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(From our man in Athens) ... A city & democracy up on stilts.

Athens is a city on stilts.

Walk anywhere around the centre of town and you'll find buildings propped up on concrete piles over cavernous underground spaces.

The reason? Whenever anyone puts a shovel in the ground to build something, an ancient site or lost temple is found.

Architects are then required to shuffle things around to ensure the archaeology can be protected, whilst also keeping the new building standing. The easiest way to do this it seems is to prop everything up on massive stilts, beneath which the exposed sites can be seen.

This technique is elegantly displayed at the new Acropolis Museum, around the Monastiraki metro station - and also in Greek democracy.

Last night's election result revealed just how many facets of representation the Greek public demands - from centrists, leftists, rightists and communists to neo-nazis.

Of course there is nothing wrong with this. Indeed, I like it. What is a representative democracy if not a means for the little guy to have his say as well the big guy? (Of course, the price is that we have to allow neo-nazis their say - but usually they do themselves no favours.)

This makes for a great & diverse legislature, but makes forming an executive a little more difficult.

In the next few days we'll see how the stilts of democracy here can be shuffled and rearranged to arrive at something that can support itself - and let light shine onto the exposed masses too.

(From our man in Athens) ... Syriza's "Castles in the sky"?

I spent the last week north of Athens at a magical place called Meteora. (See my video below for some clips.)

Famous throughout the Orthodox world, Meteora is home to "Castles in the Sky" - ancient monasteries built atop precipitous peaks of grey rock, each 150 to 200 meters high.

These fortress-like towers are so tall and so easily defensible that they have been home to Christian retreats since the earliest times. Until quite recently many were only accessible via ladders or narrow tunnels hacked through the living rock, however today they draw tourists and pilgrims from all over the Europe & beyond.

Each monastery is beautifully maintained with smooth new roads leading to wide car-parks where the monks’ BMWs and Daihatsu jeeps are kept. Inside the fortress walls, the churches and other buildings drip with the accumulated wealth of centuries, including dozens of stunning Byzantine artifacts.

At sunset, looking up from the valley these religious fortresses appeared even more magnificent and unreal.

A compelling contrast to the reality of life for ordinary Greeks below. 

As electioneering progressed over the past weeks, I got the sense of a similar sort of (possibly) unreal vision being promoted to voters by Syriza ... Reject the memorandum and revise the austerity measures - but retain the Euro and keep external funding. 

That is quite a compelling vision. In fact, it is so stunning it is almost impossible to reject. But the big question is can such a promise come true, or is Alexis Tsipras building castles in the sky?

Whilst in Meteora I spoke to the owner of the hotel I was staying in (the excellent Aoelic Star). 

He summarised what I have been hearing from many others - contempt for the traditional parties of Pasok and New Democracy as well as a suspicion about the promises of Syriza. But alongside suspicion also a resignation that they may offer the only way out.

The argument goes that everything else has been tried and look where it has led them? Maybe it is time to give Syriza a go. Surely it can’t do any worse. And besides Tsipras insists that the Germans will cave in, won’t they?

The TV ad campaigns wrapped up last night.

The only one that featured a party leader was that of Syriza, presumably because much of its image relies on Tsipras charisma. In an ad that appeared rather homemade, he talked directly to the electorate. I could not understand what he said but his message was clear.

I can save you. I will reject the bailout but keep the euro. Believe me. The Germans will not let us pull the trigger. 

And that's where the Greek people's conundrum lies. Is this vision a reality or an illusion? What will happen when he looks into the steely eyes of Angela in Berlin to tell her his new plan - and then asks for some more money to keep paying salaries and pensions.

Will she climb the peak with him? Or throw him off the top? 

(From our man in Athens) ... Casablanca syndrome & rising tension.

You might know the great flashback sequence in Casablanca where Rick, Ilsa and Sam are together in a cafe in Paris.

The atmosphere is festive. Champagne corks pop. Sam plays the piano. It is as if nothing bad is really going to happen.

War? What war? Maybe it is all just a cruel trick? 

But soon we hear the first rounds of the approaching artillery. "That’s the new German 77s," explains Rick, "and judging by the sound only 35 miles away". Suddenly it is real. Time to pack some bags and rush for the last train out of the city.

Now, let’s come back to the present day in Athens. 

Last Friday I met a great guy named Georgios thru a new tourism scheme called This is my Athens. It allows travellers like me to explore lesser known places & hidden sights with a city insider.

Well, our 2 hour stroll turned into an all-night bender as we first watched Greece vs. Poland in an Exarchia cafe, visited an Anarchists roof-top bar nearby and finished up by dancing to fantastic traditional music till the early hours.

Everywhere we went people were having a great time. Lots of laughter accompanied by the crack-&-fsst of beer cans being opened.

Crisis? What crisis? 

I said as much to Georgios. He agreed. Everything seems so normal. No panic, no worried looks, no packed suitcases.

But, it is not that people are carefree or reckless. It is just that the endgame is still so unknown. Will Syriza come to office & tear up the Memorandum? Will the fascists maintain their vote? Will the centrists cobble together a grand coalition? Only after the results of the election are revealed next Monday, will fate determine what really lies ahead.

Until then life goes on pretty much as normal.

Well, normal that is except for the tension I sense growing day-by-day in the run up to Sunday's poll, as news reports continue to reveal the price of political uncertainty.

Supplies of important medicines are being cutoff, major foreign suppliers are withdrawing from Greece and tourist numbers remain low. In addition, newspaper editorials are becoming more stark & frantic as opinion makers ram home their messages ahead of the coming vote.

In any event, we are coming close to the endgame. 

The boom of the approaching guns is starting to be heard.
How will the people react? We will know on Monday 19th.

(From our man in Athens) Evzones Economics ... crash, bang, whallop!

Anyone who has been to Athens will be familiar with the Evzones - the honour guards who stand at the grave of the Unknown Soldier on Syntagma Sq. They are best known for their traditional costume including some rather silly looking bobbled shoes.

Yet, you might want to suppress that snigger. 

Made of 3kgs of wood apiece and studded with 60 steel hobnails each, those shoes were used as a backup weapon during the Greek War of Independence and would regularly bash in a stray Ottoman skull.

So, woe betide you if you are stupid enough to get in the way of an Evzone during the changing of the guard. Rules permit them to kick their way thru any obstacle to ensure a path is kept clear. I have seen them at a steady march – and they are not for turning.

Which brings me to my cue.

Yesterday, I chatted with a student activist at a stand set up by Syriza (the coalition of the radical left) to explain their manifesto to the public.

You will be familiar with Syriza due to their charismatic 37 year old leader - Alexis Tsipras – and to the fact that they came 2nd in the recent elections and look set to win the rerun on June 17th.

The student I spoke to gave a clear outline of the Syriza agenda if elected, which may be summed up in Evzone-like terms:

Syriza will crash thru German, ECB & IMF objections & reverse the previous government’s bailout agreement in order to clear a path (as they see it) to recovery ... whilst bashing in a few bankers' skulls along the way.

Their gamble is that even though this means they will no longer be entitled to ECB/IMF funding, the rest of Europe (read Germany) has more to lose by letting Greece fail – so the funds will keep coming.

The key word here is “gamble”.

The activist I spoke to admitted it is a risk, but one that it is wholeheartedly believed will pay off.

When I asked what happens if Merkel decides “To hell with it, you are on your own”, the clarity of Syriza’s thinking seems to muddy somewhat. They perceive it as such a low risk, that a Plan B is not really needed - other than some ideas about diverting saved debt payments to public wages & pensions, etc.

Fanciful?

Well, it is easy to be hard on Greece from far away. Not so easy up close. Greeks freely acknowledge their mistakes and can see that whatever happens, many hard years lie ahead.

Agree with it or not, Syriza’s come-what-may approach is admirable for its boldness.

But keep this is mind, today as I watched the Evzones parade past the famous Benaki museum on their way to barracks, the last guard slipped & stumbled on the polished concrete. He was sent crashing to the ground and he had to be helped up by the assistant who goes with them everywhere.

So, for all our sakes’, I wish Syriza a steady & secure stride should they find themselves in office come June 18th.

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