Posts Tagged 'Piraeus'

Twilight of the idols

By Harry van Versendaal

The most poignant message to come out of Greece’s latest ballot was that Golden Dawn, the xenophobic party with the meander emblem that closely resembles the swastika, is here to stay.

Many people had hoped that a number of high-profile, controversial incidents that occurred after an inconclusive vote last month would put voters off by exposing the true character of the party.

They were wrong. Golden Dawn eventually managed to hold its ground and once again secure some 7 percent of the national vote, vindicating those experts who claim that the structural conditions are in place to guarantee that the Greek neo-Nazi party won’t be just a flash in the pan. This would mean that even if the economic crisis were to disappear, the extremist threat would remain.

“I think that Greece’s historical conditions and institutional shortcomings have played a more important role in the party’s rise than the economic crisis,” says Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political science professor at Panteion University in Athens. “Golden Dawn has been strengthened by the collapse, or in any case perceived collapse, of the country’s party and political system,” she adds. The party has tried to exploit this by relying on anti-systemic, highly divisive discourse to attract support. “I’d like to thank the hundreds of thousands of Greeks who did not ‘correct’ their vote, as they were urged to do by paid journalists and propagandists, and stayed on the side of Golden Dawn,” party boss Nikos Michaloliakos said in a televised message after Sunday’s vote.

Over the past 10 years, public surveys have consistently found Greeks to have among the lowest rates of trust in political institutions when ranked with their European counterparts. Asked to rate their trust in politicians on a scale of 0 to 10 in a European Social Survey in 2002, 80 percent gave responses from 0 to 5. By 2010, this percentage had gone up to 96 percent.

The economic crisis has been a catalyst that has accelerated the dismantling of a deeply dysfunctional political status quo. Greece, which depends on a EU/IMF bailout to stay afloat, is currently in its fifth year of recession. Brutal salary and pension cuts, and a significant drop in the minimum wage to under 400 euros, have failed to put the brakes on unemployment, which skyrocketed to a record 22.6 percent in the first quarter of 2012. Textbook stuff. The tumultuous economic environment and soaring crime, in part a result of unchecked immigration into the country, have pushed big chunks of disenchanted, angry or simply insecure people to the far right. The Golden Dawn party was elected on a platform of kicking all immigrants out of the country and placing land mines along the Greek border with Turkey.

“The degradation of public order, the ghettoization of large parts of downtown Athens, and the rise in crime and insecurity are the primary vote-getters for Golden Dawn in Greece’s urban centers,” says Stathis Kalyvas, a political science professor at Yale.

With the exception of multiculti idealists on the left, most people here are ready to acknowledge the disruptive fallout from the massive influx of clandestine immigrants. According to Frontex, the European Union’s border agency, 57,000 illegal immigrants — from Africa, Asia and the Middle East — were recorded trying to cross the Greek borders in 2011. More than 1 million are believed to live in Athens today. Under the EU’s Dublin II regulations, Greece has to accommodate all migrants entering the bloc via its borders; transit to other EU countries is not permitted. With the economic downturn resulting in a lack of jobs, many of them are stuck in limbo, unable to move into another European country or back home. Some resort to crime to survive.

Greece’s handling of the problem leaves a lot to be desired. Chronic neglect has been interrupted by sporadic, knee-jerk campaigns — mostly publicity stunts aimed at appeasing voters. Prompted by the rise of xenophobic, anti-immigrant sentiment, bigger parties have cynically toughened their rhetoric and signed up for heavy-handed measures like the construction of a 12.5-kilometer razor-wire-topped fence along the Turkish border in the northeast. Critics say that government policies such as so-called sweep operations and the construction of detention camps have legitimized hardline policies, while often making xenophobic phraseology part of the political mainstream.

“Politicians have in the past couple of years appeared to aim to further polarize the migration issue, as if they were trying to deflect people’s attention from other issues. But the policy has backfired,” blogger Achilleas Plitharas says. That said, he is less willing to share another oft-heard view, mostly shared among centrist liberals here, that leftist tolerance of anti-establishment acts and language — like the makeshift gallows in Syntagma Square and slogans about the 1967 military regime — in fact helped prepare the ground for the rise of Golden Dawn.

“I don’t think that the vast majority of those protesters went down some neofascist path. Nor do I believe that the Indignant movement pushed people toward Golden Dawn,” Plitharas says of the massive anti-austerity demonstrations in Athens last year, adding however that the extremist party has tried to exploit the tense political environment.

Youth magnet

Unlike mainstream political parties that seek to establish a balanced organizational presence across the country, Golden Dawn always tries to first establish itself in specific areas where it finds fertile ground. “They seek to establish strongholds first; they then try to diffuse their power across the country. Now we’re in the diffusion phase,” Georgiadou explains. The party, which will now be entitled to some 3.5 million euros in state subsidies, scored its biggest shares of the vote in the center of Athens, Piraeus’s second constituency and in other smaller urban centers across the country including Laconia, Messinia and Corinthos, where it grabbed a stunning 11.1 percent.

Golden Dawn has been a magnet for young voters, placing second in the 18-24 age group. Experts attribute its strong appeal to the declining influence of ideology among younger generations and to a weak historical consciousness. “Younger generations are not aware of the negative repercussions that authoritarian regimes have had on the country. I am not sure if the ’junta’ means anything to a 18-year-old today,” Georgiadou says. Commentators have been surprised to see the party, which officially denies any Nazi leanings, attracting votes in places of WWII atrocities like Distomo, Kalavryta, Kaisariani and the village of Kommeno in Arta.

In a world where traditional institutions of authority have lost their sway and credibility, Golden Dawn understandably offers a vigorous, vitalist alternative that strikes a chord with young people. “Its emphasis on collective action, uniform-like garb, and a local presence supplies elements of structure to many youths who feel dejected, aren’t inspired by what they see as a cynical culture around them, and are no longer able to accede to the consumerist culture that had come to dominate Greek society,” Kalyvas says.

Six weeks elapsed between the two ballots as Greece struggled to find its political footing. Local media and journalists who had previously snubbed the extremist party altered their stance in a bid to expose it in the eyes of a purportedly misguided electorate. But pollsters were surprised to discover that a number of controversial incidents, most infamously the attack by Golden Dawn spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris against two female leftist deputies during a live televised debate, actually worked in the party’s favor. As one commentator put it, when it comes to fascists, violence is porn.

“What took place between those two elections was pretty much inconsequential,” according to writer and blogger Thodoris Georgakopoulos. “Golden Dawn voters applaud violence and hate speech. Those vulgar displays only reinforced a choice they had already made,” he says.

After the election on May 6, which saw the party enter Parliament for the first time, attacks on immigrants by suspected right-wing extremists have become a regular occurrence. A Pakistani man was stabbed at Attiki metro station, near central Athens, after the vote on Sunday. Police detained 25 people believed to have been involved in the assault but they were all set free after the victim failed to identify any of them. Victims have in the past been warned against identifying their attackers or face been beaten up. A quick browse through the social media reveals that the TV studio attack failed to invite universal condemnation. Even fewer Greeks would identify with the stabbed victim, a foreigner. “After all, such incidents are very rarely shown on TV and, as a result, many people may not even believe that they’ve even taken place,” Georgiadou says.

Free rein

Banning Golden Dawn is obviously not a solution. “Even if there were a way to disband this party immediately, its voters would still be there among us,” according to Georgakopoulos, who also falls behind the truism that hatred, racism and bigotry must be rooted out of schools as well as homes. Most liberal analysts would agree that it’s better to let extremists expose themselves to ridicule and historical scrutiny than pose as martyrs. At the same time, there is an equally important need to separate despicable ideas from criminal acts like organized attacks against immigrants. For Kalyvas, “Golden Dawn benefits from both the tolerant ethos of the Greek polity and the collapse of public order and the justice system.” After Kasidiaris struck Liana Kanelli of the Greek Communist Party, a prosecutor ordered his arrest on the grounds of attempted grievous bodily harm. The 31-year-old former commando lay low until the arrest warrant expired while police launched a rather unconvincing manhunt to trace him. Allegations of police bias are not uncommon. Questions have been raised after footage from demonstrations emerged showing members of the party and policemen on friendly terms. Figures indicate that an unusually high percentage of Athens police officers — some reports put it at up to 50 percent — voted for Golden Dawn in the past two elections.

Plitharas expects that Golden Dawn’s presence in Parliament, where it won 18 seats, will help undermine its influence. “It will be like exposing a vampire to light,” he says. But it won’t be enough. After all, he says, the biggest problem with Golden Dawn is not its presence in the House during the day but rather the legitimation of its free rein in the streets of the city during the night. “If you can freeze the organization’s nighttime activity, it will then be easier to curb its dynamism; it will be like its blood transfusions have stopped,” he says, emphasizing that the first step of the authorities must be severing the party’s ties with members of the security forces. At the same time, he says, the government must take pragmatic steps to cope with the security void around city neighborhoods and, of course, push its European peers for a change to Dublin II treaty to ensure fairer burden-sharing over unregistered migrants.

That’s a tall order, no doubt, for Greece’s political class. Their response will decide nothing less than the future shape of the nation, and their own place in it.


Building the Rotterdam of the South

A container depot in Aspropyrgos west of Athens. Neglected for decades, the area lies at the core of a grand plan for an economic reboot of the debt-wracked nation. Photo by Harry van Versendaal

By Harry van Versendaal

ASPROPYRGOS – Under the pale winter sun, a yellow cargo truck rumbles by and turns into a narrow road filled with potholes. Nearby, a ragged scarecrow balefully stands guard over a scrubby patch of broccoli. A little further off, an immigrant pushes a supermarket trolley filled with scrap metal next to a herd of sheep grazing by a metal container.

Welcome to Greece’s main logistics hub, the Thriasio Plain. An ugly sprawl sandwiched between three mountains and the pungent Elefsina Bay, the land of Persephone has for decades hosted the bulk of the country’s heavy industry. Now the area — which contains the towns of Elefsina, Aspropyrgos, Mandra and Magoula — lies at the core of a grand plan for an economic reboot of the debt-wracked nation.

After signing a deal with the Greek government in 2010 to run part of Piraeus, the country’s largest port and strategic gateway for bringing Chinese goods into Europe and beyond, the China Ocean Shipping Company, or Cosco, is reportedly interested in acquiring a big chunk of land on the nearby plain of Thriasio to be used as a major freight and logistics center. Loaded with ambition, the project is expected to transform the entire peninsula.

But, alas, the reality on the ground paints a different story. A mishmash of divergent zoning plans — part industrial, part commercial wholesale, part “undefined” — Thriasio is scattered with warehouses, factories, scrapyards and legions of freight containers behind razor-wire fences. Connecting them is a labyrinthine set of unnamed narrow roads that frequently choke up, as cargo trucks must maneuver in limited space while street signs are mostly absent.

“It’s a joke. We call it an industrial zone, but there’s nothing that resembles one. When foreign investors visit the place, we turn red. There’s no roads, there’s no names, how can you expect to be taken seriously?” says Vassilis Argyrakis, a man in his early 40s who runs a family business that makes food products.

A black-and-white portrait of his grandfather who founded the company in the early 1920s hangs on the wall behind his desk. In 1980 the company moved from Piraeus to Aspropyrgos. “This was supposed to be a prime location, in close proximity to the the port, the capital, the railways and the national road,” he says at his office on the mezzanine of a gray cement building. More than 30 years later, Argyrakis tells a story of promises unfulfilled.

“For the past 30 years, no government ever took this place seriously. The state dumped all kinds of stuff here,” he says. Oil refineries, cement plants, steel factories and shipyards found a home here. Repeated environmental studies have found this to be one of Greece’s most heavily polluted areas. No surprise local newspapers regularly refer to Thriasio as Athens’s dumping ground.

Poor access is having an impact on the cost of services. Argyrakis says the cost of carrying goods from Piraeus to his company is higher than shipping goods from anywhere in the world to Greece. “It’s a waste of time, a waste of money. It’s totally counterproductive,” he says. His neighbors are not much help either. One of them keeps sending the police because noise from the factory interrupts his afternoon siesta, Argyrakis says with a smile. The police officer shrugs his shoulders, unable to do anything about it.

Bring the warehouses

Warehouses mushroomed along the northern side of the Attiki Odos ring road built here in 2003 to connect the capital with the coastal town of Elefsina providing a shortcut for northbound traffic.

“It was like they struck gold,” Andreas Papadakis, a young businessman, says of local landowners. “The price of land went up 1,500 percent almost overnight,” he says, as the area’s status was switched to “undefined,” giving the green light for the construction of warehouses.

As co-owner of a document storage firm, Papadakis has been renting one of those warehouses for the past six years. Thousands of cardboard boxes filled with A4 documents are stacked on rows and rows of metal shelving nearly to the top of the 20-meter-high structure. A forklift truck puts boxes into place as a company employee feeds data into a laptop computer. Sitting at the company’s headquarters at the foot of Mount Parnitha, he says running a business here has demanded a great deal of patience and adaptation. “We had to wait for six months to get a telephone line and even longer for a proper Internet connection,” he says. It took repeated calls to the local municipality before they eventually placed trash containers outside the company HQ, but a postman is yet to be seen.

Another problem is gangs stealing metal from the structures of the buildings, or even removing street drains, that they can then sell it on to one of the dozen of scrap merchants around here. Locals complain that burglars will break into a house just to take down the switchboard.

Beating the Leviathan

Municipal officials admit there are problems with the road network and anarchic construction. But they refuse to take any responsibility. Stelios Albandis is deputy mayor of Aspropyrgos which, thanks to the large number of businesses, is one of the wealthiest municipalities in the country. “The rot starts from the top down,” he says, blaming the mess on Greece’s Leviathan bureaucratic state that holds local government to ransom.

A blueprint to regulate development in Attica, also known as the Athens Regulatory Plan, which includes plans to construct new highways, has suffered numerous setbacks. Albandis says that giving greater jurisdiction to the municipalities would save time and accelerate growth. “Zoning plans for every single town, from Alexandroupoli to Gavdos, has to go through the central government in Athens. This is extremely time-consuming. Getting a formal approval could take up to 15 years,” he says.

Looking down from the slopes of Mount Parnitha to the south, you can see the mammoth orange warehouse, property of the Hellenic Railways Organization (OSE), and the space that is to host the new logistics center. On a clear day you can see the Bay of Elefsina and all the way to the island of Salamina, where in 480 BC the ancient Greeks beat the invading Persian fleet.

A notch to the east, on Pier 2 of Piraeus port, the Chinese mega-cranes are working at full throttle, like huge blue monsters bending their necks to lift blue, red and yellow lego bricks below. Last year saw a rise in container traffic in Piraeus, making this Cosco’s biggest container terminal in Europe and second only to Suez among the company’s biggest transatlantic terminals. Figures went up 73.5 percent in 2011, reaching a record 1,188,100 TEU against 684,900 TEU the previous year. The way of doing business here has radically changed. A local businessman, who wished to remain unnamed, describes how truck drivers used to bribe port officials at the gates and then again inside the loading area. “Or they would be kept waiting at the end of the line for hours,” he says. The Chinese have changed all that. “Truck drivers now simply swipe their access card to enter the dock, load the cargo and leave the place.”

Cash-strapped Greece, which currently depends on bailout loans from foreign creditors to stay afloat, craves the deep pockets of the Chinese, while for the Chinese Greece allows them to hasten east-west trade while getting a foot in the continental door. It is estimated that Piraeus saves them about a week of travel compared to the ports of Rotterdam, one of the world’s biggest, or Hamburg.

“Of all the southern ports, the one in Piraeus has the best potential for growth, situated in a country that the Chinese believe can be manipulated and controlled, with proximity to Central and Eastern Europe, and Turkey, which is growing faster than most northern and central EU countries,” says Nasos Mihalakas, a Washington-based foreign affairs analyst.

After taking control of the container terminal, Cosco has set its sights on OSE’s 600,000 square meter site in Thriasio where storing goods will be cheaper than on the coast. Tassos Vamvakidis, deputy commercial manager at Cosco’s wholly owned subsidiary, Piraeus Container Terminal (PCT), says the company would have to wait and see what the exact terms of the tender are before making a decision to bid for the project. “But [Cosco] would be interested on principle,” he says.

But some experts insist Thriasio is not necessarily essential in Cosco’s business strategy. “Space will be needed in order to make Piraeus the entry hub that the Chinese have been talking about, but Thriasio cannot be the only available space,” says Mihalakas, an expert on Chinese trade.

This is perhaps why Greek officials are reportedly trying to woo the Chinese with more carrots. A draft law approved last month allows the creation of free trade zones, which would permit the transfer and handling of goods in certain areas without the intervention of customs authorities.

Another crucial step is completing a long-delayed project to connect the port to the logistics hub via rail. The government last promised to complete the project by mid-2012. But according to transport expert Fotis Fotinos, this too is set to fail, putting the completion date “some time in 2013.”

Keep waiting

Repeated tenders for the Thriasio hub have been unsuccessful, as demands were deemed excessive in light of Greece’s economic conundrum. And, of course, there is a lot of government foot-dragging. Even though Athens decided to relaunch the tender in 2009, it took a year before it took place. Then OSE’s real estate arm, Gaiose, caused further delays by twice altering the terms of the tender.

“Precious time has been wasted, especially during the past couple of years. Today, no offers have been made,” says Costis Hatzidakis, who has served at the ministries of transport and development with the conservative New Democracy party, warning that if the logistics center is not operational by June, then Greece may lose crucial EU funding for the project.

Despite the setbacks, Hatzidakis still believes in the project. “The objective,” he says, is no less than “developing Greece into a major logistics hub in the Balkan area and Southeast Europe.”

Back in Aspropyrgos, some people voice similar ambitions. “If the plan came to fruition, this place could become a logistics center for the whole country, perhaps for the entire continent. I believe up to 90 percent of imports would travel through here,” the deputy mayor says. Booming trade, Albandis believes, would have a spillover effect, accelerating the transformation of the whole area, with big new roads and better town planning.

“Since we have nothing else to offer — like cheap labor, R&D or good universities — then we might as well sell our geographical position,” says Papadakis, who is confident the Chinese are here to stay. “Hopefully, this will one day become the Rotterdam of the south,” he says.

Until that happens, entrepreneurs will have to put up with the grim reality. At the Aspropyrgos food company, Argyrakis jokes how a group of German inspectors had to spend the night at a dodgy love motel after failing to locate his business.

Thriasio, he says, will not change before Greece’s bankrupt state does. “The civil servants who make up the state mechanism are never subjected to any assessment. Our politicians are elected whereas our civil servants are permanent. The former hesitate to take any measures because they do not want displease the latter,” says Argyrakis. “It’s the same old story. But these things don’t only happen here. Aspropyrgos is just a microcosm of Greece.”


By Harry van versendaal

PAME activists are in full-throttle mode. Members of the Communist Party (KKE)-affiliated union began the tourist season with a takeover of the Acropolis, unfurling a huge banner with big red letters urging the “peoples of Europe [to] rise up” against the machinations of their capitalist (albeit democratically elected) governments.

After images from the besieged ancient citadel were broadcast around the globe, the battleground moved to the port of Piraeus, the capital’s main link to the islands, where PAME’s flag-wielding battalions has repeatedly blocked the boarding ramps of ferries. Blind to their own best interests, it seems, disgruntled travelers fumed at the jailhouse habits of the unionists.

A court had preemptively ruled the action illegal and abusive but little does it matter. After all, it was KKE spokesman Makis Mailis who said recently that his party does not recognize the country’s Constitution because it did not vote for it, pushing KKE deeper into surreal territory.

KKE wants to have its cake and eat it too. It willfully takes part in the country’s parliamentary system, it keenly receives state money to cover its operation costs and the salaries of its deputies but it refuses to recognize the law, the courts and their rulings on the grounds that they are the design of the class enemy.

The party’s posturing is not just outrageously eclectic; it is quintessentially totalitarian: the communist apparat is animated by a metaphysical conviction that he is the sole possessor of the truth. Anyone who is out of sync with the communist creed is either a class enemy or a mislead proletarian.

More than two decades since the Berlin Wall crumbled into souvenirs, reducing Europe’s communist parties to irrelevance, Greece’s local breed has proved to be surprisingly enduring. True to its Marxist roots, the KKE discourse had so far been a mix of sterile rejectionism and tacky utopianism – harmless and within limits of the politically acceptable.

But as Greece descends into crisis, KKE has raised its Stalinist head. If the party so cynically thrives on mayhem and disaster, it is because it views the meltdown in existentialist terms: No crisis, no party. It treats the country’s debt death spiral as testimony to its anti-capitalist credo. And it is doing all it can to accelerate the collapse of the capitalist system by banking on the country’s flagging fortunes. Prime Minister George Papandreou was right in saying that the nihilists at Perissos “mistake capitalism for the nation.” (The problem, of course is that he has left the nation at their mercy by refusing to enforce the law).

Plato and Aristotle were the first to warn of the perils posed by “the tyranny of a majority,” i.e. the situation whereby the biggest group feels confident and entitled to impose its will on a powerless minority. Those philosophy giants of the ancient world would perhaps be surprised to see the extent to which their modern day heirs have let themselves become hostage to the intolerant yens of a minority “vanguard.”

Cut the Krapp

By Harry van Versendaal

Elbowing my way through the PAME troops rallying in scruffy Omonia Square, I felt tempted to walk back into the metro station. Looking at these hordes of KKE labor unionists, greater in size and passion than at any other time in recent history, I could not help but ponder the root causes of much of Greece’s current ills: populism, opportunism and blanket rejectionism. And there I was, ready to take part in that same rally, prompted by the socialist government’s IMF-inspired austerity measures.

Torn. As Greece spirals into crisis, it has become clear that we need new tools, and perhaps a new vocabulary, to explain the world; for the old dividing lines, the old camps are no more. Haunted by the specter of a “lost generation,” Greece’s 30-somethings can feel little solidarity with the generation of their parents. Politically and socially bankrupt, the so-called generation of the Polytechnic (a reference to the 1973 student uprising against the 1967-74 military dictatorship) is now struggling to hold on to their hard-won rights and perks. The problem is some of these are indefensible and, to a large degree, responsible for the current deadlock. So, frustrated masses, but not pulling in exactly the same direction.

And then came the violence, so uncomfortably predictable and so dreadfully tragic, to remind us that when it comes to death there are no gray areas – even though some seem to think otherwise.

As three bank employees choked to death after being firebombed by self-styled anarchists on Stadiou street on May 5, dozens of angry demonstrators marched past the burning building firing barbs against the trapped men and women: “Let the scabs burn!”

This was an accident waiting to happen. In fact the biggest surprise was that there had been no victims so far. If you play with fire you will, eventually, get burned. And the truth is that on the issue of violence the country’s left-wing parties have been unashamedly pro-blur. This was the case when the variegated and ideologically nebulous Synaspismos Left Coalition sought to capitalize on the violent riots that swept the capital in December 2008 following the police shooting of teenager Alexis Grigoropoulos in Exarchia.

Some degree of mourning and soul-searching for the Marfin bank deaths would again have been more appropriate. But the typically opportunistic Alexis Tsipras was quick to point a finger at the “agents provocateurs” who aim to disorient public opinion and undermine the people’s movement. A crime like this, the argument goes, can only have been committed by those who benefit from it. Tsipras’s party is not the only one to find scapegoating easier than change.

The Communist Party of Greece, which has never taken the trouble to denounce its Stalinist legacy, is singing from the same hymnal. After demonstrators carrying PAME flags assaulted the Parliament during the May 5 protest, KKE General Secretary Aleka Papariga provided the good old anti-capitalist reflex reaction, handily blaming the carnage on outside forces.

In the world of the willfully amnesiac KKE truth is not based on accuracy, but ideology. All this should come as no surprise from a party that is openly allergic to “bourgeois democracy” – a party in fact that has repeatedly been seen to mistake democracy for capitalism. A KKE spokesman recently said that the party does not recognize the Constitution because it did not vote for it, while PAME unionists last month blocked the port of Piraeus, preventing some 1,000 foreign tourists form boarding their cruise ship.

True to their Marxist DNA, Greece’s communists, who garnered just over 7 percent in the last general election, do not hide their metaphysical pretensions as they claim exclusive access to the “true interests” of the people. A political minority sees the right to elevate people’s “true interests” above national law – an extremely perilous concept and one which has played a part in nourishing the country’s culture of violence.

On Sunday evening, a silent demonstration organized by citizens via the Internet could hardly claim to have drawn more than 150-200 people – the fact that death did not come from a police bullet did not seem to help much. A note stuck on the wall of the fateful bank, addressing the killers and all those who allowed them to be, reminded everyone how too much relativism can be unbearably nihilistic: “Back in December [2008] your slogan was ‘you talk about broken shop windows, we talk about human lives.’ What do you have to say now?”

Watching Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” on an Athens stage later in the day evoked some unsettling patterns. Lonely old Krapp, played here by Bob Wilson, relives his past by listening to tapes of his young, confident self. The man will soon go down in a sea of doubt and despair about his life choices and the devastating realization that nothing can change anymore.

Let’s hope it’s not too late for the rest of us.

Back to the roots

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s hard to decide what to make of Pavlos Kozalidis. If nothing else, this 49-year-old photographer is a curious man who lives to click.

Born in Piraeus before moving to Canada, Kozalidis grew up listening to the nostalgic stories of his aunt, an ethnic Greek from Ordu, a town in the conflict-prone Black Sea region, who was forced to migrate first to America and then, having been displaced from Ordu for a second time, to Greece.

When he first laid hands on an SLR camera in the late 1980s, Kozalidis started to travel. Initially he wandered in India and Central Asia, but curiosity about his origins prompted him to trace the roots of his family. Between 1995 and 2003 he traveled from Turkey and Georgia to Russia and Ukraine at least once a year. He did so with scarce resources, mostly riding on dilapidated buses and staying at cheap hotels – a habit that only added to the experience. “It’s better to have a small seat next to a big window than a comfortable seat beside a tiny window,” Kozalidis says in what seems to translate as a life-rule.

Somewhere along the way his work won support from the Benaki Museum in Athens, which in 2008 for the first time made public a small part of the growing material. “Searching for a Lost Homeland,” some 60 black-and-white photos taken during his Black Sea journeys, is currently being showcased at the Photography Museum of Thessaloniki through April 18.

Kozalidis is not a technical photographer and does not pretend otherwise. “I make a lot of mistakes,” he tells Athens Plus in an interview at the attractive brick and steel warehouse building that houses the museum.

But Kozalidis’s candid admission is hard to believe as you stare at this arresting piece of work documenting the lives and customs of the Pontian Greeks who stayed behind.

Not bad for someone who used to steal magazine pictures from his local dentist office.

Keeping needs simple

Do you have a regular job?

No, no. I have my own means, not a lot, but I still have the capability after so many years to do 16 hours third class on a third class bus on a third class road. I don’t need a lot of money. I spend more money every day on film than my hotel room. And I try to stretch whatever I have. I would gladly spend anything I have to buy film or a ticket to travel by road or by plane.

Do you teach?

No, I am not a teacher. I can’t teach people. You can teach somebody the tricks of photography. It’s kind of like juggling. You can learn to be a good juggler, but if there is no heart in what you’re looking at then… it’s like a cold coke on a sunny day. After a while you start feeling thirsty again.

I think everybody wants to see something true, even when you go to see all that art kind of photography; sometimes I must admit I get a little bit jealous of the attention it gets because it’s new. My work is passé, my photographs are kind of “classic.”

Why did you hold on to this material for so long? Why didn’t you publish anything for 20 years?

To publish something you need time. And that time takes you away from the clicking, the development. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and I still do. I’m so bad that I used to cut up my negatives and then try to pick out something I wanted. I didn’t go to photography school. It’s sort of something that I picked up and in a way saved myself from myself. There’s two ways, you know, up and down.

I can now carry 36 kilos of film and 10 kilos of camera equipment, plus another 20 kilos in my bag. All the rest,  looking at it, I can do later.

Are you not afraid that it may no longer be relevant?

It’s just a journey. A lot of people are on a journey and they don’t leave anything. At least mine, even if it’s not relevant, is still something. The rest is ego. You want to be like “forever,” your work to be “forever.”

I am not finished with these places; China, Asia, Africa, South America, I am not finished. I’ll never finish. I just did 10,000 kilometers on a third class bus on a road in Africa; the entire trip took four-and-a-half months. And now I am leaving in ten days. I can do it now. But at some point I won’t be able to. That’s why I didn’t show it. Not because I didn’t want to. I mean I want people to see it. It’s wonderful when you come up to me and saw “wow.” It’s nice because it’s really extra. It’s like having a girlfriend and you take her out and everybody goes “wow she’s really beautiful.” It’s really nice because for a long time you thought only you saw her as beautiful. Everything has it’s time. It’s like flowers, they don’t all bloom at the same time. But the thing is… I’ve made mistakes and I continue to make mistakes and I say a lot of romantic cuckoo things. But I am irrelevant, I don’t make these things. I just see some things because they are good photographs. I don’t think I am particularly talented photographically. I just have an ability to get close to people.

Can you tell us about your Black Sea journey? Why did you go there?

It had to do with my aunt and her stories because she was born there. And in the exodus some went to New York, some went to Russia, some went to Japan. It was a big family. She kept telling me there was a house there which still stands now and I just went back. And I would go by road from Athens, I would get on a bus, a Georgian bus, and I would do the whole journey through Istanbul, 3 days, 4 days if it didn’t break down. And then I would meet people and they would speak my grandmother’s language. And that was really cool. And it was like you made friends after 4 days because you wake up and you have breakfast, chicken, sausages, bread, Russian cigarettes, and vodka, vodka, vodka.

Camera is my journal basically. It is my life, but it is also the life of the other people that I see. That’s what I am basically doing. Journaling others but using my own means.

Did you expect to find something specific?

It didn’t start out that way. There was no focal point. At some point you collect and collect and collect and after 5 years of doing it you start seeing things happening. I photograph everything basically. I go somewhere and I photograph everything. I don’t go there with an idea. Sometimes I envy people who do that and they come up with wonderful work, but very few. I just observe. I just look and anything that makes visual sense I go to it. But it has to have spirit, it has to be not happy but dignified.

The subconscious playing with the image

Do you ever stage your photographs or are they spontaneous?

That’s a hard question because it’s full of lies and truths in the sense that any photographer will say “ah everybody stages.” Look at W. Eugene Smith’s photo essay “Spanish village,” it’s basically all staged. But it’s the end result that counts. As for myself… if there were things in the photograph that were still, that weren’t moving, and I put a human being there, a child basically, would I do it? Yes. But in the end it’s how I feel about what I have to show when I am at the table by myself and picking them out, what truths I want to say.

But you do seem to want a human element in your pictures.

This has to be. I read somewhere that every time you look at a photograph, subconsciously you look for a human figure. It’s kind of cool – you just don’t know you’re doing it. I basically have to act when I photograph, because I don’t want them to be looking at me. If there is a scene, I pretend that I am waiting, you know looking at my watch, while also waiting for them to calm down, so that I can enter their space. I try to go close. I don’t know if it is “to tell the truth” and all that stuff. I don’t know what that means. I just go because it’s interesting. I am there. I go to get something to eat and something beautiful appears in front of me. And I photograph, then I move on. And no eye contact.

In the Black Sea project I was cheating simply because I was a Pontian Greek, I was from these people. I understood some of their dialect which helped. I was Orthodox. I was Greece to them. I was Greece coming to see them because they couldn’t go to Greece for one reason or another, which was great because I was the pasha of the village. I was like the Martian everybody comes and pokes at, to see if he knows any tricks. But there was the other side too; all their complaints and all their problems, no doctors, no medicine, no school for their kids. And I did not go there to change the situation, but I lived with them. I ate a lot of water potatoes in those years. It was right after Russia had collapse. There were buildings that had just stopped in time, farming equipment that stood in the middle of the field. German too, no Mickey Mouse Chinese stuff. German, beautiful machinery, stopped. People just left. You would go to a village and you would see a generation of children and then old people. Because the parents had left for Russia, Kazakhstan, Greece.

Without wanting to superimpose any meaning on your work, some of your photos seem to be conveying values, like dignity. People are poor and hungry but they look dignified.

You can show even misery and ugliness in humane ways. There is a photograph of this couch and water that was seeping from the roof and it was kind of beautiful because of the textures and you could see it was a dump and this poor person had to sit on that seat. I don’t need to go down that path. I would rather show a cold child warming its hands. You can see it’s poor but then you can see another photograph of the table with the food, so you know they do have food. It’s where you point your camera.

Black-and-white versus color

Do you take only black and white photographs?

I have a small body of work that is starting up to be color. I started out with color. I grew up in the States and Canada looking at Life magazine and National Geographic. I used to steal a lot from dentist places, I used to have a collection of stolen dentist office National Geographic and Life magazine photos…

Black and white suits me; let’s say you can lie better. With color you know it’s color. Black and white fits me better like a coat. I don’t know digital. I don’t even know technical photography. To go digital would be a quantum leap. I don’t even know mathematics and times tables and you tell me to do equations. I would be lost. And I like the roll of film. I like coming home after being on the street for 8 hours and dropping the film, cleaning and looking at it and thinking… and I would never be ready to see it right away. I can’t deal with this right-away. I need to collect over years. And when you take it out of the water and you have the light and you look through and you kind of relive everything, it’s a whole process, it’s everything.

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