The semiology of the cucumber in the discourse of the Greek crisis

aggouri

A propos of nothing, given that yesterday was a quiet news day*, I recall a little vignette of post-referendum Athens.

Waiting to cross at the traffic lights in my Athens neighbourhood in the midday heat, a gentleman waiting next to me, in is late middle age, slightly dishevelled but respectable, observes the queue of pensioners outside the bank waiting to collect their €120 weekly stipend. He tuts. “This is disgraceful, this is what we’ve come to.” Then he pauses as he observes a little boy with an ice cream cone accompanying his grandmother. “That looks nice and cool,” he muses. Pause. “Of course the cucumber that Alexis (Tsipras) will bring back from Brussels will also be cool. And we’ll all get to share it. Not just the 60%,” (referring to the bailout negotiations that were due to follow the 60% “no” vote in the “bailout referendum”). He caught himself saying this, and suddenly embarrassed he apologised, adding “but you know what I mean.”

Of course I did. And for those of you who don’t…

… I recently discovered that this topic is covered exhaustively by Daniel M. Knight of the University of Durham in his paper entitled “Wit and Greece’s economic crisis: Ironic slogans, food, and antiausterity sentiments,” in a recent issue of American Ethnologist (The Journal of the American Ethnological Society).

Scroll to page 236 of this scholarly work for the definitive (and very clinical) analysis of the meaning of αγγούρι (aggoúri, cucumber) in the Greek vernacular. I will give you a hint: it has very little to do with Greek salad.

* In case you haven’t followed the links, or read the news, pretty much every economic indicator for Greece is pointing due south. The Athens Stock Market plunged almost 23%  intraday on its first day of trading since the easing of capital controls (before recovering to “only” -16.23% at close), the PMI manufacturing index was in free-fall through July, factory employment at a 16-year low, SME activity sharply reduced in the course of July for 9 in 10 businesses, and turnover down over 70% for 1 in 3 businesses. All directly attributable to the bank closures, capital controls and the climate of uncertainty created by the 5th July referendum, none reversible in the near term.

** This is where I realise that I have missed my true calling as a cultural analyst…

Advertisements
The semiology of the cucumber in the discourse of the Greek crisis

Five simple “Greek” pleasures that could become luxuries after a Grexit

kalamaki2

After the unplanned “stress test” of capital controls most Greeks will have become much more aware of the country’s dependence on imports for its most basic economic activities. Most will know that Greece imports essentials like fuel and medicines, as well as raw materials for most manufacturing activities (a great visualisation is available here). All of these would become more expensive overnight if Greece were to revert to a national currency and face a devaluation. So far, so (yawn) interesting for economists. Most civilians, however, still believe that even after much belt-tightening they could still go “back to basics” and find comfort in life’s simple pleasures.

This is sadly not true. Even the most “Greek” of everyday pleasures could become luxuries for Greeks after a Grexit because they, too, are dependent on imports so their prices would skyrocket:

  1. Souvlaki: Almost two thirds of pork consumed in Greece is imported mainly from Denmark, Holland and Germany. Over 80% of beef is also imported from other EU countries, as are substantial quantities of chicken. Even with a strong currency, Greece’s exports in fish and olive oil are not remotely sufficient to cover its imports in red meat. The negative balance of trade in meats has increased as a direct result of the Common Agricultural Policy which favours livestock farming in the North of Europe, but is also due in part to a lack of quality control infrastructure and sclerotic regulation in Greece.
  2. Anything with lemon: despite growing lemons, last year Greece imported close to 25 metric tonnes from Argentina, Turkey and Italy to cover domestic needs. Greek fruits frequently go unharvested when they are undercut by global prices.
  3. “Greek” yoghurt: Greece is self-sufficient in fresh milk but does not produce enough for other dairy products. Most mass-produced yoghurt is therefore supplemented with powdered or condensed milk from other EU countries.
  4. The “Mediterranean diet”: Aside from olive oil, most other components of the Mediterranean diet, particularly pulses which are the traditional source of protein, are largely imported, often across large distances. This includes 90-95% of lentils consumed in Greece (from Canada, the US and Turkey), 65-70% of chickpeas (Mexico and Turkey) and 55-60% of beans (US, Canada). A nostalgic return to the simple φασολάδα (fasoláda, bean soup), which many Greeks consider the real national dish, would not necessarily be as cheap as we would hope. Two thirds of bread flour is also imported. And although Greece could be self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables, the fuel, fertilisers, pesticides and machinery used for their cultivation are almost entirely imported.
  5. “Tost” (τοστ): A staple of most family homes is a toasted sandwich made with sliced bread, yellow cheese and ham. The vast majority of yellow cheese consumed in Greece, particularly the cheap sliced stuff, is imported from Holland and Germany; most local Greek cheese varieties are too expensive to be melted in a sandwich.

Photo by koutofrangos. All rights reserved.

Five simple “Greek” pleasures that could become luxuries after a Grexit

NEW! E-MAIL FRAUD ALERT: TRAVEL SCAM

Please be advised that a new e-mail scam is currently circulating on the internet. A person purporting to be a former high official in the Greek government is sending emails impersonating friends or family of the message recipients and requesting that money be wired at once to a foreign bank account. These ‘travel scam’ emails are a common technique of fraudsters and should be deleted without responding. Under no circumstances should money or personal financial details to be sent over the internet to the sender of the email.
travel scam msg fix
NEW! E-MAIL FRAUD ALERT: TRAVEL SCAM

Satire is dead: The rival heist plots

I feel no need to post any original content today.

I will merely refer you to two stories that surfaced this week. Let’s call them “Old Skool” and “New Economy”, the rival alternatives to Greece achieving an agreement with its creditors and staying in the Euro, at least for now.

“Old Skool”: Hatched by Panayotis Lafazanis, leader of the “rebel” Left Platform faction of Syriza, until recently Minister of Productive Reconstruction, Environment and Energy and volunteer fire-fighter, this plot involved arresting the Governor of the Bank of Greece, taking over the Greek mint and confiscating the country’s currency reserves. The plan was to use the reserves to pay public sector salaries and pensions while preparing for a return to the drachma. Delightfully retro in its conception and blissfully uninformed of the technicalities of fiat currency, this plan also momentarily distracted from its real-life scariness with amusing mental images of out-of-shape former Communist party hacks struggling to drag sacks marked “SWAG” through a hole in the vault. Chased by Inspector Clouseau.

“New Economy”: This one came to light after someone leaked the tape of a teleconference between former Finance Minister and current #ministerofawesome (at least in his own mind) Yannis Varoufakis, Norman “Black Wednesday” Lamont, and a bunch of shady (by definition) hedge fund managers. Being a more modern kind of rebel, Varoufakis imagined using an old mate’s computer hacking skills to clone the online tax filing database in order to create a “parallel banking system” as an interim arrangement while transitioning to the drachma. As with the rival plot, it is easy for the killjoys to pick holes in it, but got us picturing a more up to date version of “WarGames,” lots of suspenseful scenes in a darkened room illuminated only by the green code on a black screen. The villain once again is the “troika” because they “control the software.”

Both plots carry a G rating (suitable for all audiences) as neither features sex, at least in the literal sense. With two blockbusters going head to head at the start of the holidays, there’s something here for all the family!

Photo from telegraph.co.uk

Satire is dead: The rival heist plots

The Devil in a USB stick

amyras-konstantopoulou-570-800x533

This week, Greek MPs had to wade through 977 pages of legislation in less than 48 hours, in order to vote on a mega-package that was a prerequisite for proceeding to the next stage of bailout negotiations with their European partners. It was delivered in the form of dead tree, 300 times over. One opposition MP estimated that this equated to 25 trees, 47 KWh of electricity and 324 tonnes of water. To illustrate his point further he held up a thumb drive and announced, “Someone should inform [House Speaker] Mrs Konstantopoulou that the 21st century gives us the convenience of being able to use USB sticks.”

Ouch. That was a deftly aimed shot. She may be the youngest ever House Speaker at 38, but Zoe Konstantopoulou has very strong opinions on how things should be done, and she takes a very grim view indeed of the USB stick (στικάκι, meaning “little stick”). Only last month, she thundered against the Governor of the Bank of Greece (already high on her hit list of “enemies of the people”) for daring to submit an annual report that (a) contained a factual account of the parlous state of public finances, and (b) was submitted not in person on the printed page but by courier on an evil “stikáki”. She intoned the word with particular disgust, as if she had just discovered a sex aid in a nun’s cell.

We don’t know if Mrs Konstantopoulou really is a luddite, but she certainly loves to play one. She knows her audience. You wouldn’t know it looking at the kids in Athens glued to their smartphones and addicted to Instagram, but as we have noted previously on this blog, at least 40% of Greeks have never used the internet, a very low rate for a developed country. To almost half the country’s population, technology is a bit of a mystery, and its use in government invokes a sense of suspicion and dread.

The word stikáki itself became common currency in sinister circumstances. It was on a stikáki that in 2010 Christine Lagarde, then French Finance Minister, handed the then Greek Finance Minister George Papakonstantinou a list of Greek account-holders in HSBC Bank in Geneva, part of a data leak that gifted European tax authorities with information on potential tax evaders. It was this stikáki containing the infamous “Lagarde list” (λίστα Λαγκάρντ) that Papakonstantinou is said to have tampered with to remove the names of family members, before passing it on to the tax authorities and the financial crime unit for investigation, an act for which he (singularly and slightly suspiciously if you ask me) received a conviction in court after he left office. The stikáki, then, was introduced into popular consciousness as an instrument of fraud, and a corruptible one at that. Media reports of the stikáki affair only helped to build up the mystique, describing the process of copying and editing as if it was a form of black magic, understood only by a dark priesthood, and illustrated with stock visuals of 1980s-era computers with archaic command-driven interfaces untainted by the introduction of the mouse. When Konstantopoulou rails against the stikáki, she is tapping into something deeper.

A hostile attitude to technology is dog-whistle for a brand of populist anti-elitism that sells well in the current environment. Earlier this week, former Prime Minister George Papandreou, in an interview in English to Fox Finance, used the example of his inability to make purchases on Amazon to illustrate some of the practical effects of capital controls to a US audience. In Greece he was instantly trolled, ironically on Twitter, for being the kind of out-of-touch elitist who worries about online retail therapy while pensioners have to queue at the bank for their daily cash rations. The symbolism was already in place and he walked right into it: even before he became a hate figure for being at the wheel when Greece first had to acknowledge its deficit and ask for a bailout, Papandreou was already tainted for speaking English more fluently than Greek, and engaging in such pretentious practices as working out (in lycra!) in a Parliament proudly riddled with grotesque obesity. His obsession with taking government online was yet another stick to beat him with.

Other examples of populist technophobia abound, and it is easy to see how for a generation not raised with tablets or even PCs, information technology has unpleasant connotations. When online tax reporting was made compulsory in 2011, some sectors of the public service were still paying employees “computer literacy” bonuses. As if the association between computers and the tax system isn’t deterrent enough, large numbers of taxpayers now rely on the services of tax accountants at a fixed fee of €20-50 to perform even even simple filings, because the user interface is so complex and unintuitive.

Internet-enabled transparency has also lagged. For example, there is no equivalent of the UK’s Hansard for publishing verbatim parliamentary debates, and the best that an interested researcher can do is trawl through hours of video footage in real time to locate particular statements or key words. A reformist Speaker supporting people power might have made this this a key priority; instead, funds have been devoted to mawkish propaganda videos advocating for German WWII wartime reparations, screened in the Athens Metro.

This is ironic. In the midst of the crisis, homegrown internet-enabled startups have been one of the few genuinely productive sectors that have achieved some success, encouraged by a combination of highly skilled returning graduates, low overheads, and relatively high grade infrastructure and connectivity. Ironic, because at the same time more conservative parents used their retirement bonuses to fund their kids in “safe” but unproductive ventures like souvlaki shops and bars (great for local consumers but not exactly scalable or exportable). And finally ironic because these same startups became some of the first casualties of the capital controls, when they were cut off from the connected world that they rely on for their business.

Zoe Konstantopoulou gives satirists an easy job, and it is too tempting to trash her when it has become such a popular sport among her very own political class. In demonising technology she is only giving her own caricaturish spin to a familiar trope. This is the real reason to be concerned.

Why would political leaders wish to stoke a climate of technophobia?

The obvious gain (for them) is that seeing technology as an insurmountable barrier deters people from asking the pertinent questions – and from sussing out the bogus ones, like this month’s referendum. You don’t have to subscribe to the Silicon Valley libertarian’s blind faith in the internet as a one-way street to democracy, enlightenment and prosperity, to agree that this is a bad thing. For bonus points, the canny populist can also make the technology business look like a bunch of irrelevant Marie Antoinettes or limp-wristed hipsters, rather than allow it to become a real economic alternative to honest public sector toil and heavily subsidised industrial farming.

Gotta go now. Just got called to perform an emergency stikáki exorcism.

Photo from koolnews.gr

The Devil in a USB stick

Crisis Porn Caption Competition

IMG-20150720-WA0000

In a tribute to our friends at The Guardian and their noble effort to present the Greek situation to the world via the medium of “gritty” street photography and a random caption generator, we launch our first caption competition.

You too can take your turn at transforming an anti-fascist mural into a depiction of “economic repression and class strife” because you didn’t look close enough to spot the swastika on the ‘victim”s armband; label hippy freegans and rag-and-bone men alike as generic “man looking through dustbin” because you didn’t have the patience or the wherewithal to find the destitute pensioners to fit your editor’s brief; or caption intravenous drug users “homeless people”, because you refuse to be constrained by any notion of context or local understanding.

Some of the editorial team’s favourites so far:

“German humanitarian aid to include home delivery of cash rations to lazy Greeks”

“Exhausted OXI campaigner takes a well-earned break from protesting against Sunday trading”

“[Some desperate pun on] hangover”

Photo by a.frangos. Athens, July 2015. All rights reserved.

Crisis Porn Caption Competition

E-MAIL SCAM ALERT

A scam e-mail is currently circulating in the EU. Anyone receiving this, or a similar, e-mail is advised to not click on any links, open any attachments, or provide personal or financial details no matter how genuine the appeal may appear. Previous recipients of similar scam e-mails have been defrauded of sizeable sums of money. Should you receive a message purporting to be from a former high Greek government official you are advised to contact your local police authorities at once.

scam2

UPDATE: New alert!

E-MAIL SCAM ALERT