Rioting, Greek style

Kanellos, the riot dog

It’s been a long time since we had a decent riot in Athens, and this got me thinking.

Whenever I travel away from Greece I very often get asked the question “So, what’s it like in Greece?” And when I get asked this, I know that nine times out of 10, the person asking is not actually interested in what Greece is like as a country. They’re not interested in the sparkling clear waters or the glorious blue skies.

They’re not interested in hearing about the racing chiftitelis or the heartbroken rebetikos that stream out of the narrow, tavern-lined streets of Plaka. They couldn’t care less about the lobster spaghetti of Astipalia island, that butterfly-shaped heaven from where it’s said Cleopatra’s chefs sourced their fish, or the juicy, plump kebabs you get in Monastiraki, slathered in onions, tomatoes and tzatziki and wrapped in hot pita bread.

No, what they really want to know is the cheap tabloid drama. They want to know if Athens is burning down around my ears. Do we have to barricade ourselves in every night to escape the wrath of marauding juvenile delinquents running the streets? Have we given up recycling because we now need all those bottles for our stash of Molotov cocktails? Really, tell me, on a scale of one to 10, how bad is it? Is it 11? Please say it’s 11.

My response to how bad it has been could be plotted as a bell-curve. In the beginning I was assuring everyone that it wasn’t that bad, to saying it was sort of bad, to admitting that it had got really bad (for example when parents started leaving their children at orphanages, unable to feed them) and now maybe, just maybe there is the tiniest inkling of hope that we might just be starting to crawl out of the worst of it.

It is pretty fair l to say that the media loves a bit of drama. When a round of serious rioting broke out a few years ago, I didn’t even know it was happening because that Saturday it happened to be a pretty lovely day and so I had gone to the beach with my son and husband. When my mother called me in a panic saying the riots looked terrible on the television, I asked “What riots?” It was only later in the day when I got home and turned on the television that I saw the reports of a spate of rioting that was at least an 8 on the Greek riot Richter scale, which is pretty bad.

It’s a common joke that rioting is a nation sport in Greece. When we riot here, we really mean business and we take no prisoners. I once saw a news report of a riot in Belgium I think it was, or some other such homely place.

A bunch of nicely dressed young people were squaring off with riot police. The police, in their helmets and guns slung over their shoulders, were staring grim-faced and unmoving through plastic riot shields at the crowd which was shouting and shaking their fists angrily. These nicely dressed young people were throwing flowers at the police. I practically fell off my chair laughing. “This is a riot?” I asked my husband. “Does the Greek government realize how much money they could make just outsourcing rioting?”

In Greece, riots go from zero to all-out psycho mode in less time that it takes to say “Where’s my balaclava?” The speed and intensity with which a riot can breakout here is a natural phenomenon in itself. And the rioters come prepared, not just with lovingly assembled Molotov cocktails, but also with motorcycle helmets to protect themselves, wet rags for teargas and lemons. I have it on good authority that lemon juice in the eyes is a painful but very effective remedy for teargas.

There is even a riot mascot, a little brown dog called Kanellos. By all accounts, this dog is a stray, but always turns up during a riot in downtown Athens, and without fail he takes the sides of the rioters against the police. How this dog knows when a riot is happening and who the good guys are is anyone’s guess, but he always turns up. Now that’s loyalty!

This article ran in the Khaleej Times on 25 Jan 2014.

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