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.

 

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The polykatoikia-dweller’s dilemma

Stories about the Olive, part IV: Oiling the Wheels

olivemosaic

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

You’re hired.

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Today, 2 December 2016, GreekiLeaks™  publishes a partial transcript of a phone call between President-elect of the United States Donald Trump [PEOTUS] and the Prime Minister of Greece, Alexis Tsipras [AT], obtained through a confidential source. On 23 November, Tsipras spoke with Trump to congratulate him on his victory in the U.S. presidential elections. Trump is speaking from his private headquarters in Trump Tower. Only one end of the conversation was recorded. Its authenticity has been verified by comparison to official records of recent communications with world leaders.  

AT: [inaudible]

PEOTUS: Thank you, Alexis, I am truly honoured. You are a terrific guy. You have a beautiful country and very very talented people. The Greeks are one of the most intelligent people. First thing I said to my campaign team, look at these guys! Look how they said a proud “NO” to the elites in Europe, drained the swamp, and made their country great again. They have a world-leading truther industry. And this guy, this guy took on the lying, corrupt media and won, right?

AT: [inaudible]

PEOTUS: We will have a beautiful relationship. You know why? Because we both keep our word.

AT: [inaudible]

PEOTUS: Forget that guy. What was he doing walking around that building site in his casuals? Guy has no class. Before I go there, it’s gotta be finished. We need to add a few beautiful statues and some hot hostesses and at least one fountain. And don’t hold back on the gold leaf. It’s gonna be amazing. It’s gonna be the best temple to democracy on the planet. Then we need to clear a few acres around it and create an amazing golf course. It’s gonna be the biggest, most amazing golf course you have ever seen.

AT: [inaudible]

PEOTUS: I’m not interested in infrastructure. I’m only into beautiful things. Hotels, resorts, casinos, beauty pageants. The Chinese can keep the ugly stuff as long as they don’t think they’re running the show.

AT: [inaudible]

PEOTUS: Some very good friends of mine got killed buying your banks. I mean, they’re incredibly successful guys, they didn’t get killed, but they don’t like losing money. But I trust you Alexis, you have a great reputation, and I’m sure we can negotiate one hell of a deal to make them happy.

AT: [inaudible]

PEOTUS: Forget her, great leader but I’d give her a 2, maximum. She makes Hillary look like a 6. And the French one? Legs are a 10 but no one likes a ballbreaker. Such nasty women. The worst.

AT: [inaudible]

PEOTUS: Don’t talk to me about debt. Debt is for losers. Listen, Alexis. I am a businessman, a very successful one, and you need to learn to talk like a businessman too. We call it leverage. And don’t worry about paying it back, believe me. That’s what Chapter 11 is for. I’ve done it four times, and look at me. Don’t I look like a successful businessman?

AT: [inaudible]

PEOTUS: Yeah, just make sure you write “Alexi’s Greece” in big gold letters on everything. And keep the penthouse for yourself. Invite Hello magazine to do a spread with your beautiful wife and your beautiful, amazing, talented kids. Trust me, you’ll come out ahead. I’ll give you the name of my tax guy, you won’t pay a dime, cent, whatever, in taxes, the rest of your life. Doesn’t make you a loser – it makes you smart.

AT: [inaudible]

PEOTUS: Alexis, I guarantee you I will negotiate a deal on Cyprus and those other islands like you won’t believe. Tayyip is a great guy, great leader. Big in property. We speak the same language, we both have terrific taste. We’re gonna negotiate an amazing deal, I guarantee you. It would be an honour and I will personally do it.

AT: [inaudible]

PEOTUS: Just kidding, you’re not hired. Unless you want to be our man in Havana. Terrific development potential, just need someone who speaks Commie.

AT: [inaudible]

PEOTUS: Let’s tweet this moment. It’s beautiful.

 

You’re hired.

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 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.

cycladic
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?

Monumental evidence of wealth-destroying “tournaments of value” in the Middle Anthropocene

Abstract

This paper puts forward a new interpretation for the monumental earthworks recorded across the continental masses of the planet Earth, dating to the Middle Anthropocene period. This study seeks to refute previous interpretations in favour of a new theory, namely that these monumental structures represent the material remains of symbolically charged ritual events which can be seen as an expression of societal stress in a period of rapid transitions and environmental decline.

canoekayak
A well-preserved earthwork of the early 3rd millennium AD, with elaborate ditch-and-bank features, usage unknown (Athens).

Introduction

Monumental constructions and earthworks have been documented on the outskirts of a number of large conurbations dating to the Middle Anthropocene period (late 2nd/early 3rd millennium AD) in widely separated parts of continental Earth. The mystery surrounding these structures has been enhanced by the paucity of the contemporary documentary record due to the Great Solar Storms of the mid-3rd millennium AD, which erased most of the predominantly digital records of the period, leaving only fragmentary texts from which to reconstruct the contemporary literary, political and economic milieu.

The monuments have in common a massive scale but show a variety of shapes and functional forms. Some are simply banks of spectator seating arranged amphitheatrically around flat areas and circuits of varying shapes and dimensions; others contain trenches and water-filled lustral basins of unknown purpose; the most puzzling ones include elaborate curvilinear ditch-and-bank earthworks, combined with mysterious mounds (see above). They were often located on the margins of existing habitations, after the land was extensively cleared, perhaps in a ritual purging, removing all traces of previous activity.

swimmingpool
Abandoned lustral basin, usage unknown. It is believed that the chair is a later intrusion. (Athens).

Stylistically, the structures are defined by a collection of common traits which has come to be known as the “International Startchitect Koiné”: exaggerated monumentality, the use of rare materials and elaborate construction techniques, the labour-intensity of the construction, the dominance of form over function are all features of this universal style, which becomes more elaborate as the period progresses. The structures could accommodate several thousand people and are believed to have taken years to construct using imported labour that may have been drawn from lower castes, forced or indentured, and there is some evidence to suggest that the grizzly custom of human foundation sacrifice was practiced to secure the buildings’ foundations. Mysteriously, most of the structures appear to have been put to very limited use, as attested by the unusually light wear patterns in their furnishings.

aquaticcentre
Artist’s impression of a ritual structure in the “International Starchitect Style”, housing several lustral basins of unknown usage (London).

The function of the monuments has puzzled archaeologists and the fascinated the general public for generations. Earlier scholars posited that such structures were the remnants of extra-terrestrial civilisations, so alien did they appear within the human landscape. However, through recently published cross-cultural studies with our extra-terrestrial colleagues we are now able to discount these rather fanciful theories. The argument that the monuments are “visible from outer space” is in our view an ex post fact rationalisation reflecting an Earth-centric bias in the scholarship of the time. Another interpretation suggested that they were defensive structures; however, evidence of damage by artillery fire and mass burials has been shown to post-date the initial phase of their use. We use the fragmentary documentary evidence in conjunction with the archaeological remains to propose a radically different interpretation that does not require the presence of alien visitors, but rather explains the extraordinary structures in the context of complex ideations and value systems of contemporary societies, as they sought to respond to increased global interaction, social pressures and rapid climatic change.

Towards an alternative interpretation

Previous scholarly attempts to explain the purpose of these structures have tended to focus on functionalist interpretations, for example that they were defensive in nature, or that they were initiated with the aim of mobilising labour for productive purposes, on the model of Amish barn-raisings. We have found very little evidence to support such theories. Instead, we would argue that the immense mobilisation of labour and resources for ephemeral or even single-use purposes have more in common with the types of practices that anthropologists refer to as “total prestations” or “tournaments of value”, systems of gift-giving with political, religious, kinship and economic implications. These are are marked by the competitive exchange of gifts, in which gift-givers seek to out-give their competitors so as to capture important political, kinship and religious roles. Examples of this include the “potlatches” of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada, during which chieftains competed to distribute gifts such as blankets, animal skins and ritual instruments, and enhanced their social standing by ritually destroying them in large bonfires. In contrast with western industrial economies, status in these societies was achieved in such events not by accumulating wealth, but by giving it away or destroying it in a conspicuous manner.

image
Artist’s impression of Middle Anthropocene ritual. The female priestess (?) is thought to be lighting a torch to be used for the conspicuous destruction of wealth through incineration (a ritual known as “The Burning of the the Money”).

It may be seen as a paradox that such “primitive” practices could be found in “advanced” human societies. It is useful to bring to bear here the documentary record, which, though fragmentary, offers glimpses into a sophisticated ideational construct surrounding these mysterious material remains. Studies have shown that the official religion of the Middle Anthropocene centred on the dogma of “economic rationality”, which at the height of the construction of these buildings had entered the phase known as “late capitalism”. Within this value system, the driving force was the individual’s (or group’s) maximisation of material wealth by the most efficient means. This appears to be borne out by meticulous administrative documentation relating to the preparation and building of the structures. In these documents, the priestly castes frequently invoke religious terms such as “cost/benefit” and “economic impact analysis” in order to present the projects in an “economically sound” light.

At the same time, a seemingly contradictory body of evidence associates the very same projects with metaphysical concepts such as “regeneration”, “sustainability” and “legacy” – a clear nod to the mystical Dionysiac concept of death and rebirth. It is clear from the literature that this belief system viewed the structures as part of a cosmogonic ritual aimed at summoning up “world peace”. An apocryphal text known as the “Olympic Spirit” exhorts participants “to build a peaceful and better world […] to promote tolerance and understanding in these increasingly troubled times in which we live, to make our world a more peaceful place”.

Despite being mutually contradictory and internally inconsistent, these belief systems seem to have coexisted in tandem for over a century, and were surprisingly resilient to critique. We have, for example, ample contemporary evidence of criticism that the structures and the rituals associated with them did not in fact deliver the promised economic salvation but instead guaranteed balance sheet damnation, while others pointed out that there was no correlation between the rituals and world peace, or that the events resulted in debt, displacement, and militarisation of public space” and some accused the elders entrusted with organising them of corruption. It is thought that such criticism was regarded as heretical and its exponents punished severely, but the fate of the critics is not recorded.

wenlockmandeville
Wenlock and Mandeville, the Cyclopean guardians of London.

 

Little is known about what actually took place within the monumental structures. From the associated waste dumps it is clear that ritual feasting played a great part in the activities. With time, the paraphernalia associated with consumption became increasingly formalised, and ritual vessels more often than not bear the mysterious “Golden Arches of Consecration”. It is also known that those attending the rituals partook of a beverage served in a distinctive steatopygous glass vessel, whose recipe was closely guarded in a temple vault – perhaps an aphrodisiac or a fertility elixir. Each ritual site seems to have been presided over by a distinct monstrous deity or anthropomorphic animal spirit (above), clearly intended to induce a holy terror in the participants. Some claim to have found evidence of athletic contests, however we believe that such evidence is too scant to merit consideration here.

A car driven by a student of a driving school slowly moves around the carpark in front of the deserted 2008 Beijing Olympics venue for the cycling competition in central Beijing
A “sacred ruin”, venerated by later generations; note the preservation of empty space around the monument (Beijing).

The resilience of the belief system that fuelled these “tournaments of value” is further evidenced by the respect with which the monuments were often treated after their initial construction. Although subsequent generations appear to have forgotten the original purpose of the structures, they often venerated them as sacred ruins by preserving them intact and allowing the land around them to lie fallow. It is likely that only the more prosperous hosts that were able to do this, while others were forced to adapt and reuse the structures as their circumstances dictated. Occasionally, the structures were put to temporary use, as is evidenced in Phase VIIb of the Hellenikon Rhomboid Structure which appears to have been repurposed as a temporary habitation site during the “great migration” of the early 21st century AD (below).

 

baseball
Artist’s rendering of Phase VIIb of the Hellenikon Rhomboid Structure, showing densely packed temporary habitation structures.

An ancient precedent?

Recently, scholars have suggested that the structures and and the rituals associated with them find a direct antecedent in religious festivals dating two and a half millennia earlier, and have adopted the term “Olympic” to describe them, alluding to the largest of these earlier festivals. However, despite sharing many features with these earlier practices, the long hiatus between the two sets of events leads us to posit that we are in fact dealing with a Hobsbawmian “invented tradition”: by adopting self-consciously archaising practices, emergent elites seek to legitimise their status by demonstrating their continuity with a quasi-mythical past.

It is suggested here that such practices arose as a way of bolstering a fragile global hierarchy and establishing social cohesion in an era when a rise in the overall living standards on the planet was accompanied by increased competition for resources and the looming threat of catastrophic climate change. Testing this hypothesis, however, is beyond the scope of the current paper.

Further documentation of the mysterious structures and their history of re-use here, as artillery defences and as a prison.

Further reading on the future archaeology of the Middle Anthropocene: “Our Piece of Paradise: Patterns of Coastal Habitation…”


IMAGES: Athens 2004 canoe/kayak venue by Milos Bicanski; Athens 2004 training pool by Associated Press; London 2012 Aquatics Centre by Zaha Hadid Architects; Wenlock and Mandeville, the London 2012 Olympic Mascots via Rainbow Productions; Beijing 2008 velodrome by REUTERS/David Gray; Athens 2004 baseball stadium by Jai Mexis & Partners via This American Life.

Monumental evidence of wealth-destroying “tournaments of value” in the Middle Anthropocene

A late education

APDK

What follows is a translated transcript of a segment from Parole, a late night variety show on E (Epsilon) TV, a private free-to-air channel, first broadcast on 11th May 2016 (transcript starts around 34´30᾽᾽). The segment was randomly obtained through the methodology known as late-night channel-surfing (or “zapping”, to use the Greek terminology). We have previously noted the potential usefulness of this methodology for forecasting Greek political trends.

The main presenter is Anita Pania (AP), a veteran of the variety TV genre (slightly out of date Wikipedia entry here). Her shows combine teleshopping, matchmaking, Jerry Springer-style couples counselling, talent show, gameshow and old-school variety entertainment. Although the format often walks a fine line with exploitation and is no respecter of political correctness, it is worth noting that the name Parole is used in the Italian sense of “talk” (in tribute perhaps to the enduring influence of Silvio Berlusconi on Greek light entertainment TV), rather than the more familiar US sense of “prisoner release”. Anita’s trademark cheeky blonde persona owes much to stylings of the Greek “national star” of the 1960s Aliki Vougiouklaki and thus resonates deeply with the modern Greek soul, but in true postmodern style, Anita builds rapport with her audience through asides, innuendo and knowing looks to camera. The extract presented here is on the mild end of the scale, and relatively light on Anita’s own peculiar argot, making it possible to translate almost verbatim. As the format has evolved and the advertising budget has shrunk, much of the time on air is spent promoting dubious cosmetics and inviting entries to prize draws via premium phone lines. Anita’s co-presenters in this segment are Nikos Samoïlis (NS), a financial journalist best known as a personal finance guru, and Dimitris Korgiolas (DK), a pop singer who affects the look of a middle aged raver.

The first exchange takes place in front of a flipchart on which NS has outlined the latest tax measures due to come into force.

Flipchart

NS: “Now let me tell you about an amendment that has just come through about the pricing of toll roads.”

AP: “Niko, can you please explain to me what an ‘amendment’ is, we keep hearing about amendments and amendments, what is this damn amendment?”

NS: “It is a document that essentially becomes a law of the land, it gets incorporated into a bill and gets turned into law.”

AP: “So its, like, a con?”

NS: “No (chuckles) it’s an actual law.”

AP: “Yes, it’s like a con that becomes a law.”

NS: “It’s a special text that’s separate from the law, and gets attached to a law so that it also becomes law.”

AP: “So it’s like a prologue?”

NS: “No, listen, normally what happens with amendments, let’s say for example they tack on to a bill that has to do with the Ministry of Health fifty amendments that are all about different issues.”

AP: “Do they supplement the existing law then?”

NS: “No, they are just incorporated, but they may have nothing to do with Health.”

AP: “And when will these get voted on?”

NS: “By the 24th…”

AP: “And are there amendments that don’t get voted in?”

NS: “Of course there are amendments that get retracted, that don’t reach the voting stage because MPs have reacted, or because they are totally unrelated to the bill being voted on, so it could be, I don’t know, an amendment to do with gambling and casinos that gets attached to a bill on…”

DK: “… the Health Ministry”

NS: “Tourism, or Health, something unrelated.”

AP: “Now these amendments, who do they come from?”

NS: “From the government. The government brings amendments and attaches them to bills.”

AP: “But why do they do it this way? Why bring an amendment, and attach it to the bill etc., why not do it once and for all?”

NS: “Because a lot of these appear in the middle of the night, on irrelevant bills, for reasons you can well understand.”

AP: “So now we know what ‘amendment’ means, we have added to our vocabulary, it’s a new-fangled thing. Listen, now I have an amendment for you…”

AP: “There is a person, who will be joining us, who understandably didn’t want anything to do with the kind of things we are talking about, and so he decided, as a young man, to dedicate his life to God, to remove himself from temptation and sin, and whatever might be going down on the scene, as they say, and go to Mount Athos and find a perch for himself. So, this person is Father Nikitas, and he has come here to tell us, and I would really like us to hear about his decision to dedicate himself to God at an early age, because he has been doing this now for twenty-six years, and he has removed himself from our daily life, our secular life that is full and temptation and sin and lovely things like that, and difficult things. So at the early age of twenty-something, he decided to remove himself, to stand back. Can Father Nikitas join us please.”

Groupshot

Father Nikitas (FN): (enters to the theme tune) “Good evening.”

AP: “How are you? Welcome.”

FN: “I am very happy to be among you.”

AP: “And I am happy that you are with us, and we are honoured to have you in our company.”

FN: “It’s a great pleasure.”

(NS and DK snigger)

AP: “Now this ‘Father’ business… because you’re…”

FN: “… young.”

AP: “Yes, how old are you, Father Nikitas?”

FN: “Forty-two.”

AP: “So you’re a young person, like, and you look even younger than your forty-two years, but that is now your appellation. Should I address you somehow?”

FN: “Father Nikitas is the correct way.”

AP: “Father. (Pauses flirtatiously, flicks hair). But you’re not my father.”

FN: (laughs nervously) “Call me whatever you want, Father, Pater, Elder…”

AP: “Ah… so the Father comes from Pater, it’s because you’re a priest…”

FN: “A monk.”

AP: “Do you want to tell us, Father Nikitas, about your decision to leave the secular life.”

FN: “I had the great blessing, after doing my army service, to meet Father PaÏsios.”

AP: “At what age?”

FN: “Nineteen going on twenty.”

AP: “At nineteen, eh? And you met Father PaÏsios, Saint PaÏsios? Isn’t he our most modern saint?”

FN: “So when I was discharged from the army, my life changed thanks to this simple, illiterate, enlightened man. Because the first time I visited, I went there with a friend whose mother had cancer in her bones and they were expecting her to die any minute.”

AP: “So you had gone with your friend to help him pray?”

FN: “Yes.”

AP: “But your friend was the one who was most insistent.”

FN: “Yes. But when you go to the hermitage of PaÏsios there are a lot of people there.”

Annita

AP: “Nikita… just so I don’t have to call you Father Nikitas, Pater etc., (flicks back her hair, sits back to expose her cleavage) can I just call you Nikitas? Would that be OK?”

FN: (shifts in his seat) “Look, from the point that I wear the cassock, it’s correct to use Father Nikitas, Pater, Monk etc.”

AP: “I just need to find something that I find comfortable with.”

FN: “Look, don’t worry, we’ll find it in the course of things.”

AP: “OK, so Father Nikitas, you’ve gone there with your friend who has a sick mother, so he influenced you to go there.”

FN: “I would have gone anyway.”

AP: “Were you a child brought up in the church or were you, like, a worldy child?”

FN: “I would say I was a normal child.”

AP: “So you didn’t have any tendency towards…”

FN: “Look, when you grow up on an island like Kos, I have done many jobs, jobs related to tourism…”

DK: “… in bars and the like…”

FN: “… in restaurants, beaches, I have done all sorts of jobs.”

AP: “So, a young man who was normal, enjoying a modern way of life…”

FN: “I served in the special forces… I was in the midst of everything.”

AP: “Right.”

FN: “My parents were religious, but it wasn’t like we were fanatical. Simple folk, my family were fishermen and the like. So I went to Father PaÏsios’s hermitage and there were a lot of people there, and I asked my friend, ‘how are we going to go and talk to him and get his blessing when it’s so crowded?’”

AP: “Did you know at that point that this old man…”

FN: “We were aware, we had heard…”

AP: “… that he was a special case, that he was on track for a sainthood, did you know that?”

FN: “Yes, that’s why we went.”

AP: “So the word was already out there…”

FN: “Yes, the word was out. So then the old man stands up and calls us by our names.”

AP: “…without knowing who you were?”

FN: “Without knowing us, it was our first visit, so he told me, and at that point I thought I’d just served in the special forces, I thought I was hot shit, I’d reached the moon with my youthful arrogance, he said ‘this is where we’ll see what kind of commando you were’. At that point I didn’t understand what he was talking about. In the meantime, he said to my friend, ‘Don’t worry, your mother has a whole decade ahead of her.’”

AP: “Without knowing the reason for your visit, without having discussed it with him.”

FN: “Not at all. And then my friend’s mother, who at that point was a mass of bones…”

AP: “A mass of what?”

FN: “A mass of bones, she had cancer in her bones, they were expecting her to die any minute. She revived and she lived exactly ten years.”

AP: “Po po po…”

FN: “So after that I went to Athos many times and met many monks, little old men, living in shacks, living on nothing but they had the whole world inside them.”

AP: “So Saint PaÏsios, he saw things, he had a gift…”

FN: “He saw things. And I’ll tell you one more thing, an event I lived as I was returning. There was a father who was holding his little child in his arms, and it had a problem walking. Coming back from seeing Father PaÏsios, the kid was walking, right as rain. Of course, what happens now, when various people come out and talk about prophesies and that sort of thing, that is extreme. When we do that we are taking advantage of the name of Father PaÏsios. He really did make some prophesies, some came true, others not yet, God only knows if they will. It’s best not to use his name unless he has actually said something, because this regurgitation doesn’t honour anyone.”

AP: “Are there other Fathers like him, with a gift?”

FN: “Yes, there are. In there there is a family of 2,500 people from different backgrounds, rich families, poor families. You can’t just be there because you had a moment one day. It is a great sacrifice to dedicate yourself. Personally, what I felt was, in the vernacular, like I had a big crush on God. I lived such great joy that I could not express it.”

AP: “Did you experience that the first time you visited?”

FN: “The very first time, and then I kept going back.”

AP: “So when you went with your friend to pray for his mother and you first met Father PaÏsios? And you were so taken, so charmed by this person who seemed to know you and know why you were there before you met… and that is why you decided to dedicate yourself to God.”

FN: “Yes, I experienced a joy I couldn’t express. God has made it possible for us to experience such a blessing that I wish I could take my heart out and give it to the world so they can understand what I am experiencing at this moment. It sounds nice, it sounds like a fairytale but I’ve lived it, and that won’t change. And right now there are men in their that are of the stature of Saint PaÏsios…”

AP: “Aha!”

FN: “… and that for us is a blessing, because there are many young people in there and we draw our strength from those guys.”

AP: “OK, I suggest that we take a little ad break, and when we come back I will ask Father Nikitas to explain what exactly it was that make him ‘click’, because there is something specific that made you leave the secular world at the age of twenty-something…”

FN: “Yes, there is.”

AP: “OK, let’s go and we’ll be right back.”

[There follows an advertising break featuring ads for household products, psychics, processed dairy and condoms. The conversation resumes, in which FN reveals, somewhat underwhelmingly, that he became a monk for “many personal reasons which we won’t discuss here.”]

AP: “The fact that this is an all-male situation has at times generated some weird chit-chat. So we have heard for example that it is a gay hangout. Like, there have been various embarrassments coming out of there at times…”

FN: “Listen, Athos is a hangout of people, right? There are 2,500 people there. In the years I have been there I have never seen anything crooked. At the end of the day what someone does in his bed is his business, I can’t know that, no one can know that, right?”

AP: “The issue is, when you go there, you don’t go there to do things in your bed, you go there to do other things. If you want to do something in bed you don’t go to Athos, you go anywhere else in the country.”

FN: “Look, if someone comes who really wants to repent and wants help, we can do that but no more.”

AP: “No, I’m not talking about the people who come and visit, I’m referring to the possibility that there are some monks who have gone astray, there have been a lot of scandals…”

FN: “When someone sets off to do something in their life, to do a job or to dedicate themselves, like me in a monastery, and you know what you want, you set solid foundations and you get down to it. But if you start off to wear the cassock to ensconce yourself, then the game is lost.”

AP: “Have you, yourself, seen anything like that?”

FN: “In my years there, no. There have been times for example when I have seen visitors who look like they are after something else or look like something, but nothing beyond that. From then on, whatever one choses to do… because where I am, right, I’m secluded, I’m in the forest, the people I see are those who come specifically to see me, from then on I don’t…”

NS: “What is your view on the prohibition on women visiting?”

FN: “Look, in the old days, all the monasteries were not visited by women, like the convents were not visited by men, because we are fighting temptation, we are fighting our flesh. On Athos, there have been many incidents, many miracles of the Virgin Mary that have prevented (women). Every time they tried to enter something befell them. This has been proven.”

DK: “They made trouble, right, just say it. They make trouble generally (laughs).”

AP: “Next, Father Nikitas is going to demonstrate some recipes from his book of Mount Athos cooking…”

If you want to know more about Greek TV, you can start here.

 

 

 

A late education