Saturday 30 October 2010

Parachutists at the Astir Palace

A world-famous parachutist* was in town last week. I didn’t know Jeffrey Sachs, a proponent of economic “shock therapy” in Eastern Europe in the early-1990s, visited Athens until I read his column in the New York Times, In Athens, New Beginnings.

Professor Sachs drank long and deeply of the PASOK Kool-Aid at the Astir Palace, where he attended the launch of the Mediterranean Climate Change Initiative. Dr. Sachs had this remarkable finding to report:

Yet Papandreou has done something even more difficult and remarkable. He has insisted that Greece look decades ahead to protect the fragile Mediterranean environment while building skills and technologies for a new era. 

Dr. Sachs was apparently not aware that holding international conferences in 5* hotels are one of PASOK’s few genuine achievements. Every month, it seems, another grand initiative is launched at another sparkling event. Has anyone forgotten George Papandreou’s Road Plan for Balkan Accession by 2014, delivered just a few days after winning the October 2009 elections? If holding conferences or making empty promises were an Olympic sport, Greece would be a gold medalist.

It is of course doubly ironic that Dr. Sachs singles out Papandreou’s apparent commitment to the environment for praise. Is he not aware that Greece has one of the worse environmental records since joining the EU in 1981? Greece has consistently flouted the letter and the spirit of EU environmental legislation, and today finds itself paying fines or losing cases in the European Court of Justice for a wide variety of offenses, from illegal landfills and releases of carcinogenic PCBs to violations of the Natura 2000 directive.

The environmental scandals affecting this country have not yet been fully investigated, let alone prosecuted or solved. The illegal toxic waste disposals in the Asopos River which [continue to] cause mercury, chromium and dioxide poisoning have been widely documented, but no substantive legal action taken. The high occurrence of cancers and birth defects around DEH’s power plants is well-known, but monopolist DEH continues its commitment to high-sulfur coal-burning power generation. The eutrophication of inland seas such as the Corinthian Gulf or lakes such as Lake Kastoria, Koronia or Ioannina due to pesticide run-off is painfully apparent to both sight and smell. The fact that Greece has a disastrous record in recycling or litter prevention is evident on every street, every beach and forest, and every country road.

If George Papandreou wants to save the Mediterranean environment, I suggest he ends his conference circuit, sells the government jet, and starts implementing existing Greek and EU law right here at home. There is more than enough work to do for the next 15 years, without attending a single conference or making any more promises. We’ve heard far too many of them already and frankly, we are tired of paying for them. And Dr. Sachs should take parachute lessons elsewhere.  

* A parachutist in this context is an amicable journalist/pundit, usually (but not exclusively) an elderly white male, who flies into Athens for 2-3 days, stays at the Astir Palace or the Grande Bretagne, and then flies out to write profound articles about Greece.

© Philip Ammerman, 2010s

Tuesday 26 October 2010

The Astakos Debacle and Need for a Real Investment Strategy for Greece

The Astakos LPG/LNG debacle and the government’s spasmodic efforts to pass a “Fast Track” legislation indicate that Greece’s (or rather, PASOK’s) strategy for attracting and facilitating investments remains fatally flawed. This blog post will explore the Astakos investment as an illustration of the general problem: a later post will explore the problems and potential of investment policy in Greece as a whole.

The Astakos investment was announced by the government with great fanfare in late 2009/early 2010, and promptly handed over for negotiation by the then Minister-without-Portfolio Haris Pamboukis. There followed a constantly-changing investment plan and investment consortium which included the following elements:

·         Development of a liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and partial liquefied natural gas (LNG) power station at the port of Astakos. Additional infrastructure included an LNG terminal and a pipeline linking Astakos with the Turkey-Greece-Italy IGI Poseidon pipeline, which passes through northern Greece and enters the Ionian Sea south of Igoumenitsa.

·         The capacity estimate was for a 1,010 MW power station which would distribute power in Greece, while further capacity (estimated at 30% total output) would be sold to Italy. The total investment value was listed at $ 7 bln.

·         The investment consortium* included the Quatar Investment Authority and Qatar Petroleum with 34%; Sabbagh and Khoury (Lebanon) with 33%; and Rosebud Energy (Germany) with 33%.

A rapid glance at Greece’s geography and the site of the proposed investment underlines the unclear business logic of the project:

1.      Astakos is geographically-isolated. The nearest major urban centres are Preveza to the north, Agrinio to the east, and Nafplio and Patras to the southeast. Connection to the grid would have been required, together with a careful capacity planning. In any event, the Ministry of Energy indicated that at this point in the system, the grid could only absorb 300 MW. There are therefore two commercial risks to consider:

a.     The direct risk, i.e. the cost of investing in transmission and distribution grids, and

b.     The indirect risk, i.e. the fact that the power generation and distribution system in Greece is heavily regulated and dominated by a monopoly player, the Public Power Corporation of Greece (ΔΕΗ).

2.      To say that Astakos is isolated is perhaps to underestimate the actual situation. The port of Astakos (which is not in Astakos town) has only a small rural road connecting it to the national highway system. There is no infrastructure around the site. The region does not have the engineering and skilled worker capacity necessary to run the site: staff would have to be attracted to the location, and living quarters built. The situation in Greece as regards labour costs, payroll taxes and work/residence visa issue is not the same as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which are far more flexible and investor-friendly in this regard.

3.      Astakos is far from the IGI connector, which enters the Ionian Sea south of Igoumenitsa. Investing to connect to the IGI, given the minor quantities of gas available in the initial plan, requires a very careful planning of costs and benefits. If I were planning an investment designed to supply Italy with natural gas via the IGI, it would not be located in Astakos.

4.      The ostensible reason for the withdrawal of the Qatari partners from the project—that the price of electricity offered by Italy was too low—is a direct consequence of the size of the investment costs and the capacity planning. Taking into account the costs of seaborne LPG or LNG, there is little commercial sense in setting up a small storage unit at Astakos, and investing in an expensive pipeline to connect with IGI. It makes far more sense to locate the LGP/LNG terminal directly in Italy, and indeed, further north, where demand is higher. (The marginal cost of transport by sea 200-300 km further north is far lower than the cost of building pipelines for this reason). Alternatively, the terminal could be located at Otranto to offset a potential fall in supplies through IGI. 

5.      Taking into account the energy demand of Greece, it is difficult to see why such an investment should not be made in the region of Elefsina, where an extensive energy cluster already exists, and where major demand and infrastructure (between Athens and Corinth) already exist. Alternatively, the station could have been located in northern Greece, which would enable Greece of offset energy imports from Bulgaria with domestically-produced energy.

6.      The choice of partners is an interesting point for any investor interested in doing business in Greece. The dominant player in the energy sector in Greece is the Public Power Corporation, with the Public Gas Corporation of Greece (ΔΕΠΑ) being the primary player in gas production and distribution. Although the energy sector has theoretically been liberalised, in practice it has not. Any investment generating 1,010 MW of energy for consumption in Greece would be a direct competitor to PPC’s powerful, entrenched interests, which include lignite-fired plants in northern Greece. Given that PPC controls both production and distribution of electricity, any investor would have to seriously consider the political resistance which would likely be created by these interests.

The fact that PPC is in the process of privatisation / liberalisation, and the very real political conflict which is now underway, illustrated the danger posed by such a competitor, particularly since the Minister of Energy is also the Minster of Environment in Greece. A natural choice to offset this resistance would be a powerful local player such as the Vardinogiannis group, which already has extensive energy interests and is perhaps the only partner capable of withstanding the tangled political interests of the governing party. The logic and ulterior motives of choosing Rosebud as an investment partner should be questioned.

7.      The choice of LPG as a feedstock is a controversial choice. Given that natural gas is in general cheaper and that Qatar has the largest LNG production capacity in the world, it is difficult to see what advantages are offered by LPG. This is further open to question given that Greece has already invested in gas distribution capacity and that an LNG plant would be more in line with the national energy policy.

To conclude: it is difficult to determine the commercial and business logic of this investment, given the peculiarities of the Greek investment climate, the Greek energy mix and the location of the investment.

The fact that an investment site was readily available and had to be marketed to a potential bidder is no substitute for the classic investment budgeting for any greenfield site. The costs of land, in any case, are a small fraction of the investment in pipelines and grid that would have had to be made for this project to function effectively.

This difficult situation was, in my opinion, compounded by the unhealthy government involvement in its development. It was clear that the reason the Greek government was promoting the project was to develop a troublesome “asset” which was started under previous PASOK governments, and to “win” a battle of public opinion. The involvement of different ministries, and the involvement of ministers with vastly different priorities, resulted in conflicting messages and estimates. A kind of “personal investment promotion” occurred, which cannot possibly substitute for carefully-planned, economically-logical strategies and plans.

The culmination of this exercise was the sudden and embarrassing withdrawal of the Qatari partners and the collapse of the project. The attempts by PASOK to cast the blame on the investment consortium are, in retrospect, suspect, since the commercial logic of the project was being promoted by PASOK in the 9-10 previous months.

It is also interesting to note that any number of actors, including both the government and private sector players, have served as active cheerleaders of the project, before the investment even took place. I was particularly struck by the statement of Michael Massourakis, Chief Economist of Alpha Bank, in the FT on October 12th:  

Judging from the dust the Qataris and the Chinese leave behind as they scramble to invest in Greece, as well as the more than €20bn in European Community structural funds in the pipeline, a resurgence of investment may not be such a far-fetched scenario.

Alpha Bank is one of the owners of the Astakos Port, and is particularly exposed to Greek public debt. As if this conflict of interest were not enough, any objective evaluation of Chinese investments in Greece to date, or of EU fund absorption and effectiveness, should be enough to convince an observer of the opposite conclusion.

I forecast the same type of fundamental conflict of interest in the ongoing $ 5.0 bln MOU for Qatari government investments in Greece. This project is being planned by committee, with the Qatari and Greek sides each putting up members. While I do not want to sound unduly pessimistic, it is difficult to see how  committee staffed by political appointees of PASOK (or indeed, any political party) is expected to lead to sustainable investments for the objective benefit of Greece.

Where are the investment professionals? Where is the long-term investment planning designed to generate jobs and improve the trade balance? Why such focus on large-scale investments (FastTrack), when research from every EU country (and the United States) indicates that small and medium-enteprises produce the large majority of employment and economic benefits?

Greece needs a far different kind of investment policy. In a subsequent blog post, I will try to outline what this should look like.

* NB My company, Navigator Consulting Group Ltd., is a consultant to one of these investors. The opinions expressed in this post are my own. Neither Navigator nor I have advised the principals in the Astakos project.

© Philip Ammerman, 2010

Monday 25 October 2010

Pending Confirmation of Higher Greek Debt

The events of the past 2 weeks, and notably Eurostat’s delay in releasing its revised figures for the 2009 deficit, as well as the rumours of a possible delay in EUR 110 bln bail-out payment schedule, confirm the thesis that has been proposed in this blog since late 2009:

·         that on the one hand, total Greek debt is higher than the amount found in the official figures

·         that on the other hand, Greece’s return to the markets in 2013 for the amounts in question—approximately EUR 70-80 bln—will be impossible, or very expensive.

Regarding the first issue, that of the restatement of the 2009 deficit. Numerous media sources have claimed that the deficit will rise from 13% of GDP to 16%. The factors which will be included in the debt include the EUR 5 bln Ethniki swap, as well as higher healthcare spending and debt of certain semi-governmental organisations.

A brief review of the deficit difference–3%, or EUR 7.11 bln—is probable only of one includes the EUR 5 bln swap* plus EUR 2 bln in additional spending. In my opinion, this is insufficient, which is why the announcement has been moved passed the November 7th elections:

·         Either the revised estimate of 3% does not include a far higher amount of debt which will be added to the central government books in 2010, or

·         Additional debt must be added to the central government books for the period 2006-2008 as well as 2009.

The reasoning behind this is simple: As explained in previous posts, the added debt “transferred” to the central government in 2010 alone is at least EUR 13.8 bln (OGA + OSE), not counting a number of other lines, such as the military industry, healthcare, construction and others.

In order to avoid a “ticker shock”, I fully expect Eurostat to update not just the 2009 deficit, but the deficits going back to 2005. However, at the end of this exercise, I expect Greek central government debt to reach EUR 347 bln at end-2010, or approximately 152% of GDP.  (My GDP estimate for 2010 is unchanged at EUR 225 bln. If anything, I regard a 5% real GDP decline as an optimistic case).

This will cause yet another round of shock in the international markets. It is difficult to understand why the ratings agencies and many other forecasters do not reach this conclusion by themselves.

This also creates significant uncertainty for the prospects of Greece’s repayment of the EUR 110 bln bail-out, which is due to start in 2013. I regret to say that I have still not had the time to crunch the numbers on the PDMA website. However, I understand from serious press reports that the minimum debt payment in question in 2013 is at least EUR 70 bln, taking both the bail-out and private sector issues into account.

It is increasingly difficult to see how Greece will borrow EUR 70 bln, given that by end-2012, we can expect debt-to-GDP to be at least 165%, if not 170%. Unless Greece receives a longer grace period, or a 5-year bail-out repayment schedule, or a further bailout from the EUR 750 bln Stabilisation Fund, it does not seem probably that the assumptions on which the bail-out was designed will materialise. In other words, it seems impossible that Greece will be able to return to the markets in this time at an annual interest rate of less than 7-8%. Thus, it seems impossible that Greece will be able to meet loan obligations in the period 2013-2015.

It gives me no pleasure at all to be proven right in what has been an often lonely attempt to consolidate Greek public debt figures and understand the true dimensions of the debt. This is particularly the case when well-respected financial publications such as the Financial Times or The Economist appear to have taken Greek debt figures since March 2010 at their face value.

However, without a proper, unbiased understanding, it is impossible for any government or creditor to begin the process of a debt work-out or restructuring, or to decide on future lending. Although this comes at a critical time, I continue to believe that the sooner we have a full picture, the sooner we can lay the foundations for a real recovery.

In this respect, the bravery with which Ireland and the United Kingdom have recognised their true debt picture and put in place an austerity plan is instructive.  

In Greece, the fact that Eurostat has finally been granted audit rights over the Hellenic Statistics Service is a major improvement.

Any investor looking for a market rebound in recent weeks (due to Ethniki’s recapitalisation or Eurobank’s EUR 200 mln interbank borrowing) should be very careful about holding Greek equities one week past the November 7th election.

* NB Determining the true value of the Ethniki swap may be technically difficult, and I would be very interested to see how Eurostat values this trade.  

© Philip Ammerman, 2010

Sunday 24 October 2010

Better the Devil you know

The Devil sat down next to me on the Metro at Syntagma station. He wore a shabby blue suit and smelled of leaf tobacco and crisp new 500 Euro bills. I knew he was the Devil, because he had left his Hellenic Parliament pass clipped to his jacket pocket, and his forked tail thrashed uncomfortably as he sat down.

“Good evening,” smiled the lady sitting across from him. He smiled in return and cleared his throat, but didn’t speak. Instead, he unfolded one of those free newspapers and started to read with evident interest.

After a while, I took pity on him, and offered him my Financial Times. He took it with a grateful smile and I, recognising him from the evening news, decided to make small talk.

“So how are we doing?” I asked, not remembering which political party he belonged to.

“Oh, fine,” he said, a sly grin on his face. “Never better! Gold is rising—if I were you, I’d get my assets into gold.”

“Well, gold is a bit too rich for me” I responded. “With a family to support, I spend most of my money on basics–school fees, dentists, taxes.”

“Taxes?” he harrumphed. “Never mind that young man. You’re far too young to pay taxes. Just buy gold. Nothing better. And make sure you bank it in Switzerland.”

Switzerland?” I gasped “I thought you were in the Greek Parliament!?”

“Sure I’m in Parliament. But just because I’m a servant of the people doesn’t mean I can’t look after myself, you know,” his eye twinkled as he nudged me in the ribs.

“And if I don’t look after myself, who will? Do you really think IKA will pay us when we retire? Besides, I run into Greek MPs in Switzerland all the time. At the end of the month, Zurich is like Kolonaki. There’s always a few dozen slackers hanging around the banks or shopping on the Bahnhofstrasse. Just last weekend I saw Shoeman at Banque Pictet (very sophisticated, Shoeman is–that’s why he became a Commissioner) and Abraham’s Boy buying another gold watch. He can’t seem to get enough Rolex, that villain. And Cave Boy wants to go again this weekend to buy more Zegna ties—he didn’t get enough freebies when he was at the Tourism Ministry.” 

“Shoeman? Bahnhofstrasse?” I stuttered. ”Rolex?”

“Absolutely! Gold is the master of all things. Look around you: central bankers printing money; governments running up debt; manufacturing moving to China and not coming back. Why not gold? You don’t believe in austerity, do you? Balanced budgets? Stable currencies?”

Thinking about it, I had to confess I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen either a balanced budget or a stable currency. And I certainly couldn’t remember when I last bought something made in Greece. Even the garlic sold at the neighbourhood psilihatzithiko was made in China.

“You know, don’t look at it so badly!” he said. “Switzerland is a nice place. Solid. Secure. The trains run on time. You can go skiing in the winter and sailing in the summer. Simple people—most of them are asleep by ten—and a bit boring, but you can do business with them. Not like us Greeks. We are a lively people: we eat to much, sing too loud, and fall in love at the first moment. And if you think there’s a crisis, just try getting into Super Paradise in Mykonos on the weekend. Malaka, not even God could get in there!”

“God goes to Super Paradise?”

“Well, you know what I mean” the Devil smirked. “It’s not so easy being God: delegations arriving from all over the place, every minute scheduled, no time even to fart. I used to be like that, but I gave it up after a while. Too stressful. But I can go back and do it any time I want to.”

“And so now you’re in Parliament?” I asked, disbelievingly.

“Hey, don’t knock the Parliament!” he protested. “We do important work. Just yesterday we approved a Memorandum of Understanding between our Hydrographic Service and Slovenia’s Department of Maritime Affairs. Next week, we will be reviewing a law on electronic prescriptions. And don’t forget: October 28th is coming up!”

“What happens on October 28th?” I asked, befuddled.

“What happens on October 28th? Why, it’s OXI Day of course! On this proud day in 1940, we said “No” to Mussolini. And then we whupped his ass all the way back to Albania. “Aera” our proud forefathers cried, freezing in the snow without even shoes on their feet. “Aera!”

“Of course, these days most Albanians live in Pangrati and we say “yes” to Italian loans. Damn spaghetti eaters. The Astakos project was cancelled because of an Italian conspiracy. They didn’t want to pay double the price for Quatari petroleum gas from Astakos. Another stab in the back.”

“But surely,” I ventured, “you can hardly blame the Italians for wanting a fair price for gas.”

“Why should they?” cried the Devil. “Do Greeks get fair prices? Of course not. Our gasoline is the highest in Europe. Our supermarket prices are twice as high. A self-service frappe at Da Capo costs 5 Euro – 5 Euro, can you imagine? A café crème at Fouquet’s on the Champs Élysées is only 3 Euro!

"Of course, at Da Capo you see all the celebrities: Kougias, Koromila, Kalomira. Who do you see at Fouquet’s? No one. We are richer than the French! Richer and better! We are a proud people! Why shouldn’t the Italians pay us?”

“Er…are you complaining about the high prices, or are you happy to be screwed by those evil cartels Papariga keeps on about?” I inquired.

“I have always been a champion of the working class!” intoned the Devil, magnanimously. “Look at me: I’m just a simple kid from Kastri. My father was a humble economics professor who had to flee during the junta! I worked hard to get where I am today: I have degrees from Amherst, Stockholm, LSE and Harvard! It seems like all my life I’ve been in school. And sociology is a tough subject you know: you can’t just slack off in class or during the vacations. Work is all I know.”  

“Yes, foukara mou, you have seen much hardship.” I commiserated.

“Hardship and xenitia” reminisced the Devil. “But now look at how far we’ve come. Fifty years ago you had to emigrate to freezing Minnesota. Today you can find xenitia right here in Athens. Who says our convergence policy with Europe hasn’t worked?”

“You know, you are right!” I agreed. “Our standard of living has improved dramatically. I was just reading that we have the highest number of Porsche Cayennes per capita, and we have the highest consumption of Scotch whisky after Scotland.

Ainte bravo!” cried the Devil. “You see? We are doing something right. And then these ungrateful Europeans come down and tell us we have to live within our means. After we gave them democracy and civilisation. Where would Europe be without us? Even the name Europe is Greek: Europa, who was abducted by Zeus in the form of a white bull. I never stop reminding my European colleagues of this. I tell them, ‘We have embarked on an Odyssey together.’ But they never listen. Not anymore.”  

Suddenly the loudspeaker blared out the next stop: “Nomismatokopeio

“Well, that’s my stop," said the Devil. “Just have to fire up the printing presses before turning in tonight. Money never sleeps. It’s been great talking with you, young man. Your patritha is proud of you. Pay your taxes and work hard, because Greece needs you. Money exists. People stop me in the street, working class people, who offer me their wage if it can help pay down the debt.”

He jumped up and bounded away through the empty Metro carriage, his shoes squeaking with every step. Behind him, the singed pages of my FT smouldered on the Metro floor. Money exists, I thought. If only I could get some. 

(c) Philip Ammerman, 2010

Monday 18 October 2010

Letters from the Καφενείο

I spent the latter half of last week attending a conference in a Baltic country where I’ve had the privilege of working since 2004. As you approach from the air to land in the capital’s airport, you can plainly see that this is not a rich country. Few highways cross the countryside; much flat land is uncultivated; forests dot the landscape. This impression of—not poverty exactly, but not riches either—is confirmed as you drive from the airport past the Stalinist apartment blocks and crumbling factories in the suburbs.

Yet the historic centre of the town is a jewel: baroque church spires grace every corner; cobblestoned streets contrast with Scandinavian-designed boutiques; pubs and restaurants are housed in old merchant houses hundreds of years old.

Despite its poverty, the city works. Cars park where they are supposed to park, and don’t park where they aren’t supposed to. Drivers stop for pedestrians at the pedestrian crossings—even without a streetlight. There are sidewalks uncluttered by parked motorcycles, parked cars or signposts. You don’t see graffiti anywhere: not on the walls of the various universities in town; not on the town hall; not anywhere. The garbage is kept indoors until taken out for collection: you don’t see derelict garbage bins spewing their litter onto the streets.

The souvenir shops in the centre feature local products: jewellery made of silver and amber; incredible ceramics; wood carvings, home furnishings and the like. Very little of this is made in China: most of it is made by small artisans known to the sellers, and very often by the artisans themselves. Prices are eminently reasonable: there are high quality, hand-made toys available from just 1 euro, or amber jewellery from 10 euro. There are no Nigerian street-sellers; there are no Chinese stores packed with counterfeit products.

The best business school in the country is a private one. It was started after the fall of the Soviet Union. Today its degrees are accepted by both government and industry. There are no divisive questions of university asylum in either the public or private universities. Private and state degrees are accredited and assessed according to the same system, and have equal value whether in the private or public sector.

Despite the fact that GDP fell drastically in 2008-2009, small groups of special interests do not block the town centre or try to burn parliament. The President and Prime Minister are both elected directly, in contrast to the Greek model where the President is appointed by Parliament. The serving President is a woman who served as a commissioner of the European Union.

The contrast with Athens could not be greater. It was a relief to be in a modest, well-run city which suffers from no delusions of grandeur, and refuses to accept the widespread criminal activity evident in my home city.


Lunch at Schinias
I returned from Lithuania late on Saturday evening, and on Sunday we decided to take a trip out to Schinias and enjoy the day on the beach. Against my own preferences, but in line with the desire of our guests, we decided to eat at the “Dolphin”, an illegal restaurant on the beach.

The waiter came and asked us if we wanted to see the “grill” (ψητo). This is not the normal use of the word, for he took us to see which large fish could be grilled. His sales pitch was for a sea bream caught on the open sea (as opposed to raised in an aquaculture cage). The price was EUR 50 per kilo, or EUR 80 for the fish in question.

I have to admit, I was extremely irritated, although this is a standard price for “fresh fish”. Perhaps if I didn’t pay the income taxes I pay every year, I could spend the money on his miserable fish instead. But despite the fact that I am a relatively well-remunerated professional, not dependent on the Greek market, and with my own company to boot, I simply refuse to spend EUR 80 on a fish, which probably cost EUR 20 from the fisherman.

Perhaps it was the banality of his manner at offering such an astronomical price for what was clearly a very ordinary product. Indeed, the insouciance with which he and his fellow taverna-owners engage in the same price gouging all over Greece shows that I am far in the minority on this issue.

Yet the bastard got us anyway. When the bill for our sardine & kalamari lunch finally arrived, the cover charge for “bread” amounted to EUR 6, or EUR 1 for every person at the table. Given that 1 kg of bread costs EUR 0.60, he charged us enough to buy 10 kg of bread, while of course serving less than 0.5 kg. A fine margin indeed: If I raised my consultancy fees to the same ratio, I’d be eating at Alain Ducasse every night.

It’s really too bad the average diner is content to spend lots of money for a very average product. Perhaps if we were all a little more choosy and stopped frequenting the greasy spoon tavernas which have become the norm in Greece, they would go out of business or raise their quality.

Or perhaps not, given the rampant illegality and corner-cutting in this business. The taverna in Schinias, for instance, was using the oil of olive seeds (πυρηνέλαιο) rather than olive oil in his Greek salad. And the calamari was probably frozen in Thailand.


Feeding Ηρα
My weekend finished in a hospital room at the Athens Medical Centre on Kifissias, where my father has been hospitalised following yet another medical condition. He will pull through.

The story that follows is one recounted by my mother: Two nights ago, she was getting a taxi to leave the hospital. The driver asked if she minded waiting for a couple of minutes. He stopped near the hospital, got out, took a can of dog food from his car, and called out the name “Ηρα”. A stray dog, obviously very familiar to him, ran up with obvious delight. He fed the dog a little way off, got back in the car, and drove my mother home.

My mother asked him how long he had been feeding that dog. He answered “Every day for the last 5 years.”  

(c) Philip Ammerman, 2010

Monday 11 October 2010

Cleaning Schinias

On Sunday, 10 October, a group of 32 volunteers gathered to clean the forest and beach of Schinias. Despite the overcast weather, we were able to clean over 50 garbage bags of litter from the area of the Glaros restaurant, which is one of the most heavily-visited areas of the National Park during the summer.

Although the litter remains omni-present, the impact of five cleanings are starting to be seen: the litter volume and density in the area is decreasing. A smaller group of volunteers can now clear a larger area.

We believe that together with more intensive cleanings over a wider area, a campaign to install litter bins and “no litter” signs will be decisive.

A special thanks goes to all the volunteers, old and new, who came out on cloudy weather this Sunday to help clean the forest and beach. A special thanks to:

·         Nadine Ioannou and the CAS Programme students of the I.M. Panayiotopoulos School, who came out at short notice amidst a busy exam season;

·         Henske and Lieke Defize, “veterans” of the cleaning who have attended every single event since our start in October 2008, for running the registration desk;

·         Alexander Ammerman, who once again helped with the thankless but vital task of logistics;

·         Sky Radio, Xpat, Athinorama, and others for publicising the event;

·         Mr. Nikos Anastasopoulos, President of the National Park of Marathon-Schinias, and the members of the Vrilissos NGO, with whom we will organise future events.

The volunteers included the following (if I have forgotten or misspelled any names, please email me!)

Alexandris, Despina & Yiannis Papadakis
Ammerman, Philip & Alexander
Anastasopoulos, Nikos
Balland, Christophe & Gaelle
Defize, Lieke & Henske
Hondros, Dimitris
Ioannou, Nadine
Khnouf, Hilde
Minas, Viviane & Children
Mitic, Sophie & Children
Panagiotou, Ritsa & Ariadne
Prassinos, Costas
Vasileia, Katrini

Friday 8 October 2010

There’s a sucker born every minute

There’s a sucker born every minute, as the saying goes, and the sucker writing this post was born over 20.5 million minutes ago.

A little while earlier today I received a telephone call from the legal representative of a major family foundation—one of the best-known families in Greece, complete with its own museum. This foundation wanted to know whether I was organising a cleaning of the Schinias forest on October 10th.

I was, in fact, organising this cleanup: it’s the fifth iteration of a purely voluntary activity. Our group, the “Friends of Schinias”, has cleaned tonnes of garbage since 2008.

But was I not aware that this foundation owned 411 stremmata of the forest in question, and that another foundation owned the remaining 519 stremmata, and that as such, I had to ask their permission to clean first? And, in fact, should I not receive their permission, that on Sunday I would be served with an εξώδικο, or legal order, presumably to stop cleaning?

In fact, I was not aware of this.

All this time, I had thought that the National Forest of Schinias-Marathon was exactly that – a National Forest, owned by the state. No, I was informed: the foundation had title deeds going back to 1888.

“And what about the million visitors who visited Schinias this summer, spreading their garbage everywhere, and even lighting fires in the forest?” I asked. “Did they receive permission too?”

“This is a terrible situation, and a matter for the police, who refuse to enforce the law.” She responded.

The conversation then took a different turn, and I was asked whether I was aware that riding bicycles in the forest did severe damage to the root systems of trees. Riding of bicycles in the forest could not be allowed under any circumstances.

I mentioned again whether they were aware of the tens of thousands of cars that visit the forest each summer, and which do immeasurably worse damage to the root systems. I was told (again) this was also a matter for the police.

To make a long story short, I agreed to write a letter asking permission to clean the forest. Permission was granted. So this Sunday, we can clean with the official permission of the owners. As long as we don’t ride bicycles.

Which brings me back to the pervasive feeling of bitterness which has seized hold of me since the series of telephone calls this afternoon. What else could I have done? Should I have refused to ask for permission, gotten the legal summons, and then gone to the television channels to ridicule the whole affair?

Should I stop working entirely on cleaning Schinias? After all, it’s apparently private land—let the foundation clean it. They certainly have much more money than I do, and judging by the priorities of their legal department, much more time.

How is it that the Greek government has declared a National Park of Schinias, but doesn’t actually own it, and apparently can’t make legal decisions concerning it?

How is it that the few people who are actually trying to do something beneficial for a public area are forced under legal threat to ask for permission, while those that break both the law and civilised behaviour on a daily basis do so without any permission or any consequences whatsoever?

Is it worth trying to do anything in this country, or am I just a sucker?

For anyone who would like to spend a fantastic Sunday morning out at Schinias, we will be cleaning litter from 10:00 – 13:00. Legally. Please join us: we need all the help we can get. Directions are on our website: