Monday, 17 August 2015

Guest post: From London to Athens - expat or in-pat?

I left Greece running, without looking back. I didn't even spare a thought on coming back. It was my little rebellion and attempt to travel the world. 

Back in 2006, there was not a hint of cloud in the horizon to suggest how bad things will turn out for Greece. A few days ago, I had my first anniversary of being, well, an in-pat, settling back in Athens and dealing with a very different Greek reality. But Greece is Greece and England is England and no matter how much I love Athens, I will always have a soft spot for London where I spent the best part of these 8 years away.

I first arrived in the UK mid-August, in an attempt to get myself acclimatized before the Master's I came to do. Fresh British summer days greeted me, a relief after the baking 40oC of Athens. There was a bit of a drizzle to add a note of originality. I was tanned and completely out of place. I was longing for that fog, cup of tea at hand, sitting behind net curtains gazing at the purple grey clouds, solving the mysteries of the new city I was about to call home; a bit like Agatha's Poirot I liked to think. Well, Poirot was on the background, on telly, and the mystical fog took a while to come, both literally and metaphorically.

When I just moved to the UK, everything was a little bit too exciting. Life seemed like snippets taken out of a film. Strangers crossing their gaze and immediately turning away. Popping red phone booths breaking through the grey. Obedient red bricks standing ageless next to each other, pubs with smoked fireplaces long out of use, a boat cutting across the Thames. The first restaurant meal was at a candle lit basement in Goodge Street. I had little to say to my companions, but share my enthusiasm about the move in the new city. Somewhat shy, somewhat overwhelmed I was content to sit back, overhearing whispers from here and there. From tube network to ordering etiquette, everything was a mystery. The outing was paired with a couple of pints at a pub round the corner. Pints? Why on earth would anyone drink out of a bucket I silently wondered. Of course, I spent the best part of that beer tasting visiting the ladies. And just before 12, everyone was swiftly running to the last tube, as if we were about to be turned into pumpkins when the clock struck midnight.

I must have done the rounds of the major museums and parks within the first 3 weeks. From waxy celebrities, to theater costumes and dinosaurs skeletons, from a trip to the moon, to Dutch still lifes and stiff royal portraits, London museums are an inexhaustible source of entertainment, especially when you are broke and as a student you can expect little more than that. There is more treasure, it comes for free in the form of lush green parks. Pockets of oxygen in the metropolis, lest it rains, they become muddy nightmares. Ideally, parks are covered with fog too, and this is how London envelops you, in a thin sheet of drizzly fog. No matter where you are coming from or where you are going, the city has this ability to integrate you so smoothly, you will not even notice it. You start building a life from scratch, but you are not alone. You join some hundreds of other people that, just like you, are not from around there. In London, you are never really an ex-pat, no one is looking at you weird or cares what language you speak. If so, people are either too polite to show or too busy to care. You are allowed to be yourself, but please do not jump that queue and do share a cup of tea. You become part of that amasing fabric of people, a Londoner.

And you join the rat race. Once settled in your 9 to 5, you realise you live for the weekend. A crude awakening, but with a bit more money in the pocket, you are officially entitled to enjoy a few more of the dazzling treats London has to offer. You go to gigs, you manage to grasp some cheap tickets for the theatre, throw in a bit of clubbing and these Indian take aways. And did I mention shopping? Of course you stop by to browse at the shops after work on the way home and end up with a loaded credit-card and things you really have no clue why you bought in the first place. All hail consumerism.

So, did I miss home? Hmm, sorry, no, I didn't. I was too busy to realise there was no sunshine. I had a couple of good old friends from Greece and the Elgin marbles agelessly waiting for me at the British museum. I could always get my dose of Greekiness at a restaurant and the ubiquitous Turkish kebab was always larking round the corner. Food was becoming a bit of an issue, but hey, one learns to cook their favourites. I was visiting often enough for supplies (yes I was loading my suitcase with olive oil and pies from grand-ma). I got a chance to recharge these batteries, too.

 So I was all nice and settled, and one day I decided to come back home. Truth is, I was not all that settled, my bum was itchy for something else. Something didn't agree with me, it felt as if London was sucking the life out of me. I was always short of time. I had to schedule a coffee with a friend across the vastness of the city 3 weeks ahead, if lucky. The frenzy of London eventually got the best of me, it pushed me to the leafy suburbs. In retrospect, I think this made things even worse. The commute took 1/3 of my day and wages. It also left this metallic taste, I was becoming a machine. What with the rolling hills, serene canals and farmers markets around. There was not a hint of the blue, blue sea around. I think I became homesick with 8 years delay.

So here I am, back in Athens, taking in the blue horizon and trying to build up that tan. I was aware I came back to a very changed Greece. You live and breathe crisis these days, it has become second nature. Over here you don't go shopping to entertain yourself as in London. You do go out for a drink, perhaps an inexpensive meal at your local, but more often you will get these beers and enjoy them at home, in good company. There is a thin veil of worry behind everybody's gaze, very neatly concealed and tacked away. Some go ahead and in very eloquent French shower politicians with all sort of cosmetics. That's in the laiki, the farmers market. Some people pass by these outbursts grinding their teeth, others nod and join in, most of them laugh. We are rich, in spirit.

My return surely raised more than a few eyebrows. People are overjoyed to have you back but are looking at you weird. There is always this question: why on earth did you come back now, of all times now? Well, thankfully they do not expect the answer, they know it is home. There is one greeting from a good old friend that stayed with me and still puts a smile on my face: So Gen, did you finally realise where paradise is?

I guess I did. Paradise has some very awkward habits I struggle to swallow though. It's these moments when car drivers whistle at you in the middle of the road, I must be too sexy for my own good. Then you have to walk in the middle of the road, the pavements have become parking slots, because let's face it, no one needs a pavement. And to top it all off, you have to fight with grandpas and grandmas for they are jumping the queue, be it at the bakery or tickets hall. No angry letter will save you. You actually learn to laugh at it, something I had admittedly forgotten.

Still, there are slightly more important things one has to deal with daily. It can all be summed up in one word: survival.  Within the chaos of the crisis, you actually see people reaching out for each other. Not just family, it's strangers becoming friends over a coffee and keeping in touch. Neighbours exchanging pots of homemade jams. The cava owner insisting on you trying every single barrel of wine he has, before you buy a humble bottle of liquor It's people actually being human. In London, you might have to dig for this sort of connection. Here, even amidst the craziness of Athens, people open up and spare a moment to listen. I have overheard the most interesting political debates in the Metro and exchanged the most delicious tips on wild greens with a grocers and two grand-mas whilst savouring a slice of melon at laiki. It's the little things that make Greece so special to me. Oh, and the sea breeze.

And I am going to let you in in a little secret: I am not the only one who came back to Greece. There are 3 more good friends who braved it, after being abroad for years and are getting themselves settled back home.  A few more friends left London for more exotic lands. It's by no means an easy thing to do, but not impossible. We all weighed the odds and decided to give it a go.

As for me, I have my pet project going. I get things cooking in a little blog that goes by the name Eat Yourself Greek. I love the simplicity of Greek cooking, fresh veggies and fragrant thyme. But what I like more is sharing good, honest, everyday food. So, I set up cookery workshops. You can find more about me on the blog and why not, come and share a meal. All things are best enjoyed when you share them, especially a meal.


Most non-Greeks struggle to pronounce Eugenia Makrogianneli’s name (it’s Ev-yen-ee-a Makro-yian-el-li, in case you’re curious). She became a translator as she really wanted to help people communicate. She also wanted to travel and take photos. But instead of becoming a modern day Philleas Fog, she relocated from her native Athens to London in 2006, from where her scattered wonderings across the globe taught her one thing: people connect better through cooking.

She moved back to Athens at the height of Greece’s economic crisis in 2014. At that time, she decided to take up another craft along with that of wordsmith, and she now embraces and shares the cuisine of her homeland on her blog, It's also her online refuge for her Greek cooking intelligence and travel adventures.

For good or bad, Athens won her over London and she now lives in a little place between the city centre and Piraeus, from where I can get to the sea or Down Town in less than 15 minutes. 

Thursday, 6 August 2015


I am you.

Well, obviously, I’m not. But I could be, but for an accident of birth and location.

I was cause for great celebration when I came into the world – the first-born, a boy. My father must have been grinning all over his moustache and offering cigars left, right and centre. Growing up, I was a normal boy – eating my mother’s special desserts, playing football in the streets with my friends, watching too much TV, playing too many computer games. But I worked hard at school. I went to University and got my degree. Then I got a good job as a Civil Engineer. I was someone with something to show for my efforts.

I was normal, boring even, a classic example of the aspirational middle class. Just like you, and you… and especially you.

Then ‘I’ became ‘we’. I met a girl, fell in love and married her. We now have two beautiful children – a boy and a girl – and there’s nothing we wouldn’t do for them.

Of course, every parent says that. But not every parent is forced by circumstances to prove it. We were. We still are.

At first, we thought it was a passing phase. The first protests were peaceful, sparked by the arrest of some schoolkids who had supposedly scrawled anti-Government graffiti. Stupid, yes. Excessively criminal? Not really. I didn’t really pay much attention. To be honest I was up to my ears in a special project at work and had little time or patience for the TV news droning in the corner of the lounge.

Even when the protests started spreading and becoming more general, I kept my head down, looked after my family, attended to my duties. I thought it would burn brightly but briefly, and then we would all be able to get back to our everyday lives.

That was more than four years and tens of thousands of lives ago.

Since then, more than nine million people have fled their homes. My family is just a drop in that sea of displaced humanity.

We didn’t want to leave. I love the land where I grew up, I loved the life I had once had there, mundane though it seemed at the time. My parents are old now and unwell. If they’re still alive – I have no idea. They couldn’t leave, and even if they could, I’m sure they wouldn’t. My father is probably the most stubborn man ever born and my mother would never leave his side. So, now there is no-one to pass on the secret family recipe for the best honey and almond cake in the world.

But as the fighting got fiercer, work dried up and the schools closed (some reduced to piles of rubble), every day brought home the unavoidable truth. If my children were to have a chance of a future, we would have to leave, abandoning everything we had ever worked for in exchange for…  who knew what?

So we left. Sold everything we could, mostly for a fraction of its worth, and gave the rest away to those who stayed. The children understood, and were stoic, but that didn’t stop my boy melting into a pool of hysterical tears when he had to say goodbye to his pet rabbit. For three days, he sat red-eyed and tear-streaked by the hutch, talking to the animal, telling it to run away to the hills around our town to escape the hungry people left behind.

 We joined a convoy heading westwards. At first, we crowded onto a bus ‘liberated’ from the local municipality, sometimes travelling through areas where we knew a stray bullet would bring another life to an end, sometimes driving through the night without lights for fear of attracting unwelcome attention. Then, one day, the fuel ran out and we had no choice but to continue on foot.

I have no idea how long or how far we walked. I lost track of the days, and only the dialects of the locals watching us with suspicion as we passed marked the changing places we walked through. Some watched with pity, then turned away. Others offered a smile and maybe a bottle of water or a plate of food for the children. Once, we reached a camp with tents that stretched as far as the eye could see. We stopped, were fed, and a man with tears brimming in his exhausted blue eyes tried to explain that there was no room for us. His Arabic was dreadful, but I managed to remember enough of my schoolboy French and English to thank him anyway.

One of our group, a University lecturer before he fell foul of the authorities, said he had heard that if we could get to the coast, we could find people willing to get us across the Mediterranean and the promise of safety. For a price. But who wouldn’t give everything they have to make sure their kids are safe?

So we carried on walking. For days, I forget how many. Until one afternoon, a cry from the front made us look up to see a bright blue something sparkling on the horizon. The sea. Our pace picked up and by evening we had reached the coast, and had taken off our battered shoes to paddle in the waves lapping at the shore.

We set up camp as well as we could in a car park near the beach. After the initial excitement of reaching the sea, the children settled back into their somber, silent games of make-believe before surrendering to sleep at their mother’s side. Somewhere in the middle of the camp, we heard the heart-wrenching keening of a women. A glimpse from my wife told me it was probably the young widow who had been struggling to nurse her sickly new-born throughout the trip, as her desperate hope was snuffed out with her child’s life.

In the morning, a man arrived in a jeep. He and his helpers went from family to family, explaining that they could get us to Europe. We unpicked the cash sewn into our clothes and handed it over for the promise of life jackets and a place on a boat for us all the next day. They also demanded our papers. Meekly, we obeyed. We could nothing else, given the rifles they carried. I doubted we’d ever seen them again.

To my surprise, we did. They arrived early the next day with a flotilla of trucks to take us to the ship waiting for us at the port. But when we arrived, the ‘port’ was an abandoned wooden jetty held up by rusting iron legs and the ‘ship’ was an open boat that looked like a large dhow. Surely that wasn’t what was going to get us across the Mediterranean? one of the women asked. But it was, and we were piled aboard.

I had read about sea-sickness before but nothing had prepared me for the reality. I thought I was tough. I thought that I had been through the worst but those days at sea were like nothing I’d ever known. The constant rolling and pitching. Feeling my stomach shift to my throat with every lurch of the boat. Losing the horizon. Consoling the kids in between heaving over the side. The constant thirst. The raw scrape of sea water in our clothes against our skin.

Then, as dawn broke, a shout of triumph. Ahead was an island. A big one, its coast laced by beaches and little towns with white-painted houses. The edge of Europe. Our destination, our salvation.

To my surprise, we were steered away from the pretty fishing port I could see to the west and taken to a deserted beach where we landed and were told to get out.

Eyed smudged with nausea and lack of sleep opened wide at the sensation of standing on solid ground again after so many days at sea. Some couldn’t stand at first. I had to hold my daughter’s hand as we scrambled ashore. She was disorientated, disheveled, scared. But we had arrived. We had survived.

We walked up the beach and sat in the shade of the trees that fringed it. Beyond was a road, and after a couple of hours’ rest, we decided to walk westwards to the village we had seen.

So, that’s how I came to be here, on this island, trying to explain in my broken English to an over-stretched policemen with an equally halting grasp of the language why we have no papers.

He says I have no proof of who I am. That I could be a terrorist come to infect and obliterate his society. I tell him I am just a man, a husband, a father. To look at, we are the same. With our dark eyes and light olive tinged skin, we could be cousins.

I tell him: “I am you”.