I feel very relaxed when my alarm rings, waking me bright and early at 9am, UTC+3. Eastern European Summer Time. Greek time.
The series of debacles that defined my journey here are virtually forgotten (I’ll be entirely forgiving and happy as soon as my luggage arrives from its detour in Germany…) as I descend into the lobby of the Hotel Handakas. It feels less like a hotel and more so like a home. The family that owns the hotel and their friends sit around the television that hangs in one corner, talking to each other with loud voices and lively gestures. They wave and make exuberant exclamations in Greek as I pass by. I smile and wave back, making a mental note of learning how to greet them in their language as soon as possible. A buffet is laid out, offering drinks, fresh fruits, and Greek yogurt, as well as bread, cheese, and ham. Some of the hotel guests are already up, either sitting at the tables inside or indulging in some sun on the loungers by the pool.
I grab some yogurt, a banana, and apricot marmalade before joining the other family-Kimberly and her two sons, Sonny and Chet, all Canadian!- that is volunteering with me during these two weeks. There are only four of us on this particular service trip, which is due in no small part to the financial crisis plaguing the country at this time I imagine. Our Team Leader isn’t here yet.
“Sleep well?” Kimberly asks me. I nod vigorously, the 9-hour sleep interlude a welcome blessing after close to 30 hours with no sleep.
We enjoy breakfast and have additional respite until 11:00am, the start time of orientation. Our Team Leader, Sam, is a British-born woman that moved to Greece when she married her husband. She has lived here for 23 years since then. It’s fascinating to watch her swap from speaking her native English in a crisp British accent to the vibrancy and pronounced gesticulations of Greek.
“Was it difficult to acclimate to Greek culture?” I ask her. She pauses for a moment.
“No. Not at all,” She says. “A lot of my friends had difficulties with it, but I was fine.”
I’m not entirely surprised by her answer.
It’s nice outside by the pool. We sit on the lounge chairs, sipping ice cold water, going through formal introductions and discussing the philosophy and policies of the service program.
“We don’t force our way into communities, we only go where we’re invited,” Sam explains. The Greece service program in Gazi County came about when its Mayor saw a picture of Global Volunteers assisting other communities. After having the information page translated for him, he reached out and requested a similar service program in his municipality. This was back in 2005. 10 years and 102 service teams on (we are the 103rd!), the Greece program is thriving and its presence is requested in neighbouring communities.
However, expansion is contingent on there being enough volunteers. The financial crisis has made some reticent about visiting the country. Perhaps potential visitors think that the daily withdrawal limits, the existing austerity measures, and the upcoming referendum are causing unrest that will eventually break out into violence.
“There was a rally and half of the people there were for a yes, and the other half were for a no. And there was no violence,” Sam says.
“That’s more than can be said for some Canadian demonstrations,” Kimberly comments. I give a wry laugh of agreement.
With regards to the financial limits specifically, tourists are fortunate enough to not be impacted by them. We can withdraw up to our daily limits. And it’s certainly not impossible to access an ATM.
“I passed by one earlier. No line,” Sam tells me. I can’t guarantee that you will have the same experience should you come to Greece, so you can grab some extra cash just to be safe. Credit cards are accepted in most locations, however.
And, most importantly, in all this worry over ourselves- us, the privileged tourists, especially those of us coming from countries such as Canada-we lose sight of the bigger picture.
“Unemployment is at 28%. Suicide is up by 48% since 2009,” Sam recites the facts grimly. “Before now, I had never seen a family eat from trash cans. But there they were, right outside of a school in Amoudara as my daughter and I were walking by. We were both shocked. She had never seen that either, of course.”
I wince. No one speaks. There’s nothing to say.
Proficiency in English is required here in order to be able to attend university. This need isn’t addressed sufficiently by the curriculum. Children need to seek private instruction outside of school, but this is expensive. There are far too many families living under the poverty line, after all. And this is where it all begins to fall into perspective.
Even if one child takes something away from the English lessons that my fellow volunteers and I provide, that means that they can go to university, should they wish to. They can receive an education and work toward being able to provide for themselves and their families. They can mentor and inspire others to pursue the same path. This isn’t a complete solution for a country and a people that have been suffering for so long, but it’s a start. So no matter how nervous I am, I’ll be saying something to myself that I really never could have said before:
There is a need for this. What I’m doing is important. It’s essential.