It’s been a whirlwind 48 hours in Greece. I haven’t taken many photos, because I’ve been busy being so darned present. Yesterday evening I took the metro in from the airport and bounced off of the AirBnB room I’m renting in an apartment in city center to go explore the strangely quiet city. Athens felt muffled by Good Friday, when most Greeks go out to their home villages to celebrate the Easter holiday, and a quiet reverence seemed to dominate all but the most touristy streets.
I hadn’t eaten anything substantial for 10 hours and hadn’t really slept for 24 hours, but I couldn’t stop walking through Athens until well after midnight. I felt delirious from hunger, exhaustion, and jet lag, but also electrified by the rediscovery of the addicting joy of exploring a foreign city alone. Athens feels familiar enough that I can walk around without a map or the pressure of a camera, and I know which metro lines to take to my favorite spots. I love the dynamic, complicated, historic, artistic energy of this city. I love being here for a purpose, and feeling connected, even if peripherally, to one of the two great crises currently gripping the country.
In my wanderings yesterday, I quietly slipped in among chatty churchgoers who congregated in a low-ceilinged nave to light votive candles. I put a few euros in the donation jar and chose a small yellow wax candle from the display and imitated the Greeks, who reverently lit and placed their candles in sea of dozens of tiny flames set in a spinning, gilded tray. I held the tens of thousands of refugees stuck in Greece in my thoughts as I set my candle in the sand. I decided that even though neither they nor I are Greek Orthodox, spending a moment to honor our hosts wouldn’t hurt anyone.
Later that night, each church had a procession through the streets. Dozens of people, carrying candles walked silently behind a legion of priests from their parish carrying icons and regal symbols of Christ’s coffin. The various processions culminated in Syntagma Square- home of the Greek Parliament. I followed on the outskirts of the official government parade. It was a subdued procession, with rows of Greek policemen in formal uniforms doing a slow sway-march to the beat of the military band’s dirge. A dozen nuns walked solemnly in front of the young-looking Greek Navy contingent, and behind them a cluster of bearded high priests were flanked by soldiers.
No separation of church and state here!
The next day, I had a lunch meeting with fellow Drops coordinators, and finally met the woman, the myth, the legend, Trude, who founded the Drops in the Ocean. Over Greek salad, octopus, and fried cheese, I was brought up to speed on happenings on Lesvos, Chios, the Port of Piraeus, and up at Idomeni. Trude gave me a giant red backpack full of medical gear repurposed from Lesvos operations, cell phones, and Drop In The Ocean swag to bring up to Idomeni. During that lunch, I realized how much I’d missed sitting around a table of volunteers from around the world discussing things like border closures, medical access in camps, and asylum application processes. I missed being closely engaged with a dedicated group like this, and felt reinspired by the smiling Scandinavian badasses around me, who have each been volunteering for months, and seen the same things I saw on Lesvos. It feels good to be back.
Two Swedish coordinators from Piraeus Port and I piled into their little rented truck so they could run some errands at the camps at a few terminals and give me an overview of operations there. Funny that I always used to stubbornly maintain that I’m not a kid person, but as soon as we rolled up to the tea tent/kids area, I let myself get pulled into jumping rope by the bored kids whose families were camped out at the port. It was nice, for once, to feel like I could actually just hang out with kids, and that I didn’t have another job I was supposed to be doing. Kids are awesome and hilarious, and have this amazing ability to play, no matter what situation they’re in.
A group of us volunteers went to midnight Easter vigil mass last night. At the stroke of 12 the city of Athens exploded into celebration with fireworks, bells from every church, and thousands of Athenians holding candles, and surrounding the chanting Orthodox priests whose voice echoed over loudspeakers. After midnight, everyone goes home to feast. Or, if you’re a group of international volunteers who don’t have homes to go to, you walk around and wait around for the bars to open for the after-after party. I think that we got tired and left just as celebrations were gearing up around 2am.
The symbolism of the flame is significant to the Orthodox Church, and the “Holy Flame” is actually flown in on a special flight from what is supposed to be Jesus’ tomb in Jerusalem. From there, it’s distributed by Pascal candle to each church, and then Greeks take the flames home carefully in lanterns that they’ve brought.
Today, most everything is closed. The bakery where I got breakfast down the street was one of the few open businesses, and selling twisted sweet bread inlaid with dyed red eggs. The owner came up smiling to me and put a red egg in my hand, and a few other patrons taught me how to crack each end against their eggs while saying Christos Anesti (Christ has Risen!) A group of older men in their Sunday finest sat around the sidewalk table next to me cheerily drinking ouzo and greeting everyone who walked by.
Red eggs for Easter!
I’m taking advantage of a quiet, non-transit day to troubleshoot a few tech issues I stupidly created for myself, and to figure out my transportation north to Idomeni.I bought some great books at my favorite bookstore in Athens “Fortress Europe: Inside the Ware Against Immigration” and “Dispatches From Syria: The Morning They Came For Us” both published last year. And phrasebooks for Arabic and Greek. Look forward for some better informed blog posts!
Happy Easter from Athens!