“Domates, patates, karekles…”
The man’s voice, thick with dust and heat and cigarettes, plagued me every morning. “Tomatoes, potatoes, chairs…” It is such a bizarre collection of things to sell, but wherever you go in Greece there will be a broken-down old van, slowly doing the rounds on the tight Greek streets with this foul voice coming through a cheap tannoy wanting to sell you “Domates, patates, karekles…”
Greece is a country of sounds. All of them loud. Crossing Filellion Street in Athens the men driving beaten-up cars that look like boxers’ face – the fronts like busted noses – thump at their horns. The car’s horns are dead though, through overuse, now just emitting a wheezing squeak like an old dog whose voice has become a croak. The real dogs, still with their voices intact, won’t let you take a walk anywhere in Greece of course. Just the idea of taking a stroll and they bark their livid complaints, sprinting out from alleyways with slavering jaws. Howling dogs on short chains up on balconies, bad tempered men down on the streets below shouting out from periptero kiosks. People gathered and talking loudly to each other, just to reassure themselves, to know that there’s someone there. Greeks often seem to me like children afraid of the dark – they always need company. Old men with nothing left to say must sit side-by-side with their friend in the cafe. Giristroula left me once for the weekend and I was enjoying the idea of a little time on my own – my mother-in-law called absolutely everyone she knew in Athens to come round to see me, fearful I would be lonely. Visitor after visitor, people I had never even met before, sitting on and on. The idea of being on your own in Greece is madness, a sin.
My mother-in-law had been released from Evangelismos hospital. For a long time as she had lain there on the top floor – overlooking Athens at night with the national gardens plunged in darkness, the Parthenon on its rock plundered and broken but magical – it was touch-and-go. The family kept vigil day after day, smoking furiously, faces haggard and grim. She was out now though, and we were to take her to recuperate on the island of Lesbos.
The boat from Piraeus approached Lesbos in the early dawn light. The island on the horizon emerging and then changing shape as we got nearer, stretching and shifting like a cat waking itself up. We were here as my parents-in-law’s koubaroi lived here, in a red tower set all on its own on the Aegean seashore a few miles down the road from the town of Plomari. We could hear the trees full of tzitzikia – the insects filling the air with their clicking songs before we got off the boat, sounding like a thousand guiro instruments rubbed with a thousand sticks. They say that if the tzitzikia ever go quiet, Greece will fall. But then they also say that if you take Greece apart and in the end you are left with just an olive tree, a vineyard and a boat, you can rebuild it again. My mother-in-law spent her days slowly repairing herself on the veranda looking out to where the sea and sky met, looking out towards the edge of Turkey’s mainland and the Greek island of Chios.
Meropi, the koubara, talked to me as she stirred her huge pans of food on the outside fire about how she was related to the great Greek poet Elytis from this island. Lesbos was once prosperous, but when the Turkish were routed in Greece the trading markets and the money was cut off. Just like her island, Meropi’s family also lost their prestige and money along the way, and she now lived in the one timbered-room Ottoman tower. Her husband, Mihalis, set off swimming into the sea every morning with his long hand-held trident to hunt for octopus. I watched him as he returned, flinging the octopus against the rocks in the shallows again and again and again to soften it for our lunch. We would sit on the terrace and drink ouzo – famous from this island, the very best you can find – glasses after glass. “To proto!” Mihalis would toast with each new glassful – “The first!” – as you are really not meant to count how many you sink here.
Giristroula and I left her mother sat in her chair looking out at the water in the hot afternoon as the wind got up and created a racing sea with hundreds of white waves breaking out beyond – provatakia the Greeks call them: little sheep. We went to explore the island. Lesbos seems totally unbuilt on. From Olympus, its highest mountain, you can only see green hills. We walked through the smattering of villages, past a bus stop where no bus looked as if it had ever arrived – a goat stood tied to the bus stop pole chewing at overgrowing weeds. We found a man with a taxi. He drove us manically down the roads past the hills carpeted in olive trees, throwing the car through the bends. I reached for the sea belt, but his hand came out to stop me.
“You don’t have to do that,” he chuckled. “Here is Greece! We do what we want… Do whatever you like!”
”Well, I would really like to to wear a seat belt…” I said.
“No,” he snapped.
We got to the village of Eressos – Sappho’s home. Sappho the great poetess of ancient times, and supposed heroine of homosexual desire. Sapphic, Lesbian, these words come directly from this island. And women still gravitate to Eressos to be free in their sexuality. Open displays of lesbianism and the freedom to celebrate individuality are quite rare in Greece, but here the women – cross-armed, legs astride the chairs – sit next to the old men in the cafes. The men with their big yellowing moustaches playing backgammon, hoping to get away from their wives for the afternoon, happily sitting side-by-side with the handsome lesbians smoking their cigars. Giristroula and I swam out from the long stretch of orange sand beach as the sun set, and we were still swimming as the stars rose in the sky. Then later, as the moon started to shine brightly and the stars got shy, we hitched a lift and made our slow way back home, round the huge bay of Kaloni that has eaten deep into the island, giving Lesbos its odd shape like an artist’s palette.
There was a piled up collection of life jackets on the beach in front of the red tower. Meropi told me how she would see the boats from Turkey, carrying refugees from the Syrian civil war, out on the sea at night sailing to Lesbos. They would land here, on her beach. Up on the road there would often be men shining lights shouting for the boats to come their way. They would then take the boats, take the motors off, take them back to Turkey. The refugees, staggered to be on land would rip off their life jackets, making their way up the pebbled shore, throwing them to the ground in relief to have made it. There hadn’t been a landing for months now on Meropi’s beach, but the jackets lay here as reminders. Hundreds of red and yellow markers.
Giristroula and I travelled one day further down to the south of the island. Skala Sykamias is a pretty little fishing village, known first of all for it’s oddly named church Panagia Gorgona – the Virgin Mary As A Mermaid – then for the tree that famous author Myrivilis wrote under. Later the village had gained notoriety for Demetra, an old gruff fisherman who found her real self later in life and now promenades up down the small fishing boat harbour in stockings and suspenders and full make-up – again, rare in Greece, newspaper men were even sent to report. More dramatically and significantly though Skala Sykamias had become known now throughout the world as one of the main landing places for refugees fleeing Iraq and Syria and north Africa. 2,000 refugees landing every day. The lucky ones. I went for a swim just outside the village and when I came out one resident waiting on the beach came up to talk to me. “You know you’ve been swimming stin thalassa me ta ptomata…” It took me a moment to translate this in my head. The sea of corpses. There was a chill feeling hanging over this village.
The Greeks, being Greek, have many theories as to why the refugees kept coming. Turkey, Germany, they’re sure someone is behind it. “Tsipras came,” one man told me. “The days before he came there were hundreds of boats. When he was here, not a single boat came across. Then, after he left, I counted 48 boats coming over. How did they know? You tell me that…”
The island was suffering. The camp at the small village of Moria outside Mytilini was at bursting point. We had driven past it the night before and seen the refugees spilling outside, walking in bunches down the unlit roads, sat listlessly on the grass. Boredom, frustration. Men praying towards Mecca in the olive trees. The refugees were penned in these camps as Europe waited to decide what to do: who to let through, who to send back, which borders should be shut. The residents of Lesbos couldn’t understand what was happening either, couldn’t understand what was happening to their island. But of course this confusion and sense of grievance that their lives here had been altered by uncaring outside world didn’t stopped them from helping – the hearts of the Greeks often as open as the sea itself. The people of Lesbos were even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts rescuing the collapsed boats, pulling people out of the Aegean to safety, helping the weary female refugees and their children. But when three old ladies of Lesbos were told of their nomination, they had little time for it. “What special am I doing? Wouldn’t you do the same?” said the 86-year-old Maritsa Mavrapidou. Fisherman Stratis Valiamos seemed stunned to be approached by reporters. “I’m out fishing, I can see people shouting for help. What can I do? Pretend I can’t see? Pretend I can’t hear?”
The whole of Greece has been affected by the migrants that have come to the country. The baker of Kos who woke up early every morning to make 200 extra pounds of bread to give away to the migrants. The men of less good intentions, circling round Victoria Square in Athens with specious offers to smuggle the desperate away over the borders for cash. Cash that is never seen again. I remembered a few years ago staying with Giristroula’s cousin in Thessaloniki. Maria went every day to the Lagadikia camp outside the city, she played games and entertained the children there. She said it wasn’t too bad, the containers where the refugees were housed were heated, the spirits of the people hadn’t sunk too low. Now the camp had three times the amount of people as it should. The containers had been overtaken by rain-soaked tents. Maria had gone every day to the camp full of purpose and hope – I sat with her on a bus one day as she went to work in the camp, sat amongst the Thessalonikian commuters, Maria dressed as a clown with full make-up and curly red wig. The last time I had spoken to her though she had lost her positivism, and her hope. “I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of people arrive. They have nowhere to go, we are their very last resource. Where does the money go for them? Ta troi i marmaga! – it falls in the black hole, between the EU and Greece? Or between Greece and the camp? I don’t know. They have fled war, and they just can’t believe that this is how Europe is receiving them…”
Arion of Lesbos, the greatest lyra player of classical times, once threw himself from a ship into this very sea I looked at from Skala Sykamias. He threw himself into the waters to avoid capture by pirates. Arion is seen as a hero, a great example of the contempt for danger the Greeks have, and his courage was rewarded by the gods as he was rescued by a school of dolphins. Arion and the dolphins have now been put in the sky as stars. There are no dolphins for the refugees though.
The people of Skala Sykamias are good, but they are tired. I talked to one woman as I walked on the dusty road just outside the village on the way to Molyvos.
“How would you like it?” she said to me. “How would you like it if a Muslim man gets off the boat and straight away tells your daughter to cover up, to not wear her bikini? Because he has never seen a girl’s skin before. How would you like it if your son was swimming in the sea and a severed head washed up on the beach? How would you like to live here?”
I thought of the small village I had seen. The church and the tree and Demetra the ex-fisherman sashaying by, and the men mending their nets on the harbour wall; the tranquil beauty that I had seen of the place. And I couldn’t answer her.
PART TWO TO COME SOON…