Talk of the kafeneio

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This week the kafeneio was abuzz with lively debate on the national legacy of one Chrysostomos (Makis) Psomiadis (aka. “Makaros”, aka. “Big Mac”, aka. “Agapoulas”), who died last week of natural causes shortly after being released from prison.

If you read the press or watched the news (examples here and here), you would see that pride of place was given to the deceased’s prominent role in organised sport since the late 1908s (as chairman of AEK Athens basketball and football teams, Ethnikos, Atromitos and Kavala football teams), followed by brief references to his recent convictions for match-fixing and embezzling €21.7 million from AEK Athens, and only discreet allusions to involvement in “business”, “society” and “behind-the-scenes”. The language was respectful, even fond and reverential (his death was “tragic”, “his heart betrayed him”, his passing “mourned” by the sports community).

In the kafeneio, the sentiment was altogether more divided. For some, the deceased should be left to rest in peace. God should be his judge, as he was the son of a priest, and known to be religious. He may have broken the law, but he lived by his own code and only harmed those who crossed him. God bless him, he cared about his teams, taking one of them up two divisions in three years, even if he plundered some and sunk others in the leagues. Whatever you think of him, he was a colourful larger-than-life character, his self-consciously argot-laden and often profane one-liners repeated with fondness (some semi-respectable media outlets even anthologised them for easy reference). Many of his former players, along with A-list performers from his nightclub days and high-profile criminal lawyers who attended his funeral presumably felt the same. The swindled AEK Athens sent a wreath and a lengthy defence of their rationale (presumably some form of corporate Stockholm syndrome?).

Others recalled that he had supported the junta regime torturers at their trials and is accused of enthusiastically joining in the torture himself in a borrowed cassock. That he made his fortune running a protection racket. That in addition to his recent convictions he had been accused of and tried for numerous other crimes (fraud, counterfeiting, kidnapping) in each case being acquitted or released on technicalities (most of these allegations were presented in an ERT documentary broadcast while he was on the run in 2011). That his love of his teams extended to personally threatening and blackmailing his players (a rare account in the English language press comes courtesy of a former NBA transfer to AEK). That his financial affairs (no known assets, cash payments only, black bin liners full of notes in the changing rooms) would make him too obvious a case study for even a beginner’s guide to money laundering. Many recalled listening to a graphic audio recording purporting to be of the deceased torturing a former associate.

And of course there is the political dimension, the kafeneio regulars never missing an opportunity to revive the left-right rifts of the dictatorship era and the civil war. His supporters inevitably accuse his detractors of politically-motivated character assassination (in the words of one shock-jock tabloid site, “Stalinist scum who were too afraid to write these things while he was alive”). The latter then accuse the former of lionising a fascist and a psychopath emblematic of the criminality and corruption that has brought the country to its knees, when they should be lining up the next lamógio for prison instead. There is only one mode of conflict avoidance: the obligatory onslaught of queasy jokes about the new boy on the Devil’s turf, bribes in St Peter’s pocket, the commemorative fixed match. For a moment there is a moratorium on the usual (and more than ever topical) actuarial dissection of pensions. But then they do say that psychological distance has something to do with why everybody loves a mobster.

This is all hearsay of course; I take after Aunt Cassandra who would never venture into the den which she blames for Uncle Aristo’s moral decline, but instead divides her time between the crochet circle and the literary salon. Anyone who wishes to delve into the moral maze of the internet kafeneio is welcome to Google “#RIP_Makaros”, stand back and marvel at the fine discourse.

I was going to write something classy and ever-so-slightly ponderous like “the nation held a mirror up to itself,” but upon reflection I think “barium enema” would be more appropriate to describe the process one uses to look for abnormalities in the nether regions.

Easily confused with:

“Agapoulas”, The central character in a series of humorous mobile phone ads at the height of the deceased’s notoriety, partly responsible for promoting his personal mythology: the similarity of the fictional president of the football team with his use of the trademark phrase “agapoula” (“sweetheart”) and the allusions to legal entanglements and mafia tactics is so close that it’s amazing the deceased did not claim royalties (or maybe he did?).

Not to be confused with: 

Vangelas “Meymar” Meimarakis: despite the superficial resemblance in facial furniture and the similarity in personal style and vocabulary, the frontrunner in Sunday’s leadership elections in opposition party Nea Demokratia is no relation to the deceased.

Panagiotis “Panikos” Psomiadis: despite sharing a surname and a disregard for financial probity, the convicted serial fraudster, Nea Demokratia hanger-on and latterly infomercial shoe salesman, is no relation to the deceased.

 

Image: via makeleio.gr

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Talk of the kafeneio

Marathon Man

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Come election time, at dinner parties all across the western world (and perhaps beyond) it has become fashionable to speculate what ballots would be like if they were run like reality TV contests. Would young people be more engaged? Would voter apathy become a thing of the past? Would the outcomes be more representative of the popular will? Well, in the Greek municipality of Marathon, at the starting line of the eponymous race route, voters put this question to the test by electing a reality TV mayor in May 2014. This week the Mayor of Marathon fronted a commemorative reenactment of the battle of Marathon in typically flamboyant fashion (see above). Compared to the bombastic militaristic kitsch of the – otherwise superficially similar – battle of Salamis commemoration held last month, this was high camp, delivered with a hefty nudge and a theatrical wink.

It would be a grotesque understatement to describe Ilias Psinakis as the Greek Simon Cowell, though for a while he was the undisputed king of Greek reality TV. He is much camper, much ruder and much less touchy than his paler British counterpart. As his Instagram account attests abundantly, his teeth are whiter and he grins a lot to show them off, his permatan is a darker shade of mahogany, his hair is impossibly dark and luxuriant, his language is invariably x-rated, his lifestyle is more indiscreet. On the face of it, he is the embodiment of the Greek “bubble years”: bling, easy money, superficiality, celebrity worship, excess. And yet in the depth of the crisis, with only a few years’ experience in local politics behind him, he won the local elections outright on a platform of transparency and meritocracy, and the promise to transform Marathon into an Attic Riviera.

It helped of course that his predecessor had been fined for environmental pollution and was one of 105 elected officials investigated for fraud as part of a swoop on local authorities, while the last Mayor but one is also under investigation for undeclared earnings to the tune of €3.5 million and for fraudulent property deals relating to the construction of rowing venues in the municipality for the 2004 Olympics. “The party’s over,” he declared upon taking office, fully aware of the irony of the words coming out of his mouth, unusually free of a cigarette or a cocktail.

Psinakis may appear sui generis, but he is certainly not unique. It is hard to know what lies behind the surgically enhanced facade, but squint and you can glimpse in him parallels with such diverse political phenomena as Michael Bloomberg, Donald Trump and, closer to home, the oddball Mayor of Thessaloniki, Yannis Boutaris. The common theme is that they are all “outsiders”, whose appeal rests on the apparent lack of political taint, in an age when politicians are regarded with increasing suspicion. Their credentials lie in their accomplishments (real or spurious) in other areas, their entrepreneurial spirit which seems to sparkle against the grubby hide-bound world of career politicians, their “authenticity” versus the scripted political messages of the professional political class. These people are “doers”, or so the popular myth would have it, who can cut through the bureaucracy to bring real reform. They don’t need the money or the validation of office, therefore they are less likely to be corrupted. Plus, if you have seen someone on “Reality” TV and you take that description at face value, you feel like you already know them.

You only have to look at the examples named above to see that the outcomes from these electoral choices are not guaranteed.  A genuinely successful businessman who had the skill, the team-building ability and the persistence to see his stated vision through (whether or not everyone agrees with it or benefits from it); a blowhard whose main achievement to date has been to turn a potentially large inherited fortune into a more modest one, but could upset a national election in a global superpower; a wry, low-key eccentric who often seems to be better-loved outside his city than within. Elsewhere in Greece, celebrity politicians have had a less than impressive record, and nothing has deterred voters from selecting their champions from the even murkier world of infomercial politics.

With a background in modelling and music management (his most famous protegé is Sakis Rouvas, one of the most successful Greek pop stars of all time), Psinakis calls himself a “manager” not a politician or a mayor, but he is above all a relentless PR machine. He introduced a new civic honour, the Medal of the Legion of Marathon, which he travels the world ostentatiously by private jet to award to world leaders, diplomats and celebrities. He has been devoting a special effort to cultivating Sino-Greek relations, partly on the back of an existing twinning of Marathon with the Chinese port city of Xiamen, generating a lot of publicity for the Athens Marathon and the town itself.

His signature style though is confrontational, as many TV viewers will have encountered him as the nasty judge on “Greece, You’ve Got Talent” and “Idol”. One recent real-world example will suffice. When the national archaeological council (ΚΑΣ) refused him permission to hold a music festival around the site of the tomb of the Marathon fighters, he retaliated by calling the (female) archaeologists involved “sour”, “retrograde” and “unf*ckable” in front of the (female) interim Culture Minister, provoking controversy on all sides, while proceeding to accuse them of hypocrisy over the neglect of local monuments. While many of us have some sympathy with some of his complaints, it is hard to imagine that his approach advanced the causes of intelligent heritage management and public access to monuments!

The public verdict on Psinakis’s term so far is split. His prodigious social media footprint is thick with “likes”, ♥s, and comments exhorting him to run for Prime Minister (one imagines a good number of these may well be ironic, in keeping with the persona he has cultivated). Marathon locals are not quite as enthusiastic about his achievements on the ground, commonly referring to him as “fantomas” because of his tendency to disappear when anything needs doing. The streets may bear a closer resemblance to Naples than to Cannes, as the sanitation trucks are immobilised due to lack of fuel, while the Mayor prepares to host a VIP reception for Sunday’s race. “The party is not over,” as one jaded local resident remarked to me.

On the other hand, I couldn’t help but notice the large numbers of Chinese visitors around Athens in the run-up to the Marathon, and feel the excitement of the family group (one runner plus three dedicated spectators) who rode the tram with us to the registration site, to experience the race and see Athens and Santorini. They may not have an immediate effect on the streets of Marathon, but in terms of their overall benefit you can easily do the maths. While central government appears to be building its inward investment policy on pipe dreams like the “Summer Davos” on a barren rock, this seems like more tangible vision.

One thing is for sure – the Marathon tourists will be seeing Greece at its best.

Image via Ilias Psinakis Instagram

Marathon Man