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

Stories about the Olive, part IV: Oiling the Wheels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories about the Olive, part IV: Oiling the Wheels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories about the Olive, part II: the urban olive

img_20141107_130704856Despite being a sprawling city of over three million inhabitants with more than its fair share of congestion and pollution, Athens has a strong sense of season. Its hills are capped with green spaces, and fruit trees are planted at intervals along its pavements and median strips. Roughly 2,200 kilometres of pavement are lined with around 80,000 trees, the majority of which are fruit-bearing, including Seville oranges, mulberries, and, yes, olives.

The olive is, of course, the sacred tree of Athens according to the city’s ancient foundation myth. When the goddess Athena and her uncle Poseidon were vying to become the city’s patron deity, her gift of an olive tree won hands-down over his less practical offering of a salt water spring. When Athens first became the capital of the modern Greek state in the mid-19th century it was largely pasture, and the planting of fruit trees was part of a planned project to transform it into a European urban centre in the course of the 20th century. The varieties were chosen mainly for their minimal watering needs.

The tradition continues. In the last couple of years, the construction arm of the Greek railway company ERGOSE S.A. expropriated and cleared a number of olive groves in the countryside as part of expansion works on its network. Thousands of trees were auctioned off, but a few of the more ancient specimens were saved for replanting in Athens. Trees with an estimated age of 1,500 years were donated to local authorities and planted in key locations, including the historic buildings of Athens University in the city centre, the glass sheet statue of the runner marking the final stretch of the Athens Marathon route, and the grounds of the Ministry of Defence.

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The latest addition to the city’s gardens, the park surrounding the Stavros Niarchos cultural centre in Faliron, also centres around native drought-resistant species and includes olives surrounded by herb gardens. Among the photographs documenting the project is a stunning image of a mature olive tree being lowered into the ground by a crane. The photo is taken from ground level looking up at the descending root ball, which eclipses the sun with a surreal Magritte-like quality (the image can be seen in this video presentation around the 1:06 mark).

Athenians have a close relationship with the fruit trees in their city. On dark winter evenings, it is not uncommon to see lone figures using self-fashioned reaching sticks to pick the oranges, which are known in Greek as nerátzia. The bitter variety was chosen by the city authorities specifically to deter picking and eating, but boiled down with sugar it is well-known that their peel makes excellent marmalade and preserves (or “spoon sweets” to use the somewhat inelegant English translation). In November, when the olives ripen, some engage in more open foraging. They come equipped with olive netting, which they lay on the pavement, and sticks, with which they beat the branches to bring the fruit down.

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You will hear a variety of reactions to these urban foraging activities. Some disapprove of them, objecting that the trees are the property of local authorities who pay to prune and maintain them, and that the foragers are in effect free-riding at their fellow taxpayers’ expense. Others thank the pickers for clearing what would otherwise fall and create a skidding hazard and a nuisance on the pavement, muttering that this should also be done by the local authority. Others still, express a degree of pity for those they assume are forced to scavenge for what is considered, in the case of olives, a dietary staple. Finally, many are concerned about the level of pollution in fruit grown at close proximity to traffic; however tests have shown that the soil does not absorb as many toxic pollutants as is often assumed, and that a thorough washing will rid the fruit of any airborne pollution.

Most urban Greeks have very recent roots in the countryside and can look forward to receiving a few tins of oil “from the village”, or even harvesting and pressing their own as part of an autumnal expedition back to their roots (or their holiday home). This link with the countryside and its produce has become even more vital to city dwelling families during the financial crisis. When the average Greek consumes over 12 litres of olive oil each year, access to “free” oil not only saves money but in most cases improves the quality of food on the table. For this reason, the urban olives probably haven’t been exploited as much as they perhaps could be, and it still takes a degree of audacity to shake down the neighbourhood trees.

The reality of urban foraging is probably more varied. The author has certainly partaken in a spot of recreational olive picking and curing in the local park (despite finding the actual taste of olives revolting, I am assured that the result was far superior to what you can buy in most northern European delis). Most urban olive-pickers are lone operators, picking from a single tree, but we have on occasion seen groups of men with pickup trucks gathering sacks of olives from trees in the university campus, presumably to put to more commercial use, perhaps at an out-of-town olive press.

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“Boutique hand picked, home cured, single estate olives” from the local park.

In recent years, the pressure created by the financial crisis and the rise of interest in volunteering activities has inspired a couple of local authorities to get creative and put the neglected resources in their ownership to good use. The municipality of Glyfada in the southern suburbs has been harvesting the olives from its trees for the past three years. In 2015 it produced 800 litres of good quality olive oil in conjunction with an educational initiative in local schools. Aghia Parakevi in the north of Athens called on local volunteers to participate in its harvest, and the oil produced was used in the municipal soup kitchen.

Athena’s gift to the city keeps on giving.

 


IMAGES: urban olive tree in fruit, photo by Koutofrangos; 1,500 year old olive tree transplanted to central Athens by ERGOSE S.A., photo via kathimerini.gr; urban olive-picking, photo by Koutofrangos; our modest olive harvest, in preparation for curing in brine, photo by Koutofrangos.

Stories about the Olive, part II: the urban olive

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

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

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

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

Photo by koutofrangos. All rights reserved.

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

Freddo or frappé? Boom or bust?

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You would not want to be on the streets of Athens this last week, as the first heatwave of the summer reflected off the concrete and made the air thick and still.

Seeking relief from the heat, anyone visiting Athens during this summer of unabated crisis will doubtless have encountered the Greek national obsession with iced coffee. For someone weaned on Starbucks and other multinational coffee chains’ iced beverage offerings, there would seem to be nothing terribly interesting or controversial about choosing between a frappé and a freddo. The unsuspecting visitor may not realise that in making their choice they are – arguably – re-enacting the same fateful decisions that have led Greece down the path to fiscal ruin and social disjuncture. But I get ahead of myself.

The ubiquitous frappé (Φραπές, o, masculine), notwithstanding its foreign name, bears no relation or resemblance to any French beverage. Also asked for affectionately by its diminutive, φραπεδάκι (frapedáki), it is the ultimate quick refreshment borne out the marriage of the space age food technology of the 1950s and prosaic Greek necessity. Instant coffee, usually Nescafé, shaken with water and tooth-aching amounts of sugar over ice until frothy, then poured over more ice into a glass, is a standard ritual of Greeks during warmer months. A variation is to add NouNou (Greek tinned evaporated or condensed milk) to make a white version. While it can be made at home, it is traditionally enjoyed seated at a shaded outdoor table at a kafeneio. It is a simple pleasure. By its nature, there is no coffee snobbery implicated in this beverage. We are, after all, talking about instant coffee, tinned milk and sugar. A frappé is the polar opposite of a ‘prestige’ food item or a luxury. Or rather: it is an affordable luxury that can be enjoyed by worker and oligarch alike.

However since the turn of the Millennium, and coincidentally the arrival of the Euro, a new drink, or rather drinks, have found favour in the cafes lining parks throughout the city’s neighbourhoods, namely the ‘freddo’ and its manufactured commercial cousin, the ‘freddoccino’. Like the frappe, the name is foreign – it simply means ‘cold’ in Italian. Iced coffee, or more accurately cold coffee, is not unknown in Italy, although hardly common. However the Italian version of a caffé freddo is simply that: cold coffee served black or with milk in a glass, without any diluting ice. The Greek invention known as a freddo is much closer to any number of calorific Starbucks creations than to anything an actual Italian would consume. It is made with freshly brewed espresso, to which may be added milk, sugar and even vanilla ice cream, whipped together into a milkshake-like beverage. A garage mechanic can make a frappe. For a freddo, you need a barista.

When the freddo was born, the public’s optimism and self-image were at a peak. The Olympics were just around the corner, the Greek national football (soccer) team won the European cup. New banks opened and credit flowed. Cafes became stylish venues, exotic sports cars were to be seen on the streets and there was a feeling that appeared to emerge almost overnight of Greece having gained admission to a rather smart and exclusive club. It was seated at the big table with the grown-ups.

And so began the decline in popularity of the simple pleasure of the frappé. Greeks became consumers and connoisseurs; wine bars appeared and gourmet restaurants serving trendy foreign dishes of the moment opened with startling regularity. Lifestyle “lads’ mags” like the now-defunct Nitro had pages filled with watches, cars, motorcycles, the latest mobile phones and all sundry expensive toys for the status-obsessed male consumer. Television was lined from morning ‘til night with chat show clones, long sofas populated by vapid clothes-obsessed C-listers, debating for hours the dress / hair / handbag choices of their B-list superiors, with a final credit roll that name checked every designer shop in Athens. No self-respecting ambitious Greek went to the kafeneio and ordered a frappé unless you were poor, or old, or possibly both. You now had to have an opinion about coffee, and accordingly pay more dearly for it. Espresso over ice it must be. With a foreign name.

And yet the frappe endures, a pleasure accessible to nearly all, distinctly Greek, imitative of nothing. Borne out of necessity, it remains a reassuring ritual of summer. Perhaps a return to a ‘frappé mentality’ lies at the core of any future path forward out of the country’s troubles: ingenuity, frugality, creativity, and an appreciation for singularly Greek qualities and pleasures, rather than a backwards-looking obsession with status and respect for wounded pride, whether real or imagined.

Photo by koutofrangos. All rights reserved.

Freddo or frappé? Boom or bust?