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ESF live blogging -- Thursday (Interpreter's diary continued)

by Barbara Thu May 4th, 2006 at 11:28:07 AM EST

Hello from Athens, everyone. I'm finding myself at a rather antiquated computer (I'd say maybe 1991?), that, however, has a Greek version of Linux called Hellug. Nice. I came here to interpret along with five of my fellow students from London Met. Before I left, I promised I'd write a few reports on what's happening here, which I'm doing now.

I'm finding it a bit hard to begin. What should I write about first? How about a few adjectives about how I feel. Overwhelmed. Lost. Tired, disenchanted, frustrated, freaked out, too. Where am I? I came here to be useful, but I'm finding myself wondering long corridors, looking for who-knows-what. If there were one word to summarize this event, it would be CHAOS.

I came here to work, voluntarily, out of "good heart and for a good cause", or so I though. I left my cozy home (sniff), my partner (double sniff) and my four-year old (AAAARRRH!) for what seemed to be an opportunity to do something valuable. The accommodation is Spartan (we're in Greece, after all): six people in two rooms on improvised beds in a house that hasn't been used for years. The shower has no curtain so we all dutifully mop each time we're done... you could eat off of the floor. There are no chairs and the floor is made of bits of marble... rather cold. But that's okay. We're going to the SOCIAL forum, right? No sinful, capitalist luxuries for us. Fair enough. I didn't come to be pampered.

The ESF is two minutes away from the sea, south of the centre of the city. It's taking place in an old airport. Definitely impressive size-wise. Due to some lapses in organization (there seem to be MANY), I won't be interpreting until Saturday, so I can spend the days as I please. I was told to look for the Czech group to see if I could help out, but it's like looking for a needle in a haystack. Plus the Czechs don't seem that friendly anyway. Maybe they wouldn't want me around and tell me off. So I walk around to "soak in the atmosphere". Taking pictures, stopping at booths, peeping into conference rooms, fiddling with radio channels (the interpreting is done over the radio this year... clever if you have a good radio. I don't, and cannot hear doodley squat.) I'm hoping to learn something new. Instead, I feel transported back in time about 18 years. I see red: red flags, red stars, red T-shirts. Red signs, the Cyrilic alphabet. Portraits of Lenin, Stalin. The sickle and the hammer. Anti-capitalist slogans. And I begin to question where on the political fence I'm sitting. The political compass throws me in the far left; the centre of the left bottom square seems to be my home, right there with the majority of ETs. But here, I feel nauseous. A fundamental aversion is gnawing in my gut, something that has been with me since I was a kid. I recall our lame salutes to the Party, drawing Russian soldiers with carnations, the horrendous red pioneer scarf I was never able to tie properly, to my parents' joy. The stories about the evil imperialists, the first of May processions with decorated green tanks, singing the "Internacionala". I remember the empty stores, the coveted lousy shoes smuggled from Poland, the envy of my schoolmates at a pink ruler from Australia. I remember my mother listening to Radio Free Europe with her head under the pillow. Our manipulative, rigid, oppresive "comrade teachers" that held together and there was nothing you could do once you fell out of favor. The black soot on our balcony coming from steel mills with chimneys with no filters, and stories about children who went to so-called health camps and had to return because of oxygen poisoning. I think of STB, our equivalent of the KGB, and of the dreadful feeling that the walls have ears, no matter where you are. Of my sister, running through the Yugoslav Alps to get away.

I look at the people lost in the sea of red, and I wonder... how much do they actually KNOW about this "red" life? Do they really have any idea about what their propaganda stands for? What are its implications in reality? This is a homage, a celebration to everything we learned to hate.

Maybe I just need time. Listen more, see more, talk to people. Be selective. Sure not everyone is a die-hard communist here. I heard a good talk on global warming, and another one on social housing programes. I'm takin g notes and will write down the most interesting stuff.

Hopefully I can continue tomorrow, if I get to a computer. Which might not happen, so be patient with me. When I get back to London, I will post my pictures, too.


to read the continuation. Pleasure reading you. I don't remember if I've commented on this before, but I really adore your writing, Barbara!

I can resist anything but temptation.- Oscar Wilde
by Little L (ljolito (at) gmail (dot) com) on Thu May 4th, 2006 at 11:43:15 AM EST
Thank you for your kind words :). I'm not all there today (I think the fact there's a lot of electronic and fluorescent flicker around me contributes to my sense of disorientation), and my thoughts aren't very organized. Maybe tomorrow will be better.

"If you cannot say what you have to say in twenty minutes, you should go away and write a book about it." Lord Brabazon
by Barbara on Thu May 4th, 2006 at 11:46:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
P.S. I'm sure you're enjoying extensive contribution from Miguel these days, as he's unrestrained in his ET usage.  If you see him online past 4:00 A.M. GMT, please do me a favour and tell him to go to bed. Thanks.

"If you cannot say what you have to say in twenty minutes, you should go away and write a book about it." Lord Brabazon
by Barbara on Thu May 4th, 2006 at 11:43:28 AM EST
Nah, he's being good it seems.  Unless he's been at the Go again...
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu May 4th, 2006 at 11:47:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
So who's taking care of the 4-year-old?!

Migeru? Migeru! Migeru!!!

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Thu May 4th, 2006 at 03:53:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Hehe.... He's playing computer games. It's time for his bath and bedtime...

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu May 4th, 2006 at 03:54:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I have information that points to Migeru using another alias past 4 am: "InsanelyUnrestrainedEurotribber". I recognised him instantly, as when someone mentioned something about him being up late, he answered something wicked about Lagrange's theorem.
by Alex in Toulouse on Fri May 5th, 2006 at 10:47:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
ROTFLMAO!  They can't organize a freaking conference and they want to centrally plan an economy!

Oh well.

Thank you for these reports, Barbara.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Thu May 4th, 2006 at 01:33:06 PM EST
Maybe I just need time. Listen more, see more, talk to people. Be selective. Sure not everyone is a die-hard communist here. I heard a good talk on global warming, and another one on social housing programes. I'm taking notes and will write down the most interesting stuff.
I bet the panelists and speakers will be quite good, while the "bazaar" part of the event is taken over by prozelytizing trotskyists. The feeling you describe is the same bad vibe one gets when attending an anti-war march in the US (only ANSWER, the proselytising trotskyists, seem to be able to organize a demonstration) or when I attended a gathering in solidarity with De Menezes on Parliament Square here in London last summer, which was full of people leafletting for assorted lonny-left groups, or when I went to hear Tariq Ali (and George Galloway, among others) speak against racism and war also last summer, or when I went to the anti-war demonstration in Central London last autumn and got to see Tony Benn speak while dodging leafletters. It's always the same. There are reasons to attend left political events, and good people to see and hear speak, and recruiters to ignore.  

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu May 4th, 2006 at 03:26:52 PM EST
Having experienced the Soviet system before it broke apart (several trips to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe between 1987 and 1991, when I was fairly young, as well as after, I will never lose that core of visceral anti-communism, or anyway anti-whatever-what-you-want-to-call-what-they-had-over-there-back-then, and that acute awareness that arbitrariness was not a vain concept then. Having experienced that arbitrariness personally, my criticism of what we have in the West will always be tempered by that experience - and vice-versa.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Thu May 4th, 2006 at 03:50:28 PM EST
Thank you Barbara for your very interesting and pitoresc description. I am looking forward to the sequel.

Sometimes it feels like the only difference between paricipants of such conventions from the right and the left is the color of the t-shirts and the flags. Its powergames and the wellbeing of the people is forgotten. If we only had more Gandhi's who could put their personal gains aside and work for the wellbeing of all.

by Fran on Fri May 5th, 2006 at 03:59:13 AM EST
Happy to hear from you and to enjoy your fine writing. Plus I have noted that the scope of subjects addressed over here on ET is constantly broadening, and your are among those who make this happen, so thank you and please carry on.

When through hell, just keep going. W. Churchill
by Agnes a Paris on Fri May 5th, 2006 at 05:31:43 AM EST
Barbara: I'm quite sure that there are quite a few Stalinists attending. However it's worth mentioning that the "orthodox" Communist party, KKE (formerly pro-Soviet until there was no Soviet Union to be for), is not participating in the Forum (these are "reformists" according to them). Both the Greek Unions and the Synaspismos party who are the biggest partners are not Stalinist in any way (OK the Unions have a large and vocal Stalinist component which they have to accommodate).

The organizational problems seem to be endemic in the country. Add to that the fact that the Forum was set up on a shoestring budget by people who had no experience at all in organizing anything at this scale, and you might be willing to give them a C for effort.

As for the Sickle and Hammer, I would argue that the significance of that in Greece (if the banners you are referring to are from Greek organizations) is quite different from that in the USSR and Eastern Europe. Not only are the ones carrying these banners Trotskyites (talking about the parties that are officially participating in the Forum) - and thus politically descended from victims of Stalinism, but the fact of the matter is that the Sickle and Hammer over here has a history not of persecuting but of being persecuted. In fact I could argue that as far as political persecution and ideological preaching is concerned, Greece 1944-1974 was competing with the worst of the Eastern European countries (including re-education camps and our own island gulags). The communists here were considered even by their enemies, as principled ideologues who stood up to intimidation, imprisonment, exile, torture and execution. On top of that I can personally attest that the only demonstration against Jaruzelski's coup and for the striking workers in Poland in 1980-81, in Greece was organized by the (euro)communist youth, under sickle and hammer banners, with slogans ranging from "Communists are not Militarists" to No democracy-no socialism (or something like that, it has been some time). So (at least among the Greek participants) I'm not sure you'll find many in Agios Kosmas eager to support the "red life" you describe. An interesting note is that quite a large part of the "reformed" anti-soviet communists that split from the Greek Communist party n 1968 (as a result of the Soveit invasion of Czechoslovakia) were political refugees living in Eastern Europe and (especially) the USSR, who became completely disenchanted with the Soviet model, that they lived under.

As for the forum: us working folks could not possibly attend yesterday, and if I'm not too exhausted I'll try for this evening. Certailnly the weekend, including the anti-war demonstration down-town on Saturday.

Today the first significant political action took place, over at a notorious police station, implicated in Abu-Ghraib level atrocities against immigrants last year (what I wrote about it, and the local anarchists reaction then). Apparently, from what I have heard one Italian member (and one Greek possibly) of the Europarliament were arrested and later released, along with a number of human rights lawyers and activists and Coalition of the Left party MPs... There was a lot of tension over there, with the riot police "intervening" unprovoked in their usual friendly way...

Just an explanatory note for some of the local context of all of this... Do keep up these diaries, I'll see if I have something to report from the demo tommorrow.

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom - William Blake

by talos (mihalis at gmail dot com) on Fri May 5th, 2006 at 10:17:05 AM EST
Great diary, Barbara...funny how stuff from our past pops up and stares us in the face at the strangest of times...

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Fri May 5th, 2006 at 01:33:34 PM EST
I'm only left with supplementing Migeru's and talos's points.

On one hand, that you see idiots with Stalin photos [can you tell which country they came from, BTW?] at the ESF, or Trot proselytizers at London peace marches, or guys in dreadlocks singing and chanting at environmental events, and the ANSWER crowd at US events, is something that IMO looks bad on the majority of the rest of us [evidently not you]: it's mostly all these loons who actually bother to take action on any issue, while most of the rest rather goes shopping or stays at home frowning at the strange bedfellows (rather than get out and out-number them).

You weren't yet in London so I'm not sure you know, but the 1.5-million 15 February 2003 anti-war march there wouldn't have happened had the handful activists of the British Trotskites of the Socialist Workers' Party not organised it (and had they not showed enough big-tent sense to form the Stop The War Coalition umbrella that was wide enough to include Labour-Left, Liberals, British Muslims and even anti-war tories). If these people were born into say the Czech Republic 60 years ago, they would have been the enthusiastic fools who let themselves be shot at at the radio headquarters in 1968.

I've got not much to add to talos's story on the separate long domestic history of Greek far-leftism, except to note that Italy was another country with a, to us survivors of the Shortage Economy and serial swoons at compulsory November 7 'celebrations' and an industry covering forests in grey and no-photography signs at bases of 'firendly' Soviet tanks both strange and largely unknown, long domestic history of popular homegrown 'Eurocommunism' (indeed its heirs form dominant parties of the recently victorious coalition behind Prodi). And also that the Greek years of retribution were really bad, there was an entire village for refugees in Hungary (who in no small part were simple rural people, not would-be Greek Husák's; they even had a priest).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri May 5th, 2006 at 02:05:08 PM EST
Hello Dodo,

Yes, you are right, I agree with you that it takes the really "loony ones" to actually make the change. And there are many important things being discussed here for sure. I am just experiencing some really disturbing flashbacks walking around here, that's all.  

I would like to point out one thing... I am much less of a political animal than Miguel, and I probably know about the different faces of socialism and the people engaged in activities such as the ESF much less than any of you here. I have a lot to learn about the left today and around Europe in general. I know well only what I grew up in, which wasn't anything to cheer and clap about. Among us young Czechs, anything even remotely associated to our past regime was not a favorite subject of study, and quite understandably. We were the generation that saw the change and could still remember the oppression, but were given the opportunity to go and explore the benefits of the "capitalist world". Just as very few people continued to study Russian, which had been imposed on us for decades, very few people decided to explore socialism and movements associated with the left, because when you and your family are force-fed something for a long time, you don't really feel like doing it anymore when you don't have to, even if it could be quite useful.

So I apologize beforehand for any lack of knowledge on this frontier. I was hesitating about joining ET, and I did it at Miguel's prodding. My few contributions so far have been apolitical, and it's probably better it stays this way. Having said that, you can still read my Friday's short blog if you want.  

"If you cannot say what you have to say in twenty minutes, you should go away and write a book about it." Lord Brabazon

by Barbara on Fri May 5th, 2006 at 02:54:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
So I apologize beforehand for any lack of knowledge on this frontier.

Oh you don't have to - we are all here to learn :-) I didn't drank this knowledge with mothers' milk either, in fact I was as unsuspecting as you until a couple of years ago, and my experience with Hungarian 'socialism' was not much better (though, due to 'Goulash Communism', probably better) than yours with the Czech version.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri May 5th, 2006 at 03:51:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
BTW, I also asked about the origins of those Stalin image brandishers because I could image them to be members of the unreconstructed heirs of the former regimes in former Eastern Bloc countries. These linger on everywhere, some trying to adopt altermondialist and Eurocommunist rhetoric, but at the same time keeping personal cult and nostalgics. I could never vote for the Hungarian version. But, in Central Europe, the biggest of these is just in the Czech Republic - they poll at 12.5%!

Now the Czech Republic is also the sole country where a genuine centre-left party that didn't grew out of the communists formed (and is in government since 1998), instead of the usual ugly monster - and where a genuine progressive-left party (the Greens) polls at 10% (see above link). I'd welcome a future diary with some reflections on these Czech political formations.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri May 5th, 2006 at 03:54:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
By the way, a secret tip to anyone visiting Budapest: the Szoborpark. What shall one do with the monumental statues of the former regime? One could dump them all close-by into a park, where the effect on visitors is eerie and funny.

The original idea was to erect the pointing-into-the-future Lenin statues in a circle, but for some reason that didn't came to be.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri May 5th, 2006 at 04:22:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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