In a much underrated tragedy, Euripides examines how the survival instinct can ruin an individual’s standing in society, and how a change in that reputation can make the issue of survival itself secondary. He presents a king, Admetus, who learns (unlike most of us) that the time has come for him to die, prematurely. But because he has been a uniquely good man, he is given the option of getting someone to die in his place. He does the obvious thing and goes to his parents. Your time is almost up anyway, he argues. Why don’t you do the natural thing and die before me? The reply is as genuine as it is unexpected. We may be old, they say (separately), but life is sweet in whatever form and however long. Bitter at this rejection, his anger clouding any love and gratitude he might have felt for his old parents, Admetus then asks his wife, Alcestis, to take his place in Hades. She accepts. She laments the loss of her life and the fact that she will leave her children orphans. In other words, she does not go gaily into the land of shadows. She knows what she is losing. But she also knows that, once she has been asked by Admetus to die for him, if she refuses she will lose the high regard that he, and her society, hold her in. Her life, she understands, will not be worth living if she was asked to make the ultimate sacrifice and refused. This is something that Admetus is about to find out. Soon after the much-lauded Alcestis shuffles off to the underworld, the king discovers that not only is he now widowed, but he is also known as the coward who would have someone else die in his place. His life, preserved, is not worth living. Some questions, in other words, are best left unasked. Some sacrifices should not be called for. Some great stands should not be made. It is one thing for a dizzy little pop song to go on about the singer’s pledge to die for you, and quite another for the leader of the Church of Greece to call for the support of every one of us so he has the greatest popular support. Archbishop Christodoulos’s call for the faithful to sign the petition for an ID card referendum achieved the admirable result of turning the faith of those who followed him into numbers; 3,008,901 in fact. In other words, he took spirit and turned it into flesh, in a kind of absurd echo of the holy sacrament. We have in our midst, ladies and gentlemen, the world’s only alchemist who managed to turn spirit into dust. Prime Minister Simitis (and the loose arrangement of suits and shifting alliances that we euphemistically refer to as his government), despite his usually uncomfortable appearance, is a seasoned politician, used to dealing with a hostile environment. Unlike Christodoulos (who, like a big, black boar trapped in headlights, is mesmerized by his own charisma, besieged by the long beards of sycophants and tangled in the tricky mirrors of endless television time), Simitis knows when to sit tight and let the slings and arrows of outrageous grievances fly over him before he raises himself to plod on, two steps forward, three steps back. Unchanging, he goes on with his mild reforms. Two steps forward, three steps back. Saturday, August 25 At Lake Prespa, where the borders of Greece, Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia meet, ministers, diplomats, artists and athletes of the three neighbors and Bulgaria meet. The foreign ministers of the four pledge to work for peace and stability. The culture ministers speak about their different cultures being a bridge rather than an abyss. (We) agreed to work for peace, Foreign Minister George Papandreou says after the talks with his three counterparts, with his usual knack of springing surprise statements on his listeners. I hope that, finally, we can resolve our problems among ourselves. Seeing as the Balkan syndrome has been to slug it out among ourselves until one wins, or to form alliances with fellow Balkan countries or outside powers, finding our own solutions may be more complicated than platitudes would suggest. However, as the strong protests in FYROM prove, NATO might be trying to be part of the solution to the current problem but it is also widely perceived as a key component of the problem. (And it is tragic that part of the justified Greek argument against NATO’s war on Yugoslavia, that the overwhelming use of force in one direction would cause tidal waves across the region, was swept away in the routine hysteria of the professionals who live to organize anti-NATO/anti-American/anti-EU protests). Nevertheless, the annual Prespes group hug, now in its 12th year, is a little stepping stone toward what should be a brighter, common future. In the meantime, the last of Greece’s detachment of 411 troops taking part in the NATO mission to collect the weapons of Albanian rebels arrives at Krivolak, south of Skopje. Sunday, August 26 Near Tetovo, in a part of FYROM that initial reports say is under Albanian rebel control, a strong explosion wrecks a motel. Two Slav-Macedonian employees are found dead in the rubble. Soon, reports are flying across the world, on news agency wires and the Internet, quoting unofficial sources saying that the two men had been tied up with wire, tortured and loaded with explosives before these were detonated by their attackers. If this is so, it is a terrible atrocity. The Slav-Macedonians accept it as fact quickly. With NATO troops already deployed in his country to help see that the peace deal with the Albanians is implemented, Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski demands military action after the motel blast. – Far away from all this, in a pursuit that all the Balkan countries should have the joy of sharing some day soon, Nikos Kaklamanakis of Greece, sailing in home waters, wins the world Mistral windsurfing championships off Varkiza. This is the third world title for the 33-year-old Kaklamanakis. He also won the gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics and hopes for a repeat in Athens in 2004. Monday, August 27 The summer holidays are over for most Athenians. The traffic is back. And so are the restrictions on driving and parking in the city center. ‘Till next year. – Russia’s two major oil companies are among the bidders for a stake of up to 30 percent in Hellenic Petroleum, which will leave the state with a minority share. Russian giant LUKoil has teamed up with Greece’s Latsis Group in a move that would really shake up the local fuel market – seeing as Latsis’s Petrola, which has Greece’s third-largest refinery, would now control the country’s largest, leapfrogging the Vardinoyiannis clan’s Motor Oil. – A court in Xanthi, northeastern Greece, sentences Adonis Papazisis, 48, to 10 months in prison for promising to find jobs for unemployed people by saying he would mediate with government ministers and other officials. He was paid up to 200,000 drachmas by each hopeful. Papazisis is adamant he did nothing wrong. He said he needed the money to pay his expenses and would have given it back the moment they got the job. His logic is infallible. Seeing as no one got a job he did not need to give the money back. Anyhow, is his crime more serious than those of the politicians who for generations have been packing the civil service with worthless appointments at the expense of us all, in exchange for votes? – A prosecutor probing the death of little Axel Blin in the Club Med pool upgrades the initial manslaughter through negligence charge to manslaughter with intent and possible malice. This is as if one can imply that the people responsible for the upkeep of the children’s pool knew that there was a risk of the filter intake’s lid coming off and causing the death of a child, but said what the hell and left things as they were. This is the kind of grandstanding by our judiciary – as in the case of the captain of the Express Samina, jailed for nearly a year now on similar charges of possible malice – that makes one wonder whether these officials care about justice or the lives that they may be destroying by going over the top with their charges. – As NATO begins to collect Albanian rebels’ weapons, a group of Slav-Macedonian youths, angered at what they believe is the alliance’s pro-Albanian bias, throws a cement slab at a British vehicle, killing a young British soldier. It is tragic that in trying to achieve peace a foreign soldier should die, whereas in the long bombardment of Yugoslavia in 1999 not a single allied soldier lost his or her life. – Michael L. Dertouzos, one of the world’s most significant computer scientists and technology visionaries, dies in Boston. He was 65. He was born in Greece but studied and taught in America. Suffice to say that without him, these words would probably not be on what we now call the World Wide Web. Tuesday, August 28 And now the day that we have all been waiting for, since the Church of Greece decided to hold a petition for a referendum on the identity card issue, has arrived. Not bothering to conceal his pride over the fact that this number is 1,405 greater than the number of votes that PASOK won in the last election, Archbishop Christodoulos declares that 3,008,901 people have signed his petition. The people of God have spoken in a clear-headed and decisive manner, without any desire to enter a confrontation with the government, he tells a news conference. He speaks as if he is the winner of an electoral battle. Church leaders, crowing over the fact that they got more votes than the government, conveniently forget the fact that their petition went on and on, extending the original deadline so that even Greeks who live abroad would have the opportunity to sign during their Easter visit to their homeland. Anyhow, the gist of all this is that the government, secure in the fact that the Council of State has ruled that the option to record one’s religion on identity cards would not be constitutional, says simply that the issue is closed. – Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava unveils his plans and model for a pedestrian bridge over Mesogeion Avenue at its interchange with Katehaki Avenue. The model depicts something like an elegant Athenian trireme, with a tapering steel pylon reaching up into the sky, balancing with thick cables, as if it were a giant harp. In one of the most bland sections of a very bland, modern part of the city, we will suddenly have a daring landmark. – The Interior Ministry must have spies in every coffee shop, as it has suddenly got the message that in Greece we do not need any new laws, we just need one that will make it obligatory for all the others to be complied with. It doesn’t quite pass such a panacea, but it does add a new law aiming to ensure that new laws at least do not contradict old ones. Since the restoration of democracy in 1974, more than 2,500 laws and countless amendments have been passed. Most likely no one knows what on earth is going on. – The Greek and Turkish soccer federations announce that they have agreed to make a joint bid to host the Euro 2008 soccer championships. This is an historic moment. It also provokes reaction in Greece and Cyprus, with critics saying that it is incredible that while part of Cyprus remains under Turkish occupation Greece could consider such a partnership with Turkey. Maybe by 2008 we will see some genuine progress in solving the Cyprus issue. – UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan meets with Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash in Salzburg, Austria, to try get him back to the negotiations aimed at someday solving the problem. Wednesday, August 29 Archbishop Christodoulos gets his much-awaited meeting with President Costis Stephanopoulos, in which he urges the head of state to push the government for a referendum on the ID cards. The president has his own views, Christodoulos says after meeting with Stephanopoulos. Half an hour later, the president’s office thunders out his view. The President explained that the manners whereby popular sovereignty is expressed, which include the conduct of plebiscites and the relevant procedures, are stipulated by the Constitution of the laws of the country, the presidency says in a statement. And that according to the above, there are no grounds for a referendum on the identity card question, that everyone is obliged to comply with current legislation and that the signatures, which were not collected according to any legal procedures, cannot overrule the provisions of the Constitution. In a country where equivocation is usually the rule, it is refreshing (albeit painful for some) that someone, at last, makes his position clear. – The government is on a legislative roll. After the Interior Ministry’s cure-all, Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos unveils legislation that will speed up procedures for Athens 2004 construction projects, including land expropriation. He says also that the kayaking center will be built at the old airport at Hellenikon rather than at Schinias near Marathon. – Despite the bad omens at the start of the summer, this has turned out to be a good year for our forests, so far. Fire brigade chief Lt. Gen. Panayiotis Fourlas tells Prime Minister Simitis that 4,068 hectares of forest have been burned so far this year, as opposed to 76,458 hectares last year. The total number of fires this year thus far – 7,222 – is not much smaller than last year’s 9,972, meaning that firefighters are putting out the fires before they rage out of control. Good news on a front where we are used to the worst. Thursday, August 30 Having realized, finally, that he did not win his battle with the government, Christodoulos limits himself to comforting the faithful and himself. The more they hit the Church, the greater it becomes, he tells a congregation at Palaio Faliron. A wise stand. If he had adopted it in the beginning he would have won. Because in the absence of Christodoulos, it is politics as usual. The government and the opposition New Democracy party spend most of the day trading barbs, with the conservatives accusing the government of being offhand with the Church and the government claiming that New Democracy is trying to exploit the Church’s position for its own political ends. – A private institute is setting up a finishing school for Athens cabbies, drawing the ire of a professional group that is famous for its ire. The taxi drivers say that they are setting up their own school and that the private institute – which promises lessons in French, English, German, computers, Greek history and culture, social behavior, communication skills, psychology, the highway code, car maintenance, mechanics, environmental issues and geography – is only in this for the money (1.26 million drachmas, to be exact). The taxi drivers will probably only accept into their ranks anyone who fails the private school course. Which is no problem. Graduates will make great husbands, being the epitome of the New Man. – French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin will visit Athens on September 10 for talks with his Greek counterpart, Costas Simitis. If one wonders why, the PASOK Party Congress will be held a month later and Simitis needs to look as statesmanlike as possible before then. What are friends for, anyway? Friday, August 31 As his country’s Parliament begins to debate the peace agreement that Slav-Macedonians have signed with ethnic Albanians, President Boris Trajkovski calls on the international community to recognize the Republic of Macedonia, rather than the fictional derivative of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (or FYROM). Otherwise, how to you expect us to believe in your values, principles and intentions, if you deny our basic right, the right to identity? Trajkovski asks. Athens, which has demanded the temporary name of FYROM, saying that the use of Macedonia implies claims on Greek territory, is now in a spot. No matter what the merits of its argument, if it insists on the name issue, it will appear callous and oblivious to the needs of its embattled neighbor. But it is also difficult for it to give in and lose a 10-year battle over the name. This is the Alcestis dilemma.