Month: November 2017

A perfectly imperfect day in London

Gentle reader, I have a confession.

It is Sunday morning (not quite afternoon) and I am sitting (okay lying) in my cozy bedroom in Canterbury, with the electric heater on full blast. I am on my second cup of tea, and have read only 14 pages of Iris Murdoch. I have read only 1.5 articles in The Globe & Mail. I began an in-home yoga session which lasted for approximately four minutes, at which point I hit Downward Dog and lost interest in an activity that only exacerbated the ache in my calves, brought on (I can only assume) by my day in London yesterday. I have read approximately two-thirds of an article about the rewards of the Stour Valley walk, which I could have completed by now. But I remain in bed, drinking my second cup of tea.

Gentle reader, I am tired.

I say this with a blush, since I am in the lovely Canterbury thanks to the generosity of Canadian taxpayers. I would like to tell my taxpaying readers that I am about to spring from my bed and stride down the Stour Valley pathway, toting my little blue laptop, and stop in a pub (The Henny Swan? The Fighting Cocks? The Tickled Trout? Really, my job here is made far too easy by reality).

I’d like to tell you I will walk over to the Tickled Trout and plunk myself down to write at least ten pages before the sun sets on the Canterbury Cathedral.

But I must confess that I will likely remain in this bed for another few hours, then drag myself down the High Street to Tesco and buy a few groceries, apologize to my flatmate for yet another uninspired dinner, and then watch Offspring on Netflix (yes, yes, I have seen it twice already).

Or, if I’m feeling really ambitious, I will watch another few episodes of Designated Survivor.

Why, you may be asking, is the gentle writer so tired?

Allow me to explain.

Yesterday I packed up my reading glasses, my phone cable and adapter, my extra phone charger battery, my hat and gloves and a bottle of water and set off for London – one of my last forays to the great city before I come back to Calgary on December 12. I planned my day, filled with that I-May-Never-Be-Back-Here urgency. I would catch the 8:20 AM train and go to the British Library, which is just steps away from the St. Pancras station where my preferred train (the high-speed, direct train) would arrive at 9:25 AM.

I would spend approximately 45 minutes in the Reading Room, where I had arranged to see some letters written by Virginia Woolf (something I had never even thought to put on my  bucket list – but now, here is the opportunity!). I had pre-registered online, and I felt confident with the hoity-toity library system, having helped my supervisor navigate the Bibliothèque Nationale a few years ago in Paris). I would sail in, commune with Virginia, and sail out.  I would then scoot up to the Camden Market, stopping for a quick bite at Niven’s, a café described by Tyviano on TripAdvisor as “a little less pret and a lot more authentic,” and then I would prowl around the colorful stalls at Camden, thus killing another bird by finding the ideal Christmas presents for the folks back home.

From Camden I would take the tube (Northern line in the direction of Morden) to the Young Vic Theater where I was to see the first of two plays – both of which (taxpaying readers will be happy to hear) tie in with my research area. The play would end at approximately 4:00, giving me a few hours of free time to do some more shopping and have lunch at one of four historical pubs I found in an excellent online article titled “Proper London Pubs.”

At 7:10 I would alight at the Royal Court Theater and take in play number two, after which I would take the tube (Circle Line east) back to Saint Pancras, stroll forth to my train and relax for an hour whilst being swept back to Canterbury, full of satisfaction with a day well lived.

Gentle reader, that is not what happened.

Here is what happened.

I arrived at the Canterbury West train station in plenty of time to catch the 8:20, and was told there would be no trains from that station today. None at all? No, none; there had been a signalling malfunction.

No problem. Not a big deal. A cute little fly in the ointment.

I walked briskly to Canterbury East and caught the 8:50 to London. So what if it was a little later? A little slower? So what if it stopped at nine different towns on the way? So what if it arrived at Victoria station rather than the ultra-handy St. Pancras, which was located just steps away from the British Library? I would simply take the tube (Victoria line east) to the British Library.

So I arrived at the library an hour and a half later than my original plan. I had to complete my registration process with a real person (a real person? In what world is this necessary??) who gave me a ten-minute speech on how to comport oneself in the library. Which I was expecting, having been through the iron-clad (literally) system of the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Bibliotheque Nationale:  Picture by Manuel Cohen

I would have been okay if it hadn’t been for the pompous man at the cloakroom. He somehow knew that I was a newbie at the British Library; he smirked when I made the rookie mistake of leaving my wallet in my briefcase rather than putting it in the clear plastic bag (the only thing you’re allowed to take into the Manuscript Reading Room).

I then made the rookie mistake of being frazzled by the pompous man and neglected to put my reading glasses into my plastic bag. I also neglected to put my phone cable and adapter into my plastic bag. I had had to use my GPS function to get to Canterbury East, so already my phone was at 75%. I was unable to charge my phone on the milk-run train, which, unlike the lovely high-speed train, has no plug-ins.

But never mind. I was at the British Library, about to read the original letters written by Virginia Woolf just before she decided to pass from this world to the next.

Photo by Central Press

And this, gentle reader, was a moment that is difficult to describe.

At first I looked at the letter from Virginia to her husband, Leonard, and saw unintelligible scrawls of black on aged ivory paper. Then I saw at the top of the page, the day of the week.

Had she done this automatically, since she always wrote the day at the top of her journal entry? Or had she wanted to be leave an accurate record of her thoughts before her death? Or had she been in such a state of mental turmoil that she wrote the day before realizing it was completely, unutterably, unnecessary?

Then the first line of her letter came into focus.

Dearest,

I feel certain that I am going mad again.

When I read this line, the whole of the letter began to shimmy and swim. Virginia, scarcely able to concentrate, her head pounding with unwanted voices, had wrapped her fingers around her pen and scratched those lines across a blank sheet of paper, moments before setting out to fill her pockets with stones and walk into the Ouse River.

I sat in the quiet of the Manuscript Reading Room and kept the letters company for a while. I don’t know what I was expecting to derive from that moment of communion, but I was glad I was there. I felt somewhat like an exploiter, a voyeur, witnessing a moment between husband and wife that was such an intimate expression of feeling by a vulnerable woman.

But I knew that somehow (I would need time to digest this experience) the reading – the absorption – of Virginia Woolf’s letter would work its way into my own writing.

This, gentle reader, was a wonderful moment. I took my time in the reading room; indeed, I forgot about the time. I was wandering down to the British Library Exhibition Hall to see the writing notebooks of Jane Austen when I glanced at my phone and saw that it was 1:30. My first play started at 2:30. I had not shopped at Camden Market or had lunch at the authentic (not pret) Nivens café! Indeed, I had not eaten since my half-bowl of muesli at 7:30!  And those of you who know me know it’s best if I eat. But there was no time to spare.

I jogged over to the Saint Pancras station and caught the tube to Southwerk, where the Young Vic Theater is located. I grabbed a pain au chocolat at the station and arrived in plenty of time. My plan, although altered, was still intact!  I even had time for a ploughman’s sandwich at the café near the theater, where I attempted to charge my phone (I did plug it in but it only charged by 2%…why??).

The play, titled The Suppliant Woman, is based on an ancient Greek play by Aeschylus (BTW Aeschylus has the most hilariously ironic death story ever – read about it on Wikipedia, I beg you! Never mind that – I’ll sum it up for you:  Aeschylus was supposedly killed by a tortoise dropped by an eagle – the eagle had mistaken Aeschylus’s bald head for a rock upon which the eagle could shatter the tortoise’s shell.

Aeschylus had been staying outside as much as possible because there had been a prophesy that he would be killed by a falling object – ouch!).

Anyway, this particular play tells the story of a group of women who had been pledged to marriage to Egyptian men, and who end up seeking asylum in Argos. There is no real dialogue in the play; the story unfolds through a chorus of singing and dancing women – the women seeking asylum – as they beg for compassion and express their fear and anger.

It was an incredible performance, with haunting harmonies and powerful choreography. The chorus was composed of a leader, played by Gemma May, the only professional performer. The rest of the women were volunteers from the local community, who gave strong, compelling performances. It’s a modern take on the original – the players are dressed in ordinary street clothes – but it rings too true in November 2017.

A group of women fleeing potential male violence, asking the greater world to believe in their need for asylum, even if it challenges fundamental norms. It was hard not to think of Trump, of Pence, of Weinstein and Spacey, as I watched. It was hard not to think of the Syrian war, the refugee camps in Greece, the Canadians who think Syrians might take their jobs or threaten the peace.

This, gentle reader, was a wonderful moment.

And I was still more or less on schedule. Sure, I had missed the Camden Market and Niven’s café. But I now had time to wander up to Sloan Square, where the Royal Court Theater was located. Plenty of time before 7:30 to be spontaneous and fancy-free. Plenty of time to discover cool pubs.

I have to confess that I never looked up any of the proper London pubs. Why? I’m not sure. By the time I got close to Sloan Square, it was already dark. At a street corner, a group of three people stopped me. The woman, who was wearing a hijab, asked me for help. We have no clothes, she said. The man, presumably her husband, said, Where can we buy clothes here? He and his teenaged son looked around them, confused. We were standing on a vast street corner, dimly lit, traffic ploughing by, enormous buildings (condos? Offices?) on either side.

I stopped and – perhaps inspired by the mayor of Argos – tried to help. I am not from London, I told them in the interest of full disclosure. But let’s use my phone to find some shops. Do you speak French, they asked, and I switched to French. I located a shopping area and tried to tell them how to get there.

Trop compliqué, said the man, looking overwhelmed. They started to move away as I apologized, feeling terrible, but the woman came back and said, Please. Can you give me money for some shoes?

I couldn’t help wondering if the whole conversation had been some sort of ploy to get unwitting tourists to give them money, and then I thought back to the people I met at the refugee camp in Greece, who would likely land on a street corner like this, with virtually nothing, and no knowledge of the city.

I gave her ten pounds. Which, gentle taxpayer, was my budgeted allowance for dinner that night.

Oh, she said. Another ten – I need two shoes! Please, this is not enough.

I lifted my palms. Sorry, I said, and turned away. That was not how I envisioned that moment unfolding. But then again, visions rarely unfold properly.

As I walked the remaining few blocks to Sloan Square, the city seemed to have darkened prematurely. Surely at 5:00 Calgary is not so dark. Maybe it is. Maybe London seemed darker because I didn’t know where I was going, and hadn’t been to Sloan Square before.

By the time I found the Royal Court Theater, I didn’t have the energy to find a proper London pub. I walked by the pub close to the theater but it was too bright or too… something. It was full of families and groups of friends chatting away, drinking their proper London pints, and I didn’t feel like plopping myself down at a table amongst them all and pulling out my cell phone.

So I headed down the street and found a noodle place with long tables where I could sit and look out the window without being conspicuous.

There was nothing proper or particularly London about it, but it was my London I suppose. There were other people eating on their own, texting or reading the paper.

So I perched myself on a bench, stretched out my tired legs and pulled out my phone to figure out how to take the train from Victoria Station to Canterbury East – I had bought a return ticket, unsure whether Canterbury West would ever open that day. The website was glitchy and wouldn’t show me the later trains, so it was hard to tell what time they came, and whether they were direct or not. I knew many of the trains at that time of day required you to change trains at least once. I downloaded the app but it wouldn’t show me trains more than two hours later than the current time.

But then it was time for the play, so I headed to the Royal Court Theater. This play was called Goats, by Syrian playwright Liwaa Yazji.

Liwaa Yazji

The premise was fascinating: the Syrian government was rewarding families of martyred soldiers with a live goat. And the stage was filled with live goats, who, to their credit, were extremely well behaved and convincing.

The production was a bit uneven; I had trouble hearing the actors’ voices at times. But the story was strong – it tackled difficult subjects like the conflict between Syrians who are loyal to the government and those who are not.

At intermission I pulled out my phone to try and figure out the train situation. Still glitchy. It was a long play, and I would likely have to take a train that required at least one change – all this at 11:00 PM or later. I was tired, cranky and my feet were beginning to ache. I had not purchased any Christmas presents and had not eaten at anything resembling a proper London pub. If anything, I had succumbed to the pret instead of seeking out the authentic.

My day was a failure of logistics and now … the problem of the train. But this was not an insurmountable problem. I had made it this far with my plan, and really, for the most part, it had not failed me. Besides, these sorts of experiences build character. This is what traveling on your own is all about. You feel independent. Capable. You have logistical problems but you are agile in your ability to think critically and find creative solutions. You are adept with technology. So I sent my agile fingers flying over the surface of my little phone.

I texted my husband.

I told him about the train and the time and the play, and my tired feet, and the possibility of having to change trains at unknown stations after midnight. I should maybe just leave at intermission, I texted. To be on the safe side.

He tactfully suggested that leaving early sounded like the safest plan. Was there an earlier train that was direct?

Yes, I told him. There was. That much I could see on the gitchy site.

Gentle reader, I left the play during intermission.

Was I just being peevish? Was I giving up? Perhaps. It didn’t feel very Argos to abandon the boy soldiers on stage with their symbolic goats. But I had my own London to contend with, and I would have to accept that today was a day where the plan had failed (only partly) and I would go home early.

Maybe the gods of Argos took their final revenge as I got on the train at 9:00 PM.

I asked the train attendant if it was direct and he said, “Yes, just get on and relax!”

What he didn’t tell me was the train would stop at a total of thirteen towns before arriving at Canterbury East. And the train attendant could hardly know that my car would eventually fill to the rafters with shouting students who had surely spent the entire evening at proper English pubs.

But, gods or no gods, I arrived in Canterbury some two hours later, and after walking the wrong direction from the station, I finally ended up in my cozy bedroom.

I cranked up the electric heater to level 8 (out of a possible 8), ate a Milka chocolate bar (yes, of course, the whole thing) and forgot to plug my phone into the charger. I stretched out my aching legs and watched half an episode of Offspring.

And that, gentle reader, is the last thing I remember of my perfectly imperfect day in London.

 

 

Busing it to the bazaar: Or, a new perspective on shopping, hoping, and life in general

A trip to the weekly outdoor market.

Not a big deal, right? Some produce, some clothes. Maybe the odd bargain. Nothing to get excited about.

But at LM Village refugee camp, when the bus pulls up to take residents to the market, there is a mob of people shouting and pushing, sneaking tickets back and forth and arguing and getting in your face.

This is kind of crazy, isn’t it? After all, it’s just a trip to the market.

It was my job last week to escort the residents to and from the market, so at 10:00 I walked with the volunteer coordinator to the camp gates. When the bus drove up, a cluster of children immediately started jostling for position so they could get onto the bus, in case there were not enough adults to fill the seats.

We only allow one person per family on the bus so that as many families as possible can send someone to the market. Sometimes there are spare seats, so people show up hoping to get on. And they’re prepared to be vocal about getting on that bus.

Although we had told people that only one person would be allowed on the bus per family, we are never sure if they have completely understood, given that most of these folks don’t speak much English. We do our best to explain the rules, speaking slowly and loudly (a foreign word spoken loudly is still incomprehensible!) using gestures and pictures drawn on the back of the ticket book.

Obviously some of the message is bound to get lost in translation.

And even for those who understand, they are often willing to challenge the system.

As people drifted down the main camp road toward the bus, we could see that many had children in their arms (no children! We told them – only one person!), and many were walking in pairs – husbands and wives.

When they got to the bus, we explained once again the ‘one per household’ rule, but mothers told us they did not want to leave young children at home; husbands wanted to carry purchases for pregnant wives; teenaged sons were needed to try on shoes.

You have to imagine all these objections being voiced together, by a crowd of people who urgently need to get to the market. People who have no way to get there besides this bus. Who can’t just stroll over to Sobey’s or drive over to Safeway or hop on the train to get to the mall.

The weekly trip to the market is a big deal.

Plus, don’t forget that the camp residents have very little to do. They get up, eat, chat with family and neighbors, go to our little grocery store at the camp, text their friends, do the laundry, look after the kids, clean their suites, and that’s about it. They don’t have jobs, they don’t have extended family or friends to socialize with. They don’t have cars and most don’t have expendable income for entertainment.

So there is a lot of angst around who gets to go to the market.

Plus, having seen the market, I can tell you this.

It’s pretty fun.

It’s full of color, chatter, banter. Great deals on clothes and food. Some of the most gorgeous produce I’ve ever seen. Jars and jars of local honey. Brilliant mounds of spices.

The market is fun. The market is not the camp.

So yes. It’s a big deal.

And it’s not surprising that the kids who had been waiting in hopes of getting on the bus, should it not be full, began pushing and shoving and climbing up the bus steps, past me and the volunteer coordinator.

I wasn’t sure what to do. Am I allowed to physically move these kids? Do I let them on the bus? We can’t over-crowd the bus because Refugee Support is careful to follow all local laws; we can’t afford any trouble with the police.

So we blocked the children from getting on and enlisted the help of a couple of IOM (International Organization for Migration – a branch of the UN) guys who work on site. One of them helped translate, and after a dozen or so lively conversations, most of the problems were solved. The bus gradually filled up with peaceful residents, but there was one problem.

This was a man who had come into the grocery store that week and had gotten quite excited about a misunderstanding and the volunteer coordinator had to ask him to stop shouting at us.

So when we saw him approaching the bus with his wife, we both took a big gulp. He insisted, loudly, that he needed to go with his wife, and he would not listen to our ‘one per household rule.’ He had two wives, he said, he needed to be with one of them. By this time he was standing toe-to-toe with our volunteer coordinator, who climbed up onto the bus steps to look him in the eye (he was quite tall and she is … not) and when he tried to push past her, she said loudly, No. She did not give an inch.

Meanwhile, I’m standing on the ground beside him, with the jostling children pushing me up against the angry man. He continued shouting at the Vol Coordinator and she kept standing her ground. We eventually enlisted the help of the translator again, and convinced the man to wait until the other adults arrived, and see if there was extra space.

There was mass confusion at this point – people were pushing to get off and pushing to get on; children were trying to scramble up the steps, the bus driver was rolling his eyes; the IOM guys were trying to translate for other adults who wanted to bring small children on the bus – “he’s asked very nicely to bring his very tiny daughter…”

Finally, it appeared that there were enough spaces for all the adults who were waiting. They trooped onto the bus, including the angry man, and then I got on to see if there were any spaces for any of the children who had been waiting. But the IOM guy suggested we not take any, since it would just cause hard feelings to let some go and not others. As I was counting the empty seats, I sensed the bus moving. The driver had made the executive decision to leave without the children, and frankly, I was relieved. I sat in the trundle seat beside the driver and breathed out what seemed like an inordinate amount of air from my lungs.

By then the bus was utterly peaceful. People had accepted that their children /husbands /wives/ brothers /parents could not accompany them, and off we went.

When we arrived at Andravida everyone piled off the bus. I called out as they filed past me that we were to meet back here at 12:30, but they all brushed me aside; they all seemed to know the routine.

My mission at the market was to buy socks and gloves for the residents using the donation kindly given by Kay and Ken Grove. I followed along with the crowd through the streets lined with stalls – huge bins of fresh fish – tiny ones, slippery ones, floppy ones – gorgeous lettuces, fresh herbs, kale, cabbage, courgettes, aubergines and more. The aromas shifted as you moved past, with the fish, herbs and spices the most pungent.

I heard what I thought was a ruckus but it was only a couple of men hawking their wares, competing with each other to reach the swarms of people squeezing between the stalls. Further up were stalls with clothing, and finally I found socks. I made my way to several stalls and compared prices, before finding one that offered to sell me 53 pairs of socks for 53 Euro.

                            With the sock stall guys at the market

Sold.

I then found a guy who had billions of pairs of gloves. I was hoping to get the thick fleece ones, but they were beyond my price range. I settled for some thinner knitted gloves, and remembered to ask someone to take a photo of me with the vendor. The founder of Refugee Support likes to post pictures of us supporting the local economy – presumably it helps keep our relationship with the Greek folks steady.

Since there was still almost an hour until the bus would arrive, I looked around for a café. Unwilling to wander around aimlessly with my two heavy bags (my arms already weak from the lack of tennis), I stopped at the honey stall and asked for directions. The woman spoke absolutely no English but took great pains to direct me using grunts and sign language. I understood that I was to go to the corner, turn left, go three blocks, and turn right.

Which I did.

I found a town plaza that was completely unaware of the frenzied market just blocks away. It was lined with quiet cafes and shops, as well as palm trees. I plopped down at a table and a lovely young woman brought me a fizzy lemonade.

Which I drank.

Slowly and with great relish. It seems you expend a great deal of energy being involved in confrontations with angry men and children who refuse to stay off a bus after being told ten times to stay off the bus. It was heavenly to sit in the tranquil square with my cool lemonade, letting the achiness dissipate from arms, legs and shoulders.

I sat there thinking, how lucky I am to be in Greece on a gorgeous sunny day, sipping a lemonade in a beautiful town square. And I was acutely aware that for me, the trip to the bazaar was just part of a two-week stint at LM Village. I would be going home to my bungalow and my car and my children and husband and mother and all my friends. I would drive to the farmer’s market whenever I wanted to, and drive to Safeway whenever I ran out of bread. My trip to the bazaar had no urgency because I would be going home.

My time in Kyllini was full of these contrasts and paradoxes – the casual, slow atmosphere of small-town Greece versus the hectic bustle of the camp when the store is busy. The warmth of our volunteer dinners at Kyllini restaurants, where they owners know us and bring us wine for mere pennies.

– versus the moments at the clothing boutique when residents can’t find pants that fit and toddlers stomp around the store screaming.

There are moments of great peace at the camp, with Syrian music floating from windows, the smell of garlic and onions floating from kitchens, women chatting in low tones on their porches, waving at you to come and share their food – My friend! My friend!

Versus the driving in small-town Greece, getting jammed into an intersection that seems to have a thousand roads converging in a space the size of a closet, with a touring bus cutting you off so you have no choice but to squeeze past it, your rear view mirrors nearly scraping the car parked beside you, sweat streaming down your shoulders and pooling in the small of your back.

Or trying and failing to tap the drop-down menu on the tablet in the grocery store that serves as our till; sometimes it doesn’t like my fingers and will not recognize the feel of my skin on its surface. Meanwhile, the customer is piling oil, mint, apples, tomatoes, yeast, raisins, olives on the counter and I have not yet entered the first item.

In the grocery shop

But all of this is just a few grains of scratchy sand in the long stretch of beach that is my time at Kyllini. I was so glad to be there, adding my energy to the efforts being made to help refugees get back on their feet.

Seeing the camp first-hand gave me a much clearer sense of what people go through as they make their way from war-torn countries to a safer environment. Even at LM Village, where life is relatively good compared to camps with tents and mud and snow, life is still incredibly demanding, and incredibly discouraging. This isn’t really life at all; it is a waiting zone. A place where you hold your breath and wait, hoping that there are enough people out there who are willing to move over a bit and make a space for you.

In the meantime, you line up for the bus that goes to the weekly market, and you push back against the rules a little bit. You get frustrated when you’re told you can’t go along and help your spouse do the shopping. It’s just one more frustration in a week full of frustration. Another week in a month where you have very little control over your life. Where you wonder if you’ll find a place to live that’s safe, where your kids can go to school and you can learn the language and find a job.

So you shout a little bit at the woman in the volunteer t-shirt and eventually you get on the bus. It’s just a market, but still. You know the volunteer woman means well; she just doesn’t always understand everything you’re going through. When you bump into her at the market, she is haggling over men’s socks. You wave at her and she waves back. Then you hustle off toward the truck that sells live chickens.

The bus will leave for camp at 12:30 and you still have to pick out the best chickens and load them into the bus.

Working at LM Village: Greek resort turned refugee camp

Barking dogs. The incessant barking of dogs who wander the streets. This is probably the sound I will always associate with the LM Village refugee camp and Greece in general. Right now, outside my hotel room, it sounds like ten thousand dogs are barking themselves hoarse. I picture two teams – maybe the short haired vs the long haired? – facing off à la West Side Story, the Jets versus the Sharks, dancing around each other and puffing out their chests.

Most likely the dogs are fighting over a doughnut left on the beach.

In the town of Kyllini, there are dogs and cats everywhere. Even the quiet corners of restaurants.

In the camp the dogs breed freely, living on the street, or between shrubbery, or in nooks and crannies of camp buildings.

A man, one of the camp residents, came into our clothing boutique the other day and asked if we could help him with a violent dog.

We said no.

There are puppies everywhere, trotting along by themselves and in pairs, but not usually with a parent. Black dogs, short haired dogs, long haired dogs, tan dogs, tiny dogs, rangy dogs. They survive here, occasionally fed by the residents, or picking up bits of food on the ground.

Some of them sleep on the abandoned tennis court. In the late afternoon the court is dotted with furry shapes, stretched out on the brilliant green surface.

They are passing time here.

And really, so are the residents. There are about 150 people here, mainly from Syria, and they usually come to us after a stay in other camps in Greece, where life is much more difficult than it is at LM Village. Our camp is located in a former resort, so the residents have actual buildings to live in, with plumbing and kitchens – rather than tents.

Main street at LM Village

Most of the camp residents are registered with the government, so they get a stipend that pays for a certain amount of food. But the camp is miles from any other village, so it’s very difficult to do the shopping, and there is almost nothing to do here. There are often far too many people living in each suite to be comfortable.

One man said he dislikes living at the village because all you do is eat. I assume that life here can revolve around preparing meals and eating meals.

As you drive into the camp, you’ll see men clustered in small groups, chatting and huddling over their phones. Women are often working, cleaning their suites, cooking, caring for children, doing laundry or buying food at our store. Some of the older women sit out on their porches, chatting with the younger women as they work.

Teens hang out in the communal area, watching television, or hanging onto the edges of the male groups, as if waiting for crumbs from the adult debates.

Many of the smaller children roam freely, sometimes playing football or basketball, or spending some time with an NGO called SchoolBox, which offers informal classes.

Gentle reader, let me give you an idea of what my days usually look like.

The NGO I’m volunteering for, Refugee Support, runs a small grocery store and clothing store. There are only three volunteers right now, and we get together in the morning in Kyllini, the port town where we’re staying, about 15 minutes’ drive from the camp.

We have breakfast at a local bakery and then buy produce from an amazing veg stand along the highway. We load up on tomatoes, aubergines, courgettes, potatoes, onions, garlic, peppers, apples, cucumbers. The owners of the veg stand break into grins and call out, “Kalimera!” when they see us coming, and they always throw in something extra – last time it was mandarin oranges that smelled like Christmas. We ate a couple and then gave the rest away for free at the store.

It’s important to Refugee Support to contribute to the local economy, and we certainly spend our donated money regularly at the local shops. With Greece in its continuing economic slump (unemployment is at around 23%), every little bit helps.

Side bar: If any Greek tourism officials are among my gentle readers (they’re obviously not, but what the hell), here’s a friendly suggestion. You will attract more tourists if you embrace a culture of customer service more consistently. To be clear, much of the service I’ve had in Greece has been really wonderful – the people in Kyllini are unfailingly kind and considerate. But I’ve run into some objectionable men working in places like bus stations who feel that shouting at customers is the best way to encourage tourism.

Peevish side bar to the side bar:  At the Athens bus station I asked at the ticket wicket for a ticket to Kyllini and was told there was no bus to Kyllini that day; I would have to go to another town and take a taxi. I told him I knew for a fact there were three buses to Kyllini, my friend had recently taken this bus. We debated this for about thirty seconds until his face turned the color of a beetroot and he began shouting at me to call my friend and verify my information. I just stared at him until he told me to go further into the bus station and ask at another counter. Which is where I found the bus to Kyllini.

If Plato and Socrates caught wind of this behavior from their graves, surely they would turn over in their togas.

But to return to the daily routine of the camp. Our day continues with the three of us driving to the camp – I am one of our designated drivers so I’ve learned to maneuver our little Fiat along the narrow highways and village streets.

Side bar: The lanes here seem to be more of a suggestion than a rule – white strips of paint that offer possible strategies for dividing the cars running in either direction at about 40 km/h over the posted speed limit/suggestion. In the villages, the streets are often just little strips of pavement jammed between the tiny sidewalks, and you have to pull over if a car comes from the opposite direction.

But – to return to our routine… Once we get to the camp we stock the grocery store, which is a small but bright and efficient space lined with shelves, with a stock room and fridge.

At 11:00 the store opens and the residents come in one family at a time to spend the “money” we distribute to everyone (think Monopoly). Refugee Support organizers have devised a clever system of points for each family, based on their ages, also taking into account pregnancies. Along with the produce, our store carries items like cheese, yogurt, tahini, spices, toilet paper, soap, oil, and cookies (sorry – biscuits).

We divide our time between the grocery store and the clothing boutique, where we give out clothes that have been donated by local Greek folks. The selection isn’t always fantastic, but we manage to put sensible clothing on people’s backs, and prepare them for the colder months ahead.

Right now the temperature is usually around 20C and sunny, but it will cool off soon and people will be glad they’ve gotten a jacket, scarf and hat.

Because we are only three volunteers right now at LM Village, we are short staffed. So it can be frustrating not having enough time to sort clothing and stock the boutique as well as we would like to.

But our volunteer coordinator is very good about reminding us that we are doing our best, and that we are still providing much-needed services for the residents. She reminds us that the Refugee Support routine works well because it’s fair to the residents and it ensures that volunteers don’t burn out. So when the grocery shop closes at 5:00, we lock the door, and if anyone knocks after five, we ask them to please come back the next day.

Side bar: if any of you gentle readers are interested in helping out – do! Your time and energy would be greatly valued. Here’s the link to the Refugee Support page in case you fancy spending some time in Greece, and helping out at a camp.

I haven’t had much of a chance to talk with many of the residents, and many of them barely speak English. But from what the volunteer coordinator tells me, the residents have been struggling to survive since their journeys from Syria and mainly feel fortunate to be at LM Village. One of them actually described it a paradise, despite the cramped conditions and the lack of activities available.

The IOM (International Organization for Migration – a branch of the UN) has done a lot of work to make the camp as liveable as possible for those who spend time there. Yesterday there was an enormous truck parked outside our grocery store, and all day it unloaded new mattresses for the suites. Because the suites had been unused for so long, there are problems with mildew and water quality, so getting fresh, clean mattresses is a big help.

Some of the suites are packed full to the brim with people – there are often two families living together in a suite with two sleeping areas, a small kitchen and no real living room.

We are due to get another bus load of new arrivals next week, so it will be interesting to see how they will be squeezed in.

It’s not surprising, given what the residents have been through, and given their current state of limbo, that some of them are occasionally irritable. The vast majority of customers at our grocery store and boutique are friendly and respectful, but there have been moments when tempers have flared, voices have been raised.

Already feeling out of my element, striving to learn the volunteer system and work with people who don’t speak English, I feel anxious during these moments of confrontation. It’s easy to wonder why our customers can’t be more cooperative, why they can’t respect our rules and follow them with good humor.

But I ask myself how I would behave under these circumstances. Having left my home, family and friends behind, having walked for miles or crossed seas on flimsy boats, having struggled to feed my children for months and months, having faced corruption and intolerance more often than fairness and kindness – would I be able to smile and nod when I’m told I can only have three bananas, not six? When I’m told I can’t accompany my husband to the market?

I really don’t know.

But I suspect that irritability would be one of my most positive attributes after that kind of a struggle.

What I see at LM Village is resilience, patience and endurance. I salute the residents for simply putting one foot in front of the other, while they pass through an asylum system that is, at best, imperfect.

Our residents try to be patient as Europe and the rest of the world sort out how they will handle this huge wave of displaced people. This wave is washing up larger questions, it seems to me, questions that can be terrifying for those who feel strongly about national borders and national values. Questions like: Who has the right to live within national boundaries? Who gets to determine a country’s national values? What obligation do nations have to support victims of war, corruption and violence? What should international organizations do when some nations don’t live up to their obligations?

Meanwhile, the residents at LM Village continue putting one foot in front of the other, baking bread, changing diapers, buying groceries, texting relatives back home.

They live life in waiting mode, in a resort owned by the Kyllini town council. The residents of LM Village squeeze themselves into suites that were built to house small European families taking short vacations, just steps from a sandy beach.

It’s both lovely and ironic.

The mayor of Kyllini is originally from Syria, the first naturalized Greek of Syrian origin to be elected mayor. He suggested taking the resort, which had been abandoned for six years, and turning it into a home for refugees.

Refugee Support has helped turn the camp into a place that is more like a village, where there is some sense of normality. Being able to buy groceries on site helps residents feel like they have some agency, and a normal routine, which – hopefully – counteracts the sense of limbo that they must feel.

So I will rest up this weekend and on Monday, go back to the grocery store, help stock the shelves, measure out tomatoes and aubergines in kilograms, and close up the shop at the end of the day, even if there are a few people outside wanting to get in. Tomorrow will be another day.

 

 

Truly, madly, deeply an imposter: or, Toddling into Westminster to discuss refugee politics with my (?) MP

The week of  October 23 was a week of smallness.

Name calling. Presidents tweeting schoolboy taunts, seemingly unaware of what’s at stake. Hollywood dotards dominating the news. Women around the world revealing that they, too, have been sexually harassed or abused – this last act, though, is only small in that each woman’s voice is a small drop in a large, shameful bucket.

So it was a week that did not restore my faith in humankind.

And yet.

It was also a week where I met a couple of women who are part of the Kent area lobbying campaign, working hard for refugee rights. They, unlike our friend DT, are painfully aware of what’s at stake right now in the whirling political dervish that is the refugee rights debate.

I met Jill and Valerie at a demonstration supporting the “Dubs Amendment” which supports child refugees. The demonstration took place right across the street from the Parliament buildings in London.

One of the most topical points in the refugee rights debate in the UK revolves around children – minors, if you will – who are trying to get into the UK. Advocating for these minors is Lord Alfred Dubs, Labour MP and a former refugee from the Czech Republic.

He is responsible for the “Dubs Amendment” to the 2016 Immigration Act, an amendment that requires the UK to accept unaccompanied refugee children into the UK, in response to the global refugee crisis. He spoke with great eloquence at the demonstration, responding to a young man from Syria who had been welcomed into the UK as a refugee, and who has gone on to attend university here.

The Syrian man was going to go into Parliament after the demonstration and do some advocating for the Dubs Amendment. It was amazing to see such strong activism from both British folks and those who have already benefited from Lord Dubs’s (and his supporters’) hard political work.

While I was standing there listening to the boys speak to the crowd, I looked over my shoulder and saw – gasp! – Juliet Stevenson!

Now, I am not normally one to become weak-kneed at a celebrity sighting, but … Juliet Stevenson! And…  Truly, Madly, Deeply!  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please stop reading this blog, drop your coffee cup on the carpet and run, do not walk, to your nearest computer and stream, illegally if necessary, Truly, Madly, Deeply. After you watch it, you’ll understand why I gasped (quietly, politely, Canadianly) when I Juliet Stevenson standing right next to me.

Did I mention that Alan Rickman was also in Truly, Madly, Deeply?

Whether Juliet Stevenson heard me gasp and politely, Britishly, decided to ignore my exclamation, we will never know. She simply took the stage and spoke movingly about the need to ensure the UK is living up to its obligations regarding child refugees.

It was a powerful demonstration, and I am incredibly glad I went. What an antidote to the week’s news of intolerance and misogyny. Standing in the crowd of demonstrators, it was rejuvenating to see a group of people who took time out of their day to speak up for some of today’s most vulnerable people. Here was an empathy that had led to political action.

After the demonstration, the organizers told us that were all going to march into Westminster and ask to see our MPs, and speak to them about the child refugee issue.

At this point I said goodbye to Jill and Valerie and said it was best to let the actual British people (who would vote in actual British elections) handle this part of the protest. But Jill insisted I come along (thank you Jill – you’re a woman of great wisdom!) and so I toddled off to the queue to go through security.

I actually thought that at some point my Canadian identity would be discovered but no one seemed concerned with my identity at all; the armed guards merely wanted to ensure that I was not armed.

So, having cleared security, I toddled off through a massive hall and upstairs to the reception area, where we all filled out green cards asking to see our MP (I had had enough wits about me to Google the Canterbury MP).

We were told that if our MPs didn’t come out to the reception area within 45 minutes, we could toddle off to the great outdoors. Clearly this was a paradigmatic act of going through the political motions. No MP would appear, but the masses would be appeased.

The odds of a Canadian student getting in to see her MP at Westminster seemed slightly less than winning the Loto 649, so I handed my green card to the nice man and toddled off to the Parliament canteen to get coffee and sandies for Jill and Valerie. I sat down in the canteen to gobble a sandwich, and tried to eavesdrop on the men in dark suits huddled next to me, but I have little of interest to relate, other than they were feeling refreshed and ready for their upcoming meeting.

So I toddled back to the reception area and sat down to wait out the remainder of my 45 minutes. But then a young man in a dark suit approached and asked, Had I requested a meeting with Rosie Duffield? I admitted I had, and steeled myself for a question regarding my status as a foreigner/fake voter/rabble-rouser/interloper.

But the young man, Duffield’s researcher, just wanted to assure me that Ms Duffield would be out as soon as she possibly could – please could I wait just a few more minutes.

I assured him I could, assuming that hearing my accent would spark accusations of rabble-rousing and imposterhood. But no, he got on his phone and started texting his boss, and in a few minutes Rosie Duffield appeared.

In the interest of full disclosure: this is a photo of Duffield from the interwebs. But this is how she looked.

She was startlingly young (although many people are, as I creep through my 50s) and exceedingly generous with her time. I decided to come clean right away and told her I was on a study abroad program from Canada, but she seemed most interested in hearing my opinions on the refugee rights issue. My friend Jill ambled over and we stood chatting, the four of us, for about 20 minutes about the situation with the refugee crisis.

It was an amazing conversation – I am grateful to have had this opportunity to stroll through Westminster and have a meaningful conversation with the MP for Canterbury about an issue that means a great deal to me.  Ms Duffield even asked me about my research, and we then had a conversation about the politics of empathy, and the debate around empathy’s ability to spark prosocial behavior.

I am pretty jaded about politics but must confess I found Rosie Duffield to be sincerely passionate about the plight of refugees in the UK.

So that day will go down in the record books for me. The moral of the story, if there is one, is either: Never risk going to the canteen while waiting to see a British MP! Or perhaps: You can never be too Canadian – even while making an appointment with a British MP. Or, better yet:  No amount of smallness can completely wipe out my faith in humanity.

Whatever the moral, I am sure that the experience will somehow inform my dissertation. At this point I have no idea how – I will have to let my Westminster experience settle a bit before I figure out how it will work its way into my novel. And what better place to ponder the experience than the LM Village refugee camp in Kyllini, Greece? Which is where I am right now. But that’s a story for another day.

 

 

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