Monday, 22 June 2015

June 18 – Economics for dummies

(an old jetty at Perama)

I am proud of most of the Greeks. Proud, because they are the first Europeans who have chosen change: they voted for Alexis Tsipras, who tries as long as he can not to bend his head to the European dictatorship and to the banks. He also dared to install a flamboyant minister of Economic Affairs: Yanis Varoufakis, who made a show, not only with his unorthodox style of clothing and behaviour, but also with his ideas about economics.

I am not a journalist, nor a scientist, a politician and not at all an economist. Nowadays when reading about banking business you need to have some knowledge of all those complicated processes, otherwise you cannot understand it. It is no wonder that most of the people have no idea how we landed in a crisis and for that reason believe without questioning everybody who seems to know, like the media.

According to Yanis Varoufakis (not only a minister but also a professor in economics) economy is no exact science but a philosophy. He explains that in a little book addressed to his daughter and for nitwits like me: Μιλώντας στην κόρη μου για την οικονομία (The book was recently published in Dutch: De economie zoals uitgelegd aan zijn dochter). After reading it, my thoughts were confirmed: the banks are the biggest criminals of our time and politicians have forgotten that one of the roles of a government is to protect the money of the people.

The text is clear and describes how we ended up in today's predatory economy, where banks and big industrials make bigger and bigger profits at the expenses of the people who become more and more poor. Varoufakis explains the complicated matters with examples from the history of England, like the introduction of sheep rearing which made the farmworkers lose their jobs and thus caused the first huge changes, and later on the industrial revolution. He even speaks about movies like The Matrix, Blade Runner and Star Trek, to make everything more explicit.
The beautiful novel Harvest from the English writer Jim Crace just received the prestigious prize of IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. It tells about the extinction of a village of farmworkers, because wool will bring more money.

I am not sure if here on Lesvos many farmworkers lost their jobs when sheep were on the rise in the Lesvorian landscape. It is a fact that the island used to produce far more agrarian products like tobacco, cotton, pulses, wheat and grapes (Lesvos once was famous for its wines). Sheep and goats still dominate the meadows and mountain slopes, but are no longer kept for their wool (that is now disposed of in deserted places), but rather their milk is used to make cheese.

The industrial revolution on Lesvos was marked by the introduction of steam presses that streamlined the production of olive oil and by steamships that speeded and cheapened transportation. And so around 1900 Lesvos was a pretty prosperous island, also having at the Gulf of Yera the biggest tanneries of the region. The now dilapidated buildings (eg. in Perama) still are an impressive sight.

After centuries of Ottoman rule in 1922 Lesvos returned to being Greek, but that destroyed the industry. This had nothing to do with economics, but with politics. Some agrarian activity like tobacco and resin remained, but olive oil and cheese became then the main export products, with ouzo in third place as an export

After the Second World War the western countries of Europe developed quickly. Not Greece however. This country first had to face a civil war and later the colonels took power. Not really a climate for investment. The colonels lost power in 1974 and left Greece as an impoverished country.

For Greece joining Europe meant hope, and when they did, Europe offered so many cheap loans, that for a moment the Greeks felt like living in paradise. We now know what an enormous price the country now has to pay for it, because even not half a century after the Greeks finally gained their freedom, the country again is on the brink of a steep abyss.

And maybe this is also true for the whole of Europe, which now shows more and more signs of failure: daily it becomes more clear that politicians act according to what the big industrials and banks want. For instance permission has just been given to the big dangerous wolf Monsanto to operate in Europe. This industrial giant, famous for its chemical pesticides and Agent Orange, buys patents of vegetables (and tries to take over the wine industry in France).
After Monsanto gets what it wants, in a few years you can forget about your choriatiki (Greek salad) because you will only get Monsato salads. They will have patented all the tomatoes and paprika. On Lesvos most people have a little vegetable garden where they grow their own food and in many restaurants you also get those homegrown vegetables. Most of the tourists love Greek tomatoes, because in the summer months they get so much sunlight. But if Monsanto will rule the markets, we will be left with only manipulated tomatoes who will taste the same in the whole of Europe and who knows, it might even become forbidden to grow other vegetables and even eat other than those of Monsanto.

When you see how Europe holds a knife to the throat of one of his members, how it tries to discharge the problem of refugees to three of its members and do nothing to reform the banking system, it is clear: Europe has failed. No politician ever learned a lesson from how Iceland dealed with its bankruptcy, no leader of government seems to think that refugees also may contribute to a solution of the European crisis and nobody dares to stop the money makers. In my eyes west-Europeans look more and more like the machines in The Matrix, like Varoufakis mentioned in his book: they obediently agree with all new laws, just squirm a bit, but nobody dares to take action.

That is why it is good that - whatever happens next - Greece opposed Europe and its money wolfs. The New Europe - just like democracy - will be born in Greece. And when you want to learn more about our turbulent world, Yanis Varoufakis ideas are a real must for a first economy lesson.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

June 8 – Who are they?

(silent witnesses)

Whilst in Molyvos, volunteers prepare sandwiches for the two hundred refugees who arrived this morning in the village (who knows how many on the island itself), I am asking myself who these people are. According to the refugee organisation UNHCR 60% comes from Syria, and the others mainly are from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Eritrea.

What food were they used to eating before they left their homes and kitchens? For centuries now refugees, immigrants and guest workers have changed culinary habits. Who in the Netherlands, England or Germany still eats traditional Dutch, English or German dishes daily? Who doesn't regularly eat pizza, souvlaki, spring rolls, satay, couscous, shawarma or hummus? 

That the Greek and Italian shores are now the recipients of large flows of refugees is no novelty. If you take a look at the history of refugees, you see that there have always been refugees somewhere. The many people who fled their countries or were displaced especially in the 20th century caused enormous human migrations that had its impact on the culture and the culinary uses in nearly all countries involved. I happen to think that most of the traditional Dutch, German and English dishes are pretty boring. But when I check out some recipes coming from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia or Eritrea then I immediately want to start cooking and try out those wonderful combinations of ingredients. The food in those countries also has been influenced by lots of other cultures and it offers surprising variations.

I think Greece is at the crosspoint of the North European and Arabic/African kitchen: it still has that temperate character of the Northern kitchen, but at the same time has a rich tradition of seasonable vegetables and fruit and uses a modest range of herbs. The more southwards you go from Greece, the more spices are used in the food.

This article was published some six years ago and is about an American journalist who, together with Anissa Helou, a famous Arabic cook, strolls around in Aleppo and Damascus (Syria). They taste and talk about Syrian food. The colourful markets were full of people and hospitable, as there was no war going on, which now is destroying completely the country. This still was beautiful Syria, where people went out for dinner, where women in their kitchens cooked the most scented dishes, where just like in Greece courgette flowers and cabbage leaves were filled with a spiced mixture of lamb meat or/and rice and where hummus was placed on a plate in a special way. Now these women arrive here at the beaches in wobbly dinghies without even a pan to cook with.

Even though after years of warfare the Afghans are left poor and broken, their dishes still come from a pretty rich kitchen, influenced by Mongolia, China, India, Europe and the Middle East. For example they like to eat a kind of tortellini (mantoo) and they prepare their meatballs (koftas) with more spice than the Greeks use in their keftedes.
Next to my house is an orange tree that grows bitter fruit: nerantzia they are called in Greek. As far as I know the only use they have is to cook them into a slightly bitter marmalade. But looking for some recipes I found an Afghan one: Norinj Palau, or rice with oranges: a dish made with bitter oranges, almonds, pistachio, rice and chicken. And all the ingredients are available in Greece.

The Iraqi kitchen differs very little from that of other Arabic countries. The exception may be that the mighty Euphrates and Tigris run through their country, providing them with lots of sweet water and thus giving them the opportunity to have fresh water fish on their menus. But just like the Greeks they also enjoy filo rolls (börek) filled with goat cheese, meat, vegetables or nuts, they serve tsatsiki as cacik, they call all stuffed vegetables (as well as tomatoes, courgette as vine leaves) dolmas, they eat shawarma calling it kass; and like everywhere in the Arabic world they love the divine, honey-sweet baklava. The beautiful and interesting blog of Nawal Nasrallah, My Iraqi kitchen, proves that the Iraqi kitchen has roots deep into history.

The Eritrean kitchen  has also known plenty of influences: Ottoman, Italian and Ethiopian. And did you know that (according to Wikipedia) 62.9% of the Eritreans are Christians, of which most are orthodox? And that they also, from time to time, like to have an ouzo? Well, that aniseed beverage in Eritrea is called areki. Both in Eritrea and in Somalia lots of pancake like bread is served with the meals, like injera which is made with teff flour, that comes from a grass with the beautiful name: Williams Lovegrass (Eragrostis abyssinica). Both these cuisines have a lot in common. The Somali kitchen knows the same influences of that of Eritrea and just like in so many African countries one of the best known spice mixes is berbere, a spicy blend that gives your food an excellent Eastern scent and taste.

Can you imagine how it hurts to leave your own herb collection and pantry, your herb and vegetable garden and your apricot and almond trees, which for years have helped you feed your family and friends! How bad can it be that for days, weeks, months and even years you will not be able to cook your favourite dishes, or even enjoy a proper meal? Most people arriving here have lived through such hell they are actually happy when being served a sandwich.

If I was able to, I would start a road restaurant between Kalloni and Mytilini, where many of these refugees pass walking and where I then will cook and distribute those universal dishes like tsatsiki, stuffed tomatoes, lentil stew, hummus or souvlaki, which I will spice with their national blends, so that on their way to a new life in an uncertain future, they might smell the scent of home and renew themselves. For most people Lesvos is just an inbetween station on a very long long journey towards a new home and kitchen.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2015