When I arrived back to Switzerland, I didn’t talk about my time in Greece because I didn’t know how. It’s not that it was traumatic, or that the topic was an emotional trigger. It’s just that it was big; too vast an experience to really wrap my mind around. Not yet.
I need a day. Or two. Then you can ask me questions. Then I will talk about it.
That weekend, the Sunday paper featured full-page photographs of the refugees in Idomeni. It didn’t feel real, sitting in our tidy, quiet kitchen and looking at the pictures—beautiful, terrible pictures— of people and places I knew to be real, all flesh and sound.
For example, I don’t remember the last time I didn’t have to sniff my socks to see if they were clean enough to wear before I put them on in the morning. I don’t remember the last time I didn’t take the leftover napkins from lunch and put them in my backpack to use as toilet paper later. I don’t remember the last time I thought twice about pulling on a musty donation jacket because it was cold out, or the last time I bought new clothes. I don’t remember the last time I wore makeup. And I don’t remember the last time I looked in the mirror other than brushing my teeth in the morning and at night.
When I write about the refugee crisis in Europe and Greece, I take my time. I try to avoid the overtly political, the preachy, the shock and awe. Instead I prefer focus on the deep channels and themes that underscore what is happening here. But today you should be shocked, and considering the last few weeks, you ought to be awed.
Today I want—I need—to tell you about the past week here on Lesvos. It is important that you understand.
When I sat down to put my thoughts to page late Sunday night, it was the first time I had stopped long enough to sit down, with the exception of three uncomfortable hours spent...
Imagine for a second that you are going on a journey. You are leaving your home with no intention of coming back. For all you know, your house will be burned to the ground with everything inside it once you leave.
What do you bring with you?
Close your eyes and consider: what do you pack? Lay everything out on the table. Are you reaching for clean underwear? Your photo albums? Your laptop? A favorite book? How many articles of clothing are you bringing?
You know your journey will take at least a month, maybe much longer, and you don’t know if you will be stopped somewhere along the way and forced to sleep outside in a field or not. You don’t know if you will have access to adequate shelter or proper hygiene.
I have never been very good with change. Ask my parents what happened when they tried to replace my antique, lumpy mattress with a new one, or make edits to the splintering swing set behind our house, or reupholster the couch in front of our television. Instinct takes over and suddenly I am digging in my heels and screaming at top volume about the charactered perfection of the old model, the unnecessary renovations to something that was perfectly functional before, and pointing out every flaw I can find in the new model.
I still maintain that the original couch fabric was retro. Like I said, change is hard.
So why on earth did I come to Lesvos? Our resident Pilgrim, Thomas, describes the experience as a Buddhist exercise in attachment. In order to survive here you have to let go of every expectation, because tomorrow will be so different than today. The moment you try and grab hold of something, it will turn to sand in your...
“What surprised you the most when you arrived on Lesvos?” I asked Arne, as he drove us down the deeply pockmarked mountain pass that leads to the International Rescue Committee camp. The radio in the car was broken and nobody was in the mood to listen to the tired Kings of Leon album incarcerated in the dashboard.
“That there is no plan,” he answered immediately.
“You think, of course, in a crisis of this scale, someone has a plan. They have to. But no one does. That was shocking to me.”
The Mediterranean is dark grey and foaming with a ferocity I had not believed it capable. A deafening wind carries pounding horizontal rain and unfortunate pieces of laundry plucked from lines on porches. When the weather is raging like this, you understand why the Greeks chose to build their homes and villages from stone and rock.
On these days, the work of a volunteer is quiet. The water is too rough, with waves breaking twelve feet tall against the pier and the west wind gusting back towards Turkey, New boats packed with refugees do not attempt the journey. For this we are all grateful. In a small rubber raft, there is no surviving this water.
The window of my hilltop apartment in Molyvos looks out over the harbor. In the early light of morning, I can usually see a faint glittering of the gold I know to be emergency blankets wrapped around clusters of newly arrived refugees. The rhythm of their arrival is constant, boat after boat bearing down on the island. About 30,000 refugees arrived in January alone, and that is a low-ball estimate. Sources on the island report that upwards of 2,000 refugees arrive in Greece every day, the majority of them travelling through Lesvos.
But the experience of being a volunteer is not crushing; you are never drowning under a tide of people. Your interactions are with individuals, or boats that have become families through their experience on the sea the way young men become brothers through fraternity pledging. You can walk through crowds in the camps handing out 1,000 pairs of dry socks, but the questions you get are personal; the stories you hear are intimate.
A young girl walks along the beach and finds thousands of starfish washed up on the shore in the high tide. She throws down her bag and starts to pick them up, one at a time, and throw the starfish back into the ocean. Later, an old man finds her throwing starfish after starfish, and says, “What are you doing? You cannot save them all, there is no point.”
“I’m going to go and try to buy tickets again,” Owen said, speaking softly so as not to disturb the family sleeping next to us but loudly enough that I could hear him over the crackling radio playing in the corner. I peered back at him through the darkness, looping my hand through the handles of his suitcase, pulling it into my body. I was attached to all the rest of our things, the only way to be assured of their locations in the pitch black of the station as we waited with the crowds of people to board the TAZARA Rail, due in at three that morning.
I miss (eating in) San Francisco. It is a unique city, where the creative engagement with culinary culture is matched by the quality of ingredients grown locally. It is actually hard to have a bad meal in SF.
I love food. It is how I structure my days, and is essential to how I experience a place. After living in San Francisco for a while, I realized that whenever I made ‘to do’ guides for friends visiting the city, everything I recommended revolved around what to eat and where to eat it. The requests became so frequent, I put together this little tour-de-SF for the hungry (or just curious) explorer.
1/ Big Ben in London 2/ South Harting Downs, England 3/ St. James Park, London 4/ Cinnamon buns in Nordic Bakery, London 5/ Hill Ash Farm, West Sussex, England 6/ Barcelona, Spain 7/ Polo in the Park, London 8/ Paris, France 9/ The Sylvia Beach Library at Shakespeare and Co., Paris 10/ Just another day at Shakespeare and Company, Paris 11/ Paris summer night along the Seine 12/ Bertillon ice cream with Colette 13/ Eiffel Tower on Bastille Day 14/ The amazing Shakespeare and Company Bookshop, Paris 5th 15/ Tumbleweeds eat breakfast with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founder of City Lights Books 16/ Upstairs at Shakespeare and Co with Agatha Christie...