A question of humanity

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
From Home by Warsan Shire, a Somali poet

Yannis is a baker on an Athens street. He’s finding it harder and harder to go out of his shop, because of the smell. People, lots of people, are camped outside, in tents. Some just sleep on the pavement. He’s been giving them bread, but how long can this go on? One week follows the next, and his regular customers are dwindling. They’re making a detour to another bakery, because the smell is awful and the spectacle heartbreaking.
People have been giving the refugees food, but they have nowhere to wash themselves or their clothes. Mostly, they have no toilets. At least it’s summer, so they’re not cold at night, but during the day the sun is merciless.
Many such scenes of desperation are played out on the refugee route from the Greek islands through Athens and then north, towards Germany or Calais, for those whose aim is the UK. Another route starts in Italy.

In some places, a distinct note of xenophobia if not racism is creeping in. The migrants have variously been described as ‘marauding’ and ‘swarming’. Some countries have been trying to keep them out by any means.  In a photograph that made the front pages, a man with mournful brown eyes is handing a baby dressed in a pink onesie over rolls of razor wire on the Hungarian border. Czech officials caused a scandal by stamping refugees’ arms with numbers. The Italians have closed the border at Brennero. Passengers on the Eurostar remained stranded in the dark for hours after the train was stopped because of refugees walking on the track and on the roof.

imageAngela Merkel has said that the migration crisis is a bigger test for the European Union than the Greek financial meltdown. To my mind, she’s the first European leader to have grasped the immensity and urgency of the problem and to have taken responsibility for dealing with it. Thanks to her handling, Germany has regained the moral high ground. It has been obliged to lead in this matter due to the incapacity of the rest of Brussels to deal with the problem.

Merkel has been heard to remark that what Germany is living through now will change the face of the country over the next few years. The same is true for the whole of Europe, and it is up to Europe to make this issue as positive as possible. After all, the populations of both Europe and the U.S. are to a large degree made up of immigrants.

Sadly, some refugees who ‘made it’ report the experience was ‘not worth it’. These are people who paid all they had, risked death multiple times, had to eat grass to survive, were kidnapped and held captive for ransom on the way, then nearly drowned, and finally spent months in camps – only to find a lonely existence, excluded from local society, struggling to learn a foreign language and strange customs, in the hope of getting a menial job. They tell the ones left back home not to do it. But no one listens.

Why? Because things at home are much, much worse. People don’t leave all they know on a whim. It is interesting to read On Encouragement, an essay by Helen Jones: https://helenejones.wordpress.com/2015/09/03/on-encouragement/

They have no choice.

It is appalling that by failing to agree on how this crisis could be confronted, the EU is now fostering a new species of international crime. Illegal migration is now big business. Not only are these displaced people being robbed, terrorized and sometimes killed by gangsters, they are also being preyed upon by political manipulators.

The degree of collective irresponsibility is truly shocking. In Greece, for example, the authorities have spectacularly delayed in setting up the structures that would allow them to draw upon an EU fund available for the purpose. The blame game is shameful to behold. What is going on in most of Europe is way beyond the limits of what should be acceptable to any enlightened society.

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You have all seen the images: of the toddler washed up on the shore, of the overflowing boats, the tents, the crowds. I will not post more. You can read the statistics, the declarations, the arguments. I have no arguments. But if you want to know what it’s like for them, read The Rahma Diaries blog, and especially the post A Letter from one Mother to Another. Rahma is a mother with a baby, and she can write.

https://therahmadiaries.wordpress.com/rahma/

And read Russell Chapman’s blog post: Escape to Freedom. Bringing a Syrian Family to Safety. Russell is a freelance writer and photographer who undertook to help a family travel from Athens to ‘a particular country in Europe’. Hair-raising and harrowing.

https://russellchapman.wordpress.com/

Photos by Anna Koenig

A botched start to the school year

Many parents are breathing a sigh of relief that the endless summer holidays are over and their little horrors will be returning to school. Not so fast: little Kostas or Maria might not be getting a teacher until December. One by one, the problems created by the previous government’s inexperience and inability to cope while struggling with the Grexit issues are rising to the surface.

With schools due to open for the new year, it seems there are not enough teachers to go around, at either primary or secondary level. ‘Not enough’- to the tune of 25.000 vacant positions. There is only money to cover 13.000 appointments, while in other public sectors rumor has it that people have been hired, even though there is no need for them. It seems that no Greek government can escape this method of securing future votes.
Around 90.000 teachers are queuing to put in their applications in the hopes of a job, most of them having been obliged to repeat the process a second time after their first applications were canceled because of some bureaucratic ‘mistake’.

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Now Greek kids, already stressed from living in families who are coping with huge financial problems, will pay for this mismanagement. Some positions will not be filled until December, since there was a huge delay in taking the necessary bureaucratic steps. Schools on the islands and in rural areas will suffer most.
It must also be noted that, during the previous school year, a large percentage of children in the Athens area went to school each morning on an empty stomach, because of their parents’ dire financial situation. Teachers who could ill afford it themselves were purchasing cookies and fruit to feed their class. In some areas, breakfast was donated by private-sector companies or by the church.

All this is bound to have a huge impact on Greek society, which is family-oriented still. A country that neglects its future generations is a country in trouble.

Greece through the eyes of a Welsh yachtie

Having left his previous life to follow his dream of living on a yacht, Darren has been boating in the Greek islands and occasionally blogging about it. He also had the chance to explore Athens and the mainland and observe Greek reality for himself. He kindly let me borrow a bit from his Musings from the Med to re-post here, since I always find it interesting to take a look at things through someone else’s eyes. See what he says below:

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“It’s now a little over one year since I first discovered Greece. I came initially to view a boat and make a holiday out of the trip. A sailboat was bought and Greece has been home for 2015.
Athens, 2014, where my trip began was hot and bustling. I had opted for a hotel not too far from Omonia square. The guide book said it was an area renowned for Russians, prostitutes and general dodginess – not that I am trying to make a connection here, nor was that the reason I chose that area! It was simply cheap and geographically well suited to my needs of exploration.
I seem to recall the streets being full. The flow of people, made up mainly of tourists, was difficult to pass if caught going in the wrong direction; Monastiraki was crammed with people sipping their freddo coffees and pointing cameras through all cardinal points. The city was alive!
With a hire car I ventured further afield: Peloponnese, Lefkadha, Meteora and Sounion. No matter where I went, I found a natural beauty I had not found anywhere else in Europe. The tourists were still there, the numbers varying with the area/location.
2015: economic crisis, debt uncertainty and politics – something I don’t concern myself with – very much the focus in Greece. It wasn’t like this when I first arrived in early March of this year. I had made friends with some fellow yachties and talk was of pleasant sailing, discovery and fine dining on the abundance of fresh fish and seafood one can easily find here.
Apart from a few teething problems, the sailing began well. The warmer weather became more permanent and the winds and rain became less of a concern. I had been asked to go back to Africa in June to help out on a project I had been involved with in 2014. It was only for 5 weeks so off I went. It was during this period that I became aware of the crisis unfolding in Greece. Had I paid more attention to politics and, well, read newspapers or listened to the news, it may not have crept up on me so suddenly!
The scaremongering of the news people was good; I was fearful for a lot of things. My money and life were tied up in a boat in Greece. I had no idea what could happen but did fear the worst! It was time to head back to Greece and face the uncertainty. I came back armed with euros and a plan to take the boat elsewhere should the situation look impossible. I needn’t have worried half as much. Not all cash machines had money but those that did readily churned out notes for me. My boat was not going to be impounded and sold off to put money in the Greek coffers…
Actually, at first, all seemed as I had left it. I remained in Athens a few days before heading back north to Preveza. During my stay in Athens I began to notice the difference. The bustle was less; there was an uncertain calm; there seemed to be more homeless on the streets – or more than likely they were now visible due to the lack of visitors to the capital – perhaps they had always been there, hidden and ignored by the masses too eager to get snaps of the Acropolis.
Whatever the reason, Athens was not the same as when I had first visited 12 months prior. It seems to be the same story all over. I have pulled into anchorages and town quays in the Ionian expecting to fight for a spot only to be pleasantly surprised at the amount of space available. Boat numbers are definitely down on previous seasons, so I am led to believe. Great news for a novice sailor like me but not good news for the Greek economy.
The Greek people seem subdued and confused with what is happening to them and their country. I have made good friends with a local restaurant owner and a dentist. Panos, who owns a restaurant near a marina I frequent, and that does very well, is moving to Sweden at the end of the year having had enough of the uncertainty – a sentiment shared by many no doubt. Konstandina, my dentist, is also looking at openings in either the UK or the Netherlands. She chose to open her practice here in Greece because of her love for the place. However, with a young family to support, and recent events and an unclear future not helping much – she is being forced to look at other options.
As for me, well, I absolutely love the country and hope it all comes good. I have only good things to say about the people I have met: their happiness, kindness, honesty and their willingness to make me feel comfortable and accepted. My plans are such that hopefully one day, in the not-so-distant future, I will leave Greece to travel further west – though I am sure I can fit in another season or two before leaving. This happens to be the same plan shared by many a yachtie out here on the water, most of whom never left and have been sailing here for upwards of 10 years…so we’ll just have to see what happens!”

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September Blues

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While people are shutting up the summer house, getting kids ready for school and, in most of Europe, getting out the woollies, in Greece summer is far from finished. The sea is still, the temperature high without being stifling and the light is mellow.
Time to get in a few last swims now that the crowds have gone. Still plenty of time for alfresco lunches and dinners, with salads of sun-ripened tomatoes and chilled wine; still ice cream weather.

It’s a good time for walks in the countryside where the dry grasses conceal lizards sleeping on hot stones while cicadas provide the background music – or shall I say din? You feel your forehead damp against your sun hat and you watch your step in flip flops. The heat presses down on your shoulders and the air is fragrant with thyme and oleander.
I’m doing my best to preserve this summery feeling for a few more days – or even weeks, if the weather holds. We usually swim well into October, the sea being far warmer than in May or early June. My strategy to prolong the summer involves the following:
Avoid watching the news as much as possible, and read a book instead – a book with paper pages that smell of ink. A hardback with a bright dust jacket or a paperback that can be tossed into a beach bag with the page corners folded over. I’m deep into The Daughters of Mars, Thomas Keneally’s fascinating story of Australian nurses in the Great War.

image If you have teenagers skulking around the house, you can try them with Olivia Wildenstein’s debut book, Ghostboy, Chameleon and the Duke of Graffiti – it’s funny, sad and a cracking good story at the same time (good for sun-addled adults as well). And while on the subject of books, neurologist and author Dr. Oliver Sacks has sadly passed away. He leaves behind a series of remarkable books, such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars. I was a big fan and I highly recommend them – they have inspired generations of doctors while being extremely interesting and easy to read.

Go pick blackberries, if you can find any (on one of the walks mentioned above). The good ones are always too high to reach, your hands get scratched, your bare toes get pricked and dusty. It’s difficult to pick enough to make jam, as they get eaten along the way, but you can mix them with peaches in a crumble, or put them on ice cream.

Have dinner by the sea. Xypolitos, in Loutsa, is a fish shack where they put the tables as close to the rocky shore as possible, and serve the catch of the day. Aromatic fish soup, tsipoures grilled to perfection, or crispy fried red mullet. A smiling moon, zillions of stars and a little breeze. The lapping of wavelets at your feet. Bliss.

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Photos by Anna Koenig

Xypolitos tel number: 2294 028342. Best reserve if you want a table by the sea on weekends

Ghostboy, Chameleon and the Duke of Graffiti: Get it at Amazon 

Performing on ancient stones

On the night of August 20, my friend Anna enjoyed a very special performance in a magical setting. Here’s how she describes it:

On the 145 km of the Athens-Patras highway is a town called Aegeira. Beyond it, climbing the winding road uphill towards the mountains, at 350 metres above sea level, one comes to an ancient theatre, its koilon facing the Corinthian gulf, with a magnificent, direct sea-view. The theatre itself is a protected area, now cordoned off and out of reach. Carved in the mountain stone, it could accommodate an audience of about 3.000. It is estimated that it was built in the 3rd century B.C.

I remember, during my childhood, that my uncle Anthony used to take us brats to this ancient site. Mechanically and technologically savvy, but also a lover of classical music, once every summer, at least, by full moon, he would set his gear – battery operated tape recorder and speakers – in the middle of the theatre pit and allow us to savour his taste for music and choice of extracts from the classics. He maintained that the acoustics here were almost as good as those of the famous theatre of Epidavros. We sat on the local porous stone steps, bathed in moonlight, and were immersed in classical music.

Tonight we were back, amongst 500 others. The theatrical play was The Apology of Socrates, recited in Ancient Greek, with Greek and English overtitles. I now have to read Plato’s work, my school work flashing back, my ignorance shaming me. It was an admirable effort by a theatrical unit from northern Greece. No full moon this time, but a new moon shyly appearing and then disappearing first behind the pine trees, and then behind the dark, imposing mountains.

We were not allowed to sit on the stone, as I had done as a child. The theatre, therefore, was now set up looking backwards, our backs to the sea view and facing the grey stone. If anything, this setup was odd. Modern technology helped the inverted acoustics. The interpretation of Plato’s work was executed superbly, a soliloquy respecting the musicality of ancient Greek, which, we were told, had been learned and practised over the past three years.

Such are the small but special cultural events of Aigialia, the area whose capital is the town of Aegion. It is the beauty of Greece in all its glory.
I had a marvellous and interesting evening, hopefully to be repeated.

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Back to the Ballot Box

In order to resolve the problems in his party – the Left Platform faction has defected, depleting his majority – Greek PM Alexis Tsipras has decided to hold elections in September. Yet again, we are forced to choose the lesser evil. This, at least, is how I see it – but, judging from readers’ commentary in the papers, I’m not the only one. Comments range from mocking, to cynical, to downright outraged. Political satire, in the form of comic strips and caricature, is rampant.

Here’s an example from one of our leading comics artists, Arkas:
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Translation: A leader is someone who can avert a catastrophe, which never would have happened had he not been leading in the first place.

The process of elections is bound to slow progress down – AGAIN. Greek ministers are not known for taking matters in hand rapidly once they are installed in their new position. The economy will continue to stagnate. Recovery will be delayed. However, the Europeans’ response to the news (especially Mrs. Merkel’s) has been positive – which has to be a good thing.

So, for the third time in eight months, we shall wend our way to the local school and stand in line to cast our vote for something we are not enthusiastic about. Of course, some people might be enthusiastic, but I have yet to meet them. At the moment, Tsipras is expected to win. Let’s hope that if he does, the result will put him in the position to govern more efficiently.

Beautiful photographs

In my peregrinations around the blogosphere, I discovered Josephine. She lives in Munich and takes the most lovely photographs. Her pictures are atmospheric, evocative, and beautifully lit. Some have the quality of a painting, others remind me of etchings. In the one of Villiers Street I love the detail, especially the horse painting glimpsed through an art gallery window (this will probably not be visible if you’re reading this post on a smartphone).

I know this has nothing whatsoever to do with Greece, but who cares? It’s got to do with me – I think Josephine’s work is special, and I wanted to share. Just go on her site and enjoy.

Here’s a small sample:

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London. View from London bridge to Tower bridge.

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Villiers Street, London

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Dare to dream

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Reflections


Josephine’s site is called LEMANSHOTS – FINE PICTURES AND DIGITAL ART

You can find it here: https://lemanshots.wordpress.com

White Smoke

After a long and episodic night (beats me why the session couldn’t start at 9.30 a.m. instead of 9.30 p.m.) the Greek parliament voted in favor of the rescue package.
However, in the process, P.M. Alexis Tsipras lost the majority in his own party (32 of his own ministers voted against him) so has now to decide whether and when to hold elections. Elections are obviously the last thing Greece needs right now. But what is certain is that he cannot implement the very difficult measures contained in this package with the present government.
The Eurozone approved a Greek bailout of up to €86bn in loans over the next three years, in return for  far-reaching reforms, essentially tax rises and spending cuts.

“Together, we have looked into the abyss. But today, I am glad to say that all sides have respected their commitments. Greece is living up to its ambitious reform commitments,” Juncker said in a statement. “The message of today’s (meeting) is loud and clear: on this basis, Greece is and will irreversibly remain a member of the euro area.”

Following the approval of the new deal, the International Monetary Fund has called on eurozone ministers to offer Greece debt relief.

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Should we Greeks feel relieved? Happy? Are we safe? Hard to tell. Readers’ comments in the papers show anger, anxiety, and general disgust with and mistrust of the politicians involved.

Jokes as usual, are proliferating. Most are untranslatable, but I offer the following two:
😆 In the end, the exact question asked at the referendum was: Are the austerity measures proposed enough for you or would you like more?
YES meant ‘They’re enough for us,’ and
NO meant ‘No, we want more!’

😅 Phew! Thank God, Greece will not go bankrupt now. Only the Greeks will.

Books and prizes

Amongst the usual spate of depressing news, some nuggets of positive information made the front pages of the daily papers:

Now that people have less disposable income to spend on small luxuries, a 9th Swapping Bookshelf has been inaugurated in Athens. The brainchild of two young architects, Lefteris Abatzis and Irini Emilia Ioannidou, these automatic lending and exchange libraries are freestanding structures made of steel and glass, where anyone can swap a book at all hours of day and night. There is no fee or subscription of any kind. At night they are lit up, and each can accommodate up to 350 books.
Usage is aided by a smartphone App – the swapping bookshelf – while updates and info can be found on http://www.vivliothiki.org.
The project was first presented at the international contemporary art platform Remap4 and at the 4th Athens Biennale. Its realization was made possible with the help of the Skrimitzeas construction company and artist Andonis Donef and has now been incorporated  into the central Public Library Organization of the City of Athens. Amazingly, the libraries, the first one of which was set up in 2012, have survived the usual vandalism of public property and are thriving. Who said the printed word is dead?

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In another article, a team of four students from the University of
Thessaloniki traveled to Seattle to compete in the finals of the
Microsoft Imagine Cup, billed as ‘the world’s premier student technology competition.’ They faced more than 30 teams from all over the world, selected from tens of thousands of students.

The Greek team won the Ability Award, featuring innovative projects that are intended to help people living with disabilities. This award was inaugurated just this year by Imagine Cup to recognize the team that has best addressed this important topic.
They also got third place in the World Citizenship Competition where students show the world new ways to think and to change, by creating new technology projects in fields such as health, education, and the environment.
Their project:
PROGNOSIS, an intelligent ICT-based approach for the early detections of Parkinson’s Disease symptoms. The application will also allow prompt intervention in people’s everyday life, promoting active and healthy ageing. This is achieved through a set  of health self-managing tools, set within a collaborative care context with health professionals.

imageDimitris Iakovakis, Vassiliki Bika, Despina Efthimiadou and Konstandinos Mavrodis with their mentor Leondios Hadjileondiadis

And finally, in the realm of sport, the Greek team has won the EuroBasket 2015 Under-18 Championships

With Vassilis Charalambopoulos, Giorgos Papagiannis and Dionysis Skoulidas as its biggest stars, the team of coach Ilias Papatheodorou came from behind to beat Turkey in Sunday’s final at Volos, central Greece, where the tournament took place.

Making the most of home advantage after downing France in the quarterfinals and Lithuania in the semis, the team defeated Turkey 64-61.

This is another golden generation for Greek basketball, as the men’s team is eyeing a place on the podium in next month’s Eurobasket.

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It is these, and many other, young people who are the future of Greece. We must make sure they do have a future here and are not obliged to seek it elsewhere.

Banana Cake

An update on the immigrant situation at Pedio tou Areos

imageWhile politicians and officials are sitting in air-conditioned offices, debating the Immigrant Question, on-the-spot action is being taken in Athens.
The ladies of the Melissa Network – an organization of immigrant women from many countries whose aim is to help integration and address all the issues associated with immigration – have rolled up their sleeves. Especially touched by the plight of the children present amongst this new wave of arrivals, some of whom are unaccompanied, they decided to lend a helping hand. Since last Monday, they are preparing breakfast for more than 200 kids daily: banana or carrot cake, cookies, sandwiches, cereal bars.
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These are women who rise at 5.30 a.m. and work for ten hours a day. Then they get home and get in the kitchen. They have no funding and pay for everything with their own money. Fortunately, they do get some assistance from the neighborhood: many shopkeepers as well as private citizens do what they can to help them.

Another organization is also there to support. The “A Different Person” Community Kitchen is a group of people who cook in the street. So that the needy do not feel embarrassed about receiving charity, everyone cooks and eats together.
They say:

The impetus for the “Different Person” community kitchen was when we saw people of all ages, nationalities, ethnicities, and social classes looking through the left-overs at Athens farmers’ markets in an effort to gather food that they could not afford to buy. The first response was to cook food at home and try to distribute for free at the farmers’ markets. We then asked vendors to each donate one product from their stands so that we could continue the next day. After that, we decided instead to both cook and eat together in an effort to combat the shame of receiving a free cooked meal. Another purpose of our community kitchen is to distribute any leftover funds (typically 30-40 EUR/month) to unemployed people who help us on a daily basis and, when possible, for our volunteers too!

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Of course new immigrants have joined their party. And they are now cooking on some islands such as Mytilini, where the huge number of arrivals is making life hard for everyone.

These are the sites of the organizations mentioned above:
http://melissamwnetwork.blogspot.com
http://oallosanthropos.blogspot.com