The first and most urgent task when I arrived at the Hotel Carolina in Athens was to work out how I could escape from my prison cell like room (guaranteed to repel attacks by the staff, aliens and serial killers) in the event of fire. This was the only room I could stay in because of my chronic OCD. But my OCD fear of serial killers was having a punch up with my OCD fear of fire. I opened the window and studied the light well it gave onto, working out how I could use a drainpipe to clamber up the walls of the light well and then escape through the bars on the fourth floor. Quite what I would do once I was hanging off the building on the fourth floor I didn’t go into but presumably the fire brigade have ladders in Greece. It was like when I was a child and had to not only plan but practise my escape routes from the serial killers in my mother’s house. Once I had spent half an hour planning my fire exit (ignoring the fact that I could obviously walk out of the room into the corridor and amble down the stairs and out the front door) I slept very well.
As I got down to breakfast on the first day of my stay, I noticed an alarming sight. Among the rows of bread, cakes, cereal, there were no bananas at all. As I am unable to survive without a banana in the morning, I set out in the pleasant sun of Athens on a banana hunt.
In the rich central district of Plaka where the hotel was located people seemed blissfully unaware of the economic crisis in which Greece was threatened with bankruptcy and exit from the Euro. Considering that half the population of Athens drives around on motorbikes with no helmet, an economic crash is not the only one they’ve got to worry about. Athens has no skyscrapers, everything is medium rise. Lofty aspirations with architecture seem to have ended three thousand years ago. There are also unlovely air conditioning units protruding below every window like barnacles on a rock face. There was a lot of graffiti on everything which no had had the time (or money) to clear away. This gave the whole city a slightly run down feel. But because of the fabulous weather the vibe in Athens is extremely upbeat and positive.
The first few people I spoke to did not speak English so when I asked for a fruit shop their expressions were blank. When I then mimed peeling an imaginary banana and eating it in the street they looked at me in disbelief and muttered something in Greek, probably “you need a psychiatrist.” Undeterred I found one who spoke English who directed me to a fruit shop. In common with the UK the man selling the bananas at this corner shop seemed to be Pakistani.
After breakfast I rushed to an English speaking meeting of “Divorced from my Drug Dealer Anonymous” where I was welcomed with open arms by all the participants. My friend Toli had sponsored half of them, and had phoned them to tell them I was coming, so everyone was expecting me. The chair was absolutely brilliant (done by me). Nikos, a dark rather good looking man who worked in the shipping industry said scathingly about the elections, which were to take place the next day. “We have OCD with elections, people are fed up of elections it’s the 3rd election in a year, it’s not really going to change anything. Everyone knows they’re fucked.”
Later I went to a meeting of “Vodka for Breakfast Anonymous” on the other side of Athens where I got a totally different view of the economic crisis. “If you went to my neighbourhood, Kypselis,” said Marc a repatriated Greek and carpenter, “I see people begging on the street, digging through dustbins for food. People outside my office are always going through the trash can to eat.”
Ruth, an American married to a Greek, said Greeks had got used to incredibly harsh experiences. “My greengrocer’s mother at the age of 5 or 6 one of her first experiences was burying the bodies of woman and children killed by the Nazis. The Germans shot the men and put the women and children in a church and burnt it to the ground. The next generation had the coup d’etat. It’s always been a question of survival, dodging bullets here.”
The next day, at a polling station in the wealthy central district of Plaka where Cartier and Rolex shops abound, I approached a tall, very good looking, young man who I not only hoped would speak English but invite me out for a coffee after the interview. What came out of his mouth was much more of a surprise: I had found a UKIP supporter in Greece. UKIP, the right wing UK Independence party of course wants Britain to withdraw from the European Union. If UKIP had a figurehead this attractive in England they’d be two seconds away from Downing Street. Although of course as the Greek God was an EU national they wouldn’t let him in. “I like Nigel Farage” the man, Yannis, the Chief Financial Officer of a company, said of the UKIP leader. “I agree with him about the fact that there is no democracy in Europe. No one in the European Commission has been elected. I don’t know why I vote. This election will only have a minor impact as everything is predetermined by the memorandum that the last government signed with the Eurozone creditors”.
The election had been called by the governing left wing SYRIZA party, headed by the gorgeous young Alexis Tsipras, which was seeking a new mandate having agreed to an austerity package with the EU that most Greeks had voted against. “The European Commission are like Nazis with ties,” chipped in Kostas a fifty something goldsmith. This echoes the belief by many Greeks that the bailout terms the government was forced to agree to, largely dictated by Berlin, amounted to a second invasion by Germany.
Everyone I spoke to at the polling station said the election would make little or no difference. But they all felt it was important to vote.. “The main reason for voting is to get rid of corruption,” said Dimitra a small dark haired pensioner, “If we can do that we have an economic future. Corruption needs two parties the companies from Germany, France, USA everywhere give the politicians money. The money from Europe didn’t go in the right place it went for cars, for luxury life, not for making something. It is very sad.”
Greeks are much more politically engaged than in the rest of Europe. Thus in the UK with a population of 63 million there are 26 national newspapers, in Greece, which has only 11 million people there are a whopping 49. I noticed this difference in the various 12 step fellowships in Greece. After the meetings in the UK everyone discusses “recovery” issues. In Greece they discussed world politics such as the latest shenanigans of Donald Trump. As I was now so totally over my news blackout that I was a positive news junkie, I absolutely loved this and knew I would come back to Greece.
Unlike in the UK where the phenomenon of “shy Conservatives” meant that all the pollsters got the general election result completely wrong, in Greece everyone is only too happy to say who they’ve voted for. “I voted for SYRIZA” said Dimitra, the pensioner. I’m not sure they will do anything about corruption but the others I know won’t.” A rather attractive election monitor, with an unpronounceable Greek name, said the old people used to turn out in their party’s colours to publicize who they were going to vote for. This has interesting parallels to Jamaica where voters turn up at polling station blazoned in their party’s colours.
Susan, a biologist from England who’s a nationalized Greek and married to a Greek, was also fired up about corruption. “It is all based on nepotism here. They put key people in all the positions there is a lack of meritocracy and an electorate that expects to be looked after and doesn’t want to work for it. It’s very frustrating for quality people who don’t get the positions they deserve. A lot of people go to study abroad and don’t come back. I’m sick of the nepotism of giving jobs to all these people who just sit there. You have a sick society.”
SYRIZA won the election, comfortably. But, weary as it was the third election in a year, the turnout at 56.6% was the lowest ever recorded in a Greek legislative election since the restoration of democracy in 1974. At a traditional Greek restaurant in Plaka, wailing Greek music was playing in the background. But what diners had to say about Greece would make uncomfortable reading for the government. “My reaction is that I can’t believe this is happening all over again,” said Nassos a dark forty something architect. “8 months ago the government took over on an anti-austerity ticket, they offered to take back power from the European Union and give it to the people. Then they went back on everything. But people still voted for them. This is a country with people with very low self-esteem or very low IQs, less than 60. I’m laughing.”
And he said it was the bloated public sector that voted for the government. “We are under the shadow of this public sector which is humongous. One million people sit in offices doing nothing they are deciding for us.”
Andreas, a teacher, said “the main reason people voted for Tsipras is we hope he will not make bad things to the poor Greeks. There are a lot of rich people who are not affected by the crisis. Their money is abroad, they live in Switzerland, pay no taxes. We hope there will be a change in this policy.”
After the hard work of covering the election, my first piece of journalism in my entire 10 years of recovery, I decided to do some sightseeing around Greece’s ancient archeological sites. On arriving at the Acropolis complex, my first sight was a very well preserved Roman amphitheatre. For some reason I couldn’t work out, every seat in the amphitheatre was occupied by a square box wrapped tightly in a dustbin bag. Whether this was some Cubist depiction of a crowd I wasn’t sure or whether the users of the amphitheatre had simply left their (rather large) packed lunches behind.
When I made my way up to the actual Parthenon Acropolis I was surprised to see the Greek government must have been doing a loft conversion as it was covered in scaffolding. I later realised this was a long delayed restoration project. The Athenian skyline is still dominated by the Acropolis which is fitting as, as far as the Glory of Greece was concerned, it was all downhill from there. I noticed on a Greek website on Athens that it referred to everything as the “4th or 5th Century”. In the rest of Europe this would be the 5th Century A.D. But here in Greece they meant the 5th Century BC when Greece was at its height. But it is humbling to think that the Athenians were constructing such a fabulous building, which has been recognised as the most important historical building in Europe, while in Britain people were painting themselves blue and living in huts. And Jamaica was populated by dodos who probably spent their whole time smoking marijuana.
Athens, although not physically the most beautiful city in Europe, is a lovely place because of the constant blue skies, sun and friendliness of the people. I was asked out to dinner umpteen times by people in the fellowship. And I never got lost because of the mass of kiosk vendors selling things in the street who all had encyclopaedic knowledge of the local area and were only too happy to help a tourist.
As far as the OCD was concerned, I faced a major challenge when I had to move from the “blind” room which was guaranteed against attack by aliens and serial killers to a room with a balcony. The balcony, I realised, was too high up for even the craftiest serial killer to scale. But there was a terrible fault with the window in the bathroom: you couldn’t close it at all. Although it was high up (and very small) this put me in grave and immediate danger of attack by miniature serial killers. I tried to counteract this by attempting to use all 100 portable locks I had brought with me on the bathroom door. But because of the way it was constructed, none of them worked. This was a disaster: there was no way I could sleep in the room that night. I phoned up Marianna, from “Divorced from my Drug Dealer Anonymous,” in search of a hardware shop where I could get some wire to temporarily close the window. Without questioning whether what I was doing was mad or not, she very kindly gave me precise directions to a hardware shop. I bought enough wire to block off the border of an entire European country. Then wound it round the window to keep out the miniature serial killers. After spending a bit of time with the Bible and Bunny, and talking to my friend Susanna and neighbour Diane on the phone, I slept very well that night.
But I was horrified to wake up the following morning to an automated call from my burglar alarm company saying someone had broken into my house at 4am. Please God, no, I thought. If my house has been robbed on the first trip abroad I’ve made for 6 years, I’ll never leave England again. I phoned the burglar alarm company who were unable to tell me whether the police had been round. Then tried to call the police which was impossible from Greece. I knew my friend Vas got up at 5am, so phoned her desperately begging her to phone the police. She did and the police said they’d been round 2 minutes after the alarm had gone off but hadn’t seen any signs of a break in. I couldn’t get hold of Diane, who had the key, but had to get someone into the house to check it was alright.
My father had had an operation the week before so I was reluctant to wake him but, with no other option, dialled him at 6am. He shot round to the house, getting the key from Diane, and I have to say saved the day. Not only did he confirm that there had been no break in, but met the technician from the burglar alarm company to sort out the fault that had caused the false alarm. I felt quite warm towards him. I was able to continue with my mission to re-start my journalism career.
Some friendly Greeks helped me with the intricacies of the metro system which, very unusually, has no closed ticket barriers and seems to rely on people’s honesty to buy a ticket. As I got down to the platform of the metro a technicolour monster sped towards me. It was daubed with graffiti or street art and several of the windows were smashed. I had never seen a train like this before, I thought gingerly getting onto it. I wasn’t sure whether the transport authorities thought the graffiti enhanced the passenger experience of whether there was simply no money to get it off.
As I walked into Victorias square in the centre of Athens, a forest of multi-coloured refugee tents accosted my sight. Hundreds of men, women, tiny children and even new born babies were sleeping rough in the square. The conditions they were living in were squalid, at least five people to a tent, with no washing or toilet facilities.
Almost all of them were from Afghanistan and were waiting for family to send them money to move on to Germany or Sweden. “Too many people here are hungry,” said Saber Nazari, a tall pale youth with a cleft lip who wanted to leave Afghanistan so he could study, which he said was impossible under the Taliban. “Syria war, Afghanistan war you come here you need help. We want help from the government of Greece from the UN. We are humans not animals.” Far from giving help the Greek government reportedly threatened to fine people 100 Euros if they helped the refugees. But ignoring this, there has been a phenomenal response to the refugees on the Greek islands such as Cos and Lesbos, which have been engulfed by refugees, who the local people have fed and clothed. There is a petition on Twitter to award the Greek islanders the Nobel Peace Prize for helping the refugees which I definitely support.
No aid workers were visible in Victorias square but there were a lot of Vodafone representatives in red t-shirts who must have been selling sim cards. I’d read that the refugees were using smart phones to communicate information about routes and blockages, to avoid the machinations of people smugglers. So maybe the SIM cards were as highly prized as more basic necessities such as food and water.
Saber’s friend E Azim said: “ we have been sleeping here for 10 nights. We are all sleeping in the tube station. 20 of us are sleeping down there. I left Afghanistan because it was dangerous for me, for my family, for everyone. Every day killing the persons, it is not possible to live. Nobody wants to stay in Greece, people come here for 2 or 3 days then gone. People here are waiting for money. Here they don’t give us permission to stay. People have been here for 6 years and they have not the passport yet.”
But Layla Said Ahmad, who was in the camp with her three teenage sisters, said they had been there for months. “2 months ago we came from Kabul. Because of the war we can’t stay in Afghanistan. We lost everything, house, clothes, everything. We don’t have money so we stay here. We don’t want to stay here because there are no jobs here. We could not stay in Turkey either.”
Fatima was a teacher of Farsi literature in Afghanistan but: “here I am jobless. We have four sisters my mother my brother six persons in a tent. We don’t have money to go anywhere we are waiting for money.”
I was shocked by the conditions these refugees were living in. But Greece, facing bankruptcy and one of the worst economic crises in its history, clearly does not have the resources to deal with the almost a million refugees that have poured onto its shores. Although the refrain of many Greeks was that there were “too many Syrians” in Greece, in Athens, unlike the Greek islands, hijabs were few and far between and the population was very homogenous and mainly white.
I said a fond farewell to Maria, the afternoon receptionist at the Hotel Carolina, who’d been incredibly understanding about the OCD. I took the wire off the bathroom window, obviously because some one in the hotel could cut their hands and sue me. I kept the wire thinking I may need it in future to protect me on my next holiday. But I’d had a major breakthrough during the holiday – I had stopped searching in the wardrobe at night for any serial killers, whether maxi or miniature.
At Athens airport, unlike Heathrow, there are no Chanel or Gucci stores. The most expensive shop was diffusion range Emporio Armani. But, like iron filings to a magnet, a shopping representative attached herself to me offering to show me round. But my shopping days are over so I declined her seductive advances.
The security at Athens airport was cursory in comparison to the forensic investigation of every pair of knickers at Heathrow. But I was now a seasoned traveller, after my one trip, and didn’t have anything over 100ml. The explosives on my luggage had disappeared, evaporated in the Athenian sun. I had achieved my goal, my first voyage abroad for over 6 years, and it had been a fabulous trip, enhancing my independence and recovery. I was itching to travel again.
Next week: my life changing recovery from 25 years of depression.