It has taken a long time for me to pick up from where I left off writing up about this trip. There are several reasons for that. I had travelled to Athens and then on to Patras with my daughter as we had just been accepted as volunteers – myself with FoodKind and my daughter with DocMobile. She was bringing the skills that she had acquired as an Emergency Medical Technician in the ambulance service to support the doctors and nurses. I brought my skills in chopping vegetables and feeding a large family! The two charities worked very closely together to provide two meals a day and medical care to asylum seekers including unaccompanied minors camped out in an old abandoned carpet factory.
When the medical staff weren’t tending to wounds they were working with us preparing and cooking meals to feed up to a hundred people a day. The post that I wrote several years ago about our volunteering experience didn’t fully describe the experience or even come close to expressing what an emotional experience this was. I still can’t find the right words today. So I will leave the memories and feelings where they are – bound very closely to my heart.
Apart from the emotional tie to Patras because of the very special people that I met during the volunteering experience, I really liked the place. It’s what I call an ordinary town. One that isn’t built around tourism apart from having a port that has a direct connection to Italy and the Ionians. It is a vibrant and modern town confident in itself and with no need to make concessions or sell its soul in the name of tourism. It has a good selection of shops with some excellent Greek and international brands along with a wide selection of tavernas and places to socialise. Of course, Patras is well known for its Carnival that takes place leading up to Lent so its size and hospitality establishments have to be fit for such purposes.
During our stay there in 2017, there was a strike by municipal workers right across Greece that affected the collection of refuse. From what I remember it was connected to the terms of Greece’s bailout as the country was still in the grip of an economic crisis. Many municipal workers were on temporary contracts but a court ruled that it was unlawful to renew contracts and that the workers should be sacked and new workers hired. The municipal workers by way of protest, barricaded the dumps, blocked access to the garbage trucks and generally prevented the refuse collections services to operate.
It was June. Greece was in the middle of a heatwave and piles of garbage soon turned into mountains over the weeks. Plastic bags spilling their guts out onto the streets were seen on almost every street corner of the town, the smell of rotting refuse permeating the nostrils each time you pass. I won’t post the photographs but will leave this to the imagination. It certainly didn’t detract from the character of the town or really impact on my stay in any way. As I’d said earlier, this is a real town, with real people and real lives and this is what sometimes happens. Who wants their travel experience whitewashed and homogenised? Not me – or I’d go to Mykonos!
Above the modern town is Patras Kastro – or what remains of it. A Roman/Venetian/Byzantine/Ottoman castle built, destroyed and rebuilt during the various occupations of the city over many centuries. It forms the perfect backdrop to the tavernas and bars that line the foot of the Acropolis.
A favourite haunt of the volunteers after a difficult and emotional day was to chill out on the beach by Mare Mare Bar. It always felt a bit incongruous with our experiences of the day, providing meals for our friends in the old carpet factory. It wasn’t something that we did every day but a couple of times a week, we’d get together and meet down at Mare Mare for a couple of drinks and something to eat as a great way to de-stress and unwind.
Sometimes we would swim until the sun had set way behind Missolonghi. The thought of an early alarm call reminded us that the following morning, breakfast duties were our priority. Ready-prepared Nutella sandwiches and baskets of oranges donated by local farmers were distributed amongst our friends whilst the medics patched up bruised and bleeding limbs. Wounds were mainly acquired by trying to jump onto ships departing for Italy but more often than not, they were caught and beaten by the police. Not all the police though. We do know that some would just let them go. Whether through apathy or compassion, I’ll never know.
Considering the trauma that many of these young men had been through, I was amazed at how many of them came to see the doctors and nurses with really minor complaints. I’d often see people queuing up with something as inconsequential as a mosquito bite. After a while I realised that it wasn’t the wound that needed healing, but their loneliness and the desire to just be cared for. This meant far more than the antiseptic and bandages.
There is no getting away from the fact that Patras is primarily a port. The constant stream of traffic heading to the port terminal was ever-present and the sea wasn’t the cleanest (thought still clearer than the sea on our Northern Uk coastline). With a constant stream of large ferries docking every day, this is no wonder. We would never know who had tried to jump a ship during the night until the following day. They’d be there in the morning with injuries or we’d notice a a space on the factory floor that marked someone’s absence. There is a transience to Patras, not just because of the traffic passing through the port, but because of the momentary friendships and bonds – there one day and gone the next.
One day I’ll go back. The abandoned carpet factory I believe, is no more. Certainly no longer a temporary refuge for our friends but I want to see the town again. Maybe for Carnival? Who knows.
Remembering old friends from the past, volunteers and those that I was honoured to share a meal with. Always in my heart.