Student Protest, Athens – 17th November 2014

Today we were going to take a wander through Exarcheia in Athens. It’s a controversial area near the University, known as a place for activists and those of the ‘counter-cultural’ persuasion. The history is complex, but in recent years it’s been the focus of much of the political resistance in the city. As a result, the police don’t tend to come through here very often, as they cause more trouble than is worth.

Today marked an important event in Greek history, marking the 41st anniversary of the uprisings against the military junta (dictatorship) that existed in the country at the time. Tanks rolled in to the University to crush an occupation that was broadcasting messages of resistance – reportedly killing students, and sparking off the revolution that eventually led to the dictators being run out of Greece.

I thought there might be something going on at somepoint, but I hadn’t found anything online to indicate there would be anything serious. That feeling was quickly dispelled as our metro hurtled past Syntagma without stopping. Making our way into Exarcheia from the nearby Omonia square, we turned the corner to find the street empty, and a huge group marching towards us.

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We decided to follow the crowd along for a bit, as they were going the same way as we were heading. It seems naive to think that at that point, as things changed pretty quickly as we turned the corner to find that the side streets were filled with riot police, and we found ourselves caught in the uncomfortable position of being in the middle of the two sides lining up against one another.

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The atmosphere was pretty intense, and seeing the crowd had gas masks and helmets with them, we decided to get ahead of things rather than get stuck where we were. We ended up following along as they headed towards the centre of Athens.

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The riot police at this point were keeping far back – but they could easily be seen down the parallel streets to where the protest was, and blocking off certain key roads, designed to route the marchers in a certain way. The atmosphere was pretty intense, though partly as we weren’t sure exactly what was going to happen next.

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Police were stationed outside certain buildings, and it looked like it could get hairy for a minute or two when the two groups came into close contact. However, even when there was just a few of them, the protesters would form a human shield between them and the police – ensuring that the police were never out of sight – protecting those who had their back to them, and symbolically demonstrating their distrust of the police.

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Irrespective of how cautious people were being, we decided not to follow the protesters down a couple of the streets, as it seems a bit too tightly packed – and far too easy for the police to kettle us inside like they would back in the UK. Instead, we took the long way around.

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It felt a bit weird going past the piles of police that were sitting around with their riot shields, smoking. They were clearly showing a bit of interest in us, as we looked the same age as most of the protestors – which was pretty uncomfortable.

The crowd that had gathered at the bottom was considerable, having seemingly met up with another group that had splintered off earlier on.

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All the shops had pre-emptively pulled down their shutters, or were in the process of doing so. It was notable that the larger brands and banks hadn’t even opened for the day at all.

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We came to Syntagma Square, where the police were lined up in an L shape. It was a strange experience, with them fully kitted out in not only riot gear (that we’ve seen lots of times before), but actually wearing gas masks. Not a good sign.

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Why would they be wearing the masks to face off a bunch of students unless they planned to use some sort of chemical? It seemed like the aggression level was being purposefully raised by the police – an authoritarian display of power more than anything else.

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The other thing that was interesting is that the police weren’t deploying the same tactics as they did a few weeks ago – where they completely sealed off Syntagma Square with their busses. Instead, they were focussing much more on being mobile.

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In total contrast to what would have been happening in the UK though, the square was filled with Greeks – old, young, and otherwise – hanging around, drinking coffee, and waiting to see what was going to happen. There was even a protest dog.

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The Greeks are obviously much more experienced at this protesting stuff than we are.

Watching the crowd finally surge around the corner in the centre of Athens, and the Parliament, was pretty impressive.

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There was some irony in seeing a demonstration against the use of state force confronted with such a display of state force.

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The marchers were completely peaceful, despite being angry. It struck me how the composition was almost completely students, with older people supporting from the sides – something that we hardly ever see back home. It was inspiring to be there, and easy to get caught up in the feeling.

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What would it feel like to be part of a country that had experienced the turbulent history that Greece has? What would it be like to be a student somewhere that had such a high rate of unemployment? How would it change the way you viewed ideas of governance and politics?

L1006999 Student Protest, Athens   17th November 2014

L1007000 Student Protest, Athens   17th November 2014

We dived off for a bit to head up a nearby hill and get a look at the view. From the top we could still hear the chants. When we came back down, the tension in the air seemed to have increased. Multiple other anti-fascist and anti-capitalist groups has joined in the demonstrations – with packs of them marching down the street outside the US embassy – traditionally to demonstrate against the American support for the military dictatorship.

L1007005 Student Protest, Athens   17th November 2014

We wanted to stay and see how things would unfold, but it seemed like things had become even more intense than before – and in a direction that we weren’t quite sure how to deal with as foreigners. Groups of police on bikes were zooming down streets shouting at people, and we weren’t quite sure how we would get back home as the roads were blocked.

As we made our way back towards Syntagma we felt our noses and throat sting – realising that something must have been fired into the air, with people sneezing and coughing around us. Looking at the news reports after confirmed that we were just around the corner from where the police had set off tear gas and flash bang grenades. That was our cue to leave.

Following the reports online, it seemed things went badly from there. The police headed in to the usually out of bounds Exarcheia, setting off more tear gas and taking the opportunity to have a significant show of force. The pictures and videos can be found on #17ngr on Twitter.

It’s hard to put everything into words, and I’m not sure I’ve done any of it much justice.

As an outsider, it seemed like the Greek police came prepared today with the intent to escalate things when given the excuse. It seemed more like gang warfare at times – with the police getting revenge on those who they are constantly in conflict with. The young police force were leery and waiting for something to kick off. The use of tear gas seemed completely disproportionate, especially given that it is easily spread to affect such a large area. However, the involvement and engagement of the Greek people was amazing; seeing everything from pensioners to kids marching even in the face of such a huge police presence was inspiring.

say hello: ~@stephenemm or ~Google+

Honolulu, Hawaii

Back at the start of July I went to Honolulu, in Hawaii for a week to meet up with the WordPress.com Forums squad. It took something like 25 hours of flight time to get there from Glasgow – and if it had been any further it would have been quicker to go the other way.

But… I made it.

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Our hotel was just a couple of blocks away from the beach, so it was easy to take a wander down and sit by the sea, or to jump down for a quick swim in between our ‘meetings’. That said, I’m not one for going onto the beach then going back to work or out straight away. I can always feel the salt water and sand on me and need to wash it off. Killjoy over here.

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Hawaii is part of the United States, but (at least in Honolulu), it doesn’t quite feel like it is completely. It’s less rushed or intense… a lot more laid back. Another interesting fact is that it’s the only State that still has the Union Jack incorporated into it – up in the corner, like Australia.

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It definitely still had the modern, slick feel you would expect from an American city though – maybe somewhere like Miami, or Florida. It was a lot cleaner and orderly than anywhere I’ve been on the coast in Europe, and consumerism was definitely in full flow. It lacked a bit of a gritty edge, and in that regard, it felt more American than New Orleans.

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I wasn’t quite sure what to expect before visiting. I just had the perceived notion that it was some sort of island paradise where fruits were everywhere and girls in grass skirts draped those flower necklace things on you… and maybe guys walked about the street with surfboards.

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Okay, so maybe some of that was true…

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and we did have to drink out of a pineapple just once.

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but we re-used them afterwards for cocktails.

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We bumped into one of the managers of the company that owned the hotel (or someone high up anyway), who was staying there for a few days, and he very nicely let us make use of the penthouse office suite, which had some pretty cool views over the city.

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For lunch we ended up going to a farmer’s market across town. I ate something ridiculously healthy and unbelievably tasty (vegan lasagne – don’t judge me), whilst others had pizza. I definitely looked at their pizza with envy – and drank mason jars filled with flavoured lemonade. That’s the still lemon juice they have in the US, not the fizzy stuff we have in the UK.

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On one of our afternoons off we headed over to take a boat trip out and see some dolphins.

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I’m not sure why of all places they chose to congregate in front of one of the ugliest buildings in Hawaii, but still – it was pretty cool to see them so close up. They circled around the boat and did flips out of the water.

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We took a day off to hire some cars and travel further away from the big city to explore a bit. For some reason, it was cheaper for me as a foreigner to pay for the cars in my name, and so that meant that despite being the only one not from the US, I was down to be a driver for part of the trip.

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I’ve now driven more in the US in the past few years than I have in the UK… though it’s a completely different experience driving a huge fully automatic SUV thing down wide lanes than it is a manual 1L Corsa through the windy back roads in the Scottish Countryside.

Driving meant we got to see some pretty cool bits of the island that we wouldn’t have been able to any other way.

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The pictures don’t really convey this very well, but I feel like it felt a lot like the rugged landscape in the North of Scotland in places. Though the weather clearly doesn’t help with that.

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Outside of the tourist areas, the island is pretty remote and beautiful. People have their wee houses built right onto the beach, which doesn’t look like too bad a life at all.

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Another sign of Hawaii being part of the US was the number of warning signs and danger signs and signs generally telling you not to do certain things because of blah blah.

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Luckily the Hawaiians are much less prone to paying any attention to these signs than other people, so they seem to go largely ignored.

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We eventually reached the beach where we planned to decamp. It was the place that locals went to swim, and it was easy to see why.

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The water was beautiful.

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The one problem was that it got really deep really fast. Like, from knee height to way over your head in the space of less than a metre.

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The next day we properly felt it in our arms and legs, from struggling to keep close to the shore against the power of the waves. No wonder the Hawaiians all look in good shape. Who needs a gym when you swim in that sort of current every day?

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Since I didn’t expect to be in Hawaii again anytime soon, it made sense to take the chance to go to a luau – the traditional party with dancers and food and all that stuff.

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I’d heard all these stories about how people who had gone had ended up completely drunk and had a great time, so obviously that was something I was keen to get in on.

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But eh, it was terrible. The one we went to was so unbelievably touristy, expensive, and fake it wasn’t worth going. It felt like one of those over the top cheesy dinner drama places you see in American movies. Awful.

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The company was good though.

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say hello: ~@stephenemm or ~Google+

Flisvos, Athens.

L1006726 Flisvos, Athens.

Lee has been out visiting us in Athens for the past week or so. Today, we weren’t completely sure what we could do that was cheap and worth seeing. We had debated going in to the city centre to kick around, but the weather wasn’t too great. Instead, we found ourselves down on the coastal part to visit an old warship from the 1920s.

L1006700 Flisvos, Athens.

Here I am recreating a picture we found below deck.

This is how I would like to be remembered once I am assassinated at the height of my soon-to-be-established empire.

L1006719orig Flisvos, Athens.

I’m not a big fan of anything military related, but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t interesting. States, flags, and the interplay of power and authority is something that I think is pretty fascinating – even more so when you see it from the side of a country that you weren’t brought up in.

Not to mention the fact that being on such a large boat that’s actively been used for a specific purpose other than tourism is pretty weird. It was hard to wrap my head round the size of the guns (cannons?) on board, and how one shot from them wouldn’t sink an enemy immediately.

L1006708 Flisvos, Athens.

One of the things they didn’t seem to mention too much in amongst all of the proud displays of the officers’ uniforms etc was the darker side. How many ships did this one obliterate? How much active service did it see and take a destructive role in? What was the living conditions like of those on board? A lot of the stuff was in Greek, so it’s entirely possible this was covered, but it didn’t seem to be too high on the priority list. Maybe it was because it was still run by the navy that it focussed more on the glory, though I could be wrong about that.

Across the way was a much newer ship called the Velos.

L1006733 Flisvos, Athens.

It was a bit weird, as there was literally nobody about, and we just sort of wandered up and onto the deck. There was a sign on a sort of ticket booth nearby that said admittance was free, but it seemed like someone should have been there. Maybe there would be during the summer… but once again you never quite know what the hell is really going on in Greece.

There was a brief explanation of when the boat had become a museum, though it really seemed like it was still a functioning warship from the way it was set up. One of the most interesting things was that this ship had apparently become world famous during the country’s military dictatorship, when its captain refused to return to Greece – instead offloading in Italy. There’s a bit more about the story here – another example of the fiery spirit of resistance that I love about the Greeks.

L1006688 Flisvos, Athens.

Rather than get the tram the whole way back we meandered along the coast. Some bits were pretty dilapidated – with formerly swanky bars sitting abandoned right on the edge of the water, with rubbish strewn over the sand. We spotted broken lights and homeless people sleeping right next to some of the fancier marinas where million pound yachts were still sat. Lots of beautiful buildings seemed to have slipped into disrepair, and it was hard to believe that they could just be sitting like that in such a wonderful place. I don’t remember it looking like that when I was last here many years ago., and whilst other bits of Athens has started to pick itself up from the crisis, it didn’t appear to have happened down here. Hopefully it will soon.

L1006783 Flisvos, Athens.

L1006808 Flisvos, Athens.

I wonder what it will be like to come home and not see cats everywhere we go.

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or graffiti over every available wall space.

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…even right next to the unbelievably blue sea.

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The combination of all of this is what makes Athens such an amazing place. The juxtaposition of the beautiful and the dirty, the ancient and the new, the rules and the exceptions. Contradictions are just part of how things are here, and presumably like how they always have been.

Even with all the hardship that they’ve gone through in the past few years, the Greeks seem to take it in their stride. Greece has the feeling of a country that’s been around far too long to be fazed by things like the rest of us might.

L1006779 Flisvos, Athens.

L1006820 Flisvos, Athens.

say hello: ~@stephenemm or ~Google+