7th August, 2013
“Hey, what’s your problem? I only said you are beautiful – it’s a compliment!”
Three guys are selling bracelets by the sea shore. They have a sophisticated sales technique: wolf-whistle at passing women, slip a bracelet quickly onto their wrist, then coo and ahh at them until they buy one.
He grabs my arm and attempts to insert it into one of his bracelets.
“Fuck off,” I yell at him, yanking my arm back.
I’m sitting on lush green grass between the gleaming White Tower and deep blue Aegean Sea in Thessaloniki, north Greece. I’m not in the mood to be bothered.
“Look, if you want to talk with me, fine. But I’m not buying bracelets, and I didn’t come here to be flirted with.” He doesn’t understand the word ‘flirt’, which is unfortunate, as it leads to me mock imitating him.
He marches off with wounded pride.
Sixty hours earlier, I sauntered through Istanbul, wobbly under the weight of my backpack, legs numb from thirty-six hours cramped on a coach.
After a day and two nights with my friends Banu and Ross, another coach took me out of Turkey and into the E.U.
The Greek border was fast and efficient, unlike the other end of Turkey, two light years away.
I arrived in Thessaloniki in the early hours, memories of the place slowly trickling back.
The White Tower was the first landmark that popped into my memory when Lisa asked where we should meet. I remembered that it was opposite water, and that the coast was to the north of the city. The bus hadn’t travelled through the city, so we must be to the East of it.
I dug my compass out of a backpack side pocket and trudged off in the direction of North-West, my eyes scanning the Greek shop signs for the magical letters: καφές
“I hope you’re not racist!” says the second bracelet-seller, when I give him a similar response to the first. He and his friends are from Nigeria.
“No, not racist, but not sexist either,” I tell him.
He asks where I’m from. I tell him I’m just now coming from Armenia, but I live in Istanbul. It’s the next place I plan on living, so only a tiny lie.
The thing is, I know a bit about the situation these guys are in. They’re not legally allowed to work or reside in Greece, but thanks to Dublin II, they aren’t allowed to leave either. It’s a situation that tens of thousands – maybe hundreds of thousands – of people are trapped in.
I talk a while with this guy about the situation in Greece, and he tells me, as many others have, how hard life is, and how much racism there is there. One thing has changed since I was last here: the fascists have multiplied, tenfold.
When The Golden Dawn gained power in 2012, winning 21 seats out of 300 in the Greek Parliament, the already desperate situation for the estimated 810,000 (source) undocumented migrants became a whole lot worse. Among other things, Greek police stopped and detained almost 85,000 people of colour on the streets of Athens while carrying out sweeping identity checks in an operation named Xenios Zeus, or “Hospitable God”.
The bracelet seller leaves me staring out to sea, remembering my previous visit to Greece and all the undocumented people I met and spoke to. I wonder where they are now. Some will have got where they wanted to go, others may have died trying.
I watch tourists click-clicking cameras, a poised half-smile of appreciation for the sea, the boats, the gleaming white tower.
I ponder how terribly unfair this world is.
I greet the third bracelet-seller warmly and tell him that I’m sorry, but I’m not in the market for bracelets today. In order to avoid the situation I had with the first of his friends, I tell him, “I am your brother”.
He smiles, getting it.
In answer to his questions, I tell him that I’m just coming from Armenia and that yes, I have a relationship.
He wishes me marriage and a healthy baby boy.
He seems confused by my response.