Greece and the art of Getting By
There’s a steady rain in Athens. It streaks the soulless modern apartment blocks that stand miserably in the shadow of the Acropolis. Graffiti stained, they are mean, shoddy in comparison.
Greece is broken: reeling from a fifth year of recession. In February, Eurostat, the European statistics agency confirmed that more than a third of Greeks now live in poverty. The Orthodox Church is reckoned to be feeding a quarter of a million people a day and the streets of Athens are home to ten thousand destitute souls. The European Union and the Markets, relentlessly pursue an unprecedented austerity plan in an attempt to balance the books. Their actions might echo Tacitus’ words: “They make a desert and call it peace”.
By contrast, Eleni Nicolaidou’s greeting is warm and genuine. A small, tidy woman with a blond bob, her flat is a nest of books and treasures from her travels. After a lifetime of academia, she has become something of a minor celebrity because of her latest book; Starvation Recipes. Part of her Masters thesis on wartime Greece, the book catalogues the newspaper advice columns outlining ways of making-do in the most severe conditions.
“I was” she says “fascinated by newspapers at the time because they told me many things about the Occupation (The Katochi). Astonishing things”. Her book recounts the hardship of those years and the privations that especially the citizens of Athens suffered. “Greeks during this time” she says “were vegans by necessity”. “It was all about getting by with very little”. “So” she says, “I read an article from the front page of a newspaper, ‘How to collect crumbs’ – a little each day so that you could have a cupful of crumbs by the end of the week, something extra to survive… people were advised to chew their food very, very slowly so that it felt as though they were eating more.”
More than 300000 died of starvation in Athens during the war and people hunted cats and dogs in the streets to supplement their rations. Clearly what Greece is experiencing now is not Katochi but there are inevitable parallels. “Everyday you see people going to the markets when they close for the cheap items – street markets are common here now and people take the rotten fruits and vegetables”. She mentions the inevitable soup kitchens but also the crucial family structures that are allowing people to survive.
“History” says Nicolaidou “does not repeat exactly but you can learn something from the past if you study. You can learn that if you are not careful things will come again – with another form but it will come back and you must be careful”. She continues. “Those (wartime) memories made parents say to their children ‘eat your food because we had nothing’ and this was the line in our history until the 1980s and then the idea to consume became like a monster to us…”
Nicolaidou changes. She is gradually less the historian and more the angry citizen and through her, the pain of the post-war years glows hot.
“Although they want us not to learn history, we have a heroic history of resistance here… from the Occupation, from the Civil War, from the Dictatorships when our people were trampled on by tanks …when our young people tried to ask for democracy they were imprisoned, tortured and exiled… I wait for the moment to show up this tradition of a common front to fight this modern occupation of ours.” She stops and for a moment the anger subsides. There is quiet in the apartment and suddenly we are aware of her pet Beagle frantically scratching at the kitchen door where he has been locked. It is a catharsis and the dog, newly released from his prison bounds around the table between us, happy to join the conversation.
It somehow lightens the mood and Nicolaidou starts again. “We are a very socialised people… we need to talk and make friends – it is our therapy – we are loud and make a racket with our hands and we express ourselves with no fear”. She recounts a recent visit to Berlin. “ We were four people and we took plates and we put them in the middle (of the table) and anything you wanted you could take… and eat – together. At the end of the meal, the waiter inquired what they all had so he could separate the bill. For Nicolaidou, this was very telling. “We said ‘no’ – we want one bill and we will divide it amongst ourselves. We don’t count bites”.
“We are” she says, “Mediterranean… we are the people that gave birth to the word hospitality. In ancient Greece, the King of the Gods was the God of Hospitality. Hospitality and solidarity made us survive through ages and we will not abandon that now. It is in our blood.”
The Greeks, to whom we owe much of classical Western civilisation, call their home Hellas. The Greek creation myth had Gaia – the Mother Earth herself brings forth the Gods. Nicholas Gage in his Hellas – a Portrait of Greece has it that so powerful is the land and the climate that if one lives in the country for any length of time, one must inevitably become Greek. It is this uniqueness, this singularity that forged so dominant and sophisticated society that we feel the echo of today. Central to the idea of a ‘good life’ was the idea of ‘good living’ and with it the notion of food and wine. Epicurus put it well when he said, “Life’s fundamental principle is the wants of the stomach. All the important and trivial matters depend on this principle.” So fertile was the land it seems (according to Christos Zouraris in The Second Deipnosophistis) several food cultures existed simultaneously in Classical Greece. Andrew Dalby in his Foods of the Ancient World says that the legendary Spartans had a frugal and severe diet of many small dishes like Melan Zomos – a hearty soup whose base may have been black beans or lentils. Sybaris on the other hand (now in Southern Italy) favoured excess and sophisticated dishes allowing their cooks free creative reign. During the Byzantine era, Persian cuisine influenced Greek cooking and it seems this is what the Ottomans inherited. The ‘western’ Greek culture, best preserved in modern day Crete (again according to Zouraris), was simpler and more minimalist. The movements of Greek populations from Turkey after the First World War combined the two strands into contemporary Greek cuisine. The basis of Greek food – bread, wine, olives and a context in which to dine on them (a symposion) - allowed civilisation to flourish. It allowed balance (in the terms of the ancient humours). For Homer there was no “greater delight than when joy posses a whole people” and they drink (and eat) together. It is exactly this that forged Greek (and Mediterranean) socialisation. It is this culture, threatened by the austerity, that will have to look to its past and find new ways of exchange to survive.
“You know that I’m not Greek – I’m Icelandic,” says Karitas Mitrogogos a confident former model and wife of a Greek diplomat as we share fresh orange juice in her apartment. Tasteful modern Russian art bears down from the walls, a legacy of one of many postings. Mitrogogos is however uniquely placed as a respected chef and food writer to pronounce on Greek food in the context of current events.
“My husband comes from a family in Thessaly – he has three aunts that were all great cooks and through his household and his family I learned first hand with the family learning the old ways of cooking”
Crucially though she sees that “in the last twenty years that Greeks thought that the traditional food wasn’t good enough … (an) insecurity that their food or their ways are less better than everyone else’s – the Greek, he’s very proud but insecure – you know this ‘we were under the Turks for so long…’” For Mitrogogos though it is the simplicity of the Greek table that makes it so special and durable. “It’s based on sharing, on family, on bringing people together: mother’s love… family love… even if you can’t afford a fancy meal everybody has great tomatoes, some lovely bread …”
But it’s clear that not everybody does have this. The ramifications of the crisis are such that it is not simply the poor sleeping huddled on the streets that are affected but the rich in Mitrogogos’ own apartment block. Privately, she admits to feeding an elderly resident upstairs: a woman who owns her own flat but now has no pension.
Around Syntagma Square a procession of public servants are marching under union banners. Night is coming and the skies are darkening under a steady rain. From the fearsome charges against police lines earlier in the month, with stones and fire and tear gas, there seems to be a damp resignation. I cross the road apologising through the lines of tired faces. On street corners, riot police in olive fatigues lurk like modern knights with Kevlar armour in shop fronts to stay dry. The only colour is provided by the ancient orange trees, nerantzies, proud against the gloom; heavy with bitter fruit.
It was not always so. How different life must have seemed to the Athenians in 2001 when they entered the Eurozone. The celebrations, the fireworks: a new currency. It seemed few noticed or cared about the fragility around them. Perhaps they had been through too much. As a direct result of the fracticide of the Civil War, millions of Greek peasants emigrated or moved to Athens swelling the city so that almost half of Greece lived in the capital. According to Stathis Kouvelakis, Reader in Political Theory at King's College London, the post-war Greek state rested on the old elites; the shipping and property families but also the petty bourgeoisie – family businesses that were grateful clients of the State. In his ‘The Greek Cauldron’, Kouvelakis is clear that Greece “possessed nothing comparable to the social compromise forged elsewhere in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s”. After the Junta fell, the PASOK government created a limited health service and enlarged the education sector as well as instituting substantial increases in wages and pensions. Essentially, this bolted on a political compromise that left the apparatus of power intact. Ironically, this was in political opposition to the rest of Europe that was, at this time, feverishly adopting the promises of the Market. Kouvelakis says that with a historically low tax revenue from large capital and entrenched elites, the period was marked by an “unavoidable level of public debt”. The PASOK Prime Minister Kostas Smitis (with Lucas Papademos at the Central Bank) led the Neo-Liberal charge to deregulation from 1996-2004 overseeing a whirl of financial speculation that would allegedly cut the deficit and enable Euro entry. The worldwide crash of 2008 meant that public debt rose dramatically. Eurostat figures from 2010 showed a public debt of 127% of GDP. Worse still, according to a Der Spiegel report in the same year, “Goldman Sachs helped the Greek government to mask the true extent of its deficit with the help of a derivatives deal that legally circumvented the EU Maastricht deficit rules.”
There is a big lorry of potatoes parked on Sofocleous Street. Burly men sweat and grunt unloading sack after sack under the direction of the delicate figure of Xenia Papastavrou. The former journalist is the brain behind a new kind of enterprise that seeks to address the enormous amount of food waste in Greece against the backdrop of hunger. “I wanted to do something with food because there’s so much waste here,” says Papastavrou. “It’s not like in the UK for example – you know, Pret A Manger and others donate their unsold sandwiches at the end of the day – no, here there was nothing like this.”
We move out of the way of the human potato train into the hall of the Municipal Soup Kitchen. The biggest problem she thought was the disconnect between those that wanted to give and their target. “One night I went into a tavern and they served us so much bread so I asked if I could take it with me – they were actually very grateful and gave me a load. That was last May”. Her thought was to act as a conduit between greengrocers, hoteliers, supermarket chains and the aid providers. The venture – Boroume (‘we can’) was a success pretty much immediately. After a report in the Kathimerini newspaper, offers of help started to pour in.
“… without food you can’t think about other things – it’s a constant worry to put food on the table… also for welfare groups, they can’t function without things to give people…” Crucially for Papastavrou, the idea is to do something “People are frustrated – with things like this it gives people a hope; an optimism. Unemployed people are helping out: we have an unemployed chef in the kitchen right now. You can’t wait for a different moment, you have to do things now.”
The farmer that donated six tonnes of his potato crop did so because the prices at market were so low it was cheaper to dump the produce than to dig it back in the earth. It seems an extraordinary crime: a land so fertile yet one that economics renders impotent. Boroume now has something like two hundred companies that they work with. “Once they’ve been introduced, givers and receivers can deal directly with each other”.
As the men struggle under their sacks they walk past a reception desk that has a muted television tuned to a cookery show. I start to smile at the irony but stop myself. Shamed.
The wide, open courtyard of the Municipal building is bathed in winter sun. As my eyes adjust to the light, the homeless and the unfortunate start to gather: some cheerful, some embarrassed. In one corner, the potato sacks are piled like pliable bricks in an earthy wall. In another, four poles hold up a military-style camouflage netting to give shade. Underneath an old woman sits on a bollard. Her fur coat once glorious is tatty, dappled by the sunlight and her face a jigsaw of light and dark. She seems almost exhausted by the effort of sitting: reduced to this. People shuffle into the courtyard in dribs and drabs. Some stand together, others alone. There is a very great shame here about being poor and accepting charity. It is almost the failure of the family that is being advertised by their very presence. These, apart from what are clearly items of clothing from charity shops, are your own mother and father. Clean, pleasant people that played by the rules, not quite believing that it has come to this. These are the luckier ones: ones who for now still have places to live so they can cook, even if they can’t pay the electricity bills. The other queue, forming in a snaking and more distressed line, are the destitute. Some have clearly been on the streets a while and the cuts and bruises on some faces show the cruelty of Athens’ pavements. These are for the most part the people you see sitting at bus stops long after the last bus; the people huddled in blankets around Monasteraki Metro station; the miserable. These are where the first group might be in a few months when further austerity bites. The two groups do not mix. One scared by the other’s reflection.
According to Papastavrou, the Athens Municipality Solidarity Centre feeds around 2500 people a day in two sessions; in the morning, mostly Greeks and in the afternoon, mostly foreign immigrants. In the kitchens six women ladle thick, yellow potato soup into hundreds of identical white bowls beautifully tessellated and stacked on a table. Basic, filling. A million miles from the sun kissed food of childhood and the warmth of a Greek mother’s kitchen.
One of the women cheerfully hums a Britney Spears number as she sashays around, wooden spoon in hand. Christina, another volunteer and formerly homeless herself has been here for around ten years. “I understand them… I was one of them” she shyly smiles. Athens has always had a problem with homelessness but not like this. Those people fed directly today will have soup, some bread and donated bottles of Coca Cola. Others, discretely contacted by telephone, come and collect potatoes or whatever has been donated, helping themselves to what they need from the earthy sacks.
Natassa (not her real name) slowly unfolds a plastic carrier bag in her lap to carry home her share of the potatoes. She is small, in her late 50s with jet-black hair, a nice coat. Clean. Designer glasses that may be a copy but don’t look cheap. It’s her shoes that give it away. It’s always the shoes that give it away. Cheap, scruffy trainers. She shows me photographs of her daughter who lost a kidney in a hit and run accident on the island where she lives. The girl that stares out from the picture is pretty, petite, thoughtful. With a big scar across her belly. Medical bills. Worry. I wonder silently whether she knows her mother has to beg for food in Athens. “My husband gets €300 a month for his pension and our mortgage is €300 so we don’t even have an extra Euro… we have to eat here since last year – he goes in and out of hospital – he’s pretty sick and he is supposed to eat good food. I come here on the train – I can’t pay so I never buy a ticket. If they catch me they can put me in jail” She laughs. “if I didn’t come here we would go hungry…” She puffs out her chest and then with the enormity of it she starts to cry. How difficult it all is. How unexpected. The thin line between bad luck and surviving on meagre means.
“The worst thing is that no matter who you tell, they never really believe you.”
“Through the idea of sharing food we might find new models of politics”. Demis, 45 (not his real name) is a big man, heavy set like a boxer with gentle but tired eyes. We have arranged to meet in an upscale café in Ampelokipi, an area with perhaps a 50% immigrant population. Outside it’s raining again and inside, a television screen shows advertisements for shops pawning gold jewellery. Well-dressed middle-aged women cradle coffee cups, their eyes scanning the room. Demis shakes my hand firmly.
“All the debate over austerity started from this area in October 2011” he smiles. “A parent committed suicide here and he was unemployed for six or seven months. He had three kids.” Demis is a primary school teacher and has agreed to talk on condition of anonymity about the efforts of the solidarity networks that have been created in Athens’ schools after reports that children were fainting in class through hunger. “We thought – what can we do? ... Some kids don’t have money to eat in schools so much that they start to remind us of African children – not so starving but…” He trails off almost not believing the image that he is conjuring up of what he sees on a daily basis. At first, he says, the teachers started to report that the kids were hungry. “We noticed that the queue to the school shop became very small… then we noticed the clothes – some kids were wearing the same clothes every single day.”
According to Demis, the education authorities denied that there were any issues and accused the teachers of starting a ‘communication war’ in the media - essentially briefing against them. Demis and his colleagues ignored this and started a network in schools that collected donated food and clothes – much of it from the teacher’s themselves. They created “…a solidarity so that we can keep our schools from destruction: to reassure and say that no Greek home will stay without food, light, telephone: without basic needs”. “We made a bazaar where people brought food and clothes. It was like Argentina” (during the economic crisis of 1999-2002). From their initial efforts, the parents and teachers managed to cover the basic needs of twenty families. The Greeks are proud though and it’s clearly not charity. “We call this thing ‘haristiko’ – a gift – a favour, you know?”
The local Municipality responded as best it could. According to Demis there are currently about 260 soup kitchens in Athens’ schools; 42 in his area alone. The State’s dirty open secret. I’m aware of a woman listening at the next table and I turn my back more so as to protect his words.
“Every morning at 1100 the food turns up in a very discreet manner so the other kids won’t be ashamed… it should be the people that brought us to this point who should be ashamed”. Discretion is essential. “The poorer kids go to the teachers room and they give them Tupperware boxes (of food) … we cook for them you know, pasta, rice, chicken, soups, potatoes, apples and so on (but)…not in front of the others”.
Between sips of Greek coffee, Demis continues. “The new networks derived from political communities – some come straight from the Left parties - but this doesn’t make it a wholly political operation – it may have started like this but many people participate. When the Church gives here it asks for something back… it gives power to the Church. This is vertical power – our network is horizontal power. Since this isn’t a travelled road I don’t know how these networks will evolve. One thing I am sure about is that people respond very positively and they show that they like to be part of a community that gives and offers. I hope that these symbolic acts of giving food will bring us back to a place before the 1990s and remind us that hospitality is crucial”
In the taxi back to my hotel, Elena my translator tells me that when I left to pay the bill, the woman on the next table tto whom I had turned my back had opened her heart. Elena told me that she said she’d had lost her government job of thirty years a few weeks ago, her husband already retired. When she heard Demis’ quiet passion she was so proud that someone was ‘doing something’. She said that she came to the café every day and spent precious money nursing a single coffee so that she could ‘feel normal’. Perhaps like many. After that said Elena, she broke down. For the second time I am ashamed.
Peter Michel Heilmann, the man behind the sustainability development network EuroCharity sees people like the woman in the café as the ‘neo-poor’. Heilmann, a boyishly handsome man who stayed has been in Greece for more than twenty years is a devastatingly passionate advocate of the country. He explains that even sections of the lower middle classes with an economic buffer are suffering from the swingeing taxes and the cuts to public sector pay. For him, they are dropping to the base of the pyramid. “These people could go for a coffee with friends but now they are staying indoors”. It is nothing less than a tempering of social behaviour. “That’s why the shops that sell cakes - the zaharoplastia (the pastry bakery shops) are doing so well. Every street has three or four of them. Firstly people under psychological pressure like cakes and secondly if I come to your home, I don’t bring a kilo of rice (that you might need), I bring a cake. The cakes are like a metaphor for people closing in” Heilmann relates this behaviour to more fundamental shifts that have occurred in the last couple of decades in Greece. “Before, people had little earning power but were suddenly told that they could ‘go to 75% of the European mean income’ and join the Euro… Suddenly people wanted to have two, three cars, a TV in every room… people started to get credit because it was cheap… people started speculating in ways that were not sustainable… what I’m saying is that you raise the income, you raise the quality of life – but prices go up”. “You know that in 1999 the Greeks stock market was the best performing in the world? Then (in 2000) it crashed. The problem as Heilmann sees it was before the boom, wages were low but society was working “but then some people said ‘why cultivate the land?’” Tragically for the Greeks, domestic goods and products were seen as inferior. Added to that closed and (euphemistically) unclear business practices in, for example, the transportation industries mean that people and companies are very hesitant to invest any more. According to Heilmann, suppliers want to be paid in cash straight away and even major Greek supermarkets are having trouble so some suppliers are going out of business.
Despite Greece’s trade deficit shrinking by 28.2% in 2011 (Elstat) there is still an excessive reliance on imports for basic needs like clothing - and food. All of which makes Heilmann understandably angry. According to him, Greece has many of the resources to be self-sufficient. “You know Crete has its own bananas? The Crete ones are little, sweet and very delicious – and around Cyprus and Greece there’s a serious effort in becoming exporters of petrol”. For him, before the Greeks entered the EU in 1981 people were more social – “the less money you have, you look at other values – they could as they used to - bake their own bread together and go to the fields outside of the city and pick their own horta (or vrasta - boiled greens are a staple in any Greek household) but now, if you get it in the supermarket, it costs like a Euro”.
Far from reverting to some golden aged agricultural economy based on cheerful patronised peasants and tourism, Heilmann believes in a Market, but a responsible one. EuroCharity’s mission while promoting a corporate responsibility message to business is also enthusiastically Green and he can point to a myriad of organisations that are having to adapt to face the economic challenges of feeding Greece whilst nodding to a shared and collective history. Companies like AB Vassilopoulos, the second largest supermarket chain in Greece, is now donating large amounts of produce through its own food bank. The Stavros Niarchos Fund (although based in New York) “so far has given €948m – much of it to do with feeding people.” Perhaps however, the most interesting of the new ventures are the Social Grocery Stores. Set up by the NGO Edra (whose experience is in providing specialised services in the mental health and learning disabilities sector) the shops function exactly like a normal supermarket except that the stock is almost exclusively sourced directly from Greek suppliers. There are, however, several categories of consumer. Firstly the shop is open to all and one can come and pay 100% of the price as advertised. The second category, once you have proved your income is very low, is a 10% discount card. Finally, the shop gives an entire weekly shop to (currently 40) families that are in immediate and serious need. Those provisions, however basic, mean that a level of survival is assured. In this small enclave of Ilioupolis, another 300 families are on a waiting list. The Municipality has given the space for nothing and as manager Theodonis Kitsos, a genial former driver tells me “it’s like a solidarity”. The people he is helping to feed were “… store owners, bank employees… They had a proper salary - €2-3000 per month – but now they are unemployed for two or three years – they can’t get any more unemployment benefit and have zero income. Say they haven’t paid their rent for 12 months – or their bills – this is a direct and immediate way of helping these people.”
He sees an upside however small, even though he sees next year as getting worse – “Everyone will knock on their neighbour’s door and help – people will come closer I think” He relates this back to the idea of the Greek family bond – desimo “… this is ritual – you are born into this – it’s how it is – everyday is like a holiday – even at funerals you get together and eat together” As he spreads his hands wide to explain a point, a tiny, typical black-dressed Greek grandmother potters behind him doing her weekly shopping.
The lettuce leaf I have been given is divine – crunchy and fresh, slightly peppery and covered in salt and oil. Also a little dirt. Athanasios (‘immortal’ in Greek – an excellent name for a gardener) is feeding me the fruit of his labour pulled a moment ago from the earth. I stand with him and several smart ladies in a field. On one side are pleasant apartment blocks: cheerful, white and shining in the sun. Their coloured awnings, tiny splashes of reds and yellows. In front, a field, half cultivated with a mesh fence and a gate with no lock. “This” says Anna, my cheerful guide who works for the Metro “is the garden”.
Joined by Kate (an editor) and Natassa (an architect) they proudly list their crops – lettuce (of course), beetroot, onions, beans and spinach. The earth is dark and rich and this is, irony of ironies, part of the outer grounds of the old American airforce base at Elliniko. “We set this up about a year ago because we wanted to produce food… we don’t sell it: we give it to other people”. I must look shocked because Kate interrupts “The gate is not locked... everyone in the neighbourhood can come here and take…” The concept is to make some plants – it’s the second season so we have something to eat … it is our experiment because we are not agriculturalists, we are citizens” Originally the government gave the land to the Municipality to lease the area for public use but a year ago, rumours began spreading that the land was being sold off to developers. Local residents moved in with shovels, a myriad of ideas and a wish to inspire others to grow their own food. This isn’t the only experiment in the re-appropriation of Greek public space – in Exarchia there are several 'people's parks' that were taken over by locals to stop the City’s planners concreting them over for parking and there are similar projects in Petroupolis and Liosa (Antonis Tritsis Park). It would be a mistake to see them as linked, though groups do communicate though via Internet forums discussing everything from solar energy to fertiliser (Kate swears by utilising the properties of stinging nettles…apparently ‘very smelly’). Their unity is to see Greece produce again. “We wanted to produce food to survive the crisis” says Natassa but the experiment is also about providing an example to locals of what can be achieved. “Greece has to produce generally now” she says. “We were a society that was only consuming (but) we have a very good climate and we were agricultural so we have to return to that and start thinking and acting differently”.
The project, started by a town planner, an agronomist and a botanical gardener, sees about fifteen or twenty ‘gardeners’ work here regularly but not all are residents. According to Natassa, “it is important for us to know how to make food because we don’t know in the future if we will have a salary – even if people cultivate in their courtyards or balconies – we tell people you can grow very good food on balconies” Between the three women we reach a conclusion that in the nearby estate “perhaps” fifty per cent are actually doing this now. “You know” says Kate, “people come with their families and one lady told to us that her children thought that the plants were grown in the supermarket! Now schools want to bring children here to see this”
After a while, Athanasios joins us. He has been working with some children collecting twigs and branches for a fire and his large hands are dry and cracked. He is the happiest man I have seen for a long time. “You know in Greece we have this saying ‘whoever works for himself, remains by himself’…we don’t want to be rich – we want to be happy and to be happy you have to be together… knowing this doesn’t make us smarter but we learn (how) to plant and grow” A horticulturalist for twenty years, he’d never worked with vegetables before – “I couldn’t go to a company and say I didn’t know about vegetables. Now I am learning”. He pauses and with a sly glance he says – “I could be earning a good salary – believe me, my wife tells me this also…” He starts to chuckle. “The truth is that I believe in the simple things: we have a beautiful sea we have a beautiful sun, I can eat simple foods – I live in a land of opportunity - here is paradise – everything is in your hand.
We are joined by an archaeologist, Tina. A self-confessed optimist, she however like many here doesn’t believe that the gardens will be able to stay open with the blessing of the Municipality. “They are selling the land off to pay our debts”. The issue is of course not just that they will sell it but for how much. “They are going to sell the state company that runs Athens water for €80m… that’s nothing – that might buy ten good homes”. The group nods. They know that land is symbolic for Greece. “Our land has been through a lot” she says “But even the Junta didn’t try to sell public land. This is an occupation – this is a war. Our ‘leaders’ made a fund where all the titles of Greek property are transferred and once they are transferred they cannot come back. They talk about development but it’s not possible to develop in a country with no public land… We are the resistance” I think I hear her voice wobble ever so slightly but it’s probably just the wind.
Tomorrow is Ash Monday – or Clean Monday in Greece, the day that symbolises the beginning of Lent. A feast is planned at the community centre a few metres away. Anna takes me over to see the preparations and her group’s contributions. Everyone laughs as they show me the few lettuce heads that they’ve managed to bring from their experiment but all donations given with a kind heart are gratefully accepted. Babis, a young unemployed man with a wispy beard explains how the residents were given much of the food for the feast by local producers. “This happens every year but this year it’s gonna be better - people are donating more food and people understand that there is a need and they give. It’s our culture – the same thing we do every weekend with our families. We sit together here as a community – it’s the same thing”
In the afternoon, the municipal soup kitchen has a slightly carnival atmosphere. Africans, Kurds, Arabs and Bangladeshis all congregate in their little groups talking animatedly about their troubles. Who knows their tortuous routes to Europe, but they are being fed. There is a blur of grubby children running this way and that. Women in headscarves picnic on the grass with chunks of Greek bread. Men of all shades discuss politics and perhaps wonder about the families that they have left in yet more difficult, dusty places.
Natassa has returned with her husband to help carry more potatoes home in a shopping basket on wheels. He is tired and a little resigned, never imagining that his dotage would be like this. “We are good people” he says. The lowing sun casts long sharp shadows that cut the ground into the jagged shapes of the railings around the building. Arm in arm, two old people as if on promenade. Then she turns and her face lights with something that is between pride and humour.
“I may be a beggar” she says, “but I am still a lady”
She is, for that moment, all of Greece.
© Stuart Freedman