Greek Gods and a Racist

There seem to be no less than a hundred holidays in Greece throughout the year, but March is perhaps the most holiday-filled. There were two holidays last week, one of which was in celebration of a multiple islands off the coast of Turkey coming back into the possession of Greece many decades ago. To commemorate this occasion, the local Greeks of Leros celebrate with a parade, which somewhat resembles Halloween in the United States. Each group in the parade dressed up in different costumes and then paraded down the streets of Lakki.

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Team Echo.

Our coordinators decided we should be part of the parade and dress as Greek Gods. I found this comical since none of us are actually from Greece, but I think that was the whole point. So, in the middle of the afternoon on Sunday, the entire group of volunteers and a few dozen residents of the camp dressed in white and spray painted some leaves gold to make into crowns for our heads. When it was all said and done, I think we looked pretty ridiculous–which was perfect. None of us resembled Gods, in my opinion, but we did all at least match.

 

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Me and Mohammed in Greek God attire. 

It took a number of hours to prepare everyone’s costumes and to dress our van up for the occasion. I think getting ready for the event was the best part, that’s when everyone was having the most fun. When it came time for the parade itself, we had to wait over an hour before processing down the main street of Lakki. I attribute the holdup to the Greek culture, nothing ever “needs” to begin on time. But the day was perfect. The sun was out and the temperature was right where it needed to be for a stroll outdoors in strange attire.

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Waiting for our turn in the parade.

Our spot in the parade was between a group of women dressed up like flamingoes and a truck full of men sitting in the back of the pickup, dressed like they were going to rob a bank with masks over their faces and plastic guns in their hands. The local elementary school had all of its students dressed up like the different countries of the world. This meant there were a bunch of little tikes running around with giant pieces of paper draped over their shoulders with little sketches of maps on them.

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The Echo van, all decked out in Greek God garb. 

I think the entire celebration lasted a few hours, but by the time the parade wrapped up we had been preparing for so long that we basically just dispersed and called it a day.

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The only hiccup we experienced throughout the day was in the middle of the parade when an on-looker shouted something at our group as we walked by. We made no effort to hide who we were. We were clearly a group of international volunteers and refugees from all over the world. We were not locals. One of the volunteers, who happens to be Greek, overheard one of the spectators shouting something rude at us. I watched as she pulled herself out of the parade and confronted the person in the crowd. When I caught back up with her later, she was upset, but she didn’t give me any specifics on what she had said to them or what they had said to her. I already knew the entire story though, just by looking at her face as she stepped out of the parade and feeling her reaction afterwards.

The day was fun. It pulled many of the residents away from the dire conditions of the camp for a while. It’s too bad that someone was rude to us, but no one was impacted by it since no one understands Greek and there were many cheers from the crowd to overpower the racism. But, this is the reality, nonetheless.

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Sunset Prison Sentence

People tend to disappear on this island. They’re here one day and gone the next. Sometimes it’s because they’ve quietly boarded the ferry the evening before and sometimes it’s because they’ve been taken to prison. With volunteers and locals, it’s different, obviously. But for the refugees, if you can’t locate someone that you’re used to seeing, it could be for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, they’ve snuck onto the ferry and are illegally making their way to Athens, sometimes they’ve been granted asylum and their travel restrictions have been lifted so they leave the island right away, and sometimes, most horribly, they’ve been arrested.

Arrests are a unique thing on this island. There is no prison here, just a holding cell at the police station on the other side of the island. The closest prison is on the island of Kos, which is a few hours away by ferry. So, a lot of time when someone seems to vanish, they’re just being held in a cell on the other side of the island. In my first three month stint on Leros, I wasn’t aware of anyone being put in the jail, but when I left, some of the people I knew the best were arrested and I didn’t hear from them for the duration of their time there. One friend spent more than a month in the jail before he was released.

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This time around, it’s one of the residence who happily greets me every time I see him, who hugs me whenever he can, who has been thrown in jail.

The question: WHY?

The answer: I don’t know. I just really, really do not know.

In an effort to get asylum in Greece, many refugees go through the entire process, often for more than a year. Their cases are accepted or denied, they can get lawyers and appeal their decisions, etc. The process really seems to stretch on and on, but there almost always seems to be something else that can be done other than getting deported back to their home country or to Turkey. Things happen, but the system is so slow that the effect of the cause tends to take time. So, even if someone’s case is over and they need to be deported, the slow Greek system may not actually have them sent back to their country for a month or two after the decision is made. This is partly why things can appear to happen so suddenly.

So, my buddy is in jail right now. He might need to be transferred to Kos at some point, but for now he’s still on Leros. I went to visit him yesterday. I was told the visiting hours were from 6 to 7, so I went to the store, bought some food, and headed over to the other side of the island. Fortunately, I was able to borrow one of the vehicles I have for work, otherwise I would have had to make the walk over which would have taken about an hour or so. When I parked the car next to the marina, the sunset was bursting in golden rays. The entire island seemed to be glowing, with the sun bouncing off of the white buildings of the hilly town and the mountain behind me. I’m again reminded that the stark beauty of this island means nothing when it comes to the secrets this place can hold. I quickly snapped a photo with my phone out of irony as I climbed from the car. This place is utterly stunning, but haunting as well, as I made my way to the police station to see my captive friend.

When I arrived with another volunteer, it was about 5 minutes after 6:00. The police at the station seemed surprised to see us. When I said we were there to visit our friend, they looked at me confused but complied. One of the officers said that he would only allow one of us to go see him, so I took the bag of things I had purchased for him at the store and then followed the man out of the office and into a dark hallway. At the end of the hall, there was an old fashioned metal door, which looked exactly how every jail cell in the movies looks, only dingier and scarier. There was hardly any light. The officer painted to the bars and said flatly, “call him.”

Confused, I looked through the metal bars and called out my friends name, but, so not to let the officer be aware of what I was saying, I called out a few words in Farsi. I thought by doing this, I’d be taking a little of the power from the police officer. I heard my words echo off of the bare walls of the cell I was calling into. A moment of nothing, then my friend appeared around the corner. He was dressed how he always is, in his jeans and a jacket, with a lit cigarette in hand.

The police officer rifled through the bag I brought as I greeted my friend at the gate. You’re not suppose to touch the prisoners, but I did anyway. I’m used to hugging him whenever I see him, so touching his hand through the bars seemed like nothing. Item by item, the officer passed everything I brought through the bars to my friend. Some peanuts for protein, some dried fruit for vitamins, a can of Coke for comfort because it was still cold, and some potato chips for a snack. 5 sudoku books, something I thought would be useful in keeping his brain active while sitting in the endless boredom, but the pen I brought was not allowed. I hoped I had my basis covered. Other visitors had told me that they had already brought him snacks and hygiene products, because the cell is notorious for its lack-of-care. Prisoners get put in the cell and ignored, they aren’t given items to bathe themselves or fed three times a day.

When the officer was finished handing everything through the bars, he took a single step back and said, “you have one minute.” He hovered over my shoulder the entire time, so I was actually happy to only have one minute because I realized I didn’t have anything to say to my friend if someone else was going to be eavesdropping on the conversation the entire time. Had we been alone, I would have been fine to continue speaking, but not while being watched so closely. It seemed, that after two days in the jail cell, my friend seemed to be doing fine, but it was obvious that the situation could quickly become mentally dire. I hope his lawyer figures something out for him soon.

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Now I’ve seen one more piece of this experience. Now I know a little bit more of the story. Slowly, slowly this whole tale is told.

Babe, you’re glowing gold, but I can see you’ve got a secret.

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“You Are Nothing”

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This is me, prepping for a driving shift while glancing at a phone that isn’t mine. 

One of the refugees recently moved out of the Hotspot camp and into his own flat in town. His card was “opened”, meaning that his documentation was allowing him to travel to mainland Greece. He was due to be transferred by the authorities to a different camp on the Greek mainland, but since he has been on Leros for so many months, he wanted to remain here. He has become comfortable in this little community, he knows some of the locals, he frequents the Hub and has become a friend of many of us volunteers, and the residents at Hotspot know him. So, he has community here. Why would he want to leave just to have to wait for asylum in a new spot in Greece?

By taking a flat, he’s removed himself from the difficulties of living in the camp, and also granted himself the opportunity to remain on Leros without any issue. Unfortunately, it’s not like all of the problems that a refugee encounters each day simply go away just because they’ve found themselves a home. For example, when moving into his home, the place didn’t have any Wifi, so he and his landlord went to the local phone store to arrange a hookup for him. When the clerk asked him for his tax number, he didn’t have one, since he isn’t a resident of Greece. His landlord, standing beside him, laughed at him and told him, “see, you are nothing” and preceded to give the clerk his tax number to arrange for the internet to be setup.

The situation was clearly awkward, especially since it was taking place publicly, but my friend, fortunately, had the drive and persistence to standup for himself. It ended with his landlord trying to tell him that he was making a joke, but he stood his ground, making sure that the man understood that jokes like that hit way too close to home and aren’t amusing. I was both proud and saddened to hear about how the situation had gone down.

This man, this sweet sweet friend of mine, has truly mastered empathy and compassion. When I saw him for the first time after his first night in his new home, his first night away from the crowded, noisy, smelly Hotspot, he said that he was only able to sleep a few hours, because he couldn’t get all of the people in the camp out of his mind, knowing that they were still in the same situation he had just been in for many months…

Sometimes, okay, most of the time, when I think about humanity, I think about how sterile we’ve become. In general, as a species, I think technology has put us on the fast track to disaster. We’re not there yet, but we’re heading there. We spend way too much time on our phones, glancing at text messages, reading e-mails, and getting distracted by the constant beeping and buzzing of our devices.

This is why moments like this strike such an unusual, unexpected chord in me when they happen. This man, who has just pulled himself away from an amount of agony that no human being should ever have to consistently endure, is only thinking about other people as he walks away. To put this in perspective, I would imagine myself running away from the situation, arms thrown high up into the air, in glee. This kind of thing, the way my friend reacted to his exit, makes me have to take a deep breath for a moment while my brain recalibrates what I’m feeling. How unique to hear about someone truly putting others before himself, losing sleep in his ocean of empathy for his fellow humans.

I want to be more like this guy.

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News From the Refugee Trail: February Edition

With February coming to a close a few days ago, it’s time for me to sum up everything that has been happening in the world of the refugee community here on the island of Leros, Greece. After a crazy start to 2019 in January, February began to settle a bit, but the aftershocks of January are still apparent.

For those of you who have been keeping up with my blog regularly, this recap will be more of a review than anything else. But I appreciate you taking the time to read about what I’ve been experiencing.

Camp Tension

If you, in fact, have been keeping tabs on my blog, you’ll know that we have not had any new arrivals on Leros in nearly a month. This means that no boats that have been illegally crossing from Turkey to Greece have ended up on Leros, they’ve all ended up on other islands. This is lucky since the camp here on Leros is at capacity, but it’s so puzzling to me as there has never been a period of time of this length this winter where we haven’t seen a boat. Something fishy is going on over in Turkey, I think.

Despite no new arrivals in some time, we still continue to deal with the ramifications of the camp being so full. There are plenty of “residents” attending school each day, which means that our days are never boring, but the tension in the camp remains critical. In the past few weeks, there have been two riots inside the camp, locals growing frustrated with the refugees, and multiple people attempting to kill themselves. I’m uncertain if these suicide attempts are to gain attention in an effort to speed up the asylum process or if the conditions in the camp are driving people to this extreme point. The other day, in a very public display, two men climbed to the top of a building that overlooks the Hotspot and threatened to jump to their death. This was done for the entirety of the camp to see, including children. One of the residents showed me footage of the event, in which hundreds of people were positioned below the two men on the building, watching, as if it were some kind of sporting event. In the end, no one died, but we volunteers are left reminded about the dire situation many of the people we work with are dealing with everyday.

Something New

I’m not the best at identifying when something is impacting me in a negative way. I’m really, really good at letting things roll off of my back; however, sometimes I wonder if there is residual emotional “stuff” that gets left behind that I forget to unpack later on. And so, in an effort to curb this potential threat to my emotional and mental health, I’ve started a sharing circle for the long-term volunteers here. There are currently 5 of us that have been serving on this island for 100 days or more, so I thought it’d be a nice idea to circle up and discuss whatever is impacting us on a day-to-day basis. I read an article recently on the immense stress aid workers are under in the world, and realized that much of what I was reading was relevant to the volunteer experience here on Leros. So, I thought I’d take an hour each week and offer a platform for everyone.

The group met yesterday for the first time and, while definitely a little awkward, by the end of the hour, there were plenty of feelings and experiences being shared. The plan will be to meet each week at the end of one of our workdays. There isn’t much more to share at this point, it’s just something new that happened this month. Honestly, I wish I didn’t have to lead the group, because I’d be much happier just being a participant; however, I’d rather have the whole thing happening under my leadership than not at all.

A Visit From Home

My mom swung by Greece for 8 days this month. She came over with a small squad of friends and visited Leros for 3 days before going to Athens for the remainder of her trip. I traveled to Athens with her for the first three days and did my best to play tour guide for the visiting group of Americans. It was so nice to see Leros through fresh eyes again as we tooled around the island. This place is equipped with so much history from World War 2, exotic plants, a unique culture, and endless stories. The grind I find myself in on a daily basis keeps me from noticing everything, so the new perspectives were nice.

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My best friend and my best mom, all in the same photo.

In my time away from the island, I also traveled north to the city of Ioannina to visit one of my friends who was a resident of the camp on Leros when I was here in early 2018. Now, he has asylum in Greece and he works as an interpreter at one of the camps in the north. I took a six-hour bus ride up the coast of Greece to see him. His city is a picturesque little place with cobblestone streets, positioned between snow-covered mountain peaks and a large lake. I could hardly believe I was in Greece for the three nights that I was with him.

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The mountains and waters of Ioannina, Greece, with some goofball in the foreground.

In short, it was so so nice to see him after more than a year away from him. Catching a glimpse of his life, knowing that he is doing okay is a relief for me. I’m amazed by his positivity. He is the perfect reminder of the resiliency of the human spirit. “No need to let life get you down, even if you’re a refugee”. At least, this is the vibe he gives off. There’s always something positive to focus on.

Teaching

Being in the classroom continues to be one of the great joys of this experience for me. It’s completely unconventional teaching, and that’s one of the reasons I love it so much. With three teachers in the building at the moment, I have an underwhelming schedule with just one class in the morning at 10 and one at noon. This leaves me plenty of time to prepare the lessons, have critical social time with my students and other Hub-goers, and to be scheduled on other volunteer related tasks, like driving the shuttles between the school and the camp.

Taking on the task of teaching has been as exciting as it was last time I was here. Initially, in January when the school reopened after the holidays, I had no interest in teaching the two lowest level English classes, affectionately titled “ABC” and “Beginners”. The two classes are consistently brushed off by volunteers and the focus falls on the higher level classes where students have a decent understanding of the language and are able to learn more quickly. Too often, the ABC and Beginner classes are passed from short-term volunteer to short-term volunteer, meaning that the ‘teacher’ for the classes is changing every few weeks, which gives the students no consistency.

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Teaching A2, an intermediate level English class. 

Another volunteer who has been here for a long time as well has similar teaching experience to me, which puts us in the unique position of being able to head a classroom more easily than your average Joe. The two of us had a discussion and decided to divide the lower-level classes. I’ve been teaching ABC consistently over the last eight weeks and she’s been teaching Beginners. Together, we’ve been able to focus heavily on the students who arrive on the island with little knowledge of the language. It’s been a real challenge, but I’m having fun. Everyday, I walk into the classroom with this rockstar attitude that, indeed, I am the best person for the job. It’s just something I tell myself to psych myself up for repeating the different sounds the letters make over and over and over and over and over again. But, if something sticks, even for just one person, they could be on their way to learning this language, and then, I can pass them on to the other teacher at the beginner level so she can run with them for a little while as well.

For now, our system is working. I’m so excited to see where the students are by the time I leave this island.

Other Volunteers

I’ve not put nearly enough effort into connecting with the volunteers who continue to rotate in and out of this island. It’s exhausting to have to get to know people time and time again just for them to leave after a few weeks, but in general, I wish I didn’t feel this way. The amount of time someone sticks around dictates nothing when it comes to what kind of a bond you can form. Nevertheless, I wish I was handling the situation differently. I continue to spend the majority of my time with people who I knew from my first stint here. I’m renting an apartment in Lakki, the main town on the island, and my best friend here lives across the hall from me. I’m also now just a five-minute walk away from the music cafe where my other best friend works. I find myself spending almost every evening there with him and whichever other local guys are around for the evening. Hanging with the same group of guys at the same establishment every evening feels a little bit like a 90’s sitcom, but I love it.

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The sun heading down one of the many hills of Leros.

Weather

I recall one year ago being on this island as the entire place burst into yellow bloom in late-February. This year is no different. With winter on it’s way out, the island is slowly beginning to warm and the amount of wind and rain storms has dramatically decreased since January. It’s a relief. Along with the improving weather, yellow wildflowers have sprung from the ground and, it seems, they’ll grow anywhere there’s just a small patch of dirt. Climbing to the top of even the smallest hill, you can see the sea of yellow everywhere. Pictures don’t do it justice, but here you go:

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Leros’ annual yellow flower take over.

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Bursting into yellow.

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Yellow bloom.

In just a short amount of time, the weather will be warm enough for swimming and Leros will become a tourist destination instead of just a rock protruding out of the Mediterranean with a few thousand Greeks on it. Even still, while the warmer weather is exciting to look forward to, winter here is nothing to wish away. It was 60 degrees and sunny today. I’m fine with it.

Hiking

One of my friends will be leaving Leros tomorrow after a three month stint here. He and I went on a long, rather epic hike around the island this afternoon and into the evening. Part of the hike entailed staying on trails, but other parts were more random and we found ourselves climbing over goat fences and meandering up the yellow flower hills. At the highest point in the hike, we ended up at a monastery, a fairly well known location on Leros, open everyday between 3 and 4. We had no interest in going inside, despite arriving there at exactly 3pm, so we sat outside of it and listened to the sounds of the waves down below. Having lived on this island for six months now in total, it was nice to find a new spot to sit, to soak up a new view.

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After the monastery, we headed down the north side of the island and walked through a few neighborhoods that I’ve never been to before and, likely, do not get visitors very often. The dogs and chickens of the neighborhood seemed very confused by our presence. I love the geography of Leros. With so many bays, the island seems to just unfold on it self in layers, so just as you think you’ve seen it all, there’s another outcropping of land that’s just asking to be explored. Today, I got a little more exploring of this place done.

Being that Saturday is the only day I have off each week, I love being able to get around and gulp in some fresh air during the day. This is critical for breaking up the emotionally draining weeks that otherwise would run directly into each other.

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Public Service Announcement 

This is your friendly reminder for the majority of readers of this blog, who happen to be from America, that in this country we are not given all of the facts when it comes to the Israel/Palestine “conflict”. I would advise all of you to dig around on the internet and educate yourselves about this endless conflict. Too often, as Americans, we’re taught that it is un-American to be anything other than fully supportive of Israel. But, the fact of the matter is, there are two sides to this story. And, being here among 80% Palestinian refugees, I’m hearing and seeing first hand the ramifications of what is happening in that area of the Middle East. We would all do better to stay informed about what is going on in the world, especially if an issue being thrown at us seems to be one-sided. If an issue does feel one-sided, it probably isn’t.

Until Next Time

And that’s all I have for you for February. I continue to feel fulfilled in the work that I’m doing here and feel so fortunate to be here among such incredible people from all walks of life from all over the world. Thank you for taking the time to read this edition and I’ll send another one your way in a month.

Best,

Matthew

 

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Riot

Well, as time has gone by, things in the camp have become more unbearable, as expected. Something that has been unexpected; however, is the number of new boats arriving on Leros. Since the last time I wrote about the dire situation at the Hotspot, a grand total of ZERO boats have arrived on Leros, bringing no new refugees. Why? I don’t know. But I find myself asking this question over and over again. Have we just been lucky? I can’t believe that.

The rumor mill runs rampant in the refugee community and those surrounding it, so I begin by stating, none of the following information is necessarily factual, it’s just stuff that I’ve heard:

No new boats have arrived on Leros because the Turkish Coastguard has more heavily policed the waters between Turkey and Leros in an effort to slow the population growth of the camp. With so many refugees arriving in such a short amount of time, Turkey was aware of where to post their ships to stop the refugees.

Also, supposedly, one smuggler in particular, who was especially vital in getting Palestinians across the waters, has been arrested in Turkey. Now, this doesn’t seem like it would stop the flow of refugees to Leros entirely to me; however, maybe it’s a factor. I don’t know.

Personally, I’m still waiting with bated breath to see what happens once the Hotspot begins to fill up again.

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Leros graffiti is always so interesting to me.

But, back to the point of this post:

Tensions in the Hotspot reached a new peak on Thursday Night/Friday Morning. Again, rumors really fly around this island, so I can only write what I’ve heard, and what I think I believe.

On Friday morning, when I came to school, the number of students attending my class dropped by about 40%. I thought this was a little odd since the previous days lesson had gone so well, but there are so many factors as to why the school is either full or empty that I didn’t even give it much thought. It turns out, numbers were low because no one was able to sleep in Hotspot the previous night. From 2am to 5am, there was a riot, which involved more than two hundred refugees, the police, tear gas, and multiple injured people, 11 of which needed to be transported to the local hospital when everything was said and done.

A video of the situation surfaced on the internet rather quickly and I was able to see the worst of what was happening. Someone was bleeding and there was a significant amount of blood. One of the many pieces of the story that I had heard was that he had been stabbed. Given the angle of the video, I would have believed this to be true, but I cannot confirm or deny this to be the truth.

As the day progressed, when I was teaching my second class (a course where my students can more easily convey their thoughts and emotions in English), my students filled me in on what had happened. There was a scuffle at a bar in town between some refugees and some Greek locals. The refugees went back to the camp to collect as many of their friends as possible and then go back to town to beat up the locals. The police in the camp didn’t allow this, locking the camp down. Then, the refugees, numbering around 200, rioted. I’ve heard both sound bites and seen video clips of what was happening. It sounds scary, it looks scary. One of my students even said that it felt like the camp had become a war zone. There was so much shouting, the police had to hit back at the refugees, multiple cans of tear gas were thrown.

It seems, all of my students just locked themselves in their containers and turned off their lights so not to be disturbed. Unfortunately, no one was able to sleep through the madness though, and it lasted all night.

This is the first time I’ve heard of something like this happening at the camp. The situation involved alcohol, but at the same time, tensions are high whether people are intoxicated or not. I thought, perhaps, things would just continue to get worse as time went on, but I haven’t heard of anything falling apart in the last three nights.

At the end of the day, violence is scary, but it isn’t headed in my direction, and everyone I know is okay.

 

 

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Ioannina III

And just like that, I’m back in southern Greece, cruising on the Aegean, heading back “home” to Leros. I guess I can say “home” now because I have my own flat there, and my heart lives there too.

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A misty morning on the lake next to Ioannina upon waking up.

When I woke up at 8:00 this morning, I was looking out at the sun shining on the snow capped mountains of Northern Greece. I walked to the airport in the 4 degree weather and felt the chill of the north. Then, without so much as showing my I.D. to an attendant, I boarded a one hour flight and teleported to Athens. There, I got on the metro and cruised for 45 minutes into the center of the city. This is officially the 8th time that I have passed through (or stayed in) Athens. I really don’t know how this is possible, but somehow this city has become a stomping ground of mine.

While I was away, a number of my friends in Greece were making their own moves. One fellow volunteer traveled to Athens for a long weekend to visit a friend. Another volunteer returned from Leros to Athens where she is based. And one of the refugees who has been on the island for a few weeks moved to Athens to start his new job as an interpreter. The four of us all circled up at 4:00, opting to meet outside one of the metro stops in a large gathering area of Athens, something like a park. Our meeting was brief, and then two of us had to move toward the port to catch the ferry back to Leros. We all traveled on the metro together and the two that weren’t traveling stayed with us until we were ready to board. Now I’m on the water. In a few hours I’ll be back within eye-shot of Turkey. Greece, today, is proving to be expansive. There’s a massive major city, a hub; there’s northern Greece, with snow covered mountains and unique architecture; there’s the southern coast, which winds along the Aegean, filled with rolling hills and twisting roads that are accented by Athenians’ vacation homes; and there are the picturesque, often touristy, islands. There’s so much to this country, and I haven’t even been to Thessaloniki, the second largest city in the country, or anywhere along the Albanian, Macedonia or Turkish boarders, which must boast unique cultures of their own.

My first emotion of the day today was sadness as I was laying in bed, knowing I had to leave my friend behind as I ventured across the country. But he’s okay. He’s more than okay, he is programmed to kick some serious butt in this lifetime and that is indeed what he is doing everyday. There is no need to feel sad, I need only to feel grateful for seeing him thriving in his current job, city, life. How cool is it that I was able to go visit him on a whim just because I could foresee the weekend ahead of me being wide open? Pinch me. Life’s a trip.

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Be well, my friend.

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Ioannina II

Ioannina is a fascinating city.  I don’t feel like I’m in Greece. I’ve seen some Greek islands, I’ve been all around Athens, and I’ve driven the southern coast of the country, but nothing is like this little city positioned up here in the north, just an hour from the Albanian border.

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I’ve spent the last two days being shown the city by my friend, J, who has been living here for the last 5 months, but I’ve also had the opportunity to slip out of the flat in the mornings while he is still sleeping and get a feel for this place on my own. There are 100,000 people in this place, but it hasn’t felt this way to me yet. I suppose the city stretches further out toward the surrounding mountains than I’ve been able to see so far, but from where I am in the city center, it doesn’t present to be this large. Ioannina is blowing my mind because of the way the streets are designed. It feels as if I’m living in an old Disney movie, like Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast. Perhaps these silly films are some of my only references to cities with cobblestone streets, created solely for walking and no vehicles, with storefronts coming right out to the sidewalks in front, each turn another piece to the maze that is this city. The shops are all a bit higher-end than I’ve seen in other places, and there are more coffee shops per block than in Athens as well. This place is quaint, but I can tell that the people here must have some money as well, the city center is well put together. Outside of the city center, certainly within walking distance, there’s a picturesque lake, tucked next to a snow peaked mountain, which is part of a range that surrounds the majority of the city. The snow is no bother though, it’s just for show as the temperature this weekend has been cooler than I’m used to, but probably still about 50 degrees or so in the sunshine.

On the north side of the city, there is a massive castle which was designed to protect a large portion of the houses from attackers, so, essentially, thousands of people live within these castle walls. Unfortunately, J’s flat isn’t within this area, but we have been able to walk to the castle and explore within it’s walls on both days. Entry is free and the castle boasts a great view of the lake and mountains and the homes within the walls all have identical rust-colored shingle roofs, which makes the whole place a real time warp.

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Other than tripping-out on just how different this place is than the rest of Greece, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying having some quality time with my friend who I haven’t seen in 11 months. He’s a solid, solid human being and it’s such a privilege to just be in his presence. I really don’t know if I can express how great it is to be able to have spent two full days with him without any interruption from the outside world. I’ve even been without internet the majority of my time here, so it’s been really great to just disconnect from the outside world and CONNECT with who is in front of me.

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J had me look into flying back to Athens since he heard the cost of the bus ticket was the same as the cost of a plane ticket. I looked into this and discovered he was right. The plane ticket was fifty cents more than the bus ticket and would save me five hours of sitting on the road, so I’ve purchased a plane ticket back to Athens in the morning and will make my way back to Leros after this flight. It’s strange to think that I’ll travel by bus, plane, ferry, and train all in the same weekend, but I guess you take what you can get when you’re here in Greece. It’s hard to imagine leaving in the morning after being here for just a short amount of time, but I’m glad for the time that I did have here and will only remember it fondly. I don’t suppose I would ever have a reason to return to Ioannina, especially since there are so many other great places in the world to see, but you never know. I’d love to see Albania someday, so maybe passing through this place again would make sense. Time will tell, but I’m grateful for what (and who) I’ve seen here.

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