Introducing ‘Letters from Greece’

Starting with the Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens famously published his novels in the daily press, in weekly or monthly installments. He thus pioneered the serial publication of narrative fiction, which became the dominant Victorian mode for fiction publication. This format allowed him to get feedback from the audience, which he often used to modify his characters and plots accordingly.

Now publisher The Pigeonhole has re-created this concept for the digital age, by bringing out a series of books divided into sections called ‘staves’, which can be read on a tablet, iOS device or a PC. The process is interactive, as it allows the inclusion of photographs, extra ‘margin’ notes, and commentary from readers. It can function like an on-line book club.

Amongst the books on offer, my curiosity was naturally aroused by Letters from Greece, a series of essays on various themes, all describing what it’s like to live and work in Greece today. The series is curated by literary agent Evangelia Avloniti and features a line-up of writers and photographers who, if one is to go by the staves so far, are top class.

image

 

I enjoyed all the staves, which were very different in tone and style but each fascinating in its own way; but I thought I would include here an excerpt from the first one, Florina: Where Greece Begins, because it struck a particular chord.

It is by award-winning writer Peter Papathanasiou, who was born in the northern Greek town of Florina and was adopted as a baby by a family in Australia. He describes a visit from Australia to see his brothers and combines this with the story of his grandfather Vasilios, an Orthodox Christian refugee fleeing for his life from Anatolia during the 1923 population exchange with Turkey. As Peter Papathanasiou puts it:

The war was over. With the return of their triumphant army, the Turks had started taking all able-bodied Orthodox Christian men into labour camps. If the Greeks dared return to march on Ankara, the Turks’ prisoners would be executed in retaliation. Vasilios was not interested in being human collateral.’

 

image

 

Vasilios walks from Smyrna to the Aegean Sea, leaving his family behind. He wants to get to Greece.
Reading this together with the refugees’ stories one sees every day in the press reminded me how history repeats itself and how we can never take anything for granted. I have chosen to feature the part where Vasilios arrives at the Aegean shore, after four months on the road. I hope you will be as moved by it as I was.

 

image

 

‘Vasilios could hear screaming in the distance. It was a sound familiar to his sunburned ears. After four months on the road, it was also a sound to which he was numb. But there was something about this scream. The timbre was higher and lighter, the duration longer. It was not a wail of agony or distress. It almost sounded happy. Vasilios tried to remember the feeling.
The seasons had changed. Winter had become spring and the rebirth had made the countryside burst with wildflowers and new grass. Vasilios had collected orange seeds from the road and stored them safely in his jar of Anatolian soil. Climbing to the top of a lush green ridge, he saw the Aegean Sea. It was the bluest, sweetest sight. People threw their hands in the air and ran the final mile to the water. Vasilios sprinted.
A sea of humanity saturated the waterfront. He arrived at the port breathless. His clothes were rags, his skin black. He could barely hold down his bread ration for hunger. He had run out of notches on his belt and started constructing his own with a rusty nail. His pockets were also considerably lighter for all the Turkish guards he had bribed with a fakelaki.
Vasilios had trudged the last hundred miles with a hole in each boot and bloodied soles. One out of four travellers did not make it. Some might say they were the lucky ones spared the scene at the docks and aboard the boats bound for Salonika. Emaciated, diseased Christians clogged every dirty corner. They turned potato sacks into makeshift clothes and old rubber tyres into shoes. Vasilios found the waterfront warehouses crammed full, saturated with refugees. The stench of human filth made him retch. There was no space to lie down and sleep, and no toilets. Elsewhere on the docks, shanty towns had sprung up, refugees sheltering in oil drums and beneath metal sheeting. Diseased cats were everywhere, all bones and patchy fur.

Boats were left floating off the coast to prevent the spread of smallpox, typhus and cholera. After two nights on the docks, Vasilios was eventually herded onto an overcrowded boat that looked like it would sink at any moment. He was quarantined for a week on an island whose name he did not know. It was there he got his first taste of what it meant to be ‘coming home’. Bowed with despair, he was spat upon by the native Greeks from their upper windows as he shambled past. ‘Tourkosporoi!’ they jeered him; ‘Seed of Turk!’ The mere fact he had lived in the Turkish state made his loyalty to Christianity suspicious. He did not fight back or even plead his case. He had neither the energy nor the spirit.

 

image

 

The same welcome greeted Vasilios in his new village. Its name was Florina, and it was so far into the Pindus Mountains that Vasilios could smell the Albanians from across the border when the northerly wind blew. He watched as mosques became churches, minarets torn down, crosses erected. The native Greeks were suspicious of his odd dialect. They ended up going to different churches and kafenia and even used different water pumps. The Muslims who had left were a known quantity. Vasilios’s kind, though Christian, were still alien.’

 

image

imageimage

 

The photographs of Florina then and now were kindly provided by Peter Papathanasiou. He took the recent ones himself.

To check out The Pigeonhole, click on the name in the text above.

City break: Athens in the winter

Most people think of Greece as a summer destination. The sea, the islands, guaranteed sunshine. But in the summer one is too hot and lazy to do much. You get into a routine of late breakfast, swim, lunch, siesta, swim, dinner. You can’t be bothered to move.

image

 

In the winter, you still get plenty of sunny days. Athens is a lively, bustling city, and it is easily accessible from most European countries. So, if you have a free weekend, book a flight.

 

There are plenty of things to do, even if the weather is bad (we do have a winter, and you might just be unlucky). Here are some ideas:

 

Walk in the streets. Window shop, sit in cafés and people watch, sample street food. Plaka, the old town beneath the Acropolis, is stunning. Wander around the stalls in Monastiraki market.
image

Visit. The Parthenon and the Acropolis Museum should be on everyone’s bucket list. But the city is full of antiquities, beautiful museums, Byzantine churches and art galleries.
Eat. There’s something for every taste, from luxurious gourmet restaurants to neighborhood tavernas. Great fish, in many places with a view of the sea. And ethnic: sushi, Chinese, Thai, Indian, Mexican…
image

Take in a show. Films are not dubbed in Greece, and sometimes there are plays in English. Concerts, classical music, jazz, rock… Dance, classical and modern.

Athens is famous for its nightlife. Bars, discos, Greek bouzouki music.
image

 

If you like sports, you can indulge: Sailing, windsurf, golf courses. A lot of people don’t know this, but you can ski on Parnassos, two hours out of Athens. The trails are not huge, and on the weekend there are queues, but if you go midweek on a sunny day, it’s brilliant. The mountain is beautiful, the ski instructors are great. You can ski until two, then go down the mountain and have a late lunch in Arachova. Or you can stay in Arachova and visit the temple of Apollo at Delphi the next day. In the spring, you can ski in the morning, then drive down the mountain and through a lovely olive grove to swim in Galaxidi.

 

image

If you can stay more than a few days:

Rent a car and get out of town (or join a bus tour) for a day trip or overnight stay. The are so many stunning places to visit: Delphi, the Metéora, Nafplion, Korinth, Epidaurus, Olympia.
On a sunny day you can take a day trip to one of the nearby islands. Within an hour or two, you’re in another world. The islands are different in the winter, green and covered in wild flowers. It’s calm, the locals go about their business. At lunch in one of the tavernas, you’re likely to come upon the local policeman eating with the village priest. The owner’s kids will run in after school, and sit at a nearby table to have their lunch and then do their homework. The pace of life is slow and relaxing.

So, take a look at the weather report, and book a flight!

November Q&A: The hotelier

imageIoulia Mavrelou works in her family’s hotels. One, the ESPERAS, is a dream destination on the beautiful island of Santorini, with its black volcanic beaches, its town perched high above the sea and its stunning views. The other, the MYRTO, in the old quarter of Athens, Plaka, is at the moment undergoing renovation. Ioulia’s husband works alongside her and they have three young children.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I was born and raised in Athens by a rather conservative family. After school, I left to study Hotel Management at the Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne. I also have a BA in Tourism and Hotel Management from Surrey University in the UK and an MBA from ALBA University in Athens

After my studies I worked in prestigious hotels in Europe and the USA, and I also taught Operations and Administration for Hotels at BCA University in Athens. In 2001 I returned to Greece full time, and became the Managing Director of my family’s HOTEL ESPERAS in Oia, Santorini, and later a VP of Operations at Hotel Myrto in Athens.

What were the major difficulties you’ve faced in the last five years?

It’s been hard, for reasons both economical and psychological. The fear people had of traveling to Greece due to the unstable economic and political environment meant we’ve had to face and overcome financial problems. Decisions made by Greece’s politicians result in continued uncertainty and distrust, so it’s a constant psychological roller coaster.

Did anyone in particular inspire you or help you?

During the last five years, my father and my husband have been the inspiration that drives me forward. My father taught me about hard work, and to be patient; to wait and to act at the right moment. My husband inspires me to pursue things until the end and not to give up.

imageWhat are your hopes/plans for the future?

I hope that the economic situation in Greece will become stable and that we will have the opportunity to grow our company.

What are your hopes for Greece? What changes would you like to see happen?

In my opinion radical changes need to be made in order for the country to survive. Unfortunately I don’t believe that any Greek government is willing to implement those changes in areas such as education, pensions etc. or to allow privatizations and implement measures to help entrepreneurship and allow the country to move forward.

Have you considered leaving? If so, where would you like to go, and why?

We are considering leaving as a family and moving to an English-speaking country since we feel that the adjustment will be easier, especially for our children. Of course, the fact that we work in our family business plays a major part in this decision, making it particularly difficult.

If you have already decided to leave, what would make you stay?

A complete and radical change in Greece, which would force the Greek people to change their ways as well.

Are you actively doing anything to help with the situation? Is there something more you would like to do?

I feel that I am – and have been all my life – doing my part as an entrepreneur by paying all my taxes and creating jobs for honest folks.
Tourism is a major source of income for Greece. In spite of all the difficulties, last summer was a reasonably good season for us and bookings have remained steady for 2016.

How do you see Greece in 5, in 10 years?

Unfortunately I see my country in the same situation if not worse than today. Observing the measures taken so far does not allow me to be optimistic.

How do you cope with obstacles and frustrations in your everyday life?

I am blessed to have a loving family and friends I can count on, who have been next to me when needed.

What are the positive sides of living in Greece? Have you had any good experiences lately?

The climate, our extended families and all the assets we have in Greece are the biggest reasons for staying. The summer vacation I spent with my family were exactly what holidays by the sea should be…

imageIoulia kindly agreed to be the Guinea pig for this feature, so any comments about improvements are welcome. If you want to see the site of the stunning ESPERAS HOTEL, just click on the name.

Road trip to Metéora

Taking advantage of the brilliant weather, we headed out for an overnight excursion. Our destination: Metéora, the largest complex of Orthodox monasteries in Greece, outside of Mount Athos.
The monasteries are built atop almost inaccessible sandstone peaks, at the northwestern edge of the Plain of Thessaly near the Pineios River and Pindos Mountain, in central Greece.

image

Monks settled on these ‘columns of the sky‘ from the 11th century onwards. Twenty-four monasteries were built, despite incredible difficulties, at the time of the great revival of the eremitic ideal in the 15th century. Today there are six left.

To break up the four-hour journey, we stopped for a snack in the town of Domokos. The crisis is apparent here as well, with a lot of empty shops in the central street. An abrasive woman in a red pickup honked as we tried to park the car. The taverna that had been recommended to us was shut. We asked the woman, who was by now walking down the street, where we could get something to eat, and in two minutes she had managed to sell us a bag of beans – her own production – which she offered to bring to the kebab shop, apparently our best bet.
imageAs we walked down the street, ultra-modern shops alternated with more decrepit ones like the one in the picture above, which took us straight back to the 60s. Pyjama bottoms, socks, plastic baskets and kitchen paper – and those rolls of PVC tablecloth in hideous prints that most Greeks used in their kitchen! Some still do, apparently.

Walking into the kebab shop, we looked at each other in dismay. It was tiny, grotty, and the clients consisted of two crusty old men and an elderly lady, sitting at small metal tables. A half-eaten, uninspiring gyros was roasting on a spit. Amazingly, the young man behind the counter made us delicious grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches that were just perfect. In the time it took to fire up the grill, we had become firm friends with everyone. The old guys chattered away through their dentures, the lady spoke Greek with a very strong local accent but perfect English to someone on the phone, and the abrasive woman came in for a bite with us (she had the gyros), bringing the aforementioned bag of dried white beans. We answered the usual ‘Where are you from?’ questions, discussed the monasteries’ hospitality policy, and found out the best place to buy local cheese.

On to Metéora, which was simply magical. There is no other word to describe it.
Metéora in Greek means ‘suspended in the air.’ The sheer majesty of the rocks upon which the monasteries are perched like eagle nests is breathtaking. The monasteries themselves are large, complex, beautiful structures that look as if they’ve emerged from the rock.

image

We started with the biggest one, Great Metéoro. Nowadays there is a road leading up to the opposite mountain slope. We scrambled down one flight of steps, crossed a bridge spanning the chasm, passed through a tunnel hewn in stone and, finally, faced a climb up another large number of steps – 330 to be precise – to emerge at last upon a stunning view.
The monastery church is a perfect specimen of Byzantine architecture; the 16th-century frescoes covering the walls mark a key stage in the development of post-Byzantine painting. The large courtyard is planted with cypress trees.

Before leaving we inspected the crude net and primitive pulley system by which monks were lowered, at great danger, to the ground, in the days before the road was built.

image

 

After climbing back down all those steps it was time to repair to our hotel, the Dellas Boutique Hotel, a stone building just outside Kalambaka, which is the nearest town. The welcome was warm, and the lounge contained a bar, comfortable chairs and even board games. The smiling girl in charge gave us maps of the area and recommended we visit an exquisite Byzantine church in the town. Then she sent us off to dinner at a taverna down the road serving local specialties.
Our rooms had a great view on the rocks, which were floodlit at night, the fissures and crannies casting mysterious shadows. At breakfast there were home-made jams and cake, local yogurt and honey scented with pine, oregano and thyme. When I asked where I could buy some to take home, I was directed to the local butcher’s! As well as a large display of appetizing meats, he sold all sorts of other products: fresh eggs, herbs, the said honey, even slabs of salted cod. I got my honey, plus some local cheeses; after which he gave me a present of his homemade country sausages, which he even vacuum-packed for me!

 

imageThe 11th-century Byzantine Church dedicated to the Virgin Mary – in Kalambaka itself – which was our first stop, exceeded expectations. With beautiful and intricate rose-colored brickwork on the outside, its inside walls were covered with frescoes of the Saints and the pillars were of solid marble, since the church was built on top of a temple to Apollo. Part of the floor has been dug up to expose the ancient mosaics.
imageNext we made our way to the monastery of Saint Nicholas Anapafsas. We parked the car on the edge of a wood, and there was the monastery, about two miles up in the sky above us! It looked unreachable. As we climbed rough-hewn steps through the woods, the undergrowth was strewn with pink cyclamen and the air was crystal clear. In no time we were at the foot of the walls, and then up the 270 steps to the top. One sole monk lives in this monastery, but it was bustling with life. A lady sweeping the floor told us she worked there ‘for the views’, a bunch of workmen were putting new tiles on the roof, a Japanese tourist was availing himself of the bread and loukoumi (Turkish delights) set out for visitors. The monk said to us, ‘Up here you are in heaven.’

image

The next two monasteries we visited were nunneries, and the female touch was evident. They both had lovingly-tended gardens, full of roses and lavender. The larger of the two, Aghios Stephanos,  is inhabited by 31 nuns.

The monasteries have small museums containing frescoes, precious relics and illuminated manuscripts. Every window or terrace has a different view, of the rocks, of the other monasteries seen from below or from above, of the Thessaly plain and the glint of the river.
The people who first climbed the rocks and built upon them, trying to find protection from the raids of various conquerors, established a tradition of Orthodoxy which has continued uninterrupted for 600 years. Today the Metéora is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

 

 

image

Before heading for home, we made a detour to catch a glimpse of the man-made Plastiras Lake, named after the Greek prime minister who had the vision of building a dam across the Tavropos River in order to irrigate the plain of Thessaly. It was a glimpse only, since the lake is large and surrounded by an area of exceptional natural beauty. It merits a trip in itself, in order to explore the villages surrounding it and enjoy the various activities on offer. We only had time to stop for a delicious lunch at a roadside taverna, where once again the owners were friendly and welcoming, as well as being great cooks! After lunch and a chat, we walked through oak woods dotted with mushrooms to the shores of the lake, whose waters were calm and clear as well as – we were told – teeming with fish.

image

Some photos are mine , others by Anna Koenig. I will leave you to guess which! To go on the Dellas Hotel site, click on the name. Great value for money.

Election Results

Alexis Tsipras, the ‘Laughing Boy’ as he’s known locally due to his youthful looks and smiling face, won the elections by a comfortable margin. He is to form a government with ANEL, a right-wing, anti-austerity party he’s already collaborated with in the past. Godspeed – he has a huge task ahead, and now he’s been given the mandate to proceed. No more referendums or elections, no more escape routes.

The ‘Return to the drachma’ faction was wiped out as it failed to win a single seat in Parliament. Tsipras bounced back from an in-house revolt of radicals which nearly made him lose control of his party. He now must prove himself as a leader to deal with issues such as the immigrant crisis and also implement the reforms he signed for the bail-out agreement.

The elections are finished, the Troika returns, screamed a headline in one of the dailies. The election is over, the crisis isn’t, wrote another paper.

Let’s hope that politicians will settle down now and do their jobs, instead of spending their days on TV panels, shouting at each other.
In a worrying statistic, 2 million less people turned up to vote than in 2004. That’s around 45% of the electorate, a record by Greek standards. In a population of around 10 million who can vote, that is huge. Parties will have their work cut out to win those people back.

imageEven more worrying, Golden Dawn, the extreme-right party, won two more seats in Parliament than before. That means that 400,000 people voted for a party who has acknowledged murdering people and whose leader has spent time in jail.

What will be the face of Greece in two years? In five? We are facing an uphill battle, but Greeks have proved they are resilient, so we must hope there will be light at the end of the tunnel.

photo by Eleni Koryzi 

The suspension of disbelief

The politicians are at it again. Disregarding the huge problems looming over Greece, they’ve dropped everything to stand on their soapboxes haranguing the crowds. Their aim? To persuade people to vote for them, obviously.

Every other program or issue has vanished from TV channels, as politicians are monopolizing air time. Everything is at a standstill.
In one of the ‘shows’ I briefly watched, young people in the crowd looked positively catatonic as the would-be future leader – it could have been any one of them – trotted out the same, tired old platitudes. They all have identical weapons of choice: shouting as loudly as possible, and blaming each other for every difficulty the country is facing.  They obviously think this will make the audience overlook their total lack of credibility, the absence of any constructive proposal. Promises – how can they promise, with a straight face, to do the things they never did when they were in power last? Why should anyone believe them this time round?

imageDoes anyone believe them? Some are certainly turning up to listen – is it curiosity? Hope springing eternal?
The suspension of disbelief can only go so far. A quick poll I conducted over the last few days uncovered a startling fact. Practically everyone I asked is refusing to vote. I say refusing, because Greeks consider voting a matter of principle and pride. They’re certainly not abstaining because they can’t be bothered.
Possibly – certainly – my sample was skewed. But, in all my years as a voting citizen, this has NEVER happened before. Usually, Greeks love to argue, to try and persuade, to discuss politics for the fun of it. Now they’re just disgusted. They don’t want to know.

Will they resist to the end? On Sunday, we shall find out.

Photograph by Eleni Koryzi

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.

image

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?

image

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.

image

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.
image

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!

image

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

A boat to nowhere

Picture this:

imageThe Pedion tou Areos (Field of Mars), at 25 hectares the biggest park in the center of Athens, built to commemorate the heroes of the 1821 revolution. It was refurbished some years ago at a cost of more than nine million euros, but has since gone slightly to seed, like much else in Athens. Drug users lurk in shady corners. And now a new dimension has been added to this landscape: rows of small, colorful tents line the Avenue of Heroes, clotheslines are strung between trees. Afghan refugees started this camp a couple of weeks ago and their numbers are swelling by the day. Amongst them are small children and pregnant women.

imageThis scenario is repeated in squares and on pavements throughout the city. Shopkeepers around offer the refugees food, but they don’t want them there. It’s bad for business, and business is bad anyway. Charitable organizations do the best they can. There is little help from the state.

image

Hundreds of immigrants are arriving every day on the islands across from Turkey. More than 48.000 have come in the first semester of 2015, compared with 43.000 for the whole of 2014.

Exhausted, scared and lost, they are forced to wait for days in difficult conditions before being ‘processed’ by overworked officials in understaffed and underfunded local authority offices. Sometimes fights break out between nationalities: if the Afghans believe the Syrians are receiving better treatment, for example. When cleared, they make their way to Athens. But they don’t want to stay in Greece, where people are already struggling under an unbearable burden. Their dream is to end up in Germany, or get to England via France. Some have relatives there. There is chaos at the Larisa train station, chaos at Patras port, where they try to stow aboard lorries going to Italy.

And  we are talking about those that have actually made it across. In the old days, slavers had to make sure the merchandise at least arrived in a fit state to be sold. Modern traffickers – or ‘brokers’ as they like to call themselves – demand to be paid in advance. Then they just pile the human cargo into boats made for a tenth of their number, if that, and set them loose upon the seas – sometimes with not even enough fuel to make land. Boats are left to the care of teenage captains, the tanks empty, people locked in the hold.

Many drown. The rest are rescued by the coastguard. Unfortunately, more rescue missions have resulted in increased traffic, as was seen with the Mare Nostrum operation in Italy. The traffickers are on a constant search for new routes, new methods of transport.

imageHow can Europe deal with such a massive transfer of populations, on a scale never seen before in history?

In the twenty-first century, in a society where the accumulation of material goods is a given, these people have NOTHING. It’s a concept difficult to comprehend. No clothes, no food, no papers, no home. Nothing. It is impossible to put oneself in the place of humans so desperate they are willing to leave behind everything they know, to risk life and limb, and who then arrive in a country where they are destitute, do not speak the language, and are repelled by all available means.

In an article entitled ‘You’re Better Than This, Europe’,  Nils MUIZNIEKS writes:

Europe needs to take a long, hard look at itself — and at the reality of the refugee issue. The European Union could start by overhauling its laws governing asylum and migration. By increasing legal avenues for migrants to reach Europe, with measures like eased humanitarian visas and family reunification rules, it would reduce the number of migrants taking perilous routes. That would help cut the ground from beneath the feet of smugglers, who grow richer when migration restrictions are harsh. (International New York Times, JUNE 28, 2015)

imageEurope, however, seems far from up to the task. Horrifying scenes are taking place on each side of the Channel. Meanwhile, the Hungarians are building a fence with Serbia to keep them out. Police and army are used to ‘secure’ borders. And each country, if you read the press, is mostly concerned with its own problems, while trying to foist the blame and the responsibility onto everyone else.

There is no doubt that the situation needs to be brought under control, especially since rumors abound that the boats are used to bring over ISIS militants from Libya amongst the refugees. There are no obvious or easy solutions, but the only way forward is for all countries to work together. Europe has to realize there is a huge, potentially explosive problem staring it in the face; a problem which must be dealt with quickly, decisively and, above all, humanely. 

We must never forget we are dealing with people here, people who today are mostly perceived as a threat. But a lot of them have escaped conditions so horrific it would be inhuman to send them back. And immigration, if properly managed, can enrich societies in many ways.

Greece had to deal with a major wave of immigrants in the years 1990-2011, after the fall of communism. These were mostly from Rumania, Bugaria and Albania, but also eventually from all over the world. Although there have been problems – notably a rise in criminality as gangs infiltrated the country – a lot of these immigrant integrated successfully. They learnt Greek, made friends, blended in, set up businesses. And if some report instances of racism in their work or social environment, a recent study showed that this does not extend to their children attending Greek school. A new law is in the process of being passed, which will ease the acquiring of Greek nationality for these children. Ironically, quite a few of these immigrants have now gone back to their countries, where conditions have improved compared to the deteriorating ones in Greece.

image