Monthly Archives: July 2015

A Brief History of Zoi Konstantopoulou

One of the many Zoi themed memes: “Miss, could I go to the bathrooom?” Source: Luben.TV

This article was written for the German news outlet N-TV. You can read their translated German version of it here. I am uploading the original English version here at the request of non-German speakers (myself included) and hope you’ll enjoy the read. 

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If one had to come up with three words to describe Zoi Konstantopoulou, they would certainly not be demure, quiet and timid. The brash, outspoken Speaker of the Greece’s Parliament has caused controversy almost since the day she was appointed.

It seems like a lifetime away now, but on 6 February 2015, Zoi Konstantopoulou was appointed her to her latest post with a record 235 of 300 votes in parliament. Aged 39, she became one of the youngest people to take on the role, and the first from left wing ranks.

The daughter of legendary Syriza chairman Nikos Konstantopoulos and journalist Lina Alexiou, she studied law at the University of Athens, where she was active politically and a member of the European Union of law students.

In her latest role, she has quickly found her stride and never misses the opportunity to voice her opinions.

Her numerous outbursts in five short months would be enough to easily compile a list longer than the 972 page document of new measures that Greece’s parliament debated over on Wednesday night, but controversy is not something new to Konstantinopoulou.

In her past role, Konstantinopoulou has most notably attracted attention as defence lawyer for the so called “cheese pie rapist” case. The case centred around a man accused of drugging cheese pies, offering them to unsuspecting female tourists and raping them. Several of the victims, travelling to Greece from overseas for the trial at their own expense, accused Konstantopoulou of deliberately delaying the trial for trivial reasons.

In parliament, her style is withering. She wastes no time in going after her victims, often coming down on them like a ton of bricks with petty comebacks, sometimes muting their mics, and is famous for her monotone, droning style of speech. She takes no prisoners when it comes to attacking her opponents, including accusing EC President Jean-Claude Juncker of wanting to “subjugate the Greek people.”

Considered a political oddity, abrasive but otherwise harmless, it wasn’t until Alexis Tsipras was forced to do a U-turn and come back from Brussels with some of the harshest austerity measures Greece has ever faced that the star he had helped raise to the top threatened to come crashing down on his head. That’s when the already strained relationship – they had had major disagreements about the government’s basic position for several months – threatened to fall apart completely.

To say that Konstantopoulou was not happy about the bailout is an understatement. She left Tsipras guessing about how she would vote right up until she took the floor during the parliamentary debate preceding the vote last Wednesday and launched into a furious tirade against the new measures. She called the bailout deal “a coup, a crime against humanity and which could lead to social genocide.”

Referring to the recent referendum results against which the Syriza government was now acting, she added “We don’t have the right to turn the public’s No into a Yes.”

Her open defiance was both an embarrassment and a challenge to Tsipras. In the aftermath, he managed to partially reshuffle his cabinet to sideline Syriza members who voted against the bailout. But Konstantopoulou stayed in her position, determined to oppose every step of the new bailout and insisting that she will neither give up her post nor be ousted from it. A growing number of Syriza MPs and left leaning political groups which oppose the bailout back her stance, creating a real headache for Tsipras.

In her latest act of defiance, she penned a letter to Alexis Tsipras and the president of Greece declaring that she would vote against the latest measures which included changes to the country’s code of Civil Procedure. Stating that she would not vote in favour of the new measures on Wednesday night’s vote, her letter said “This violent attack against democracy cannot happen in the context of the European Union. And it definitely cannot happen silently.” Tsipras has summoned Konstantopoulou on Thursday to discuss the letter’s content.

Love her or hate her, she’s one of the main reasons many in Greece now watch the country’s live parliamentary channel, grateful for how unintentionally entertaining her vituperative remarks are. Countless jokes and memes circulate online about her ball-breaking style, and in a country whose politics are so often dominated by men in suits making boring speeches, her biting comments and utter refusal to fall in line have singled her out as a woman who knows her mind and a force to be reckoned with.

Tsipras, however, who nominated her for her post based on those very characteristics might not be so grateful for the small rebellion she is now leading.

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10 Tips for Better ATMing

Source: Getty Images

Remember when we didn’t have to set aside part of our day for visiting an ATM? Those were the days! By now, anyone living in Greece has perfected the fine art of ATMing – can we officially call if a verb yet? Young and old, if we have a card, we’ve stood in an ATM queue. Here is your essential guide to the most efficient way to get through the capital controls.

1: Take Water

Volunteers have been handing out bottled water in cities across Athens to people queuing at ATMs, mostly the elderly. In this heat, water is important. You might not always be able to find an ATM with shade nearby. Keep a cold bottle in the fridge to grab as you head off if you can’t avoid ATMing in the sun.

2: Take a hat

Keep a hat in your handbag (for the ladies) or near the door where you keep your keys and other things you grab as you leave your house, for the same reason as above.

3: Find a Foreign Friend

Foreign cards are not restricted to the capital control limit of (allegedly) EUR 60 (more like 50). Track down who in your network has a foreign card, and ask if you can keep them on hand in case of an emergency such as a sudden, unexpected expense or a plane ticket to visit a hospital outside Greece. There is an atmosphere of helping each other out more than ever now, you’re unlikely to be turned down. Better safe than sorry.

4: Play Fair

If you yourself are in possession of a foreign card and live in Greece, stick to the daily limit so that the ATM doesn’t run out of cash that others need access to as well.

5: Know your ATMs

Know where the ATMs are in your immediate vicinity – are there any lesser known ones tucked away, for example outside a supermarket or a restaurant? Make a mental note of which ATMs are close to a source of shade if you’re not someone who can get to an ATM in the morning or at night (see point 6).

6: Timing is key

Early morning and late at night are good times to visit an ATM. Queues at these times are short. The other day I was downtown in the tourist district just before 10am when the shops are starting to open, and I found an ATM with nobody queuing at it which was dispensing cash. Jackpot! If you time it just right, you can be at an ATM when the clock strikes midnight, saving yourself an extra trip.

7: No Queue usually means No Cash

If there’s an ATM in a busy area that people are not queuing at, don’t waste your time. It’s probably empty.

8: Stay safe

We’re all walking around with cash on us now, which we weren’t doing before. Don’t advertise it. I sat opposite an elderly gent recently who kept taking out a wad of cash from his pocket, checking it, and putting it back. I hope no one with bad intentions was watching. Be as discrete as you can.

9: Avoid sensitive topics

Although things are peaceful, when you’re in an ATM queue, you’re there with a whole mix of people. None of you know how long it will take, all of you have better things to do, and all of you are frustrated. If it’s a hot day or the news out of Brussels/Syntagma has been bad, tempers fray easily. I’ve seen a few shouting matches in queues. Disengage. It’s not worth it. There will be plenty of time for political debate in other circumstances.

10: Keep Your Sense of Humour

We’re living in very strange times and it’s hard not to get down. But just remember, it won’t be like this forever.

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The Waiting Game

I wish I was writing this on the triumphant cusp of an agreement. I wish I was writing it without calculating my route today based on how many ATMs I’ll pass, which ones might have the shortest queue and factoring in “Queue Time” in my schedule.

The Build Up:

When the referendum was called, I was still in the UK for Hermes’ appointments. It brought home what an information vacuum that the circumstances we are living in in Greece today have been defined by. Information in the UK was scarce, and what was available was panicked.

I had no idea what to do. I called my husband “Should I leave the kids here? How bad is it going to get?” He reassured me that it would be fine to come back. And rightly so. Back in Athens, there was no unrest, no riots, no disintegration of the social fabric.

I spent the week before the referendum feeling the momentum build. Athens turned into a city with a one track mind. From old people to teenagers, there was one sole topic of conversation: the referendum.

I spent Friday evening playing with my children at a playground in my neighbourhood and wondering if I should go downtown. Both No and Yes camps were holding rallies within walking distance of each other. I was already feeling these circumstances, the ATM queues, the worried friends, starting to wear me down. As a freelancer, there isn’t always an outlet for my coverage to go to, so the trip downtown wasn’t going to be worth my while in money terms. Couldn’t I just stay and play with my kids for a while?

Eventually I decided the rallies were too important to miss and headed off. I was sure I’d missed them, but when I got there around 10pm, the streets around Syntagma were bursting with people. The atmosphere was electric. You couldn’t move. I became stranded in a small island near a souvlaki seller. Rallies (and riots) being something of a national sport, fast food vendors often pop up where they think they can do business. When I managed to slide out of the crush, I walked through the National Gardens to Kallimarmaro, wafting barbecue smells behind me.

Even in the darkened park, riot police who had been assembled but luckily had nothing to do, were sitting in groups of three and four and talking about the referendum. As I made my way to Kallimarmaro, the Yes camp appeared empty. This was interesting. I took a few pictures and doubled back to see if the No camp was still going strong. They were. The gathering had turned into a concert. There were too many people to get a good shot, so I climbed some scaffolding to get my pictures.

The Big Day:

By an incredible stroke of good luck, referendum day dawned with me running around Athens with a video journalist from the Guardian. Around Athens, talking to people, the same message played out.

In a taxi, the driver said “We want to be in Europe. We want to be a part of Europe. But not a Europe like this, not a Europe that’s always telling us what to do.”

Frank Sinatra’s Summer Wind came on the radio. How ironic I thought, listening to the lyrics. We listened in silence. “I’ve met Sinatra, you know” said the taxi driver finally. “I was a footballer for Olympiacos. I’ve met him in California.”

In Pireaus, the poor twin city of Athens where the port is based, and where Greece’s main production industry was based until it went bust, the mood was in favour of No with a few Yes’s scattered around.

At a kafeneio, old men joked and laughed with each other. In Greece, nearly all the media outlets, print and broadcast, are owned by oligarchs that push their own agenda. The impression we had been given in the run up to the referendum was of a society falling apart, deeply divided along socioeconomic lines.

Wherever I went, there was no sign of that. Two men joked with each other. I asked them if they’d been able to get their pensions. One of them, a Yes voter, said he had. “Ask this guy!” he said, pointing to his buddy “He didn’t take out any of his money from the banks!” His friend, a No voter, retorted “As if I have any!” They both roared with laughter at this.

The level of anger people felt became increasingly apparent during the day. Over and over again they told me the same thing: We chose already, we voted in January, Syriza knows what we want, why are they asking us to choose again? Forced to choose once more, they would do so, this time using the vote to send a message to Europe and say no more, we’ve had enough, we can’t bear it, it’s literally killing us.

During a break, I called my husband and dared to make a guess, “I think it’s going to go to No, and by a big margin.”

I had come down to Zappeion press centre with a dress for the evening and left straight for a good friend’s wedding after changing in the women’s toilets. As the sun set and the bride walked up the church steps in the golden light, tears pricked my eyes. I had been steeped in economic talk for weeks now, listening to young people in their early 20s who had lost all hope for their future. It was such a relief to have something so joyful to be a part of.

By the time the couple reemerged from the church in a shower of rice, the referendum results were out. No had won. On the way to the venue, the streets of Athens were deserted. Long queues began forming outside ATMs. My husband stopped and filled the car. At the wedding party, a plague of little flying beetles had descended on the venue. “Look at this,” I joked “Where’s the world’s media? We voted no and the plague has immediately started.”

Imagine, getting married on referendum day and arriving to see your guests constantly flicking little bugs off their clothes and hair. Luckily, the insects had dispersed by the time the bride and groom arrived. Across the city, No voters partied until dawn in Syntagma square.

The Day After:

The morning after the No vote, both yes and no camps were wondering what it all meant. If the No voters thought Europe would soften its stance, that didn’t happen. But if the rest of the world thought Greece would implode into chaos, that hasn’t happened either.

I spent another day as fixer for a really great team from the Guardian, speaking to many people in the central markets. At one point, we met a butcher from Pakistan and got chatting. He invited us all back to his little flat in Metaxourgeio. “The Greeks are good. If they can solve their problems, this will be the best country in the world.” he said.

“You’re my sister now” he said. He’s been here eight years and can’t get his papers, not from the Greeks and not from the Pakistan Embassy who I’ve been told more than once are utterly useless when it comes to helping their own citizens.

“It’s nice here,” he said. “Peaceful. You’ll come again, right? You must come again. Bring your family, sister. Did I know when I left home this morning that I’d meet my sister today? I didn’t. This was destiny.” he said. His eyes were sad. The more we talked the more he revealed about his life. He’d left Pakistan suddenly after his brother was killed in a bus accident.

“I couldn’t bear the pain. So I left. I had a big shop there, more than one shop. But it hurt too much to stay. When his son was born, he looked just like him. I couldn’t take that.”

He hasn’t been back since. He can’t leave. When he started talking about his mother, his Urdu slipped into Punjabi and I knew the topic must be really painful for him.

A story within another story. “Sister, promise me you’ll come again with your family.” he said as we left. I will, because I must.

The butchers in the meat district, the man in the fabric shop where I bought the fine white net to make a friend’s wedding veil and fabric for the flowing, luxurious belly dance trousers I used to make when I had the time. These are streets I’ve walked in before, shops I’ve shopped from, people who know me and who I know too.

Both living and reporting this story has come to feel very tiring. There is no off switch. I was fortunate that I was working with such a compassionate team, what they were seeing and hearing bothered them. Still, at times, I felt as if I was pulling the team along in a boat behind me, myself waist deep in the water.

What I mean to say is, at the end of the day, a journalist outside this story goes home and puts this story away in a little box. They stay dry. I went the same route as them, but I go home soaked through with the stories I’ve been told that day, the sadness, the frustration, added to my own constant worry about what’s going to happen to me and my family.

What Now?

Over and over, from my kids’ nursery teachers to the policeman in Syntagma police station, Greeks ask me the same thing: “You’re a journalist? So tell me what’s happening. You must know more than I do.”

Everyone is convinced that as a journalist I have access to some source of information that they don’t. Before, on and after referendum day, I got asked that same question. And again and again, I’ve had to answer that I know as much as they do.

We have no answers. Despite being in the centre of Europe’s biggest story, information is slim, and changes lightening fast. My hands are aching as I type this, too much has happened over the last few days. I did a telephone report for a Canadian TV channel. By the time I hung up, what I had just told them minutes ago had changed again.

On the streets of Athens, the public are starting to realise that the referendum didn’t actually mean anything. The new deal being proposed contains even more bailout money – the very thing the No camp opposed. Once again they’ve been ignored, once again they’ll be the ones that pay for everyone’s mistakes.

Greeks have gone into survival mode. We are living in an economic war zone. We live for today with no idea what will happen tomorrow. No one dares to guess. The public is shaking its head in disappointment, and topics of conversation have moved on to other things. This is a population so exhausted, so worn down, that they are protecting their very last asset, their hope, by not engaging any more in this political circus. They are carrying on as they did before, taking each day one day at a time. I can tell you, it’s a very tiring way to live for over five years.

As the owner of a souvenir shop told me yesterday, “How are things? Things are the same as they were before, except without money.” I stepped back onto the streets that, despite what you may have heard, were still buzzing with tourists. Business as normal, it’s just that our normality seems to change constantly.

Greece’s new, actual final, totally unchangeable, end of the line deadline is this Sunday. Today, they have to deliver a viable proposal to their furious European counterparts. As for what happens next, who knows. A friend of mine received the best answer to this question. “What happens after Sunday?” she asked.

The reply says it all “After Sunday comes Monday.”

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