Letter from Thessaloniki

Just as Greece began healing from (or rather, forgetting) the latest claim in the international press (this time in the largely irrelevant Washington Times) for allegedly being soft on terrorism and therefore unsuitable for hosting the Athens 2004 Olympics, up popped the plane-spotters. These 12 strange British travelers (and two Dutch fellow-travelers) had remained right off the radar of Greek public opinion during the three, certainly interminable, weeks in which they have been held in detention while a special investigator and prosecutor mulled espionage charges against them. In the meantime, though, British public opinion has got all fired up over an issue in which 12 compatriots are seen as innocents abroad who have been suddenly thrown into what is described as the horrific maelstrom of the Greek judicial and prison system. (Of course, it will soon all be over for them, while those of us who live here will have to live with the system, but that is another story.) The Daily Mail tabloid has seen such a wonderful opportunity to ride British public outrage that it has gone so far as to call for a boycott of Greek products. The Spectator, a more highbrow weekly, editorialized on «Greek paranoia» and suggested a boycott of the Athens Olympics. But, as mentioned, Greek public opinion, which itself never leaves an opportunity unexploited, and in which everyone, apart from being an expert on every subject under the Apollonian sun, is also an avid crime-spotter, has remained curiously apathetic – a little like the plowman bent over his plow as Icarus crashes to his fate in Brueghel’s painting. There was, of course, the fact that Public Enemy Number One, the inimitable Costas Passaris, was arrested in Romania after continuing his hobby of armed robbery and casual murder outside of his homeland. That was an issue for crime-spotters and second-guessers if ever there was one. But all that may change, and the unfortunate plane-spotters might just make the big time in the Greek press as well, thanks to the efforts of a British newspaper. In yesterday’s edition of The Observer, Helena Smith and Martin Bright revealed a Turkish link to one of the jailed British and Dutch plane-spotters, Paul Coppin, the owner of Touchdown Tours, which organized last month’s trip to Greek air bases. Weird fears of Turkish conspiracies are sure to flare up once again and it is this fact that has probably led to the plane-spotters’ holiday being longer than anticipated. It is unfortunate for the 14 that in Greece no one has a clue about their strange hobby, though some of us have heard of trainspotting (through the film about Scottish youth shooting up heroin and the resulting depravity, strong language, sex, nudity and some violence). What exactly is this strange hobby called plane-spotting ? A visit to the appropriate websites provides information. «Plane-spotting is actually much like collecting stamps, although at first glance this may seem far- fetched. Every aircraft has a unique number, much like the registration plates on a car. Spotters try to collect these tail numbers, more commonly referred to as registration or serial numbers,» says one. «Plane-spotters are usually quite knowledgeable and often travel the world just to spot new and exotic liveries or military markings. For them, spotting is a very serious hobby and it is essential to maintain meticulous records of aircraft seen. Especially in Europe, you could run into people sporting a pair of binoculars in one hand and a notebook in the other,» says another. «You don’t have to be a spotter if you want to know what’s coming from the skies,» noted Thessaloniki-based pilot Nikos Triandafyllou. «With a scanner, you can easily be an air traffic control eavesdropper. Of course, such scanners are illegal in many places. Last Monday, they almost confiscated the one I had with me while transiting, as a passenger, through Athens Airport. It’s a shame they are still illegal in Greece.» When this expert was asked whether he thinks the British tourists were spying for Turkey, he laughed: «Normally such people try to travel with a group with generally the same interests when it comes to spotting. They seem to prefer taking photographs on ‘operational’ occasions. Now, a group of 14 ‘spies’ on an organized tour?… Ridiculous! Just consider the things we sometimes do for our hobbies!» Unlike the movie «Trainspotting» (which offers a particular view of heroin culture in an Edinburgh suburb, where there are no authorities who intervene, nor any apparent justice in the end), the group arrested on November 8 and still being held without charges will have to confront the agents of the Greek National Intelligence Service (EYP) who want to know whether they have passed information to their «Turkish counterparts» about Greek air bases. «Information that you can nevertheless watch on all local TV channels every time they report on public air shows celebrating a Greek air force holiday,» pilot Triandafyllou said.

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