“Good bye, Andrea!”

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Crime writer Petros Markaris’s latest novel, Offshore, starts on an imaginary premise: after six years of hardship the Greek crisis is finally over. The money is flowing, and Greeks are reverting to their old habits. The restaurants are packed, the streets of Athens are clogged with Mercs and Jeeps, the government is handing out pay rises, and people are talking about taking out mortgages from a new generation of banks that are lending generously. Nobody can explain precisely where the money came from. Some credit the latest government, a fresh-faced bunch who were elected promising precisely nothing and went on to implement a combination of tax reform, business incentives and privatisations. Others are more skeptical, but aren’t equipped to ask the right questions. Inspector Haritos’s wife, a Greek housewife straight out of central casting, puts it down to her prayers and fasting. Most are able to rationalise the miraculous recovery sufficiently in order to go back to spending like the crisis never happened.

As a counterfactual narrative, the miracle recovery is quite telling about Greece’s collective state of mind. What is interesting is that the picture it paints is not of a utopian future, as a much as a nostalgic return to the pre-crisis bubble days. It is a theme that seems to be emerging with increasing prominence, finding different variations in different areas of popular culture, even as Greece sinks further into depression and uncertainty, and the dreaded ‘Grexit’ re-enters the media vocabulary.

Markaris doesn’t have much truck with social media in his books. His central character is of a generation that uses an assistant to interface with a computer, for whom the world wide web is a cabinet of wonders, and Facebook and Twitter, apparently so central to modern life and politics, don’t seem to exist. It is on Facebook (real, not fictional) that another burst of nostalgia has been erupting. At the turn of the year, a Facebook community calling itself “Old PASOK The Orthodox” (“Παλιό ΠΑΣΟΚ το Ορθόδοξο”, let’s call it “Palió PASOK” for short) overtook the official page of the PASOK party in “likes”. The real PASOK (Panhellenic Socialist Movement), which governed Greece, alone or in coalition, for 24 out of the last 42 years, now languishes in fourth place in the Greek parliament. It scraped together a humiliating 6.3% of the vote in the last general elections, its reputation in tatters, having taken the brunt of popular anger for the crisis and lost both supporters and candidates to other parties, most notably Syriza. The “Palio PASOK” organisers promptly wrote an open letter to actual party leader Fofi Gennimata, calling on her to revive the old Movement by returning to “the pure values that led it to greatness”, inviting back all of its its “Great Old comrades”, and agreeing to have its Facebook page absorbed by theirs, which was “galloping ahead” and aiming to “overtake the accursed Right within 2017”. Gennimata demurred, but within a matter of hours she was very publicly mending bridges with her predecessor, George Papandreou, and convening a gathering of the PASOK tribes (or most of them). For some, this was too much of a coincidence; for others, it merely confirmed the party as a legitimate target for subversion.

Once you grasp the concept, “Palio PASOK” is as far from the po-faced seriousness of “official” Greek politics as you can possibly get. Its spokespeople never break character. Their posts, comments and press interviews show an impressive grasp of vintage PASOK-ese – a characteristic mix of self-consciously Demotic Greek and pompous left-wing political jargon – and they respond to any attempt at un-ironic commentary with profanity-laden accusations of treason (or worse). The page commemorates “great moments of Socialism” – primarily photos of various “Titans of the Movement” and party loyalists giving it their all in nightclubs and strip joints, and genuine moments of extreme popular adulation culminating in the cult of personality of party founder, Andreas Papandreou (“this is the church of Andreas”). They present themselves as the true guardians of the faith, while Gennimata, Papandreou and the current generation of self-proclaimed modernisers are unworthy inheritors; Syriza is a cheap knock-off of the Old PASOK, and Alexis Tsipras is the populist sorcerer’s apprentice, ruining it for the true believers. They organise parties where crowds wave faithful replicas of the old plastic flags with the party’s green rising sun logo and throw around 5000-drachma notes, kiss posters of Andreas and sing along to the old PASOK anthems: Manos Loizos’s rousing “Kalimera Ilie” (“Καλημέρα Ήλιε” – “Good Morning, Sun”) and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. At a recent exhibition themed around the 1980s (the nostalgia again) they inspired a Playmobil diorama of the “historic” moment in 1988 when Andreas Papandreou, greeted by crowds at the airport on his return from a triple bypass operation in London, motioned to his new partner, the pneumatic former air hostess Dimitra Liani for whom he left his wife of 37 years, to join him on the steps (within a year, his government was collapsing under the weight of corruption scandals).

Some commentators criticise “Palio PASOK” as an apotheosis of trash culture (or just “trass” in the Greek vernacular). This is hard-core method spoofing, and even those close to the organisers can’t swear that everyone present enjoys it 100% ironically. There is certainly no shortage of people who believe that a return to the “good old days” is desirable and even possible, that there is a spigot of prosperity that was turned off and can somehow be turned back on again. The chant of “Férte píso ta klemména” (“Φέρτε πίσω τα κλεμμένα” – “bring back what was stolen”) was a rallying cry of the early anti-austerity movement that still haunts the popular consciousness. It implies that someone (corrupt public officials, tax-evaders, bankers) stole the peoples’ money and that if only their loot can be recovered the economy will miraculously revive (sadly the numbers don’t stack up – see for example our earlier discussion of the “Lagarde list” which still holds).  A small but significant group of our compatriots are so desperate to turn back the clock by wiping out their own debts, that they are prepared to believe even more dubious claims. Thousands of them are thought to have joined a secretive cult-like organisation led by self-proclaimed multi-billionaire Artemis Sorras, swearing a “warrior oath” and paying a substantial “administrative fee” on the promise that he will underwrite their debts. With elections rumoured once again, and Sorras’s organisation seen as a credible political threat, court action is being pursued against him.

This is the dark side of Greece’s nostalgic turn. I won’t ruin the ending of Markaris’s thriller for anyone who intends to read it (unfortunately it is currently only available in Greek), but the seeds of doubt are sown from the outset. Regular readers will be familiar with the overarching narrative that dominates the Markaris canon. Before the Greek crisis was even a twinkle in the public eye, Markaris focussed on the dark underbelly of Greek prosperity. The crimes that Inspector Haritos solves take place on the fringes of wealth and political power. In a world of ordinary people struggling with everyday bureaucracy and low-level corruption, the villains are inevitably to be found in the inexplicably opulent homes of politicians and their “businessmen” cronies. In the Markaris narrative, the original sin of the metapolítefsi – the transition from military dictatorship to democracy in 1974 – was the corruption that the coming to power wrought in its champions. The networks of power and corruption created in the 70s and 80s, strengthened by EU subsidies, Olympic spending and easy credit of the 90s and 2000s, turned the idealistic students of the anti-junta struggle into shady plutocrats, abusing public funds and/or running people-trafficking, extortion, racketeering and money-laundering networks, sometimes cheek-by-jowl with their junta torturers. The real “old PASOK”, together with their tag team in Nea Demokratia and the rest of the political establishment of the metapolítefsi, are the real villains of the piece. The ordinary citizens have been taken for a ride, and the weakest in society, often immigrants, pay the biggest price. This is no rose-tinted flash-back.

Markaris and the jokers behind “Palio PASOK” both know that there is no going back (though the latter would no doubt contest the characterisation and the imputed ambivalence). It is going forward that is the problem – because the grip of nostalgia extends well beyond popular fiction and social media. Every government that has been elected since the beginning of the crisis essentially campaigned on a time-machine platform: ripping up the creditor memoranda, repealing austerity measures, restoring prior order. Their promises were not that far removed from those recycled by “Palio PASOK”, and no better explained than the source of the money in Offshore. Like the post-communist East-Berliners in the 2003 film “Good bye, Lenin!”, politicians on all sides have been trying to shield the electorate, as if it were their mother waking from a coma, from confronting the need for change. Meanwhile, advertisers appeal to an even more distant past, when children wore school smocks (a reliable chronological marker of the pre-PASOK era) and Greeks were happier with less, with dry biscuits, instant dessert mix and domestic-brand white goods – a vision shared, incidentally, by the more cavalier domestic advocates of Grexit. What do you do when you know that the future has to be different but you aren’t equipped to imagine it? I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer. Greece and the Greeks clearly lack funds, but even more debilitating is the lack of forward vision across all areas of public life. I am not a fan of fantasy fiction, but the situation seems to call for a healthy dose of it – a counterfactual, however whacky, that ignites a light at the other end of the tunnel, and drowns out the voices beckoning back down the wormhole.


IMAGE: Athens’s Syntagma Square in happier times (allegedly): PASOK pre-election rally, 1985.

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“Good bye, Andrea!”

The polykatoikia-dweller’s dilemma

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Greece is in the grip of a severe cold snap, which has brought snow and sub-zero temperatures even to urban areas. This is an extreme event, but not entirely unexpected – winters in Greece can be cold, particularly going into spring. With a mean minimum temperature of 10°C in winter, some form of indoor heating is necessary by most peoples’ standards. Two years ago I spent the winter months in Athens in slightly less severe weather conditions, living in an uninsulated, barely heated apartment and house-hunting. I spent a lot of time thinking about heating, not just about the practicalities of generating physical warmth as the wind whistled through the single-glazed windows, but about the way peoples’ decisions around heating were already starting to leave permanent marks on the physical and social fabric of the city.

(Not) Hot in City

The standard dwelling in Athens is an apartment in a polykatoikía (πολυκατοικἰα) – a multi-storey apartment block; literally, a multi-residence. The majority of the housing stock in Athens (around 80% of dwellings in the central municipality of Athens) dates to before the 1980s. Buildings of this age were fitted with oil-fired central heating which is centrally controlled, meaning that there is one central boiler that comes on at set times during the day, and all tenants contribute to buying the fuel through a service charge known as κοινόχρηστα, koinóchrista, meaning a common (facility) charge. A polykatoikía is governed by an homeowners’ council according to a set of rules that owners sign up to when they purchase the property. The owners (or their delegates) take it in turns to chair the meetings, which decide, among other things, on the purchase of heating oil and on operating the heating system. This means that the basic decisions about heating are not individual but collective. Under normal conditions, individual decision making is limited to whether or not to turn on the radiators and how high.

But of course these are not normal conditions. As family budgets have been shrinking and energy prices have been increasing, people have been pushed to take more drastic choices, choices that tell us a lot about the limits of collective decision-making under these stressed conditions.

The concept of ‘fuel poverty’ or ‘energy poverty’, which describes the condition of being unable to afford to keep one’s home adequately heated, has only recently gained currency in Greece (for a European perspective, see here). It has not been reliably tracked, and there is still no agreed metric used by the Greek government, but every conceivable form of measurement testifies to the increasingly inability of households to pay for heating in the years since the financial crisis took hold in 2010. There is an abundance of statistics for this period, many of which are collected in this recent survey (an interesting read which is, however, marred by sloppy referencing). Among them, we can see that between 2008 and 2013, domestic heating oil orders in Athens dropped by an astounding 70%. A survey carried out at the start of winter of 2013-4 showed that over one in three households did not intend to turn their central heating on at all. Indeed, between 2008 and 2014, the percentage of households using central heating has more than halved, from 76% to 35.5%.

Since 2010 household disposable income in Greece has shrunk by more than a third, due to the poor economic environment and increases in taxes and other contributions; but income is only one term in the fuel poverty equation. In addition to losing income, Greeks have also seen the price of heating fuel rise, primarily due to increased fuel taxes. In a monumentally short-sighted policy, successive Greek governments have increased the special consumption tax on heating oil to bring it in line with automotive diesel, ostensibly in order to discourage fuel fraud (the two products can be used almost interchangeably in some engines, and filling up on the cheaper ‘red’ heating oil has been a common money-saving trick among professional drivers for some time). The result was that between 2010-2013, the price of heating oil more than doubled (a 119% increase compared to a European average increase of 57%), making it far and away the most expensive heating option available to Greek households.

Opting out of central heating is made easier by the availability of alternatives. Plug-in heaters, electric inverters which double as air conditioning, fireplaces (where available), wood-pellet stoves and an expanding natural gas network offer options that are, or appear to be, cheaper on an individual household basis. Most of the decline in the use of oil central heating is accounted for by a shift to other heating modes. Most households also cut back on heating compared to past habits: surveys show that around three out of four report have been using less heating, and measured declines in consumption of electricity seem to bear this out. A small minority of households stop heating altogether – in 2014, 1.8% households in a nationwide survey declared that they had no form of heating at all, up from 0.5% in 2010.

Households have simply opted out of the built-in central heating, either because they can’t pay the fuel bills or because they have chosen other solutions. But because they are part of a collective process, their individual choices have wider and potentially long-lasting consequences.

… which brings us to the dilemma of the title.

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The Dilemma

The ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ is a scenario which is used to model shared decision making. It belongs to the branch of economics known as ‘game theory’, which is also used to model decision making in other areas of life such as politics and international relations (it gained notoriety recently as the specialism of former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, who clearly chose the wrong ‘game’ on which to model his negotiating tactics). The prisoner’s dilemma predicts that if two or more parties who don’t have a relationship of trust are forced to make a collective decision, they will make choices that appear rational to each of them individually, but result in a poorer outcome for all of them compared to a cooperative decision. The prisoners in the eponymous scenario will turn one another in, assuming that their partner will do the same. The cold war nuclear powers will continue to arm themselves to the teeth, assuming that the other party will be doing likewise, taking away resources from areas like education and health, and decreasing national security. It doesn’t matter what their ideologies or their political systems are: mutual disarmament would result in more prosperous nations, but unilateral disarmament is too risky an option to contemplate when you don’t trust your opponent to do the same.

When you have more than two ‘players’, the prisoner’s dilemma results in what is known as ‘free riding’. When a public transport relies on an ‘honour system’, a certain number of users won’t buy tickets, resulting in fare rises for honest users. If the public transport system goes bankrupt, travel becomes more expensive for everyone (does that ring a bell?). The result is what has been termed ‘the tragedy of the commons’: rational self-interest combined with mutual mistrust results in widespread shirking (because it is assumed that ‘everyone does it’). As long as individuals feel that they are getting something for free (or without significant penalty), common resources are degraded to the point where everyone suffers.

A frequent criticism of ‘game theory’ is that it requires us to assume that people act out of pure self-interest, and as such it dehumanises decision making, ignoring factors such as culture, emotion or the potential for altruism. It is therefore always slightly disheartening to come across clear-cut real-world examples. I am by no means an expert and it this is not a piece of systematic analysis, but there is a pattern here. In the crisis-era polykatoikía, the extent to which collective decisions on heating conform to the predictions of the prisoner’s dilemma suggests that any inherent altruism is too weak to overcome household self-interest. We can all point to instances of neighbourly support and solidarity, but the combination of a failing economy and a toxic policy framework seem to have reduced household decisions as close as it comes to pure self-interest (or, as we say in Greek, καθἐνας για την πάρτη του, kathénas gia tin párti tou: ‘each for himself’).

If the occupier of a single apartment choses not to use the central heating, they can get a free ride (or an almost-free ride), in the form of what could be called a ‘heat dividend’ – a small uplift in the temperature thanks to the heat loss between apartments. This is anticipated by the standard terms of building rules. To ensure that no one gets an entirely free ride, most associations impose a nominal heating charge even on apartments where the occupant opts to ‘seal’ their radiators permanently, and that includes vacant properties. Clearly many households have decided that this is a penalty worth paying – either that, or they have decided (or been forced by circumstances) to start ignoring their maintenance bills, at which point their neighbours have to cover the shortfall. Either way, if enough occupants decide to opt out of central heating, the benefit of the ‘heat dividend’ is lost to all, at first gradually and eventually completely. It is now not uncommon for polykatoikía council to vote not to purchase heating oil at all, meaning no-one gets penalised by the standing charge, but that each household must find its own way to heat their space and the walls around them. But the penalty is more far-reaching that loss of shared heat.

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The tragedy of the koinóchrista

Many of us who grew up in a polykatoikía genuinely find it alien not to live cheek by jowl, smelling the neighbours’ cooking and overhearing their arguments and more intimate moments. In architectural and town planning circles there is a new found appreciation for the form and the practical function that the polykatoikía fulfilled in the post-war growth of Athens. People can get quite misty-eyed about an ideal; no-one misses the decision-making process and the petty micro-politics associated with it, the disputes over parking, garbage disposal, balcony watering and noise.Indeed, critics of the polykatoikia say that its basic design, with a single-minded focus on maximising private space and a lack of usable shared spaces like gardens or courtyards, encourages radical individualism and makes it easy to retreat into self-interest.  It does not take much for neighbours to fall out, and the stresses of the financial crisis were the last straw in many cases.

In the predominantly middle-class neighbourhoods where I grew up and where I went house-hunting, the signs were clear. Many buildings were part-vacant. With the first signs of the crisis, many apartments that were previously rented emptied out, as tenants moved to cheaper alternatives, or moved back in with parents, or displaced them to an early retirement in the village or the holiday home. This was clear from the shuttered exteriors, and the desolation of the communal spaces. Even in nicer apartment blocks, it was not unusual to see final demands and threatening notes pinned to the notice boards. Peeling paint in the stairwells, dust balls, a penetrating chill, silence, the absence of the tell-tale smell of oil fumes and the hum of the boiler, testified to a breakdown in neighbourly relations, or at best a consensual suspension: a ‘tragedy of the koinóchrista’.

In one of our more memorable visits, we were shown a charming top floor apartment listed at a bargain price, the last push before a bank foreclosure. Predictably, there was no operational central heating in the building – we had learned to ask the question – ‘the polykatoikía’ had voted against it. We asked ourselves whether it was worth insulating the walls or installing a heat pump or a gas supply, only to end up footing the maintenance bill as the sole users of the elevator that would transport us past the empty, cold, slowly decaying floors below to the rooftop haven.

While the majority of apartment owners have opted for the most expedient solutions (electrical heaters and/or fireplaces where available), others have invested in insulation, autonomous natural gas connections or more exotic options like heat pumps, for which support schemes are periodically made available from European Funds. These are solutions that require a certain amount of cash upfront, and by definition are only available to the better off. However, what in normal circumstances would be a sensible investment is now of more questionable value. Even the relatively affluent home-owners are ultimately hostages to the building fabric and the circumstances of their less fortunate neighbours for other amenities, quality of life, and ultimately the value of their property. No one wants to live in a ghost building without a prospect of recovery. To the extent that there is a functioning property market in Greece, everyone is in the same boat, even the better-off, as the shared fabric of the building deteriorates and the desirability of everyone’s slice of it decreases. By ‘defecting’ from the collective solution, they have also penalised themselves.

The longer the crisis drags on, and the longer successive governments persist down the same policy cul-de-sac, the harder it will be to reverse these effects. Studies show quite starkly how the heating divide is sharpening social inequality and carving out social divides within the city. There is no discussion of reversing energy taxes – the advocates of the original policy argue that it has had a positive impact (albeit limited) on public revenues and on combating fuel fraud, and they view the social effects as collateral damage. The policy response has been to introduce social tariffs and fuel supplements for the groups designated as vulnerable, however the most vulnerable (for example those not able to supply the appropriate paperwork) usually fall through the holes in the safety net. Environmental groups see fuel poverty as an opportunity to promote ‘green’ solutions such as energy efficiency; however making such solutions available to those most in need requires proactive policy intervention, for which the Greek state is chronically ill-equipped. For example, up to 80% of the housing stock in some of the most disadvantaged Athenian neighbourhoods is entirely uninsulated. Insulation is the most cost-effective way to reduce heating needs, and therefore heating bills – yet a household that struggles to pay its bills by definition can’t make the outlay. Unless a body with access to funds is able to intervene, they are stuck in a Catch-22 situation. Happily some local authorities are starting to act on this front, identifying households in need and offering targeted funding, but it remains to be seen how effective the implementation will be.

It would seem that only the wealthiest, those who can afford to live in single family homes, escape the penalties of the polykatoikía-dweller’s dilemma. But even this is not entirely true. Among the first symptoms of the heating crisis were a rapid deterioration in air quality in Athens and other urban centres, with choking smog hanging over the city on the coldest days of the year, and an increase in illegal logging for firewood. The environment is the ultimate ‘commons’: everyone with lungs breathes in the carcinogens released by the copious and indiscriminate burning of wood (even in the leafy suburbs), and current and future generations will suffer the loss of valuable atmospheric cleansers in the surrounding forests.

Polykatoikía-dwellers often joke that the self-managed apartment block is a microcosm of the country, with all is dysfunctionalities; perhaps this is true in the most literal sense.

 

POSTSCRIPT: Another environmental effect of the fuel switch became clear as the cold weather continued to affect Greece: as people turned to gas and electrical heating, the country’s energy networks were overwhelmed by the demand, particularly during peak evening hours. This lead to emergency measures, and the Energy Ministry called on consumers to avoid using energy for any “non-essential activities”. Electricity generation in Greece is heavily reliant on burning lignite (brown coal). On average lignite accounts for around half the electricity generated, but at peak times, the ageing lignite plants bear the brunt of demand, meaning that the power generated at these times is the most polluting. Lignite is cheap, but it is also one of the ‘dirtiest’ forms of fuel, and due to their age the Greek plants are some of the most polluting in Europe. The immediate health effects of thousands of households switching on their electric heaters in Athens are ‘exported’ the neighbourhood of electricity plants in Ptolemaïda in west Macedonia and Megalopolis in the Peloponnese, increasing the risk of cancer and a variety of chronic respiratory, cardiovascular and other diseases in the surrounding population. In addition, the spike in lignite use releases more greenhouse gases, that have a much wider impact by contributing to climate change.


PHOTOS: Athens cityscape courtesy of pelly*made; back lot from 3-narrate.blogspot.com/; Athens by night, winter 2012, from ecotimes.gr.

 

The polykatoikia-dweller’s dilemma

Stories about the Olive, part IV: Oiling the Wheels

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I have heard this informal transaction described independently by more than one person, leading me to believe that it is not apocryphal:

Around late October/early November you are trying to progress some business with a government office – it could be a tax registration or a planning application, or something along these lines. You have the name of the official responsible for your application, but they are proving very hard to get hold of. Each time you call the office, you will get the same response: “Mr Táde (So-and-so) is not in the office today. He is at his village gathering the olives. I’m sorry but we don’t know when he will be back.”

To the uninitiated, this is an annoyance, but not a deterrent. They will keep trying, hitting their head against a brick wall, cursing all the way at the [expletive] civil service culture of absenteeism.

However, those in the know recognise this line as a coded invitation to tender, to which there is a proper response: “Oh, that is so nice. I hear Mr Táde’s trees produce very good oil. Would you be so kind as to ask him to reserve some for me?” And very soon they will find that Mr Táde has returned from leave, and can be found promptly behind his desk with a couple of five-litre tins of olive oil. They will pay Mr Táde a highly inflated price for the oil (which may be good, but not that good) submit their application, and find it dealt with with great efficiency – the efficiency of a well-oiled machine…

The transaction described above is an inventive riff on the twin themes of the family olive grove as hobby for city-dwellers, and olive oil as a buffer against hardship, which we alluded to in a previous post.

When the Greek government recently looked into the impact of withdrawing some of the generous tax breaks for farmers, one of the patterns that emerged was that, according to one newspaper report,

Only about 350,000 of the 850,000 Greeks involved in farming are full-time farmers, said an agriculture ministry official, adding that a third of agricultural output is sold or traded illegally without receipts.

Olive farming in Greece is largely a family business, with small units predominating. Greek agricultural units overall are roughly one fifth the size of the European average. What they do with their output often blurs the lines between different types of economic activity, several of which are not tracked by EUROSTAT or the OECD.

While the ‘grey’ market for olive oil may be thriving, Greece finds it harder to make a success of the ‘white’ market. In the case of olive oil, although the oil produced is very high quality (80% of Greek olive oil is extra virgin, compared to 65% of that produced in Italy and 30% in Spain), those countries have a much more valuable export market because they tend to standardise and package their product themselves, rather than loading it into tankers and exporting it in bulk (Greece only standardises 27% of its oil, compared to 80% in Italy and 50% in Spain). 60% of Greek olive oil is shipped to Italy, where it is bottled as Italian, and the Italian middle-men pocket an extra 50% premium on the price.

The theme of this story is a familiar one – a true Greek paradox. We seem to be blessed with some enviable natural resources (there is no other elegant word for it without resorting to statistical jargon, since their presence is clearly down to luck, not skill or hard work). We are clearly not lacking in the ingenuity to make a market in them. And yet, it is not a market that connects well with the wider world, and it is questionable whether it benefits anyone beyond the atomistic units that practice it (the individual, the family). Trying to imagine what might happen if that ingenuity were channeled from the ‘grey’ or ‘black’ economy into the ‘white’ is a an exercise at once hopeful and depressing. Figuring out how to achieve it is surely the €100 billion challenge behind the resurrection of the Greek economy.

Stories about the Olive, part IV: Oiling the Wheels

Stories about the Olive, part III: Thales on Wall Street

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The olive, as we have seen, can be a blessing and a curse. The decades spent investing and waiting for the trees to mature can reward you with liquid gold, precious and civilising, or they can render you hostage to a protection racket. Uncertainty is heaped on uncertainty: the trees cannot be counted to produce a good harvest every year, and when they do, you have to join the queue with your neighbours for a slot at an olive press before they start to rot.

Where there is uncertainty, there is room for speculation, and in this unlikely but culturally rich nexus, the classicist meets the financial engineer.

In his Politics, Aristotle wrote what is believed to be the first description of a financial derivative. Describing a number of “methods that have brought success in business to certain individuals”,  he wrote of a scheme devised by the philosopher Thales of Miletus (c. 624-546 BC):

Thales, so the story goes, because of his poverty was taunted with the uselessness of philosophy; but from his knowledge of astronomy he had observed while it was still winter that there was going to be a large crop of olives, so he raised a small sum of money and paid round deposits for the whole of the olive-presses in Miletus and Chios, which he hired at a low rent as nobody was running him up; and when the season arrived, there was a sudden demand for a number of presses at the same time, and by letting them out on what terms he liked he realized a large sum of money, so proving that it is easy for philosophers to be rich if they choose, but this is not what they care about.

In other words, Thales made a small downpayment to secure the use of the presses when demand was low, and cashed in during peak season. He capitalised on his unique insight on the weather to corner the market in olive presses. Aristotle’s telling has the quality of an archetypal moral fable – “it is easy for philosophers to be rich if the choose, but this is not what they care about” – that readers can easily recognise in modern popular narratives of the financial crisis, like Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, the story of the oddball traders who saw the credit crunch coming.

The economy of Aristotle’s description does not allow us to determine whether Thales invented the future or the option, a technical distinction which would have made the difference between him losing his shirt or just his deposit, had he been proven wrong in his prediction. But that distinction is not essential to the story as it is told. Thales, the philosopher speculator, the first hedge fund manager, driven by the intellectual challenge rather than by the profit motive, may have invented the fruit of good or evil: an instrument for managing the risk of unpredictable harvests, or a tool for the enrichment of the ‘enlightened’ few at the expense of the many. A tale as old as the olive groves.

Stories about the Olive, part III: Thales on Wall Street

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

Stories about the Olive, part I: Civilisation or curse?

 

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This is not so much a story about the olive tree and its fruits, as it is a story about the stories we tell ourselves, about where we came from and how we got where we are today, in which the olive happens to be a central character.

In the archaeology of Greece, the time when olive trees began to be systematically exploited by humans is seen as a pivotal moment in the region’s development, at least as important a transition as the beginning of agriculture which took place several millennia earlier. The first to credit the olive with a “civilising” influence was a British archaeologist, Colin Renfrew, who wrote a hugely influential study called The Emergence in Civilisation in 1972. In it, he made the first attempt to provide a comprehensive explanation for the emergence of the Minoan and Myceneaean societies in the Bronze Age. It was an ambitious project, taking the reader from the scattered agricultural hamlets of the Neolithic period to the first “palaces” of the Bronze Age, with their sophisticated visual culture, monumental architecture and complex economy – for the most part without the aid of historical records, as are we essentially talking about prehistory.

For Renfrew, the olive was part of what he called “the Mediterranean triad”, along with the vine and wheat, the essential components of civilised life in the region, continuing though the Classical period to the present day. Influenced by the “new” or “scientific” archaeology which grew out of the anthropological tradition in the United States, Renfrew was one of the first to study the “mundane” aspects of past life such as agriculture and social relations, as opposed to the classically-inspired focus on kings and battles that had prevailed until then. On the olive front, he had very little archaeological evidence to go on – a few stray pips and branches here and there, preserved almost accidentally in an era when botanical remains were neither systematically sought nor retained for study. He did observe, however that the parts of Greece where Late Bronze Age “palaces” appeared coincided with the best conditions for olive cultivation.

Renfrew’s essential thesis was this: the olive and the vine were both a step up from the existing cereal-based cultivation because they enabled their cultivators to produce high-value storable products, oil and wine. He noted that a key feature of the Late Bronze Age “palaces” was the presence of large liquid storage facilities. These were administered using a form of proto-writing, an early accounting system, which recorded inflows and outflows of goods including oil and wine on behalf of a ruler and a number of deities. Working backwards, he reasoned that the rulers of the “palaces”, the first of their kind, derived their power from this “redistributing” activity. He called the first rulers “chiefs”, following the models of social evolution influential at the time, which envisioned a universal development path from “tribal” societies to “chiefdoms” and “states”. They became “chiefs”, according to his account, because the new crops, and the high-value surplus production they generated, required a higher level of organisation to administer.

“The redistribution of goods, which is organized and controlled by the chief himself, . . . is, of course, exactly the function fulfilled by the palaces of Minoan-Mycenaean civilization, taking in and storing the produce from the very different fields, orchards, and pastures which are found, even in a small area, in south Greece.”

This was a benevolent managerial elite, taking on the task of redistributing the newfound bounty of the earth to the surrounding communities. They rewarded themselves with the accoutrements of “wealth”, defined as the “the ownership of desirable transferrable goods”, which they took to their graves in the form of marble statuettes and weapons and ornaments made of metal. It is impossible to overstate how influential this model of social evolution was, for the archaeology of Greece and of Europe more generally. For the first time it provided a narrative that wasn’t a “just so story” about the inexorable march of progress or an illustrated foundation myth for a modern nation-state. Yet within a decade it was lampooned by one of its critics in a published debate as a vision of “a benevolent squirearchy bent on agricultural improvement, a little modest trade, and the advancement of the deserving poor”.

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Reconstructing the olive.

A much darker vision was offered in a 1981 article by Antonio Gilman, an American archaeologist researching Spanish prehistory. Gilman also believed that arboriculture, including exploitation of the olive and the vine, was a key technological development in the emergence of complex societies in the region (“civilisation” already being regarded with suspicion as too value-laden a term). However, he saw its importance in very different terms from the enabling role envisioned by Renfrew. The key difference it brought was “capital intensification”, the need for upfront investment:

“Tree crops […] present radically new technical requirements. Vine cuttings do not yield fruit until three years after they have been planted but produce for generations thereafter. Olives do not yield fruit for ten to fifteen years after planting, come into full production some twenty years later, and continue to give fruit for centuries. In the meantime, the trees must be pruned, the ground around them plowed. In other words, the farmer must invest a lot of work before he (or his heir) receives a return. Mediterranean polyculture constitutes a capital-intensification of subsistence.”

This produced a power shift in those early egalitarian societies, from those who lived hand-to-mouth, to those who were able offer protection against the destruction of their livelihoods:

“The investments of labor to insure future production would have to be defended. But the value of these same assets would dampen the potential for social fission, so that it would be difficult to check the aspirations of those to whom the defense had been entrusted. In the face of a protector whose exactions seem excessive, the household’s choices are limited: it may abandon the asset for which it sought protection; it may find another protector (who may prove no less self-aggrandizing than his predecessor); or it may submit to the excessive exactions. Over the long term, these options consistently favor the protectors. In the end there would have arisen a permanent ruling class.”

Rather than being benevolent managers, Gilman’s first “chiefs” are “protectors”, and the olive rather than being a blessing is a form of bondage. This is in effect a Mafia society.

Indeed, in more recent years, historians studying documents from nineteenth century Italy have proposed a very similar model for the emergence of the modern Cosa Nostra, as a protection racket preying on the citrus groves of Sicily. One group of documents that has been extensively studied is the account of a Dr Galati of Palermo, whose story takes place in the 1870s, and offers a vivid illustration of how an orchard-based protection network might work:

“In 1872 Galati came to inherit a pristine four-hectare lemon grove only a ten-minute walk from Palermo. However, all was not well inside its walls. Its previous owner, the doctor’s brother-in-law, had died of a heart attack following a series of threatening letters. Some time before he died, he learned that the sender of these letters was a warden on his own grove, Benedetto Carollo, who had dictated them to someone who was literate. He said that he swaggered around the grove making wild threats against Galati and it was well known that he creamed at least twenty per cent off the sale price. He even stole coal for the steam engine. Eventually lemons started to go missing from the grove. Orders couldn’t be met and the grove got a bad reputation. Carollo was trying to ruin the grove so as to buy it himself. Galati sacked him and hired a replacement.

Some ‘good friends’ of Carollo’s came around and advised that Galati should take him back, but Galati refused.

At approximately 10pm on 2 July, 1874, Carollo’s replacement was shot several times. The hitmen had built a platform behind a stone wall so as to shoot him in a winding back lane. This method became a staple of early Mafia hits. The police were called and they tactfully ignored Galati’s convictions that it was Carollo, arresting instead two men who had no connection with the victim and then promptly releasing them. He received a series of threatening letters, seven in all, which said it was a disgrace for a ‘man of honour’, such as Carollo, to be fired. Eventually he was forced to flee the country after a series of attempts on his life…

Even at this early point the Mafia has corrupted the local government. When Galati asked for his seven threatening letters back, he only got six. The seventh and most explicit had been strangely mislaid.”

The idea that our “civilisation” might come at a price, that perhaps the elegant prehistoric artefacts that we admire in museum cases, the Cycladic marble figurines and the golden drinking sets of Troy, may have been financed by the blood and toil of an emerging serf class at the hands of a proto-Mafia, is a radically different view of prehistory. It may be one that more people would identify with at this present time of increasing wealth inequality, but it is not the one that prevails.

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A token of civilisation or the loot of a proto-Mafia?

Can we determine with certainty which version is right? Both of these contrasting visions of the past were based on near-identical data sets (though Gilman’s was more geographically extensive, including evidence from the western Mediterranean), and neither of them did the data violence to fit their story. In the years following their advancement, academic priorities have been directed towards testing hypotheses through further gathering of evidence, following the scientific method. In the course of this inquiry, the discipline first questioned and then apparently affirmed the evidence for olive exploitation in the critical periods of the Early and Middle Bronze age. But the narratives put forward to account for the evidence have changed only at the margins. That is probably because such big questions, touching on intangibles such as human intentionality, hover on the very margins of empirical proof or refutation.

What accounts for the different views? It might help the reader to know, by way of context, that Colin Renfrew was awarded a life peerage in 1991 and now sits in Conservative benches of the House of Lords as Baron Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, while Antonio Gilman wrote the entry on “Marxist archaeology” in the 2001 International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences. It shouldn’t come as a shock that their perspectives on what drives human history differ. Archaeologists are in a constant debate amongst themselves about how to interpret the past, and their views can be quite heavily informed by their beliefs and their present circumstances – much more than the general public would know from the media reporting of their findings. While this inner turmoil is largely hidden from public view, the dawning realisation has led to a “loss of nerve” in the discipline, almost an existential anxiety, which makes the majority of its practitioners shy away from the Big Questions because they feel they can’t provide proper, definitive, incontrovertible answers (or because they fear that their research will only be funded on that promise). This is a shame. Acknowledging that present-day politics can shape our view of the past is not a negative as long as it leads to productive inquiry by framing hypotheses that can be tested. Humans are storytelling animals, stories are how we make sense of the world, and perhaps it isn’t so bad to admit that the evidence allows for more than one definitive version of the story. I am not for a moment suggesting that people should be encouraged to select their preferred version of the past from an infinite relativist superstore (Ideas’R’Us?), or that we always have to chose between such stark opposites. Rather, just being aware that alternatives exist and that some questions remain open would enrich our understanding of the past and our appreciation of the present.

That, at any rate, is something to consider the next time you pop an olive in your mouth with your aperitif, or drizzle some extra virgin on your salad.

IMAGES: Ancient olive tree in Crete, from ferrebeekeeper.wordpress.com; 3D rendering of the Monumental Olive Tree of Vouves, said to be the oldest olive tree in the world, after Maravelakis et al.; display of Early Cycladic figurines at the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens.

Stories about the Olive, part I: Civilisation or curse?

I wasn’t there when…

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It was a beautiful autumn evening as I walked to Athens’s Tae Kwon Do arena where the 2nd Syriza party conference is being held this week. The air was warm but the shadows long, and the light had the golden hazy quality that is peculiarly Attic. I had only decided to check out the conference the day before, when I saw the posters announcing it, plastered – illegally – along the median strip of most major roads in town.

To get to the Tae Kwon Do, one of the least unsuccessful pieces of Athens’s Olympic legacy now functioning as an expo centre and occasional refugee shelter, I had to pick my way along the seafront strip aspirationally rebranded as the “Athens Riviera”, along the gulf of Faliro. This involved traversing a maze of underpasses, flyovers and empty stranded car parks reminiscent J.G. Ballard’s dystopian Concrete Island, walking the narrow pavement along the coastal highway past the last holdouts of the nightclubs that once lined that stretch of road, and finally crossing the freshly planted park surrounding the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre which resembles a Mediterranean zen garden, and over a pedestrian bridge towards the setting sun.

The conference piqued my interest in part because I have never attended a Greek political gathering of any sort, and I happened to be in the neighbourhood. I have attended political conferences in the UK for different parties as a non-member in a professional capacity and found them to be fascinating experiences, but I am simply not a party animal in any sense (except perhaps ironically when Tony Hadley from Spandau Ballet belted out “Gold” at one of the otherwise stolid Tory events). Anyway, I digress. I probably wouldn’t cross the road to attend a routine political event by most other political parties, as I haven’t done in all my years in Greece. The closest I came was the run-up to the July 2015 referendum, which was adrenaline-inducing, both in the exciting and the downright scary sense. I thought it would be interesting to see how Syriza measured up, after inspiring such passion in both the positive and the negative sense, at its second ever conference after a year and a half in power, having climbed a rapid learning curve, and with the honeymoon period decidedly behind them.

I also figured that being a relatively new political formation and making a big deal of inclusiveness it would be easy to blag my way in. In the UK, party conference attendees have to register weeks in advance, get a conference pass in the post and queue to get through tight security barriers.

As I approached the venue I was struck by the calm. I had expected something along the lines of the KNE (Communist Party Youth) festivals that used to take place down the road from us when I was growing up, and where Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras cut his teeth in the not too distant past: tannoys blaring Theodorakis songs and slogans, leafletting, honking horns and music late into the night. Here, only a few flags fluttering in the autumn breeze gave away a party event rather than an Ideal Home expo. Thin crowds milled outside, little groups of friends greeting one another, craning their necks to find more people they recognised, smoking. There were a few recognisable faces, including senior cabinet minsters, mingling outside. Three times I thought I spotted the rotund mustachioed Parliamentary speaker Nikos Voutsis, only to realise that the paunch and braces were something of a common look among male attendees of a certain age.

I only had to walk through an airport-style scanner and put my bag through an x-ray machine. No photo ID badges, and only a couple of discreet police buses for security. Inside the hall, I had an hour to kill before the programme was due to start. The PA system played an eclectic mix, “Bella Ciao” alternating with “Rock the Casbah” and Greek dad-rock. Looking around me, I estimated the average age of the gathering audience to be mid to late 50s, perhaps a bit older. Some had brought children who were already fidgeting. One small section towards the back of the arena was taken up by the Syriza youth, who were the only ones showing a sense of occasion. As I leant over the bannister the gentleman next to me smoked a candyfloss-scented electronic cigarette. Around 10 minutes before the scheduled starting time, a disembodied male voice came on the PA system: “Comrades, comrades, please take your seats so that the conference can begin”. There was a slight show of purpose in the crowd. At the third attempt, the announcer started to betray some impatience, adopting the deliberate phrasing of a kindergarten teacher: “Comrades, please. We are taking our seats and settling down so that the conference can begin”.

There was a rustle and random sections of the audience stood up and applauded. “Who is it?” whispered the group of women next to me. “It’s Alexis, it’s him!” (this is the first genuine excitement of the evening). On the big screens we could see Tsipras and a group of senior party figures making their way from the back of the hall through the crowd to the stage. The hall was still not full. There was the odd empty seat in the stands, and the floor was only crowded near the front. To the sound of some kind of instrumental folk-rock which I didn’t recognise, Tsipras shook hands along the front rows, while the rest of the audience chatted.

Once the meet and greet had concluded, the voice proceeded to introduce the honorary conference committee as they rose to take their places on the stage. I only recognised a few names of the presiding team. After them came a colourful, diverse group, which I would have trouble picturing onstage with a more established party: a Muslim MP from Thrace, a Paralympian, the president of the Philippino domestic workers’ association, and eventually a long list of resistance fighters, dissidents and Communist party members with histories of imprisonment and exile. After the applause subsided, the Syriza youth section erupted into a chant of “On barren islands and in prisons, the Communists never bowed”. This was greeted by stony silence from audience.

The party secretary stood up to give the welcome address. He was not an inspiring speaker, and I have to admit that I have a short attention span when it comes to political speeches in general. My mind starts to wander within the first couple of sentences and I revert to people-watching. What I did notice was that I was not alone. At a UK party conference of the governing party, even as a registered attendee I would not even be in the main hall, I would probably be watching a screen in an overflow room, but there would still be a palpable atmosphere that carried you along. I recently watched in amazement a snippet of the fractious Republic convention in the US, where the floor delegates dutifully applauded Ted Cruz on cue for several minutes before it slowly dawned on them that he was not in fact going to endorse Donald Trump as expected. Based on these precedents, I was concerned that I would stand out if I failed to applaud. There was in fact very little applause on cue, and when it came, several people around me didn’t join in. Only the Syriza youth chanted occasionally.

The tone was particularly flat when the speaker tried to whip the audience up by stating repeatedly that this was the first conference of its kind in Greece, “held by a leftist party while in government”. I had read more experienced and knowledgeable commentators note that this conference would be very different from the first, partly because the centre of gravity of the senior Syriza team had shifted from the more radical personalities of their opposition days and their first term toward the more conservative figures drawn from the ranks of the Socialist PASOK party, which had governed Greece on and off since the early 80s. This was clearly borne out in the audience by the frosty reception that greeted the “first time left” claims.

I can’t remember much more of his speech. As my eye wandered I fixed on two incongruous figures seated in the youth section: two twenty-something guys in sharp suits and carefully trimmed beards, smoking cigars like the wannabe Gordon Gekkos used to do while the ordered sushi around the old Athens Stock Exchange. Had they stumbled in from a Nea Demokratia event, or were they perhaps a Cuban youth delegation? One of them ostentatiously brushed down his jacket sleeve after one of his more casually-attired comrades in the stand bumped into him.

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Eventually, the secretary ceded his place to Alexis Tsipras. This also struck me as odd compared to the Anglo-American experience, where the party leader’s speech typically forms the crescendo of the conference programme, after all the aspirants and the grandees have had a chance to warm up the audience and iron out the message. Maybe this is how it’s done in Greece, but I found it interesting that Syriza wouldn’t have challenged such a tradition, given their emphasis on bottom-up process and consultative deliberation, to have the leader set the tone up front in such an obvious way. But, oddly, I was looking forward to this. I had never found Tsipras to be an engaging speaker when I had watched him on TV. He declaims in a loud nasal monotone that some people compare to the late Andreas Papandreou, who was generally counted as an inspirational orator, but I find soporific. He peppers (or should I say crams) his sentences with political clichés of the type described in Greece as “wooden language”, which hark back to the cold war days of the 1970s. In the comfort of my own home I tend to drift off to make a coffee or get a drink and read about it later, but having heard Tsipras described as a “firebrand” and “charismatic” I expected that the live experience would be more engaging. The principle had worked when I was dragged to Neil Young and Springsteen concerts only to be dragged away a reluctant convert.

On this occasion I was wrong. I stayed engaged long enough to sense the audience freeze again when the “first time left” message was repeated. They did the same when Tsipras claimed the July 2015 referendum will remain etched on our memories as the greatest moment in modern history. There was stony silence when he said that leaving the Euro was never part of the Syriza plan – earlier in the day, a leaked book excerpt quoted French President Hollande to the effect that Tsipras had approached Russian President Putin to print drachmas in Russia in the event of a Grexit. Talk of changing Europe from within barely caused a ripple in the audience; ditto the mention of the pantomime villains, the media and the old political parties.

The floor was still only two thirds full. A busty blonde woman in a tight black dress strode up and down the back of the audience wiggling her hips and blowing kisses to her friends (?) in the stands. You will have to resort to more expert commentary for what followed. Rumours have it that the party conference is the prelude to a ruthless cabinet reshuffle, but I didn’t stay to pick up any hints of this. My curiosity satisfied I left, probably a third of the way through Tsipras’s speech. Maybe it was different in the “old days”, a mere couple of years ago. Maybe this is just what happens when a party grows up, or maybe it has burned out already.

If it was exciting, I wasn’t there.

PHOTOS by Atlantis Host, October 2016.

I wasn’t there when…