It takes a few days for my motorcycle to arrive in Lavrio, a port close to Athens. A good Belgian friend of mine, Wannes, arranged a spot for me to sleep. He works for an international NGO, Save The Children. He’s involved with Child protection and has a coordinating roll and responsibility in the different refugee camps in Greece. We met each other in Rwanda, while he was working in East-Congo.
There’s quite a big difference between East-Congo and Greece but Wannes is not fully convinced about that. “It’s sometimes crazy what you see in these camps and nothing is happening. The big EU, they’re doing not enough.” He says while we have a first beer late at night.
But also his employer makes mistakes. “The scope of Save is too big, they want numbers and there are no questions about the end results their programs produce”. I see a man who’s more frustrated than when he lived in East-Congo. Maybe because you would expect that things don’t work in East-Congo but not in a EU country.
The next few days I get to know his colleagues. They’re all passionate people who work long days. Work is never far away. Dinners at night are being used to ventilate frustrations and irritations. Because Wannes doesn’t have enough space I can stay in the room of one of his colleagues
I’m lucky because spring just arrived in Athens. The apartment is right at Victoria square. My mornings start with a visit to a local coffee shop for some caffeine and sweets (everything dirt cheap!). Than I read my book in the sun and watch the people passing by. A few months before, this was the place where many refugees waited in despair for a solution to their problems. Two Pakistani men even hanged themselves on one of the trees of this square. The square looks peaceful now. There are still a lot of different nationalities that cross the square. But after spending a few months in the Middle-East and Africa that doesn’t strike me as odd. This is the kind of neighbourhood that most decent inhabitants from Athens try to avoid.
I read, write and wander around, waiting for my motorcycle to arrive by boat. When I arrived it hadn’t even left the port of Haifa. In my mind dark images are starting to form about a boat that’s sinking in the middle of the mediterranen with my motorcycle on it. In the end my motorcycle arrives in Lavrio. I have no idea how I got it through customs. I’m just waving around with a copy of my temporary insurance I got from a dodgy insurance company in Brussels. I get some explanations but it’s all Greek to me! In the end I’m riding back to Athens with Kermit (my motorbike) and that’s what matters. We’ve made it both to Europe!
I skip a visit to the Acropolis and everything else. I’ve been here ten year ago on a school trip. So I don’t need to see it again, I rather want to get to know the real Athens now and the neighbourhood around Victoria Square is the best place to do that. At night Wannes takes me to several bars and restaurants with his colleagues.
The most interesting person is definitely Mazen. He is/was a Syrian refugee, now he works for a Save the Children. He’s a short guy with sparkling eyes and the smoking habit of an old cokes chimney. He used to live in Damascus but left his country when the war started. As he explains me his whole story I realize that the Syrian civil war has already been waging for almost 6 years. Mazen already completed quite an interesting journey. He used to work with refugees in Syria who fled Iraq, but when the war broke out he became a refugee himself. It was quite expensive for Mazen to reach Belgium. Just to get him through the Balkans he paid around 4000 euro a person.
“we had to walk through snow and eat it”, he tells me. “It was a very very difficult journey”.
We are eating in a fast food restaurant on Victoria Square, the square where he used to hang out before he could go further up north, because Greece is not the last stop for most refugees. It’s a break in the big road up north. For some however it’s their final destination because there’s no money left to pay the traffickers.
“I was quite amazed when I walked around in Brussels” he says while lighting another cigarette. “I was walking around with my ex-wife in Molenbeek and I felt completely out of place. My wife didn’t wear a head scarf, she also never did in Damascus. There I felt for the first time that people were judging us. I didn’t expect that in a Western country”. Mazen is not what you would call a pious Muslim. It seems to me that he enjoys too much the pleasure of a glass of wine or beer.
It’s my friend Wannes last weekend and his colleagues want to invite him for a weekend in the beautiful town of Galaxidi. The weather has turned, after a few days of beautiful, sunny weather above Athens, rain and dark clouds have come. I’m driving towards the little fisher village of Galaxidi when the first raindrops hit me. I didn’t expect to receive my first drops of rain in Europe in always-sunny Greece. I drive past the old oracle of Delphi but I don’t stop. I’ve seen it before and the roads are too fun to stop riding. Maybe I should have stopped at the oracle to get some sort of vision about my professional or private future. We spend a rainy evening and morning in this little town.
We have a proper Greek dinner, good, simple food. The next morning it’s still raining but I’m ready to move on. We take a final group picture and I continue my journey towards the north.