Friday, 25 November 2011

Athens: Debt, Dictatorship and Democracy (Part 2)

I’d like to begin part two with an anecdote if I may (see part one for context).
Debt crises are nothing new in Greece. In archaic times, self serving aristocrats and oligarchs ruled over most city-states, their laws favouring the wealthy. If a man defaulted on a loan, his creditor could seize him and his family and sell them as slaves in order to repay it. This caused considerable conflict between the rich (who wanted to protect their investments) and the poor (who wanted to protect their liberty).
Then along came an Athenian lawmaker called Solon who instituted a series of radical reforms. He cancelled all debt, emancipated those who were slaves to it, and repealed the laws of Dracon (which, as you might have deduced, were so harsh they spawned the word draconian). He also allowed the poor to participate in government. In short, Solon created the worlds first free democratic society.
These reforms allowed Athens to reach its full potential. It would go on to become the cradle of western civilisation, the seed from which most of our present understanding of science, philosophy and engineering grew.  
Closing shop on the route of the march
This little facet of history was playing on my mind as I made my way towards Omonia Square to join the march commemorating the Athens Polytechnic Uprising. Dates and times may change but the basic story of history always seems to stay the same. Granted, people are not physically enslaved to debt these days. But a man with a mortgage to pay and mouths to feed is hardly free to fight for his beliefs, or to challenge those who threaten them. Some economists are advocating adopting a Solon type approach to solving current the debt crisis which is engulfing the western world. I made a mental note to ponder this thought further and set off on my merry way.
Fortunately I was not alone in my endeavours to understand a little corner of Greek society and its relevance to the wider world. Alongside me was a San Franciscan called Bryan, a Berkeley Architecture student who was a veteran of several active protests thanks his research into crowd dynamics in the context of urban spaces(!).  He agreed to show me a few tips and tricks, I agreed to show him some good company (although I must admit I felt like a bit of dead weight around his neck).
The police and army presence en route was intense. On every street corner, battalions of uniforms loitered around, smoking cigarettes and slurping coffee. Many of them seemed riled up for a fight. I remember thinking this was fair enough, given the considerable number of marchers who made that feeling mutual. Then I noticed the faces of those who were in command. They were scared. That scared me. Fear elicits a fight or flight response in most of us. If those with the authority to sanction armed force are scared then they are not truly in control of either themselves or the situation. That is dangerous.

Anyways, we got to the beginning of the march and I’m not going to deny being disappointed. There were only around one thousand participants present. Many (I assume they were communists) carried red flags which were tied to thick red sticks which could easily double up as weapons. They also carried motorbike helmets (I assume to either use as weapons or to protect themselves in combat).

The march got under way and the authorities kept a low profile. A sneaking glance down the side streets along the way however confirmed that they were still abundantly present. As the march progressed they were joined by a variety of different groups with their own banners and their own agenda. By the time they reached Syntagma Square (home of the Greek Parliament, numbers had swelled to at least twenty thousand.

Syntagma Square was were most people expected the combustible crowd to spark into conflict. Troops lined the square  protecting government buildings. I met a group of Red Cross workers who gave me some practical guidance on staying safe and some gels to combat the effects of tear gas. I decided to head to the east side of the square so that I was upwind of the authorities and any clouds of gas which they may chose to release.. The crowd were held back for around an hour. After a few minor scuffles, the march was allowed to progress past parliament and on towards the American embassy about six kilometres up the road. By this point there were over thirty thousand people marching. Male and female, rich and poor, old and young, they seemed to come from all walks of life.

Syntagma Square, with the Greek Parliament building in the background
The young...
...and the old. This guy walked the full six kilometeres
from the Greek Parliament to the American embassy.

Veterans of the uprising.

The police broke up some minor scuffles at Syntagma Square but on the whole, the march passed the Greek Parliament without incident.

 It took a further two hours for the main body of the group to arrive at the embassy which was heavily protected by police in full riot gear who were armed with rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades. By this point it was getting dark. As the group approached, the authorities cut all the street lights, cloaking the neighbourhood in an eerie darkness. After photographing the police and armed forces I decided that the safest place to observe this part of the march was alongside the throngs of international media personnel who had gathered at the north end of the embassy. One by one the journalists started putting on gas masks. I didn’t have one. It felt like a major faux pas of etiquette, kind of like how the new kid at school must feel when he turns up wearing the wrong brand of shoes!
I made another mental note. This time to invest in a gas mask if I ever do anything like this again.

The march reached a crescendo at the embassy. Some threw rocks, others charged police lines. Most however just carried on walking, unwilling to get caught up in the crossfire between protestors and police. As more and more people walked past, the mood of those remaining intensified. The authorities, clearly (and perhaps justifiably) becoming concerned for their own safety, fired off stun grenades and tear gas before charging at the protestors. I was unlucky enough to cop a few lungfulls of teargas (which I can only describe as feeling like drinking bleach whilst rubbing bars of soap on your eyes when you have a badly sunburnt face. Not nice).

At this point I made my own foolish fight of flight decision. Instead of making my way back towards the worlds media where I’d be safe, I ran up the street in the same direction as the protestors and found myself in the dead zone between stone throwing youths and charging police officers in full riot gear. Fortunately I managed to slide up a side street and passed a group of police officers who were kettling the exit; in the grand scheme of things they weren’t too bothered about a boy with a camera who was in over his head.

At this point I made my own foolish fight of flight decision. Instead of making my way back towards the worlds media where I’d be safe, I ran up the street in the same direction as the protestors and found myself in the dead zone between stone throwing youths and charging police officers in full riot gear. Fortunately I managed to slide up a side street and passed a group of police officers who were kettling the exit; in the grand scheme of things they weren’t too bothered about a boy with a camera who was in over his head.

 The next hour or so saw a series of scuffles and standoffs between the police and a hardcore of around five thousand protestors in the maze of side streets around the embassy. Fires were started, windows were smashed. The police responded with more tear gas and stun grenades. However, the levels of conflict were nowhere near what most people (including myself) expected. You could actually see the disappointment in some of the journalist’s eyes! 
The most surreal thing about it was how so many people seemed to carry on with normal life. Even the street cafes stayed open as long as they could, only closing when the clouds of tear gas made it impossible to sit outside without considerable discomfort.

And so, with the scuffles dying down, I set of back towards my hotel near the Acropolis. I’d been on my feet for nine hours straight and all I wanted was a proper cup of tea. The metro system was closed and most of the city centre was under curfew. As a potential lawyer I had been intrigued to see how the Greek police (who have an appalling human rights record) dealt with the protest. As I was walking home I concluded that they probably did a good job, although that was probably more through chance than design. On reflection it seems that the mass of Greek people accept the terms of the EU bailout and the pain that their country is about to endure for at least a generation. If more of the crowd had been more combatative then I doubt things would have ended as peacefully as they did.

A happy old man sits on the steps of the closed Bank of Greece.
 And so, I finally got home, met up with a few other people who I was staying with and went to a karaoke bar (where they made me sing Beatles songs!). A thoroughly surreal end to a surreal day.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Athens: Debt, Dictatorship and Democracy (Part 1)

Hi! I did plan to update this blog a few days ago but I’ve been having a bit of a nightmare. I left Athens for Belgrade last Friday. Unfortunately my flight was diverted to Nis, a shed masquerading as an airport four hours south of Belgrade so I didn’t arrive until early Saturday morning. Then to top things off I became violently ill so I barely got to see any of Belgrade at all. Not even meeting the BBC’s Serbia correspondent made up for my disappointment (he wasn’t in the mood to be networked and told me to stick to law!).

I was in Greece to find out more about the Athens Polytechnic Uprising.

In the late sixties, a group of right-wing generals seized power in Greece. In order to protect people from an alleged communist conspiracy, the military junta suspended many of the human rights we all take for granted, such as the right to free speech, the right to protest, even the right to think freely. Thousands were arrested, tortured and tried by military courts without having broken any laws. Press freedom was curtailed. Surveillance of citizens was widespread. People lived in perpetual fear. Greece became a police state the East German Stasi would have been proud of.
On November 15th 1973, a group of students occupied the Athens Polytechnic, demanding civil liberties and open elections. They created their own radio station using equipment stripped from labs and began to broadcast their message to the whole of Greece. Two days later, the military stormed the university with tanks and snipers. The military maintained that there were no deaths but independent observers estimate that at least 25 people were killed.

 The events of the uprising are widely seen as hastening the downfall of the military rule and the restoration of Greek democracy. Every year the on 17th November, the students of Athens march from the university to the American embassy both to commemorate the uprising and to protest against the USA’s support for the military junta.

This years march took o a whole new significance. Greece is in serious financial trouble. All Greek people accept this, even if they disagree on the reasons. What most Greek people do not accept is their perceived humiliation at the hands of the European Union. They are being told how to run their own country by outsiders who are neither elected nor accountable. When the latest Greek EU bailout package was agreed, the Greek Prime Minister tried to hold a referendum on it. He was told by the EU that he was not allowed to, and was then replaced with a former EU bureaucrat. For a nation who invented democracy, lost it, and then recently fought so hard to win it back, this is seen as an insult to those who suffered to resist the government during military rule.

What Follows is a photographic account of my day.


People from all walks of life turned out at the university the day before the march. The atmosphere is hard to describe; not quite solemn, but certainly reflective. There was also an air of defiance and aggression. People seemed to be motivated by different aims. Some simply wanted to pay their respects to those who had stood up to the dictatorship. Others were determined to vent their frustrations at the current Greek government by direct means. To paraphrase the guys above, ‘the only language governments listens to is violence’. Although most people intended to march peacefully, that how almost everyone expected the march to end. Below left is the view from the front gate (see video above) and a couple of students debating the issues of the day.


A moment of contemplation (above). Below, a group of students sit around discussing politics. People in Greece seem to be taking a keen interest in politics at the moment. As I wandered around, I wondered whether this was because of their current situation or whether it is a relic of culture surviving from the classical city-state days. My cynical side concluded that it was the former, although if the political system engaged with the people it is supposed to represent more proactively then maybe they would pay it more attention to it.

I left the university later that afternoon under the distinct impression that the march the day after was going to be a destructive one...

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Welcome to my Blog!

Hello! How are you? Good, good. First and foremost, welcome to my blog! For want of something better, I’ve decided to call it Jetset Junkie. To be honest it wasn’t my first choice of name. However, it does encapsulate everything that I intend this blog to be.
You see, I’m a hopelessly addicted traveller. A jetsetting junkie if you like. But jetset doesn’t quite carry the right connotations. Yes, I do get about from place to place on a pretty regular basis but when I think of jetsetters, I tend to think of wealthy socialites who were breastfed champagne. They tend to fly first class from one five star hotel to another and get served mountains of Ferrero Rocher by snotty waiters at ambassadors receptions. Jetsetters do not fly Ryanair, nor do they stay in ten bed dormitories on the darker side of town...
I was also reluctant to use the word junkie. Junk is chique [sic]. It is dirty but in a socially acceptable kind of way. Junk provokes disgust and fear in most people but equally, it invokes our curiosity. We all secretly want to experience the life of a junkie but we don’t actually want to become one.
Taken together, jetset and junk take on a whole new meaning. Jetset Junkie. It describes what I do rather than who I am. Given the choice, I’d opt for an evening in a dingy Hungarian communist era bar over the National Opera any day (although that’s not to say I wouldn’t enjoy each equally). Gertrude Stein once said “there’s no there there” when describing the monotony of Middle American towns. I would say that there is always a there there; it’s just that you have to look pretty hard to find it sometimes. Everyone and everywhere has a story to tell. I love scratching the surface and finding something gritty and ‘real’ underneath. I particularly love post industrial landscapes and shifting subcultures. In this sense I like all things junk. I want to see it, breathe it, and experience it but I don’t want to be a part of it.
I also kind of like the alliteration; harsh sounding syllables framing smooth sounding syllables sum up my approach to travel pretty well. They also (though I say so myself) represent my personality quite accurately too.
So... what’s this blog all about? At the moment I have no idea. I’ve certainly intended to write about my experiences for a long time. When your audience is limited to yourself it’s pretty hard to muster the motivation. I want to share my experiences but I mainly want to document them (I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve forgotten the most memorable things for ages and I have no idea how many I’ve forgotten permanently). Although I’m mainly writing for myself I will probably offer advice on how to travel cheaply and advice on things to see/do in places I visit.
A final point which I think is worth mentioning is politics. Although I always try to approach every situation objectively, I, like everyone else, hold opinions which have been shaped by my culture, upbringing and nature. I feel that I probably most comfortably fit in with the ideals of Democratic Socialism (for context, other people who are generally accepted to be Democratic Socialists include George Orwell, Clement Atlee and Naomi Klein). Objectivity is always a subjective trait so I think I should mention this if I truly aim to be as unbiased as possible.
That’s about it I think.  At the moment I’m sat in a smoky cafe in the centre of Belgrade (the aroma of coffee and tobacco is amazing!). Before coming to Serbia on this trip I have been to the Occupy LSX camp in London, visited a squat in Madrid which is offering social housing to evicted families, arrived in Italy just in time to see Berlusconi resign then spent three days in Athens, photographing and participating in a walk to commemorate the Athens Polytechnic Uprising and protest against austerity measures which are being introduced by the Greek government. I am currently sorting through my photographs and recovering from the effects of inhaling too much tear gas. I will update this blog in due course...