The Peloponnese region of Greece is generally considered to be one of the most beautiful parts of the country. Its capital, Patras, is not. Apart from a thriving international port and a street carnival that attracts thousands of visitors each year, the city has little to recommend it. The grid of narrow streets is clogged with traffic night and day, the exhaust fumes making it difficult to breathe and causing a smog of pollution dense enough to block out the sun; constantly overflowing rubbish bins give off an almost pestilential stench that can be escaped only by retreating into the surrounding hills; the rocky, litter-strewn beach is colonized by the homeless and plagued by stray cats; and everywhere you look there are office and apartment complexes as unprepossessing as anything in the former Eastern bloc countries. It’s the sort of place people pass through en route to somewhere more aesthetically pleasing, and yet, in the spring of 2010, my girlfriend Daphne and I went to live there for six months. Our friends and family were baffled. Why move to Greece, a country on the brink of bankruptcy, and why Patras, which could only be described as a backwater? For us the decision had been straightforward. Among other reasons, we had chosen Greece because it’s part of Daphne’s heritage and she had always wanted to live there, and Patras because it’s cheaper than Athens and only a three-hour ferry ride from Ithaca, where we planned to spend an additional six months.
Within a few weeks of being in the city, Daphne had found her feet. Outgoing and inquisitive and speaking the language like a native, she made friends everywhere she went and was determined, as she put it, ‘to live every moment of this experience’. To go shopping with her at our local fruit and veg market was to witness someone totally at ease in her surroundings. The frantic gesticulations and noisy appeals of the vendors made her virtually giddy with excitement, whereas for me the experience was a regular and uncomfortable reminder of my ‘otherness’. I felt conspicuous in a way that made me consider, perhaps for the first time, how my parents must have felt when they arrived in Britain from Jamaica in the 1960s. The looks I got in Patras, less curious than hostile, made me furious. Whether I was sitting in an open-fronted café nursing a frappé or strolling across one of the city’s many plazas, I was always conscious of being stared at. If Daphne and I were together, people would actually nudge each other and point and even snigger. I take no pride in saying this, but I hated the idea that I was being viewed in the same way as all the other black people in the city, the illegal African immigrants who existed on the fringes of Patras society, who skulked about the back streets with their heads downs, mostly at night, like ghosts, too ashamed to show themselves during the day. I did not want to be identified with these people. I was from London. I hadn’t come to Greece illegally. I did not eke out a living selling fake designer handbags and knock-off DVDs. I lived in a nice apartment, in a nice part of the city, not in a squalid, cramped, disused train carriage in a derelict rail depot. I did not rely on handouts to keep me fed and clothed and was not attempting, at every opportunity, to become a stowaway on passenger ships bound for Italy and other parts of Europe. When people saw me, they couldn’t look beyond the colour of my skin, and after a while I found that I didn’t care so much about how I was being perceived. A much greater concern, which had begun to prick away at my conscience, was my readiness to disassociate myself from the Africans.
To illustrate this fact, the delegates were shown a series of grainy film recordings of half-dead black people – mostly men – drifting off the Greek coast in vessels that were scarcely more seaworthy than wicker baskets.
In 2008 the Council of Europe held a three-day conference in Patras entitled ‘Speak Out Against Racism: How to Report Discrimination in the Media’. The delegates consisted exclusively of journalists known for their sensitive reporting on issues relating to immigration. Every major news outlet in the world was represented, and Patras had been chosen for the conference because it holds the unwanted distinction of being the main gateway into Europe for African immigrants. To illustrate this fact, the delegates were shown a series of grainy film recordings of half-dead black people – mostly men – drifting off the Greek coast in vessels that were scarcely more seaworthy than wicker baskets. Each film featured a variation on the same story: confronted by the Greek navy’s gunships, a good many of the boat people simply dived into the sea, forcing the navy to rescue them and take them ashore. Without passports or any kind of identification documents, they were effectively stateless, and since they could not be repatriated, they were herded into open-air camps, given a little food and water and then abandoned.
Next to feature on the movie reel were the Afghanis. Though they arrive in Greece over land, via Turkey and Iran, their journey is no less hazardous for that. Smuggled into the country by profiteering people traffickers who cram them into trucks like cattle, many of them are robbed and beaten on the long, arduous journey and left to die in the middle of nowhere. Of those that do make it to Patras, a fair number are arrested and sent straight back to Afghanistan. The rest spend their days in and around the bustling port, where they keep a constant lookout for opportunities to sneak on to ships bound for Italy, and their nights in the ever-growing squatter camps on the outskirts of the city. Some even go through the hassle of seeking political asylum, not because they want to stay in Greece, but because it allows them to leave the country legally. They needn’t bother, for though they claim, legitimately in many cases, to be fleeing persecution from the Taliban, the Greek authorities see them as economic migrants and are unwavering in that stance. The statistics speak for themselves. In 2007, of the 20,692 asylum applications submitted by Afghanis to the Greek Immigration Office, eight were approved.
After watching these horror films, the journalists were taken to see one of the Afghan squatter camps, the better to report on them. Daphne was one of those journalists. Two years after her first visit, and now no longer working as a journalist, she took me along to one of the camps to see if the situation had improved. It had worsened. There was still a complete lack of basic amenities, the immigrants were still sleeping six
and seven to a room, but the camp was now a sprawling, overcrowded shanty town consisting of dank, dark, windowless huts made from cardboard and rusty corrugated iron. We spoke to several of the squatters and none had the slightest compunction in denouncing the Greeks as a nation of racists. They wanted out of the country by any means necessary and almost all of them expressed a desire to go to the UK or, failing that, to one of the Scandinavian countries. Being French, Daphne was a little put out that her country was not viewed as an attractive option, that it had a reputation for being tough on immigrants. I, on the other hand, felt immensely proud to see that Britain was still regarded as a bastion of liberality and fair-mindedness: or, as one Greek man later told me, as a soft touch.
The day I met him, Emanuel looked as if he had been having a hard day at the office. Daphne and I were enjoying a milkshake at a terrace café near the port when he ambled up to our table, sweaty from the 40-degree heat, clutching a sports bag full of DVDs. This made me smile. He had seen me in the same café only a few days earlier and hadn’t so much as nodded at me. Today, with Daphne sitting beside me, he clearly fancied his chances of making a sale. For him, it was a simple equation: white people had money, black people didn’t. Had it been one of the other sellers, I’d have taken umbrage and sent him packing forthwith, but he had such a round, friendly face and approached us with so wide a grin that I couldn’t, in all conscience, harden my heart against him. Instead of launching straight into his sales pitch, he began by asking where we were from and why we had come to Patras. He seemed genuinely surprised by what we told him. He’d had me down as an African – possibly from Nigeria, possibly based in Athens – who’d made good by snagging himself a local. Daphne and I had a little chuckle at that, but the subtext of Emanuel’s remarks was a serious comment on the state of race relations in Greece. An African man who goes out with a Greek woman was considered, favourably it seemed, to be a social climber. Quite how the woman was seen, especially by the Greeks, was not something I chose to dwell on.
Emanuel was from Nigeria. When we met him he had been in Patras for more than three years. He hated the place, hated his life there, hated the Greeks. ‘They treat us very badly, even though we do not go around begging, like the Gypsies, or rely on charity, like the Afghanis. You see these’ – he held up a fistful of DVDs – ‘they allow me to feed my entire family back in Nigeria and I do not apologize for it.’ He told us how the police were wont to assault him in the street and confiscate his goods, forcing him to make the expensive six-hour round trip to Athens to re-stock. So far he had always been able to finance the trips. He was very careful with the little money he earned, always making sure to put a little something aside each week for emergencies, but he said there were others in his position who were not as sensible and lived to pay the price. ‘They are a bit like the Greeks. They think only of today. When the police come and take away their things, they starve. You have probably seen them, sitting together like orphans outside the supermarkets, hoping that someone will give them a little bit of work. It is pitiful. I would sooner go back to my country than live like this.’ But he had no intention of going back to Nigeria. He harboured dreams of going to the UK, where he would set himself up then send for his wife and three children. In the meantime, he sent them money, photographs and increasingly hollow promises that they would all be reunited one day. When he’d finished speaking, I offered to buy a few of his DVDs, but he smiled, shook his head and said, ‘These are not for you, my friend.’ I thought he meant that the films were not to my taste, which would have been quite an assumption, but it turned out I was mistaken. Looking left and right to make sure he wasn’t being overheard, he leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, ‘Between you and me, the copies are so bad they are practically unwatchable.’ I was so taken aback by his honesty, all I could say was, ‘Thanks.’ Daphne laughed and said, ‘That explains why they’re only three euros.’ At that point Emanuel closed his sports bag, slung it over his shoulder, smiled at us and said, ‘Have a nice day.’ Moments later he was gone, weaving between the tables and chairs on his way out. As we watched him leave, Daphne and I remarked to each other on how friendly he’d been. I had no way of knowing that the next time I saw him he’d refuse to speak to me.
The Greeks have always loved their football, but after their country caused a shock by winning Euro 2004, they became even more obsessed with the game. In the immediate aftermath of the championships, attendances for domestic matches soared, while all the satellite sports channels reported a marked increase in the number of people taking out subscriptions. Live football on TV became so popular that almost every café, bar and taverna installed a big-screen TV in order to attract extra customers. In Patras, if Daphne and I fancied a night out, we had to search long and hard to find a place that wasn’t showing a match featuring either Olympiakos or Panathinaikos, the two giants of Greek football.
Daphne had nailed her colours firmly to the Hellenic mast, but kept one eye on the French team in the hope that they would be eliminated from the tournament as quickly as possible.
When the World Cup began in June, we allowed ourselves to be swept up in the excitement of the tournament. Greece had qualified and the locals, with typical reticence, were looking forward to seeing how their team would perform. Daphne had nailed her colours firmly to the Hellenic mast, but kept one eye on the French team in the hope that they would be eliminated from the tournament as quickly as possible. When they failed to make it past the group stages, her judgement was blunt: ‘Good. They’re too arrogant.’ I felt the same way about the England team, but I still wanted them to do well.
Greece versus Nigeria. To progress to the knockout stages, both teams needed to win. The locals had come out in force to watch the match. Not wanting to miss out on the excitement, Daphne and I turned up at our local café almost an hour early to make sure we got a table, and even then we could only get one with a side-on view of the TV screen. The café was on a pedestrian street lined with orange trees in full blossom, the scent of which was as heady as a perfumery. All along the pavement, knots of people were standing in front of hastily erected jumbo TVs. Daphne and I ordered our usual aperitif, ouzo, with nibbles. At an adjacent table sat an enormous middle-aged man with a couple of teenage boys who I presumed were his sons. Just as the game kicked off he leaned across and, directing his comment at me, said in perfect English, ‘Your boys have no chance.’ I shook my head in dismay. Daphne was mildly incensed. ‘He’s supporting Greece, actually.’ The man flushed red and turned his attention to the game. A short while later, I sensed a presence behind me and looked over my shoulder to see a group of Africans standing under one of the orange trees, several of them draped in the Nigerian national flag. Some of the faces I recognized, others were new to me: all of them were staring at the TV. Not welcome in any of the cafés, they were forced to watch the game from the pavement. Though completely absorbed in the game, they had to be careful to contain their excitement for fear of giving offence to the Greek supporters. If the Nigerian team attacked, they would gasp and hold their breath in anticipation. If the Greeks attacked they would bite their lips or hold their heads or clasp their hands together as though in prayer. Any talking they did was in hushed tones and among themselves. Their behaviour was an object lesson in how to act in a hostile, alien environment. I felt desperately sorry for them, and had I not been with Daphne I may well have gone over and joined them.
Greece won the match. At the final whistle the street erupted into joyous celebration. Daphne and I hugged and cheered. Our fat neighbour, some way gone now on ouzo, shook my hand and mumbled something in Greek which Daphne translated as, ‘We will go all the way.’ I laughed. The man was delusional. I was about to say as much but then I remembered that no one had given Greece a chance back in 2004. Daphne’s mother then called her from Paris to talk about the game. This gave me the opportunity to see what the Africans were doing, how they were taking the defeat. When I turned and saw Emanuel standing among them, I instinctively got up and started heading towards him, but no sooner had I left my chair than he started wagging his finger at me, forbidding me from approaching him. He had a face like thunder and was clearly unimpressed by my overt show of support for the Greeks. I felt the snub in the pit of my stomach. Not knowing where to put my face, I sat down again and waited for Daphne to finish talking with her mother. Presently the terrace began to empty. As they were leaving, the fat man and his sons shook my hand in turn and said, ‘Kalinichta.’ Then, from the corner of my eye, I saw that the Africans were beginning to disperse and that several of them were watching me. This time I felt too guilty to look at them. Daphne continued to talk excitedly on her mobile, going over the game in minute detail, annoyingly ignorant of what was going on between me and the Africans. When at last she finished, I urged her to her feet and dragged her away from the café.
Next up for us, Ithaca. Beyond its blue, fabled horizons lay the future, our future, only we couldn’t see it – we didn’t want to see it.
After five months in Patras, Daphne and I were settled and feeling good about how the move had gone. This was in stark contrast to how we felt when we first arrived. Yes there’d been excitement and a sense that we were embarking on an adventure, but there’d also been fear and trepidation. What if we didn’t like Patras? Had we saved up enough money? Before moving to Greece, ours had been a long-distance relationship, conducted between Paris and Edinburgh: would proximity now come between us? Had I underestimated the height of the language barrier? Would Daphne buckle under the pressure of having to translate everything for me? And what of the things we were leaving behind: a regular income, friends and family, the comfortable and the familiar? How long would it be before we began to feel homesick? In one respect or another, at one time or another, we were affected by all of these things, and sometimes they assailed us all at once: but there was no doubt in our minds that the gains we made by moving to Greece far outweighed the losses. First and most important, we had time: time to get to know each other, time to talk, time to think, time to experience another culture, privileges we were keen to savour and extend. It depressed us to think about a return to our former lives, when we lived in different countries and had to make do with phone calls and emails and occasional, fleeting get-togethers. Daphne was loath to return to France, to a stressful existence of making ends meet while trying to establish herself as a writer, and I had no intention of going back to the UK when I had spent so many years dreaming of escaping its grey, spirit-killing shores; but we knew we couldn’t stay in Greece for ever, we knew we had to find a place in the world where we could build a life together that didn’t involve us making too many self-sacrifices. But where exactly was this place, and what would we do once we got there – how would we live? In Patras we discussed all of these things while making sure not to rush into any decisions. Our adventure had barely begun and we didn’t want to spoil it by grasping after the ungraspable. Next up for us, Ithaca. Beyond its blue, fabled horizons lay the future, our future, only we couldn’t see it – we didn’t want to see it.
The week before we left Patras was a stressful one. Not only did we have to sort out our accommodation on Ithaca from a distance, but also we couldn’t think what to do with all our stuff. We had arrived in Patras with only a few items of clothing between us, but it hadn’t taken us very long to start accumulating possessions, not all of which were necessary. As well as a king-sized bed, a table and two chairs and a two-seater sofa-bed (we had rented our apartment unfurnished) we had purchased a lot of pots and pans, cutlery and crockery, a whole wardrobe of linen, wine glasses, a kettle, a toaster, bedside lamps, a bookshelf, pedal bins, a vacuum cleaner, an electric fan, stacks of stationery, portable speakers and a printer. We didn’t want to take any of it to Ithaca, but as we had to empty our flat we spent our final days in Patras trying to persuade our neighbours to accept them as gifts. More out of pity than necessity, they took what we offered them, but even then we had to leave the bed in the apartment as we couldn’t find anyone who needed it. Ridding ourselves of possessions, even relatively new and expensive ones, was not as easy as we had supposed.
The day of our departure from Patras saw us in a state of excitement. We couldn’t wait to leave. After months of intense heat we were desperate to get to Ithaca and spend the rest of the summer swimming in the Ionian. To make sure we didn’t miss our ferry, we turned up at the port a full two hours early. We’d even had the foresight to book our passage the day before to avoid queueing at the ticket office. All we had to do now was wait. This we did in our favourite port-side café, which, we had come to discover, served the best ice-cream milkshakes in the city. We had lunch, hemmed in all sides by our luggage, and by the time we’d finished our ferry was due to depart. Just as we were getting ready to leave, Emanuel entered the café. He was wearing a tight-fitting green T-shirt that showed off his muscular physique, and his dark oval face shone with perspiration. Weaving between the tables with his sports bag slung over his shoulder, he walked right up to us and said, ‘You are going on a trip?’ Daphne and I were a little embarrassed to see him. We had been talking about him only a few minutes earlier – slagging him off, truth be known – and now there he was standing in front of us. It was Daphne who answered his question. ‘We’re leaving.’ He seemed genuinely sad. ‘You mean you are never coming back?’ ‘Oh no,’ Daphne replied, ‘we’ll be back. Maybe in a month or so.’ We had no plans to return to Patras. ‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘we’ll be back, for sure. And we hope to see you.’ At that Emanuel smiled. ‘I’ll be here.’ He then shook our hands, wished us good luck for the future, bid us farewell and left. There was hardly time to pay for our lunch before we had to gather up our suitcases. We made it onto our ferry with only a few minutes to spare.
Once our luggage had been stored, we went up on deck to see if we could spot Emanuel. There were several Africans milling about below on the busy quay, trying to sell their wares, but he was nowhere to be seen. On the other side of the high, wire-meshed railing that separates the street from the disembarkation area, we saw at least two dozen Afghanis, their faces pressed up against the railing, scrutinizing the gigantic ships in the harbour as they alternately disgorged and swallowed their cargo, human as well as vehicular. Our ferry rumbled to a start, sending a cloying smell of petrol and oil into the air that forced some of the more sensitive passengers below. Daphne and I remained on deck, not speaking, staring straight ahead as the ferry pulled slowly away from the shoreline and the city receded further and further into the distance. Finally, when we were well out at sea, and with the wind whipping our faces, we turned and faced the direction in which we were headed.