Alternative brain drain, alternative science

Rojava

EXARCHIA, 6 June 2017. Reports from Athens suggest that a new “brain drain” is threatening wide-ranging and unanticipated consequences across the fabric of Greek society. While the first groups to emigrate from the crisis-stricken country were highly educated young professionals such as doctors and engineers in search of jobs overseas, the latest sector to be struck by a “brain drain” is the “anarchist” movement. Familiar to followers of the Greek crisis from iconic news footage of riots and urban graffiti, the self-organised anti-authoritarian sector has been a fixture of Greek society for decades. But the indications are that its presence can no longer be taken for granted, thanks to the increasing draw of foreign causes.

One recent report profiled a Greek leftist volunteer working in support of the Russian-sponsored “People’s Republic of Donetsk” in eastern Ukraine out of a representative office in the downtown Athenian neighbourhood of Exarchia, an area known as the avaton” or “ghetto” of “Exarchistan” in typically understated Greek media parlance.  Describing the Ukraine government as a “puppet for some parts of the U.S. regime” installed by a NATO-organised coup, he is quoted as saying, “It’s like the Spanish civil war” […]. “We see this struggle as similar to the fight against Franco. Donbass is the Spain of our lifetime.” Another story centred on a series of photos, claiming to feature an armed “Greek contingent” of anarchists fighting alongside the Kurdish militias against ISIS in a location identified from artlessly spray-painted graffiti as Rojava, near the Syrian-Turkish border. Such tales of Greek “anarchists” leaving the country to fight for foreign causes are beginning to stir fears of an “anarchist brain drain” among experts in Athens and beyond.

The potential impact of an anarchist brain drain could be far-reaching. As recently as last month, the New York Times reported that such was the failure of the Greek welfare state, that citizens had become reliant on dreadlocked and tattooed anarchist volunteers to plug the gaps in healthcare, education and migration policy. Many now fear that the latest wave of emigration will cripple this nascent social care system.

Among those concerned are, somewhat surprisingly, the drivers of Athens’s ageing bus fleet, who are becoming increasingly worried about the potential health effects of radiation from new “telematics” systems installed to track bus movements in real time. The bus drivers are alarmed at the potential effects of new technologies being deployed on buses, also including contact-free ticketing systems, with a number are already complaining of headaches and dizziness. “These machines are dangerous, they give off invisible radiation, I heard that they can give you cancer and impotence,” said Mr Makis, a veteran of twenty years driving the streets of downtown Athens, as he drew deeply on a filterless Camel and jammed his mobile phone against his ear to take an urgent call from a colleague regarding a hot betting tip. “Plus, my priest says they all have a 666 in their serial number, so you can draw your own conclusions from that.”

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DIY instructions for sabotaging contactless ticket scanner (unverified, https://twitter.com/Conclavios/status/830858596846018560

Until now, drivers could rely on the self-appointed guardians of the public interest in the loosely-termed anarchist community to dismantle or deactivate the offending equipment – but with their numbers dwindling, bus drivers fear for their health and their future. “Yes, they burn the occasional bus as well, but they’re good kids, they’re on our side,” nods Mr Makis.

However, as is often the case in Greece, necessity has given birth to invention, and new initiatives are springing up which promise to counteract this latest blow to the crisis-hit population. One of the more ambitious schemes involves the establishment of an Alternative Science Research Centre. Professor Charalambos Psekasmenos, the centre’s founder, says that the threat posed by radioactive tracking devices will be one of their first research priorities. “We already have a prototype shielding device for the cranial area involving ultra-thin sheets of aluminium, but the details are too top secret to disclose.”

Also on the cards is a climate research centre aimed at rebutting the “fake news” that is being disseminated by “mainstream science” relating to the myth of anthropogenic climate change. “We hope to get a grant from the corporate social responsibility budget of the power unions, who take a very enlightened view on this subject, and then apply for matching funding from the centre of Climate Excellence at Trump University,” reveals Psekasmenos.  A recent press release by Greece’s public sector power workers’ union pondered whether “Perhaps the US’s recent departure from the Paris Accord lifts the lid on the ‘fabrication’ known as ‘climate change’?” The research centre will definitely not be concerning itself with any shade of gender studies, as it is well known among “experts” that this is just a means of “experimentating on children’s souls” as a means of  “enslavement to foreign interests” and “illuminati bankers,” that must be resisted at all costs.

“In every crisis there is opportunity,” comments Professor Psekasmenos. “We Greeks are an ingenious race.”


THE USUAL DISCLAIMER: All links are 100% genuine Greek news stories from the last two weeks, strung together with an only slightly exaggerated tissue of fabrication.

MAIN IMAGE: Eleftheros Typos

Alternative brain drain, alternative science

Feeding the invisible refugees

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Over a million refugees and migrants passed through Greece since 2015 using the sea route from western Turkey; around 62,000 remain stranded in the country at the time of writing. We are all familiar with the portrayal of the humanitarian crisis in the international media, but certain aspects of the story have been overshadowed by the deluge of arresting images.

Now that the dust is settling, some high-quality investigative reporting is beginning shine a light on some of the grubbier corners of the refugee crisis in Greece. A picture is gradually emerging of how institutional inadequacy and lack of accountability combined with a toxic mix of political opportunism and petty corruption to exacerbate the suffering of the refugees, while allowing those responsible (international agencies and NGOs, Greek politicians and government agencies, private contractors and the worst elements in the European and global leadership) to shun their responsibilities and in some cases even benefit from the situation. Clues to this story have been reported as they emerge – mainly by small, independent media sources, freelancers and bloggers on the ground in Greece, primarily in Greek, but occasionally also in English or German (in this respect I would single out the blogs of Apostolis Fotiadis and Fotini Rantsiou for providing well-informed and even-handed coverage). In the first major departure from the human interest-focussed reporting, a meticulously researched long read, The Refugee Archipelago, was recently published by News Deeply – a relatively young, independent media organisation. The article presented a long catalogue of well-substantiated failings underlying what the authors called “the most expensive humanitarian response in history”. It is well worth reading in full.

But the devil is often in the detail. More recently, an investigative report was published by the Greek online magazine insidestory.gr, focussing in forensic detail on just one of the areas plagued by mismanagement: the procurement of catering services for government-run refugee camps. Hidden in plain sight, in the virtual forest of public service contracts and ministry statistics, they uncover some suspicious discrepancies. I have translated the article here in full, with the permission of the publishers (the original is in Greek and requires a subscription).

“Feeding the Invisible Refugees”

by Stavros Malichoudis (first published 20 March 2017).

“I thank the Greeks, because every day the bring us something to eat. We eat from them, not from the company.”

Farez is a refugee from Syria. In the hosting facility of LM Village in Myrsini in the district of Ilia in the Peloponnese, where was when staying he said these words, he was known as “the Wise Man.” Food for the camp was provided, as it still is, by a company called Korinthian Palace. According to Farez, his large family cost the Greek state over €60 a day. “When we get the food, I am sure that it is not worth more than €15. They cook once a week for the whole week, it is unacceptable. The first four months they never gave us vegetables once. I imagine that Greek families do eat vegetables, as they are cheap,” he said, adding that the food ended up in the rubbish.

Many like Farez have complained periodically to the local authority, to volunteers and to NGOs about the quality of the food. Direct responsibility for catering lies with the Greek Armed Forces. This is where the problems begin, and they are not limited to the flavour of the food. Let’s take things from the beginning.

Prices and conditions

With refugee camps across the country under the responsibility of the Greek authorities, the responsibility for procuring catering services has been assigned to the Armed Forces, as set out in laws 4368/2016 and 4412/2016. The budget for daily catering per head comes to €4.78, which translates to €5.78 after the addition of 24% VAT. 19% of the budget is allocated to breakfast, 39% to lunch and dinner, and 3% to water. The criterion by with the contracts are awarded, after meeting the specified conditions, is the percentage discount on the budgeted price.

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Refugees queue for food at Idomeni in March 2016. Since refugees were moved to organised camps photos have been harder to come by because of restrictions on press access [Daniel Mihailesku/AFP].
Following the outcry which broke out when the specifications were seen to favour large catering companies, the minimum turnover threshold for bidding companies has been reduced, and only the following conditions apply: “The winning bidder can cater to up to 4 camps, totalling 4,300 people in total,” and “interested parties must provide certain quality certificates (ISO, HACCP) with their bid, which are assumed to fulfil the criteria of the tender.”

The case Myrsini camp

“All of Greek society is watching the humanitarian tragedy with the tens of thousands of refugees…,” begins the official document titled “Information dissemination – decision relating to LM Myrsini” issued by the Minicpality of Andravida-Kyllini on the 28th March 2016, which records the decision of the Council of the Municipality of Andravida-Kyllini to support the effort to manage the refugee crisis. As 99% owners with 50% rights of usage of the resort of Myrsini LM Village, the Municipality decided to make available 19 houses for hosting families from Syria. The resort, which is shared with the Municipality of Fyli, is located in a picturesque seafront spot, but had fallen into disuse in recent years and had been subjected to extensive looting. Very soon, the remaining 14 bungalows were also secured, and by the time the refugees arrived by bus a few days later the necessary repairs were already underway.

The unit given the responsibility for managing the facility was 117 Combat Wing of the Greek Air Force, which in turn assigned the catering to a company named Korinthian Palace. This is a particularly active company, not only in Corinth, but across the whole of Greece. Its services include catering for the police force, schools and universities, as well as organising events, receptions and carnival concerts featuring popular artists.

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Korinthian Palace’s 20,000 square metre headquarters and catering venue in Corinth. The company has been active in catering since 2004 [korinthianpalace.gr].

Towards the end of August 2016, a scandal broke out in Serres in the north of Greece, when a Syriza MP revealed that the catering for the local camp had been awarded to a local Syriza party official. Korinthian stepped in to manage the Serres camp on a temporary basis. At the time of writing, it has also been active in two more camps in Attica, to which we will return below.

When the numbers don’t add up

Reading through the catering contracts for LM Village over its one year of operation, one feature stands out: the contracts almost always appear to cover the provision of food for roughly 60 people more than are actually housed in the facility.

Giorgos Angelopoulos, a volunteer coordinator at the Myrsini centre over a period of 12 months, told inside story that the maximum number of individuals hosted in the facility at any one time was 338 people. However, the contact for April 2016 is for 400 people. Even if we were to exclude April from our calculations on the basis that relates to initial period of the camp’s establishment, we should note that the award of the contract published on the 5th July 2016 also relates to 400 people. The price per head, €4.72 before VAT, and €5.85 with VAT, is only a few cents less than the maximum allowance, a fact that can be readily explained, in light of the fact that Korinthian Palace was the sole bidder in this particular tender. Even if we accept that on the 5th July the headcount was 338, the maximum number of people ever hosted at the camp, we have to conclude that the catering company received €292.64 more per day than was necessary, with the Greek armed forces paying €362.70 more a day once VAT is included.

According to our calculations for the month of July, the additional expense for the Greek armed forces runs to €10,881, while the catering company made an additional profit of €8,779. The same number of recipients (400) and the same price (€4.72, or €5.85 including VAT) appear again in the award of the contract on the 31st October 2016.

However, it is the most recent contract which is of special interest to this discussion.

The contract dated 24th February 2017

This time, there were two more bidders in the tender, and Korinthian Palace offers a discount of 28.27%, compared to the 17% discount offered by the runner-up. Korinthian was awarded the contract again, this time for 220 people. On the same day, however, in the press release issued by the National Defence General Staff, only 164 food recipients were recorded (these had been down to 154, and at the time of writing reached 161). In response to our question about how many portions the company must deliver on a daily basis, Korinthian Palace claimed that any information pertaining to their cooperation with the Ministry of Defence was classified, and referred us to the Ministry. However, Giorgos Angelopoulos told us that the number of portions delivered matched the actual number of camp residents, something that is confirmed by the Ministry’s figures.

One could speculate that the additional food portions are provided as a buffer, in case more refugees arrive at the camp. However, those responsible for the camp have assured us that coordination is pretty much seamless, and that although it is possible for more refugees to arrive, this will have been preceded by an equal number of departures. The very small fluctuations in the number of food recipients reported by the National Defence General Staff appear to confirm this.

Another interpretation we might consider is that the number of food portions in the contract is indicative, and that the actual number on any given day is smaller. Again, though, there is no clause in the contract, as there is in other instances (for example the catering contract for the Philippiada camp), to the effect that portions may fluctuate daily at the discretion of the contracting party.

In any event, Korinthian Palace’s response to our enquiry about the discrepancy between the number of actual refugees and the number of food portions paid for was that “we are obliged to follow the terms of each contract to the letter,” while stressing that they were not responsible for the issue raised.

The two camps in Attica

Here, we will limit ourselves to the most recent contracts. On 7 March 2017, a contract was awarded to Korinthian Palace to provide “catering for 150 asylum seekers and vulnerable third country nationals” at the camp in Rafina. The National Defence General Staff press releases for the 3rd March and the 10th March respectively count 120 people. No big deal, someone might say; counting 30 people extra, at €4.80 each per day, represents a loss of only €144 a day.

However, in an official Air Force document dated the 3rd March 2017, we find the award of a catering contract for the camp of Aghios Andreas in Nea Makri. This contract is for feeding 200 refugees, and it was won by Korinthian Palace, who offered the greatest discount. On the same day, the National Defence General Staff press release records 109 food recipients, as it does again the following week on the 10th March.

We would be concerned with the loss of public funds from feeding 100-odd «invisible» people at a cost of €3.73 per head daily. However, Korinthian Palace’s response to our enquiry is even more intriguing. It states that “for some months now, our company is not responsible for the catering at the Aghios Andreas camp in Nea Makri, Attica.” As a reminder, the last contract was awarded on 3 March, just a few days earlier.

So now that we have “warmed up”, let us consider a case where the sums are much larger.

A(nother) Corinthian catering firm goes north

The situation with refugee catering in Ioannina has several parallels with the examples we have already covered, not least because the refugees there have complained vocally about (among other things) the quality of the catering.

Five refugee hosting facilities have functioned up to the present time in the Ioannina district, located at Doliana, Katsika, Filippiada, Tsepelovo and Konitsa. One of the companies that has been active in this area is Pietris Estiasi AE. Like Korinthian Palace, this company is also based in Corinth and, like its neighbour, it boasts an impressive client list including public institutions and large corporations. There is also a local catering company covering the Ioannina region, called Anostro.

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The Pietris group headquarters in Corinth [pietris.gr].
In June 2016, Pietris lodged an appeal against the 8th Mechanised Infantry Brigade, which is handling the procurement of catering services for a total of 1,700 at Doliana, Katsika and Tsepelovo camps. It succeeded in extending the bidding deadline by two days, allowing the company to participate in the tender. Petris eventually secured the contract for feeding the refugees at a price of €4.68 per person, including VAT.

Exactly one month later, on the 6th July, another appeal by Pietris was rejected as lacking merit. The catering for the refugees at Doliana and Katsikas, now counting 1,450, was awarded to Anostro. Their price per head is €4.51. At the beginning of September, Pietris was again awarded a contract for feeding 1,700 refugees for 30 days at a price of €4.86 including VAT.

However, when the weather turned cold, the two companies came closer.

When competitors collude

In the contract award dated 4th November 2016, Pietris and Anostro appear to have submitted a joint bid as a consortium. They were awarded a contract to cater for 1,300 people in Doliana, Katsikas and Tsepelovo at €4.72 before VAT (i.e. just 6 cents below the maximum).

On the 9th December, and again on the 28th December, the same consortium was once again awarded the contract to feed 600 refugees at Doliana and Katsikas for €4.73 per head before VAT – a discount of 5 cents.

The most interesting aspect of the December contracts is that during this time, one of the two camps, the one at Katsikas, had been closed. As confirmed to inside story by Stella Nanou, a spokesperson for the UNHCR, the last 166 refugees left Katsikas at the end of December. Ms Nanou added that the refugees had been relocated to hotels in Konitsa, Patra and Grevena, and, as is common practice in such instances, the responsibility for catering was assigned to the hotels. The hotels have the option of providing their own catering, where the facilities exist, or sub-contracting it.

From the 5th January until the time of writing, according to the press releases from the National Defence General Staff, the number of food recipients at Katsikas was zero, while the portions at Doliana numbered 138 at the start of the period and 118 today. However, catering contracts continued to be awarded for 600 or 550 portions, as we shall see below.

The refugees move on, the contracts continue

Specifically, on the 27th January, a contract was awarded for feeding 600 refugees at the camps of Doliana and Katsika to the Pietris-Anostro consortium at a minimal discount (€4.73 before VAT, compared to €4.78) for 29 days. The same day, the press release from the National Defence General Staff reported 138 food recipients at Doliana and none at Katsikas.

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Volunteers and NGO members prepare food at Katsikas camp in May 2016 [Violeta Palazon/CITIZENSIDE].

On the 24th February, with Katsikas remaining closed, and Doliana feeding just 118 refugees according to the National Defence General Staff, the two companies were awarded a contract to cater for 550 refugees at the same price and for 30 days in March. We contacted the 8th Mechanised Infantry Brigade officer responsible for catering at the two camps for comment, but were no further explanation, other than a statement that “there may be more arrivals.” The number of portions in the last few weeks has remained steadily at 118. We contacted several departments National Defence General Staff for comment, each of which referred us to another department.

If 432 “invisible” refugees were fed daily, then the additional revenue for the Pietris-Anostro consortium would amount to €2,043 on a daily basis, which translates into €61,201 for March alone, for which the army paid €76,013 extra in total, including VAT. We did not receive a response to our enquiries regarding the number of food portions from Anostro. On re-contacting the 8th Mechanised Infantry Brigade, we were informed that our questions had been referred to Pietris, however we never received a response from the company.

Meanwhile, back in Myrsini…

A senior aid official recently stated in an interview that “$70 out of every $100 that have been spent [on the humanitarian effort in Greece] have been wasted.” LM Village, which has been described as an exemplar of hospitality, operates without any financial assistance to the local authority and without the benefit of any of the thousands hired through the civil service.

It is able to function thanks to “filotimo”: the human decency of the unpaid coordinator, Giorgos Angelopoulos, the mayor and his wife who assist as doctors, the local Medical Association, the Red Cross, Médecins du Monde, the local community, local and foreign volunteers, grass roots organisations such as Pyrna, who donated equipment so that Farez and his fellow refugees can cook their own food.

At the end of October, an 18-month-old toddler lost its life in the village, having escaped war only to drown in a swimming pool full of rainwater. Then, as now, there is no security, which may have been able to prevent this, as there is no interpreter or permanent medical unit.

We can only draw one conclusion: when it comes to the invisible refugees, the money exists; but there is none to cover the real and persistent needs of the rest. It goes without saying that the camps which we focused on are not the only ones where money is wasted with nothing to show for it in return. It also goes without saying that it would not exactly require a Sisyphean effort to improve the management of funds, so many months down the line. Sometimes, administrative “errors” have a cost, which can even be measured in human lives.

 

MAIN IMAGE: A volunteer prepares food for 157 refugees in April 2016 [Louise Gouliamaki/AFP].


At the time of writing, this blog has no connection to inside story other than a friendly rapport.

If you found this story interesting and would like more English-language investigative reporting on Greece from insidestory.gr, let them know directly at @insidestory_gr on Twitter, via their Facebook page or email hello@insidestory.gr.

Feeding the invisible refugees

Your meta-post-truth 2016

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The year 2016 was so “post-” (or “meta-“, to insist on the Greek) that it is closing quite literally with the very last Last Christmas*. As an end-of-year salute we proudly present the 10 most read blog posts of 2016 on Dateline: Atlantis, recalling some of its weirdest moments from a Greek perspective.

#10: In April we eavesdropped on the IMF in Athens: 7 takeaways from that Wikileaks IMF transcript

#9: In March we read the media images of refugees in Greece: This is not a refugee camp

#8: In February we compiled some choice quotes by Greek politicians on the refugee crisis: My big fat Greek refugee crisis quiz

#7: On April 1st we advertised the cruise from hell (and my own personal favourite): Live your (urban) myth in Greece

#6: In December we secretly transcribed the congratulatory call between Alexis Tsipras and PEOTUS Donald Trump – an in our post-truth world some readers believed us: You’re hired.

#5: In April we got a crash course on contemporary Greek culture by watching an Easter toy shop ad: Jumbo nation

#4: In May we looked back on the material culture of the Greek beach bar from the distant future: “Our piece of Paradise”: Patterns of human activity in coastal zones of the Aegean basin in the Middle Anthropocene (late 2nd-early 3rd millennium AD)

#3: In February we got frustrated with the Greek culture of victimhood and its naÏve foreign enablers: The good, the bad and the ugly – travels in Greek hyperreality

#2: In April a papal visit prompted us to issue a brief explainer on the Orthodox-Catholic schism for beginners: Get your Schism on!

#1: In April, a grisly find prompted some timely ruminations on the perils of democracy: Fear and loathing in Athens

Now gird your loins and sharpen your wits for 2017. Rumour has it that Pangloss and Polyanna are preparing to co-author a coping guide (foreword by F. Fukuyama). It must be true, ’cause I read it on Facebook.


* One suspects quite the opposite.

IMAGE: Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, right panel, detail (painted between 1490-1510).

Your meta-post-truth 2016

SPOILER ALERT: CIA behind anti-austerity riots in Greece, or worse?

Video footage has emerged on the internet which appears to show covert operations carried out by the CIA in Greece during an anti-austerity protest, thought to have taken place around 2011. Its release has caused uproar in Greece, where it is seen as confirming long-held suspicions that interference by the US has been behind key events in the country not only in recent years, but throughout the postwar era.

The video shows a man who appears to be covert operative inciting riots during a peaceful demonstration outside the Greek parliament. In one scene, the man is seen to take a petrol bomb from a masked rioter and smash it on the ground in front of police. He is later seen wielding a gun in the midst of the protest, before stealing a police motorbike to make his getaway with a female accomplice. In separate scenes which appear to be unfolding simultaneously, the footage appears to show evidence of an extensive CIA surveillance operation using facial recognition technology to identify individuals in the crowd from a darkened “situation room” in an unidentified location, thought to be CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Finally, a separate video has emerged which appears to show the same alleged operative entering a Metro station in Athens for unknown purposes.

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Still frames from recently released video footage appearing to show an armed CIA operative infiltrating an anti-austerity protest in Athens which turned violent.

“This is classic CIA provokátsia,” nodded taxi driver and self-described “independent thinker” Sophocles as he reviewed the footage on his smartphone. “Their agents infiltrate our legitimate homegrown protesters who are marching peacefully with just a few petrol bombs for self-defence, and manufacture chaos to destabilise the government and scare away the tourists.” He also pointed to the video as evidence of blanket surveillance by US agencies. “I always knew that white box on the top of the US Embassy is a listening device. And I’ll tell you something else, they are not just watching us, they are reading our minds and giving us cancer,” he nodded emphatically as he flicked his filterless Camel out of the cab window.

More sceptical observers have dismissed this interpretation as hopelessly naïve, arguing that there is clear evidence the video is fake. “C’mon, man, these guys faked the whole moon landing, do you think they would stop at this?” chuckled Nondas, a retired long-distance lorry driver. Skeptics like Nondas point to apparent discrepancies in the footage. “OK, so he’s riding a bike without a helmet. That looks convincing enough for downtown Athens. But look at this photo where the guy is supposedly getting on the Metro – that totally screams fake.” “First of all there are no strikes, and secondly (he points to the foreground of the photo) there are ticket barriers. Ticket barriers. These are rookie errors, my friend, this is clearly NOT Athens. Only a total idiot would fall for this. Wake up, sheeple!”

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Still frame from a video which appears to show a CIA operative entering the Athens Metro. In the foreground, the ticket barriers which give it away as a fake.

In recent years, the US and its secret services appeared to have ceded their position as #1 coup orchestrators in the Greek imagination to the Troika of the country’s creditors. As one prominent Greek left-wing critic described it in the midst of the heated bailout negotiations last summer, “The situation is reminiscent of Chile in the early 1970s when U.S. President Richard Nixon decided to overthrow Salvador Allende to prevent spillover effects elsewhere in America’s backyard. ‘Make the economy scream,’ was the order the U.S. President gave the CIA and other intelligence services, before the tanks of general Augusto Pinochet entered into action.” This latest revival shows that, like a first adolescent love, the Cold War-era CIA is never too far from the Greek conspiracy theorist’s fertile mind.

A more prosaic explanation circulated in the mainstream media, namely that this latest “evidence” is in fact a trailer for a summer blockbuster, set in Athens but filmed in Tenerife and Woolwich, left experts undeterred: “Why would they not film in our beautiful country but instead chose a pale facsimile? How else can it be explained?” asked Orestes, a political science student, pausing to polish his iPhone screen on his rakishly draped keffyieh-style scarf before answering his own question. “This is clearly a conspiracy of the Hollywood establishment, which everyone knows is nothing but the propaganda factory of the CIA and a cover for spying, just like in that film with Ben Affleck in Iran. Also, they resent us because we refuse to debase ourselves with tax incentives and filming permits so that they can make their filthy commercial disinformation. Greece will not become a sweatshop of the Zionist-capitalist-imperialist running dogs of…” he stopped himself, seemingly unnerved by something on his screen. “Sh*t, man, did you see that Pokémon? Over there, by McDonalds! Got it!”

Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama has explicitly denied any US involvement in attempted coups in the region, and the world breathed a sigh of relief as democracy triumphed. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump stated that, “I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country”.

In Moscow, the presumptive puppetmaster watched the latest developments on the US presidential elections and congratulated himself on ushering in the new era of “democratic” tradecraft. “Good boy, Julian,” he murmured as he stroked his newest acquisition, an Australian white-haired cat curled up in his lap, and dropped a Garry Kasparov lookalike into the foaming tank of cyber-trolls. Democracy, it would appear, is safe.

[The full 123 minutes of US-sponsored disinformation will be on general release in most of the world in the last week of July 2016. Orestes and and his posse will have the added thrill of sticking it to The Man by viewing pirated copies in advance of its Greek release date on 1 September].

Images: Universal Pictures, Woolwich (Community Page).

SPOILER ALERT: CIA behind anti-austerity riots in Greece, or worse?

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

Yesterday’s news today: a parrot’s digest of Greek headlines we’ve seen before

With an eventful few weeks at the opposite corner of the continent (and now closer to home), there has been a certain comfort in returning to slow news days in Greece. So much so, that Aunt Cassandra thought for a moment that she had mistakenly picked up a newspaper from several years ago, before remembering that her magnificent Amazonian Parrot, Orfeas, unfailingly gets a fresh cage lining of yesterday’s news before it has time to linger. In fact, even Orfeas has noticed that over the years certain headlines in the paper reappear with unfailing regularity. Orfeas thinks his own species’ reputation for repetition is grossly overstated. His own nuanced rendition of the “Vissi d’arte” aria from Tosca has been deemed “better than Callas” by the most demanding members of AC’s opera circle, while his deft impression of an angry Rottweiler is the envy of AC’s security-obsessed friends. But, ever the good sport, he was able with a ruffle of his feathers and a few theatrical hops around his cage to help us compile a whole newspaper out of the repeat clippings. And here it is, yesterday’s news today, for tomorrow’s prescient reader.

PERSONAL FINANCE

Minister warns: “Absolutely no extensions to tax filing deadline.” By now even the most isolated tribes in the depths of the Orfeas’s ancestral rainforest know that the Greek state faces enormous challenges collecting tax – though not quite as enormous as is sometimes portrayed. Filing deadline extensions are a regular summer sport, and hard pronouncements such as this are only made to be broken. With the cosmic cyclicality of druids gathering for the summer solstice, tardy taxpayers watch the news to see how far they can push it against the deadline (or indeed, whether they need to bother at all if it happens to be an election year). This year’s deadline has already been extended once. Last summer Orfeas counted three extensions without even trying, taking the original deadline of the end of June to the end of August. Because capital controls, you might protest? No. Because. Every. Year. And if it isn’t planned, it is virtually guaranteed that the state-of-the-art-circa-1995 electronic filing system Taxis will collapse under the weight of last-minute submissions, requiring (you guessed it) a filing extension.

CULTURE

Temporary_Elgin_Room_at_the_Museum_in_1819

“New initiative sparks hopes of return of Parthenon Marbles to Greece.” Ever since the Ambassador Lord Elgin returned to Blighty with a particularly ostentatious collection of souvenirs in his luggage, the campaign to repatriate “the marbles” has been ongoing, simultaneously delivering a steady supply of mental illness-related gags in the Anglophone media, even among those who should know better (Stephen Fry: “It’s time we lost our marbles”). This time, a group of backbench MPs in the British Parliament is supporting an initiative to return the sculptures on the 200th anniversary of the Act of Parliament which granted them to the British Museum. Less than two years ago, it was the photogenic and recently wed Amal Clooney to the rescue, channeling Jackie O and figureheading a legal team invited by then PM Antonis Samaras to advise the Greek government on the matter. Every so often a new initiative arises, taking patriotic Greeks and philhellenes on an emotional rollercoaster, only to have their hopes dashed once again against the intransigence of the British government. In this case, one senses the initiative is particularly poorly timed. Unless, that is, the sculptures can be worked into some kind of Machiavellian EU hostage exchange deal.

JUSTICE

xeiropedes

“Corruption trial postponed indefinitely.” Oh, how we punch the air whenever an arrest is made in an anti-corruption investigation! Finally, someone will be brought to justice for the mess the country is in! We look forward with barely concealed schadenfreude to seeing the erstwhile politician/businessman/big lawyer lamogio do the “perp walk” to the police van with only a limp overcoat to cover their handcuffs. And if that counted as justice, we would be sitting pretty. However in Greece actual justice in the formal sense is closely synonymous with “the tall grass”, as we have had cause to relate previously. This week, two trials relating to the Siemens scandal have been (yes) postponed indefinitely: one, because foreign defendants were not provided with timely translations of the charges; the other, because the presiding judge passed away and there is no provision to replace him. High profile cases like the Golden Dawn trial are not immune to this affliction either. Another measure of the speed of Greek justice is provided by the recently reported final ruling by Greece’s Supreme Administrative Court, ordering the Greek state to pay € 700,000 compensation for two city buses burned by rioters. The events in question took place in 1996-7.

SOCIETY

Muslims living in Greece perform Eid al-Fitr morning prayers in Athens

“Greece one step closer to its first licensed mosque.” Take a classic NIMBY issue and add the involvement of the Orthodox Church, and you have a formula for legal appeals to infinity. The building of the first modern mosque was first planned in 1880. In more recent times it was approved by Parliament in 2000, and again in 2006 and 2011, and close to €1 million in funds have been earmarked for it for some time. A variant of this headline can be generated simply by replacing “mosque” with crematorium. We won’t hold our breath.

POLITICS

vote

“Governing party proposes change to electoral system.” Greece’s electoral system is not spelled out in the country’s Constitution. As a result, it is rare for two consecutive elections to be held under the exact same system, as governing parties with enough parliamentary support have the ability to bring legislation that tailors the system for the next round of elections in their favour. The current system awards the first party a generous 50-seat bonus in the 300-seat parliament. The new proposal put forward by Syriza aims to change this to proportional representation, which is presented as a long-standing commitment of the Left. Last time a similar system was proposed in 1989 it was rejected by, er, the parties of the Left. Passing it this time would depend on the support of Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn.

ENTERTAINMENT

Scorpions

“Scorpions live in Athens!” The nation’s favourite superannuated German hair band, this time back as part of their 50th anniversary tour (has it really been ONLY 50 years?). Crisis or no crisis, and no matter how many Hitler moustaches are painted on Angela Merkel, or Nazi armbands photoshopped on Wolfgang Schäuble, there is a certain portion of the Greek public who will not fail to pack out a venue to hold a cigarette lighter aloft to “Wind of Change”. Rock on, ja!

TRAVEL

nauagio

“Greek beach ranked among top 25 in the world.” Rankings on Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor are great for our national morale, because we can all take credit for a natural wonder that foreigners acknowledge as superior. Though I suppose some credit is due for not allowing an unlicensed construction of some description to be slapped on it.

BONUS GIFT

Amazon-Parrot

… and of course, just like the old days, the paper comes with a free CD courtesy of Orfeas himself: “Viiisiii d’ar-te, viiisiii d’amooo-re…”

 

Yesterday’s news today: a parrot’s digest of Greek headlines we’ve seen before

Jumbo nation*

This year’s most talked-about ad on Greek TV offers a crash course on modern Greek culture in the crisis years. It’s an Easter ad for a toy store that is totally unsuitable for kids.

Easter is the Greek family holiday. Most Greeks use the time to revisit their “roots” in their chorió (χωριό, their ancestral village) and engage in traditional activities. It may be the one time a year they go to church, for the candle-lit procession of the Epitáfios (Επιτάφιος) on Good Friday and the Anástasi (Ανάσταση, the mass of the Resurrection) on Holy Saturday. At midnight they will light their candles with the Holy Light which has been flown in from Jerusalem with the diplomatic honours of a head of state, engage in the semi-competitive sport of bumping red-dyed hard-boiled Easter eggs, and eat mageirítsa (μαγειρίτσα), the traditional offal soup served after the service. On Easter Sunday, they will bicker with their extended family over how to roast the whole lamb or kid on the spit, and the kokoretsi (κοκορέτσι), the offal skewer (yes, more offal), remember the few steps of traditional dancing that they know, bicker some more, and heave a sigh of relief when it’s time to go home again. It’s like American Thanksgiving – but with offal.

These are things you need to know to appreciate the Jumbo ad.

The ad starts with two women sharing the Holy Light, their candles equipped with a protective cup bearing the instantly recognisable logo of Jumbo, Greece’s biggest chain of toy stores. One of the women’s eyes widen as she recognises Angela Demetriou, high priestess of the Greek laïkó popular music scene. Angela is modestly dressed, in black glitter with a flatteringly high neckline (she is now in her 60s), the up-lighting from the candle illuminating her impeccably made-up and botoxed face to best effect, like a camp Mary Magdalen at the wake, a cut-price Angelica Huston at the wedding scene in Prizzi’s Honor. The Anástasi, normally a cheerful occasion where people light one another’s candles and bump eggs while dodging illicit firecrackers, is like a funeral procession for Angela. Pathetic fallacy. She sings in her best 60-a-day voice to the tune of her breakthrough hit “Ποια Θυσία” (“What Sacrifice?”), bitterly addressing her absent man who has gone to spend Easter in the chorió with the other woman, bumping their Easter eggs (oo-er) dyed with a recipe stolen from her, while she is alone with not so much as a shred of crackling from the Easter lamb for consolation. Through the windows we see happy families gathering around the steaming offal, but Angela walks alone. Fans in the congregation shower her with flowers, as they would in a nightclub. All of a sudden she is confronted by a (much younger) man dressed in his best suit. “You?!”. He offers her an egg. With a flash of a knuckle duster emblazoned “Lady” (her nickname – because she’s classy, geddit?) she takes the egg and offers it for bumping. She looks him defiantly in the eye. Then comes her punchline:

“Hit. Hit like a man”.

Unsurprisingly, equality organisations are calling for the ad to be withdrawn on the grounds that it promotes gender stereotypes and incites violence against women; others just don’t find it funny. It will certainly encourage hyperactive 6-year-olds to parrot the punchline until they’re blue in the face while pulverising hard boiled eggs (and one another) and trampling eggshells into granny’s carpet. In that respect it’s more likely to incite corporal punishment of minors, which is also an offence.

Angela herself is not a woman one would consider hitting, “like a man” or otherwise, without expecting to suffer consequences. She claims to have been the victim of domestic violence when she was younger – “Yes, there was a man who abused me, and he regretted it bitterly… A man who lifts his hand against a woman is not a real man.” In 2010 she was arrested at the nightclub where she was performing over debts arising from number of bounced cheques; it later emerged that a shady associate in the protection business (the “godfathers of the night” – νονοί της νύχτας – as the media like to call them) pulled strings with the police to speed up her release. With friends like these looking after here interests, you definitely wouldn’t want to lift a finger against Angela.

Angela herself is a colourful character, sincerely adored by some and ironically appreciated by others. Her art form is low culture – if rembétiko (ρεμπέτικο) is the Greek blues, Angela’s laïkó (λαϊκό) combines the down-home redneck values of country music with the arriviste in-your-face bling of hip hop – and its gender roles are similarly ossified. Men are macho, if broken-hearted; women are feminine but hardened by a lifetime of no-good two-timing scumbags. The economics of the laïkó (commonly referred to as bouzoukia, after the instrument, or skyládiko, dog-song, after its extensive use of melisma) revolve around live music venues of dubious licensing status, which in turn provide a fertile ecosystem within which tax-dodging, money laundering, contraband alcohol sales, organised crime (see above) and a whole host of underground activities thrive. As a result it is increasingly shunned as emblematic of the Greek mindset responsible for the current crisis: big-spending superficiality, anomie and the associated political language of corruption (for further evidence, see our previous post on the organised crime boss who was also immortalised in adland). A perpetual denizen of the tabloids and the gossip shows, it is well-known that Angela herself is not the sharpest tool in the box, once explaining that the black market in pirated CDs is so named “because they’re sold by black people”. A good portion of Greek cyberspace is populated by listicles of her epigrams. A diva, a survivor, a strong woman maybe, a guilty pleasure perhaps, but certainly not a role model.

The ad is for Jumbo, a big box store which specialises in toys. The spot, as you can probably tell by now, is only indirectly aimed at children. Easter is a time for gift-giving in Greece; specifically, children traditionally receive gifts from their godparents (godfathers in the original, more innocent sense). The de minimis gift is a decorated candle for the Anástasi; adults carry plain white, but children’s candles are a vehicle for ritualistic display and conspicuous consumption, more often than not featuring non-religious tokens such as toy trucks (for boys) and flammable Barbie Dolls (for girls). No children’s candles appear in the ad. The spot is cocking a knowing wink at its captive market, the poor beleaguered godparents, who sometime over the coming weeks will have to drag themselves up their own consumerist Golgotha to a toy store in search of a candle that they hope will not be a toxic fire hazard, to fulfil their duty as moral guardian. But whether it’s health and safety or moral tutelage that is your priority, Jumbo is probably the last place you should be looking.

A Greek company, selling cheap (mostly Chinese) imports, Jumbo has been one of the biggest winners of the Greek crisis. No matter how desperate their circumstances, no parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle or godparent wants the children to “go without”, even if it involves compromising on quality. Even the refugee crisis has been a gift to Jumbo, as their shopping bags pile up at donation points, full of cheap toys, nappies and toiletries donated by well-meaning Greeks. Between 2012 and 2014, as Greek households’ purchasing power retreated by 30%, the share price of Jumbo AE on the Athens Stock Exchange (ticker BELA.AT) galloped to a 500% increase and the company had an annual turnover of half a billion Euros. Despite retreating somewhat in the intervening years, it is now almost back at its all-time high.

The “joy industry” (as the founder refers to discount toy retail) has its risks, and in the course of its 48-month vertiginous ascent Jumbo paid €435,ooo in fines for offences ranging from selling unsafe products, anti-competitive selling practices and exploitative employment conditions. In one year alone, the Greek food standards agency ΕΦΕΤ issued the company with fines totalling €30,000. Even as the Easter ad hit the airwaves, ΕΦΕΤ ordered the recall a line of Disney-themed chocolate biscuits from Jumbo’s shelves. For Jumbo, this is just the cost of doing business, as they continue their expansion across the Balkans.

This is just the latest in a series of advertising campaigns for the store chain which have carved out a trashy-ironic niche all of their own. Jumbo ad campaigns are the only ones made for Greek TV that appear to have a real budget, their trashiness is invariably clad in high production values and they fequently feature B- and C-list celebrities, presumably on the run from the tax-man or the debt collectors. The same advertising agency was responsible for the campaign ads for Panos Kammenos’s nationalist Independent Greeks party (ANEL), which ironically featured more children and toys than most Jumbo ads (little Alexis and his train set, little Alexis with his broken left arm) and secured him enough votes to scrape into Parliament and back into coalition with Syriza. “Mr Jumbo” loves it, and is even said to write the lyrics to the accompanying songs himself (all too believable, as they invariably have the hollow ring of the boss’s jokes). Even if this spot gets pulled, it will have achieved its goal through notoriety.

Most commentators (particularly foreign ones) look for the artistic expression of the Greek crisis in the political graffiti and the lyrical street murals of the counter-culture. I sometimes think the Jumbo ads say so much more about who we are and how we ended up here. A rich, multi-layered trove of contemporary Greek cultural references. But totally unsuitable for children. As are the products that they sell.

*τζάμπα λαός (tzámba meaning free, as in gratis, but by extension worthless, wasted; laós meaning nation, people).

Jumbo nation*