Peri-Peri

The ‘e’ was put there by the South Africans, to replace ‘piri’; it made it easier to say. And it was the Portuguese sailors that took it to India—for years I thought it was the Indians that gave chili to the world, but not so.

But these  days, the peri in Portugal stands for peripheral. It’s all in the eye of the beholder, of course. If you mirror the EU onto the United States, Portugal becomes California, and no one in their right mind would call that peripheral.

In the times of the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, the periphery was very much the swathe of heathens that inhabited Britannia, Scandinavia, and the areas north of the Rhine.

The United Kingdom certainly doesn’t see itself as a nation on the fringe, although in effect that’s what it is. After all, it hasn’t signed up to the single currency, has the most anti-Europe position out of all the EU countries, and prepares its very own referendum about whether to stay in.

While it does that, the debate now focuses on another referendum―Scottish independence. Everyone I speak with tells me the Scottish nationalists (a fishy group led by Salmond and Sturgeon) don’t stand a chance…

I’m not so sure. Politics is a den of surprises, and Alex Salmond is a far better politician than David Cameron. The Scot has a knack for the populist vote and, with the debate centered on the economy, is fighting tooth and nail on the key issues of the pound, EU membership, and the enormous U.K. national debt.

Westminster, on the other hand, is playing the fear card, telling the Scots they’ll be hand-wringing the day after their country becomes er… a country, and in a bizarre reversal of the raids that led to the construction of Hadrian’s Wall,  London specializes in the quick dash to Edinburgh or Glasgow, a wee speech, and it’s back to mommy again.

Salmond has been quick to capitalize, and being a master debater, frequently taunts Cameron for refusing a televised face to face—the local term is ‘fearie’, and the Scottish leader makes constant use of it, knowing his countrymen like nothing better than a good scrap.

The problems in Europe seem to be on the mend, at least for all except the Greeks. The country has my sympathy, but I have a few caveats: I went to Athens a number of times in the early 1990s, and I was struck by how backward it was, when compared to Lisbon. The streets still had a good many cars that had vanished from Portugal in the 1980s, such as the legendary Peugeot 404.

A Peugeot 404 doing its duty on the streets of Buenos Aires.

A Peugeot 404 doing its duty on the streets of Buenos Aires.

PSA has reached an all time low—while that might be nice if we’re talking prostate hormone, it’s not so jazzy for the French motor company that manufactures Peugeot and Citroen: in a volte-face that the designers of the 404 could never have predicted, it’s just sold a three billion stake to Dongfeng Motor Corporation—if the car still existed, the Chinese would quickly rebrand it to 869, otherwise it would be the most inauspicious vehicle of the Middle Kingdom.

Twenty years ago I rode cabs in Athens, and it was impossible to extricate a receipt; I lie—one guy did provide me with a piece of paper, from a nondescript notebook headed with Hellenic script, on which he wrote the fare―the date printed on the pad, it was 1984.

Yet all the while, Portugal was permanently at the tail of all statistics in Western Europe, whether in  economics, health, or welfare―Greece was always that one notch above. But whenever I was in country, the reality I saw just didn’t match the story.

The Greeks were notorious for remaining silent during the mega-negotiations that took place in the aseptic buildings of Brussels, convoluted conversations that redefined the meaning of the eleventh hour. When the exhausted national delegates, dizzy with tiredness and constrained by unanimity, finally agreed, the Greek spoke.

“I will vote against, because my country feels there is a lack of balance in the community policy on…” and out would spring a request to subsidize the Hellenic olive oil industry, or some other sector of the national economy. Typically, the weary delegates capitulated.

Now Athens, which once sported an inordinate number of Porsche Cayenne automobiles, has resorted to fake number plates to avoid taxes, and its larger car dealers have a burgeoning export trade in second-hand luxury vehicles.

Economies like Ireland and Spain are showing some signs of growth, although unemployment  remains a scourge; that said, the United States has also been indulging in a jobless recovery, albeit with very different unemployment numbers.

In all these countries the jobs are there, except they’re not good jobs—by and large the locals refuse to do them. Portugal still has a large contigent from the Ukraine, Moldavia, and elsewhere. The historical immigration from Africa continues, with the chronically poor from Guinea, Cape Verde, and other ex-colonies making their way daily to the promised land.

The women work as cleaners, the men work construction. The children are part of a new nation: many study, get degrees, get ahead. The builders are now masons rather than hod-carriers, and it’s not uncommon to see white guys doing the grunt-work for blacks. Things have changed.

Meanwhile, in Independence Square, Ukrainians have been dropping like flies, caught between the temptress and the matriarch. The seductive EU flashes a trade deal at the former bread-basket of the Soviet Union, but uncle Vladimir is having none of it.

I guess the Ukraine is another ‘peri’, and a pretty hot one at that.

In the middle of the live fire (rubber bullets are for fearies), a middle-aged Ukranian man put things in perspective: we want Europe to come to the Ukraine, not Ukraine to go to Europe.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

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