For the Love of a Good Crone

triangle2One of the loveliest songs in the Modern Greek repertoire was written for the movie “The Misfit,” released in 1979. The film starred Pavlos Sideropoulos, at the time a Greek Jim Morrison, who, like Morrison, died from heroin addiction in the time-honored fashion of the era’s rock gods. The film was a flop when it was released, but became a cult classic along with the signature song.

The song is “Na M’Agapas.” It can be translated as “Please Try to Love Me,”* and is in the chorus followed by “as much as you can.” The singer is beseeching his girlfriend, writing to her at 5 AM out of great need and because, in his eyes, she is all that is left to him in the world. It is all terribly romantic and it is all about him and his desperate need to be loved.

An utterly unromantic version of the theme was one of the anthems of my Northern European youth: Johnny Rotten screeching, “We only wanted to be loved!” over and over again (for seven full minutes) in a falsetto bearing zero resemblance to that of Barry Gibb. Rotten is not addressing the one and only, it is more a cry for societal acceptance, but it resonated with his audience in both senses.

The need to be loved – accepted fully by another human being – drives the young to an extraordinary degree. Part of it is no doubt a function of the drive to procreate. Agreeing to procreate with someone is perhaps the most primal kind of acceptance: your genes are good enough to be the genes of my future children. Michael Douglas knew a thing or two, when he picked up the much younger Zeta-Jones with the line, “I want you to be the mother of my children.” He skipped straight to the primal crux of the matter and won the girl.

Moving through middle age as a female – becoming a crone – brings new revelations on the nature of love. The ability to produce children ends for women long before the sex drive and life itself are extinguished. Freed from the need for that primal acceptance necessary to reproduce, a much different horizon opens up where love is concerned. First and foremost it allows for genuine self-love, often a stumbling block in youth.

IMG_E4396When we search for that perfect set of genes in youth, we are not always so tolerant of how the genes express themselves. It may be a primal acceptance, but only rarely is it a genuine and full acceptance of the other person. We measure the love we feel we are given, and mete out the love we return accordingly. With self-love and resting comfortably in yourself comes the ability to love with no objective in mind other than to love. The wonder comes purely from being able to love, not from obtaining something – sex, marriage, children, submission – from the beloved.

It seems ironic that this ability to love unconditionally, innocently even, develops with age, when it is so craved by the young. With age, you also gain character, confidence, even a degree of wisdom perhaps. The wine has matured nicely, but the casket is scarred, stained and faded. To appreciate the wine you have to look beyond the outward manifestation to what lies within.

Especially for straight women, this poses a conundrum, since men do not experience the same liberation from the need to reproduce and find it difficult to overlook the stained casket (Johnny Rotten from above being a notable exception). More is the pity, since the forgiving love of a hearty crone might just bring the same wonder to the recipient as to the giver. Thanks to being a crone, however, she will be fine either way.

* For any language nerds out there, it is a hortatory subjunctive, the subjunctive being marked in Modern Greek by the particle ‘na’.

 

 

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Eros and Death: The Preoccupations of Childhood

triangle2As children, our summers were spent in a rickety, old farmhouse on a small island. The island had no library, but it did have a small cinema that operated two nights a week. Mostly we made do with the beach, the fields, and a few board games. I also relied on the one small shelf of books, books that had been left behind by house guests over the years. It was a motley collection, with a few classic novels for children, among them Heidi,  and a handful of short stories and novelettes by Blixen, Bang and Thomas Mann. The characters from the short stories became intimate acquaintances of my childhood, and I looked forward to visiting with them again when school let out for the summer.

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A still from Death in Venice, the film version: Tadzio and von Aschenbach.

Felix Krull, Mann’s rogue, shocked with his libertine habits, but his charm was irresistible, perhaps even an art form in its way. Then there was the noble and austere author, von Aschenbach, who, on a trip to Venice, lost himself in a vortex of fatal passion for a beautiful boy. It was lurid, yet sublime. Perhaps, Mann seemed to suggest, eros was the most direct path to truth and beauty after all, and art was merely a barren reflection that served to satisfy the vanity of the artist.

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Babette, in a still from the film version of Babette’s Feast, preparing the sublime dinner.

Yet Blixen’s Babette expended a miraculous lottery win in its entirety to perform her artistry, and for one magical evening it transformed the lives of simple people who knew nothing of art, much as Eros might have done, had they ever known him.

Herman Bang, who was an inspiration for Thomas Mann, but is otherwise little known outside Denmark, had a whole gallery of characters, sharply observed and rendered with a pointillism of words, tiny details coming together to form precise portraits. Aimée in Bang’s “Les Artistes” chose death through art, when her love abandoned her.

French-CoverEros, art and death. We were children, so the adults assumed we knew nothing of such things. Yet these themes were forced upon us by the behavior of the adults, all the more so because the adults studiously avoided mentioning them. I always had the sense that my preternaturally observant brother intuitively understood that these were the central themes of life. He did not have to know von Aschenbach,  Aimée, and Babette to understand this. He just knew, and the knowledge caused him much pain and set him apart from the rest of us. The book he loved and knew virtually by heart was The Three Musketeers. Clear delineation of good and evil.

My little brother and I played in the fields and in the bay near the house. The bay was shallow, so you could wade far into the water and still have it only come up to your knees. When the tide went out, the bay turned into a vast expanse of wet sand, perfect for making sand castles and strewn with treasures of amber shards, pretty stones, sea shells, and bits of glass sanded down by the sea.

In the fields and meadows near the bay, the grain and grasses were so high that we could hide in there and make nests. We liked to hide that way, to feel safe and at peace. When we went to the beach, there were the dunes to hide in. One beach in particular, called Danzigman because a ship from Danzig had stranded there, had immense dunes with many small hollows to hide in. There we hid from the adults, from eros, from art and from death, claiming a small hollow of reprieve for ourselves.

Rainy days were dreary. We would be stuck in the house, an ancient farmhouse with a leaky roof. Pots and pans would be arrayed everywhere to catch the leaks and the atmosphere was damp and dark. Nowhere to hide. On those days I would sometimes play board games with my brother to entertain him. Although a small child myself, I would try to manipulate the game so he would win. That way I could avoid his rage at losing. The rage, if it came, was not directed at me, but it frightened me. It was outside any kind of rage I had known – he would throw things and howl like a wounded animal. He needed control to allay his fear of what he knew or else the ability to hide, as we would do again as soon as the sun came out.

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Who Is Learning From Athens?

triangle2Documenta14 opened this weekend in Athens (opening in Kassel in June), under the title “Learning From Athens.” Documenta is an institution of long standing in the world of modern art. Based in Kassel, Germany, it takes place every five years, but this is the first time it goes outside Kassel. When the Athens leg of Documenta14 was announced, I asked a Greek artist friend what this meant to local artists. “Just the biggest thing, ever!” The reception has not been uniformly positive, however, and at least one inaugural event was doused with anarchist flyers asking, “Who is learning from Athens and what are they learning?” which is an apt question.

The buzz, crowds and excitement in Athens this weekend have been akin to what you might experience at the Venice Biennale. More than 1000 journalists have flown in to cover the event. There are Germans everywhere, and the core Documenta crew is easily recognizable by their painfully hip black clothing and dreadfully serious miens, exuding that particularly German brand of stolid earnestness. A Greek poet friend aptly nicknamed them “the Mormons” for their resemblance to Mormon missionaries in both dress and attitude.

CrapumentaWhen you parse the deceptively simple title “Learning from Athens,” it does imply that the people learning are non-Athenians. The Athenians themselves are presumably just living their daily reality, grim and glorious in turn. Some of those Athenians, and not just the anarchists, are getting the feeling that the “Mormons” are observing them, much as you might the monkeys at the Zoo. The attention paid to the monkeys is well-intentioned, an attempt to highlight the positive things we can learn from monkeys and their interesting past. But they are still monkeys, however rehabilitated and repackaged they may be.

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Event: The Athens-Kassel Ride: The Transit of Hermes, Documenta14, Athens, April 9, 2017.

In fairness, the Documenta curators probably don’t think of it this way. The tenor that comes across through the events is that Europe needs to reconnect with history and remember the key place Athens holds in that history, particularly in the history of European art. The other, related, theme is that history is not dead, that Athens as a trope is an ongoing event, connecting past and future. When wealthy Romans wanted to add luster to their names, they went to Athens to learn philosophy and, upon returning, adopted the epithet “Atticus”. By bringing Documenta to Athens under the banner of “Learning From Athens,” Germans involved with cutting-edge, modern art are announcing that learning from Athens, in all her facets, ancient and modern, is as relevant today as it was to ancient Romans.

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Event: The Athens-Kassel Ride: The Transit of Hermes, Documenta14, Athens, April 9, 2017.

Even if some of her denizens are feeling patronized and put upon, Athens has put on her very best face this weekend. If nothing else, the hordes of foreign journalists, artists, and art historians are seeing a city bathed in sun and covered in wildflowers at every turn. The bars and restaurants are hopping, and the fresh fish are flying off the grills. Easter is close, so a holiday air is slowly creeping over the squares across town, blending in nicely with the celebratory air of the opening of “the biggest thing, ever!” Some of them may also be moved to reconnect with the monuments they learned about in school way back before they got involved with performance art. It may be hoped that they will also delve into what is happening in contemporary, Greek art and that some of the buzz will last longer than just the weekend.

FullSizeRenderWhether they will learn much about the grim side of contemporary Athenian reality is more doubtful. Being holed up in nice hotels, with maid service to maintain the chic, black wardrobe, and dining out in hip restaurants on expense accounts do not lend themselves to engaging with contemporary Athens in any meaningful way. But they will be sure to admire the graffiti, the food, and the entertaining antics of the monkeys.

Photos by Going Greek, feel free to reuse with a credit to this blog.

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Is the Iraq War to Blame for Trump?

triangle2Debate has raged since the US presidential election as to why Trump got elected. Part of the reason, by common consensus, is that lots of people, especially in rural areas, feel squeezed out of the middle class. However, recently it occurred to me that a peculiar knock-on effect of the Iraq Invasion back in 2003 should not be overlooked as a contributing factor.

US-VOTE-REPUBLICAN-TRUMPIn trying to understand what moves the Trump voter, I have been reading comments by some of the more virulent Trump supporters on the FB pages of friends and browsed tweets, as they showed up in my feed. When exasperation or curiosity gets the better of me, I confess that my fingers may move over the keyboard to engage with some of these people. Recurring themes are distrust of government, conspiracy thinking, and reliance on news sources that are either outright fake or else make Fox News look like a paragon of journalistic integrity. Especially the latter was puzzling to me, given that many of these people are seemingly perfectly literate and intelligent.

02-fake-newsA nice man named Al was kind enough to clue me in. He explained to me that he had no trust in mainstream media, left or right, because these media outlets only peddle the view of the government, which also can’t be trusted. To know what is really going on, you have to resort to Youtube videos and alt-right news sites that tell it like it is. In simple terms, if a source presents views and interpretations of events that go against mainstream arguments, then you can be fairly confident that the source is on to something, according to Al. When I asked Al why he was so distrustful of the government and the media establishment, he cited the Iraq War.

03-mushroom-cloudIn 2003, polls showed that 70% of the US public believed there was a link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. That is a staggering number, considering that there was no credible evidence to support such a link. Al was one of the people making up that 70%, and at the time, he was in good company. When it became clear that he had been fooled, by a government bent on going to war, aided and abetted by a mainstream media and an opposition unwilling to ask the right questions, he got mad, understandably. Nothing has happened since to restore Al’s faith in the powers that be.

04-plameThat there was a coordinated campaign to mislead the public, in order to muster support for the Iraq invasion, now seems obvious. There was the notorious Office of Special Plans, established by Wolfowitz and Feith, where previously discredited bits of intelligence were scoured and blown completely out of proportion. There was the Yellowcake story and the subsequent outing of Valerie Plame. The Yellowcake story turned out to be a complete fabrication, the documents all fake, and their supposed vetting more than just a little dodgy. But it worked, beautifully, as that 70% poll number amply illustrates.

05-bush-blairThe repercussions, however, of playing fast and loose with government credibility appears to have had a long-lasting negative effect on the legitimacy of that government, and it is not confined to the US. The UK eagerly joined in the Iraq effort, under a Labour government, and the British public has not been too pleased either to find out that they were taken for a ride. Add to this that the demographic that voted Brexit and Trump has a large overlap with the demographic that gave up its sons and brothers to be blown apart by IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were all gung-ho to go kill the bad terrorists, only to find out that they risked their lives for a pointless war based on lies. They are quite right to be angry. Their distrust has become all-encompassing, affecting views on all manner of issues quite beyond the original question of Iraq.

06-boris-666709Since Boris, Trump, and Farage are unlikely to restore faith in government, it seems that we must consider that the only way forward is not politics as we know it, but investment in civil society and political education. Having the Democrats win the presidency in 2020 or reversing Brexit by some improbable maneuver will not solve the problem. It may seem like an age since Cheney, Wolfowitz, Feith, and their buddies gas-lighted the public, with the help and support of the other side of the aisle, but we are still living with the fall-out it seems. What faces us is the rather daunting task of having to rebuild the legitimacy of our democracies.

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Υγεία να έχουμε! – May We Have Our Health!

triangle2After some cold days with rain and even snow, Athens awoke to the new year bathed in brilliant sunshine. Staying in the neighborhood of Pagrati for the holidays, I discovered the back entrance to Kallimarmaro Stadium, which turned out to be a great vantage point for enjoying views of the city on a glorious New Year’s Day.

ksteps1Kallimarmaro is the stadium that was reconstructed and used for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. It sits on the ruins of an ancient stadium and follows the original design. The entrance for the paying tourists is at the front of the stadium, but at the back, behind the curve, there is an entrance for the general public. You can’t walk into the stadium itself from here, but you can access the well-used jogging track that runs at the top of the stadium, as well as the surrounding hilly park.

kview2This is the stadium where Spyros Louis victoriously crossed the finish line of the marathon at the 1896 Olympics, and it is still where the last lap of the Athens Marathon is run every year. If you are a marathon runner, you owe yourself an Athens Marathon before your knees give out, just for the thrill of crossing the finish line in Kallimarmaro. Ancient and modern history come together seamlessly in this spot, which is fitting as your gaze takes in a vast expanse of Athens, encompassing modern apartment buildings, neo-classical gems, and ancient monuments in harmonious confusion. The view backed by the snow-capped mountains that have been there through it all.

kacro2Standing in the midst of this crossroads of history, still pulsating with life, it is almost impossible not to have hope that the city will go on and that life for her inhabitants will improve. The current troubles are, after all, a mere blip on the timeline of Athena’s favorite town. Athenians are tough. On this first day of the new year, they are out jogging, walking their dogs, chatting to neighbors. You want to believe that good things will come of their perseverance.

kview1And yet, the mood is subdued. In the past, around the holidays, you would hear wishes of prosperity and progress in the new year. The Greek custom at New Year is to smash a pomegranate on your doorstep, the seeds representing luck and wealth. This year, the most common wish extended is “Υγεία να έχουμε!” – May we have our health! It is said with a resigned air to suggest that this is all we have left to hope for. It is, of course, not a small thing to hope for and without health, the rest quickly becomes meaningless.

kjoggersStill, without hope of better things to come, it is hard to see how long people here can persevere in their daily struggles. The sun is glorious, the views spectacular, and the joggers enjoying this historic track are steadfastly working on protecting their health. But it is not enough. Athens needs her patron goddess to kick into gear this year and provide reasons to hope.

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Photos by Going Greek, feel free to steal, but do include a credit with a link to this blog.

Revenge of the Wastelands

triangle2In the wake of the stunning upset to the status quo that Trump’s election to the presidency of the United States represents, people are trying to understand what it means and what the impact will be.

Trump himself and people in his entourage, most recently Sarah Palin, have likened his win to the Brexit vote, and the comparison may well be apt, for all that neither Trump nor Palin is known for having deep thoughts.

urlAs Palin also said in her comments, “Britain – we’re going rogue and the people are taking back control.” Instinctively she knows that the people who voted for Trump and the people who voted for Brexit have much in common. First and foremost, as her comments suggest, they are united by a feeling that they have no control, no voice – that they have been left out and behind. And they are right.

 

imgresWhat we are living through is perhaps the beginning of a new era, but it is definitely the culmination of a slow evolution over decades – an evolution that has finally reached a breaking point. What many people, especially those in power, seem to have willfully ignored is that we have developed a new economy in the West. An economy that is leaving a large swathe of the population in the dust, whether that “dust” is dreary council housing in the UK with a meager dole, being consigned to the encroaching, economic wastelands of the US, anemically fuelled by trade in oxycodone and home-cooked meth, or an entire country – Greece – being put in solitary confinement, economically speaking.

es_monopolioThe new economy is run on monopoly money and backed by ever-rising quarterly returns. If you can produce the quarterlies, you can get financing, and that is all that really matters. It is an economy of leveraging gone wild, as we saw in 2008, when the mortgage market collapsed. The subprime mess was, in simple terms, caused by a neat trick that allowed lenders to leverage real estate to the max and then leverage the same real estate a second time against the future. It blew up, but the principle didn’t die, even if about 30% of the combined principal of the West did.

imagesOne simple way to improve your quarterlies is to cut costs. So first you cut the bennies, a little. Then you cut them some more. Then you make your employees pay for their bennies, or limit their hours so they don’t even qualify for any benefits (remember Walmart?). You can also cut wages and you can move people off the payroll all together, while retaining their services, either by calling people consultants, which sounds high-class, or by using temps. When you can’t any longer find people to work for your measly wages, you can always move the jobs abroad.

Meanwhile, the people who do the really important and essential work of the company, i.e. the people who get the sales and cut the costs to improve the quarterlies, have to be compensated more generously. They get decent salaries, benefits, bonuses and stock options. There are also some people in the middle, who are deemed essential but less important. These are the people who oversee the everyday logistics of managing the temps, the consultants and the call center in Greece. They get paid just enough to stay on. Those people, the middle managers and their bosses, vote for Hillary or whoever the establishment candidate is, because the new economy is working for them and they want to keep things as they are. They know that things are tough out there, especially the middle managers, who live in eternal fear of being relegated to the meth fields.

Until this election, there were only establishment candidates to choose from, so the middle managers and their bosses had the luxury of expressing an opinion without any danger to their livelihoods, while the people of the wastelands simply didn’t bother to vote. If they did occasionally vote, it was without any particular passion or conviction, since they knew nothing would change for them either way.

3-20140320_faith_mag_flint_streets_3_0027Then came Trump and Bernie. Bernie folded, but Trump plugged on, largely taking the GOP by stealth. All those nice, polite country club republicans were convinced that someone like Trump couldn’t possibly win the nomination. By the time they thought again, it was too late, and “that man” was their candidate. Many establishment republicans voted for Hillary, George Bush Sr. reportedly among them. The people for whom the system works rallied around the establishment candidate, parties be damned. They no longer had the luxury of pretending to have political convictions. The problem is that this group is shrinking and the have-nots along with the have-barelies are growing in number and they are mad. Mad enough to trudge down and vote, if they think a candidate will speak up for them. It is a new movement born of the new economy and it has been creeping up on us for decades.

It is both entirely fitting and deeply ironic that this movement is being led by Trump, the biggest leverager of them all and the personification of all that is wrong with the new economic model. The establishment may still have a chance to turn things back to the status quo ante, but it will only be sustainable if something is done about the wastelands, real and metaphoric.

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Crisis-Schmisis

triangle2Sitting in Copenhagen on a cold October day, the thought of living in Athens instead is very appealing. You look out at the grey, meager light reflecting weakly off the dingy rows of red brick across the street and wistfully imagine seeing the Acropolis bathed in bright sunlight instead. Then you sigh a little, bundle up in thick sweaters and warm boots and set out into the city, because there is work to be had, unlike in Athens.

boris-558280The Brexit and the specter of a Trump presidency have drowned out the Greek crisis. Besides, the word ‘crisis’ implies a temporary state of high alert, not an endless slog that has become simply how things are. If a crisis doesn’t end, can it even be called a crisis? As in a war that ends without a proper peace agreement, the new lines in the sand eventually become the status quo. The Syrians still claim the Golan Heights, formally, but they and everyone else know that they will never get it back. The same goes for Northern Cyprus, by now occupied by Turkey for more than forty years. The occupation may be illegal, and Northern Cyprus remains unrecognized as a legal entity by the international community, yet it operates as a state and even the Greeks ceased to refer to the Cyprus situation as a crisis decades ago.

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Troika officials arriving at the Greek Finance Ministry.

Little has changed in Greece, in terms of how the state works or rather doesn’t work, since the economic meltdown so many years ago by now. The only real difference being that people are now much poorer. All that has been accomplished by the heavy hand of the Troika is the addition of endless new regulations designed to prevent tax evasion and constant adjustments to the taxes imposed. The VAT rate has been changed so many times, that most people have lost count. You can no longer pay bills at the bank with a €500-note, unless you show ID and provide your tax number. The assumption being that you got it from under your mattress, where you stored black money during the boom years. But if you show up with 500 bucks in 20s, that is fine. They are playing with the details, putting new obstacles in the way of business and adding further confusion to an already arcane and obscure system. This is apparently something called “reform.”

There was in pre-crisis Greece a peculiar bank custom, with the tacit approval of whatever government was in charge, of giving out gigantic, unsecured loans to media companies and other influential businesses. Loans that will never be paid back. One might think that Troika supervision would have put a stop to the practice, but it recently emerged that the bright-eyed new government carries on the tradition. A bank, Attica Bank, was designated as the dispenser of largesse, government-controlled pension funds and other assets were moved to said bank and then “loans” were dispensed to friends of the current regime. Meanwhile, collection agencies hound Mrs. Papadopoulos about the overdue €75 on her credit card bill and the “crisis” grinds on.

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Alexis Tsipras, with his right-hand man, Pappas, leaving the Maximou.

It is also widely rumored in the coffee shops around town that under Tsipras’ stewardship, government contracts are no longer signed by the relevant ministries, nor are the ministries allowed to tap available EU funds. The only way contracts get signed and funds get accessed is with direct approval from the inner circle at Maximou, the prime minister’s residence and headquarters. Syriza is a federation of small parties that came together quite recently. As such, the party does not have a well-established party machine the way especially PASOK did in its heyday, so Syriza has to keep control of the money among a handful of people. If there was one thing the PASOK machine was very efficient at, it was collecting and spreading around bribes. If someone lower down in the system collected a bribe, some got kicked up the line and vice-versa. Everyone knew what had to happen. This way, the daily business of government could keep running, in spite of widespread corruption. Now even the daily business of government is barely creaking along.

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Guy with hat: I don’t belong to any party, not PASOK, not ND, not SYRIZA. His friend: Now I understand why you are unemployed.

As Pangalos, a former PASOK minister, notoriously said at the beginning of the crisis, “mazi ta fagame” – we ate it (the money) together. He was right, although in true Orwellian fashion, some got to eat more than others. If you were part of the machine, you would get a bite somewhere. This was the way politics was done, in both of the mainline parties. If you belonged to the party in power and had paid your dues, maybe your useless nephew would get hired as a driver in one of the ministries or your wife would get a job in a government company, a job that only required her to show up for a coffee and a cigarette a few times a week. You don’t need to spend much time around civil servants to start hearing the stories, like the one about a car in one of the ministry carpools that had 24 assigned drivers, or the time when the director of the Acropolis museum was presented with 30 new guards he didn’t need. As long as everyone got to eat, nobody cared that big business interests were allowed to bleed the banks dry and drive the country into the ground.

What is utterly baffling is that these practices remain alive and well, after years of strict supervision by the IMF, Euro Group etc. You see the teams of young EU technocrats in the bars and restaurants around Syntagma Square on a regular basis, relaxing after a long, hard day straightening out the Ministry of Finance, but you have to wonder what exactly they have been doing to tire themselves so.

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