for your “birthplace of democracy” speech. We’re putting out rumours about alternative venues, but the plan is to use a green screen in the Embassy basement with a backdrop of the Acropolis. No one will know the difference.

OPOTUS: [inaudible]

Athens: That’s right, sir, the Pnyx was nixed. Very good.

OPOTUS: [inaudible]

Athens: Security concerns, sir.

OPOTUS: [inaudible]

Athens: Not those guys, Mr President. No, they were dismantled. Turns out they were more concerned with holiday pay and Christmas bonuses than with the revolution.

OPOTUS: [inaudible]

Athens: [laughs] No sir, I don’t think they got employer-sponsored healthcare. Didn’t need it, they have socialised medicine here.

OPOTUS: [inaudible]

Athens: I don’t know what they wanted, Mr President. Seems to me they had it better than most Americans, sir, but they had a beef with us anyway.

OPOTUS: [inaudible]

Athens: Anyway, there are these new kids on the block calling for mayhem. And the teachers’ unions. And someone lobbed a hand grenade at the French Embassy. Could have been one of President Hollande’s exes, but best to err on the side of caution. Which brings us to Kaisariani… Unfortunately, Mr President, we won’t be able to visit.

OPOTUS: [inaudible]

Athens: Sir, the local council have declared it an “Obama-free-zone”. I appreciate that you are deeply disappointed.

OPOTUS: [inaudible]

Athens: I know Rush Limbaugh calls you a Socialist, Mr President, but this is way more granular. Some kind of local turf war. The local elections went Florida-style, the Communists contested and won a re-vote. Syriza not the right shade of red, apparently, even though the New York Times calls them “leftists”, yada yada. Long story short, the Prime Minister himself can only visit in the company of the riot police. Marxist-Leninists and Leninist-Marxists aren’t welcome either, if that makes you feel any better.

OPOTUS: [inaudible]

Athens: I’m not sure we would want to take the Trump line on this, Mr President. But you’re right, it is… ironic.

OPOTUS: [inaudible]

Athens: Well, there is the local festival. This year they are extending it by a couple of days in your honour.

OPOTUS: [inaudible]

Athens: The high point is the annual “friendship parade” that comes right by the Embassy, Mr President. It’s very colorful. I suggest we watch the fireworks from the roof. I can organise some cocktails and canapés, maybe some gyro sliders?

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The annual “friendship parade” and firework display outside the U.S. Embassy.

OPOTUS: [inaudible]

Athens: No, the Prime Minister won’t be able to attend, he normally lays the ceremonial wreath in the parade, it’s kind of his “thing”.

OPOTUS: [inaudible]

Athens: “Foniádes ton laón, Amerikánoi”. Yes, sir, it translates roughly as “Liberators of people, our American brothers.”* I believe it refers to the Marshall Plan.

OPOTUS: [inaudible]

Athens: Yes, sir, you are correct. The government is expecting to hear that you will press for debt relief for Greece.

OPOTUS: [inaudible]

Athens: Yes, sir, I am aware that “don’t mean diddly squat now that the Short-Fingered Vulgarian is getting the decorators in to gold-plate the White House taps”. But we don’t need to make any promises. Goodwill, sir, your legacy, that is what this visit is about. Use the word “meaningful” if you wish – what that actually means is open to interpretation, that’s the beauty of it.

OPOTUS: [inaudible]

Athens: So, in that spirit, we talk about reforms, blah blah blah, bold efforts of the Greek government, sacrifices of the Greek people etc., no specifics here, don’t have’em. On the one hand “hope”, on the other hand “reforms”, quid pro quo, carrot and stick. Keeps everyone happy. Well, keeps Athens happy, keeps creditors meh. Refugees, too. Safe topic. Again, no specifics. The humanitarian effort, the generosity of the noble Greek people etc. Steer clear of asylum processing, hot spots and riots. Security, counterterrorism: super-important, thank you for your military spending, keep those orders coming, our friends at Lockheed will be happy to take your calls.

OPOTUS: [inaudible]

Athens: Good point. Probably best not to antagonise the neighbour with too much of the “d” word, but do remind us that he’s there, hence military spending. Tricky customer, but that’s one for you successor to deal with, I suspect he finds him more sympatico.

OPOTUS: [inaudible]

Athens: Yes, definitely mention Antetokounmpo, Mr President. That’s a slam-dunk!

OPOTUS: [inaudible]

Athens: Sure, we can arrange for you to shoot some hoops in the Embassy gym. You will have to go easy though – the Prime Minister is more of a volleyball man.

basket
“More of a volleyball man.”

Switchboard: Mr President, Berlin is on the line.

 

* Editor’s note: It means “Killers of people, Americans” and is a perennial favourite at anti-American rallies.


IMAGES: President Obama looking demob-happy (White House); Flag burning outside U.S. Embassy in Athens, November 2014, via patrasevents.gr; Tsipras with former Greek basketball captain Nikos Gallis via lay-out.gr.

 

 

 

Hope is on the way (out) – Barry’s farewell tour