The Eastern Question: Letter to the Economist

April 18, 2008 at 3:28 pm (Politics) (, , , )

Dear Sirs:

As usual, whenever an article about Greece is printed in the Economist, I am led to wonder what your sources are. Whatever the topic, your articles are uniformly one-sided and show a stunning lack of knowledge of the reality of any given situation.

Nobody knows better than Greek businessmen what “great strides” have been made in Macedonia in the last few years.  They are the chief investors in the country’s burgeoning economy.

And it is laughable to fault “Greek nationalists” for Greece’s veto; I do not recall any other time in which Greece’s polarizing political parties have been so unified on a single issue.  From the far-left to the far-right everyone has been supportive of the largely unpopular government’s actions.

Certainly, this unity should give some food for thought to any journalist covering the situation.  I know that regional politics are small fry compared to US elections, wars, food shortages, and the general “big picture”, but if you insist on covering and offering opinions on them, you should be a bit more well-read and less trigger-happy with your analysis.

Nothing is ever so simple as it seems.  Your article (All at sea, April 10th 2008) is saying, in effect, look at this nice little country which is trying its best to become like us civilized types, and stingy, nasty Greece won’t let it.

I was vaguely of that opinion; more specifically, I felt it logical for a province that has known itself by a certain name to keep that name upon asserting its statehood. Usually, countries change their name only if they had been oppressed by the previous regime.

However, I cannot help but find it disturbing, when symbols of another day and age (and historically ascribed to the heritage of Greece) adopted by this country as their own. Why the flag of Vergina? (Vergina is a city situated in Greece; the tombs of Philip and the revamped Macedonian museum are there.) Why should the current prime minister lay a wreath in front of a map showing Macedonia’s border reaching to the Aegean? Why do their history books state that Pella is not the Pella of Greece (Philip II’s birthplace) but a valley located inside the modern-day Macedonian Republic?

These actions do not point to a squeaky-clean little country trying to create a bright future for itself.  Rather, it seems like their discovery of American support (who are, in turn, scrabbling madly to find new yes-men in the area) has led them to become cocksure, arrogant, and disrespectful of their neighbors and investors.

I understand the need for a national identity, and I am sure that Alexander had close ties to the region;  but he went all the way to India, and had a particular regard for Persia. He belongs to everybody that he conquered; including the Egyptians, who are very proud of their own city of Alexandria.

There cannot have a dearth of history between the 3rd century BC and 1992; true, the region was occupied by many and never existed as an independent country. Still, there must be something else (especially for the ethnic Albanian population) to use as a national symbol, to bring this new country the internal harmony it so obviously needs.

As to the events of 1948, Greece was undergoing a brutal civil war at the time, and any one suspected or found to be a communist was either killed or deported or jailed by the government forces. Thousands of families of every ethnic origin have tragic tales of woe to tell regarding this black period of Greek history. (As do those families who were destroyed in 1922, 1913, and so on.)

I can only assume that because the Greek communists were acting upon their dreams of the USSR as an ally (they had no idea that Stalin had agreed -under the 1944 Percentages Agreement- to give Greece to the UK’s sphere of influence) that Greek Slavs were more attracted to the Communist way of thinking than the Nationalist-Royalist; thus, more of them were hurt by the eventual Nationalist triumph and backlash.

But this is the Balkans. We who live here know how quickly one can turn from aggressor to victim and back again; and we know the Ancient Greek, Latin, Turkish, Pontic, and Slavic names of any city you care to ask us about. Our history is intertwined, and continues to be so; to ignore that fact is hypocritical to the extreme. This is the reality of the sad, confusing, and exciting past of the Balkans.

And that is why Macedonia’s posturing and self-righteousness strikes me as a completely cynical attempt to take advantage of the current American favor they enjoy. They must at all costs keep the country together and not show the cracks to NATO and the EU; what better way to than to shift attention to the masquerade of who can claim Alexander the Great as their own?

I take my hat off to them, for they are proving extremely adept at playing politics. Certainly better than Greece ever has. So, by all means, let them try to win Alexander; just don’t condemn Greece for playing the game with equal intensity.


dajieblack’s two cents on the question of Macedonia has been sent to the desk of my favorite-magazine-in-the-world’s editor…. she also posted it on the online version as a comment to the original article….I await nationalist attacks (of either country) with glee!

April 30, 2008: dajieblack is sad.  nobody at the economist’s forum wanted to play with her.  they preferred debating cyril’s, methodius’s and bucephalus’s origins. with horrid grammar. sniff.


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Short Story: The Actor as Stalker and Other Anecdotes

April 14, 2008 at 12:45 pm (Acting, Theater) (, , , , , )

The trail had gone cold sometime around June.

We were forced to admit defeat while skulking around the US Embassy. The Man had vanished into thin air and taken his office with him. We were just trying to get out of the rain, plotting our next move, but the nervous soldiers did not seem amused. As well they might be. The perimeter had been breached only that month by an anarchist with superb sniper training. Or so they would have us believe.

At any rate, the result was the same. Precious parking space was taken up by the most paranoid embassy in town, and yesterday’s meeting with the Supreme Being taught us to expand on the axiom “If you want to get something done, you’ve got to do it yourself.” I now add, “(semi-colon) the satisfaction of knowing you shot yourself in the foot is unparalleled.”

“This is it,” I announced. “Prepare to bask in the sunlight of his godliness.”

“Wipe your mouth, you’ve got crumbs everywhere,” my partner-in-stalking answered. I frowned. How could she be so practical about our meeting with holiness incarnate?

“Like he’s even going to be in.” I said nastily. “We’ll be lucky if a secretary opens the door.” Her downcast face made me feel sorry. Perhaps I had gone too far. This was our dream, after all. Besides, cynicism would get us nowhere. We were here because we had decided to Seize The Day. No more waiting for a role to land in our lap; we were going to go out and grab ourselves one.

So, I wiped myself carefully. She brightened up. We fixed our hair. It was no better than before. A junkie on his way to the Square watched us suspiciously. Clutching our CV’s like votive offerings, we rang the outer bell. Immediately, someone buzzed us through. Success made me cocky; she became slightly breathless. I waltzed in and knocked on the Supreme Being’s door, eager to see just who had been chosen for his Ganymede.

A dog immediately went berserk inside, barking as self-importantly as only the most kick-worthy canines know how. My friend’s breathlessness gave way to gasps of fear. She backed away from the door that separated her from the monster inside. I was not in the mood for her – otherwise amusing – fear of dogs. “Calm down, dammit,” I snapped. “Can’t you tell its one of those shitty small ones?”

Before she could answer, the door opened.

The Supreme Being – all five feet of him – looked up at us with terror in his eyes. “Caught!” they seemed to say. A white fluffy mop ran in excited circles around itself.


Call us imbeciles, but we had not thought of this eventuality. Sure, we had imagined him seeing one or both of us and shouting, “Eureka! Call the production crew! We’re ready to roll!” Yet, the case of him simply opening the door and waiting for us to state our purpose had never crossed our minds.

So, we gazed at each other for awhile. I don’t remember which of us managed to croak out a greeting. At this point, he realized he had control of higher ground. And quickly worked it to his advantage. He deftly relieved us of our CVs, (“Are these for me?”) and said, “Thanks, goodbye now!” The door started to shut. Destiny was shutting the door in my face.

“Ahh… Sir?”

Crimson-faced, but unwilling to let him get away that easily, “About your new movie? It’s about Greek-Americans in Canada, isn’t it? I just wanted to tell you that I actually am a Greek-American, and…”

“Actually, it’s being filmed in Siberia. In Russian. Goodbye.”


Huddled together under the rain the next day, we realized there was to be no next move. No one we respected was left on our list. We had done all we could do. Which was not much, admittedly; just a few CVs scattered in the general direction of possible productions. Skirting the embassy barriers, we ran, giggling, hand in hand towards the metro. Our phones never rang.

After that, we gave up our search for quality directors. And then directors in general. The winter of our discontent passed with some of us quitting the scene by becoming chemists, and others entertaining snot-nosed children whose only desire in life was to wreck the scenery and pass on every childhood infection known to man.

Spring came again. And with it, chances to shine (or at least twinkle).

Lying on the filthy red rug of the Rialto Theater, waiting for our turn with more patience than Vladimir and Estragon combined, we regaled the others with the story of the pint-sized actor/body builder who craved testosterone. What else was there to do? We had already chatted to everybody in the room and ascertained that no important information was to be gained from anyone. Inside, only 6 people had been examined in an hour. It was going to be long night.

The audition with the body builder had started out badly. Upon arrival, i saw it was strictly C-quality. My more intellectual audition-buddies were nowhere to be seen, and miniskirts topped with blond heads were everywhere. Every non-talent in the business, upon attaining a role on TV, forms their own production company. In fairness, these people may recognize talent, but they have no use for it. And we run to their auditions. Well, I do. Or, did. I felt (correction: used to feel) guilty whenever I missed an audition. Each audition brought with it the freshness of morning dewdrops. Each one was The One. They all turned into soggy acid rain by afternoon, but tomorrow? And the next day?

At what point does optimism turn into foolishness, you ask? When you start to feel like a fool.

Which brings us back to our charmless chunk of manliness. He was more self-important than Napoleon and ruder than a sleep-deprived truck driver. Up and down he ran, list in hand, muttering like truffle-hunting pig. Napoleon the hog. And definitely not as quick on the uptake as Orwell’s Napoleon; I mean, OK, artists are not renowned for their IQ but this was ridiculous. All he had to do was call out our names in the order in which they appeared. Nope. Too difficult. He kept getting mixed up. And sweating. (As pigs do.)

Glory and he had gotten off to a bad start; he had actually folded her head shot in two. She bristled, and (extremely Lady Bracknell-like) said curtly, ” Please refrain from folding my picture. ”

“Huh?” said the genius. “Why?”

“I simply don’t like it being folded. It makes me uncomfortable. Please straighten it out!” Imperio!

Proving his genius, he turned to me and made the motion we used in school to imply someone was a head job. Glory’s mouth started twitching.

“So you’re the director’s assistant?” I asked.

His eyes bugged out in horror. Extremely insulted, “Shit, no way! I’m an actor. I don’t do that shit.” A little more magnanimously, I’m just helping the guys out.”

“Oh, are you going to be in the cast?” Should I even bother to audition?

“In both productions,” he said proudly. “I don’t understand why you people go to auditions. I’ve never gone to audition in my life and I’ve never been unemployed. You guys are totally crazy.” Glory flexed her manicured nails.

“And how, exactly, do you find jobs?” she asked icily. The “you disgusting slab of overripe munchkin” tone was not noticed by Napoleon.

He leaned over (and up) and said, “Girlie, I just go up to the people I want to work with and my powers of persuasion do the rest.”

My stomach cramped with suppressed laughter. This guy just killed me. I wanted to crack up on the floor, but we could not afford hysterics. It was almost our turn, and Glory’s cackle is the one of the most infectious you’ve ever heard. Desperately, I said, “So, did you hear, Glory? Tina’s quit show business!”

“No way,” she said, wiping tears from her still-laughing eyes. “Unbelievable!”

“I know. She’s gone back to being a chemist. She’s working crazy hours at a pharmaceutical company.”

“Who works at a pharmaceutical company?! Do you work at a pharmaceutical company?” We were interrupted by a rabid Napoleon. “GIve me your phone number now! Can you make me some testosterone?” Gone was the smugness of before; I was looking into the eyes of a psychopathic junkie.

“No, no, no not me! ” I backed away in terror. “A friend!”

“Where is she? Is she down there?” He made to go downstairs.

“No! She’s at work,” and thank Dionysus for that. A minute later his watery junkie eyes were inches away from mine. A drool-drop coyly hung from his lower lip. The stench from his piggy mouth was indescribable.

“You tell her I’ve got a business proposition for her. Promise me you will tell her!”

I promised from a safe distance. I fully intended to keep my promise – over a few bottles of wine and an audience.

“Listen, ” he said seriously, “It’s a really good proposal, I’m not shitting you. I’m into body building, for like, a hobby, you know?”

“I thought you might be!” Glory exclaimed. She beamed at him. “It really shows.” I glared at her. Didn’t she realize we were dealing with a madman?

He reddened. “Um, yeah, well, anyway. If she could make us some testosterone at the lab, we’ll do a, uh, deal thing, and she’ll definitely like the terms. We’re talking big, fucking huge money here. Do you know if she can make testosterone?”

“I have no idea, but we’ll find out,” I assured the mad munchkin pig.

“Today!” he insisted. “She’ll be rich, tell her. And don’t worry, I’ll protect her from the mean fuckers, she’ll only deal with me, she won’t even meet the others, OK?”

“As soon as I get home,” I told him. And I did, after telling a funny story for my audition instead of Euripides. It seemed more fitting, under the circumstances.

I kept my promise to Napoleon. I argued in his favor, opined that it would be a great story for grandchildren, but my chemist did not want to hear of it. She is way too cerebral at times. Later, I wondered how long the poor fuck waited for her phone call. How important a thing had we mocked? Was his fury the reason for my not getting the acting gig?

Nearly a year later, we’re all living in a Chekhov play – nothing has changed.

“See? If you’d made the drugs for him, you’d have made a shitload of dough! More than teaching chemistry to brats, that’s for sure.” Tina, that artistic spirit, had lasted three months of misery, hate, and exploitation before quitting the pharmaceutical company. “And you wouldn’t have ditched last night’s audition to go teach. And they would have hired you and we would all have been hired together!” This was true. Our resident chemist was far better at dancing than us; dancing as if the wind was blowing her around would have been a piece of cake.

Why had they hired us? God knows. That’s the funny thing about acting. When you do get hired, you always wonder, why me? But, I didn’t do anything special! I totally screwed up my lines/songs/acted like an idiot…

Why? There is no why. If they want to hire you, they will. Even if you don’t fit the prerequisites of a role. It really makes no difference. 95% of the time you lock down a role before you even open your mouth. This is often called “the magic of theater” by those not inclined towards cynicism.

Our bonny chemist pondered on the perks of a life spent cooking testosterone for the millions of short men with inferiority complexes who inhabit the gyms of the world. Our turn was approximately 4 hours away. Someone had popped off for a class at university and would return shortly. There was no fear of missing their turn.

And then- a lead, burning red-hot was thrown onto our lap! The Man had been found. Cynicism went out the window, and hope bloomed magenta. There is nothing like the hope of an artist; we may grumble and groan and complain that all auditions are rigged, that all directors are assholes, that everybody falls from their pedestal once you get to know them; but hope never ever dies, and at the carrot of a chance to get up on a stage you dump your weekly paycheck, tell big Pharma (well, medium-sized) to take that Bunsen Burner and shove it. Before long, in tears, you print out some more non-actor resumes.

But tears were for later. In a hushed voice, the Cretan explained at length how he managed to get a hold of the Man’s email address, how they replied immediately (!!), and how he triumphantly auditioned at The Man’s new offices.

They were located somewhere in the wilderness of the Eastern Provinces. We debated the reasons for such a move. Was he ecologically minded? Did the sirens keep him up at night? The Man was old; perhaps his doctor had sent him there, far away from downtown’s cancerous atmosphere.

We gleefully planned our new and improved excursion to The Man. To explain: he is one of two people that can make television shows look like art in this country. Two. That’s all. And when I say art, I’m not being an intellectual snob. My Name is Earl is art, too. Are you beginning to get the picture?

The eastern provinces of our city are a shitty place. Roads form, sputter, die, and then turn up over the hill somewhere beyond the goats and the garbage. I parked carefully between two potholes. The stalking had begun.

We were looking for a two-story house somewhere on this road. We had no address, phone, email (the Cretan had accidentally deleted it in his joy) or office hours. Sweat started to form on my lips. School-age children walked behind us, curious and whispering; old ladies stood ready with their brooms, daring us to approach. Ignoring them, we meticulously checked mailboxes. We already had three possible contenders, and all afternoon to kill. Our only problem was our rapidly melting bronzer.

But knocking on strange doors was not to be necessary. The Man had been so confident about his newfound seclusion, that he had recklessly put his real name on the mailbox. Busted you are, my friend and victory is ours. The window was tantalizingly open, the gate unlocked. I grinned, and went for the stairs.

“Where are you going?” Kat whispered. “Let’s just put it in his mailbox.”

I shook my head. “Oh, no. Uh-uh. The trees that made the paper that my CV rests upon will not have died in vain. This time, we’re not leaving until we film a reel. Come on.”

I climbed the stairs, knocked on the door and we were ushered into a small, unkempt office-kitchen-whatever kind of place. A girl came up to us, “Are you here for the casting?”

Kat began to say something about dropping off CVs, but I cut her off.

“Yes, we are,” I said firmly.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, but Helen isn’t here, so I didn’t know people were coming,” said the girl worriedly.

“She’s not?” I said disappointed. Who the hell was Helen?

“Oh, but I can shoot a reel for you, it’s no problem!”

I smiled kindly at her. “That would be fine,” I said. She went to get the camera ready. Kat and I could barely look at each other; the excitement was more than we could stand, and the butterflies in our stomach were feeling expansionist. We were going to finally film a reel for The Man.

Our hearts were full of joy that day. Grabbing life by the reins, forcing dreams to come true, and other such nonsense filled our brains. Oh, what happy, silly children with such fragile hopes! They won’t be dashed until filming begins, and perhaps even not then.

I never switch off my phone.

We wait.

And then we wait some more.

If there is a tree to wait under, so much the better.

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Athens, Barcelona, and the Civilization of it All

April 4, 2008 at 4:43 pm (Politics, Travel) (, , , , , , , , , , )

“Come on, they’re not gonna step on you! Zebra crossings are sacred here!”

“Absolutely not,” I retorted. Madmen. Maybe in England they don’t run you over, but a speeding Spaniard? My mad friends tugged at my unwilling hand and lo! the speeding Spaniard slowed to a perfect stop. Not a wheel over the sacred white lines. They all did so. All week! Was this because it was Easter? Which they don’t even celebrate in Catalonia anymore – I was assured of this by all of the South Americans I met – but, perhaps, an innate feeling of piety and goodwill remains nonetheless? Ha. Fat chance. The definitely un-Christian gleam in the Vueling Check-in Girl’s eyes as she demanded 16 euros because I was 2 kilos over the limit (BItchBitchBITCH! I breathing-exercised) killed that thought.

A real Greek would have brought his carefully chosen Monestir de Tallat merlot over her head, (It is our Right as the Cradle of Democracy and/or Civilization to bring as much shit from foreign lands as we can carry… often buying an extra suitcase in the process) but I am an emasculated, overly polite, faux-EuroAmerican, resigned to being conned and bullshitted and saying Thank You Very Much…

So, the only rebellion I managed was to make her repeat everything she said in English. Now, you may not think this is much, but she fumed as I (who had previously conversed pleasantly in ItaloSpanish with her) kept saying, “What? Where? What?” with an idiotic cow’s gaze. Take that, you crypto-Teutonic bitch! Retaliation came swiftly. I was punished by 3 hours of turbulence.

Angrily certain that the baggage compartment was being flooded by the litres of Iberian wine being brought over, I sulked, pushing my chair as far back in the lap of the unfortunate gentleman behind me as it would go. Leg room is not a Spanish word. Neither is belly room. No wonder there were no Americans on board. The bottles, I knew, were being broken on purpose by the pilot; he was most certainly in on it all. No doubt he is banging the small-eyed Prussian behind the check-in counter.

It is all a conspiracy at the expense of our highly developed Greek consumer culture. You came, paid handsomely for the fun our city has to offer – now really pay for having vastly superior olive oil. Sneaky little buggers. Didn’t see that one coming. I actively enjoyed hunting down the edgy boutique I knew must exist somewhere in Raval. Most victoriously did I lay down my euros when I discovered it. Funiculars, museums, and restaurants did not satisfy my lust for purse-drainage. I needed Stuff. There is Stuff everywhere in Barcelona. Traveler, you have been warned. They have lots of Stuff and they are very civilized. (Quite unlike the Parisians. Cue gnashing of teeth at the recollection of Isle S. Louis’s devil-in-a-cheese-seller’s-guise.)

I constantly marveled at how civilized the Spanish (or, Catalans, more precisely) were. They have solved their transportation problems so efficiently that they were even left with a budget surplus. And thought, what should we do with it? Put it in our pockets? Give some to our mistress for a pied a terre in the Barri Gothic? Keep it for The Party? A yacht, perhaps? (All perfectly natural ideas to a Greek.) Nope.

They did this:

Feeling like i was in Sweden, I watched, amazed, as a bus went by. It was normal, yet not quite. It had plush chairs with armrests, little tables, and large, living room lamps. It looked like a posh bar on wheels. My friends explained that it was a normal bus; you simply pay a little extra for that added comfort. Mostly used by senior citizens. Cruelly unaware of their masterplan for all tourists, (especially those blessed with better olive trees) I was enthralled, entertaining the idea that perhaps I, also, deserve to live in a civilized city. Do I not have the right to cruise Panepistimiou Avenue in an armchair?

After never being run over once, I figured it’s because they’re northern Spaniards, they must have a little more Saxon blood in them than is Mediterraneanly acceptable. I became sure of this when, in even the most underground bars, the music was abruptly shut off and every light in the place was turned on at 3am precisely. The first time this happened, I was ready to flee, certain the police were on to us. Later, I cursed the UK flashbacks (ding-dong – last drinks – please leave the premises) this caused me. I waited to join in a drunken backlash with the rest of the customers. In vain.

These indefatigable Catalans had even changed the driving persona of my friend. One year in civilization, and he was driving like your grandmother. When he gave me his car to play with he was nervy, urging me to stay on the right and to not cut people off. This, from the man who taught me to run red lights and u-turn wherever I wished!

I felt like a third-world citizen, whose friends had moved on to running water and I was still lugging buckets from the well. The day before I arrived in Barcelona , upmarket Athenian salons and restaurants were being berated by their clients for not having thought of buying a generator. Tightly-lipped maitre d’ apologized profusely instead of screaming, “How the fuck could I have imagined the (government-owned) electricity company would strike for weeks and cut our power at regular intervals??”

Panic and hate prevailed on our traffic light-less streets. Hunching forward, hand on the gears, I assumed battle pose and dexterously avoided destroying my vehicle, leaving my unlucky co-citizens to cry and sue over their own scattered debris.

We don’t have night buses or enough asphalt to fit us all with our 4 cars per family, we are destroying what is left of clean rivers and forests, our fake fast internet chucks us offline at whim, inflation, government MIA, and so on and on and so on, and “po-tee-weet!”, sings the bird in slaughter-house 5; the only news fit to print in the months of December and January were the failed suicide attempt of the portly secretary of of the Ministry of Culture and his saucy DVD.

It requires a daily column and a bottle of raki to rue the woes of this land, but still. I can drive any way I damn please, and I’ve got the best raw material in food in the world. Ok, the divine mango is to be found only in Egypt; but that is not strange at all, for they are as uncivilized as we, and more so, for their fruits are the equivalent of celestial harps playing in heaven…. but I digress. It is a proven fact that the more civilized a nation is, the less tasty is their food. The question really is: how much “civilization” am I willing to take? How much privacy and individuality shall I trade for Comfort? Can’t I have my cake and eat it, too?

But, to put some things in perspective, Miss Landmine 2008 of Angola (dream job, “anything”) surely cannot feel my fake existential angst; she has the real deal. Hopping like a lunatic on her one remaining leg, she cackles, juggling her tomatoes and watching our national obsession of obstructing pension plan reform at all and any cost.

“H gh 8a tremei, o ilios anatelei!!” is belted out by 15-year-old supporters of PaSok in the metro; a lively debate between two grannies ensues. I curse at not having my camera on me as I leave, smiling.

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