Feb 012016
 February 1, 2016  Posted by at 8:21 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  2 Responses »

Konstantinos Polychronopoulos 2016

Time does indeed fly; I’ve already been back in Athens for a week, but I still haven’t told you about it -a nasty flu now in its 4th day is a partial excuse-, and also haven’t even written the story of my last trip in Nov-Dec. Don’t think it’s Zika, though that’s a weird story; from what I gather someone was testing a GMO fly back in the Caribbean that caused this mutation and now someone wants to fight it with another GMO fly?! Ain’t we smart.

Anyway, the stunning generosity of the Automatic Earth readers left me no choice but to visit the city again so soon, really. Which is I think a really good thing.

I wrote an article on December 22 2015, An Urgent Christmas Call To The Finance Blogosphere. There has been close to no reaction from rest of that blogosphere, to my -just a tad disgruntled- surprise, but a lot from our own readers.

In the article, I made an appeal for help for the work of my new best friend Kostas (Konstantinos Polychronopoulos), who has devoted his entire life to helping the poor and homeless of Athens (an ever faster ever growing group of people), starting with providing at least a decent meal. I first talked about Kostas’ work in July just after I first met him in AE for Athens Fund 2nd Donation: The Man Who Cooks In The Street.

In that follow-up, An Urgent Christmas Call To The Finance Blogosphere, I said:

I was saying before how ‘The Other Human’ [O Allas Anthropos] social kitchen had grown at least 5-fold. That is a bit of an understatement. There are now 5 different ‘kitchen teams’ running (vs 1-2 before), and they hand out over 3000 meals a day today instead of the 300 earlier in the year. There simply is that much need. The Greeks themselves are getting poorer, fast, and refugees have become a major ‘target’ group as well. Kostas began running operations on Lesbos over the summer, and has a team in place there now as well as on Salimani island and 3 different locations in the Athens area. And there’s no doubt he would like to do more.

Before, costs would be covered by food donations and sympathizers giving €5 or €10 a month from what little they have. Between pensions cuts, pay cuts and capital controls, the number of Greeks who have next to nothing rises fast. It’s no exception for former supporters to now come to rely on Kostas for their own food. Nor is it exceptional for grandmothers to still insist on giving $5 from the €400 that’s all that’s left of their pension. Greeks do solidarity well.

But the numbers are getting out of hand, so many people need help, and it promises to get much worse in 2016, looking at the new austerity measures the troika is forcing upon the country, and the expected numbers of refugees arriving. The donations that used to run ‘The Other Human’ are simply not enough to cover operations any longer, let alone expand them where most needed.

And while the €1000 I donated earlier this year went a -relatively- long way, the second €1000, though at least as much appreciated, won’t go nearly as far. When I was told ‘The Other Human’ have been forced to cancel some cooking events now -for the cold and hungry homeless, for crying out loud, who are increasingly people that used to have jobs and homes and all until recently-, simply because they can’t afford to feed the poor, that actually hurt, and stung. That felt personal.

Turns out, since then, more has been added (‘the need is so great’). As per a quite hilarious email from Kostas 10 days ago, when I hadn’t arrived in Greece yet:

My friend Raul; By Wednesday I am here and the kitchen of lesbian, hope to see a third or fourth. Tells other people that the social kitchen has grown, we speak has seven and prepared in other two cities in Greece.

Yeah, that made me laugh. Still don’t know if he intended that ‘lesbian kitchen’ thing. He did seem to find it awfully funny when I remarked on it, though, in person the other day. On a more serious note, what he’s saying is that in the past month, he went from 5 to 7 social kitchens, and is adding 2 more. Or trying to.

‘That Wednesday’ was 5 days ago. We had a meeting then with a few people to coordinate how we’re going to make the entire situation as clear and transparent as we can to you, Automatic Earth readers, who’ve already donated over another $8000 (!) -it’s truly stunning- since December 22 (on top of the first AE for Athens fund I started in spring 2015, for which $12,000 came in and which has $7000 left in it).

Allow me to repeat: I never had the slightest idea, I thought I’d get a few hundred bucks when I first brought this up, in spring 2015, even before I met Kostas, and that’d be it. It’s more humbling than I can put into words to have you trust me with so much. There’s not an inch of me that isn’t constantly aware of that.

Those kind of amounts take it from being something nice, to being a serious responsibility, in my view. And Kostas agrees completely. So this Wednesday we’re going to have a big gathering with lots of the people who work for ‘The Social Kitchen’, in the various locations the organization operates in, have a big get-together, take lots of pictures, hopefully have a party -which all the volunteers truly deserve-, and exchange more detailed information.

Moreover, we’re going to -try to- spell out exactly -up to a point- what your money is being spent on. And, of course, talk about what we can do to increase the funding, and -especially- how to make it more structural -once every week, month or year-. I realize full well that there is a limit to what the Automatic Earth and its readers can do, but I guess we’re simply going to keep pushing with what we have, and see where it ends.

I don’t know enough about crowdfunding and crowdsourcing and the like to get that up and going with enough confidence in either the outcome or the process itself -but I’m very open to suggestions-, and I apparently don’t know enough about how to get the rest of the finance blogosphere going either. What a shame, there’s so much money on the one side, and so much need on the other. But that doesn’t mean I intend to stop pushing.

More on Kostas and O Allas Anthropos later this week. There are a few other things I would like to share with you. First, something I noticed last month in supermarkets here -the ones I see in the center are not all that big-, that flashed a big red sign and made me think of Eastern European stores I’ve seen.

Troika-imposed austerity and taxes have had a double whammy impact. People have much less to spend on basic needs, and what is still available has become expensive, even in western European terms. So what you get is a lot of empty shelves:

I’ve seen stores where I swear I saw half the employees being busy making those shelves look less empty by spreading what is still for sale, across the empty spaces. At least these people still have a job, though I must wonder what they pay.

Those are pictures I took in December, of something I don’t remember seeing in June/July on my first trip here. I was in a large Carrefour -major French chain- supermarket where I didn’t take pictures, and it was even more evident there. Empty shelves. Near to the center of a large city in the western world.

Then, there’s another organization that I need to tell you about, since I donated $1000 of your money to it, from the AE fund for Athens that I started with last spring.

I was introduced by a friend to Myrto Lemos, a woman who started doing field work in New York City in the late 1970s (she must be in her 70s now). Upon her return to Athens in the 1980s, she began working with -‘socially excluded’- street children in central Athens’ poorest areas, specifically those from Greek muslim and Roma backgrounds. In 1997, she established the Support Center for Children and Families for them. It is run -as so many things are in Greece these days- entirely by volunteers.

Here’s Myrto with Kostas, I didn’t know they knew each other, and neither did the people who introduced me to her, but turned out they did:

The children Myrto has devoted her whole life to -I have so much admiration for people with that dedication- would typically sell flowers, balloons and trinkets on the street all day every day (for generations, basically), there was never a culture of going to school or anything like that. Myrto decided it was time to change that.

And she did. The best example, I found, was a young girl who now works as a social worker at the Support Center, but who had never even been to school before the age of 12, who couldn’t read or write, nothing. And now there she is on the left answering the phone, a fully educated social worker (imagine how proud Myrto is):

The Center provides food (a big thing) and education for the children, makes sure they go to school, and gives -badly needed- social and legal help to their families (where no-one can read or write). I’ve got to say, to me, this was an entirely unexpected corner of society, and the needs existing within it.

But Athens, and Greece in general, have of course been on a crossroads of cultures and societies for thousands of years, so it should be no surprise to find parts of them anchored -left behind?!- inside the city, albeit largely forgotten.

Greece is known as one of the best educated countries on the planet – though that can’t possible have improved over the past 5-10 austerity years-, and then you still find entire cultures that never went to school. Ironically, it’s the austerity policies that force more of these kids back out into the streets peddling their trinkets and not attending school, just so their families can eat. A major issue and worry for Myrto, who wants them at school.

Here’s the pretty much nondescript building the Center is housed in at the corner of Aristonos 6-8 & Pierias, Kolonos:

Plus, the lovely grand map of the world that covers an entire wall in one of the homework rooms, with divers and dolphins and kangaroos and elephants and turtles and whales and hidden treasures, what a great way to learn about the world you live in, when no-one ever told you:

And the inevitable lovely adorable far too cute and far too smart little girl doing her homework, who, lest we forget, if not for Myrto would probably have been peddling balloons on the streets -or worse- without ever having learned to read or write, for the rest of her life. Now, she has a shot at being a person, a woman in her own right.

It’s an honor and a privilege to be able to meet these people, and be able to do something very useful for them, thanks to you, Automatic Earth readers.

I see so much passing by each and every day in the financial press about allegedly successful people, and what makes them successful, and it’s always about the amount of money they make or have made.

But for me, success is defined by what a person does for others, it’s about helping people, not helping yourself. And I, through a twist of fate I had never planned or even imagined, get to meet these people here in a pretty much derelict society, where not much runs any longer as it once did, and where worse is on the horizon.

And that’s where you get to see who people really are, where you find people who say: ‘it’s not about me’. In the world of finance, it’s always only about ‘me’, and about money, and the seemingly unbreakable umbilical cord between the two.

Do you think the markets are going to rise? Here’s how to make money. Do you think they will fall? Here’s how to make money off of that. It’s all only about me and my money, but it’s a life that’s barely even breathing, and barely moving at that, a bunch of automatons thinking they prove their smarts if they pick the ‘right’ swing of a one-dimensional pendulum.

If that’s all people are about, and what you and I are about, why bother? Just so maybe one day we can sit our asses down at a pool in the Caribbean and say ‘we got it made’, while millions of others elsewhere in the world grovel in the dirt and wind up burying the children they love, in that same dirt?

It’s the quintessential difference between what you have and what you are. And about who has sufficient faith in what they are, and doesn’t feel the need to hide behind what they have. Who doesn’t think that if the whip comes down and the whole debt circus tent gets blown away in a wicked storm, they’ll still be fine if only they bought enough gold or bitcoin or whatever in advance.

But that’s a hard nut to crack in today’s world. So we’ll instead let it seep in drop by drop. Same difference. Though that’ll still be denied too.

If in the meantime, sorry but my cold won’t let me do much of anything right now, you want to contribute to the Social Kitchen project, the way to do it is still through the Automatic Earth‘s Paypal widget, top left hand corner of every page. Amounts ending in $0.99 or $0.37 go towards the Social Kitchen, others towards supporting the Automatic Earth (which is also highly needed, and without which we couldn’t do the whole thing, regardless.)

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to find myself a hole to reside in until my cold is over. And I’ll be back with more on this later in the week.