Tuesday, 20 September 2016

The Man on the Bench

Last Friday evening was very humid. The temperature reading in the car showed 28C at 7pm. Sweat poured down my back as I trudged through the town, laden with my shopping: chickpea flour, my new sunglasses, a 10-pack of school notebooks, school diaries for the kids, and I hadn't quite finished yet. It was getting dark, and my clothes were sticking to my skin. I felt the need to rest a minute or two, so I sat down on the bench pictured below.

There was a man sitting on the bench on the opposite side from me. He paid no attention to me. We were both, in effect, resting on the bench. I laid my shopping bags around me, and opened my handbag to take out my cellphone. The Man on the Bench was smoking. A closed bottle of water and an open can of coca-cola were set on the bench next to him. There was also a transparent plastic bag near him, sealed at the top, whose contents looked like plastic cutlery, two slices of bread and a single-use white plastic pot with a lid, whose contents were probably food from a soup kitchen. He was, perhaps, wearing a few too many items of clothing for the weather at that moment.

I don't know if he was homeless. He might have been. Homeless people are highly visible in Greek cities from my own experiences, but because of the good weather in the summer, they can make do with less stuff, they can sit virtually anywhere without worrying too much about being moved on by the authorities, and they act in a way that I would call 'normal', ie they don't look too different from non-homeless people. So in many cases, you won't realise that they are homeless.

Both the Man on the Bench and I were fully aware of each other, but we carried on with our own business, not bothering each other. I felt like giving him some money... but he wasn't asking for it. What right did I have to treat him like a homeless beggar? I sat on the bench for just enough time to get back my energy. As I picked up my bags and stood up to leave, the Man on the Bench spoke:

- Can you spare 50 cents? he asked me. Of course I could! I put down my shopping bags, opened my handbag, found my purse, and got out some my small change.

- Here you are, I said. He smiled and said thank you. I had just picked up my shopping bags and was turning to leave when I heard him speak again:

- May God look after you and your family.

I thanked him for that, and went off onto my next chore.

The homeless of Hania, numbering about 25-40 people, mainly men, are provided with shelter in children's summer camp facilities during the winter. Last winter, a bus picked them up from the shelter, took them into the town, where the homeless like to socialise, and a bus was arranged at a pickup stop to take them back at night. Some of the homeless don't like this setup and they prefer to sleep on benches; no one can force them to go to the shelter if they don't want to. Unlike what I have heard about the homeless in the US and other European cities, the homeless of Greece are not hidden away from society during the day. Because homeless people suffer from other problems (eg alcoholism), they don't all get through life easily, like Thomas Deligiannis, a well known homeless man in Hania, who died earlier this month.

It's not quite winter yet, which is why the Man on the Bench came to my mind today, when we had our first torrential downpour since February, coming somewhat unexpectedly. I hope he's OK.

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