Thursday, 14 September 2017

What In The Name of Zeus Are You Doing In Kavala??!!

Most of the Greek tourism ads feature pretty much the same thing – sparking seas, sun-kissed islands populated with bronzed, improbably long-legged beauties clad in micro-kinis lounging on a pristine beach or sitting on a bar stool gazing adoringly at some Adonis-like bartender mixing a lethal multi-coloured cocktail that will be adorned with a pink umbrella.
The Image That Launched 1,000 (Cruise) Ships
These ads must pay off because many of these islands ‘enjoyed’ a record number of tourists arriving by plane, ferry, private yacht or enormous cruise ships that deposited thousands of slightly dazed passengers (‘Tell me again just where we are, dear’) on islands like Santorini or Mykonos for a few hours every day.

However effective these ads may be, they tell only part of the story of the attractions of Greece. Yes, the seas are sparking and the islands are appealing. Too often overlooked, however, is that mainland Greece has much to offer.

We recently spent a fascinating week in northern Greece when we visited the cities of Kavala and Thessaloniki. Now, telling many Greeks that you are spending time in the northern part of the country generates the same reaction a New York hedge fund manager would get if he said he was taking a vacation in North Dakota instead of the pretentious playground of the Hamptons. My wife, for example, received a puzzled text message from a friend on one of the islands favoured by Greek A-listers. “What in the name of Zeus are you doing in Kavala?”

What, indeed. After a short flight to Thessaloniki and an easy drive on an almost empty motorway surrounded by fertile farm land we arrived at Kavala to join friends from Istanbul at one of the best hotels in Greece, the Imaret. The Imaret was built in the early 19th century by Mohammed Ali, an Ottoman Albanian born in Kavala who rose through the army and later moved on to found the dynasty that ruled Egypt until 1952.

Located in the old part of Kavala, the sprawling building is a beautiful example of late-Ottoman architecture with graceful domes, several courtyards, pools, and arched-walkways. An imaret was a multi-function building serving as a soup kitchen, school, and refuge. After the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s the imaret was used to house Greeks who arrived from Turkey. The building is still owned by the Egyptian government and was carefully restored to its current state about 15 years ago.
One Of The Courtyards In The Imaret
The old town of Kavala with its steep cobble-stoned streets retains much of the Ottoman architecture – so much so that we heard a Greek tourist remark that entire area reminded him of one of the Turkish soap operas that Greek TV loves to show.

The trip was particularly poignant for our friend Ahmet because his family originated from Kavala. He had brought a picture of his family’s home hoping it still existed. One of the waiters at the Imaret took one look at the picture and said it most definitely existed, right next to the school he attended. After trudging down one hill and up another past the magnificent aqueduct built by Suleyman the Magnificent we found the house that is now owned by the Greek government.
Suleyman The  Magnificent's Aqueduct Leading To Kavala's Old Town
That very satisfying discovery was compounded during a visit to the Tobacco Museum – still filled with the rich scent of the region’s basma tobacco – where we found a picture of his grandfather who was one of the leading tobacco merchants of the day.

Ancient history buffs will want to visit nearby Philippi, renamed by Philip II of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great) in 356 BC, but perhaps better known as site of a battle during the Roman civil war in 42 BC following the assassination of Julius Caesar when forces of Marc Antony and Octavius defeated the armies of Caesar’s assassins, Brutus and Cassius.

After a couple of days of light sight-seeing and delicious meals of fresh fish followed by Turkish sweets we headed back to Thessaloniki to meet other friends revisiting the past. One of the first things to strike you about Greece’s second city is how vibrant it is compared to Athens.

Perhaps this is due to the city’s progressive, outspoken mayor Yiannis Boutaris, who does not fit into the stale, sclerotic Left/Right rhetoric of most Greek politicians. Thessaloniki was once one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Europe with large Jewish and Turkish Moslem communities living alongside their Greek Orthodox neighbors. During World War II about 56,000 Jews from Thessaloni were deported to concentration camps. Today the once-thriving Jewish community has been reduced to less than 2,000. Most of the Turks left after the Balkan Wars or during the forced population exchange in the 1920s.
Much Can Be Settled Over A Bottle Of Wine And A Good Meal
Boutaris has made a determined effort to attract both groups back to Thessaloniki. He calls the Turks ‘our brothers’, and his efforts have generated more than 100,000 Turkish visitors to the city every year. He has also made special efforts to attract the Jewish community and has called the deportations ‘the darkest moment’ in Greece’s history.

The friends we met in Thessaloniki are Jewish with deep roots in the city. As we were having dinner in a lively neighbourhood one of them commented that our table reflected the rich cultural heritage of Thessaloniki with Jews, Moslems, Greek Orthodox and even a Protestant (me) all sharing in the ‘bonhomie’ of the occasion. It was a good reminder that breaking down barriers with good food and wine is much more effective way to heal ancient phobias than building imposing walls.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Can An Unprecedented Act Of Non-Violent Protest Help Restore Turkish Democracy And Justice?

During the stale pageant commemorating the first anniversary of the failed coup attempt, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan and his acolytes demonstrated once again their ability to turn reality on its head. George Orwell would be proud of this very, very cynical performance.

            He hailed the failure of the coup as a victory for Turkish ‘democracy’ and yet another  demonstration of Turkey’s ‘unity’ and indomitable will to resist all enemies – foreign and domestic.

            Even conceding that the followers of the cleric Fethullah Gülen – who now lives in the United States -- were behind the coup, one wonders how Erdoğan can talk about unity when his actions for the past 12 months have done nothing but widen the existing deep divisions in Turkey and destroy his already slim credibility abroad. He is furious that no foreign leader is willing to give him the credit he thinks he deserves for ‘saving democracy’ in Turkey. He fails to appreciate that replacing the democracy that existed in Turkey with one-man rule is not the best way to get the appreciation and applause he thinks he so richly deserves.

Under the state of emergency that has been in place since the coup attempt – and just extended for another three months -- thousands upon thousands of people have been fired and the jails have been filled with people accused of being part of a ‘terrorist’ organization. It’s important to understand that Erdoğan’s definition of ‘terrorist’ is wide indeed. The ever-widening list of ‘terrorist’ organization includes the followers of Gülen, the Kurdish guerrilla group PKK, the Kurds in Syria and Iraq who are effectively fighting ISIS, and many others. The list also includes all those such as Amnesty International and opposition politicians accused of ‘aiding’ terrorist groups.
President Erdoğan at the anti-coup rally
            Erdoğan’s claims of national unity were also shown to be hollow when at least half the voters rejected the controversial referendum giving him absolute, dictatorial power. His narrow victory, marred by serious claims of fraud, was much closer than he anticipated.

            Then there was the 250-mile march from Ankara to Istanbul led by the opposition leader Kemal Kɩlɩçdaroğlu and joined by thousands who marched under banners emblazoned simply with the word Justice. This unprecedented example of non-violent civil disobedience was in protest of the arrest of an MP from Kɩlɩçdaroğlu’s party who, as a journalist, had the temerity to publish a story with pictures about Turkey smuggling weapons to radical groups in Syria.

            The odd thing about the failed coup, as one European journalist said, is that it was more like a family feud than the traditional military coups that Turkey had become accustomed to. After all, Gülen and Erdoğan were Islamic soul mates for decades. Gülen’s followers had been infiltrating government agencies and the military for years, and Erdoğan did nothing to stop this when he came to power 15 years ago. In fact, according to Murat Yetkin – one of the few remaining respected journalists in Turkey -- the cooperation only grew stronger as the Foreign Ministry ordered diplomats abroad to give full assistance to Gülenist institutions and schools opened in remote corners of the world, think tanks in influential places like the U.S. and European capitals, and institutions in world-renowned universities.”

            When Erdoğan was warned that Gülen’s people were taking over the judiciary he said that was no problem because they ‘shared the same qibla’ – the same religion. In 2008 it was Gülenists (many of whom are now on the run or in jail themselves) in the judiciary who fabricated evidence against current and former army officers, journalists, academics and others who were thrown in jail on charges of trying to overthrow Erdoğan’s government. This so-called evidence was later shown to be merely a figment of someone’s imagination. Again, Erdoğan did nothing to stop this abuse of judiciary power.

            It was only in 2013 when the Gülenists began probing serious corruption charges against certain cabinet ministers and Erdoğan’s own family that relations between the two began to sour. Gülenists in the police released several deeply embarrassing tape recordings of the ministers and Erdoğan’s family discussing all the money they had amassed. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the final split came when Gülen opposed Erdoğan’s bumbling intervention in the Syrian civil war.Now, of course, the former close ties and cooperation are being swept under the rug as hapless AKP spokespeople are going around saying ‘Fetullah who? Never knew the guy’.
Kɩlɩçdaroğlu leading the Justice march from Ankara to Istanbul
            Erdoğan’s commemoration ceremonies rang hollow with the same stale rhetoric and the spontaneity of a Stalinist politburo address. Same old, same old. The real star of the summer political season was Kɩlɩçdaroğlu’s march, a truly spontaneous example of non-violent protest in Turkey. Many people equated it to Gandhi’s Salt March in India in 1930 in protest of the British tax on salt. Erdoğan was at times dismissive and then furious at his inability to stop this powerful demonstration of civil non-violent disobedience. How do you arrest a 69-year-old man marching 250 miles in the heat of the summer during the Holy Month of Ramadan carrying a one-word banner Justice? Many thousands joined this march that ended July 9 with a massive rally in Istanbul.

            It took another 18 years from Gandhi’s Salt March before India gained independence. We can only hope it doesn’t take that long for Turkey to regain real democracy and justice.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Has The Tide Finally Begun To Turn Against The Extremes

Has the tide started to change? Has the negative, extremist populism that has dominated political rhetoric for so long slowly begun to recede? Recent elections in Europe and the UK certainly give some hope to those who reject the hard-line uncompromising positions of either the far left or the far (alt) right.

            In France, recently elected Emmanuel Macron just saw his newly-formed party roar to an overwhelming victory in the crucial first round of parliamentary elections. On current form his party, La République En Marche, should win more than 400 of the 557 seats in parliament. With this victory, he completely overturned the political status quo by burying the traditional parties of the Left and Right. Macron, France’s anti-Trump, showed just how meaningless those traditional alignments have become, and in the process breathed some long-overdue fresh air and vitality into French politics.

He is now firmly in control
             He now has the power to enact the sweeping legislative reforms he promised to get the French economy growing. Among the first items on his ambitious agenda is reform of France’s notorious labor law that makes it very expensive to hire anyone and almost impossible to lay anyone off – regardless of prevailing economic conditions.

            Macron’s desire to introduce much more flexibility into French labor has – predictably -- incurred the wrath of the far left, who traditionally reject any move to relax the current strait jacket of regulations. Jean Luc Melanchon, leader of the far-left La France Insoumise (Unbowed France) has warned Macron that he should not tinker with the employment laws. The fact that his party received only a negligible share of the vote doesn’t seem to have made much impression of Melanchon. Like many people, he severely underestimated the desire of the vast majority of French people for a thorough, pragmatic approach to get their country moving again. Macron’s type of pragmatism now has the chance to do more for the sans culottes of France than anything the traditional Left or Right have to offer.

            As a deeply committed Europhile, another key part of Macron’s agenda is to deepen and strengthen the European Union. He has already moved to re-ignite the Franco-German motor of the EU. It is not all clear just how much Chancellor Angela Merkel shares his views about deeper integration, but with her recent comments about the EU having to act much more independently from the United Kingdom and the United States it is possible see much greater Franco-German cooperation for more integration.

They hold the keys to the European Union
            It is doubtful that anyone could live up to all the expectations that Macron has generated. He may find that using great power effectively is much more difficult than getting such power in the first place. Sooner or later he will stumble and generate a backlash from even his most fervent supporters. But, in the meantime, it will be fun to watch him trying to pull a country as steeped in tradition as France into the 21st century. Right now, he has the wind in his sails. One only hopes he is a good enough sailor to survive the inevitable storms.

            The reversal of fortune between France and Britain could not be more dramatic. After a startling election last week that saw the ruling Conservatives unexpectedly lose seats, Britain is now drifting rudderless in very dangerous seas. For years the British political and chattering classes have used France as a shining example of why Britain must leave the European Union. “How can we be tied to this failing enterprise called the European Union? Just look at France! What a mess! They will never get out of that hole.”

            Now, it is suddenly Britain that looks old and bungling compared with the youth and vitality across the channel. Macron is only 39, while British Prime Minister Theresa May looks very old and haggard at 60. We are already hearing voices that maybe the so-called Hard Brexit – a complete break from the EU – might not be the smartest thing to push for at this time. These concerns are supported by recent economic data that show Britain at the bottom of the league table. First quarter growth in Britain was only 0.2% while the Eurozone recorded growth in the same period of 0.6%. The much-derided Euro has also picked up strength against Sterling.

Whoops! This wasn't supposed to happen.
            We were recently in Holland, traditionally a strong British ally, and heard almost a sigh of relief at the prospect of Britain leaving the EU. “For years, all they did was say ‘no’ to every initiative for closer European integration. They wanted to opt out from this, opt out from that. In short, they always fought harder for British exceptionalism than for the whole concept of a strong European Union. It will be a relief to have them gone. Now we can get on with things,” said one senior Dutch executive.

            I doubt that Macron will be in a mood to do Britain any favors in the upcoming Brexit negotiations. I expect him to pay much more attention to moving his aggressive EU agenda forward than worrying about Britain’s continued relations – if any – with the union.

            The anticipated re-election of Chancellor Merkel in Germany and the election results in Holland and France demonstrate that, in Europe at least, the vast majority of voters want nothing to do with political extremes. They want solutions to their problems, not the theoretical rantings of the extreme Left or Right. It remains to be seen if the shock results in Britain will have the same results.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Anger, Fear, Resignation Of The NO Voters Who Believe They Were Cheated

Superficially, the heart of Istanbul, the beautiful city rich in history that sits along the Bosphorus, is hanging on – barely. The hideous tsunami of concrete skyscrapers ruining the classic silhouette of the famous city encroaches from all sides with every passing day. The drive from the airport to the city used to be one of the most beautiful anywhere. You had the sea on one side and well-laid-out flower beds on the other. Now, it’s like driving down a dark tunnel with no view of anything.

Worse than the aesthetic and historical damage are the barely suppressed anger, fear, resignation, depression among the at least 49% who voted against the constitutional changes giving President Tayyip Erdoğan total control. Convinced that victory was stolen from them by complete fraud the opponents of Erdoğan’s power grab are thrashing around trying to come up with an effective response. The one heartening note for the NO voters is that Erdoğan lost all the major cities, including previously solid Erdoğan districts in Istanbul. Perhaps this development will form the basis for a serious challenge to Erdoğan in the next election. But never underestimate the ability of the opposition to shoot itself in both feet.
So much for the once-beautiful skyline of Istanbul
After changing the election rules while the vote was being counted the High Election Commission has been proven to be completely useless. The courts are no better. Essentially there are no genuinely independent institutions or internationally recognized law in Turkey.

Some have given up and already moved to Europe or the United States. Many of these wisely got EU or American passports several years ago. According to Greek reports more than 200 Turkish citizens have boosted the Greek real estate market by buying houses and flats there.

As one Turkish friend with a brand new Athenian apartment put it, “Tsipras is a loose cannon, but he is tightly controlled by the EU. There is nothing at all controlling Erdoğan. He is flat out dangerous.”
Who knows? Your new neighbor in Kolonaki could be Turkish
Other wealthy Turks now spend their holidays in Greece’s garden spots like Spetses, or Porto Heli. The attractions of Greece extend beyond tourism, however. One major Turkish company is having its annual senior management retreat at the Grand Bretagne Hotel in Athens. One of Turkey’s leading groups, the Doğuş Group, has made major investments in Greece by purchasing the Athens Hilton, joining the partnership in the redevelopment of the Astir Palace, and buying five marinas. This is just part of a trend where Turkish companies are investing outside Turkey at much faster rate than inside Turkey.

Still others are very concerned about their children’s education, and are looking all over Europe and the U.S. for schools. “This government wants to produce a generation of morons with frontal lobotomies that simply accepts everything by rote, never questions anything and certainly never criticizes anything. My kids deserve more." As if to confirm this fear the government recently banned the internet encyclopedia Wikipedia because it contained information that was insufficiently pro-Erdoğan. Knowledge unfiltered by the Reis can be a dangerous thing according to the government.

Meanwhile, the Turkish economy continues its dangerous downward slide. Inflation and unemployment continue to raise despite government spokesmen laughingly saying the problem is ‘under control.’ The only way the government can secure funds for the public works projects that feed Erdoğan’s close circle of friends and family is the increasing resort to Treasury guarantees – guarantees that cover everything from revenue from public/private projects and debt held by the contractors of these projects, some of the private bank debt issued to exporters and small/medium sized businesses. There is even talk of making the state the payer of last resort for mandated severances payments that companies must pay each employee according to seniority when they leave. In order to save cash and make the books look better, many companies don’t set aside enough money for these payments. Now the government is considering if it should bail the companies out and assume these payments. One Turkish investment banker in London laughed when discussing these guarantees. "It's the perfect set-up. There is absolutely no way for one of the favored contractors or concessionaires to lose money. This government will make sure they get bailed out regardless of the hit to the Treasury."

The most troubling part of all these guarantees is that there is absolutely no transparency. No one, certainly not the hapless taxpayer, has any idea of the details of this potential serious hit to the Turkish treasury and ultimately to his wallet. But, then again, why would you make these deals transparent if that very transparency would undermine the fantasy that you are trying to get the Turkish people to believe?

However, before people start thinking that any looming economic collapse will shake Erdoğan’s throne they should recall some other countries where dictators have not been affected by weak economies.

“Think about places like Zimbabwe, Russia, North Korea and Venezuela. All these economies are suffering and the ordinary people are in tough straits. The ruling clique stays in power by throwing the democratic rule book out the window and making its friends rich. Essentially the people are stuffed.”

Despite all the turmoil and disappointment one young NO voter estimates that most of his fellow NO voters will hunker down and try to make the best of a bad situation. Family ties, professional lives and a strong loyalty toward a vision of what Turkey could be will keep them in their native country, and perhaps form the core of resistance to turning Turkey into just another 3rd world dictatorship. One can hope.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Forget Politics For A Moment. Food Is The Real Passion In Most Of France.

LIBOURNE, France – This town in the heart of the Gironde region of southwestern France sits on the bank of the broad Dordgone River and is surrounded by some of the most expensive vineyards in the world.  Names like Petrus, Cheval Blanc, or Figeac are just some of the names that attract very deep-pocketed wine buyers from all over the world.

But most of the time vineyards are a sedate sort of business. Major activity seems to come in spurts at different times of the year, and there is almost a reverential attitude toward the vines. The vines and the red gold that comes from them are discussed in the hushed tones that one might expect in a church or a Swiss bank vault. But then again, you might have to open that vault to buy a bottle or two.

No, for real activity and a real sense of La France Profonde – Deep France -- one must visit the open air market that takes place three times a week in the arcaded center of the town. In this market and others just like it across the country you get a real sense of what  French people consider important – food. It’s not just food, however. If the spirit moves you can pick up a nifty hat, a pair of shoes, a shirt, a couple of plates or just about anything you can think of.
Food markets have been held in this square for centuries
Seeing the food is one thing. Actually getting what you want, however, is something altogether more difficult. You are competing against experienced French housewives with massive carrier bags or pulling trolleys the size of your basic Range Rover intent on getting that luscious looking entrecôte you had your eye on. Their strategy and aggression would put the French national rugby scrum to shame. Just as you think you have caught the eye of the butcher a sharpish elbow to the ribs takes you momentarily out of the game. A few more incidents like that and you might just join their husbands who have long ago learned the futility of offering an opinion on a certain vegetable or piece of meat. They have now been relegated to a special section where they sip their coffee while waiting to be told where to go next.

Good luck getting that cut of meat you wanted
And the food is discussed with real passion. The different cuts of meat or poultry, the quality of the animal or what it ate are discussed with an almost religious fervor that the Jesuits would appreciate.  And the debate is no less fervent for the fruits and vegetables. “Well, of course, you do understand, don’t you, that while the Spaniards do produce strawberries, one isn’t quite sure exactly where they come from or how they’re grown.”  The stall holder will then inform you of the provenance of his own strawberries and how they come from a long line of good respectable French strawberries.
If you don't want the meat there's always the daily fresh fish catch

            And then there are the cheeses. None less than Charles de Gaulle moaned about the difficulty of running a country that had at least 246 different types of cheeses. He had a point. Just about all of those varieties, and then some, are on display, and you are encouraged to sample the subtle – very subtle – differences between this brie or that brie, Comté aged for different lengths of time, and many, many more.

Is this what makes France difficult to govern?

           Now that the taste buds in your mouth are clanging like church bells you move on to the shell fish. Huge baskets are over-flowing with oysters, clams, or scallops from the Bay of Arcachon about an hour away on the Atlantic coast. You think about buying some. And then you think again about your skills of opening an oyster without slicing off at least one of your fingers. Best leave that task to the experts.

            While my wife is off haggling about the price of fresh asparagus – white or green -- in her perfect French, I head to the nearby stalls filled with fresh paté. My French isn’t awful, but I have to admit that the names of some of the ingredients of these patés escaped me. I just nodded sagely, took the offered sample, tried not to gag and moved smartly onto the instantly recognizable foie gras.

            By this time your shopping bag is feeling a little heavy and it’s time to look around for a friendly patisserie that would offer a chair and a coffee to go with that nice looking, fresh pain au chocolat.  The first one went down so well that it had to be followed with another. Finally, it was time to lug the stuffed shopping bag, now containing the obligatory baguette or two, back to the car and head home.

            Now the real challenge begins. Just what do you do with all your purchases that seem to include enough food to feed several small countries? Well, this is France, after all. And figuring out what to do with food is something they do very, very well.