Wednesday, September 19, 2012

the (un)kindness of strangers


After spending most of the summer in the US, coming back to Greece and the new realities in Athens was something like reverse culture shock...
Walk around a typical Athens neighborhood and on the surface, things seem normal enough. In my neighborhood square alone, five frozen yogurt shops have opened since the beginning of the summer. “Fro yo” is all the rage and on any given evening, strolling through the square, you’ll observe that the frozen yogurt shops are filled with people enjoying this new treat, as if they didn’t have a care in the world… But peek beneath the thin veneer of normalcy and you’ll see that the cracks in this society seem to have deepened and gotten even wider than they were just a few months ago.
Over the summer, racist violence increased as Golden Dawn members and supporters openly attacked immigrants on the streets; and in other incidents, they smashed up stalls run by foreign nationals at open-air markets. Justice Minister Antonis Roupakiotis condemned the violence and said he will introduce tougher measures on criminal acts and stricter penalties…
Nevertheless, I try to remain optimistic but I can’t help but notice “small” things which seem to convey much bigger meanings….
The other day I was going home in a taxi. The main street near my house often gets clogged with traffic, so I usually tell drivers to drop me off at a certain point before they get sucked into the standstill, wasting their time and gas. This means they can turn left down another street, avoid the traffic and find another fare. I don’t mind getting dropped off one street before mine, and taking a few extra steps to get to my door.
So as we approached the main street, I could see cars piling up ahead and I told the cab driver to drop me off and proceeded to tell him where to turn left to avoid the traffic and pointed out where people usually stand waiting for taxis, so he could easily find another fare. While I was telling him all this, I handed him a 5 euro note (the ride cost €4.50) and started to exit the cab. He thanked me for not making him get stuck in traffic and motioned to give me the 50 cents change but I told him it’s ok. He stopped and swiveled around to get a better look at me, and seemed bewildered.
“Are you from here?” he asked.
I paused. “What do you mean?”
His expression was curious, “Where are you from?” he repeated.
“I’m from this neighborhood,” I said, with an expectant look. Realizing I was perplexed he explained, “But you are so nice and polite; you went out of your way to tell me how to avoid the traffic, to help me, even though it meant you had to walk a bit further to get to your street. I am speechless. Thank you again and have a nice evening.”
I walked away not knowing what to make of what just happened. Maybe the cab driver had a really bad day and my simple words of advice made him suddenly cheer up… or… have we all become so used to the cold, rude day-to-day exchanges with strangers; used to the unkindness all around us, that when we are shown even the tiniest bit of consideration it makes us stop in disbelief and we assume a kind stranger must be from another planet?
Today I was at the bus stop. A middle-aged woman carrying bags from the supermarket approached, put her bags down, exhaled and looked at her watch. The typical bus stop conversation began. She asked which bus already came by, everyone complained about the buses being late, a few people wondered if they are on strike today, while others confirmed the buses are running. The woman explained (to no one in particular) that she usually walked home, but her supermarket bags were heavy so she’d wait for the bus. Another woman chimed in, saying she does not have far to go either, but she takes the bus to avoid walking through the pedestrian underpass. This underground corridor goes under a main street and is the only way to get to the other side. It is dimly lit and dingy, it smells of urine and is covered in graffiti. Many people avoid these underpasses, especially at night, for fear that danger may lurk in the dark shadows.
The lady with the supermarket bags sympathized. “I don’t blame you. What can you do? Everyone is afraid of the crime. And then they tell us not to be racist. Foreigners are pouring in. They are hungry and desperate. Of course they are going to steal from us and rob everyone.”
The bus came. I went on my way. I had to go to the local social security office for an errand. I got to the building. The small elevator was filled to capacity (4 people). I walked up four flights of stairs to get to the right department.
It was the usual chaotic scene -people scrambling in various lines, pushing and shoving in front of one another, grumbling and complaining, some people and clerks shouting at each other at the top of their lungs. The building itself is old and grimy and the offices are decrepit, with stacks of files piled up all over the place, a general look and feel of disarray and disorganization....

I try to wait patiently in line, ignoring the din all around me. To the left is a dusty bookshelf containing old files and random Christmas decorations, on the floor next to the clerk’s desk is a huge basil plant, and on the wall there’s a large plastic 3-D color picture of bleeding heart Jesus. I had never seen anything like it. I’ve seen that type of 3-D picture, but they are usually in kids' story books; if you turn the picture one way, the image changes and if you turn it another way, it looks as if it’s moving. Well, this Jesus picture was like that. If I moved a bit to the left, the heart looked like it was thumping one way, if I moved a bit to the right, it thumped the other way and Jesus' hand looked as if it was moving, making the sign-of-the-cross motion...
I heard someone behind me say “I just want to ask a question” and then I felt someone shove me. An old woman pushed her way to the front, pausing as she realized she snapped me out of my 3-D trance, “Humph, what are you staring at my girl, not even the Lord can save us from ourselves, just look at our mess…” And without missing a beat she approached the clerk as everyone in line began to shout and protest….

I sighed and shifted back and forth on my tired feet, watching 3-D Jesus' bleeding heart go thump... thump... thump...