Is Greece at The Tipping Point?

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The very north of Greece might well be ‘The Yardstick’ by which we can measure the reality of living in a significantly indebted nation, whilst they enjoy a severe reality check. All this together with a boringly repetitious ticking off from the EU and the Germans, one wonders how one might characterize a country so often referred to in the past as ‘The basket case of Europe?’ But what is the truth?

The very north of Greece might well be ‘The Yardstick’ by which we can measure the reality of living in a significantly indebted nation, whilst they enjoy a severe reality check. All this together with a boringly repetitious ticking off from the Germans, one wonders how one might characterize a country so often referred to in the past as ‘The basket case of Europe?’ But what is the truth?

Most of the verbiage seems to be coming from the memory sticks of mainly semi-recumbent hacks whose laptops can be seen on the litter strewn desks of their ivory towers, in and about the capitals of the world.

These well distanced reporters – who no doubt think Greece to be about Diogenes, Euripides or even Feta Cheese – generally believe that a country can be described in terms of cartoon clichés from the past, and the sound of smashing plates in some obscure  Holland Park Greek Restaurant.  A country visited more these days – generally for a two week hedonistic piss up in Mykonos – it seems to be turning the corner, according to some Brussels pundits and the Greek leaders themselves. But let us just look at the sequence of events from where I live in Northern Greece.

The pain started over five years ago in Orestiada, the second city of Evros. Evros is the name of the river that separates Greece from Turkey, running south to the Aegean and the north to Bulgaria, where it is called the Maritza. It was where the majority of illegal immigrants arrived – prior to the erection of a fence – but no longer, due to the presence of Frontex police officers. Before then, the Tallibani and many other Asian nationalities, were often seen trudging though the lanes of Evros, looking for help and the occasional handouts.

As you travel south from the Bulgarian border on the E95 towards Orestiada, you can see the city of Edirne on your left hand side across the river, with its many Minarets, Mosques and sprawling City buildings, pink and shining in the sun. It is here that the contrast between the two countries begins, and the story opens up our eyes, away from our media dominated world.

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Sunday in Edirne – or Monday in the Islamic World – is lively and alive with activity everywhere. Amongst the many shops there are mountains of affordable, well designed clothes, stores stuffed with all manner of electrical goods and kitchenware, and so many restaurants, it often seems more like a holiday town. It is where you can eat anything you like, provided of course it is a Kebab!

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By contrast and across the river, Orestiada it is practically dead, with rows of empty shops and very few people about, despite the fact that Sunday is traditionally a big day for the many Greek Orthodox Churches, for people walking the streets and Greek café life in general. Talk here is about the price of logs – we are coming up to Christmas – and the almost doubling in price of heating oil in recent times. The increase in VAT on food stuffs and the attendant hike in prices – generally unreasonably so – has left many unscrupulous food shops with a nice little earner.

It is now at least 1000 Euro or more to fill the oil tank for winter heating, so most people are practically numb with worry. Stuck to the telly, they are served up a diet of political waffle – there are about six Greek TV stations to choose from – from a bunch of talking heads whose only wish is simply to be on the box. With impossible ideas and multiple choice alternatives, little of it makes much sense under the present circumstances, and,  how I wish these self opinionated foolish wind bags would just stop talking! But, aren’t we forgetting something?

The historical philosophy behind the EEC, EC, and finally the EU now seems to have been blotted out by us all  recently, now that it is post Brexit, and everything  appears to be about money, illegal immigration and dodgy economics. Once it was about war, domination, political intrigue and of course our friends, the Germans. However, like the Bulgarians and to some extent the Romanians, the lure of EU money has always been an imperative – along with being in a rather shaky NATO – and this was surely so with Greece in 1981, when they became the 10th member of the European Community.

Since then, the whole ethos of ‘Poor little Greece’ has changed, and up until recently we have seen a cabal of political elite – mostly devoid of shame – who have sucked the Greek banks dry with a look of total innocence that completely baffles even an old warhorse like me!

Asked to define the difference between Bulgarians and Greeks, I was surprised to find more things in common than differences. Finally, it occurred to me that the difference was that Bulgarians wanted to do things, but couldn’t and that Greeks could do things, but didn’t want to!

Maybe it is once more about an old stereotypical bon mot; the one about a Greek who goes into a revolving door last, but managing to come out first! However, this is no longer how Greeks define themselves, because unfortunately the revolving door has become somewhat jammed of late, and it is clear that there isn’t enough WD 40 to go round. So who are the Greeks and how do they see themselves?

Most Greeks would describe themselves as middle class. Even the guys who fix cars have always had a certain swagger about their self image, even more so these days as – for a substantial price – they valiantly keep certain aging vehicles on the road that would otherwise have been scrapped and replaced by a brand new version, care of an easy bank overdraft. But alas, this is no longer so, as Greece is once more a cash economy.

 

England was once described by Napoleon as a nation of shopkeepers – a bit of French humbug even then and something which equally applied to the French themselves – but that is how I would categorize Greece post 1981, because by then they had unquestionably become a nation of small shopkeepers. Aspiring to adopt the mantle of the affluent middle classes and more like Madam Bovary than Angela Merkel, modern Greeks have somehow managed to survive in the past, though a variety of unsubstantiated bank loans and a penchant for overcharging one another.  Subscribing – often with glee – to a form of quasi socialism, they became heavily reliant on this very Greek  concept, of the redistribution of wealth. Although, you might say, what is wrong with that?

Café society is where this aberration can be easily explained. With swathes of café’s in all directions, one wonders how many little cups of espresso are required to pay the burgeoning rents required? That is until you get the bill and then there is an outside chance, that you might fast understand and get the picture!

Greeks work in groups, and in a way there is a little bit of common sense attached to their commercial philosophy – now lost to the crowds of British multinationals littering our English town’s and city high streets – and it is this process that many shop keepers have previously relied on in Greece, for their continued existence. This is how it works!

I buy a coffee from you each day, and you buy your spoons from me. I go to a certain dentist or doctor and they come to your restaurant. I use a particular lawyer and they in turn buy their food from your supermarket. Roughly described as brand loyalty, this has been the backbone of Greek business for years; each supporting the next and so on.

The trouble is that since demand has been severely curtailed, even the friendly Greeks have found it increasingly difficult to stem the tide of commercialism and have been forced to look seriously at discount prices in order to attract more business and this has created a total havoc, amongst the easygoing shopkeepers of Orestiada.

Secondary commercial streets are now gaunt with the dead faces of empty shops, vendors carry less stock and their tills remain silent; especially for those who do not want to change with the times. Even the simplest request is answered by the edict ‘I will have to order that from Athens,’ or as in the Monty Python’s Cheese shop sketch, ‘we don’t get much call for that around here.’ How did it happen?

Most of the blame quite rightly sits on the shoulders of successive Greek Governments, who have systematically overburdened the public sector with totally unnecessary manpower. With cushy jobs in most Greek Government departments, helping to keep unemployment statistics within acceptable boundaries, and the absurd number of conscripted soldiers in the National Greek Army – keeping young people out of the labour market and off the streets – it has in the past served to help mask the obvious shortcomings of unemployment in the Greek economy.

Not to mention the ghastly Balkan word nepotism –rife in Greece prior to 2008 and probably still is – together with vast numbers of unsupported international bank loans by successive Greek Governments, companies and individuals, it is why the Greek house of cards finally collapsed, introducing the whole world to the expression taking a financial haircut! But, is there any hope for the future? Well, the EU has now successfully bullied Greece into the corner, and the word austerity, is on everyone’s lips.

Greeks are often accused of sitting on their own laurels if not their hands – The Iliad, Herodotus, Alexander the Great, and all that – but we must not forget the history of the Greek people in the 20th century, nor their miraculous survival under the Romans, the Byzantines and finally the Ottomans; something that most can remember in the Balkans.

It is clear that they are a hardy lot and although they are not the best team players in the world, they may be the most resilient. So it is here that I see the future changing – more out of necessity than choice – and the metamorphosis of a nation will occur – into a modern Western European Union member – without the word ‘easy’ in its vocabulary and absolutely no WD 40!

 

 

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Greece: Living in the Shadow of Europe

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Andreas Papandreou.

Until the accession of Bulgaria and Romania into the EU, Greece was on its own. Since the 1920s, it had faced what became the two communist states of Bulgaria, and Albania, and – together with its arch enemy Turkey, peeping over the Evros Delta – the Hellenic Republic not only clearly saw itself as the bastion of Christian western civilization, but extremely vulnerable as well. We all seem to forget that the beginning of modern day Greece did not start when it joined the EU in 1981, but when it became a part of NATO in 22nd October 1951.

If you get out your 1970 school atlas, you can see how isolated Greece was at the time, surrounded on all sides by some form of potential aggression, that politically, and from a NATO security angle – with the presence of perceived tough communist states on either side – a NATO presence in the Aegean was very important. That was so, not only for the country of Greece itself, but the West generally, Northern Europe in particular, and the embryonic EEC. So, why has this been virtually forgotten?

If you understand the implications of Cold War communist aggression, then you can also see how it was that Greece was shoehorned into the position of spending cash which it did not always have. Driving down the E85 towards Alexandroupolis, you can see row upon row of military camps, and rows and rows of military vehicles, of all kinds, parked for all to see.

Greece supports a large conscripted army, many of which are present in the Turkish border areas, and despite the traditional remarks made by some soldiers – especially those who occupy a small military base in my village – about the horrible food and conditions they are forced to endure, it all costs the government money. Mind you, if soldiers come from the comfort of a typical Greek family home, they would say that, wouldn’t they? So even though much of the aggression of the past is now gone, and South Eastern and Central Europe, is comprised of peace loving nations, in the mind’s eye of most Greeks, many threats somehow still remain.

Did it start with the invasion by the Persian King, Darios, perhaps it was Constantine, and the Eastern Roman Empire, or maybe, it was due to Sulieman the Great, and his bloody Ottoman hoards? Well, no – it was a little bit of the latter, and a great deal to do with World War Two!

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In my book The Dance of Dimitrios, the body of a woman is found floating in the River Ardas next to an underwater bridge. This bridge actually exists, and was built by the occupying German army. There are a number of these submersed concrete roads, and constantly in use, local Greek farmers can frequently be seen crossing the various local shallow rivers in their tractors and pickups. And, there are plenty of other signs of the old Axis presence in Greece, but that can wait for another day.

Although the Germans army left behind many useful examples of civil engineering, we must remember that during WW2, they were not guests in Greece; they were not here to enjoy a healthy Mediterranean diet, or to recuperate from twelve months of hard slogging in a factory in Stuttgart. They were in Greece to suppress the Greek Army and the brave Greek freedom fighters, who had recently made a mockery of IL Duce – and his so called Italian invading army – which they had so effortlessly sent packing, back to the mountains of Albania. Unfortunately, with the German army came brutality, inhumanity, and starvation. But that, is also another story!

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Post war Greece was a different matter. With American army surplus Jeeps in abundance, plough horses from Alabama, and the wonders of the Marshal Plan, Greek agriculture got going quite quickly after the war. But, then there were all those communists to deal with, here in the northern Greece, many of whom saw Greece’s obvious weakness as an opportunity for expansion, despite the Yalta agreement and Stalins so called promises. Most disaffected communists were Greek nationals, but many were also Bulgarian, Russian and Albanian. Despite the western side, being backed by the British and Americans, Kim Philby – Britains most traitorous and preeminent spy – didn’t help much, when he gave away the entire network of MI6 or CIA agents and informers, all of which were tortured and executed by the communists.

After this period, Greece was in political turmoil. The famous military junta, and the Greek Colonels tyrannical takeover of power, was a further time of frightening uncertainty, and many disappearances were recorded during the duration of this fascist regime. Followed  in 1981 by a return to democracy, Greece was finally saved, by a newly elected socialist government, headed by Andreas Papandreou, who came to power in that year, and who is now regarded as a national hero.

Knowing the bare bones of Greek postmodern history, is it any wonder that Greece ended up in a mess, and, is it so surprising that in 1981 – when Greece joined the EU – that things were not as they should be? After all, Greece had to be rescued by someone!

I am greatly annoyed by the half educated political blabbermouths in Brussels, who blithely criticize Greece, misquoting history in present day terms, and telling Europe that they should never have been allowed to join the EU in the first place. I am undeniably tired of these ill informed, self seeking, over paid, highly forgettable twerps, whose only wish is to be in front of a TV camera – in order to justify their place in the world – and to find fault. Because, it is not only Greece, which occupies their attention, but Bulgaria and Romania as well.

Bulgaria and Romania have enjoyed the largess of the EU, since the turn of the century, when initial accession talks were beginning to attract EU funding. It is claimed that Greece has had 35 years of EU support, and it is time that the Greeks were held accountable for their financial mismanagement. But ask yourself this question: Greece had been living in the shadow of Europe, and considering the realities of the last 75 years, what were they supposed to do? Give in to communism or join the EU?

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An English Author from The Balkans

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A Ghost from my Sofia past

 

Many people ask me why it is, that I set my stories in Europe and not in England, where I was born? The truth is that, I find my nation has become rather set in its ways and that Europe has so much more variety to offer. Meaning a choice of 30 countries or more, the availability of characters and customs, is unending. Living in Greece, as I do and part of the Balkans, I am intrigued by the remaining vestiges of Bolshevism, still to be found, in ethnically mixed, South Eastern Europe.

Living in a metropolis like New York or London, you might wonder what these differences are? After all, you can eat anything you like in these cities – including Peruvian or Nepalese cuisine, with perhaps the odd spot of Mongolian – and even meet the people who cook it. Chatting with the waiter, in a foreign country, has always been a recognized way for tourists to enter a foreign culture – ask any journalist. But, it isn’t quite as easy as that, is it?

As a journalist, in the mid 80s, I was busy exploring Eastern Europe and well before the so called changes, it was a time when Communism was a byword for treachery and subversion. The players – from both the East and the West – eyed one another with considerable suspicion, as well as with considerable ignorance and hate.

The mindset of an old Communist was often hard to understand, unless you had been in their company, for any length of time. But the same could have been said of any right-wing dinosaur who, historically, like most western pundits, viewed the rest of the world from an ivory tower. From a comfortable western perspective, there was often considerable cause for contempt – especially for their proclaimed natural enemy’s enforced austerity – whilst the ex- commies hated all forms of consumerism, even though they very often had no choice. Or, did they?

When the two cultures collided in the 1990s and the old Communist countries, allegedly, became democratized, the silly games began. But, the recently disenfranchised Communist Apparatchiks  – spy’s and spooks – needed a new master even though they were very good at playing silly games, or even deadly ones. As in Luigi Pirendello’s play “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” these stalwart commie characters went in search of a new master and conveniently found it, thriving in the world of crime.

Having connived with each other for years – brow beating, bribing and bullying –they had little difficulty in bending the rules. By evading tax, enjoying the wonders of offshore banking and making a fortune of their own; twenty five years on, this has now become the reality of our new world, although these days, you can also add Al Quada and ISIL into the mix.

From what I have written so far, you can well see how it is that, with all this jiggery-pokery going on, the fear we all experience in Europe – of Al Quada and terrorism in general – is profound. As most Americans have discovered, in the light of the 9/11 tragedy in the US, all these international criminals fit nicely into the murder mystery genre, for that is what they are!. Baffling the reader, challenging them to understand Islamic extremism, the vacuum left by Communism and the Soviet Union, might be construed as a blight on their private leisure time, but I totally disagree.

We are all sick of the daily news and the media neurosis it causes, because we all know what to expect and generally try to ignore it. Begging the question –

‘How does a TV or newspaper journalist explain, to the general public, with any clarity, how the world works and the pain it inflicts on us all?’

The answer is, with great difficulty!

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BUY – THE DANCE OF DIMITRIOS

In my new novel, ‘The Dance of Dimitrios,’ I try to mix some of the horrors of illegal immigration, with everyday things. DCI Mike Lambert, knows about people trafficking and the problems it is causing many governments throughout the world, because Greece is the gateway from the Middle East, for countless migrants, political refugees, and terrorists.

In this novel, DCI Mike Lambert works for Europol, which is the European equivalent of the FBI, who has been sent to Greece, in order to solve a cold case, of a mistaken identity.

It involves the discovery of the body of a  woman, found floating in the River Ardas, in Northern Greece. Believed to be of Middle-Eastern origin, her body is buried in a communal grave, along with other Islamic victims of drowning and promptly forgotten.

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Where the body was found floating

It is one year on and her fingerprints, which were taken at the time of her autopsy, are run through the Europol computer.When it is revealed that she is actually an Englishwoman living in Greece, the British authorities inform the Foreign and Commonwealth Office who in turn inform Europol. Realizing that it probably means murder, DCI Lambert is dispatched from The Hague.

As it turns out, she is not an ordinary Englishwoman, but a well known writer, causing DCI Lambert to look for motives within the world of literature. As a retired war correspondent and an Arabic scholar, Lamberts attention is also drawn to  her previous life and loves, and further suspicion falls on her past life, in the Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

This is only a taste of the story, because this article is mainly about how the world deals with modern history. Are we as authors bound to ignore reality and follow the path set by Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter and Ruth Rendell or do we get in step with Robert Ludlam, Charles McCarry and Tom Clancy?

I for one, would become quite sleepy if I had to write about bodies found in haystacks no matter how much fun that sounds. Shouting about, getting drunk or divorced is one thing, but is that how true detectives solve cases, or what about improbable endings, which come from nowhere, usually ending in an admission of guilt, followed by a look of peace and contentment. Not for me, thank you!