I spent most of my fall in Athens even though it is not the kind of place I would normally want to visit for more than a day or two. Athens is a train wreck — dirty, ugly, full of hazards like slippery sidewalks, crazy drivers and railings on sixth floor verandas that are easily scaled by ambitious toddlers. Most of Athens is block after block of grey cement apartment buildings, built without love or pride in the 1950s after developers tore down most of the city’s historic architectural treasures. The city is walk-able if you can ignore the car exhaust and cigarette smoke, which too often competes with the smell of cat pee.
I keep going to Athens anyway to “volunteer” and spend time with my unusual second family whose members are also “volunteers.” I use quotes because I no longer think of myself or my unusual second family as “volunteers.” Whatever we do is more of a compulsion than voluntary. How do you walk away from a man with twin babies who haven’t had milk for two days or a woman who is nine months pregnant and doesn’t know how to get to a hospital?
There are thousands of people stuck in Athens right now and most spent their life savings getting to Europe. So there are a lot of needs and a lot of those needs aren’t being met by the European Union, the Greek government or the big NGOs.
This round, one of the compulsions of my unusual second family was to develop a little English language school at one of the squats. The kids are smart and affectionate and eager to learn. Sometimes they trick us into giving them extra star stickers because they know we love them. The little ones come because the big kids are there. We know they are learning even if they seem to be doing nothing more than enjoying a banana or scribbling on a table.
At another squat, we help with emergency food supplies when the NGO deliveries are inadequate, which is always. We delivered underwear and shavers and shampoo to a government camp because the government does not provide such things. Anne-Lene brought hundreds of pounds of warm clothes and shoes from Norway (highest quality!). We bought a washing machine that will be shared by 100 people. Fahim and Hesham coach children’s football (soccer) at the camps and help with Farsi to English and Arabic to English translations. After a long day at his NGO job, Sayed takes teenagers living on the street to a hostel and calls half dozen NGOs to get them permanent services. He also worked with Nanci and me on workshops that provided information about the asylum claims process and and and…He is tireless.
Our gestures barely make a dent in the bottomless pit of needs in this city that is nothing like the Europe we thought we knew. Yes we are helping but I don’t think of it that way because I get so much out of it. I love the people I meet and I feel connected to something bigger and more important than what is right in front of me.
My time in Greece wasn’t all work. I returned to Lesvos for a few days with Nanci and Sayed. I remembered the feelings there that changed me a little forever. It is still a sort of paradise, now with a sense of morning after exhaustion and uncertainty about its economic future. Although the world has turned its attention to other things, the island’s heroism will be remembered by a half million people who landed there and the thousands of volunteers who will never be quite the same.
Another weekend, six of us drove to Delphi, Apollo’s sanctuary, where the oracle advised the elite of the 4th century. We were so happy to be in the mountains with the spirits of Greek gods. We hiked and played cards and laughed until our jaws ached.
Back in Athens, there were the usual wonderful dinners and the kids and the dancing and a Halloween celebration we won’t forget.
I am in Italy, on my way home.
“Your heart knows the way. Run in that direction.”