Polykastro, a Greek town near the Macedonian border, has about 8,000 residents and was the link to civilization for over 10,000 refugees holed up in massive unofficial camps in the area (Idomeni is 15 minutes away) before they were cleared in the last months. And it was also a link for as many as 1,000 volunteers who had come in from all over the world to help mitigate a crisis that all the countries of the United Nations had been somehow unable to prevent. Now that the unofficial camps have been closed, the number of refugees in the area has dwindled and so has the number of volunteers. But Polykastro is a different place now. This is Part One of the story.
When I arrived in the town it was already dark. I had taken the last bus from Thessaloniki with Eva, an independent volunteer from Germany whom I’d met in Athens. She knew Polykastro well, she’d been here when Idomeni was still around.
When the bus rolled up to the town line, she asked the driver if he could stop at the Park Hotel and he nodded knowingly. “We can stay here for free,” she explained. “Rooms are 20 euros, but volunteers can camp out back for free. At least that’s how it was last week.”
My first impression of it was that it was an American motel, stranded between dusty parking lots a mile from some empty casino. We slid open a gate on the side and walked through moon-pale gravel toward some dark trees. “Do you have a tent?” she asked. I didn’t. “That’s fine,” she assured me. “Some of these tents are empty. The volunteers leave them up for other people when they’re gone.”
She looked around. “We just have to figure out which ones are empty.”
A fun midnight activity.
We arrived at the back of the camp, at the tent known as the “Space Tent” because it was metalic-colored and kind of looked like a planetarium. We shined a headlamp inside and determined it was free.
The only thing worse than the dog-fouled muggy air inside was the mosquito onslaught outside. We laid out our bags. I took off my shirt. Spread my arms to get as much surface area as possible. Fell asleep.
At 3 a.m the owner came home. All I could see was the glowing red tip of a cigarette suspended above me.
“Hello,” was what I said.
“Wot!” boomed a Cockney accent with a smoker’s growl. “There’s people in me tent!”
“Oh no,” cried Eva. “I’m so sorry! We thought it was empty.”
“Don’t ye awsk before ye go into someone else’s ‘ouse?”
He sounded drunk. I thought the whole thing was ironic, here in this half-squatted campsite, among this group of people helping other people get across borders. But everywhere there are people, there are rules. We had broken them.
We ended up lying our bags on the dirt under the tree and sleeping until the mosquitos woke us up for breakfast.
About five months ago, a group of volunteers with the group Hot Food Idomeni who cook vegan meals for refugees had asked the owner of the Park Hotel if they could set up their operation in the gravel lot behind the building. He consented. They asked him if they could camp in the grass behind the lot and he consented. I asked him why he consented and he shrugged his shoulders. “They ask me, I say yes.”
Inside the lobby, I see no one but residents of the nearby military camp Nea Kavala, and volunteers with their papers spread out over dining tables, having meetings, charging their phones, walking around to get the best wi-fi signal. Where there used to be a manager’s office, there is now a “meeting room” plastered with info fliers for refugees and volunteers: how to apply for asylum, the latest news about border closures, the rights of volunteers to help refugees (driving them around can be punishable as human smuggling), how to treat teargas burns.
“What about the meeting room? How did that get started?” I asked.
“That’s their thing,” he said.
At night, the heat subsided, the lobby livened up. A lot of the volunteers had finished their day’s work, a number of Syrian guys (few, if any women) had come to the hotel to get out of the camp, practice their English, sit in a real chair near a wooden table, drink a tea, watch the Europe Cup on a television. Anything besides sit at the military camp, the music festival without music, the summer camp with no activities, that you can’t escape, with no lake, overworked councilors, the same packaged rice every day, fenced in by ambient racism, abusive patrolmen, and the absolute lack of alternatives. [For my account of sneaking into the military camp, read this].
The lobby was getting kind of crowded, and with a stony look on his face, the owner started clearing people out of the corridor between the entrance and the back door. He is wiry man of 45 perhaps who wears a fat plastic watch, a pale green shirt, cargo shorts, sport sandals, and looks like a kayak instructor. I thought he was annoyed, but once the space was clear, he ran head first into one of those sweeping Greek dance moves that ends in a foot-slapping. A smile broke over his face.
At that moment it seemed to me he had taken this as an act of God, this event in the history of his little hotel on the arid outskirts of a small border town.
His acceptance was graceful, and also good business. A cup of Nescafé is 2 euros — just about the minimum hourly wage in Greece — and the volunteers and refugees feel they owe it to him to not complain.
I felt the same. “One coffee, please,” I said.
“Two euros,” he said, a twinkle in one eye, a spot of embarassment in the other.