A Modern Greek Tragedy, The Story Of Apostolos Polyzonis

In September 2011, in Thessaloniki, Greece, Apostolos Polyzonis set himself on fire outside his bank, which had refused to ease his debt payments. He survived, and so did his anger.

A Modern Greek Tragedy, The Story Of Apostolos Polyzonis
François-Xavier Trégan

THESSALONIKI — Nothing but a desolate landscape, a meager stream of water and dried-out earth, stands in front of Apostolos Polyzonis. And yet, what he describes is a vigorous river with fish aplenty, fields full of wheat and tobacco plants. With just a few words prolonging his dream, he fills up the street of Krithia with happy people and rugged tractors, opens the shutters outside his shop and checks his books, all filled with orders.

His home village of 1,500 inhabitants however seems to belong in a different era. The perfume bottling workshop closed down 11 years ago, and around it, only the smell of bankruptcy and decay are left. So Apostolos imagines himself sitting on his terrace, savoring a simple life without wealth, just the minimum so that his family want for nothing.

He sees things in the past, speaks and thinks in the past. For the past “sweetens memories” and makes the present less gloomy.

On second thought, even the pain he felt that morning of September 16, 2011, has eased. It was 9 o’clock. He had driven 30 kilometers from Krithia to the center of Thessaloniki. He had parked his old Fiat in the shade and walked past the newspaper kiosk. On the other side of the street, the security agents at Piraus Bank had been quick to recognize him. Apostolos was a regular at that branch. At the time, Pireus was the largest bank in Greece, having recently absorbed many competitors, and controlled one-third of all loans in the country.

For the previous five months, he had been coming here almost every day, loudspeaker in hand, to denounce his accumulating debts and how the bank was strangling him financially. “Thieves!,” he would shout.

Inevitably, he would also ask for an appointment, one last appointment to try to convince the bank managers to let him reschedule his debt payments to avoid ending up homeless. Some passers-by would find the scene amusing, others would applaud and others simply couldn't understand what this noisy man with sandals and a stocky build could possibly want. As for the bank, it remained deaf to his appeals — and silent.

With no appointment in sight that morning, Apostolos Polyzonis decided it was time to finally get noticed in a very real way. His plan was to enter the building, evacuate the employees, the customers, set the whole thing on fire. He wanted to make an impression. Twice already, in 2007 and 2010, he had attempted to do this at a branch in Athens. Both times, police intervened at the last minute and arrested him.

This time it would work, he told himself. He had to be quick. Apostolos reached the sidewalk in front of the bank. Too late. The green metal shutters had already come down to block access to the building. Stuck outside the front door in his shorts and T-shirt, his plans foiled, he “didn’t think.” He poured half of the jerrycan he was holding in his right hand on his chest, and flicked a lighter with his left. But only his hand caught fire. “There wasn’t enough fuel on the arm, the fire couldn’t spread. I was just seeing my hand burning, it was ridiculous,” he says today, sitting on his small terrace.

So he stroked his chest with his fist. Apostolos caught fire, without seeing a local photographer Nontas Stylianidis across the road. His pictures told the rest of the story, second-by-second. The flames spreading to his stomach, to his loudspeaker and to his feet. The policeman running to his rescue with a fire extinguisher, spraying him with white foam.

Around the world

The images of this incident in broad daylight were seen around the world. “Some people set themselves on fire in cellars, in secret. It was important to me that my action was a public one. But I didn’t want to kill myself. I wanted to protest. I am fighting because I feel guilty that my generation allowed this political class to ruin the life of future generations.”

The human torch staggering and collapsing, with his small gasoline can and loudspeaker, could have risen to be a symbol of the bankruptcy of a founding European country, of the 2009 debt crisis and the austerity policies carried out since that have led to major cuts in wages and pensions.

Protests in Greece in 2010 — Photo: underclassrising

But this man, and his action, did not move the country. Pireus Bank understood that well enough. In the Greek newspapers Apostolos’ story was not given more space than a mere brief that suggested a fit a madness. As for the bank, it published a statement denying all responsibility and claiming its incomprehension at its client’s action.

Anybody who sets themselves on fire must be crazy to a certain extent, emotionally frail, with some kind of suicidal tendencies. With severe burns over much of his body, Apostolos stayed six days in intensive care and several weeks in hospital. He went through all the stages: induced coma, skin grafts, long periods of rest swallowing painkillers.

“There were the exterior burns," he says, "and also the ones inside.”

Polyzonis finally woke up, and was happy, surrounded by his family. He didn’t want to die. “A soldier who goes to war doesn’t go to die. He doesn’t even think about it. He just leaves to fight.”

The image of a man on fire cannot sum up 50 years of a life of anger, that of a man who still denounces thieves and liars, calls for protests, for a democratic rebirth and the union of the people.

Polyzonis is 58 now, and has indeed spent most of his life fighting against something. Impunity and injustice, corruption and vote-rigging. Against all those who, once they are elected, break their promises. Against bankers, members of Parliament, and men of religion.

As a child, because his mother was very ill, he used to spend some of his days in an orphanage near Krithia, and remembers being the only child to challenge the cruel Greek Orthodox priest who ran the facility.

In Krithia, his immolation sparked a debate. Some people came to congratulate him. Others were suspicious of the rashness of their neighbor. "People ask me why I did it, what I was thinking. I ask them to imagine 1,000 people like me, without masks or anonymity, setting banks on fire. Then we could change the situation. Political parties organized large marches, they defied the police and the police cracked down on them.

So they said, "OK, we did our duty." But that's precisely when duties start! Parties and unions do nothing but talk, and prefer it when their members keep a low profile. Some people here want to join the cause with me. But as soon as things get real, they all run away."

All alone, almost

Apostolos is all alone. Of course, there is Lambrini, his silent wife who takes tranquilizers and does not seem to know what to do with her life. There are also a son, who is a cook, and a daughter who both left to try their luck in Germany, as well as another daughter who works in an office in Thessaloniki. She drops by from time to time to see her parents and pet the dog.

Apostolos worked as a radio operator in the merchant navy for 10 years. That is where he and his wife met. They traveled around the world. They visited countries "more democratic and more civilized than Greece, where citizens behave better." They visited some "worse also, of course." They stopped everything in 1987 to raise a family. Their souvenirs are exposed in display cases, with Nefertiti alongside Buddha, elephants with walruses and Inuits on sleds surrounded by Japanese porcelain.

She looked after the children while he developed a perfume bottling workshop, in which he employed up to 20 people at some point. In Grasse, a small town on the French Riviera where he used to get his supplies, people called him "the Greek," the man who would always come with plenty of gifts and a sly grin, to negotiate a good price for his annual deliveries.

Then came the euro, too strong, Dutch clients who started importing from China, his market slowly shrinking and soon confined to limited to be inside Greece's borders. The workshop closed in 2003, but the debts remained. For 11 years, and counting, they have been suffocating Apostolos, they fueled his anger and ended up setting him on fire.

Apostolos Polyzonis sees that the crisis everywhere he looks. It is in the hole in the chimney conduit, which he will repair when he can afford it. It is in the old, worn-out furniture, and the property he still ostensibly owns. Apostolos used to rent out to small sheds, hoping that one day his children would move there. The fast food restaurant and the beauty salon went bankrupt.

Cats are playing in the rubble, amid old broken sinks. Directly on the floor lies a bit of wood from a pallet a friend gave him so he could warm up. From here, we can see his old warehouse at the corner of the street, its shutters closed. In the middle of an incredible bric-à-brac, perfume cans lie next to hundreds of small pink bottles imported from India, stamped with the Barbie doll logo.

This is all that is left of his former, happy and prosperous life, and Apostolos Polyzonis has trouble even looking at it. "I feel such disappointment when I come back here. I didn't lose my job because I was bad at it, but because somebody at that bank only thought about their own profit, without considering the catastrophe they were causing."

Pointing to the machines, he says, "With that, I used to earn a living, to save some money and support my daughter in her studies."

Bad luck, bad checks

Well before the global recession, his business had run into trouble. An unscrupulous associate one day took the money and ran. One of his clients paid with bad checks. This all started what he calls the "dark circle" in 2003. So the financial crisis, five years later, is not the cause of everything, but it did put an end to any possibility of him being able to stagger the debt of a ruined businessman. The bank changed personnel. In Thessaloniki, the new financial adviser was not interested in talking or refinancing. He just wanted the money back.

In Thessaloniki — Photo: Andreas Lehner

At the time, Apostolos remembers, the phone would ring until late in the evening, with private loan companies offering one-stop solutions to finance a wedding or summer vacations. Ruined and harassed by creditors, unable to get the smallest delay, he let his anger explode, fueled by the "rotten" rhetoric and hatred. From then, for the coming months he protested, alone in front of the Parliament, the Prime Minister's office in Athens and his bank in Thessaloniki.

Into his loudspeaker, he shouted that the banks were destroying everything, families, proprietors, employees, people and feelings. Until that morning of September 16, 2011. "I was so desperate. My daughter had asked me to send her money. I only had 10 euros left in my pocket," he recalled. "Just enough to buy myself the gasoline. I did what I did… 10 euros, that's not enough to live, for anybody. I felt useless."

Lambrini opens the kitchen pantry and takes out a bag of pasta, offered by the food bank. "A poor man's food," Apostolos grumbles.

The spaghettis' transparent packaging carries the European Union flag with its 12 golden stars, which officially symbolize "the ideals of unity, solidarity and harmony among the peoples of Europe."

Apostolos can't stand seeing them anymore. "We feel like beggars, it takes all self-respect away from people. Every time I open a European Union packaging, it reminds me that somebody else is paying for my food. At first, I thought that Europe would be one for the people, that it would support the poorest countries, defend equal salaries, working and life conditions. But the gap has widened between countries. I still dream of such a Europe, one that fights!"

Until this day comes, Apostolos Polyzonis still protests, alone, in parks, in front of banks and electricity providers. Resourceful, he has been restarting his friends' electricity meters, after their supplies had been cut when they could not pay their bills. He also helps his neighbor write letters to prevent his house from being repossessed. In exchange for a few bank notes, he helps with movings and small construction jobs. During good months, he earns 200 or 300 euros.

In the European elections in May, he voted for Syriza, the radical left coalition, with no real conviction. Apostolos Polyzonis has become distrustful, skeptical of everyone and everything. Last year, on April 21, he sat on his terrace and began writing. Six weeks later, he had a 20-page letter, which he sent to the finance minister, other cabinet ministers, the justice department and the media. It was a scathing attack on politics.

"The people of Greece did not generate debt," he wrote. "They produced the wealth that you shared with your masters and crafty men. You seized every occasion to slander them and call them thieves and corrupted. Your bribes were the citizens' enrollment tickets for the vote-rigging armies of your parties. You overloaded the public sector with useless civil servants and now you accuse them of having destroyed the state! You are the ones who transformed them into slackers who now hang their heads! You drove the people towards misery."

At the end of his letter, Apostolos describes himself as a man with no dignity and no self-respect, sitting on his terrace for hours, unable to do anything else than running the most murderous thoughts through his mind. Then he asked for his debt to be canceled. "If you satisfy these just demands, I will once again be a human being… I wish to become once again the man I used to be, for myself, for my relatives, for society… I will become a Free Greek Citizen again."

His plea was left unanswered, and no media organization ever published his letter.

One year later, he still spends hours on his terrace. Ensconced in a plastic chair, he rolls himself cigarettes and drinks coffee after coffee. He didn't "become" anything again. Apostolos Polyzonis is still this desperate man, with an anger burning inside, warning the visitor walking away from his house with an ancient proverb: "Don't rejoice in seeing your neighbor's door on fire. The fire might spread."

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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