Acts of Submission
When the plane landed in Athens airport, I was soon outside with the inevitable confusion. I was helped by a few others to find the way to the platform of the metro that took me in. As it came in near the city centre, it crowded with Athenians. Many got off at Syntagma Square. I waited for the next stop, Monastiraki. Outside on the street I asked a man with the one word, “Athinas?” He pointed to the street, and I walked the short distance to the Attalos Hotel, gladly relieved to have forded the first part of the journey. The welcome from the man at the desk was cordial. He gave me the card to my small good room. I visited it briefly before heading up to the roof-top bar where I drank a beer and sat looking out at a building on a hill, wondering was it the Acropolis, until I turned around and saw the Acropolis, indubitably. The Parthenon was lit on top of it. I sat on, drinking in the powerful sight of it, and I was still sitting there at midnight when the manager announced that the bar was closing.
I had been in Athens a few times before. The first time had been in 1980, at a time of personal crisis, under a siege to my fragile sense of identity, overshadowed by the question: how to go on from there; how to live? Decades later, in 2016, having reached a stage when I wondered might I not ever see Athens again, I was glad to be back. I returned to my room and, after all the nerves, slept peacefully and sometimes deeply.
The next morning I headed off walking with the image of the Acropolis periodically in front of me, memories stirring. Then, when I was underneath it, the place came back to me when I saw it. But the ticket office was shut. There was a notice saying that the Acropolis was closed as part of a strike of public services. I loitered around the entrance as various groups of people came along and were disappointed. I purchased in a stall a frozen lemonade and nursed it as it gradually melted. I sent texts home to fond figures of the world that had grown up around me and within me since I first stood there. I was about to leave to go down when I heard a man mention that the new Acropolis museum was nevertheless open. The man in the stall confirmed it. I walked on down to it: a new airy building, more spacious than required for the amount of artefacts currently inhabiting it. The atmosphere was friendly and congenial, and the assistants were helpful. One of them pointed me towards an exhibit I had seen in the guidebook: a votive offering in a cranny on a pillar from the sanctuary of Asclepius: a pair of eyes. I had a snack outside in a balcony café. Sitting there with the incontrovertible reality of the Acropolis rearing above me, it was easy to see why the artefacts dubiously appropriated by the British during their colonial heyday should be returned by them forthwith.
I wandered along a road that I had a vague memory of leading to a hotel I stayed in years before, but I didn’t find it. I passed a man who was playing a stringed instrument. I wondered was the music Syrian as I gave him a few coins, and I sat secluded in trees listening to the music, drawn once again to the lure of the Near East. The streets emerged into familiarity as I made my way to Syntagma Square. I crossed it to the parliament building. It was with a feeling of inevitability that I went in to the national gardens, remembering 1980. As I sat there I remembered the orange trees, but had no intimation of the desperation that I had felt way back then. That time had become so remote as to be hardly real any more. I imagined what my thirty year old self might have thought if he had passed that way, his youthful eyes seeing the figure of his fate as an elderly man dozing on a park bench. Beyond the imaginings, the incontrovertible: how one has actually lived.
My thoughts moved to contemporary concerns. I returned to Syntagma Square where a friendly bus driver directed me to the bus stop for the airport. There was a notice giving the times. I was about to take out a pen to make a note when a couple came along, and the man took a photograph of the timetable, giving me the example that I followed. I then made my way circuitously back to Monastiraki metro station where I saw that the earliest metro to the airport would be suitable to my purposes the next morning. Back in the roof-top bar as the day darkened the lights came on again on the Acropolis. I heard the chanting of a demonstration, and could see a crowd on a street nearby. I went down immediately, but caught only the periphery of what seemed a modest demonstration that the city took in its stride. I thought, despite the crises, democracy is unquenchable in its birthplace.
The next morning I was up and out early. I walked along as I had the morning before, and soon I was at the open entrance of the Acropolis. Familiarity once again resurfaced as I climbed the steps leading up to the Parthenon. It still looked like a building site, which it has been, it seems, for most of modern times; but the spirit of the place came through again, until the crowds arrived and took over the foreground. I sat a long while, inarticulately imbibing the atmosphere of it, gaining no clearer understanding of the world of those for whom it was perhaps the most important part: the sanctuary of the gods, while, down below, Socrates was loitering in the market-place, acting as midwife at the birth of secular rationality, until he was indicted for impiety.
I headed back down to the world below, into the ancient agora. I made first for the museum, and the stoa of Attalos. I sat outside underneath the stoa, close to a bust with the grave preoccupied face of the emperor, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius’ adoptive father. I went walking, lingering. It came as a surprise to recognise the large area of scrub ground and trees. I moved very slowly. At one stage I was standing and saw a slow movement on the ground. It was a tortoise. It stopped, looking round at me, before it carried on its patient journey. I climbed to the temple of Hephaistos, and sat on a bench close by it. It was shaded from the sun by a tree, and afforded a good unimpeded view of the Acropolis. I sat for what seemed a couple of hours there in reverie, wondering wordlessly about the ethos of the Acropolis. I fell asleep a few times, waking once to the words: “a beautiful lost thought.” Those words were all that remained.
That night was a night of short fitful sleep, with numerous wakings, before the call from reception at five o’clock. Soon, I was down, handing the man my card, and I headed out on the street. It was still alive, with a mixture of people who were still lingering in their night, and others just beginning their day. There were a few stall-holders who seemed as if their day never ends. I went down into the metro station and began my journey to the airport. On the way I had a series of minor mishaps of no lasting consequence; suffice to say that I was bothered and bewildered by the time a woman behind a desk casually and calmly handed me my boarding card. I made my way to the gate with my fellow passengers, two of whom were men flamboyantly dressed in Arab clothes. A bus took us out onto the tarmac, and stopped at a propellered plane. It rose mistily into the sky. I could make out little of the Mediterranean until it began to descend, and I caught my first sight of the island of Lesbos.
I had never been on Lesbos before. The images in my head were all from the news reports over the previous year of boats landing, filled with refugees. They came in their hundreds of thousands; thousands were drowned. It was called Europe’s refugee crisis. The islanders welcomed them and helped them, assisted by volunteers. There was a while when Europe rose to the challenge, particularly Germany that took a million refugees during the course of 2015. There was a lull in the arrivals during the winter. But soon after, by the beginning of 2016, the flow was beginning to build again, and again there were dramatic scenes on the news. I was particularly struck by a video I saw on the “no comment” series on Euronews, one evening in January, after I had booked my flight to Athens; there was a boat filled with Afghan refugees being rescued by a team from Medecins Sans Frontiers and Greenpeace. Amidst the rira and ruaille buaille, a woman was soothing her crying baby by gently tapping its mouth in a maternal gesture of great tenderness. As winter gave way to spring, it was beginning to appear as if the flow of refugees in 2016 would surpass that of the previous year. Fences began to be erected at the borders of countries north of Greece. The gates of Europe were closing. The main refugee camp, at Moria, on Lesbos was turned into a detention centre. By the time I arrived there in early April, the European Union had made a deal with Turkey, using it as a buffer, without putting under too close a scrutiny the tactics that Turkey was using. NATO ships began patrolling the Eastern Aegean. The passage of boats across the narrow straits was almost quelled. One flank of Europe’s refugee crisis had been assuaged. The crisis of the refugees continued elsewhere.
The plane landed at Mitilini Airport, right beside the coast. Soon, most of my fellow passengers had departed in hired cars or taxis. I loitered for a while before crossing the road to a bus shelter where a woman and a man were already separately waiting. The wait was a long one, but I didn’t mind, as I stood there taking in my new situation. The airport was quiet in front of us. The sea was directly behind us. On its sparse rocky shoreline, I could see what looked like the remnants of two dinghies, along with some flotsam and jetsam scattered along the shore. Eventually, a bus appeared from the direction of Mitilini, turned and came back to us. The driver had a modest friendly air. The atmosphere was parochial. As we approached Mitilini, he drove off up a hill through suburbs and, in a circuitous route that included reversing turns, he picked up his quota of passengers, many of whom knew one another. We returned to the coast road, and soon Mitilini harbour appeared in front of us. In the middle of the waterfront I could make out the hotel I had booked: the Hotel Lesvion. We passed it and the bus stopped shortly after. A woman came up behind me who told me that was the last stop. She introduced herself as Jenny, a Catholic from Wales, and she invited me to come with her for tea to her church which was just around the corner. I went with the flow. After all the nervous imaginings about my arrival in Lesbos, I could never have imagined the utter eccentricity of the individual experience that presented itself. She opened up the small church and brought me to a side room where she served me tea and savouries that she had bought, and she talked lengthily, meanwhile apologising for doing so. We spoke of course about the refugees, and of the Pope’s visit to the island the following week. She told me of a mass that was to be said by a bishop in the church the following Monday. I said that I would probably attend.
After checking into the hotel, I went wandering, along the harbour, past the docks for the ferry boats, and out beneath the battlements of the old castle of Mitilini on the hill above me. There was a refugee encampment behind a beach underneath it. There was a van marked canteen, and a sign saying “No Border Kitchen”. I exchanged greetings with a few young Asian men on a wall, one of whom said “kalimera”, then corrected himself with a laugh, saying “kalispera”. I tapped my chest apologetically and ridiculously, saying “English, English”. I was standing looking out into the harbour when there was a slight movement behind me: it was a young boy of perhaps seven or eight; he held out his hand begging in a way that showed that he hadn’t been reared to it. I dismissed him and immediately he retreated. But then I looked back and saw him joining a young pregnant woman who was obviously his mother, and an infant in a pushchair who was presumably his brother. I went back to them and handed the boy my miniscule donation.
I had been told that during the height of the refugee influx there had been people sleeping all around the harbour, including right in front of my hotel. But by the time of my visit the populace of Mitilini seemed to be taking it all in their stride. The streets were crowded, and the atmosphere was voluble and noisy. The cafes and bars were crowded with Saturday evening proceedings. I went into a place that had an element of fast-food about it. Outside I saw some young girls running, exuberantly playing. One of them came in and asked for something from my plate, until the proprietors shooed her away.
There was a scattering of other people down at breakfast, including a few Greek soldiers. Afterwards, as I sat out on the balcony with my coffee, one of the soldiers came out for a cigarette, and greeted me with a hesitant good morning. On the street below, a band of soldiers marched past to the slow beat of a drum. They had disappeared by the time I went out after them. There was a Hellenic coast-guard boat moored in front of the hotel. Close by it was a rescue boat that had the poignant human presence of life-jackets scattered around its deck. I walked as far as an Orthodox church. It was closed, but the porch was open, and a woman was there before me, lighting a candle which she then stuck into a bed of sand that was there for the purpose. I did likewise.
I headed out to the marina. There was a club-house with a sign that said Marina Yacht Club. From my vantage point in the doorway, the atmosphere, the company and the décor were indistinguishable from a similar gathering in a yacht club in Ireland. I left behind their hubbub and carried on out the pier. The waters were choppy enough in the harbour, and choppier beyond it. On the pier there was a group of more than a dozen people beside a boat marked, “International Maritime Rescue”. They were dressed accordingly. A mini-bus came along and took most of them away. There were just two men left, and I plucked up the modest courage to approach them. In voices that sounded German they confirmed that the crossings had hugely diminished following the deal between the EU and Turkey. Their communication was formal and reticent. I commented on the weather, saying it would have been rough for a crossing, and the older man spoke of a swell warning that had them on dry land for the day. I retreated past the yacht club, back to a small pier at the edge of the inner harbour. It was crowded with groups eating and drinking. I chose a bar and ordered beer. I sat outside directly beside the water where a couple of small fishing skiffs were bobbing up and down in front of me. A young refugee boy came along selling tissues. At first he immediately retreated to my refusal, and then when I bought I could see the relief on his face that showed his shyness matched mine. There was a woman and man at a table beside me, who seemed to be deeply unhappy, who, after words, had become silent. Two men were in voluble conversation at a table behind me. Musicians for a while struck up at a nearby crowded table. A pale delicate child came down briefly and looked into the water.
As I went out past the ferry terminal, there was a huge ferry tied up there that had a notice that it was to head off that night to Athens. There were two young Asian men in the shade of a vehicle parked on the quay, scrutinising the deserted gangplank with an intensity that they seemed to try to hide as I passed. At the end of the pier I sat awhile beneath a covered pavilion. Across at the other side, where I had been earlier, I could see Sunday sailors in their small yachts sailing seemingly thoughtlessly around the mouth of the harbour. On my way back I could see the No Border Kitchen encampment on the beach, from where the inhabitants must have watched the comings and goings of the ferries. Along the rocks beneath the pier there were numerous pieces of detritus of their own much more fragile voyages: the remnants of a dinghy, lifejackets and rings, and nautical bits and pieces. I passed a man and woman who were employed cleaning the environs of the pier. They had a sweeping brush, and a big bin on wheels. Amidst the detritus in the bin, all my eyes were able to fix on was the sight of a single shoe.
Later, I went wandering again, back out the pier in the darkness. There was a handful of stars in the dark sky, and a crescent moon. The wind was still up. The water was like a living thing. The dark water: I could only make out its dark undulations as I stood there looking across at the glimmering beyond it of the lights on the coast of Turkey. Somewhere out there in the dark water was the boundary between Europe and Asia that will always remain invisible, by night and by day.
I came back past the ferry terminal, and the municipal tourist office that I never saw open. There was a British naval boat moored at the quay, with its notice: Border Force: those two words that historically have gone too often together. I thought of the contrast between the present migration of refugees and the migration of the European colonial powers over the past few centuries: how the European entry into the rest of the world characteristically began with invasion, was followed by the subduing of the inhabitants by force of arms, and afterwards the drawing of borders. I thought of the images of the refugees making landfall on Lesbos, defenceless and vulnerable. I remembered the video I had seen in January: the image of the woman and her child that transcended every national boundary.
The next morning, I walked out the road past the No Border Kitchen encampment. As I approached it I heard shouting. It was explained when I saw some of the young men enthusiastically playing football. I passed the gate with its sign welcoming the visitor. As I carried on out the road with the ramparts of Mitilini castle above me, I met four young men. One of them, a cheery one, said hello and held out his hand. I shook it and the hands of his companions. He asked my name and my country. He introduced me to each of his companions. Emboldened, I asked them their country. He told me that they were all from Pakistan, and I thought I detected a vulnerability in his face and voice when he said it.
I went into a restaurant on the near side of the harbour. I ordered fish, with a Greek salad and wine. The fish were small, their names beyond me; it seemed clear that the way to eat them was head and all. I baulked at the heads, aided by my accomplices, three cats that congregated beside me, until they began to squabble with one another as cats do, until two of the waiters came rushing over and shooed them away. Afterwards I walked out the jetty where there were small boats with outboard motors. A few men were foostering in theirs. I watched one in particular, who came along with his daughter of about ten. He began briskly and with purpose tackling the rope that tied the boat to the jetty. But it went on and on and his daughter became increasingly resignedly impatient, her hand clenched underneath her chin as his brisk work went on interminably. At the end of the jetty there was a group of elderly men in a kind of cabooche, who perhaps while away their days of retirement there. Close by me there was a car with its passenger seat inclined backwards, and a man who looked an invalid, his fingers preoccupied with his worry beads. There was another man banging an octopus repeatedly on the ground, while a woman sat by, waiting. I decided I would wait until the man with the girl had set off. Eventually, the man had finished with the rope, but spent a further while trying to start his outboard engine, until finally it fired, and they headed off out on the silkily calm water. It was a beautiful early evening, with still clouds in the blue, the sunlight filling everything in deep luminous colour, and I saw clearly the magic of the Mediterranean.
As I came back I heard the calls of men playing a game amidst old boats that seemed to be in dry dock. They were four refugees, playing volleyball with an improvised net, probably two or three generations of the one family. They were entering enthusiastically in to the game. As I passed them I heard a baby crying, and then, amidst the semi-dereliction of the scene I saw a small camp where the family must live, and I caught a glimpse of the baby’s mother, rocking, comforting it. I passed on by, and returned to the church to attend the mass that was to be said by the bishop. I entered the small space and was one of a small congregation of about two dozen. A priest came out who didn’t look like a bishop to me. He had a wide mouth, set as if in a sombre view of the passage of life, until he sang in a voice that was surprisingly sweet. He gave a long vigorous sermon, all in Greek as the mass was. When the consecration came it was the Welsh woman, Jenny, who sounded the bell, three times for the bread and three times for the wine. At the end she told me that the priest was not the bishop, that the latter was taken up with meeting envoys from the Vatican, in preparation for the Pope’s visit at the end of the week. She told me also that the priest’s sermon had been about the refugees, and the necessity to be kind to those who had landed on the shores of Lesbos. I thanked her for her kindness to me.
Back out again along the pier was in darkness. A man came near me, with a torch on his head, positioning himself for fishing. The water was still silkily calm. I thought how it would have been a night much better than the previous one for heading out in a fragile craft. A powerful boat came from the inner harbour and passed out into the dark sea. I couldn’t tell what kind of boat it was, but I guessed that it was not fish but human souls they were after. The passage of the boat set off undulations in the water that lasted for a long while after it had gone out of sight. Again there were stars in the clear sky, and a crescent moon. The lights of Mitilini were brighter in their nearness than the lights of Asia.
What filled the hearts of those refugees who looked across at our lights on such a night? With what longing must those thousands of eyes have looked across the narrow straits before embarking on their hazardous journey? Their setting out must have been an act of submission, the distant lights of Europe glimmering in front of them: an uncertain voyage, out there on a small craft in a huge sea, their fate in its hands. I thought of the meagre challenges of my own journey, compared to the hugeness of theirs, and of all the millions who have similarly set out already this millennium. How can we do them justice?
Back at the hotel, as I was going up past the lounge, I saw seated around a few tables put together a group of clerics who must have been the Vatican envoys. They were in the company of the bishop, and I recognised the priest who had said mass earlier. I bought a bottle of beer and drank it out on the balcony. Outside under the crescent moon I thought, at that particular late juncture, there was no place I would rather be than Mitilini harbour.
The next morning before leaving, I loitered for a couple of hours out on the pier, gazing around, in to the harbour and across the water towards the coast of Turkey. There was a boat stationary off the shore that might have been the one of the British navy, and a small fishing boat plying up and down close by it. I sat a long while watching and listening to the water against the pier. Behind it, I could see on the hill the ramparts of the castle. The No Border Kitchen refugee camp was quiet beneath it. It looked idyllic: a quiet encampment, behind the beach. The battlements above it were the only portend in that image of the external world that was about to visit. A couple of weeks later, I saw a report on the internet of the closure of the camp, and the transfer of its residents to the detention centre at Moria. There was phone footage of a resigned procession of young men, being marshalled out of the camp onto a bus by the police.
A bus brought me early back to the airport. Before I went in I crossed the road and sat close to the bus shelter of the first morning. Down on the shore I examined the detritus that was still scattered there: along with the remains of the dinghies I could see a few rubber tubes, an abandoned coat, and what looked like a woman’s party dress that will never be worn again.
The flight was hardly more than a half an hour before we were landing in Athens. Back in the Attalos Hotel, I had been given a room out the front with a balcony. I visited the balcony for a little while before heading back to the roof-top bar. I sat with a bottle of beer, at a table with an unimpeded view of the Acropolis. The bottle of beer was followed by another. Two American men behind me were talking about medical work with the refugees. One of them had just arrived in Athens, and the other was briefing him, mentioning Piraeus, Idomeni, and Lesbos. I took them to be doctors working for some NGO. Impressed by their commitment, I would have liked to join their conversation, but my native shyness inhibited me. Then, before they left, they came up close by me, taking photographs of the Parthenon, and I, influenced by solitude and alcohol, asked them what did they think of its significance. One of them mentioned the dawn of Western culture. I, in my inebriation asked might that building on the hill have been the setting for a priestly bureaucracy who, without fellow feeling, ruled the people below heartlessly. I had meant it as a contrast to the heart of their work, but they seemed taken aback by my intrusion, and very speedily they melted away inside into the hotel.
I headed back out the street to Monastiraki. I purchased a souvlaki, admiring the speed with which the small man produced the package that he handed to me. I crossed the road into the square, and did what I had intended to do: I purchased small lights that their sellers were catapulting into the warm Athenian night air. The one from whom I made my purchase said he was from Bangladesh. I told him my memory of buying the same toy in Rome from one of his compatriots, and he and some of his fellows laughed in recognition that that truly would be the case. I thought of the solidarity of the refugee and the economic migrant as I walked back to the hotel with a can of beer I had bought, which I consumed out on the balcony above the loud crowded street, before I came in to the room and closed the door on my final night in Athens.
The next morning, as I checked out, the man behind the desk asked me how were things in Ireland now. He said he didn’t believe anything he heard on the news about the economic crisis, either in Greece or anywhere else: that those who have money hold onto their money, regardless. My flight home was not until the evening. I left my bag in the hotel and took the metro to Piraeus. A ferry had just docked. There were groups of Eastern people standing around on the quay. There was a quickened atmosphere about the place. Some police were in attendance, a few with riot shields. A policeman was interviewing two young Asian men who seemed as if they had alighted from the ferry. They had no baggage with them, but I surmised that all they had to smuggle was themselves. A family of refugees passed, and boarded a bus, along with others. A group of Syrian boys and girls walked by. One of the girls was pointing out and laughing at a young Greek couple kissing at the edge of the quay. I came across an encampment of refugees on a grassy island beside the road. I noticed one young family who seemed oblivious to traffic passing around them; they were engaged with one another as if they were in their own private domestic space. The man was entertaining an infant as the woman, doing some domestic task, was smiling over at them as she talked to him. I noticed her perfectly formed white teeth, and her rasping cough.
I was back on the metro to Monastiraki when a woman suddenly emerged from behind me. She had a baby in her arms and she was inarticulately begging. I took her to be Syrian; she had the fluid poise of women from that region: our Near East. Taken by surprise I found myself refusing, as everyone else was doing. She immediately disappeared like a ghost, silently, and immediately I regretted my refusal. I held a small donation in my hand hoping that she would return but she didn’t. I looked for her at Monastaraki, but I couldn’t find her.
A few hours later I flew home, from the south-eastern periphery of Europe to its far north-western shores. A few days later, Pope Francis was visiting Lesbos. I happened to be back on another island: in the old schoolhouse on Collanmore, in Clew Bay. The school had been open for just seventy years, from 1887 until 1957. The old classroom was now a living room. The voices of the children singing out their lessons were now stilled in the silence of its stones. The nearby ruins of the islanders’ houses remained a testament to the desertion of the island, most of whose families had set off as economic migrants, across the Atlantic or the Irish Sea. It was only when I returned to the mainland that I saw images of Pope Francis’s visit to Lesbos. He was accompanied by Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, and Archbishop Ieronymous, of Athens. After they visited the camp at Moria, their motorcade made their way to the harbour of Mitilini. Standing at the edge of the quay, Francis made his speech. He expressed his admiration for the generosity of the Greek people, sharing the little they had with those who have lost everything. He said that refugees and migrants, rather than simply a statistic, are people first of all with faces, names and individual stories. He said that it is only through service to others that we can get beyond ourselves. He said that Europe is the homeland of human rights, and that whoever sets foot on European soil ought to sense this, and thus become aware of the duty to respect and defend those rights. He remembered those who set out on the journey, but had foundered, unable to reach the shores of Europe. The ceremony concluded with Francis joining his companions as each of them threw a wreath into the waters that had carried so many, and in which so many had drowned. God rest them.
From Old Istanbul & Other Essays.
Gerard McCarthy (1949 – 2022) was born and reared in Dublin and spent much of his adult life in Sligo. He studied Philosophy at University College Dublin. His first published essays all appeared in issues of Irish Pages. In his later years, he divided time between his Sligo residence, an old schoolhouse on Collanmore Island in Clew Bay, and various travels to the Mediterranean and other peripheries of Europe. Old Istanbul & Other Essays was his first book.