Cycling through Greece..

..through air that's not thick with anything

The air in Greece is not thick with anything. There is nothing etched on the faces here. You cannot feel the tension on the streets... at least not the streets of Edessa, the northern town I reach soon after crossing from Macedonia. Greece is suffering a stark hyperbole crisis, sensationalism here has run into diminishing returns. If we were to tax the financial media's use of words like 'toxic' and 'brink'... southern Europe would soon be back in the black. Greece is a European country being stuffed by the markets. Simple. It's not doomsday here... just a country being stuffed by the markets.
 

Greece is not in turmoil. This is especially relevant to stock markets, which Flaubert once described as nothing more than "barometers of public opinion". Irrespective of any fundamentals, objective or otherwise, the projection of chaos that has become associated with Greece is partly responsible for the fact that the Greek government has to pay yields of up to 30 per cent to borrow money. I ride into Thessaloniki, up the inside of stagnant traffic jams. When whole cities can still afford to sit in cars, burning petrol at €1.80 a litre... there's obviously a lot of crisis left to run.

Everyday Greeks seem similarly dismissive of Crisis! A woman in a bakery smiles... "What did you expect?... are we all supposed to be crying?" A man sits outside a cafe... "Pro-pa-gan-da!... Bullshit!" His friend grabs a stool... belly like a water melon, stubble, black sunglasses, curly hair cut short at the sides. He spreads his legs, pulls his shorts up like a Greek John Goodman straight out of The Big Lebowski. He plants a finger on a hairy thigh... "You see a crisis here?!... we have sun, sea, farms, petroleum... There is a crisis... a bankingcrisis... and they want us to pay for it." He goes on. "The euro was a catastrophe for Greece..." he points into his palm... "€1 was 340 drachma... coffee was 100 drachma before... then it was €1." Italians will say exactly the same. Prices doubled overnight.

Meanwhile Europe is drip-fed a diet of ignorance. Reuters will whisper about 'Grexit' and a 'drachmageddon' that will cost hundreds of billions of euros if Greece fall out of the eurozone. Either lazy journalism or market omerta prevents the making of the obvious point that bailouts to keep Greece in the euro have already cost - erm - hundreds of billions of euros, failed to work, and will ultimately see Greece sell their national assets - from islands to major ports - at far below their true value. It's a little confusing that the structure of a Greek restructure is a country that has sold the very things by which it could once have made money... perhaps that's just the formula for the 'mature economy' the Greeks are to become. A mature economy is one that innovates new ways in which it can be stuffed by the markets.

Talking to people on the streets, what is most obvious is that everyday Greeks quite clearly do not want to be bailed out, just as Angela Merkel tries to appease the everyday Germans who do not want to bail them out. If everyday Europeans, both bailers and bailees, do not want to do any bailing... it seems the only ones in favour of a bailout must be the French and German banks that will otherwise be unable to absorb the losses of their own failed investments. Let's be clear... we do not bail out governments or taxpayers... we bail out banks, the primary representatives of capitalism who are not themselves subject to the primary rule of capitalism. Failed businesses are supposed to go bust.

And yet there's more to it than that, and northern Europeans would do well to resist judgements of lazy Greeks getting what they deserve. Greece is a foothold for the idea of market preeminence over societies, applauding its application in the Mediterranean will help bring about the day when we are all made Greek. The 1929 Wall Street Crash and Great Depression saw Roosevelt famously tell the American people, "we have nothing to fear but fear itself"... in the twenty-first century our governments encourage us to shit ourselves and hope that the markets will clear up the mess. Keep hoping. For five years Europeans have been given a constant crisis narrative, one accompanied by a paucity of any real information. Italians have low household debt, a banking system thought to be solvent, and high government debt. Spain has a largely insolvent banking system and low government debt. Public sector spending is higher in France than in Italy, and yet traditionally stable France has become a more attractive destination for investment since Crisis! gathered momentum. Britain saw a financial sector debt crisis transformed into a public sector debt crisis, not least because of the costs of supporting the financial sector. Faced with very diverse economies and problems, each different nation has been prescribed the exact same solution. Strip your states... empower the markets. The markets, the markets... always the markets, a remedy proposed by those who stand to benefit from its application... if this were a medical situation we'd be talking about quack doctors and second opinions. Only in a climate of hysteria could such flimsy reasoning have come so far.

 
It is this climate that has prompted the human suffering that is the overwhelming focus of contemporary media about Greece. A 40 per cent increase in suicides has become the most infamous indicator for as much... and I wonder if perhaps that's just what the markets call the price of a mature economy. Even with recent gains in the suicide rate, it should be noted that the Greeks were starting from a very low suicide base... you're still much more likely to kill yourself as a Frenchman, German or Brit. Racist attacks have also increased significantly, some Greeks have fallen for that all too human failing... when being screwed by a white man who speaks your own language or English... the obvious thing to do is beat up an immigrant. Health and social services are being deprived of resources, so that a recent case drawing nationwide and international attention saw patients in a psychiatric hospital facing food shortages. Modern capitalism will frequently be given credit for the notion that they are responsible for feeding the world. Whether in the form of austerity-hit hospital budgets or high oil prices diverting land to biofuel rather than food... it's less talked about that markets also know just how to starve people.

Heading east for Alexandropoli I see graffiti covering signposts, a handful of which caution drivers to turn on headlights in tunnels, to be aware of landslides. It's noticeable that just the English language portion of the warning has been painted over, so that you can only see it if you're passing slowly on a bicycle. I doubt it will cause the deaths of many foreigners, but the antipathy of some is clear. None of what I'm saying is to claim that all was once well in Greece. There is general consensus that taxes were evaded, corruption problematic and pensions generous. Whatever the truth in that, the solutions on offer will create new problems rather than eradicating old ones. 

As I ride for Turkey I think back to Paris, to the businesswoman who told me the French didn't believe in the crisis and would "bury their heads in the sand." The more I think about it the more I disagree. Swallowing the pill of austerity and putting your faith in ultimate salvation from the markets has been disguised as some sort of dignified resilience. Suck it up and don't squirm. She had it the wrong way round... the only dignified thing left to do is voice the sort of truths that society has long been made embarrassed to declare. The rules of our system are broken... we must take our heads out of the sand in order to say so.

A Greek road. Photograph: Julian Sayarer

Julian Sayarer is cycling from London to Istanbul, he blogs at thisisnotforcharity.com, follow him on Twitter @julian_sayarer.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage