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Entries in Greece (4)


The most stupid international dispute?

While travelling around Macedonia it was impossible not to be reminded that Macedonians are victims of what must be the most stupid international feud still running. Since the ascension of the new Republic of Macedonia to the United Nations in 1993, they have been blocking from using their constitutional name. Instead, on the insistence of Greece and against their will, they are called the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (F.Y.R.O.M.). Greece also claims that Macedonians should not be allowed to call their citizens or their language "Macedonian"

What provoked this petty act by Greece?

First, according to Greece, "Macedonia" is a term that is only allowed to be used for Greeks in the northern greek province of Macedonia. Both Macedonias are named after the 2000 year-old kingdom of Macedon, a kingdom which varied in size but did include the modern Greek province of Macedonia as well as small parts of Bulgaria and a sizeable part of the Republic of Macedonia. However according to the Greeks, it is only people who are directly descended from people living in Macedon who are allowed to call themselves Macedonian. By this rationale, any Greek family that moved to Macedonia only 1500 years ago should not be allowed to called themselves Macedonian, what must be a record for anti-immigrant policy.

Second, Greece claims that the use of the word Macedonia is tantamount to a territorial claim on Greek land (it is not, just as Ohio is not claiming Greek territory simply by naming a city "Athens" - either that, or Greece is happy to bully a small country, but doesn't dare to bully a large one). The idea that a name can refer to multiple places seems beyond them. Somehow they have seemed to miss the fact that Belgium has no problem recognising Luxembourg, even though Belgium has a province called Luxembourg which neighbours the homonymous state. Likewise the US recognising the countries of Georgia and Columbia, despite having a state and a district with the same name.  

Third, Greece claims that people will think that Alexander the Great (also known as Alexander of Macedon) actually came from the Republic of Macedonia, rather than from the province of Macedonia. Actually, 10 years into the dispute, several Macedonia politicians have started to taunt Greece with this, but so what? Anyone who knows enough history to know that Alexander the Great was born in Macedon would also know that he founded the Greek Empire. And so what if a few people are confused? All of the "founding fathers of America" were born in the British Empire. Australia lays claim as "Australian" to any starlet that spent more than two weeks in the country. 

The other perplexing part of the naming dispute is that anyone bothers to listen to Greece. If Greece insists on acting spiteful, just let them. Why on earth should Greece have a say? Did anyone ask the people of the other 34 countries in the Americas if the USA should be recognised by the UN as the United States of America? My suggestion is that we call Greece "the former Ottoman province of Greece" until they grow up. And next time Greece wants something from the international community (such as a financial aid package), a non-negotiable condition should be dropping the naming dispute. And in case anyone thinks this is just at a political level, 95% of the Greek population support their government on this issue. 


Pseudo-democracy: Greek edition

I give the USA a lot of grief over being a pseudo-democracy, as well I should considering there are 10 million adult citizens barred from voting and nearly a 100-fold difference in voting power based on residency. But the home of democracy is hardly much better, and in the latest elections it has certainly declined to the status of a pseudo-democracy.

Consider this: the large right-wing parties gained only 44% of the vote, while the large left-wing parties gained 50%. Yet the new Prime Minister is from the right-wing ND party. Ah, but this election was not about the traditional left-right issues, it was on the question of austerity. Well here, the pro-austerity parties only won 42% of the vote compared to the 46% of the anti-austerity parties, and yet the new government is pro-austerity! In the May election, which was negated because there was "no clear winner", the result was even more striking, with the anti-austerity parties winning 60% of the vote.

So how is it that a majority of the electorate voted left-wing and anti-austerity, but ND - a pro-austerity right-wing party - is the winner of the election? Well, prior to these elections ND passed a new electoral law that gives the largest individual party a 50 seat "bonus", which is sizeable in a parliament of only 250 elected seats. This law was explicitly designed to give the two largest parties, ND and PASOK, a workable majority even if they only won 40% of the vote. In other words, the large pro-austerity parties were basically guaranteed to win the election, because they would pick up the bonus seats. The anti-austerity parties, by contrast, were fractured, so none would be able to get the bonus seats. The system is so skewed towards the pro-austerity parties that the 32%:60% May result gave a hung parliament, while the 42%:46% June result gives a win to the pro-austerity coalition!

This result can certainly not be considered anything other than anti-democractic. And worse than the US situation, where the abuses of democracy are archaic holdovers, this law was only engineered in 2008.


Conference in Corfu

I didn’t know before that Corfu was the center of Phaeacian culture mentioned in the Odyssey, and a major Greek power from 700 BCE to 400 BCE. After this it declined in importance, and willingly joined the Roman Empire to protect itself from raids in 229 BCE. It stayed in the Byzantine Empire through the breakup, with the aid of the Venetians, until 1207 CE, after which it was directly controlled by the Venetians. Control by Venice blocked give major Turkish attempts to overtake Corfu, making it the only part of Greece not conquered by the Ottomans (which accounts for why it became the centre for cultural revival). The Venetians controlled Corfu until they submitted to Napoleon in 1797, then in 1814 the British wrestled it from the French and controlled it until it was granted to Greece in 1864.

Our conference centre was at Dasia, on the beach looking out to Albania. The first day was filled with stem cell research and naps, with a late dinner in a local tavern, with disgusting quantities of food, and an embarrassing display of tourist-orientated “local” dancing. On our second day they rewarded our patience with B cell development by taking us on a tour of Corfu. We saw Roman ruins and Greek beaches, made slightly surreal by the ever present eucalyptus trees. We saw the British High Commission Gardens, and Pontikonissi (little Mouse Island) and Vlachernes Monastery. Afterwards we went through Corfu Town.

Little Mouse Island

The history of Corfu explains the Venetian style of the old town residential buildings in the town, and the twin fortress which dominates the skyline (with the old bastion build by the Byzantine and Venetians, and the new Fortress built by the Venetians and reinforced by the British, to block Ottoman invasions). Also of interest was the Town Hall, built in 1661 as an Officers club for the Venetian fleet, before being converted to a theatre (explaining the unusual faces decorating it) and now the Town Hall. The town itself has unusually dense housing, with buildings five or six stories high, and packed so close together that small squares were dotted throughout the city to give people a ventilated space to sit in during summer. The reason why the city is so dense is that the British prohibited the building of houses outside the city walls, and also mandated against the building of houses within a cannon shot distance from the fortress (resulting in what is now the largest town square in Europe, constituting a third of the total area of Corfu Town). My love and I enjoyed the chance to sit together in the square and watch the children play, before going out to the conference dinner at the Fortress.

The most peculiar part about Corfu Town was St Spyridon’s church. Plain on the outside, it is lavish inside, with a magnificently decorated roof and oil burners. Most strikingly, St Spyridon himself is there, the Bishop who took part in the First Ecumenical Synod of Nicaea in 325 CE. Or more precisely it may be St Spyridon, since after his death he was buried in Constantinople for a hundred years, before flowering on his grave and a nice perfume was taken as proof of his sainthood and he was dug up and kept in Constantinople until the Fourth Crusade. After the city was put to the sword by the crusading Christians, a monk arrived in Corfu carting a body on a donkey, and sold it to a rich family as the rescued corpse of St Spyridon. They built the church for their purchase, after which he became the patron saint for an island he had never visited.

The odd thing is the supernatural powers a supposedly monotheistic religion grants the embalmed saint. People come to the Church and pray to him for hours, and the priests open his silver casket for people to kiss him on his red shoes and through the glass to kiss his petrified face. Some days they don’t open the casket, where it is firmly believed that he keeps it shut to allow him to walk around town performing miracles, to the extent that each year the city buys him new red shoes to replace those worn out by walking (cutting up the old ones into scraps for the believers). Four times a year they cart him around the city, once for his feast day (12th September), once in thanks for a miracle he performed (when dead) of relieving Corfu from famine in 1533 (the Good Saturday Procession), the Palm Sunday Procession for deliverance from plague in 1629 and 1673 (deliverance being the island had a few people survive), and the Procession of the 11th of August (for the alleged deliverance from Turkish invasion). Very strange behaviour, it is hard to comprehend people doing this not out of tradition, but because they actually believe a dead saint wakes up and walks around in his new red shoes performing miracles.

Our third conference day was early T cell development, with interesting talks on microRNAs, alpha chain rearrangement and notch/wnt pathways. After two big nights the conference dinner was smaller and shorter, quite enjoyable to chat with people around a table. My dearest was horrified to learn of our Finnish dinner companion having his infant son in the sauna (only once he was old enough to sweat, of course) and letting him role around in the snow afterwards. The final conference day was the best, with excellent talks on regulatory T cells, IL17 and cytokine locus association. After the talks my brave fiancée and I went swimming in the cold ocean during the rail and hail with the two Sasha’s, then enjoyed the final conference dinner, before finally retiring to our flooded room.


Ugly Athens

Our last morning in Dubrovnik and my love and I both woke up very ill. My dearest was able to go on a tour around the town, learning about the old buildings, while I stayed in bed. On our way to the airport my love showed me the sign carved into a building near us on Zlatariceva by a cranky priest who lived inside “If you play with a ball here you will die”. We then flew to Athens, were badly ripped off by a taxi driver, and holed up in our hotel. The next morning we were both feeling well enough to take an easy walk through the city.

The city itself was spectacularly ugly, decaying concrete blocks thrown up without any taste, but rising above the concrete was the towering Acropolis. Wandering towards it we entered the archaeological dig at its foot, wandered through semi-restored Greek theatres and temples (including the Theatre of Dionsysos, built in the 6th century BCE, and the location where Greek tragedies and comedies first developed), before we started the climb up to the Acropolis. The Acropolis has been used since Neolithic times, first as a fortress, then later as a holy site once temples had been built on top. It was destroyed by the Persians in 480 BCE, and rebuilt by Pericles. The new entrance was guarded by Beule Gate (built in the 3rd Centaury) to protect the Panathenaic Way (which begins in the city below at Keramikos, and ended at the Erechtheion on top of the Acropolis).

The most obvious building on the Acropolis is the Parthenon, the largest Doric temple, built over an earlier temple in 438 BCE. The Parthenon originally contained a statue of Athena and the city treasury, but was later converted to a Church, and when the Ottomans took over, a Mosque. It was badly damaged in 1687 when the Venetians attacked the Turks in Athens, causing the gunpowder stored inside to explode, and some of the finest statues were taken by Lord Elgen during the British occupation. The best original statues were all in the Acropolis museum next to the Parthenon, which was delightful to wander through. While the Parthenon is the largest, the most holy temple on the top was the Erechtheion. This temple marked the end of the Panathenaic Procession, and the site where Poseidon and Athena fought for the city, Poseidon striking the ground to produce a fountain, Athena trumping him by producing the first olive tree. The temple was built in 420 BCE, and the most striking feature is the six maidens (Caryatids, modelled on women from Karyai) that support the portico in place of columns.


A final view from the top showed us that the part of Athens we had walked through in the morning was representative, and the city was strikingly ugly as far as it stretches, barring a very few parks with ancient Greek temples, and the odd Greek Orthodox church sticking out of the concrete. At the base of the Acropolis we walked through the ancient Agora, which was once the centre of civic life, where Socrates taught and Greek democracy flourished. The Agora was built in the 6th century BCE, but has been rebuilt many times, after being destroyed by the Persians in 480 BCE and the Goths in 267 CE, with the new centre later moving to the Roman Agora. The only building really intact in the Agora is the Temple of Hephaestus, built to the God of Metallurgy in 449 BCE. It is a beautiful Doric temple, with the classical column formation, and survived only because it was converted into a Church (travelling through Egypt, the Middle East and now Greece I wonder if the early Christians actually built anything themselves, or just converted every nice building they saw). After the Temple of Hephaestus we visited Keramikos, the classical necropolis, in almost complete ruins, except for a number of remarkably preserved statues.

We finished our day with my dearest taking me out to dinner at one of the few vegetarian restaurants in Athens in the Plaka neighbourhood, before walking home together past the Roman Agora and Hadrian’s Library. The following day our illnesses made a come back, so we spent the day in bed and my love set a new personal record in the minimum number of hours awake. By the next morning we had recovered enough to visit the Temple of Olympian Zeus, with the few stunning columns that remain, and to walk around the stunning Archaeological Museum, before flying out to Corfu for our conference.