Friday, October 19, 2012

My Greek Odyssey. Why Greeks don't pay taxes - hidebound by history (Ottomans, Church, Militarism, EU)

Arrived in Athens Airport, then down to the Herz area to pick up our car, only to be cut up by a Herz employee doing a hand-brake turn with a newly returned car – ah Greece! Then out to Napflion along the spanking new, three-lane motorway, as the troika of black German luxury cars (Audis, BMWs and Mercedes) zip past in the outside lane, at speeds up to 180km/hr or hammer up to your exhaust pipe and honk to pass, a derisory look is the penalty you pay for obeying the speed limit. (Countries where black cars signal political status (usually corrupt) have citizens who also are fond of black, luxury consumer models.)
The European-funded roads are superb running alongside the European funded, state of the art railway that is horrifically expensive to run and underused, as the main status item is a car. Fuel is expensive, as it’s all imported and we were warned by the car hire company that the petrol stations near the airport ‘sometimes run out’.
The driving is erratic, rules optional, and mobile phones seem permanently stuck to a large number of ears, zebra crossings are seen an inconvenience to be conveniently ignored and indicators optional. The casualty figures are, of course, horrific, nearly twice the EU average. The journey is a sort of weird metaphor for what’s happening here. Rich Greeks don’t pay tax so buy expensive German cars to break the rules on new roads paid for by the EU, many heading for a crash.
Greece’s problems go back to Ottomans
Napflion is my favourite Greek town and if you amble through the narrow streets and alleys you’ll see at least ten Ottoman fountains with Arabic inscriptions, an Ottoman bath complex, the crypt of the Catholic Church which was an Ottoman cistern. Look closer and you’ll see that many of the finest large buildings in the town, the Cinema, large concert hall, church and Catholic Church, are all misaligned in the overall street grid, the reason - as they were all once mosques, aligned to Mecca. It’s not easy to erase over four centuries of Ottoman rule, when Greece was governed from Istanbul and paid taxes to a Sultan. A little digging into political history will reveal the Ottoman’s long-lasting physical, cultural and fiscal mark.
Why do Greeks resent paying tax? For centuries the Greeks saw the state as an oppressor whose taxes went to a Sultanate of a different religion. It wasn’t until 1830 that independence from the Turks was achieved with the help of Europe. First, Ottoman taxes were higher for Christians than Muslims, leading to resentment, even conversion (its aim). What’s more, if a villager fled or converted, the others had to pay his tax bill. Second, during war, taxes rose, often inflaming the rebellions they wanted to crush. Third, they taxed different crops at different rates leading to inefficient switching to lower tax crops, much like the EU Common Agricultural Policy today. Subsidies often lead to lower productivity. Fourth, the Ottoman Empire was so large that they, by necessity, delegated tax collection to local despots who abused the system even further. Fifth, on top of all this the Orthodox Church was allowed to levy an additional tax. That’s four centuries of layered, oppressive taxation.
Now the 1830s may seem like a long time ago but Ottoman rule continued in the bread basket of Thessaly, Epirus in the West and Macedonia in the north and the Dodecanese Islands until as recently as 1913. Add to this the difficulties in collecting taxes from hundreds of distant islands and a mainland that is a collection of fiefdoms, separated by mountains and seas, and you have an on-going problem.
Greeks and Orthodox Church
Another, even older, theological hand reaches out from history to haunt the Greeks, the Greek Orthodox Church. There’s no austerity in the Kingdom of God as the Church has been remarkably successful in sucking out funds from Europe. Every time I travel in Greece, more churches are being built and renovated. Corruption is rife, as exposed in Michael Lewis’s recent book Boomerang. Just one monastery Vatopedi is reported as a dark hole of greed and corruption, with nearly 1 billion euros of government land snapped up at no cost.
This is a one-church state, with 97% of the population baptised into the Orthodox Church. Yet sexual scandals (91 year old bishop videoed naked with young girl prostitute, drug dealing, selling of antiquities and financial corruption) are regularly reported in the Greek press. On top of this is the stifling pressure by the Church on the state, so that even identity cards and bar codes have been a problem. The Orthodox crazies deemed them the marks of the Devil! No wonder they can’t collect taxes – the Church refuses to allow the state to identify its people.
Tyrants and monarchs
Even with independence in 1830, the first president was assassinated within a year, here in Napflion, by a warring Greek faction from the Mani peninsul. The bullet hole in the church wall can still be seen at that very spot. The solution, in 1844, to Greece’s incapacity to govern itself was the imposition of that old political prop, a Monarchy. But Otto was an autocratic fool who distributed power and lands to his German friends (German interference is not new in Greece). He was forced to flee in 1862 after a revolution. The next solution was another less greedy monarch, George 1, from Denmark of all places. But discontent led to the Cretan Venizelos being elected in 1910. He was a social reformer and wanted to side with the allies in World War 1. But the cretinous Constantine 1, who was married to the Kaiser’s sister, decided otherwise (German interference again).
By 1920 the Monarchists has routed Venizelos, the last really great Greek leader, and attacked Turkey. They were themselves routed and the ‘katastrophe’ began, years of massacres, population swaps and the growth of urban shanty towns around Athens. Constantine was forced out by the military in 1922 and ten years of military rule ensued. Venezelos returned to politics in 1928 but Greece had borrowed huge amounts and its economy crashed, spectacularly (sound familiar). Democracy was once again suspended by the military and King George II in 1936 and General Metaxas began a brutal, fascist dictatorship. This was to give way to an even more brutal, fascist German occupation for most of the second World War, with mass starvation, executions and deportations.
The post-war, cold war era saw the Americans consistently back right wind dictatorships and coups, until Papandreou came to power and tried to curb military power. Once again, a monarch, Constantine II, interfered, sided with the military and democracy was ditched in the 1967 coup.
This see-sawing between dictators, monarchs and occupying forces, embedded deep, defensive attitudes among the Greek people. Democracy may have began in Athens but it was never really allowed to take root again.
Greeks and Militarism
The Colonel’s Junta of 1967-74, really a CIA supported attack on democracy, gave the Greeks nightmarish, fascist rulers, who lined their own pockets and ruled by patronage, and let’s not forget the thousands that were tortured. Military spending in Greece was for a long time at a whopping 7.5% and is still at 4% of GDP, double the European average. Military procurement has also proved to be massively corrupt with even a Minister of Defence, Akis Tsochadzopoulos, being jailed for an 8 million Euro bribe from a German arms company (Germany again!), that sold them submarines they don’t need. When the military junta came to power suppression and state patronage went hand in hand and corruption was deeply embedded.
Golden Dawn’s fascist symbol, a barely disguised swastika, is to be seen in Napflion but this is no sudden eruption of xenophobia and ubernationalism. The Greek monarchy and many of the generals who ruled after independence, were explicit in their belief that the Greeks predicament should be defined in terms of race, a position encouraged and supported by the Greek Orthodox Church. What’s odd, given their experience of the second World War, is the adherence to blatant German Nazi beliefs and symbolism. A walk to our Hotel from the centre of Athens found us in an immigrant ghetto that was truly frightening. It was like a scene from a post-apocalypse movie, with groups of desperate people being hounded by aggressive police.
Torched economy
Even its Classical past has come back to haunt Greece. To visit Olympia, Delphi, Corinth and Nemea, is to witness something unique, the gift of sport. But there’s another ancient ruin to add to the list – the Athens 2004 Olympic site. You can walk freely around this concrete ruin and wonder at the lack of foresight. Even here that odd mixture of ‘heroic historic values’ was used to fuel ‘modern greed’ to produce weed-filled monuments to corruption and collapse. The failure to keep to schedule meant a cash splurge that, even today, has proved impossible to untangle, a project so rushed that no one really know how much was spent and where the billions went. The ‘legacy’ has been fatal to the country and sport - facilities that can’t be maintained and Olympians who get little or no support. The Olympic torch was the final act of destruction - a monument to greed and short-termism.
Greeks and EU
Robin Lane Fox’s brilliant book The Classical World tells the story of Greece as a battle between the values of democracy, discipline, even austerity and the lax values and luxury of tyrants and the Persian East. The Greeks have, unfortunately, sided with luxury (for the few) and left the rest of the population to suffer. In a period of cyclopean myopia, a warped version of democracy that saw votes bought by utopian political promises has resulted in catastrophe for the poor.
The country is awash with expensive, empty buildings and infrastructure projects that were never about long-term planning. All of this monument building took place under the cloak of European funds that could never be repayed. I met a Scottish lad in Brussels last year who was part of the audit team for Greek entry into the EU and he told me horrific tales of political pressure to lie about figures for Greece’s entry. The EU project has long since abandoned realism for optimism.
Greece, more than any other country is hidebound by history. Its landscape is littered with archaeological ruins that speak of more heroic times but also of churches that speak of two millennia of unreformed, dogmatic belief. Its more recent monuments have that giveaway blue symbol with a circle of stars – European Union. Allowed into the EU by politicians who put optimism above realism, the Greeks milked the system for all it was worth. With their leaders spent, Greece is an on-going catastrophe.
Now back at Athens airport and it’s here that Greece’s problems surface once more. The easyjet bag drop for those that have checked in online should be easy and quick, that’s the point, but it’s not. Our queue is held up as a Greek girl’s passport has expired, and almost every single person in front of us has overweight luggage or luggage that it too big. The floor is strewn with open suitcases, as unnecessary items are redistributed from one bag to another. What’s worse are the endless appeals to the check-in staff to bend the rules. One woman brought out six large cans of milk from her suitcase to get under the 20Kgs and put them in her hand luggage! Any liquids madam? The Greek attitude to travel is that everything is negotiable. Do Ryanair fly here? Now that’s a check-in I’d love to see!
Despite all this I’m a philhellene and truly love the place. I’ve been coming here for over 25 years and love the landscape, to swim in the sea in the late afternoon sun, walk in woods thick with the smell of pine resin. I even love the food, ‘slow’ cooked for centuries before it became fashionable; Greek salad, beef stefado with sugar sweet onions, suckling pig, stuffed tomatoes, calamaris, giant beans, tsisiki. And before you complain - they serve it tepid to enhance the flavour. Then there’s the archaeology, mythology, literature, and philosophy.
My own view is that Greece should leave the Eurozone, eliminate airport taxes and encourage a massive expansion in tourism. I can remember Greece before EU entry, essentially a non-industrialised country that was growing slowly on tourism. Suddenly, with the introduction of the Euro, it became an expensive and less friendly place. On this trip we traveled on empty roads to see empty archaeological sites, saw empty shops and barely heard a German accent. Stop the uncertainty, devalue the currency and people will flock to what is one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Art Nouveau
What’s the difference between Art Nouveau and Art Deco? Not as much as you would think. Art Nouveau came first with the likes of Mucha and Horta, full of rich sinuous curves that suggest sweaty, curvaceous sex. Art Deco comes later, more geometric, industrial and austere, suggesting, maybe, more, tied to a chair S&M. 
In any case, we (three lads on our annual City jaunt) stayed in the Hotel Central, itself a place of pilgrimage for lovers of Art Nouveau. It’s façade is unapologetically ornate, with the classic, organic canopy, nouveau font, interior ironwork on railings, lift cage and windows.
Not far is the Hotel Paris, again with its curvaceous canopies and flowing lines. But for honest and pure Art Nouveau, the Hotel Europa and Hotel Marin stand side by side on Wencelus Square (actually a long thin rectangle) more interesting on the outside than inside.
The Municipal House, a huge Art Nouveau building that attempted to create a Czech revival using modernism for municipal ends. The Topic publishing house and many other buildings have Art Nouveau touches that fit well with the many Baroque and Neo-Baroque buildings.
In an interesting twist, Prague’s main Cathedral (St Vitus) has some modernist stain glass windows, including one by Mucha, that shows St Cyril inventing the Cyrillic alphabet so that the Bible could be made available to the Slavic people. Other windows by other Czech artists attempt to do similar modernist things with the medium.
Wander round to the greatest unsupported secular building in the world, and you walk into a huge hall where there is no distinction between the walls and roof. The entire structure is a Gothic, ribbed cage, but look carefully and you see that they’re sinuous ribs. This is closer to Art Nouveau than Gothic and makes you feel as though you’re inside a stone Tiffany lamp. It doesn't really work aesthetically but it's bloody adventurous.
Art Nouveau, whether in Glasgow, Paris, Brussels, Prague or Riga, brings a city to life as it treats the facades of buildings as canvases and is fearless in making them look good. I like this. It makes a city walkable. Too many buildings require you to peer into them. Art Nouveau makes you peer at them.
Cubist architecture
As a counterpoint to Prague’s wonderful Baroque and Art Nouveau architecture is its Cubist buildings. Cubist….architecture? How can you take a style of painting that re-presents things simultaneously in different dimensions and apply it to a real 3D object? Well the buildings themselves seem to be ‘cubist’ in form and ornament. They use geometric forms for doorways, pillars, windows and the structure, of the buildings themselves. The word ‘cube’ in Cubism is a bit misleading, as the forms represented in Cubist painting, and Prague architecture, are polygons, many-angled shapes and slants. This is interesting as Prague’s cubist buildings do look different from different angles and use 3 dimensional form to create this effect. The different facets of the facades mimic the painterly effects of a Picasso or Braque, but in from not re-presentation. Although one could argue that the building itself is being re-presented as you walk past or view it from different perspectives.
Rondo Cubism
If you want to see the most bizarre and puzzling building in Prague, forget Gery’s dull Ginger and Rogers and head west to see the Czech Legionnaire’s’ Bank. It takes circles, squares (hence the term Rondo Cubism) and socialist motifs to create something you can’t really love, as it’s too crowded and clashing a composition. I’ve never seen anything like it.
What’s of interest here is the Czech rush to modernism after 1910 on the back of their increasing independence from the Hapsburg Empire. There are two aspects to this. First, they looked not to Germany for their inspiration; second, they wanted to do something that was their own. It’s no accident that the great Arty Nouveau movement in Prague happened at the same time. Similarly in Glasgow, Vienna, Brussels and Riga, one can see in these movements an attempt by more regional cities to assert and differentiate themselves from Paris and London.
At the same time Kafka was producing novels and short stories that still cut a modernist sabre through traditional virtues of work, law and the certainty of knowledge. Kafka is everywhere in central Prague but of course he is nowhere. On mugs, mouse mats, fridge magnets and tee-shirts, his face is everywhere but few visitors have read his work. Coming back to Modernism, my own view is that Kafka’s work has little to do with the streets of Prague, Judaism or historical context. Kafka was breaking with the past not reinventing it. Like Cubism, he was stripping the form of the novel and short story down into a formal representation of the subject, free from the realm of normalised perception. Stories told from the perspective of a dog, mole or insect look at our human predicament from almost cubist perspectives. The Castle and The Trial are stripped bare and leave the imagination to build interpretations on to the text. Kafka is not replete with meaning, he’s replete with the power to let you bring meaning to the text.

After a wipe out in their main gallery, where we did come across a ginger Christ, we came across a few good pieces hidden away. Prague may be short on quality art galleries. but it's not short on public art. 
We visited the Café Louvre where Kafka and his friend Max Brod hung out, until Brod was banned, which prompted the ‘Brod-banned’ quip from Ronnie. Almost as Good as Ken’s, when in reply on to an Italian waiter’s ‘Bueno’, said U2. I laughed -the waiter was bemused. I suppose that’s the joy of these trips – the laughs. You don’t go to Prague for the food. You can go to Prague for the beer. You should really go for the architecture (and maybe Kafka but only if you’ve read him). We walked for four solid days, ate reasonably well, and found a lovely local, tourist-free pub with good, cheap beer and plenty of atmosphere, where we supped every night. My third time in this city but I’ll be back.