Authentic Greek taxi ride to get protected status

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ATHENS, 19 March 2018. The authentic Greek taxi ride is to be granted protected status alongside feta cheese and Kalamata olives, under government plans aimed at safeguarding what it being called “an essential part of our national heritage that is under attack.”

The government has launched the initiative under pressure from the powerful taxi drivers’ union which has been organising protests against the incursion of ride-sharing apps.

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Taxi drivers attacking an Uber car in Athens during a protest.

The Greek parliament is currently debating a transport bill that would force ride-booking platforms to hire full-time drivers on long-term contracts. Defending the traditional taxi sector in the debate, the president of the taxi driver’s union accused platforms like Uber and the home-grown Beat (formerly Taxibeat) of “using innovation to rip off not only professional drivers but our country.” Meanwhile, in an ongoing court case, drivers for Uber Hellas, who in a typically Greek exercise in rule-bending are actually employed by tour operators, are being tried for breaking the rules governing the leasing of private vehicles. Beat, which works with licensed taxi drivers, is being attacked primarily on the (very dubious) grounds of alleged tax evasion, with the Transport Minister suggesting that “SDOE (the financial crime agency) will have a lot of work on its hands.”

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Representatives of the Greek taxi drivers’ union at last week’s committee hearing on the draft transport bill.

There are other aspects of ride-booking platforms that old-school cabbies appear to object to, including the ability of customers to rate their driver’s performance. On a previous occasion, a spokesman for the taxi drivers accused the founder of Beat, aka. “the man who enriched himself from the sweat of taxi drivers” (let that olfactory image sink in for a moment), of “putting drivers on display for the client to chose, as if they were whores in the windows of Amsterdam’s red light district.”

Meanwhile, the local chapter of the Travis Bickle Appreciation Society, whose members are not-so-affectionately known as “tarifes” (sing. tarifas, m.), complain that they are the victims of a black propaganda campaign sponsored by offshore multinationals. Galvanised by their battle against the troika‘s attempt to open up the profession, they see the protected designation as their best defence against the malign foreign forces bent on the destruction of the hard-working cabbie, guardian of the last remaining honourable profession, last bastion of true Greekness.

To qualify as an “authentic Greek taxi ride” under the terms of the proposed designation, the customer experience will need to include all of the following elements:

  • passive smoking: driver may make a token offer to open the window and drive with his smoke dangling out – if you’re going to be such a stickler about it, you know the police should get after all those motorcyclists who cut between lanes, those guys are a real danger, smoking is a human right etc.
  • talk radio, themed on sports, politics or religion, played at a loud volume with additional commentary from the driver, or loud skyladiko music with vocal accompaniment and/or wistful sighing.
  • a sped-up meter and/or a “broken” (or genuinely non-functioning) receipt dispenser.
  • a minimum of one (1) non-functioning seat belt.
  • a request for directions to the passenger’s destination and/or unneccesary detour.
  • an unsolicited educational lecture drawn from the Approved List of Private Transportation Drivers’ Topics of Discourse, including but not limited to: the evils of motorcyclists/delivery drivers/women drivers/immigrants/taxi platforms who employ all of the above,the miracles of Saint Paisios, why this country needs a junta, why Vladimir Putin’s patronage is the next best thing, the latest snake-oil miracle cure bought off the internet that “actually works”, doctors are all quacks they’re just after your money.
  • a loud conversation on a mobile phone with a buddy/colleague/dispatch centre, liberally peppered with excess personal detail/obscenity/references to the incumbent customer in the third person.
  • minimum of one (1) sexist comment, either in “appreciation” of a female pedestrian or in condemnation of a female driver.
  • absence of means for the passenger to evaluate the ride, other than slamming the door on exit and yelling “I’ve got your registration number and I’m going to sue you,” as the vehicle speeds off belching black smoke.

Connoisseurs, meanwhile, bemoan the fact that many of the essential features of the Greek taxi ride have already been rendered obsolete by interventionist government policies and “those namby-pamby metropolitan killjoys who want to appear more ‘European'”. They point to the involuntary rideshare, once a staple of the Greek cab experience, which was all but eradicated by driver “re-education” programmes in the run-up to the 2004 Olympics.

“Look at what happened there,” rages Menios, a 30-year veteran tarifas. “They tell us ‘don’t do it, the foreigners don’t like it.’ Next thing you know, some smartass capitalist in America ‘invents’ the ‘ride-share’. Those capitalists, my friend, they come here and rip off our best inventions and make a fortune. Just like computers and space travel, which were invented by the ancient Greeks, but will you see that in any of the history books? That is why this country will never get ahead.”

IMAGES: vice.gr, news.gr, twitter.


DISCLAIMER: For the avoidance of doubt, the above is #fakenews, however all external links are 100% genuine.

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Authentic Greek taxi ride to get protected status

On the march with the sisters in Salonica

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THESSALONIKI, 21 January 2018, from our Airbnb correspondent. Not a pussy hat in sight but plenty of raw passion! On a clear January day the seafront of the beautiful northern port of Thessaloniki, or Salonika to those in the know, was bursting with enthusiasm as we took to the street for the second Womens’ March of the #resistance. Having been in Washington for the original march, and witnessed the thousands of angry, joyful, strong, beautiful women marching against the patriarchy, I can tell you the Greeks really know how to do it!

For a start, this was the only women’s march where I saw men come out in equal or large numbers. They came out in solidarity with their sisters, wives, daughters, but mainly, apparently, their grandmothers.

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Women of all ages respected and venerated at the Salonica march.

There were men everywhere. And I’m not talking about suburban dads chaperoning their teenage daughers or browbeaten liberal husbands trudging dutifully along, but macho men not afraid to brandish their masculinity while respecting their women.

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“You look at my sister and you’ll feel the sharp end of my #metoo,” was the Cretan macho man’s response when I took this photo.

Slogans were everywhere. Proud, defiant slogans unlike any I have seen before. “Macedonia is Greek”, “Hands off our Macedonia” – with my limited Greek I deduced from the context that “Macedonia” must be regional slang for the female anatomy. It was fairly clear to me, no one would dare grab any of these marchers by the Macedonia!

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The local twist on the pussy hat – “Hands off my Macedonia!”

In the midst of the carnivalesque atmosphere, it was so heartening to see the LGBT community out and proud, lending their support. Clergy in their flowing robes and heavy jewellery happily posing for photos with the local “bears”, dozens of men camping it up in historical costume, some on horseback, army veterans in fatigues singing patriotic songs.

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A picturesque Greek priest embracing the local “bear” community.
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Men are not afraid to dress up in skirts and embrace here.

There were rousing speeches, mostly by men, about the need to defend “Macedonia” and keep it out of foreign hands. Away from the main rally, I am told a delegation decorated the local Holocaust memorial and lit bonfires in a celebration of inclusiveness.

Back on the seafront the crowd dispersed peacefully, but a sense of expectation filled the air. There was even talk of starting a political party to take the fight to Athens. Maybe this is the spark that will ignite the bonfire of change?

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Brunch on stylish pink plastic stools the seafront – the perfect end to a day of protest and celebration.

IMAGES: parallaxi.gr, iefimerida.gr

On the march with the sisters in Salonica

2017 in Atlantis

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Big shout-out to everyone who has continued to visit this blog for insight, entertainment, or their own dark reasons. Your visits were all the more meaningful in a year when reality gave us some stiff competition in the sheer volume and magnitude of fake (and wish-it-were-fake) news disgorged on a daily basis.

History will record that the most-read posts on Dateline Atlantis in the year 2017 of the Gregorian calendar (1483228800 – 1514764799 Unix time) were as follows:

  1. In March, a Calvinist apparatchik on the fast track to political oblivion tried to lecture the Greeks on profligacy, and got a very predictable comeuppance: “Drink and women: it’s a culture thang”
  2. With the Greek wedding industry in the doldrums, some provincial caterers reinvented their business model – skimming from the aid budget for refugee meals. A sordid tale of opportunity in crisis, as reported by insidestory.gr: “Feeding the invisible refugees”
  3. In February, we donned our green-tinted spectacles to travel back in time to the utopian heyday of the “Old PASOK”, the latest manifestation of our national nostalgia epidemic. Why is it so hard to say, “Good bye, Andrea?”
  4. In January, a cold snap prompted some thoughts on the Cold War calculus of heating a Greek apartment: “The polykatoikia-dweller’s dilemma”
  5. Another summer, another round of forest fires. Last year’s post about the politics of natural disasters found a new audience. We look forward to the year when this is no longer topical: “The best cure?”

IMAGE: The “controversial” Christmas tree of Ioannina, possibly an hommage to Meccano – via protothema.gr

2017 in Atlantis

Mind your step, Theresa!

“A little tiny cockroach, little Tereza / stepped on the Teza / and… teza! (dead) / Out came her family to get Tereza / they stepped on the Teza / and… teza!”

So went the jingle from a 1980s Greek TV ad for Teza brand cockroach spray. It was so catchy that it runs through my head regularly, over 30 years later, particularly since Theresa May became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

It’s not Mrs May’s fault. I don’t wish an untimely death on her, least of all death by chemical weapons. All the same, I can’t help reflecting that she came to power much like the proverbial cockroach in the nuclear holocaust, after all her rivals had dropped, er, out. And I wouldn’t mind seeing her hoist by her own opportunistic petard – though sadly I doubt that any electoral upset will be big enough to prove even figuratively terminal.

Bravo, then, to the makers of the Teza ad, for creating a message that truly resonates across the decades. I don’t know how long the ad ran for, for all I know it might still be running (Teza is still available in exciting new formulations for all your roach extermination needs, a great success of Greek chemical manufacturing). Its longevity is clearly down to its high irritant factor (the ad, one hopes, not the spray). Children quickly picked up the jingle and repeated it at every occasion. New words were adapted to the tune, often riffing on the twin themes of prostitution and cockroaches (sex and death). Boys and girls impersonated the handbag-twiddling streetwalking cockroach Tereza. Miming the twiddling of the handbag and the swinging from the lamp post while whistling the jingle became a playground shorthand for prostitution. No parent had a hope in hell of undoing it.

The semiotics of the ad are puzzling, too, but whichever way you look at it there is no politically correct interpretation. Is the ad saying that streetwalkers are like cockroaches? Or does the cockroach deserve to be zapped because she is a streetwalker? Is she even a streetwalker? When she is zapped, her anthropomorphic cockroach family come out after her and get zapped too – so maybe she is just a good girl-cockroach, maybe a touch over/underdressed, on her way to a girls’ night out. Or maybe the whole family was relying on her for income? Will we ever know?

Whatever is going on here, the warning is from 1980s Greek adland clear: Mind your step, Theresa!


More politically incorrect Greek ads, more 80s nostalgia

Mind your step, Theresa!

Drink and women – it’s a culture thang

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Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem is facing calls to resign after making what will perhaps come to be his most memorable statement, if not his political epitaph. In an interview with German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he had the following to say on the subject of the EU’s response to the financial crisis in the southern European member states: “You cannot spend all the money on drinks and women and then ask for help.” Representatives of Spain, Portugal, Italy, and even Bulgaria were quick to object. And although there has been no official response from Greece, there has been plenty of unofficial commentary, ranging from bemusement to outrage. It is fair to say that up until this point, Dijsselbloem has run a pretty close second to his German counterpart Wolfgang Schäuble as a hate figure in Greece, where he is seen as representing the hard line against any sympathetic treatment of Greece’s debt. But the statement wasn’t just a sexist, xenophobic and financially illiterate brain fart – it was also strikingly culturally inappropriate for a high level official serving in an international institution. By this I mean not so much politically incorrect (although it is that too), but way off-target, as any connoisseur of cultural stereotypes will tell you.

Why, only last week our own Finance Minister responded to opposition criticism of his negotiating prowess by confessing to his own, much more genteel, drink-and-women fantasy: “Mitsotakis said that he wants a primary surplus target of 2%. I, too, would like to go for cocktails with Scarlett Johansson, but…”, his point being that you can’t always get what you want. Euclid Tsakalotos, privately educated in the UK, foreign resident for most of his life and with heavily accented and halting Greek, is not your archetypal modern Hellene, and thus his comment was greeted with much hilarity by his fellow countrymen.

So what would be a more appropriate cultural stereotype to deploy against the Greeks, one that would actually make them feel the sting of reproach? It’s not that we are strangers to the evils of boozing and whoring. There is indeed a strain of popular song that laments how “cigarettes, drinks and late nights have closed the best homes”. It’s just that by being sung in the very disreputable establishments that it purports to deride, this self-reproach by definition ironic. So where did we blow our kitty? We undoubtedly spent some of it on status symbols like cars, with a particular penchant for German marques – though not as many, and not as luxurious as the tabloid myth would have it (that catchy line about “more Porsche Cayenne owners than taxpayers” proved fairly easy to debunk but harder to kill off, like most of the persistent myths of the Greek crisis). Some of us spent it on holidays and designer bling and even more of us on unwittingly inflating a real estate bubble. Much of it was financed by loans from European banks, ultimately paying interest to northern European savers.

When it comes to consumables, though, blowing it on drink is not such a southern European thing. On old professor of mine, an expert in the history of booze (among other substances) often observed that Europe is divided into north and south by distinct cultures of intoxication rooted in our prehistory – the grape in the south, the grain in the north, originally the function of geography and climate which in turn determined access to different sources of plant sugar. It is the grain-fermenting northerners who have traditionally binge-drunk themselves to oblivion, and it is them that felt the teetotal backlash of the protestant reformation, whereas the Mediterranean world used their fermented grape juice more sparingly and even made it “taboo” by ghoulishly turning it into blood in the Christian sacrament. It is said that you can still observe this divide by walking down the main street of any Mediterranean town hosting a Club 18-30 resort in high tourist season. Some might say, therefore, that Jeroen is merely projecting his own cultural inclinations. They don’t call it Dutch courage for nothing.

No, when it comes to consumables, another famous one-line aetiology of the Greek crisis comes to mind: “We ate it together” (“μαζί τα φάγαμε”,”Mazí ta fágame”), is what PASOK grandee Theodoros Pangalos poffered in 2010 in response to the question “where did the money go?”. A succinct description of the workings of clientelism, delivered by a true master of the art. The saying survives and thrives, in large part because it had a grotesque, evocative appeal in light of the speaker’s own well-fed physique, an apparent embodiment of gluttony openly admitting to the sin and beckoning us to join him at the trough. In the popular imagination it conjured up images of the Greek political class, bloated with greed both physical and metaphorical, sharing a well-furnished table with their clients, the ordinary voters. And although we, too, like to accuse our elites of eating Marie Antoinette’s cake and caviar (or perhaps the Greek pre-crisis equivalent, lobster spaghetti), the most appropriate fare loading down the table would be a cholesterol feast, most likely at Baïraktaris, the legendary Athens kebab house and political hangout. Not the starched white tablecloths of Washington’s Palm Grill, London’s private clubs, or the Michelin-starred chateaux of Gallic political intrigue, but oilcloth and stacks of paper napkins, the great equaliser, where we do indeed tuck in together in large, boisterous groups. You may recall Baïraktaris as the scene of another famous apophthegm, by another regular, former Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, to the effect that “five pimps run this country”. And that is as far as I will go with the “women” element. Yes, we all ate a lot of souvlaki, most of it made with imported European meat, topped with yoghurt, more than likely made with European milk. And in the background, all this internal consumption was underwritten by state largesse in the form of public sector salaries and pensions, financed by public debt owned by our fellow European governments and institutions happy to pretend that Greece was Germany for the sake of a few extra basis points of yield.

You see, even the culturally appropriate stereotypes of southern loucheness contain an element of northern complicity. But Dijsselbloem may have more in common with Pangalos than he would like to acknowledge. Politically, Dijsselbloem was already a “dead man walking” before he shot his mouth off so spectacularly. In last week’s elections in the Netherlands, the Labour Party of which he is a member and by whose election he serves as Finance Minister at home and President of the EU’s informal but influential group of Finance Ministers, suffered what has come to be termed “Pasokification”: the term used to describe the annihilation of once powerful centre-left parties in European national politics. His days in office (both offices) are numbered, the timing of his departure determined only by the uncertainties around Dutch coalition forming. Ironically, had he released his populist bon mot a few days earlier, it may have won him a few more votes at home – now it is as irrelevant as it is embarrassing.

One final thought though, for those in Greece who are eager to see the back of the smug, hair-gelled wonder. Be careful what you wish for. In the horse-trading the follows his departure, the front-runner to succeed him is Slovakia’s Peter Kažimír, a man routinely described as “one of the most hawkish ministers on the Greek crisis”. After a particularly gruelling round of negotiations in July 2015, he had this to tweet: “#Greece compromise we reached this morning is tough for Athens because it’s the results of their ‘Greek Spring’ #eurozone”. If his prior record is any indication, there will be plenty more inflammatory statements (if not more grave outcomes) to look forward to.

 

 

 

 

Drink and women – it’s a culture thang

A Night at the Opera

The plush crimson seating, subdued lighting and formal monochrome attire frame a pregnant moment, reminiscent of a Francis Ford Coppola epic, in which dynastic ties, political power, money and religious authority weave a rich tapestry of intrigue. Among Greeks and Greece-watchers who have seen it, this photo seems to have provoked an instant gut reaction. As we have warned before, a picture, however eloquent, rarely tells “the whole story”. So, for the benefit of the uninitiated, what is going on here and why the reaction?

Background

The setting is the main auditorium of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre (SNFCC) in Athens, a Renzo Piano-designed state-of-the-art cultural venue built to house the Greek National Opera and the National Library of Greece. In 2007, the Greek state and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation signed an agreement which was voted into Greek law: the state provided the land – the disused site of the old horse-racing track near the seafront in Faliro – and the charitable foundation managed by the family of the legendary shipping magnate funded and managed the construction of the building and the landscaped park around it. On the 23rd February, a ceremony marked the delivery of the venue to its new owners, the Greek people – at which the photo in question was taken (the webcast of the ceremony can be watched here).

Foreground

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (standing) shakes the hand of Konstantinos Karamanlis, the last pre-crisis Greek PM (2004-2009). Karamanlis’s Nea Demokratia government was succeeded by PASOK in autumn 2009, followed within weeks by the discovery of a black hole in Greek government finances which marked the beginning of the financial crisis, now well into its seventh year. Since losing power, Karamanlis has kept a low profile; while still holding a seat in Parliament, he is understood to spend most of his time at his family home in the seaside town of Rafina, which reclusive arrangement, combined with his placidity and rotund physique, has earned him the nickname “the Buddha of Rafina”. In this rare public appearance, he is attending in his capacity as the signatory of the original agreement with the Niarchos Foundation. Within his own party, which was founded by his uncle and namesake, Karamanlis retains a near-inexplicable (but for blood-loyalty) hold on a distinct faction, which is rumoured to be more active behind the scenes than his own disengaged exterior suggests. In particular, some political observers suggest an underground, borderline-treasonous, rapprochement is taking place, between the Karamanlis wing of the Nea Demokratia and the current government, with the ultimate aim of providing a back-stop to the Syriza-ANEL coalition’s flimsy three-seat majority. An unlikely pairing, one might think, between the embodiment of the nepotistic political establishment and young firebrand who promised to wipe the slate clean of all that. Proponents of the rapprochement theory note the PM’s reluctance to attack the Karamanlis government’s notable contribution to ballooning government debt, Tsipras’s proposal of Prokopis Pavlopoulos, a former Interior Minister in the Karamanlis government, for his current post as the country’s president, and (more controversially) the government’s alleged support for the criminal prosecution of the former head of the Greek Statistical Authority (ELSTAT) who restated the state finances to reveal the black hole. Viewed against this backdrop, this handshake is loaded with symbolism.

In the second row, a full two seats away from Karamanlis, current leader of Nea Demokratia and scion of the Karamanlises’ rival bloodline in the party, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, sits with Ieronymos II, Archbishop of Athens and All Greece. Ostensibly a reformist, Mitsotakis has come to resemble a groom courting the daughter of a particularly god-fearing family in his eagerness to kiss icons and cozy up to senior clergy – a reflection of the continuing hold of the Church and traditional right-wingers on the levers of party power and its voting base’s values (Mitsotakis’s actual wife is seen sitting one row behind him, entertaining another church official). Ordinarily, an opening ceremony would be accompanied by a religious blessing complete with incense, basil and holy water (as is the opening of Parliament), however this was not part of the public ceremony in this case, possibly in deference to the non-smoking rules and brand new upholstery. However, the heavy clerical presence in the front row of a shipowner-funded asset is a potentially awkward reminder that both the Orthodox Church and the shipping industry have come under intensified fire for their preferential tax arrangements, which have shielded them considerably from the austerity policies that afflict the new “owners” of the Cultural Centre.

Out of frame

The aforementioned President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, aka. the missing link in the putative rapprochement, who was seen later seated next to Tsipras, and delivering an uncharacteristically brief address; former PM Antonis Samaras, and an assortment of the Great and the Good of Athenian society, seldom seen out together on social occasions these days. Of course, the handshake captured in this photo was one of a series of unstaged greetings (more photos and observations here), a sign of courteous and civil relations among the Greek political class, even those studiously presenting themselves as untainted outsiders. Even Mitsotakis, looking excluded in our frame, is captured in other photos having an extended cordial exchange with Tsipras. Thus, the picture is potentially less sinister and simultaneously more depressing as a reflection of the political realities of Greece in 2017. It is a Rorschach test of sorts, but none of the associations are positive.

The shipping money. In his address, the Director of the Niarchos Foundation and great-nephew of Stavros Niarchos, after delivering a hopeful message about the power of cultural renewal and reinvigorated national confidence, engaged in some barely concealed live trolling. Reading aloud from what he claimed were electronic messages he had received from nameless members of the public, he voiced (in third person) an alarming level of concern for the fate of the Cultural Centre in the hands of the Greek government (examples included: “The beginning of the end,” and “Why, my good people? Is this your first time in Greece?”), before returning graciously to his own stated message of hope and confidence. Embarrassingly for the representatives of the Greek governments past and present in the auditorium, there was as much applause for the anonymised messages as for the official one – a deafening vote of no-confidence in their ability to manage for the public good. Despite the remarkable success of the building’s completion on time and on budget (all the more notable when compared to similar cultural mega-projects the world over) the moment reflects pervasive public unease around the future running of the SNFCC and the institutions housed in it by a Greek government, and a cash-strapped one at that.

The Greek people. Aside from the seating gaps in the dignitaries’ section, the auditorium was liberally dotted with pockets of empty seats, despite this being a free public event. In typical Greek fashion, the day of the ceremony coincided with a strike on all public transport, leaving only the SNFCC’s limited shuttle bus service and private transport as a means of access to the Centre. “Soft-opening” events held at the Centre have, by contrast, been extremely well attended and the park has been well-used on a daily basis. But alongside the mistrust of political authority, there is a more quiet acknowledgement of mutual mistrust among the public. Will people pick up their own rubbish? How long will it take for the first piece of playground equipment to break? Will the Greek people embrace the opera and the library? What will happen when the inevitable graffiti tags start to appear? Will people rally, volunteer and protect the place or will they rail at the authorities?

Beyond the political handshakes, it will be instructive to see how it evolves, a high-tech laboratory for a political (with a small p) experiment of sorts.

PHOTO: intimenews.gr via protagon.gr.

A Night at the Opera

“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.

“Good bye, Andrea!”