Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Down and out in Hania (Στον δρόμο)

We only see what we want to see. I saw (most of) this take place in the space of five minutes.

agora haniaFrideriki had just come out of the bakery at the Agora, where she joined her husband who was standing near the main entrance, talking to an acquaintance he had met up with in the central square in front of the market. She had bought a loaf of granary bread and a packet of her husband's favorite rye rusks from the bakery on the west wing of the Agora near the main passageway leading into the market. The fat chocolate muffins looked tempting, so she bought three for her grandchildren, who played in the yard that separated her house from theirs every day after school. After thanking the shop assistant, she turned to leave the bakery when she found a middle-aged woman blocking the entrance. The woman's eyes looked out of focus; there was a troubled look on her face. But her long dark hair was tidily draped around her shoulders, and her clothes looked clean, albeit rather shabby. Her red coat signalled older, and perhaps, happier times.

 This photo was taken three years ago on a Saturday. The old man - most likely he's come 'down' to Hania from a remote (mountain) village - is dressed traditionally, walking with the aid of a hand-carved walking stick and carrying a bag on his back. We still see a small number of people dressed like this, but this is becoming a rarer sight. The middle-aged man is quite representative of his age-group (you can see a number of others like him crossing the road). The man in the middle is an immigrant (not a tourist), judging from his clothes and the way he wears a pouch bag. 

agora next to junior high school hania chania"Does this interest you?" the woman said to anyone who had looked her way. She was holding up an unframed still life canvas painting; it was the only thing she was carrying in her hands. The colours of the flowers were bright, contrasting with the pale blue background that the dark brown vase was standing against. The picture would not immediately strike anyone's interest, unless they realised that the woman herself had painted it, as she had done so many others. She was a regular sight on the streets, plying her trade in this way for many years. The shop assistants paid no attention to her. Some of the customers in the shop turned around momentarily to look at who was speaking, then returned their gaze back to the counter. Frideriki manoeuvred herself around the woman to exit the bakery, and joined her husband in the central square. He continued to talk with his friend, as if he had not seen her.

With a nod of her head, she let him carry on with his conversation, while she walked towards the vacant wooden bench on the other side of the square. Feeling laden from the various plastic carrier bags in her hands, she decided to sit down and catch her breath. It had not been too long ago that she was last in the town, but the place seemed different to her today. She could not put her finger on what it was that made it look so foreign to her. There were not a lot of people moving about around the Agora, even thought there was still some action. No one else was sitting on the few benches in the area. A middle-aged man, head bowed, with a partially bald scalp was sitting on the eastern side of the Agora, directly in front of her. He was begging. 'That's what's different', she thought to herself. At this time of the day, it should normally be bustling with shoppers. Normally bustling - that had now become a sign of the past, of the town as she remembered it, when she used to come here more often. In recent times, she and her husband kept her own movements more localised, avoiding too much use of the car since the escalating petrol rises.

agora haniaJust as she had sat down, a man appeared on the east side of the Agora. He walked very slowly past the bald beggar, with an obvious limp in one leg. His face was unshaven, his body gaunt, his clothes unwashed. Blonde curly hair straggled around his ears and in front of his forehead. Even from the distance, Frideriki could see that he was not old. He walked passed the entrance of the Agora to the bakery, eventually arriving outside it. Then he paused for a moment outside the shop before placing one foot on the doorstep. He did not enter any further into the shop. Just a few seconds later, a shop assistant could be seen at the doorstep standing next to him. She looked the exact opposite of the man. Her dyed red hair was neatly combed and tied up in a pony tail. The rays of the sun highlighted its red auburn streaks. Her blue work apron looked crisp and clean. She was smiling.

The blonde man turned around and moved away from the bakery. Now he was carrying a white paper bag, with a bread roll poking out of it. His movements were still slow, but his gait had strengthened, as if he had found some energy to walk faster, even though he was still limping. Frideriki felt a sense of relief that she could not explain.

Frideriki glanced at her husband; he was still talking. Just as the lame man passed the entrance of the Agora, Frideriki noticed a little boy walking past the flower beds located at the steps leading to the square. They had been planted with decorative bright green cabbages, contrasting with the older red geranium plants that normally lined the jardiniers. The boy had made himself conspicuous by walking backwards, never once looking behind him. His steps were calculated; he seemed experienced in this kind of unusual behaviour, walking backwards and managing not to bump into anyone else. His clothes looked too big for him, even though he was quite small-looking. He can't have been older than seven, or maybe eight, or maybe even a very small nine years old. Frideriki thought it unusual that he was alone, unaccompanied by an adult. No sooner had she put this idea in her mind than two girls appeared next to her out of nowhere. They looked as though they were from the same family as the boy. One of them was holding an accordion, opening and closing it in a way that made noise rather than music. Frideriki waved them away. They left without a fuss.

agora market
Slung crosswise around the boy's chest was a drum. As he walked his strange walk, people dodged past him, avoiding contact. They could see him, and even though he couldn't see them, he knew they were there. He had now reached the mid-way point between the entrances to the bakery and the Agora. He slowly turned his head to look left, and then right, not necessarily looking for anything in particular. He took one more sweeping look around the area, slowly surveying the space in front of him. Then he sat down where he was, and brought out a very worn-looking black cap which he laid in front of him on the ground. Slowly, he began to beat the drum. The drumming sounds were rhythmic, beating out a well known festival tune. The composition sounded so familiar that it could have been played by anyone. But noone was probably listening, or at least interested. People continued to walk around him or past him. No one looked down on him. He continued beating the drum slowly, staring ahead of him. His line of gaze was piercing the bald man; the man's head was still bowed.

Now an old woman dressed in black appeared from the eastern wing of the market. She scuttled past the beggar and the drummer boy, making her way determinedly towards the bakery. Her age was obvious from the wrinkles on her face and her old-fashioned widow's garb, but this woman's steps were firm and stable. Her many years had not compromised her mobility. As she brushed past Frideriki's husband, she disappeared into the bakery. At this moment, a Chinese peddler emerged from the Agora carrying a wooden case full of trinkets: wristwatches, small clocks, fancy lighters, tiny transistor radios, brightly coloured folding umbrellas. He walked slowly enough for Frideriki to capture his soft smile and the glowing look on his face. Again, a flush of relief gushed through Frideriki's body; this sensation made her shiver. She continued to watch the Chinese man walking with his back as straight as a lambada and the happy look on his tender face. His gently approachable appearance endeared Frideriki towards him; she was curious to see all those pretty things he was carrying in his case. She got off her seat, picked up her bags, and began to walk towards him. Just as she was about to check out his box of wares, at that moment she saw her husband beckoning her to come towards him. He had finished talking. 'Never mind,' she thought, there were lots of Chinese peddlers on the streets these days. She was bound to come across another somewhere else.

agora haniaAs Frideriki began walking towards her husband, the old woman in the black clothes appeared from the bakery. She was carrying a large plastic bag full of assorted bread products. But the woman did not seem in any hurry to leave the area. She walked up to the drummer boy with the same determined steps she had taken to walk across the square and bent down to the boy's level, her back arched, her legs straight. From the plastic bag, she produced a koulouri. "Here, little boy" she said, as she tapped his hand with the koulouri, "take it, go on, eat it, it's yours." The boy turned around to look at her. He did not snatch the koulouri out of the woman's hand like a hungry child. He stared at her hand for a few seconds before accepting the gift. The woman did not wait to be thanked. She made her way out of the central square, taking the same route she had used to enter it.

Frideriki's husband was now standing next to her. He began to pick up a few of the plastic carrier bags that his wife had been carrying, in order to share out the load between them. They had left their car in the parking area behind the Agora and now that they had finished their shopping, they were ready to leave the town. He picked up some of the bags and waited for his wife to pick up hers. Then he suddenly dropped his bags in panic. His wife had just fallen to the ground in a heap.

When she finally came to, she felt her face and hair wet. Someone had poured some water over her  to bring her round. She was out cold for no more than two minutes.

"What happened to you?" her husband asked in a fearful tone.

"I don't know," she replied. "I just fainted. But I'm OK now."

"Let's go to a doctor," her husband said.

Goods for sale: wild flowers and tablecloths. These women are standing across the road from the Agora. The photos are three years old. The people have changed, but the nature of their work remains the same.

"No, really, I'm all right now," she tried to reassure him. She looked around the square. The bald beggar was still there, but the boy was gone. All Frideriki could remember was the little boy's gaze as he accepted the koulouri.

*** *** ***
hania splantziaMany of my readers will be familiar with Down and Out in Paris and London, which describes the poverty that George Orwell saw and experienced for himself when he lived among the lowest rungs of society, subsisting off a diet of primarily bread and tea in soup kitchens and doss houses. The most well-known soup kitchen in Hania is found in Splantzia, run by the church of St Nicholas, which was established in 1964 by Manolis Mariakakis, who rented a small space in the area and hired a cook to provide meals for άποροι (apori - indigents, as opposed to φτωχοί - ftohi, 'poor people'). This soup kitchen is still operating, along with some other similar church-run establishments in other parts of the town. They are open every day except Sunday, when other services take over their role. During our times, these soup kitchens are serving a greater number of people than they ever did, not just migrants but also Greeks: approximately 130 families (180 people) are served a hot meal here daily in Splantzia alone.

economic migrants hania chaniaKonstas provides a description of these people, along with some photos of the food parcels handed out to them last Christmas. You can also get a glimpse of what it's like in a soup kitchen in Crete from this photo provided by the soup kitchen of a church in Rethimno. Geerally speaking, we don't see people in Hania sleeping on the road, but by keep ing your eyes open, you will be able to see quite clearly where the poor and indigent are living.

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