NYC (1975) to Athens (2016): an inspiration and a warning

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An upcoming visit to Athens as Atlantis Host’s chaperone puts Koutofrangos in a nostalgic frame of mind as he casts back to his formative teen years in New York City and environs. On a late June weekend, we will have to toss a coin to decide whether we go to see Laurie Anderson curate an evening of multimedia performance, or Patti Smith give a track-by-track concert performance of her classic 1975 album “Horses”. During the many extended trips to Athens in recent years to visit AH’s Aunt Cassandra and tour the family estates aboard the late Uncle Aristo’s yacht, the Bucephalas, I have been struck, squinting through the privacy glass onto litter-strewn streets, by the apparent similarities between Athens of the Crisis Era (2009 – present) and the New York of the 1970s. I often ponder on this, as the marina’s brand new courtesy Porsche Cayenne whisks us through the smog-choked air of central Athens south to leafy Vouliagmeni and a simpler way of life.

The timing is apt for such a comparison as 1970s New York City is having “a moment”. People too young to have experienced it, and others too old or brain-damaged by their youthful habits to actually remember it, have come together in a celebration of the “City” (as anyone raised within a fifty-mile radius of the place refers to NYC) and its iconic age of collapse, filth, graffiti, dank, fetid subways crawling with gangs of muggers, Bowery panhandlers, Con-Ed summer “brown-outs”, and abandoned tenements.

So let’s set the scene. In the mid-1970s, when Gerald Ford was president (“Who?” I hear you ask) and Abe Beame the height-challenged mayor, New York City teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and default. So dire was the state of the City’s finances that many (including, famously and misquotingly, President Ford himself) pronounced it doomed, a decaying, corrupt heap of poverty, crime and filth that was beyond salvation. The classic New York Daily News article “Ford to City: Drop Dead”, is worth reading in full to appreciate the depth of the center-periphery animus (for extra thrills, try replacing “Ford” with “Schäuble”, and”Beame” with the name of any recent Greek Prime Minister). Those businesses that didn’t go broke, fled, as did almost one in eight residents. Entire office buildings and tenements, not to mention storefronts, sat vacant. Whole blocks were commandeered by squatters. By the end of the decade, the streets teemed with the homeless. Buildings were abandoned by their owners because of high taxes and low rents. Many burned to the ground. The problem was compounded by misguided efforts to rationalize fire-fighting resources confronted with shrinking budgets. Building-by-building, the Bronx disappeared.

Police, firefighters and sanitation workers walked off their jobs with Swiss train-like regularity. Indeed strikes by the the sanitation department stand as bookends to the decade, commencing with a nine-day strike in February 1968 that left the City buried under tons of rubbish, to be repeated again in December of 1981 ending only days before Christmas. The intervening decade was dotted with wildcat work stoppages whenever the City attempted to freeze or cut wages and pensions. In places the uncollected refuse climbed to the second floor of buildings, swirling down streets in the winter winds. In January 1971, 20,000 NYC police officers phoned in sick with a case of what was dubbed “blue flu”. On 6 November 1973, 10,900 NYC firefighters refused to leave their stations for five and a half hours while 80 fires burned in the city, chanting “Scab! Scab!” at volunteer crews of trainees and administrators hastily drafted in to respond to alarms. A coalition of police, firefighters and others went so far as to print a scaremongering handout for distribution to tourists entitled “Welcome to Fear City”.

My senior year of high school, living on the Queens – Nassau border (I am part of what Manhattanites derisively refer to as the “bridge and tunnel crowd”) , neatly coincided with the Son of Sam murders of 1976 and 1977 that paralyzed New York and the ‘outer boroughs’ as every part of the City that isn’t Manhattan is known – amplified through the now-classic prose of Daily News columnist and poet – hack laureate of those same outer boroughs Jimmy Breslin. David Berkowitz, the psychopath convicted of the murders, was eventually arrested at his home in the Bronx.

On 13 July 1977, in the midst of a heatwave of historic proportions where temperatures  approached 100° F, the worst blackout to hit the City since 1965 plunged the entire region into darkness for 24 hours. Looting and arson began almost immediately, and the chaos and wanton destruction wrought in those few hours – particularly in the poorest neighborhoods like now-fashionable Bed-Stuy – was plainly visible the next day. More than 3,000 were arrested and the prisons were bursting at the seams. Inmates set mattresses alight.

In the midst of all this, the fabled New York Yankees played in a near-empty baseball stadium in the smoldering Bronx , where pieces of concrete routinely fell into the stands during games while long-suffering New Yorkers were being attacked by packs of rats within sight of City Hall. No one was thinking, much less talking, regeneration. Even so, that summer marked a turning point, at least in hindsight. The Yankees went on to win the World Series. A complete unknown, Rupert Murdoch bought the New York Post in late 1976, the liberal tabloid rival to the New York Daily News, and proceeded to reinvent it as a right wing New York spin on a British red top with its screaming, hysterical headlines (the most famous came in 1983, “Headless Body in Topless Bar”). In many ways, the aggrieved, polarized, violent and dysfunctional public discourse that is today the hallmark of American politics – leading inexorably to our current Trump moment – was born in the violence and destruction of that year.

Let’s be clear about something that New York had that Athens does not (yet) possess in anywhere near equal measure: fear. NYC of the the ’70s was a place of palpable anxiety and paranoia. No lesser a personage than composer Philip Glass, recently recalled in an interview for the BBC how the City in the 1970s was a scary place (he drove a cab to earn extra money, at a time when cabbies were routinely robbed, or worse still, murdered).  In hindsight, there could not have been a more apt soundtrack to the decade than the Bee Gees Saturday Night Fever hit Stayin’ Alive.  Random murders and muggings were the norm, and the print, radio and television news of the day gave it wall-to-wall coverage (though thankfully, back then we didn’t have rolling 24-hour news or the internet). Violent crime rates hit a plateau in the ’70s and stayed there until the late ’90s, when nation-wide demographic changes already at work combined with more intelligent policing (not supposedly ‘get-tough on crime’ policies as former mayor and self-mythologizer extraordinaire Rudy Giuliani would have you believe) finally resulted in a startling decline. The appallingly-awful Death Wish was released in 1974, a cartoon-ish celebration of urban vigilantism that made Charles Bronson’s career, and confirmed everyone’s suspicions that New York should be left to go to Hell on its own.

And yet every trip into the City as my teenage self felt akin to boarding Apollo 11 and heading to the moon. It was scary, edgy, but exciting. I attended poetry readings in the Village and bought Galway Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares at the long-closed Eighth Street Bookshop. I searched out obscure classical recordings at Record Hunter on Fifth Avenue between 42nd and 43rd Streets (’42nd Street’ itself a shorthand for sleaze and debauchery) . Beer was cheap at the White Horse Tavern, a favorite watering hole of Jack Kerouac and Dylan Thomas during his reading tours in the US. The myth is that he downed a large number of whiskey shots (18? 36?) at the bar and died the following day at St. Vincent’s Hospital down the block, more likely of misdiagnosis than alcohol poisoning per se. The hospital, a more than century old Catholic institution dedicated to serving the poor, who no longer [can afford to] live in this part of Manhattan, has closed and now is home to luxury high-rise condos that were selling last year for $3500/sq ft. This was a heady environment in which to engage in discreet underage drinking, a dog-eared copy of the Collected Poems in hand.

The beauty of all this decay was that notwithstanding the sleaze and grime, New York City became a magnet for creativity. As Glass points out, the City had something that made it a beacon for artists: cheap housing.Thanks to affordable housing (or simply sleeping rough in Central Park), the result was a critical mass of talent and cross-fertilization between the disciplines: performance art at The Kitchen, The Wooster Group’s Spalding Gray and Willem Dafoe, A R Gurney and Christopher Durang at Playwrights Horizons, La Mama, PS1, Mary Boone and Julian Schnable, Arto Lindsey, Elliot Sharpe, John Zorn, the aforementioned Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson and Patti Smith, Television, the Ramones, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Robert Mapplethorpe, Kool Herc and Hip Hop’s emergence in the South Bronx, CBGB, the Mudd Club, the Talking Heads (and of course the short-lived palaces of cocaine-fueled sexual ambiguity, flammable fashion and disco glamour that were Studio 54 and its dry ice fog-filled rival Xenon …but we don’t really want talk about that). All of this was made possible because rent was cheap (or better, free) and performance spaces plentiful. Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee were cutting their teeth at NYU Film School. French avant garde composer Pierre Boulez was at the helm of the New York Philharmonic. The city was broke, falling apart at the seams, rife with crime and social problems, and had never been more culturally vibrant, perhaps because as one recent commentator observed“there was no need to pretend that everything was all right.” 

In the midst of all of this, savvy investors like William Ponsoldt (late of Panama Papers fame) and the well-connected (a certain scion of property development wealth named Trump comes to mind) snapped up empty well-located, future landmark properties for next to nothing, fixed them up and flipped them for a fortune in the ensuing, more prosperous decades. With hindsight, this was a bet that you couldn’t lose. At the time, as you stepped over piles of rotting garbage, avoided newspapers swirling at eye-level in the wind and rats nipping at ankles, dodged junkies in the doorways of empty storefronts and vainly tried to shake off panhandlers who would follow you for blocks haranguing you for a handout, such an investment looked pretty foolhardy. Insane even. But who knew?

All that has transpired in New York since the ’70s has its roots in this fantastically fertile soil. First SoHo was colonized, then the East Village. By the early ’80s even distant outposts like Park Slope in Brooklyn were becoming desirable and as a result, unaffordable. As the economy improved, the City recovered. By the ’80s, when prime rates began their gradual, stuttering climb-down from a staggering 21.5% in December 1980, there seemed like there was a Gap on nearly every corner. Money was now visible, just like the homeless. Wall Street chancers like the Boeskys and the Milkens became the models for Tom Wolfe’s “masters of the universe”.  An artist or performer arriving in the City had to seek shelter in obscure, freaky and quite frankly dangerous corners of the outer boroughs like Williamsburg.

Now, a mere decade after the terror attacks of 9/11  and barely pausing for breath in the latest recession, the City is largely a museum to these lost times while Williamsburg’s property market outpaces Manhattan’s. The City remains a draw for the creative class, but mostly for wannabes with money from expensive private universities, subsidized by their double-income professional parents. They are overwhelmingly white and upper middle class, happy to drop thirteen bucks on a jar of artisan pickles.

In other words, be careful what you wish for. Behind all the nostalgia surrounding 1970s NYC is the simple truth that no one can afford to live there anymore who doesn’t work for a hedge fund, a law firm with a healthy client list of, er, hedge funds, or is a rich kid aching to open the next artisanal mayonnaise cum yarn-and-saketini-bar  in Bed-Stuy where Uma Thurman’s brother can’t even afford a home. Or perhaps a porridge restaurant in less-hip Park Slope. Although there is hope for the “old” New York, as the homeless return. Today’s NYC is cleaner, safer, more prosperous and desirable, but also much more unequal and unaffordable for the vast majority of working people, let alone the creative revolutionaries who still flock there to starve, even as their ’70s pioneers like Patti Smith are leaving.

In conservative circles, the resurgent NYC has become the poster child for the view that, in today’s parlance, “austerity works”, and the blueprint for the “tough love” remedies applied more recently to cities like Detroit and countries like Greece. In truth, it was the gravitational pull of the world’s then financial capital combined with the global economic pendulum swinging the other way. There floated in the air a general Reagan-era perception that things were getting better (perception, mind you, not reality for most people).  In the late ’80s and ’90s Wall Street and the investment banks came back in a big way. And at least when the good times returned and the tax coffers recovered, money was ploughed back into infrastructure, policing, and the scrubbing clean of those subway cars. New York was no longer the city of the Ramones; it now was the metropolis of Bright Lights, Big City and The Bonfire of the Vanities. Yes, New York was pulled back from the brink, but the underlying changes wrought tilted the board heavily in favor of wealth. This wasn’t the result of bootstrapping capitalism so much as it was a willingness to hand the city over to the finance industry and turn its housing stock into, in the words of my midtown dentist whose office looks out at one of the more egregious examples of oligarch chic, “a safe deposit box for the world’s super rich“.  Most of the time these billionaire warehouses sit empty. The economic and cultural contributions to the City of these peripatetic plutocrats, like their counterparts in central London, is almost zero.

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Flicking through the complimentary glossies as I peer out the Cayenne’s windows at the gritty urban homesteaders in Gazi, Psyri and Metaxourgeio (our driver is lost), I nearly choke on my freddo to see that already, according to this month’s Vogue, “Downtown Athens is Basically Brooklyn by the Sea”. According to the guide, “you’ll find local brews, grain bowls, flea markets, brunches, fine delicatessens, and beard balms.” They are of course referring to Brooklyn, circa 2016. The city, and the country, are already colonized by the artisan-mayonnaise-and-thirteen-buck-jar-of-pickles crowd. They’ve been here all along, dancing into the wee hours on the ashes of the 2004 Olympic dream.

Athens and Greece remain in a state of decline unparalleled since the Great Depression; real unemployment rates for the population as a whole remain suspended at a gravity-defying 24.1% and the rate of unemployment for 15 – 24 year olds currently a jaw-slackening 51.4%. Unemployment in NYC in 1975 stood at 10.7%. To put that in perspective, the UK unemployment rate for January – March of this year stands at 5.1% for the population overall; in the US, it was a mere 4.7% in May. Even allowing for the undercounting of the long-term unemployed in the US, the picture in Greece is profoundly troubling.

Yet throughout the crisis the dense cluster of craft cocktail lounges, hip cafes, trendy wine bars and bleeding edge foodie havens around places such as Agia Irini and elsewhere in downtown Athens are heaving with a crowd of local hipsters seemingly flush with cash. Even as the whiff of tear gas lingers in the air above the wide boulevard of Panepistimiou from the latest dust-up between koukolofori and the batsi, the party barely skipped a beat. Businesses close and soup kitchens proliferate, and through it all a disconnected population of shallow trendsters stare unblinking at their shiny new iPhones. It’s urban blight, Jim, but not as we know it.

Long time observers will note that many of these symptoms predate the crisis and were there even below the gleaming facade of noughties prosperity. There is no doubt that homelessness has got worse over the past five years, swelled by the newly jobless and evicted; but as the Greek crisis meme took hold many a lazy European photo editor eager to sate the appetite for crisis porn used more easily obtainable photos of marginal groups that have unfortunately inhabited the darker corners of the city for years: Roma scrap metal collectors and intravenous drug users labelled as newly impoverished Athenians. The riots? Some of the worst took place in 2008, when the coming crisis was barely a glimmer in a doom-merchant’s eye. Similarly, urban blight-as-opportunity was already blossoming nicely in downtown Athens when the crisis hit, in the hangover of the half-assed Olympic regeneration.

Relaxing over an artisanal raki and obscure regional delicacies with Athenians, one often hears the rumour repeated of prominent Greek families and politicians snapping up pieces of the neglected “historic centre” for a song, even busing in illegal migrants and drug dealers to drive out long-time residents and drive down real estate prices. Some sizeable property deals have been transacted more transparently. And you don’t need a conspiracy theory to explain why. Middle class Athenians started moving to the suburbs in droves as soon as the new metro, suburban railway and tram system made commuting feasible; the economic migrants who provided cheap labour in the pre-crisis years also left when jobs dried up, leaving a hollowed-out city centre. If anything, the first years of the crisis brought a mini-regeneration of sorts, increasing the density of hipster bars and trendy food joints, as the first wave of redundancy packages and early retirement bonuses was re-deployed as seed capital for small-scale gastronomical entrepreneurship in cheap storefronts.

Contrast this with New York in the 1970s. Having experienced Manhattan and New York up close in that decade, I can assure you even the “nice” bits of the City were grim. It beggars belief nowadays if you tell a visitor that festive, manicured Bryant Park behind the grand and lustrously-restored New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, in the shadow of the gleaming glass and steel Bank of America tower, was an absolute, you-gotta-be-kidding-me no-go area in its day, the inspiration for the 1971 Pacino crime-and-drug terror vehicle, “The Panic in Needle Park”.

These days, when New Yorkers  gather to overcome collective trauma, there is one song that keeps recurring on the playlist. It’s not the self congratulatory “New York, New York” or the schmaltzy “New York State of Mind” (although they are also part of the cannon);  it is Billy Joel’s eerily titled “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway”, written in 1976. The lyrics describe residents fleeing an apocalyptic New York (“They burned the churches up in Harlem/Like in the Spanish civil war/The flames were ev’rywhere/But no one really cared/It always burned up there before”), told from the perspective of a survivor in Florida forty years later. It was sung at the memorial for the victims of 9/11 and at the relief concerts after Hurricane Sandy, as a reminder of the City’s collective near-death experience and triumphant rebound. It is a reminder that the City didn’t die in the ’70s, like everyone expected. Indeed, the city described in the song bears little resemblance to the City that emerged from the ashes a mere decade later, and the re-make of Escape From New York will be pure science fiction as compared to the only slightly heightened reality of the City-as-prison-camp ’80s quasi-documentary original. That is, unless the new version features corporate lawyers and private equity types fleeing the unspeakable horrors of the insane housing market for Buffalo. In many ways, the post-’70s recovery puts the City’s post-9/11 resurrection in the shade. New Yorkers in 2001 had already stared down the dark barrel of the gun and knew at once that there was not going to be any return to those days. And there hasn’t.

For better or worse, despite the deprivation, Athens hasn’t had this kind of collective near-death experience (yet). Even without the courtesy Cayenne, it is still possible to live in a bubble where the worst thing that can happen is your posh hairdresser strategically defaulting; it is certainly possible as a visitor to avoid any contact with anything more terrifying than a long line at an ATM, and thank goodness for that, given the city’s heavy reliance on tourism. Athens, and perhaps Greece as a whole, have managed to muddle along. With each day, week and month that passes of half-hearted reform, blatant cronyism, and political dysfunction from every quarter, a certain comfort has been found in misery. Indeed, in all of this, some see the only glimmer of hope for urban renewal in another crisis, that which has left a new wave of migrants and refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and a host of other troubled regions trapped in Greece in the past year.

I do wonder what Patti and Laurie will make of it, if they get a chance to hang out in Athens, 2016. Our choice of concert venues next weekend are the recently opened Piraeus Academy which models itself on London’s Brixton Academy, and the Metamorphosis gala opening weekend at the new Renzo Piano-designed Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Faliro. Meanwhile, the Mayor of Athens spirits away the city’s public art for safekeeping from theft and vandalism, and the world continues to turn. Indeed, in all of this, some see the only glimmer of hope for renewal in another crisis, that which has led refugees and migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and a host of other troubled regions trapped in Greece.

Image credits: NEW YORK: New York subway photo: Danny Lyon via ohbythewayblog.blogspot.com; “SKIPPED, 1977″ photo: Susan Lorkid Katz, courtesy the Museum of the City of New York via 6sqft.com; photo of CBGB by David Godlis via medium.com; photo of Xenon by Bill Burnstein via midcenturymodernmag.comATHENS: New Hotel via Vogue.com; “Hipstorical” by @atlantis_host (artful blur, photographer’s own); Metaxourgeio owl/elephant graffiti by Koutofrangos; Baba au Rum via iefimerida.com; homeless graffiti via metaxourgeio.wordpress.com.

 

NYC (1975) to Athens (2016): an inspiration and a warning

Putting the ‘Crisis’ Back in Christmas

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Inspired by the example of actress and humanitarian Susan Sarandon, Koutofrangos drove through the night, braving fog and the vagaries of long-haul lorry drivers on the Italian Autostrada, to board the last Igoumenitsa-bound ferry from Ancona to ‘bear witness’ to Greece’s ignominious ongoing decline into depravity.

Already horrified by reports from my informants that a member of Parliament spoke authoritatively about recently-arrived migrants from Pakistan having an unusual attachment to their goats, I was braced for the worst as I entered Athens.

Nothing, however, could prepare me for the shock of seeing gangs of street youth – boys and girls alike – going from door-to-door in a brazen shake-down of the elderly. This on Christmas Eve, no less. The streets have been crawling with urchins since dawn, clearly working under duress by foreign organised crime bosses, wielding menacing metal triangles and iron rods, pounding on doors and demanding cash from the already-depleted unemployed and beleaguered pensioners. Even casual observation revealed the elderly – those abandoned or forgotten by family – being accosted on street corners and in modest kafeneios.

This pitiful spectacle was made all the more horrifying by the fact that many of the youth – doubtless kidnapped and press-ganged into common criminality – wore red and white Santa hats, in a perverse and sickening show of blasphemy towards the holiday. The degree of organisation entailed by this mass extortion racket was evidenced by pick-up trucks cruising the streets, Christmas carols blaring from loudhailers to drown out the cries for help of victims, an adult ‘Santa’ directing the street gangs to their next victim. With no police visible anywhere, the streets of Athens have at long last truly become a jungle.

[You may want to read this before going to press – Ed.]

All of the above is of course imagined, apart from the external links which are 100% genuine.

Image: photo by Koutofrangos, somewhere in Athens, 24 December 2015.

Putting the ‘Crisis’ Back in Christmas

In the Footsteps of Pheidippides

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The 2014 Athens Marathon – ‘The Authentic’, as it is charmingly named (to distinguish it from all the inauthentic marathons out there?) – was my own first attempt at running 26.2 miles / 42.195 kilometers. Having witnessed the spectacle of the Athens marathon in 2013, the sight of runners well into their seventh and eighth decades doggedly making their way along the final 500 meters to the finish line inspired me to sign up as a motivation to get fit. I thought, “if I’m going to run a marathon, my first marathon might as well be the First Marathon.” Today, on the eve of the 33rd edition, I thought I’d share my impressions from last year as a first-time runner at this major international event, prefaced by a little history (with thanks to Herodotus – see below – for giving us that word).

Where exactly did the idea to stage a race 26.2 miles (or 42, 195 meters) in length come from? You may have heard the story of the great Battle of Marathon in 490 BC between the Athenians and the much greater massed naval power of the Persians (okay, you may have heard of it, but like most of us neither educated in Greece nor at elite British public schools, you probably don’t know anything about it). Against the odds, the Athenians won, and – so the story goes – a messenger ran from the battlefield at Marathon to the Acropolis to announce the great victory, declaring  νικῶμεν! (“We won!”) and then, er … expired. Died. Was no more. The problem with this cracking good tale – founding myth of one of the most celebrated events of the modern Olympic games – is that there is virtually no part of that brief story that is in accordance with contemporary sources. Apart, that is, from the fact that the Athenians won.

According to Herodotus, who wrote the first document to be calle History (he literally invented the word), about the Greek – Persian Wars of the early fifth century BC, a certain Pheidippides was a messenger who ran from Athens to Sparta in two days (over approximately 246km of rocky hills – something re-created each September as the Spartathon) in a failed bid to secure Spartan military assistance for the wildly-outnumbered Athenians. Alas the Spartans were in sacred festival mode, and had to decline. Undaunted, he ran back to Athens to inform the rulers that they were on their own.

Herodotus also tells of the victorious Athenian army hot-footing it back to Athens post-victory to prepare anew to fight the crafty Persians, whose fleet had already set sail for Athens from Marathon (perhaps, cunningly, their plan all along). Then there is Plutarch, who tells of an unnamed soldier running from Marathon to Athens to announce the defeat of the Persians. These two (three?) separate events were conflated in the 2nd century AD by Lucian. And Lucian, like Pausanias, says his name was Philippides. However it was Robert Browning, in his 1879 poem ‘Pheidippides’ who attributed to the runner the fate of announcing the Athenian victory, then dying:

‘Rejoice, we conquer!’ Like wine thro’ clay,

Joy in his blood bursting his heart, he died—the bliss!”

This, it turns out, is utter fiction (as admittedly the entire tale might be), a detail Browning added to the ancient sources purely out of what rightly may be termed ‘poetic license’.

However, that isn’t to say that the route from Marathon to downtown Athens is itself wholly fictional. Some number of Greek hoplites, or fleet-footed infantry, did in fact walk, run or stagger back to Athens to defend the city against the Persian fleet if Herodotus is to be believed. It took them longer than the current world record of 02:02:57 – probably more like 7 hours and a bit. But then again they were wearing bronze battle armour, having just fought and defeated the numerically superior Persian forces. And so, as heroic as it may seem for athletes and desk jockeys alike to cover this not-inconsiderable distance, reality for both Pheidippides and his hoplite comrades was in truth a significantly more impressive accomplishment, especially considering the absence in the early 5th century BC of energy gels and ultra lightweight hydration packs. In all likelihood they were barefoot.

It was at the first modern revival of the Olympic Games, held in Athens in 1896, that the idea emerged to hold a race along the route from Marathon to Athens, ending at the newly purpose built stadium known colloquially as Καλλιμάρμαρο / Kallimarmaro, or ‘beautiful marble’. Indeed the stadium sits on the site (and incorporates the remains) of a much larger stadium first used in the ancient Panathenaic Games (ca. 330 BC) reflected in its official name, the Panathenaic Stadium (Παναθηναϊκό στάδιο). This 1896 ‘marathon’ measured a mere 24.8 miles in length. The distance of 26.2 miles was established at the 1908 London Olympics, being the distance from Windsor Castle to the Olympic Stadium at White City. 

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Back in the day, the road from Marathon to Athens was little more than an unpaved country lane, wending its way through olive groves and vineyards, in a time when Athens itself was a modest city of a mere 123,000 souls. The greater Athens megalopolis is today home to more than 3.7 million. The road trod by Spiridon Louis, the water-carrier who won that first marathon in 1896 and whose name now graces many a running club worldwide, today is a busy highway carrying Athenians to the ferry port of Rafina or their weekend cottages by the sea, past endless gas stations, skyladiko nightclubs, building supply yards and garden ornament dealers. Missing a trick, the  1896 Olympic organisers overlooked the minor detail that the route is uphill for long stretches, thus guaranteeing that Athens Marathon – The Authentic will almost certainly never, ever be the site of a modern world record – something a variety of Mitteleuropen burgs (Berlin, Frankfurt, Zurich, etc.) vie for on the basis of being flat as an eierpfannkuchen and hence places where one can aim to achieve a new ‘personal best’. As world women’s record holder Paula Radcliffe discovered at the 2004 Olympics, the Athens course is daunting even for the world’s best.

But history will only get you so far as motivation to keep putting one foot in front of the other along the grueling, distressingly often uphill 42.195 km slog in temperatures frequently north of 70F (22C). A friend, himself a rather serious runner for whom marathons are merely a warmup for the real challenge of 100 mile ultras over 13,000 foot Colorado mountain passes, told me that of all the races he’d ever run, Athens was his favorite for the simple reason that the public turns out in serious numbers and cheers you on with real pride and gusto, even along some of the most desolate stretches of the course.

And my friend was right. Whatever the route may lack in scenic beauty, the crowds – young and old, athletes and chain smokers alike – are there cheering for the marathonodromoi from the first kilometer right ‘til the end. Yiayias (grannies) dressed head-to-toe in their black mourning dresses shouted words of encouragement – Yera! Kali dynami! Ligo akoma! Dynata! (variations of “Stay strong! Keep going! You’re almost there!”) – children pass out olive branches, hands outstretched to high five every passing runner. Early in the race, it was common to see entire South Asian immigrant families in colorful attire out smiling and cheering by the side of the road, fully sharing in the celebratory spirit of this quintessentially Greek event. Women read your name off your bib and shouted out a personalised ‘Bravo!’ as you plodded through light industrial wasteland and village plateias alike. Even a few police officers cracked a broad smile and applauded. Every few kilometers speakers were set up playing music, blaring everything from infectious laiko folk-pop to the inevitable Zorba the Greek. In one plateia it seemed like half the chorio was out dancing. The atmosphere can only be described as ‘carnival-like’.

Two nights before the big event, AIMS (the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races) – global marathon governing body headquartered in Athens, hosts a dinner and awards ceremony. It is held on the campus of Athens College, an elite private school with American roots for the children of the aspirational management consultant class. Last year, the male and female runners of the year were Dennis Kimetto and Florence Kiplagat, the former having just set the new world record in Berlin a few weeks earlier. Tout Athènes (politicians, television correspondents) were present bedecked in their finery, along with a smattering of foreign runners who, for €50, got to sit through a bewildering number of award presentations followed by a hot buffet supper allegedly formulated as an optimal carbo-loading pre-race repast, but bearing a strong resemblance to wedding catering.

As soon as the presentations were over, many grandees legged it outside for a cigarette (known to Greeks as an ‘athlitikó’) as – befitting a sporting awards gala – the universally-ignored ban on smoking indoors was for once respected. Neither award winner appeared to have been assigned a ‘minder’ and so they were left to fend for themselves, besieged by glitterati wanting them to pose for ‘selfies’. Poor Dennis Kimetto, a young Kenyan subsistence farmer turned distance running phenomenon and world record holder, eventually wandered off alone and unnoticed lugging his sizable boxed trophy, seeking out a quiet spot to sit on a wall behind a tree for a moment’s respite. 

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The race starts in the modern village of Marathon, in a well-used provincial stadium, its rubber oval track chewed up from years of heavy use and neglect. Runners are bussed from central Athens starting at a little past 5AM for the 25 mile drive along the race route. One entire side of the stadium is lined with dozens of port-a-potties. Everywhere people were wandering around anxiously in their official ‘protection plastic body covers’ (not, in fact, a body-sized condom as a direct translation of the Greek would have suggested, but a re-purposed bin liner as is customary at marathons) trying to stay warm in the pre-7am chill. The only exceptions were a few Orthodox priests, in full black clerical robes … and running shoes. Last year, there were at least a score of elite runners and pacers present from Kenya and Ethiopia, and people stood and watched in amazement as they ran warm-up lap after warm-up lap around the stadium. Bit by bit, people joined in and followed them around the track because running 42,195 meters wasn’t far enough. Seen up close, their effortless gait was something to behold; for a few minutes you had the experience of running alongside world class professional athletes, an opportunity not afforded by any other sport of which I’m aware. 

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Residents whose homes are near the starting line surely must rue that fact when each year their front gardens become last minute outdoor pissoirs, as runners guzzle bottle after bottle of water, then relieve themselves in the domestic shrubbery before 14,000+ of their fellow participants.  

Once underway, the final climb up to the stavrós (crossroad) at Agia Paraskevi takes you through a viaduct reverberating with the sounds of a drum ensemble hammering away on their tom-toms. Both above you and on either side of the road people look down and cheer, in my case some three hours after the race leaders passed by. Your legs feel like lead, and you are barely moving faster than an ambling walking pace, but you realize then that with only the final, downhill stretch to the finish line inside Kallimarmaro, completing the marathon just might be within reach after all.

The weather was perfect that day – perfect for spectating, that is. A cloudless cerulean sky arched overhead, and the course was paved end-to-end in sunshine. The thermometer crept well above 20 degrees C in stark contrast to Frankfurt, where I ran the marathon ten days ago under a sky of solid gray cloud and a marathon-friendly 11 degrees. I made it to Kallimarmaro under my own steam, and then paid my own unintentional homage to the great Pheidippides (quasi-Browning version) collapsing from dehydration about 50 meters past the finish line.  A fellow runner spotted me before I hit the deck and I had volunteer medics on me in a flash. An IV was in my arm within minutes and an hour later I strolled out of the medical tent on the stadium infield feeling like I could do the whole thing all over again. Or at least manage to walk home, however gingerly, unaided and upright. The team of medical volunteers were fantastic – they had their hands full thanks to the unseasonably warm weather – and it spoke volumes about their dedication.

As I lay there on the medical cot, a drip re-filling my depleted veins, I had ample opportunity to marvel at and admire how well-managed the entire event had been. Like so much in Greece, its people are singularly capable of accomplishing great things through self-organisation driven by pride, ingenuity and compassion. Parks and beaches, often blanketed in litter that no one seems responsible for collecting, are cleaned regularly by organised volunteer work gangs of civic-minded citizens. The current ongoing work of ordinary citizens in rescuing, aiding, feeding and clothing the thousands of refugees arriving in Lesvos and nearby islands shames the feeble, poorly co-ordinated efforts of official government agencies, the European Union and international aid bodies alike. Athens Marathon – ‘The Authentic’ – is infused from the first mile with the palpable pride of a beleaguered people in commemorating the birth of one of the most extreme athletic challenges ever devised and the history (fictional or otherwise) behind it.

Alas this year there will be no invited (i.e. paid) foreign professional competitors ‘in light of the economic challenges facing the country and its people’. Instead, the organisers ‘invite runners from around the world to run the Athens Marathon in solidarity with the Greek people in this testing time’. Indeed this year, notwithstanding the absence of the international elites, record numbers have signed up to attempt the course. For many a serious distance runner, Athens is on the same ‘must-do’ list as Boston, New York, and London. Over 43,000 are registered to participate in various running events ranging in distance from 5K to the full 42.195 km main event.

And once more I too will be there among the 14,677 registered full marathon runners, shivering in my bin liner, eager to do it all over again.

Images: Colour photos by koutofrangos (2014); black and white photo: Burton Holmes’s “1896 Olympic marathon”. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

In the Footsteps of Pheidippides

Greek elections 2015, round 2: Observations by an American innocent abroad

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Even as a veteran operative of several US presidential campaigns, I still find myself struggling at times to come to grips with the many flavors of parliamentary democracy found in Europe. Greece’s system has its own idiosyncrasies, on full display this past weekend. One significant quirk that may surprise fans of representative people’s assemblies is that whichever party comes out ahead in Greek national elections, by however slender a margin, automatically receives 50 additional seats of the 300 total up for grabs in the Voulí (Parliament). Thus in order to govern without need for a coalition, a political party need only actually win 101 of the 250 seats up for election, a whisker above 40%.

In the case of SYRIZA, they failed (again) to achieve such a ‘mandate’, only winning 95 seats – four down from January – plus the ‘bonus’ 50. Although to hear them tell it (yet again), this triumph of the people’s will (to do what exactly, we’re not sure) is but a harbinger of the days just over the horizon when schoolchildren across Europe will start their mornings singing Bella Ciao. The balance will be made up by reviving the coalition originally entered between SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left) and the far right, nationalist, anti-Europe ANEL (Independent Greeks), whose ten seats (3.69% of total votes cast), give the new (old) government a less than confidence-inspiring five seat majority (seven seats less than in the last elections). How winning an election, in January, calling a referendum in July and getting the public to vote as you asked them, then doing exactly the opposite (complete, abject capitulation, however you spin it), then resigning and causing another round of elections in September can be seen as a sign of serious, thoughtful leadership is something of a mystery. In any event, the leader of the otherwise tiny, fringe ragtag collection that is ANEL, the fleshy and oleaginous king of veiled threats and demagoguery Panos Kammenos, will doubtless be rewarded for his loyalty with reinstatement to his political-patronage and propaganda-friendly post of Defense Minister.

One could argue that the Greek ‘bonus’ system at least means that someone can govern, albeit with 50 stragglers and failed candidates, as opposed to MPs elected directly by the much-lauded ‘laós’ (the people). Especially in a country where voting is mandatory for everyone over the age of 18. Except that it isn’t, really, as there are no penalties for non-voting. It would be hard to enforce penalties as, like so many public records in Greece, the electoral rolls are not regularly updated, let alone policed, and are regularly found to include long-dead people. Turnout for this (third) vote (2x elections, 1x referendum) in nine months was predictably poor, hovering around 53% versus the 63% turnout in January, although perhaps not as bad as feared. SYRIZA’s 35.5% of the total vote tally (down from 36.3% in January, amounting to four seats lost) means that Tsipras can still claim a ‘clean victory’ (katharí níki) based on a paltry 18.5% of the eligible electorate casting votes for his party.

The low turnout is certainly attributable to apathy and a sense of futility, and broadly speaking low turnouts favor incumbents who rely less on inspiring undecideds to come over to their side than simply getting their base out to the polls. Whoever won this election was going to face the choice of either finally implementing even tougher reforms, spending cuts and tax rises than any previous government (all of whom paid with their political lives), or tearing the agreement up and rehashing the daily European crisis, talks of Grexit, and such that brought Greece to the global center stage (for all the wrong reasons) for the first half of this year. Only this time, with the EU facing a genuine existential crisis over how to respond to the hundreds of thousands fleeing the debacle that is Syria in a desperate gambit to make it to Germany or Sweden, it is safe to assume that Greece’s EU partners will show even less tolerance towards any attempt to reclaim the limelight by re-writing the last memorandum.

Still, with the fate of the country in the balance, you’d think Greeks would be motivated to vote. But there’s a catch: most Greeks do not transfer their voting rights from their place of birth, so in order to vote, they must return home to the ancestral village where their births are recorded. There is no concept of the ‘absentee ballot’ for Greeks who are out of the country on the date of the election (although given its rich potential for electoral fraud, it is surprising given the scale of the global Greek diaspora that the idea has never gained traction). What this means is that every election cycle concludes with a massive national migration, with a substantial percentage of the population of Athens taking to the roads in buses, trains, cars, motorbikes and scooters for the weekend in order to return to the chorió (village) to cast their ballot. Inevitably for many of the those dwindling few who remain employed, it means time off work. Given how many Greeks are either self-employed or own SMEs (late night kiosks, cafes, repair shops) it means lost income. Now that the political parties can no longer afford to bus voters to the polls en masse, add to that the eye-wateringly high price of fuel and cost of highway tolls (which can be waived at the discretion of the “oligarch” owners of highway consortia, but on this occasion were not), and the disincentives to head home for the third time in nine months are substantial. The uninspiring cast of characters running for office only further devalued any impetus to engage in this great spasm of democracy.

SYRIZA and Tsipras (and similarly ANEL and Kammenos) doubtless benefited from the low turnout. Having flushed out over 20% of his more wild-eyed radical MPs to the newly-formed LAE (Laikí Enótita or Popular Unity) with the promise of elections, Tsipras the pragmatist was able to whip his party organisation into full Get Out the Vote mode. This was aided by having stuffed the public sector with loyal appointees during his first seven months ‘at the helm’ in an orgy of reform-busting (and generally unreported in the foreign media) political patronage of the kind his predecessor occupants of the Megaro Maximou (the official prime ministerial residence) would be proud. While the average Antonis or Despina on the street couldn’t be bothered to vote, the party loyalists only recently ensconced in (or returned to) their civil service posts and whose jobs and salaries depended upon another SYRIZA/ANEL victory were motivated to get their friends and family – who benefit as well from trickle-down patronage – to the polls on the big day. Plus ça change … This ploy was aided by the timing by Tsipras of his resignation so as to hold elections prior to the first pension cuts and tax rises hitting the ever-excitable pensioner demographic and the freshly-taxed home-owners whose outrage cost Nea Demokratia the last election.

What is striking about these election results is how un-striking they are: apart from the disappearance of the short-lived ‘un’-party of Potami (the River) and the punishing annihilation of LAE, voting percentages remained shockingly close to their January totals. In other words, there was no great SYRIZA consolidation of power, but also no great backlash against the Tsipras U-Turn on the third memorandum. The more loony shrill self-absorbed outspoken SYRIZA factions have left the building, and it remains to be seen who takes their place on the benches. Nea Demokratia, having exchanged its charisma-less would-be undertaker of a former leader for a very different sort of lifelong populist party hack seemingly more at home running a bouzouki dive than a nation, saw its vote share, er, ‘leap’ from 27.8% to 28.1%, with a net loss of exactly one seat. Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn), the currently-on-trial-for-murder-extortion-and-racketeering Neo-Nazis who only the other day publicly condoned murder as a political tactic, held solid in third place with 7% of the total vote, up from 6.3% in January, actually gaining them an additional seat for a total of 18. In other words, Chrysi Avgi hold nearly twice as many seats in parliament as SYRIZA’s xenophobic, Russophilic coalition partners ANEL, notwithstanding having been effectively blackballed from the television news talk circuit for the past year. A few irrelevant ex-PASOK centrist voices (Potami) were shown the door to be replaced by a few other irrelevant … PASOK centrists. A couple more fringe types gained seats.

Clearly (to the extent anything is ‘clear’ in Greek politics) voters, having grudgingly accepted the inevitability of the ‘memorandum’ and banished the specter of the drachma, continued in their quest for someone new and youthful to lead the country with a seemingly credible claim  to not being part of the ‘old machine’. Looking at the options on offer, it was still only Tsipras who, however implausibly in light of his actions over seven months, could fit the bill. Oh, and this guy.Those who still ‘believe’ cast their votes; those bored, angry and cynical at another year wasted, stayed home.

Tsipras may well drag his feet, especially while the refugee crisis continues unabated, hoping that the rise of friendly forces in Europe (Iglesias in Spain, Corbyn in the UK) will give him a political victory on debt relief before he has to impose anything too onerous that will hit his base. The can has simply been kicked down the road and another election cannot be far off. If so, maybe these guys will finally break out? Given the vapidity of ideas being offered by the mainstream parties, veganism, ecology and natural healing could well show the way forward.

Image: Appropriately, Tsipras on the left, Kammenos on the right. In Time News from iefimerida.gr

Greek elections 2015, round 2: Observations by an American innocent abroad

BREAKING NEWS: ND fired by top campaign advisor

rigillis

To:         Evangelos Meimarakis

From:     James Carville (J.C.)

Date:     01 September 2015

Re:        Campaign advisory contract – cancellation

Call me a stuffed armadillo! Loulis just explained to me about tonight’s little ‘welcome home’ rally at yer old HQ. Are you smokin’ Bayou Baccie? Seriously!! You are SHOWING A FILM celebrating all yer OLD DINOSAURS, and inviting two of the MOST TOXIC POLITICIANS YOUR PARTY HAS EVER FIELDED to be the GUESTS OF HONOR???!!!??!!!??!!?

You done gone and give me one MASSIVE WEDGIE. I been happier to find a fist-sized toe-biter in my café au lait, mon frère! Now I don’t like to swear, but y’all are DUMBER THAN A TUB FULL OF TADPOLES. Dang! What did I tell y’all about NEW FACES, NEW BLOOD, NEW IDEAS??? BURY the past and MOVE ON because all these old gator turds are VOTER POISON!!!!! But DO YOU LISTEN??? HELL NO!

SO WHAT DO YOU DO but GO THROW A BIG FRIGGIN’ PARTY and invite the WHOLE WORLD to see what a bunch of DUMBASSES Y’ALL ARE!!!!

I SWEAR I could git Netanyahu elected Prime Minister IN THE WEST BANK easier than I can git you to do just ONE DANG SMART THANG in this crisis of yours!!!! What you expect me to do?? PISS IN THE WIND AND CALL IT CONFETTI???

So I GIVE UP. QUIT. RESIGN. Going H-O-M-E. Loulis is packing my duffel and hailing a cab downstairs. Four connecting flights and I’m sleeping in my own bunk by Thursday.

Here’s one last beignet to stick up yer Baton Rouge: yer country is more SCREWED UP than a polecat in a paper mill. People are gonna REMEMBER NAMES AND FACES, and they’ll remember a few decades down the road who shirked the call and who STEPPED UP. It’s up to YOU amigos. But hey, it’s your couche couche. Laissez les bon temps rouler.

Image: from Zougla.gr (in case you can’t read the watermark)

BREAKING NEWS: ND fired by top campaign advisor

What would J.C. do? Campaign memo to the Greek opposition

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To:         Evangelos Meimarakis; Stavros Theodorakis; Fotini Gennimata

From:     James Carville (J.C.)

Date:     23 August 2015

Re:         Campaign advisory contract proposal

Sorry for the group email, guys, but it’s late and I’ve just arrived in Athens after what must have been, what, three? four? five? flights. Hard to believe there ain’t a direct connection between DC and Athens?! You’d think Christine would have fixed that, what with all the air miles her guys clocked up.

So first things first, compadres: for the life of me I can’t figure out which one of you is ‘leading’ the opposition. Been locked in my hotel room all day and night watching the news, and quite frankly can’t tell y’all apart. Maybe it’s the heat, but it seems like the more fringe you are, the more TV time you git.

Okay, so let’s just make sure I’m on the right page – the big, shrill woman that reminds me of my fifth grade Spanish teacher Miss Hernandez, who’s always looking pissed off and delivering lectures (beats me what they’re about and my translator Loulis has yet to enlighten me – not that the boy’s playing with a full set of crab traps anyhows), she’s don’t run the country that right? And the guy that looks like my history teacher from senior year, the boring one with the white attempted beard fluff, glasses and the creepy beady eyes, he doesn’t run the country either? And the young-ish guy (at least compared to the rest) with the full head of black hair and the permanent smirk, Loulis tells me he’s not the head of the opposition – because I assumed he must be as he’s hardly on television – he’s actually the guy in charge? Or used to be? He’s Mr Popularity?

Dang pooter down a well, y’all got problems, a right ol’ mess on your hands, and I’m not sure I can do much. I’ve seen gumbo that was clearer than this so-called political ‘system’ you got here. Bolsheviks and Neo-Nazis out-poll most of you sensible middle-of-the-road types. Not that it helps that so many of you guys got THE SAME LAST NAME! I thought it was like Iceland or something because you couldn’t possibly all be related. Going back through the briefing papers you sent, it gets REAL confusing. Except that Loulis tells me it’s not just that y’all got the same names – you actually ARE related. Kinda like Hillary and Bill and Jeb and Bubba and ol’ George Herbert Walker. You’d think we’d come up with a few folks to run the country who aren’t TOO GENETICALLY CLOSE TO MARRY. Let me tell you right here that nothing feeds public cynicism with politicians like NEPOTISM. But I’m gitting ahead of myself.

So Loulis tells me that even though you guys PERSONALLY weren’t holding office over the past five years when the whole economy when down the bayou, y’all belong, or used to belong, to the parties that were supposedly running (or should that be ‘ruining’) the country. That y’all are tainted with a stink as bad as the smell in Daddy’s Dodge after Grandma left a pot of boiled crawfish in the trunk for a week after the church summer supper. Ain’t no way they was EVER gonna get that smell outta that dang car after that.

So the way I see it, the voters, they’ve got a point. They’re pissed off. Young-ish guy who’s never on the television says he’ll do it different, his hands are clean, everybody votes for him. Why not?

Well turns out the guy’s a complete turkey, deep fried, sanctified, butterball-stuffed and sliced. Either y’all elected a LIAR or an IDIOT. Neither is any reason to throw a fais do do. So Greece is mal pris – and that ain’t half the truth. But no point gittin’ all boude ‘bout it. Let’s do something to fix it.

Best I can tell from looking at the numbers, there’s the negative issue of ‘politics as usual’ and ‘the usual suspects’ practicing the politics as usual. This new guy is, well, NEW, but if he ain’t practicing the old religion, by golly I’m a pork tamale. Way I hear it, having signed onto a crazy bad deal with the lenders, he’s gone and re-hired all the civil servants that was hired and then laid off by the previous governments, namely you guys. I’m a Democrat and we don’t have no problem with guvment. Guvment is a good thing, but like everything, moderation brothers and sisters, moderation. Just cuz you like a bit of Uncle Claude’s hooch don’t mean you got to finish the whole dang barrel. Do you really need TEN FOLKS to sell you a postage stamp? Hell no! And what’s wrong with this picture? Aren’t the comrades usually on the side of the guys in the hard hats down the hole, however ersatz?

Now I gotta admit I like a guy who knows how to buy votes, but if that ain’t a lizard down grandma’s nightie for you guys, I don’t know what is. Seems like everybody’s too busy ‘strategizing’ and being ‘civil’ to react to anything. Jump down the sumbitch’s throat! That’s a gift he handed you and I don’t see y’all doing nothing! Those folks, they ain’t never gonna vote for you anyway, but you have a better weapon – all those other poor folks who ain’t had NO JOB for five years. Don’t be scared of a few thousand civil servants – WHACK that mutha with a BIG STICK.

Like I said before, the BIG negative for y’all is that you’re all TAINTED and there’s no UN-tainting y’all. Face it friends, unless you want to see the country down the CRAPPER, you need FRESH FACES AND NAMES, fer cryin’ out loud.

So recommendation Numero Uno: start putting some YOUNG folks with energy on the television whose uncle / dad / grandpa / brother / sister / cousin AIN’T already been prime minister / party secretary. YOU GIT THE PICTURE??

Now for the positive: these poll figures I’ve seen all say that these same dang voters are DESPERATE to stay in the European Union, notwithstanding WHATEVER THE HELL that referendum business was about. The other guys, my old Spanish teacher and the History teacher guy, they want to leave and take you back to the drachma. I seem to recall the drachma was something like 300 to the Euro way back, no? What do you think it will be now? Try 3000 to the Euro. Maybe 30,000, it’s any sumbitches’ guess (I got Loulis watching my Asia portfolio right now and I can tell you Mr Euro’s looking pretty dang good). Any currency you need to use SCIENTIFIC NOTATION to describe in order to buy a pack of chewing gum is NOT A SMART IDEA.

Recommendation Numero Deux: You need to start HAMMERING that fact home EVERY DANG TIME YOU OPEN YER DAMN TRAPS.

And I see on the BBC that all yer pretty islands near Turkey have become the vacation destination of choice for all those poor Syrian folk. Hey at least those guys have money to spend and only want to hang around long enough to take a selfie and get on the next ferry / bus / train / plane to Germany. Now let’s think for a minute. Your friends the Turks are more than happy to facilitate these folks getting in a boat and sending them your way. What happens when Greece is no longer part of the EU? That gum will be stuck to YOUR shoe, Bubba. Oh yeah, you can talk tough about sealing the borders like that armadillo-haired rabid old water moccasin Trump and his Mexicans, but, seriously? You got about a million miles of coastline, and Turkey just itchin’ to send a problem yer way. And you didn’t get the Nazi vote last time either, so my advice is to quit the goose-stepping. The EU money your government hasn’t even bothered to apply for to help (FER THE LOVE OF THE ALMIGHTY, the EU guy in charge of it is ONE OF YER OWN – if he’s even human! Ask for the damn money!), well THAT MONEY WON’T EXIST ‘COS YOU WON’T NO LONGER BE IN THE EU. MUY MUY grande problemo, amigos.

And so that leads me to recommendation Numero Trois: It’s bad enough being on the southern frontier of Europe with the Middle East and Africa goin’ down the can on your doorstep as a member of the EU. How’s that gonna feel when you’re all by your lonesome, compadres? The other guys use immigrants to SCARE y’all – you should use them to remind people that EUROPE is there to help in precisely this situation. Observe how your slick young neighbor over in Italy used the trouble down south to change the subject AND look statesmanlike. That’s how it’s done, my friends. Get out there and be seen doing something. It’s more than mister invisible nice guy is doing. IT’S A CRISIS AND THE GUVMENT HAS DECIDED TO WALK AWAY. Turn it to your ADVANTAGE!!

So, friends, I see it like this: the country is actually divided between a PRO-EUROPEAN MAJORITY (M-A-J-O-R-I-T-Y), and a XENOPHOBIC, ECONOMICALLY ILLITERATE, FANTASIST, NATIONALISTIC MINORITY.

You three gotta sit down and form a new party. A PRO-EUROPE party. ONE PARTY. Not another dang coalition, but an ACTUAL PARTY. Bury the hatchets, suck it up, and JUST DO IT. Face it, the jig’s up for the old ways. Now is your HISTORIC MOMENT. Seize it! – don’t sit there and twiddle your komboloï (thanks Loulis, finally earning your per diem). These old tribes are a fat possum round yer necks, ‘bout as welcome as a gator at a garden party. Sure, y’all are gonna lose this crazy-ass next election (excuse me, but don’t you guys have enough trouble finding money to pay bus fare without holding two full elections and a referendum in one year???). Lay the groundwork now for a ‘new political dialogue’, rather than crap like the old-rope-with-a-new-name Syriza jerk offs. New blood on the frontlines. You can’t pretend the past don’t exist, but give people something to talk aboutTHAT IS POSITIVE. I like that crazy mutha from Thessaloniki, the stoner dude. He makes sense, tells it like it is, has got brass balls. And look at him – he’s holding onto his job! IT CAN WORK. The old ways are broken as a raccoon in a grits mill. These new guys, they just playing the GAME like it’s always been played. Point that out EVERY TIME YOU TALK TO THE PRESS.

And for the love of bourbon and mother’s milk, stop being pussies! Hit ‘em hard, OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN, with the same, clear message. I DON’T CARE if it’s your annual summer vacation on some dang beach. If you don’t fix this TODAY, y’all are gonna be on PERMANENT VACATION. Repeat after me: IT’S THE CLIENTELISM STUPID! (OK, need something catchier). Find some YOUNG ENTREPRENEUR TYPES who can TALK and don’t dress like an insurance salesman from Houma to STICK THEIR NECKS OUT and point out HOW MUCH DAMAGE these idiots are doing. Don’t just sit there and commission polls – get out there and face the ZYDECO! Bunch of DAMN ELITES HIDING IN THEIR PARTY OFFICES – that dawg don’t hunt, brothers and sisters.

So here is the Big Idea: STAND FOR SOMETHING. You’ve got nothing to lose, so give people an ACTUAL DAMN CHOICE. Rather than a dozen different parties and candidates running for every damn seat in your parliament, make is SIMPLE for people. THINK BIG. Git off yer asses and WORK THE STREET. This crisis is your opportunity. If the government won’t lead, then y’all have a duty to. And if you aren’t up to it, y’all should JUST GO HOME and stop pretending to give a chaoui’s pecker for yer country.

This is YOUR moment, brothers and sisters. NOW SEIZE IT OR GIT GOIN’. Over and out.

J.C.

PS Invoice is attached.

PPS The country may be broke but I see you folks got some money in the kitty.

Image from dailycaller.com

What would J.C. do? Campaign memo to the Greek opposition

Freddo or frappé? Boom or bust?

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You would not want to be on the streets of Athens this last week, as the first heatwave of the summer reflected off the concrete and made the air thick and still.

Seeking relief from the heat, anyone visiting Athens during this summer of unabated crisis will doubtless have encountered the Greek national obsession with iced coffee. For someone weaned on Starbucks and other multinational coffee chains’ iced beverage offerings, there would seem to be nothing terribly interesting or controversial about choosing between a frappé and a freddo. The unsuspecting visitor may not realise that in making their choice they are – arguably – re-enacting the same fateful decisions that have led Greece down the path to fiscal ruin and social disjuncture. But I get ahead of myself.

The ubiquitous frappé (Φραπές, o, masculine), notwithstanding its foreign name, bears no relation or resemblance to any French beverage. Also asked for affectionately by its diminutive, φραπεδάκι (frapedáki), it is the ultimate quick refreshment borne out the marriage of the space age food technology of the 1950s and prosaic Greek necessity. Instant coffee, usually Nescafé, shaken with water and tooth-aching amounts of sugar over ice until frothy, then poured over more ice into a glass, is a standard ritual of Greeks during warmer months. A variation is to add NouNou (Greek tinned evaporated or condensed milk) to make a white version. While it can be made at home, it is traditionally enjoyed seated at a shaded outdoor table at a kafeneio. It is a simple pleasure. By its nature, there is no coffee snobbery implicated in this beverage. We are, after all, talking about instant coffee, tinned milk and sugar. A frappé is the polar opposite of a ‘prestige’ food item or a luxury. Or rather: it is an affordable luxury that can be enjoyed by worker and oligarch alike.

However since the turn of the Millennium, and coincidentally the arrival of the Euro, a new drink, or rather drinks, have found favour in the cafes lining parks throughout the city’s neighbourhoods, namely the ‘freddo’ and its manufactured commercial cousin, the ‘freddoccino’. Like the frappe, the name is foreign – it simply means ‘cold’ in Italian. Iced coffee, or more accurately cold coffee, is not unknown in Italy, although hardly common. However the Italian version of a caffé freddo is simply that: cold coffee served black or with milk in a glass, without any diluting ice. The Greek invention known as a freddo is much closer to any number of calorific Starbucks creations than to anything an actual Italian would consume. It is made with freshly brewed espresso, to which may be added milk, sugar and even vanilla ice cream, whipped together into a milkshake-like beverage. A garage mechanic can make a frappe. For a freddo, you need a barista.

When the freddo was born, the public’s optimism and self-image were at a peak. The Olympics were just around the corner, the Greek national football (soccer) team won the European cup. New banks opened and credit flowed. Cafes became stylish venues, exotic sports cars were to be seen on the streets and there was a feeling that appeared to emerge almost overnight of Greece having gained admission to a rather smart and exclusive club. It was seated at the big table with the grown-ups.

And so began the decline in popularity of the simple pleasure of the frappé. Greeks became consumers and connoisseurs; wine bars appeared and gourmet restaurants serving trendy foreign dishes of the moment opened with startling regularity. Lifestyle “lads’ mags” like the now-defunct Nitro had pages filled with watches, cars, motorcycles, the latest mobile phones and all sundry expensive toys for the status-obsessed male consumer. Television was lined from morning ‘til night with chat show clones, long sofas populated by vapid clothes-obsessed C-listers, debating for hours the dress / hair / handbag choices of their B-list superiors, with a final credit roll that name checked every designer shop in Athens. No self-respecting ambitious Greek went to the kafeneio and ordered a frappé unless you were poor, or old, or possibly both. You now had to have an opinion about coffee, and accordingly pay more dearly for it. Espresso over ice it must be. With a foreign name.

And yet the frappe endures, a pleasure accessible to nearly all, distinctly Greek, imitative of nothing. Borne out of necessity, it remains a reassuring ritual of summer. Perhaps a return to a ‘frappé mentality’ lies at the core of any future path forward out of the country’s troubles: ingenuity, frugality, creativity, and an appreciation for singularly Greek qualities and pleasures, rather than a backwards-looking obsession with status and respect for wounded pride, whether real or imagined.

Photo by koutofrangos. All rights reserved.

Freddo or frappé? Boom or bust?