Friday, 23 November 2018

Something edible (Kάτι φαγώσιμο)

Συγγνωμη, μήπως μπορείτε να μου δώσετε λίγα χρήματα για να αγοράσω κάτι να φάω; There's very often a person asking for money standing outside a supermarket. Asking for money is always combined with food, because food is an absolute necessity. Imagine if this young girl had said: Συγγνωμη, μήπως μπορείτε να μου δώσετε λίγα χρήματα για να αγοράσω κάτι να φορέσω? it wouldn't go down well, would it? Beggars are never naked, and hardly ever wearing rags. Presumably, they have clothes. They can wear the same clothes every day for a long time and you wouldn't necessarily notice. This girl was wearing a thick dark coat; her leggings and jumper were visible, with boots to match. She looked pretty ordinary for a child. She wouldn't stand out in a Greek crowd. She looked like the kind of 'wanting' children I see in the Jumbo tatshop, who come along with their parents and grandparents and fill up their trolleys with tat.

But food is something different. You don't wear your food like you wear your clothes. If someone doesn't have food for a long time, it will be noticed.  So the beggar appeals for money to buy food to sensitise us into giving. Even if we are fat like the beggar girl, we all still need to eat food every day. Beggars are unlikely to be fat by choice: they stand around in one place, not moving much to conserve energy, and they probably eat a lot of salty sugary fatty food, stuff that can be taken out of the packet and eaten on the spot without needing to be heated. Not that we really know what they eat and where they live. We will never know unless we spend time with them.

Να βρεις δουλειά, κοπέλα μου, τόσοι Αλβανοί έρχοντε εδώ να δουλέψουν, said a woman coming out of the supermarket, just as I was placing a token into the slot on the trolley. Lots of Albanians do find work here. And you never see Albanian children begging. The woman had a point.

Συγγνωμη, μπορείτε να μου δώσετε κάτι φαγώσιμο; The girl's response showed the care she took to make amends for her forthrightness, hedging her bets by stating her plea in a melodic but saddening tone, and always beginning each sentence with the word 'Sorry'. It made it all easy too to pity her. The woman who spoke to the girl was already heading for her car. It was now my turn to enter the supermarket. It's embarrassing to have to confront beggars at this moment. They make it hard for you to avoid them because they are always standing close to the trolley station or the supermarket entrance. Presumably you haven't even taken your purse out of your bag because you haven't even started shopping. Anyway, you probably don't want to take it out at this moment. And all that talk about not giving beggars money because they may use it in unsavoury ways, eg on cigarettes, drugs, and whatever else we think poor/homeless people do with their money. And anyway, she's just a girl.

Συγγνωμη, μπορείτε να μου αγοράσετε κάτι φαγώσιμο; Something edible. She asked me to buy her something edible. She was asking directly. And pleadingly. Whether she had been coached to do this, or she did it for real was not my concern at this moment. We are less likely to judge people these days - most people have lost something, albeit in different ways. It would have made no difference anyway. I felt sorry for her. What a shitty life, being dumped at a supermarket by people she considers family, at a time when other children will be at home, or in private tuition classes or at sports sessions. That's what Greek kids do at this time of the early evening. But she wasn't that kind of Greek kid. She was a Greek Roma, and she probably didn't even go to school, let alone after-hours private tuition.

Θα σου πάρω κάτι, I said, continuing to push my trolley towards the doors.

Συγγνωμη, τί είπατε; Whether she was taken by surprise that I spoke to her or she didn't actually hear me, I don't really know. I repeated what I had said to her before: I'll bring you something. She hadn't asked me directly for money; I liked that. And she didn't ask for something 'to eat'. She asked for something 'edible'. Which led me to another dilemma as I swept passed her to enter the supermarket: what food do you buy for the fat poor? Do they have a place to cook/warm up food? Do they just eat ready meals? Is a packet best? We can't always assume that everyone eats the same things, and prefers the same kinds of products. For instance, in the UK, canned baked beans are touted as a 'nutritious' and 'filling' meal for the poor/homeless, but we live in Greece, where canned baked beans are practically a luxury product - apart from being expensive and imported, they have no place in a Greek kitchen. But dry beans - there's a whole aisle dedicated to that in every Greek supermarket! We are still a nation full of cooks! Does the girl eat fasolada, I wondered.

My first thought was that she probably wanted to take something 'home' with her, perhaps to share with her family - or carers, whoever they were to her - and that she wouldn't be eating whatever I gave her on her own outside the supermarket in these early hours of the evening. She's a girl after all, and she's not on her own. She's been dumped here by that carer to perform a task; she's expected to bring something back with her when she's picked up. Time is money, even for beggars. She needs to cover at least the petrol costs of her carer's commute.

Kάτι φαγώσιμο. Do lemons count as edible?  Lemons were on my list, which included a bunch of items on special: frozen peas, pork rashers, whole (raw) chicken and tea bags, all of which are 'consumable', but not in the sense that I interpreted the girl's words. My list of ready-to-eat food (all from the specials!) included bread sticks (too dry?), yoghurt (too cold?), tomatos (that's just water!), cheese slices (aha! - tomatos AND cheese...) and bread rolls (cheese and tomato sandwiches - some comfort food). The last thing on my mind was food allergies and self-imposed dietary regimes. Could a Roma even be vegan? I kept the girl in mind as I went from aisle to aisle, placing two of each item in my trolley: two packets of cheese slices, two plastic-wrapped plastic pots of tomatos, two daisy bread loaves, the latter placed in a separate plastic bag as I spooned each one off the shelf at the bakery section (those largish thin-film bags make great bin liners).

A few extras in today's shopping basket: shampoo was on sale, I remembered someone asking for disposable shavers, a couple of κουλούρια for my kids' κολατσιό at school (that girl doesn't go to school, poor thing, what bad parents she has), and that only-available-at-Christmastime block of parmesan which, though prciey, is my husband's favorite table cheese. Our expensive Greek life needs a few cheap luxuries like this one. Buy one block at the regular price, and wait until they reduce the price of the items that didn't sell post-Christmas. (Not for the girl. Of course not. And anyway, I did buy her some cheese.)

As I waited at the checkout, I looked out the window and sure enough, the girl was still there. And then, I suddenly realised that I didn't have my cloth carrier bags with me. I sometimes forget to take them out of the boot of the car. So I would have to sort out my shopping at the car. But what do I do with the girl's stuff? She'll be wanting it as soon as I came out of the shop. I would have to buy a plastic bag! (Oh no! Woe is me! Political correctness waffle, even in times of dilemmas!) Since the pay-for-bags law came into force at the beginning of this year, I have never bought one. An idea came to me: I can take the lemons out of the plastic bag that I placed them in at the choose-your-own fruit and veg section and put her stuff in there.

"Please place all your items on the conveyor belt" said the invisible woman at the checkout. "Put a divider at the end of your items" said the dour-faced checkout assistant, without even looking at me, even before she had started checking out my items (no 'please'). They rarely smile in this supermarket chain, and they don't converse or laugh much with the customer. The chain is cheap, so cheap it's busy, so busy there is no time for chit-chat. If they could do away with cashiers and use automated checkout, they would do that, but they know the average Greek customer wouldn't put up with it.

This supermarket chain was awarded Top Employer in Greece in 2017 (see https://www.typosthes.gr/oikonomia/122569_i-lidl-hellas-kalyteros-ergodotis-stin-ellada-2017), and again in 2018 (see http://www.kathimerini.gr/948765/article/oikonomia/epixeirhseis/h-lidl-hellas-top-employer-to-2018-gia-deyterh-synexomenh-xronia). But the awarding agency is not Greek - it has headquarters in Amsterdam. And just for the record, salaries at the main large Greek supermarket chains are pretty much the same (see https://www.aftodioikisi.gr/ergasiaka-ypallilwn-ota/idou-i-misthi-ton-ergazomenon-se-av-vasilopoulo-sklaveniti-lidl/). But it's mainly this supermarket chain where workers rush everything through the till before you have the chance to sort your items and they work 'robotically' (you have to push the trolley to a certain position, they'll ask you if the jacket in the trolley - your jacket - is your own, they won't handle your card when paying, etc etc etc, and it goes without saying that they don't smile much).   

Today's shop cost me 75€ - nearly five of those euro were for the girl: daisy bread (99 cents), cheese slices (€2.19, down from €2.99) and tomatos (€1.49). €75 is quite a lot of money for the average Greek to spend at the supermarket. I usually count how many supermarket bags I would fill for this amount. Not much more than five this time, I think: the parmesan was not really cheap (it was on pseudo-sale: see photo). Most of my supermarket shopping expeditions cost me about this much anyway: if it's not a luxury item like parmesan, it's something like time to stock up on pet food, or frozen pizza is on special, or something else. But as the saying goes: if you can afford €70, then you can afford to give up another €5 for a cause. It's not like you do this every time you go shopping. On an average Greek salary, you cannot afford to anyway. But the girl didn't ask for money, she asked for some food, and that made all the difference.

Συγγνωμη, μου φέρατε κάτι, όπως μου είπατε; said the girl, as soon as she saw me exiting the supermarket with my trolley. She hadn't forgotten. I was not a random passerby like I would have been to the checkout assistant who didn't even look at me when I was placing my items on the belt.

Ναι, σου έρεφα, I said, and I smiled as I held up the bag with the items that I had bought for her. She didn't even look at them. Nor did she see what else was in my trolley. And without a moment's delay, she said:

Αχ, δεν τα ήθελα αυτα. Θα προτιμούσα-- Not even a Συγγνώμη!

Για όνομα! I cut her off, the annoyance clearly showing in my voice, as I threw the bag back into the trolley and left in a huff. As I emptied the trolley into my boot, it suddenly occurred to me that the girl had no bag, and there were no items on the ground near her. She wasn't carrying anything in her hands, which she kept in pockets most of the time. By taking her words literally, I had also been taken for a ride. I rode the trolley back to the trolley station, passing the girl once more for the last time.

Συγγνωμη... Her voice trailed off, and then silence. She made no plea. I was now just another random passerby to her. I locked the trolley into the station and took out the token from the slot, carrying it ostensibly between my thumb and forefinger so that she could see it as I walked past her to get to my car.

The moral of the story? I would say it is that you should ask beggars what they really want, so you can both be happy, and this story would never have been told.

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