Day 13: Vrachnaiika to Kiani Akki (35km)
The night before, we’d gone to bed at eight. With the hour time difference, it was seven in Italy. We were exhausted. But, wanting to find out more about Greece, before turning off the light, I read to my weary companions a passage from the introduction of Yanis Varoufakis’ book ‘And the Weak Suffer What They Must’.
It told how in January 2015, minutes after being sworn in, Alexis Tsipras the new Prime Minister, had laid a wreath at Kaisariani, to commemorate the execution of 200 Greek activists by Nazi forces during the Second World War. How, at the time the move had been interpreted by the international press as a symbolic gesture of defiance against German occupation, drawing parallels between the Third Reich and the fiscal straightjacket enforced on Greece by the German-led Eurozone.
In his version Varoufakis presented himself as the victim. He claims the press’s retelling of events encumbered his mandate of forming alliances in the German, Federal Ministry of Finance. And, that the following month he attempted to clear the air by holding out an olive branch. In a statement made at a joint press conference, he suggested that no other nation was better placed to understand Greece’s predicament than Germany and how economic depression, ritual national humiliation and unending hopelessness can foster support for fascism. His so-called peace offering came in the form of suggesting the wreath had been laid as an act of defiance. Not against the Germans, but the resurgence of Nazism in Greece and that ‘Germany [could] be proud of the fact that Nazism [had] been eradicated [there]’. He ended the statement by saying:
‘We need the people of Germany to help us in the struggle against misanthropy. We need our friends in this country to remain steadfast in Europe’s postwar project: that is, never again to allow a 1930s-like depression to divide proud European nations. We shall do our duty in this regard. And I am convinced so will our European partners.’
Afterwards, he wrote of his surprise and then despair that the German press had ‘lambasted’ him for mentioning the Nazis, while the Greek press celebrated him calling Dr Schauble (The German Minister for Finance) a fascist. Reading aloud Varoufakis’ version of events that night, I was bemused. How could he have been so naïve? It seemed obvious his conduct would have done little to improve relations between the two nations, which were, by then, already fraught.
That morning we missed the alarm. It was set for seven but we didn’t awake ‘til nine. I was worn-out. My body depleted. Becky’s knee was tender and swollen. But, we had time to take it easy. We were little more than 200km from Athens, and had several days to make the journey.
We ate breakfast amongst laden orange trees. The sky was glum, the coffee thick and bitter. I wanted to return to the ferry port to photograph and talk to the boys there, but the others weren’t eager. We compromised and agreed to access the situation as we rode by.
After breakfast I asked our hosts if I might interview them. Leaning against a bar, I spoke with the mother who had served us breakfast while her son translated. I began by asking what impact the financial crisis had had on them.
‘We are anxious about the economy and tired because of the mistakes made by the politicians. It is not our mistake. They steal the money, and we pay. It is the small people who pay not the politicians.’
She answered my questions with a serious look on her face and I felt uneasy as if I were intruding. Sighing she went on to explain.
‘Politics here are not stable. They don’t do anything to change the situation for the people. Brussels and Belgium is our government. Our PM says yes to the EU because he doesn’t know how to do anything else. We’ve had economic crisis here for eight years and we have many more ahead because they don’t do anything differently.’
I noted her response and then asked more tentatively how she felt about the EU.
‘You know we must be a member of the EU because it is good for us to have the movement of people. Tourists visiting. The Germans, the Italians, they come to us because we are a member state. And, it is not just about the money and because it is good for business. The interaction, the exchange of ideas between people that is also important.’
Next, wanting to find out more about the refugee crisis there I asked them about the boys at the port.
‘We have too many people here,’ the mother told me, ‘and obviously many don’t want to stay here. Some do stay, because it is a relaxed country. But it is not good for the area and tourism. They are staying in places outside the port. Too many of these people steal money. Too many come everyday in the East Islands. There are not so many here at the moment. They left for a while, but now they’ve come back. They try to leave but the other countries don’t want them. The police try to give them papers to give them back to their countries, but they don’t want to go.’
I didn’t feel like enquiring further. The woman seemed reticent and so I thanked her for her time. Before I left the son warned me there was a public holiday that day.
‘There is a festival. All the shops will be shut. A long time ago – we had a war with the Italians. They were here in Patras. They wanted us to join the war but we said no. So they invaded us. That is why there is a holiday today.’
We pushed the bikes up to the main road. Presently, we came across a priest leading a funeral procession. Overhead, two fighter jets flew past. Cycling back the way we had come the night before, we saw the girl, sitting on a piece of card, smoking a cigarette. She was with a companion who was kneeling in front of her. They were young, no older than twenty. The girl looked dishevelled, and her eyes were puffy and swollen. In the bushes behind, I could see their belongings and realised they were living there, between the bins and the bar. As we cycled passed a man on a motorcycle pulled up to talk to them.
Soon after, we turned left and re-joined the coast road. There, in the waterfront café sat men in jackets, women in dresses, smoking and drinking coffee. The prosperity there, the people relaxing and enjoying the holiday, seemed incongruous with the hardship we’d witnessed moments before. The natural beauty of the sea and the mountains surrounding us, in that moment, served only to accentuate the squalor of the girl’s misfortune. The cloud, which had been gathering all morning, became more threatening, and the sea turned from a cheerful blue into a more foreboding hue.
We drew closer to the port. I noticed the panel of fence, which had been broken down the day before had been replaced. Soon, we passed on our right one of the factories the young men were living in. Looking in, as I rode by I could see tents, rubbish, piles of plastic bottles and wooden pallets. Winter was coming but the young men had no access to running water or electricity. On a platform, at the corner of the building stood a young man surveying the port, brushing his teeth.
Riding along Akti Dimeon, we passed a café. There sat three more men, silently watching. They were all dressed in black. I didn’t feel like stopping. Further on, we saw a larger group of boys. They were also watching the port. They were standing behind a bus stop, lined up against the wall. As we approached, one stepped into the road. The rest watched us, only vaguely interested as we hurried by.
Later when we stopped for lunch I wrote down my impressions. The mood in our group was leaden and gloomy. It was impossible not to be moved. The young men had no job, no home, no support. They were existing, not living, and focussed only on escape. A friend who visited the port afterwards, told me many of the young men there were from Afghanistan and had little chance of regulating their immigration status. The day before I’d found the Greek authorities response perplexing. The interaction between the boys and the police had been akin to a game of cat and mouse. But my friend told me also, that furtively the police were often brutal. Away from the gaze of visiting tourists, the young men were routinely rounded up and beaten before being released.
As we had neared the town, it began to rain lightly. All around were families enjoying the holiday. The Greek flag was everywhere. We cycled towards the beachfront. There in a car park we saw a lorry laden with young people in traditional costumes, and as I chased after them trying to get a photograph they cheered. As we skirted around the outskirts of the town we passed more fishing boats. On we went. As we were leaving the city the rain became torrential. Passing a quay we noticed a busy restaurant and stopped.
The restaurant was full. But we were offered a table under a large umbrella and this at least kept the worst of the rain off. We leant the bikes against a flagpole and then later moved them to shelter. Through the plastic window of the tarpaulin, we could see the family dinning next to us. When they had finished eating, I approached them and asked if I could take their photo.
One of the sons spoke English. I cannot comment on how, in Greece, generational differences influence opinion for I do not know it well enough. But the family happily demonstrated they exist. For when I asked them about Europe, one of the sons told me,
‘Europe is good. The people must stay united. It is the politicians who are the problem. The EU is not united.’
His mother disagreed. She told me she loved London and then said, ‘The British are wise. Brexit in my view,’ she held her hand to her chest ‘is a good thing.’
Afterwards I asked them about the festival.
‘Today it is Ohi day, a day for family reunion. This day nearly eighty years ago, is when the Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas said ‘no’ to Mussolini.’
Later I read how Metaxas had rejected Mussolini’s ultimatum – to allow Axis forces to occupy strategic locations in Greece – and how a few hours later the Italian army had invaded. Ohi day it seemed to me, was not just a day for family reunion, it was also a day to celebrate Greek pride and courage.
When the restaurant began to empty we moved inside to dry off. We ordered tea and cake and played cards for a while. It was late afternoon, when the rain eventually stopped and we continued on our way. We climbed out of Patras, stopping to admire the view of the Rion-Antirion Bridge crossing the Gulf of Corinth, joining the Peloponnese to the main land.
The road was wet and grey. There was little traffic. As we made our way through a series of roundabouts we came across a pack of wild dogs. They were eating something on the road. A few weeks before the trip, stray dogs had killed a British woman holidaying in northern Greece, while she was out walking and I was petrified. Matt 1 silently and cautiously rode on. I watched him go. They did not stir and so I quietly followed hoping not to draw their attention.
On we cycled for another 15km or so. Near where the old road to Athens and recently completed E65 motorway ran side by side, we turned left towards the coast again. At the water’s edge the clear, lucid sea lapped gently on the pebble shore. We passed a man fishing. The evening sun broke through the cloud and lit up the mountains once more.
We stopped to ask a passing woman the way to our accommodation.
‘How much are they charging you?’ She enquired. When we told her she said.
‘I have rooms you can stay in for cheaper.’
She offered to show us the room and we followed. The apartment was right on the shore. Below, was the restaurant terrace covered in vines. We agreed to take the room and afterwards we swam. Later that evening we watched the woman’s mother teaching her grandson how to fish, expertly casting her line out into the dark, clear water.
We went to bed early. But for a little while before sleeping, I flicked through the channels on the TV in the corner of the room. Most were showing old Second World War films, of the Greeks fighting the occupying Germans.