The rest of the volunteer squad doesn’t arrive until the 1st, when we will begin working at a refugee camp and/or squatter’s residence. Cesc and I are here early, so we take today to be touristas and explore the city.
We walk from our apartment to the Parthenon, and try to go inside, but tickets are a whopping 20€, which I cannot swing on my volunteer/backpacker budget. That is absurd. At least I visited a few years ago so I don’t feel like I have to go again. There’s a cool rocky area with a good view from the top so that’s the best we can do today.
I expect we’ll be eating most of our meals at home, but today we grab a gyros pita for lunch. Cesc doesn’t think he’s ever had one! I used to order them from the foodcourt in the Toronto Eaton Centre basically every time I visited… which was a lot…I used to live across the street. Obviously the real deal over here is one hundred times better than foodcourt quality…but I love gyros. and souvlaki. and Greek salad. and phyllo pastry cheese pies. and moussaka. I could probably move to Greece strictly for the food.
Because our Parthenon plan is foiled, we decide to walk up to the refugee squatter residence to check it out. Cesc and his crew had volunteered here last year but it’s all new to me and I’m eager to see! The organization has taken over an old school, and turned classrooms into small apartments and activity rooms. There is a paved inner courtyard where the children can play, fenced in by bright paintings and colourful handprints along the walls. The inside of the residence has been painted as well, which gives it a slightly more homey, and less industrial atmosphere. It does not, by any means, seem like a comfortable place to be living, but under the circumstances, this old abandoned building serves its purpose.
We meet Kastro, the head of the residence. He gives us some vague instructions or suggestions for things that need doing. Honestly, I get the feeling that he prefers we just do whatever we think needs to be done instead. I can’t blame him. With so many volunteers coming in and out, it would become exhausting to delegate tasks and make sure things were getting done. I think he trusts that if we’ve come to help, we’ll find a way to help.
Everyone I meet seems excited that I’m from Canada. A lot of Spanish and Portuguese come to volunteer, but they don’t see a lot of Canadians, and as always, people are excited to practice their English with me. I moved to Barcelona to become a teacher really just as an excuse to live in Spain. But I’m really happy that this skill I picked up will be of actual value to the community here (and will hopefully come in handy in the future, too!)
We meet some Portuguese volunteers who have been in charge of sorting and organizing the clothing donations over the past few weeks. The room they show us looks well put together and easy to maneuver…but then they bring us to the “winter donations” room, which is just a MOUNTAIN of bags piled on top of one another; literally just shy of the ceiling. There is only a small space inside the door that allows for standing. A nightmare for whoever has to sort it…a.k.a. us.
Great that there have been so many donations for the 250 refugees living in this building, though.
As we’re leaving Donation Mountain, Cesc runs into a man he recognizes from last year. He doesn’t speak much English, and honestly I don’t think he remembers Cesc, but invites us into his apartment to have tea anyway. They must see so many volunteers come through here in a 365 day period, who could remember them all?
The two of us duck behind the bed sheet that acts as a door, to the room where his family is gathered around to have lunch, which is laid out in the centre of the floor. There is one queen sized bed against the far wall, and some cushions set up on the floor around the eating area. There are some shelves with basic kitchen goods like tea, sugar, a kettle, some crackers, etc., and another “room” on the other side of another sheet that divides the room in two. I don’t know what’s on the other side, but I wonder if it’s a small kitchen or secondary bed. We remove our shoes and sit down to join them. We are offered food but I’m truly stuffed from the gyros earlier, but do accept a cup of tea.
Communication is pretty difficult; firstly, because only one of their children, about 16 years old, speaks English fluently, and does all the translating for his parents. Secondly, because I am internally scrambling to come up with conversation topics. The standard introductory questions are kinda off the table, aren’t they? Where are you from? How long have you lived here? Do you like Athens? What do you do for work? How many kids/siblings do you have?
These all seem pretty damn insensitive.
I know I’m acting weird but I can’t stop myself. I’m quiet (I’m never quiet). I’m making a conscious effort to use my right hand for my drink to cater to muslim manners, I say thank you multiple times for a simple black tea, and even comment on how delicious it is. I am constantly nodding and smiling. I think I even bow my head a little once or twice. Someone stop me! Send a verbal aid!
I don’t mean to be unctuous. I think I’m just feeling humbled by how generous this family is being. They’re inviting me, a total stranger, into their home, and offering me food and drinks, which I imagine they don’t exactly have an abundance of. I am trying to find the balance. I don’t want to treat any of the residents here like I’m sorry for them, or like they’re some project. Nor do I want to take any generosity for granted. I’m hoping over time I calm the hell down and do a better job of socializing like a normal human. ASAP.
After some time, and about 10 thank yous later, we head back upstairs to the main office to say bye to Kastro. He isn’t around, but we meet some Greek women who volunteer here year round and manage many of the goings-on. They also suggest some tasks for us to take on, but as the only fluent English speaker in our group I think my general purpose is quite clear. There are not currently a lot of English speakers/English lessons going on in the building so it seems I can run them the way I like, as I did with my private lessons in Barcelona.
We leave the “squat” (pretty sure this is not the correct term used to refer to a squatter’s residence, but is the common expression used here, so we’ll go with it) and walk over to a rooftop bar suggested to us by the Greek women. It’s called Nosotros (Spanish for us), but has no other affiliation to anything Spanish; we asked. The square near the squat is full of cute bars and restaurants, and seems like a casual hangout for those who live in the area. Some people are sitting below the shade in the middle of the square playing music. There’s lots of graffiti around. It’s a cool vibe.
Speaking of graffiti, Athens has so much graffiti and street art!! Some really really cool pieces stand out when you round a corner, some are more subtle and feel like a hidden gem in a city whose walls are covered in paint. Here are some of my favourite pieces we found on our walk today.
Alsoooooo, I just wanted to say a HUGE thank you to all my friends and family (and some anonymous donors!) who have been extremely generous with their donations for the refugees with whom I’ll be volunteering. No words can really express how thankful I am. If you’re interested in helping out as well, I know every penny is greatly appreciated. You can visit the GoFundMe page to learn more about the initiative and donate if you feel so inclined. In the coming days, I plan to get in touch and connect more with some residents (I will ask more questions than I did during tea today, I swear) to get a better sense of what specifically is wanted/needed to improve their situation. All of the proceeds to directly to the refugees!
20€ basic groceries for the flat
5€ meals out
15€ drinks (we have an incident where we don’t check the prices before ordering, and end up with a 5€ pint. Tragic.)
7€ flat (60€ per week for my room in the flat)
Free transport – walked everywhere so we could explore!
Total: 47€. Oops.
Desired budget: 25€ per day.