I first met Maria on Friday. She stood in the street and talked at me in hurried Greek, and then when I didn’t reply, accused me of ignoring her.
‘You speak Greek! I heard you at the kiosk.’
Being ignored was a problem that she seemed to face a lot, dressed in a cast-off T-shirt, with long grey hair swept back, standing with her shabby boxes in Victoria Square, Athens at two in the morning. But my Greek, like that of most people in this dirty quad, comprised only a few words that I’d learnt since arriving several weeks ago.
Victoria Square. The focal point of Europe, ‘symbolic of the endeavour, hope and determination that has spurred the continent’s biggest migration of people since the second world war,’ a British newspaper had read days before. ‘If you go to Iran, you’ll hear people speak about Victoria Square.’ Lodging in the square, I order café hellenico at the Albanian coffee shop, oranges from the left-wing greengrocer, souvlaki from the Romanian–Greek in that small, quiet place across the square. The chairs are arrayed outside tavernas and restaurants, ready for the European tourists, the life-blood of modern Greece, but currently vacant. Food is periodically distributed by patchwork charities and the more public-spirited Athenians.
‘Look at these people;’ Maria said, ‘misery. This is Greece today.’ In her youth, Maria studied in England and was a film director. She speaks quickly, often nervously glancing around. Her first love was Budapest, and her film and photographs were stolen in Czechoslovakia, she tells me distractedly. Bending over, she examines a piece of clothing left on the ground between the human forms, then picks it up, satisfied there is further life left in it. ‘When they [the migrants] go they just leave their things here. They don’t care about the next people. That’s the one thing that makes me angry about them.’ Every day she takes all these boxes of clothes home, wash them, then brings them back for the new wave of refugees that will inevitably appear tomorrow.
Greece is ill-suited to bear the brunt of the crisis, still suffering deeply from the effects of the financial collapse of 2009. Disillusionment with the Tsipras government is widespread among the young people, not simply because it hasn’t reached a solution, but because it is thought there is no solution. Not one of these travellers want to stay here, I am told. They want to be in the gold-paved streets of Germany or milk-and-honey England.
The volunteers of the Dutch charity VluchtelingenWerk Nederland, armed with reflective jackets and backpacks full of plastic-wrapped women’s tights, speak Dutch and English. I meet a British lady who speaks Arabic and Farsi, but she found volunteering as a translator at the port of Piraeus ‘just too chaotic’. The Salvation Army is here too, and communication at times breaks down. Here it sinks to clumsy gesticulation: raise your hand to your mouth and you the concept of eating is communicated to almost anybody. Put your hand on your bladder and a nearby chain coffee shop will direct you to their toilet facilities. But only women and children are allowed: they don’t want the men.
In the afternoon sun, a man walks out in front of a car with a bundle of Khat, the mildly addictive plant you chew to cure excessive productivity. A lady driver stops, gets out, and opens the back of her car. She is surrounded immediately by the assertive and the enterprising, and hands out food to the young men who are always at the front. The game here is to get something, which is quickly stashed at one’s back, or thrown to a friend, and at once to try for another. The old men and women gaze on forlornly; I go home.
When I see Maria again a few nights later, her voice is forced and thin. She says she hasn’t slept since I met her three nights ago, but she seems completely undiminished in her efforts. I’ll help tonight.
We walk around, picking up clothes and food and talking to the refugees. Some of them think she’s crazy and tell me so, but others are grateful for her redistributive efforts. She knows where different families sit, and what they need: two girls want new tights; an old man is hungry; the toddler needs milk. Sometimes we have to guard Maria’s trolley and the dirty boxes. She says: ‘the one with the red hat is a thief.’ Her eyesight is bad, and she needs me to pick out edible food and clothes that aren’t too badly soiled. We slowly make our way around the square.
Hitting your children is illegal in Greece, and the police will take them away along with your wife if it’s reported. One Afghan family know this and are scared of Maria for this reason. ‘The father hits the children’, she says. An older boy stands with a narrow stick and the rest of them sit in a circle of baggage and thick blankets. Maria picks up a football and rolls it to one of the girls who kicks it back, before she is swatted with the stick. Maria takes the stick, breaks it in half, and goes to the mother. She bows down deeply to her with hands together, a gesture she says is appropriate and will be understood as a sign of female solidarity. Her gesture seems foreign and feels ridiculous in this present moment. A crowd forms, and she declares that I’m her husband. The crowd becomes wary, although somewhat suspicious of the decades age-gap between me and this eccentric woman. Eventually the family get up, wrap their belongings in blankets, and leave to escape us.
‘Will the father hit her again?’ Maria asks me.
She seems to agree, but adds, with some amount of hope: ‘I don’t think the mother will.’
We continue around the square to a bench with two fat Greek men on it. She introduces me to one, and it’s while I’m shaking his hand that I see his crystal-studded belt and a young Afghan boy. The man holds his small hand in his larger one, stroking it.
‘They pay 5 euros to fuck,’ explains Maria.
Her swearing feels purposeful and political. In her youth vulgarity was probably a form of dissent, and this is the way she uses it today, devoid of the crassness it carries back home . Athens is ‘shit’. The police are ‘shits’. The old man sleeping in the doorway had cancer and has a bag tied to his leg, ‘from his intestines.’
‘Yes,’ agrees Maria, ‘shit.’
After hours in the square, Maria has lost all strength. We slowly gather the assorted clothes and detritus together, strapped in boxes to the trolley, or in large reinforced bags with polythene wrapped around the handles to stop them cutting into our hands. We leave the square, with its families asleep under blankets, the charity workers gone home, the Algerian local with his dog talking to the older Greek woman who Maria says wants to prove herself by getting a younger man. Policemen on the corner still lean on their plastic riot shields for which I could imagine no possible use.
Dragging everything from Victoria to Athen’s anti-authoritarian area of Exarcheia, Maria points at buildings telling me when they were built and who lives there. This is where she was born, and she knows this area like nobody else I meet. Occasionally, her trolley falls over and the boxes full of clothes and paraphernalia spills onto the street. Taxis slow down hopefully, then speed away when they can make us out properly. ’Maria,’ I said, ‘we look ridiculous with all this stuff.’
‘Say it again!’
‘We look ridiculous with all this stuff!’
I think of the Russians and the temporary ceasefire, the people of Greece and their hospitality to the people landing on their beaches, and Maria awake in the early hours of Monday morning, unable to carry on from tiredness. There is no victory here, only mitigation and compromise at the edge of Europe.