Day 12: Patras
Through the dirty windows of our superior deluxe cabin, the sea was iridescent. Only a distant strip of land, and the light haze above it, interrupted the union of water and sky, both of which were the same phthalo blue. During the night we’d sailed south, and compared to southern Italy, the temperature was a few degrees warmer. I got dressed, put on my shorts and left the cabin.
Most of the truckers had disembarked in the middle of the night, when the boat docked at Igoumenita close to the Albanian border, but at the back of the boat, next to the engine, stood a few men smoking and drinking coffee. They watched silently, as I climbed the steps. Up on the deck I wondered around. Took a few indistinct shots of the Ionian Sea and felt glad to be moving under someone else’s steam for a change.
In the cafeteria I ordered a coffee.
‘Greek or Italian style?’ asked the barman.
‘Greek,’ I said cheerfully, and then regretted it when I tasted the thick, bitter liquid.
Behind me a TV was on. I carried the coffee towards the dining area. Near a window sat a small group of travellers, two men and a woman and I asked if I could join them.
‘Are you one of the cyclists?’ The woman asked. I nodded. ‘We saw you boarding the ferry.’ She said, inviting me to sit next to her. The woman was tanned, her hair short and blonde. Her jewellery looked expensive and draped elegantly over her shoulders was a cashmere scarf. When I asked if I could interview them, she said.
‘You won’t find anyone more European than me. I am Belgium, I married a Brit and I live in Switzerland.’ She told me she was on her way to Rhodes where she had a holiday place. The usual ferry she took from Ancona had been cancelled, and she’d had to race down the A14 to catch the one we were on instead.
‘This is not a typical passenger ferry?’ I asked.
‘Oh no.’ She laughed. ‘The ferries to Greece are usually much more luxurious than this.’
‘And cleaner.’ Chuckled one of her companions opposite, an older man, in a checked shirt, wearing glasses.
I began by asking their thoughts on Brexit.
Ruthy responded first.
‘I wasn’t for Brexit,’ she said. ‘But I do have some sympathy for the vote. I was in Scotland the morning the result was announced. I saw people’s reactions, the disappointment, but I like to look on the bright side. The EU needs a shake up. Everywhere there is turmoil. You have the Catalan issue, the Greek story. France is in disarray, Holland the same. Germany is rich but there is a lot of poverty there. The problems are blamed on the new Eastern European members, but it is more complicated than that. I’m hoping the EU will learn from it and make some serious changes. I’m hoping the turmoil now will produce a more balanced Europe in the future.’ She paused, then added, ‘But you know, no one is talking about Brexit right now, because everyone is focused on Spain.’
The second man had been listening attentively. He explained he was from Greece. Then said more pessimistically.
‘I believe a united Europe won’t happen in my lifetime. I see a divide in Europe. The east and the south are Europe’s poor neighbours.
‘You’re right,’ the woman said nodding her agreement and interrupting. ‘The gap between east and west is too big. Too many countries joined too soon.’ She spoke quickly, authoritatively but she’d rather missed the point regarding Greece’s relationship with the EU, which had inadvertently compromised its sovereignty while attempting to transform itself into a modern European state.
‘Yes there is inequality and it creates divides.’ She continued. ‘It is the consequence of capitalism. With capitalism you are always going to have division. But it’s also about politics. The politicians think about their career rather than the country. Before, the poor were able to depend on social security. Now it is being eroded, worn away.’ Then more contentiously she added. ‘But you know people now they don’t want to work. Who sweeps the streets in the UK?’ She said looking at me. ‘Foreigners. People who are prepared to move to find work.’
‘I think Europe is ok,’ the man in the checked shirt from Holland quietly said. ‘You can travel, it’s open. You don’t need a passport.’
‘And,’ Ruthy continued, ignoring him, ‘Right now there is the perception that the floodgates have opened. Across Europe people fear the spread of Islam.’ I felt uncomfortable. ‘There is the Syrian situation. In Patras, at the port, there are a lot of young people from Iran, Iraq, Syria. You can see them, at the terminal, trying to get on the lorries illegally.’
The Greek man interrupted.
‘In Athens the refugee crisis is a tragedy.’ He said softly. ‘You see young boys selling themselves in the gay bars. They charge 5 Euros, 10 Euros. They have nothing. I’ve tried to help a few. You know the country has changed. The refugee crisis in Greece is very noticeable.’
He looked at me, then cautioned. ‘While you are in Greece you should be careful. You need to be careful of your passport, its valuable, people will steal it to sell it.’
His partner agreed. ‘I recently met an older couple in Athens. They’d had everything stolen on the tube. They’d only just arrived.’
‘You know before the crisis the Greeks used to be happy.’ The Greek man said. ‘But they know things aren’t going to get back to how they were for the next 30 to 40 years. We’ll be paying off our debts for decades. Now, the wages are very low only 4-500 Euros a month. In the morning, at breakfast time, you see people going through the rubbish looking for food.’
He looked glum.
Ruthy asked why.
‘You can afford a good life,’ she said, ‘it doesn’t affect you.’
‘Yes, but the mood of the city gets to you.’ He said. ‘It affects your outlook. The suffering you see there’
‘I’ve only been in Athens a year,’ his companion said. ‘I like it there. I like the weather.’ He said with a twinkle in his eye. ‘Every day I go to sit in the park. But the people I see there are getting poorer. Their clothes and shoes are worn out.’
‘The big cities are affected the worst.’ The Greek man added. ‘It’s not so bad on the islands where they rely on tourism.’ He said looking at Ruthy. ‘You know the prices there are not for the Greeks. They are tourist prices. When I talk in Greek I get charged a different price.’
I sat with the group a little while longer. They were good company. They joked and laughed about the state of the ferry. After a while I left them. I wanted to take some more portraits of the other passengers. As I wondered around the boat Ruthy’s words kept coming back to me. When I’d asked her if she believed the general situation was as bad as the media liked to portray, she’d said.
‘You know I spoke to an old Greek woman on the ferry, the last time I travelled to Greece. She told me it smelt like before, like before the war. These are unsettled times. There is turbulence. Disquiet in Austria, France, Greece, Holland even Switzerland. The Greeks are afraid of Turkey. There are problems in the Middle East. I hope the woman is wrong. But you know, things are brewing.’
Exiting the lift to the hull, we could smell engine fumes. The boat was still moving, but the doors were already open. Pedestrians lined the sides of the ship. Behind us a lorry turned. We loaded up the bikes and waited. The boat docked. Ruthy, in her expensive convertible hooted as she drove past. We cautiously cycled down the ramp onto a wide deserted concourse. Not knowing which direction to proceed, we followed the trucks. There were no customs. No personnel at the exit. With little time to adjust, abruptly we found ourselves in Greece.
We’d decided to cycle south along the coast, away from Patras, to find somewhere to stay the night. Just after the gate, we pulled over briefly, to check the map. There, on the road ahead, I suddenly noticed twenty or so, young men, silhouetted by the sun, running away from the port. Behind us, a dozen more sprang from their hiding place at the back of the terminal under some trees. Ruthy had told us about the boys and young men living in the factories opposite the port, but still we were surprised to be confronted by the crisis in Greece, so soon after our arrival. Before long the police arrived. We watched the young men expertly scale the fence.
My immediate impression was of a game. The would-be stowaways, some running, some walking, were agile and seemed untroubled. It occurred to me they had little else to do and nothing to lose. They lingered on the other side of the fence, awaiting a renewed chance. The police presence, one car and a motorbike, was feeble. I imagined the routine played out daily and I wondered then to what extent the Greek authorities were committed to preventing their escape.
We set off following a short section of dual carriageway towards Paralia. Having delayed to put my camera away, the others were in front. Two men suddenly appeared running towards me. I stiffened. Exhausted, my mind leapt to the worse case scenario. It wouldn’t take much to pull me to the ground. I had all my belongings on the bike, including my passport and afraid, I quickened my pace.
As they drew closer I could see their faces. The first was older than I’d imagined. His face was wan. He looked ill and agonisingly harried, but his expression was uncompromisingly determined.
They weren’t interested in me. They passed just behind. Heading towards a gap in the fence the others had pulled down earlier. I turned, and glimpsed them crouching behind a building, checking the way was clear before making a break for the boat. As I cycled away, I questioned my reaction and felt guilty. I wondered what they hoped to find in Italy and where they might go after. I worried their reception might be less hospitable than they imagined.
As soon as we could, we came off the main road. After navigating our way through a chaotic street of turning vehicles and potholes we joined the coast road. There the sea shone. We passed moored boats, a woman fishing. Pine trees, offering shade, lined the shore. An old man dived from a concrete jetty and there we agreed to stop. While the others swam I wrote down my feelings about the boys, and planned how I might approach them the following day. Afterwards I sunbathed a while, and later submerged my weary body, in the clear, cold water and felt momentarily revived.
We found a restaurant with tables under a small pine copse close to the beach. The sun was already dipping. We ordered three beers, Tzatziki, Greek salad, hot beetroot and battered squid. After ten days on the road, we’d finally made it to Greece. We toasted our arrival to celebrate. Across the water we could see the mainland and the mountains. We booked a room in a holiday apartment not far away. Soon after we paid the bill. Then readied ourselves to set off again and pushed the bikes towards the road. There, lying in the middle of the tarmac, was a kitten. It had been run over moments before. It was panting heavily. A man stood close by wondering what to do, but it had little chance of surviving.
Now the sun lay just above the water. The wisps of cloud above us had turned pink and orange. The sea still glistening below, was a deep, dark purple. Quickly it turned to night. In the dark we passed people fishing, walking along the shore. The road narrowed then became sand. We retraced our way. Three dogs chased us, barking and yapping at our wheels. Soon after we turned in land and navigated our way through a grid of apartment buildings, all the while listening out for dogs.
We were only a few km from our accommodation. The main road was uneven and rough. Inconsiderate drivers passed perilously close. Near a junction, lit up by a passing car, a girl appeared from behind a bin. Intoxicated she kicked out at the passing traffic. Wearily we hurried past, hoping to avoid her fury.