Archives: Misc

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.


Ramadan began last Monday. There had been talk at OHF of many less people attending the centre, as the forty minute walk to and fro, for those living in Moria, would be too much on an empty stomach. It was anticipated that the number of visiting refugees would drop from roughly 900 per day to 200. Those who came would be mainly Christians and a few Moslems who were either non-believers or had decided not to fast, for a variety of reasons. There is no requirement to fast if you’re pregnant or unwell; and some of the younger male refugees decided not to fast because they felt it would be too difficult given their demanding jobs.

I’d never really thought much about how hard it must be to fast during the hours of daylight for a whole month, particularly in summer, when the days are long. It’s merciful this year that the weather is relatively cool.

One friend who was planning to fast told me that the first week is by far the hardest. You get headaches and stomach cramps while your body adjusts to the new regime. You feel incredibly tired. But then it gets easier; and by the end of the month you feel an extraordinary sense of lightness and liberation. Your body and your mind and heart feel cleaned and refreshed.

When I saw this friend mid-week she was paler than usual and she seemed tired. That fitted with what I’ve heard elsewhere. At Bristol Refugee Rights, a quiet, pensive mood used to descend during Ramadan on what was during the rest of the year a noisy hall full of conversation and debate. By Saturday, my friend had visibly lost weight; but her spirits were rising again. It was all getting easier, she told me. I felt so much admiration for her strength and determination.

Of my three students, only one was fasting: the oldest of the three. When I arrived for an evening lesson mid-week, he was asleep on the balcony on a camp bed, covered from head to toe by a blanket. He’s not getting up for the lesson, the others told me: he’s exhausted. When we met again later in the week, I was a bit shocked to see how much thinner he looked, and how haggard. This is a man with a wiry frame, who works incredibly hard: the kind of person who never sits down. He’d spent Saturday morning scything a field for a friend, and had cut his finger quite badly. It was a warm day, and the exertion with no chance of drinking even a glass of water would have been tough on the body; then the shock of the accident. But he was uncomplaining, though in a hurry for our lesson to end, so that he could go and rest.

‘Islam’s hard,’ I remarked, meaning ‘Islam demands a lot of its adherents’.

‘No,’ he replied, ‘it’s not hard. People misunderstand it, all the time.’ He went on to say that very few people follow Islam correctly. For those who do, it’s a wonderful path. As to the impact of fasting, yes it’s hard, but by the end of the month, he knew from experience he would feel an intense happiness.

I felt moved by his courage. This man’s life in Lesbos is full of insecurity. He’s living in poverty, with only just enough to eat when he’s not fasting, and no money in his pocket. The future is full of risk. But he has the strength of character to hang onto what has always been important to him, and to know that he’ll come through the short term suffering.

Climate change and an old man

This morning it was so cold that I struggled to keep the door open onto the patio. Thirteen degrees, according to my phone. I worked on my laptop all morning and by lunchtime I was feeling chilled.

But this afternoon I went out with my paints, climbed the very steep concrete road at the back of the house, and sat on a low parapet wall, comfortably, with one foot on the road, the other dangling down the rocky hill and a flat area for my palette. The rock is a kind of shale, laid down in fine layers, ready to splinter. From this position I had a fabulous view back down the hill and into a cluster of red roofed houses and a chapel, with the sea behind and the blue-green silhouette of the Turkish coast on the horizon. Very paintable. The sun came out from behind a dense cloud and began to warm the left side of my neck. After a while I was able to take off my fleece. Within an hour my left leg was getting so hot inside my black jeans that I thought I was burning. Not very clever. But this is an isolated spot, where the concrete road peters out and is replaced by a dirt track that winds around the contour through the unending olive groves. I’d not seen anybody up here, ever; all the occasional comings and goings of cars and mopeds are to the group of houses at the foot of the hill. So I got up, hid behind a bush, pulled down my jeans and slapped a lot of suncream onto my leg, which was bright red. When I came back out, to my astonishment, the bearded figure of an old man, bent almost double under the weight of a sack, was advancing up the hill in the shade. He was raggedly dressed and leaning on a big wooden stick; he looked like a figure out of the past, unlike anybody I’ve seen in Mytilene. I sat back down astride my wall and waited for him to get closer. Then I called out the only greetings I know in Greek and held out my painting, so that he could see what I was up to.

The old man replied with a stream of friendly words, and seemed pleased when I tried to say how beautiful the landscape is. He sat down on the low concrete wall on the opposite side of the road – in the shade, which is where I should have been. I went on painting, but was thinking about the history of modern Greece which I’ve been reading when I wake in the middle of the night. It talks about the Greek struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire in the early nineteenth century and the long slow process by which the nation was formed. Much of the territory which became modern Greece was peopled by illiterate peasant farmers, and my companion seemed to belong more to that nineteenth century world than to the twenty first. After a few minutes he started speaking again and gesturing with his hands. The language sounded amazing and I wished I could understand. Eventually I realized that he was asking where I was from, so I tried saying Britain and England, first in Arabic then in English. ‘England!’ he cried, pleased to recognize a word.

At that moment a much younger man drove up the hill on a moped and dismounted beside my friend. After a brief conversation and waving goodbye to me, the pair set off together along the dirt road.

The sea at twilight

After three days of work, my painter’s eye is beginning to focus. I’m sitting over my supper at the outdoor tressle table, studying the milky blue line which divides the twilight sea from the twilight hills of the Turkish coast. It just dawned on me that above the milky blue line, which is the edge of the sea, there’s an inky, dark line. It’s very subtle, but it’s there allright. This evening the cloud’s very low. A few moments ago the colour of the Turkish hills, which are only visible in silhouette, was identical to the colour of the sea. But now the sea has grown lighter and the milky blue line has changed to milky turquoise. However anybody succeeds in painting at twilight, god knows. You have to work at lightning speed.

In the middle of the expanse of pale blue sea a dazzlingly white boat drifts slowly towards Lesbos. It won’t be a refugee boat, more like a pleasure cruiser. The refugees come in rubber dinghies.

Last night one of my students told me that his father and grandmother have six thousand olive trees on their land in Syria. The olive oil they make is out of this world delicious, but they don’t sell it, they use it all. I imagine that means for the whole extended family. He thought the average yield was four hundred litres, but I suspect it’s much more. At least one litre per tree – possibly a lot more. He’s the third Syrian I’ve met who’s told me about their family’s olive trees. I remember when I was in Syria in 1992, at Christmas time, a friend and I took a bus out of Aleppo to explore the countryside. After a bumpy ride of more than an hour, we were dropped on the edge of a village, among low, scrubby hills planted with olives. It was sleeting but we were well wrapped up. We walked freely between the trees: there were no fences and we didn’t meet anybody until we got back on the next bus to return to the city.

While I was writing that, the Turkish hills melted into the sky and a very faint chain of pale yellow began to show above the dark blue line: the lights of the coast.

This morning I climbed the steep hill behind my place, looking for a place to sit and paint. It’s not always easy to find somewhere I can sit reasonably comfortably for a couple of hours, with a view which I want to work from. I went a little way along the dirt road which begins where the concrete one ends. Over to the south between two olive trees I saw, for the first time, an orange-roofed village high up on the shoulder of a small mountain. A road zig zagged down the hill out of the village; the sky was an intense blue above the roofs. The land fell away steeply into a deep valley between the dirt track and the village, so I was able to perch on the edge of the track with my legs comfortably below me. I sat there all morning, driven a bit mad by a strong wind which kept trying to blow my palette away. For the first twenty minutes, a dog barked aggressively somewhere below me in the valley. It wasn’t worryingly close, but the sound is never very pleasant. Then, over towards the village, a donkey started to bray. I have a thing about donkeys, so I liked that. And all the while, a couple of birds were calling their sweet, plaintive song, a bit like the sound a peewith makes.

Now the sea has turned a uniform pink, reflecting the pink clouds up above. I’m getting cold.

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.

The art table

Working on the ‘art table’ at OHF involved taking paper and drawing materials from the art cupboard and sitting down at one of the long tressle tables in the main hall. Here young men, ninety five percent of them Afghans, sit to play cards, converse and play on their mobile phones. Most are aged from their late teens to mid twenties; a handful are older. (Sometimes a group of four middle aged men would sit together, playing cards. They had weather-beaten, handsome faces and reminded me of Cezanne’s card players.)

I would sit down at a table with some space, spread out my stuff and start drawing or making a collage. Very loud music, constant movement in the hall, the buzz of conversation and my lack of Farsi made it impossible to explain a structured project of any kind. But most days, within half an hour there would be a few people drawing around me. Sometimes people would come up and watch what I was doing for a few minutes. I dealt with the excruciating noise by becoming very focused on my drawing; but eventually I’d look up, ask them if they wanted to draw and if they nodded, I gave them a sheet of paper and one of my Faber Castell pencils. Some sat down and gazed around uncomfortably, unsure where to start; others immediately searched for an image on their phones, usually a photo of a face which they liked, and started to copy it.

The first days few days I brought in lemons and an orange from the citrus grove by my place. I laid them out on a sheet of coloured paper with a sprig of olive leaves and a rubber tree leaf picked on the way into Mytilini. I drew them, and enjoyed it; but very few of the refugees took up the idea. One or two would pick up the orange and pretend to be about to sink their teeth into it. Then it dawned on me that they have a poor diet at Moria and the sight of fresh fruit might be difficult.

Sometimes half way through the morning, one or two women would come and join us. I was always pleased. And towards lunch time children would appear. The idea was that anybody and everybody should be given materials if they showed interest; it was, as one of the long term volunteers put it, an ‘open space’.

Two images appeared regularly in the drawings that were produced. One, a curious bird, a bit like a peacock, with a large breast and a long tail. I imagine it’s some symbol of Afghanistan. The other was a very stylized, curling stem of leaves with flowers attached, spread at regular intervals along the stem. People would spend up to two hours colouring in the petals bright red and the stem a uniform green.

To me the most interesting piece of work was done by a man with a bony, intelligent face, who came several times and communicated to me that he was intent on learning to draw better. He had a wonderful smile and would work for hours in silence, very focused despite the hubbub going on around him. One day he did a very small drawing of a house in the middle of a spacious, scrubby landscape. The next day I got out some paints and he drew and painted what he said was the camp at Moria, with the olive groves around it. He showed me a google earth image of the camp on his phone; his painting closely mirrored it.

In general the children speak English better than the adults. A boy of about ten carefully drew and coloured a sign saying ‘MORIA, NO GOOD’.

Collage must have seemed a very odd idea as very few people did it. I was having a lovely time making collages of the sea and the Turkish coastline – we had red, blue and green tissue paper only – and people would sometimes watch with interest but mostly not want to join in. One man, however, a young dad of about twenty, made a wonderful three dimensional collage, with pieces of stone and a flower attached.

When people had finished their drawings, they would either leave them on the table and walk away, or hand them to me. I tried to suggest that they keep their work, but nobody wanted to. After a few days I was given some blutak and started putting work up on the walls.

Frogs, cats, dogs, pony

Lesbos is a troubled island. Before the refugee crisis, they say, it had a thriving tourist industry. Since 2015 that’s been seriously damaged, and Greece as a whole remains in the throes of economic crisis. There’s resentment on the part of the Greek inhabitants of Lesbos towards both the refugees and the mostly European volunteers who come here to work with them. Refugees sometimes experience intense hostility and have to be vigilant while moving around the island away from the camps. For the volunteers life is much easier, but sometimes islanders make plain that they dislike us. It helps of course if you speak Greek, but most of us don’t. I’ve tried to pick up a few words and make an effort to greet people politely in the street and in shops. Mostly, so far, I’ve had a friendly response. I would love to study Greek, but have decided I can’t make progress with two languages at once and Arabic is more important to me.

When I walk down into Mytilene in the mornings, the first thing I pass is an irrigation tank in the olive grove below the lane. Frogs croak so loud they could be old men chatting. On the opposite side of the lane, a handful of cats inhabit two giant plastic wheelie bins overflowing with rubbish bags. They’re a sorry sight, mangy, nervous of humans and desperate for food. I saw a cat pick up a rubbish bag in its mouth and drag it away to pick through. Five minutes later, when I get to the first apartment buildings, barking breaks out. People keep dogs for security, although there’s supposedly very little crime on the island. My impression is the dogs are fed well enough but mostly ignored; certainly never taken for walks.

The apartment buidings on the left are new, ugly and freshly painted. On the right a ruined bar clings to the hillside. It’s door’s ajar and inside the collapsed roof trails down over what was once the counter. The brickwork that remains is attractive: it’s an old building which has been abandoned. There are lots of abandoned and semi-ruined buildings in Mytilini; some of them massive villas from the days when wealthy Greeks came here for their holidays. Some are squatted by refugees and homeless Greeks, but not this one. It’s in too much of a mess.

After ten minutes I turn onto a bigger road, where I have to watch out for hurtling mopeds and speeding cars. There’s a pavement on the right, and soon I come to the grey pony. He stands at the top of a narrow stretch of waste ground, on which there’s no grass at all, just churned up earth. It’s between a new building and another ruin, and fenced off from the road by a tall wire fence. The pony’s thin with a pretty, dappled coat. He stands as close as possible to the wire, looking out, as if he’s desperate for company – not to mention food. He has a very gentle, sweet-natured look. Sometimes I stop and stroke his nose, but then the dog in the adjoining garden starts to yap and I move on.

In ten minutes I’m on the seafront in Mytilini, approaching the marina. It’s full of the white yachts of the wealthy; but the municipal park opposite is overgrown, unkempt and littered with rubbish. Presumably there’s no money in the public coffers to pay for gardeners.

After the marina there’s a giant car park, with a couple of supermarkets down one side. The car park is the domain (literally, they live there) of a number of Roma families. They make money by begging, using their children to play on people’s emotions, and adopting aggressive tactics if they don’t get what they want. When I was here a year ago a little girl scratched me hard enough to draw blood when I refused to give her money. So it’s a car park to cross at speed.