Archives: Greece 2019

Slow boat to Athens

It’s Sunday lunchtime and I’m sitting on the back deck of a ferry that’s carrying me, everso slowly, to Athens. It’s the day time boat, the one that stops at six or seven islands on the way and takes 17 hours to Piraeus. I chose it because it’s hard to leave my new friends behind and I prefer to do so slowly. I will miss them a lot, particularly the young Syrian who’s been teaching me Arabic, and whose friendship has made all the difference to my time in Mytilene.

A handful of new passengers boarded the boat at Samos, where conditions for the refugee population are said to be much worse than in Lesbos. For the last 45 minutes a tall, thin young man has been pacing up and down the deck, with a large holdall slung across his shoulders, talking to somebody in Arabic on his mobile. I was watching him on and off, imagining that perhaps he’s talking to his mum or his brother in Iraq or Syria. Perhaps he’s just got his papers and is on his way to Athens. How incredibly brave, it seems to me, to stand on a ship which is taking you ever further from your family and the world in which you grew up, and to phone home and tell them that you’re fine. Which perhaps he is, in a way; but what a massive, challenging adventure he’s in the middle of. (I don’t think people tell their families in any detail about the difficulties of their journeys to asylum in Europe. They know that for the people they’ve left behind, life is also extremely difficult.)

This morning the ship left Lesbos at 6.45 am. I sat out on the top deck for a long while, watching the town recede and trying to pinpoint my landlady’s house, in the folds of the hills to the south of the town. When I went down to explore the lower decks, I found small groups of Roma stretched out on the floor on rugs, with pillows and blankets. Mum, dad and kids all cuddled up together, like a litter of kittens. In some places they were blocking the gangways, but nobody seemed to mind. This weekend, I’d heard, Roma from all over Greece gather on Lesbos to visit the shrine of a saint at Taxiarches, somewhere in the north of the island. The travel agent warned me to avoid the Sunday night boat, because it would be so crowded with returning pilgrims, and they would all be on the decks. ‘It won’t be pleasant’, he’d said with a grimace. Perhaps the Roma on this ship are ones who couldn’t get tickets for tonight’s boat.

A man in a stripey T shirt and shorts has been strutting around the deck for an hour with a selfie stick, taking photos, mostly of himself but occasionally including a fat woman in a red sun dress.

Now it’s nearly three pm and the ship is gliding slowly through a group of islands to the west (?) of Samos. From the sea the land appears rocky and barren, with few trees, uncultivable. There are steep rocky outcrops – small mountains, rising to perhaps 1400 metres but it’s hard to tell. Uninhabitable, I thought about the last island; but ten minutes further on I was picking out the line of a stone wall snaking up the hillside; and then we rounded a point and there was a small port, all white houses and orange roofs and lush sap green bushes among the grey-green foliage of olive trees. Cypresses, too, and a line of wooden telegraph poles climbing the steep hill behind the port. The ship backs towards the dock, and now a couple of dozen people have gathered at the railing.

And now its 7.27pm and the boat is reversing out of Schios, the rear deck crowded with at least a hundred teenagers who just boarded and have taken over all the chairs. They’ve got their music blaring and they’re huddled together at the circular tables, mostly boys, some in baseball caps, hormonal and anxious like British teenagers, spotty, determined to give the impression they’re having a good time. My good mood of the earlier part of the day is fading as I weary of the stink of cigarette smoke wafting under my nose regardless of where I choose to sit, the sound of plastic chairs being scraped across metal, the screeching of fishwives with topknots and the ceaseless juddering of the engines. I like the judder when I’m lying down on a bench in the fresh air, it lulls me to sleep; but when I’m sitting up on deck in a port, it makes me feel slightly sick.

The last few port stops have been executed with ever greater speed, as if the captain is determined to get us to Piraeus on time, come what may. Ten minutes before we dock a bossy woman’s voice announces, in Greek and English ‘We have now reached the port of X and passengers for X must please disembark.’ She says this at least three times, despite the fact that the ship is still moving and disembarkation would entail jumping overboard into the water. The first stop, this morning, at Xhios, was for an hour or more. This last one at Schios was no more than seven minutes.

And what a bizarre looking place Schios is. Three pointed hills crammed with box-like, pastel coloured buildings form the town above the docks. The central hill is like something in a children’s story book: shaped like an upside down V, it has a fairy tale quality (but not pretty, in fact almost spooky); and on the summit stands a large, imposing, primrose yellow church. So sugary and pale are the colours of the buildings that the town reminds me of an overly-decorated birthday cake. Unlike in the port towns in the northern Aegean, there is almost no greenery between the buildings. In fact, from my brief glimpse from the deck I would say there were no gaps between the buildings in which anything could grow. The blocks were rammed together tightly, in a pyramid formation, ten along the bottom, nine above, eight above and so on, till the solo church at the top rested on two houses.

Olive trees in Syria

I’ve now quit OHF, for reasons I won’t go into. I spend my evenings teaching English, very happily, to two Syrians and an Iraqi. We sit out on a balcony under the stars, wrapped in coats because it’s not that warm. Last night we were discussing lentil soup, which is a staple here among refugees, for obvious reasons. One of the Syrians told me that on his family’s land, in Syria, they grow lentils. I told him I’ve never seen the lentil plant, because it’s too cold for it in England. Then I asked what else he grows.

‘Olives, we’ve got twenty trees at least. Our olive oil’s the best in Syria!’

‘Twenty!’ I pictured a grove of gnarled and ancient trunks, and branches groaning with green olives. ‘What else?’

‘Almonds, walnuts, apples, oranges… vegetables. Our land’s fantastic, it produces the best of everything.’

Conversations like this bring home to me just how hard it is to be driven out of your country by a murderous regime; and then be obliged to live in poverty in Greece.


Easter Monday

On Easter Monday I hitch hiked with a friend to Plomari, a seaside village twenty five kilometers from Mytilene. The first driver to pick us up was a Greek in his sixties. He was here on holiday with his daughter, he told us; he’d lived in France for the last forty years and spoke fluent French. When I told him we were working with refugees, he replied very firmly:

‘There aren’t any Syrians left on Lesvos. Just Moroccans and other North Africans pretending to be Syrian.’

I knew for a fact that he was wrong, and was wondering whether to point out that I can tell from a person’s accent if somebody’s from Syria or not. There’s no way a Moroccan can successfully fake a Syrian accent – or for that matter the dialect of Arabic that Syrians speak. But the guy was driving and I decided to keep my mouth shut.

‘Where in France do you live?’ I enquired.

‘Marseille! Which is all-Arab these days. Not a French man left.’ Again, I was tempted to argue, but held my tongue. By now I was curious about the guy’s attitudes. Surely as a Greek migrant worker he must have had some experience of French xenophobia?

‘They’re all traitors, the Arabs who live in France,’ the man went on, as he accelerated. ‘They pose a great danger to the country.’

Our second lift was with a young French couple who work at an independent refugee camp. They dropped us on the beach in Plomari. It was a windy, sunny, warm day and big waves were rolling onto the shore. Immediately beside the beach, tables were set for an Easter Monday feast on the outdoor seating area of a taverna. On the far side of the road, a sheep was roasting on a spit.

Labour Day in Ayvalik

Arriving home just now at 9.30pm, the smell of jasmine surrounded me as I stepped out of the taxi. The lights of the Turkish coastline were bright in the distance; immediately below the road, the dense foliage of the citrus grove rustled in the darkness. And then, as the taxi driver slowly turned his vehicle round, under the spreading branches of the platanos tree which is the landmark I’ve been told to ask for when I take a cab, my landlady’s little dog started to bark in greeting. This dog is both annoying and endearing by turns. He’s utterly harmless and so desperate for attention that when he runs towards me in the dark, barking, he then throws himself on the ground and rolls on his back, in the hope that I’m going to tickle his tummy. I never do. I tell him firmly in my best Greek to shut up, as given half a chance he would follow me into my living room. He disappears into the darkness, I feel guilty, but a moment later he’s barking at some insignificant rustle and I’m cursing him.

Today I went to Ayvalik in Turkey, on the car ferry, with a German volunteer who speaks fluent Turkish. It was an overcast, cloudy day, not very hot, but lovely sitting on the deck this morning watching Mytilene disappear and the irregular Turkish coastline taking shape before my eyes. I find the idea that by crossing five miles of sea you make the transition from Europe to Asia Minor both bizarre and astonishing. It’s thirteen years since I was last in the Middle East proper and I was quietly excited.

The ferry moored beside an ancient, wrecked schooner lying on its side, half submerged – quite a sight. Above it on the outskirts of the town stood a square, solid building in terracotta pink, with peeling paintwork, rows of officious-looking windows and a couple of short, stout palm trees. I’d expected Ayvalik to look quite like Mytilene but on the contrary, this building immediately reminded me of government buildings in Iraqi Kurdistan.

There was a bit of confusion at passport control – did I need a visa for a one-day visit or not – and then we were out on the street, making for a nearby mosque. The minaret was tall and slender, beside a bulbous dome. Probably the building was originally a church, in the days before 1923 when this was Greek territory. We took off our shoes in the lobby and I found a headscarf in my bag. Inside was a simple, square room with a red patterned carpet, Arabic calligraphy painted near the top of the walls and a wooden spiral staircase in one corner leading up to the platform where the women sit. The place was empty except for an old man. He sat  propped against the wall, with his stockinged feet stretched out in front of him and a lectern resting on his knees, incanting prayers in Arabic. He sang slowly and with intense focus and it was easy to pick out some of the words. The atmosphere was utterly peaceful and we both wanted to linger. I thought of my dad, who is ninety seven, and till recently used to lie in bed meditating in a rather similar position.

When we came out of the mosque we turned up a narrow residential street of uneven cobbles that led further up hill. A stream of water ran down the middle, from a burst pipe. Weeds grew between the stones. There was absolutely no traffic – such a change from Mytilene, where mopeds terrorise pedestrians on every alleyway. It was Labour Day today, a public holiday.

The houses were small and tatty, painted in pale colours, and we passed more than one collapsed building behind a broken-down wooden fence. Very large dogs lay snoozing on their sides in doorways. Funny how the Greeks generally keep small, lap-dog size dogs, that bark fiercely as you pass, whereas in Ayvalik these huge dogs were passive and gentle.

After ten or fifteen minutes we came to the main square. Everything was open: there were mobile phone shops and underwear and opticians and shops selling plastic handbags and suitcases. We sat down in a pavement café beside a bronze sculpture of a horse. Tea was brought, first in glass cups, by a man who responded with great friendliness to my friend’s Turkish; but the second round came in tiny tea glasses. These reminded me so much of Iraqi Kurdistan that my eyes filled with tears.