Monthly Archives: June 2015

Life Behind the (head)line

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My older son is four. He has a sort of waddling swagger, not really noticeable to anyone except those of us who know. Sometimes, when he’s had a hard day or is generally tired and frustrated, his hand reaches up and out to me as we reach the edge of the curb. I hold it and help him tackle the mountain that is the edge of the curb. I wish in those moments that the world was flat as a pancake.

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Several weeks ago, Matina Stevis of the Wall Street Journal wrote a very moving piece about what it’s like being a Greek abroad in the midst of the country’s economic nightmare She wrote about the casualness with which people make racist statements about the lazy, tax dodging Greeks, even when these stereotypes are blown out of the water with hard facts, and how she avoids revealing where she’s from if she can help it. The debate that follows is not worth the effort.

Ever since I read that piece, this blog post has been demanding to be written. I wanted to add my perspective. I have tried repeatedly to write, and repeatedly stopped after watching the blinking cursor for a few moments. I knew it would be emotionally difficult. In between work and pitching for new projects (commissioning editors, my rates are reasonable) I have made excuses to myself about not having time, when the truth is I just didn’t want to pour the sadness of an austerity riddled life onto my screen because I am living it.

As a foreigner in Greece, I occupy a strange twilight zone. Outside of Greece, I am on permanent defense mode as people take digs at Greece in my presence, expecting me to agree with them since I myself am not Greek. If it’s a valid point – Greece’s pitiful track record of governing – I might agree and add my own perspective. Mostly though it’s comments about the lazy Greeks retiring in their 50s.

For the record, I know no one who retired in their 50s, no one who avoids paying their tax and no one who works less than a 40 hour week. But even if I say that, what usually happens is that the other party will shrug and tell me I’m wrong. After all, how could I possibly know the reality of life in a country I am living in? A correspondent in a faraway land is in a much better position to judge than I am, because my judgement is clouded with sentimentality. My husband is Greek, so of course I’m not going to admit the Greeks were wrong, that they are lazy, greedy and irresponsible.

Then there are the Greeks. My Greek friends and even my husband will debate among themselves about what has gone wrong in Greece and what needs to be fixed. If I jump in with a controversial opinion, I get told it’s not like that, then given a list of reasons why it’s not like that, usually ending with a statement like “You’re not Greek, you haven’t lived here long enough.” Based on that category of having a legitimate opinion on Greece among Greeks, I will never have lived here long enough. Five minutes earlier, a Greek in the group might have expressed the exact same opinion and got away with it.

Outside of Greece, my affiliation with Greece means my opinion is not objective. Within Greece, I’m not Greek enough to understand.

I have lived in Athens for nearly a decade now. I speak (almost) fluent Greek. Sometimes I can remember a word or phrase in Greek but not in English. I arrived in this city just as the first rumbles of an economic crisis were being felt.

I made my life here. My first son was born in 2011, as the cracks in the economy became wider. Still I felt insulated from the chaos unfolding. Having longed to be a mother, I was riding on the wave of a wish fulfilled. I felt invincible.

I often tell people asking about life in Greece that 2012 and 2013 were the worst years for the crisis (now I have to add “so far”). Those were the years when austerity really bit, when suicides began to climb and around me, I could feel Greeks losing their joy for life.

This coincided with a personal disaster in my own life, my son’s Duchenne muscular dystrophy diagnosis, so if I’m honest, I remember little of those two years. I know what happened because I remember the news reports. I remember the sense of despair among my own friends. But I couldn’t give you any real data or reportable facts because I saw it all from a distance, lost in the labyrinth of the event that had decimated the future I had envisioned for my child.

My child’s future in Greece is a question mark because of the economy. His future overall is a question mark because of his manifesting disability, which unfortunately has emerged perfectly timed with a wave of austerity across Europe.

This week, I sat under the florescent lights in a physiotherapist’s office in the West Midlands as my children played. Beverly is wonderful, happy woman, oozing positivity and gently coaxing my son to let her manipulate his feet and legs and tell us numbers which tell us where we are along the slippery slope.

She is losing her funding. She has lost staff. Last year she offered my son hydrotherapy. She’s lost funding for that now. She moved her efforts to the pool at the local health centre. It’s not ideal – muscular dystrophy hydrotherapies require the water to be a certain temperature to avoid muscle damage – but it’s still better than nothing. That health centre is due to close in a few months. Beverly somehow stays upbeat as she says she’s not sure what they’ll do after that.

Meanwhile in Athens, it took my husband over a year of searching, researching, cajoling, persuading and negotiating to find the right combination of physiotherapist, heated hydrotherapy pool and venue to set up this vital resource for my child and our friends in the same boat. We pay for it ourselves. Despite that, the special needs school where the pool is based is teetering on the edge of closure due to lack of funds. If it eventually does close, we’ll have to start the search all over again, and we’re lucky. We’re not one of the many children who rely on the school for education as well as therapy.

Both my children go to state nurseries, which, without the safety net of grandparents for childcare, is the only way that I can work and my husband can continue the literally life saving work he does as a patient advocate as he fights for standards of care in Greece to match the rest of Europe, fight being the optimal word there.

Friends ask me all the time why I don’t leave Greece and go to the UK, and the truth is with a Conservative government now firmly in power, my family with its one disabled party has few places to turn.  In Europe today, austerity is the norm. As far as the austerity fans are concerned, couldn’t we just try, you know, not having public debt? Had we considered not being disabled perhaps? Maybe we should try it, hmmm?

Austerity is destroying Greece. It’s difficult for me to give you facts and figures of what it’s done to my own life – my pride won’t allow it. As a journalist, I have struggled with staying neutral, because when I see things like the good friend who avoided our calls only to turn up months later waif thin because he literally could not afford to eat and was too embarrassed to admit it, I find it very hard to sit on the fence about austerity.

When I don’t know whether my son will have the care he needs next month, I battle with staying neutral. It’s exhausting. It’s rage inducing. I’ve spent money I don’t have on breathing and meditation classes to cope with the double dilemma of both life under austerity and parent to a child with a rare and life limiting condition. I worry a lot, more than I should, but I can’t help it because there is no end in sight to either situation.

I could tell you a lot more about Greece under austerity and what trying to punish 50 years of government mistakes within five has done, but who is listening? The Guardian recently asked for us in Greece to submit our experiences of life under austerity. I opened the page and I tried, but I couldn’t do it, purely for the fact that even today, despite it being known that austerity has ruined Greece, it is still being forced down our throats, and we are still Europe’s bad guys. Read the comments on any recent story about Greece – there is an almost sadistic glee in seeing the country buckle under even more austerity.

I couldn’t contribute my story because there seemed little point. We are Europe’s austerity porn, nothing more. Our miserable lives get clicks and sell papers. In the first Bridget Jones’ Diary movie, Bridget rehearses sounding clever and interested in current affairs, saying over and over to herself “Isn’t it terrible about Chechnya?” Today she would probably be saying “Isn’t it terrible about Greece?” Let’s fret for five minutes, then talk about EastEnders.

In Greece they say if you have your health you have everything. This has kept people going, combined with strong family ties and sense of community. The crisis in Greece has been appalling, an abomination and an outrage to anyone with a conscience. But it’s lucky that it happened in a country like Greece where people still rally together – almost anywhere else and the damage would have been unimaginable. Paradoxically, losing control over my child’s health meant that my family’s life has become simpler. We are rediscovering the joy of stolen treats that were before so easily affordable. In the Greek sense, we don’t have our health, so we have nothing. And yet we have it all. Life has come down to whether today we were happy, today the curb was easy to climb, and tomorrow we’ll take as it comes.

Happiness has become my family’s hard currency, its presence often eclipses all other problems like the economy and unreasonable working conditions. We continue our careful balancing act, fighting against the economy uprooting us, and retaining hope that our children will inherit a better tomorrow.

There are endless reams of debate that you can go and read, about what Greece has done wrong, some accurate, some not so much. But whatever happens today, tomorrow, at the next Eurogroup, default or not, we’ll still be here, trying to find a way to live through it and making it up as we go along. There are lives behind the headlines.

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Forget the economy, make Biryani

In case you have more interesting things to do than follow the Greek economy, first of all, congratulations, and secondly you may not have heard that the latest Eurogroup ended with no deal. Greece’s creditors were quick to pile the blame on the country, and it all got a bit childish and surreal.

If things were looking bad before, they are looking even worse now. For those of us living this crisis as well as documenting it, this whole saga has become beyond exhausting, and for the first time (yes, now is the first time despite the Grexit talk that began immediately on January 26) we are staring the prospect of a messy default right in the face.

It’s very tiring and it’s very depressing and we in Athens are all feeling a bit desperate for something good, so instead of writing more about today’s deal-less Eurogroup and what scenarios have come into play now, I’m going to give you my mother’s biryani recipe. My mum  is from Hyderabad, biryani capital of India. Make this recipe, cheer yourself up, because biryani is the food of gods. 

Ingredients:

1 chicken in pieces, no skin

2 onions, thinly slices

3 garlic pods, finely chopped

1 inch piece of ginger, grated

3 tomatoes, chopped

4 chopped fresh plums

Yoghurt

1tsp each of chilli powder, cumin powder, coriander powder, tumeric

5 cloves

2 cinnamon sticks

2 bay leaves

fresh coriander, chopped

2 green chillis, whole

6 saffron strands soaked in 1/4 cup of warm milk

3 cups of basmati rice washed in three changes of water

salt to taste

Method:

Put the chicken in a bowl and add the yoghurt with all the spices, mix. Fry the onions in a heavy based pan with a tight fitting lid until they are brown (but not burnt, this step is key). Add the ginger and garlic, then the chopped tomato and plums. Stir well and cook until the tomatoes start to break down. Add the chicken and yoghurt mix and cook for about 20 mintues on a medium flame, stirring well until the chicken is cooked. Add the coriander and green chillis and salt to taste. The mix should not be dry, but not too liquid either.

Boil three cups of basmati rice in salted water until partially cooked and layer over the top of the chicken mixture, drizzle over the saffron milk. Turn the heat right down, knead 3 cups of flour until you have a soft dough and seal around the edges of the lid to keep the steam in. If you are feeling lazy, just use a wet towel instead.

As the mixture on the bottom cooks, the flavours and aromas steam through the rest of the rice to impart their taste and smell throughout, sort of how contagion from the Greek economic situation affects the rest of Europe, except a lot more delicious, less expensive and less stressful.

Steam on a low heat for 35 minutes. Don’t be tempted to peek, you will break the steam seal. When the time is up, crack the seal, mix up the rice and chicken and enjoy. Taste for salt, and if you think you need more, I find sobbing into your plate of biryani because you’re living through economic annihilation does the trick.

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Pride and Prejudice in reporting the Greek story

Insults fly as the crisis continues

Last week I attended an event organised by AnalyzeGreece in which foreign correspondents covering Greece spoke about the issues they face, stereotyping in the media from both sides and how this affects the stories that come out of the country.

Mehran Khalili, who also attended, has written an excellent in-depth piece about this here.

At the core of the discussion were two key issues – Greece as the villain of the economic crisis story portrayed by those outside Greece, and Greece as the heroic, unfailing underdog by voices from within Greece.

The panel was made up of several well-heeled journalists such as Eleni Colliopoulou, Greek correspondent for AFP,  Adéa Guillot from Le Monde, Maria Margaronis, The Nation’s London correspondent and contributor to the Guardian and BBC and Marcus Walker, European Economics editor for the Wall Street Journal and recently moved to Athens from Berlin.

First comes prejudice. Think of the last few stories you might have read about the Greek economic crisis. What was their tone? If the journalist did a good job, it would be fairly neutral, but you need only to glance at the comments section to gauge the feelings of the reading public.

Since 2009, you’ll see the same rhetoric repeated again and again: it’s our money, pay it back, get out of the Euro, Greece should be left to self destruct, it serves them right etc etc. Bild regularly troll baiting an entire nation comes to mind, but even reputable newspapers fall victim to this.

The Financial Times recently ran a poll asking their readers what parenting method they would use with the Greeks, painting Greece once more as the naughty child in need of discipline. They ran an article on this topic too, just for good measure.

The five years of severe economic crisis and the battering that Greek society has taken, the skyrocketing suicide rate and utter misery that current policies have caused are so often repeated that they now seem to make no impact, and these comments continue well down the line, having seen in action the destruction that current policies caused. The image that has been painted is of the lazy Greek guzzling the money of hard working Europeans finally having to actually do some work and not liking it. So what if their lives are completely falling apart in the hands of botched governing both from Greece and Europe.

Adéa Guillot mentioned this as she spoke about the myth of Greek tax avoidance, saying that on tax avoidance stories she tries to counter stereotypes with facts such as that two thirds of Greeks are taxed at source. Nevertheless she has often found herself in discussion where her facts and figures are dismissed and the line of the lazy, tax avoiding Greek is adhered to.

The groundwork for Greece’s portrayal were laid before the crisis broke out. Greece as the fun-lover, enjoying life, coasting from beach to beach, frappe in hand, sharing tips on avoiding tax, dancing until dawn and trying to do as little work as possible. In this context, pre-crisis, Greece was the lovable rogue of Europe, the wayward, fun loving son that the rest of Europe looked at, shrugged and said “Greece will be Greece.”

Maria Margaronis also raised the concept of Greece as not quite European enough, Greece as the ‘other’, in Europe but not of Europe, more belonging to the dark folds of the Orient than the West, a prejudice that began in Roman times as she describes. This otherness of Greece persists in today’s reporting.

She also highlighted the failure of media to see the crisis in terms of political failing rather than making the Greek population a scapegoat for a global financial crisis, and and to “avoid facing the weaknesses in the global financial system and the Eurozone”.

Post crisis, things immediately got nasty, and instead of looking at Greece’s breathtakingly inept system of governing through history, the press across Europe were quick to level blame at the Greek population itself. I was asked this recently by an ex-colleague from an investment bank I used to work for: couldn’t the Greeks understand that now it was time to pay for all their careless spending?

If you don’t live in Greece it’s very hard to make people outside Greece see that this entire country is not condensed within Athens, and even within Athens you’ll find very few people who know how government spending works, what government bonds are or why they should have been suspicious of so much easy credit.

As far as your average Greek was concerned, they saw the fruits of good governing when living was easy. After so many years of hardship, they finally felt a sense of financial stability. They had no idea of the bubble it was all riding on, and they were as shocked as the rest of Europe when that bubble finally burst.

The mantra of “If it bleeds, it leads” has never been more applicable in how editors prioritise what’s coming out of Greece. Bad economic news sells. News of Greece’s blossoming startup scene does not sell, neither does the host of other problems in Greece that are entirely overshadowed by the economic crisis, such as the migrant issue which is fast getting out of hand.

The correspondents on the panel also noted the issue of how little time they get to think, fact-check and analyse with the pace of news moving on the Greek story which sometimes leads to misinformation.

Everyone who lives in Greece instantly recognised the magazine cover that Marcus Walker held up during his talk, showing Venus de Milo giving the rest of Europe the finger. When this cover appeared on Germany’s Focus magazine, it caused outrage and was immediately countered by Greek press taking their usual cheap shot of comparing Germans to Nazis.

This takes us to pride. The Greeks are a proud nation, and this level of demonising has been extremely polarising, to the point that Adea was shooed out of a restaurant recently when the owner found out she was a journalist. Having been roundly humiliated in the foreign press, Greeks are suspicious of their motives.

That’s not to say that Greek press have behaved that much better. Flying the flag of their nation’s pride, we in Athens are subject to knee-jerk Greek journalism and the famous, hysterical TV debates where the one who shouts loudest wins.

On Greek TV, everyone can hear you scream

The Greek press have launched Greece as the victim of a mean and racist Europe. They have latched onto the stereotype of the cold, heartless Northern European who doesn’t care about the Greek granny shivering in her flat because she can’t afford heating. Greek media readily attacks the governments of Europe rather than laying bare Greece’s own atrocious, often comically bad governing.

Forgetting that this is now 2015, they cart out the country’s admittedly grand ancient history to a public desperate for any scrap of dignity and sell the story of noble Greece, the pillar of philosophy and culture, that the rest of Europe hates because of its glorious past. Lines of “Look at all that we gave Europe, what did Germany give Europe?” do nothing to further debate.

Pride and prejudice in reporting both from Greece and about Greece have led to a highly polarised state, one where Greece sees itself as up against the rest of Europe, and Europe sees a little country that is causing nothing but problems and keeps trying to get away from the negotiating table to work on its tan.

This is where we find ourselves today as Europe watches to see what will happen next. Greece has without a doubt had its reputation dragged through the mud by poor reporting. Greeks going overseas will tell you as much when they face hostility such as drinks being poured over them as soon they reveal where they’re from.

The damage has already been done, though it was clear from this event that the journalists with connection to Greece, either living here or of Greek origin, are working very hard to remedy this and present balanced, fact-based reporting. It’s another matter that their editors based in far away offices might not always be ready to listen.

First impressions count, and a bad first impression, even if it is later corrected, is the one that stays in mind. Ten years down the line, I wonder how we’ll be reporting this story.

See the correspondents address the audience at the Analyze Greece event here. 

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