Greece ~ Part II ~ Life & Death in Athens

Back Down To Earth With a Bang

The morning after our blissful first night in Athens, I received an unexpected phone call from my mum.

It was 11am and we were just about to leave the apartment as we had agreed with the owner. I picked up the phone chirpily – thinking perhaps mum was ringing to congratulate me on making it to Athens.

Her voice was quivering with emotion and I could hear that she had been crying. I imagined her eyes puffy and her chin shuddering in the way it does when she tries to hold back tears.

What’s wrong mum? I asked.

Oh Molly, I’m sorry to have to tell you this but … Grandpa’s died.

It felt like being hit hard with a heavy blunt object. I sat there on the sofa, hand over mouth.

But how … He was so well. He was so full of energy and zest for living. He was 90 but he had been so with-it. Still playing golf. Still gardening. Meeting up with friends every other day. Living in his own home. Navigating new technology. He was a super star. A chemist genius. An Oxford first honours, sneaky winking, shameless charmer of handsome women, dog crazy, jazz loving, stubborn, spontaneous dancing, infuriatingly correctional, hugely generous, superstar.

He couldn’t be gone.

He had sent me an email only a few days ago. The tears had started running down my cheeks and dropping into my lap.

Haydn went to speak to the man who was trying to rush us out of the apartment. I took some deep breaths on the balcony. I felt concussed.

Soon we were out of the flat and onto the bustle of the busy street below. I felt like my bags and bicycle were new alien objects. Heavy and awkward. I struggled to assemble them into one movable object.

Haydn chaperoned me into a cafe over the road from the apartment and sat me down. I held onto the side of the table, numb and struck dumb.

I was in shock.

We agreed that trying to get a taxi would actually be more complicated than making our own way to the Help Refugees flat on the other side of Athens. I was also aware that it wouldn’t be safe for me to cycle in this state. The traffic was hurtling around on the road in front of us like dodgems mayhem.

Soon we were walking through the bustling Athenian streets pushing our cumbersome loaded bikes. I felt like I’d taken a hefty dose of Valium. I was completely spaced out from the shock. It was very difficult to negotiate the alien people, cars and streets. The walking and pushing seemed to stretch time like an elastic band. On and on. I just followed Haydn and tried not to fall over. Breathe in, breathe out. One foot in front of the other. There were so many people and the traffic was so loud and the two foot wide pedestrian pavement was near impossible to push a bike along.

We turned a corner and two ragged young men were stood there, blocking the narrow pavement, trousers around their knees, shooting heroin into their thighs. The sunlight shone brightly and made the needle twinkle. I stood for a second in stunned disbelief. Haydn shouted my name and I automatically veered onto the road to avoid them.

This new environment was unnerving and jarring. It felt manic and I wasn’t ready for it. I needed somewhere safe. Somewhere to hide.

The Help Refugees Flat

We finally found the flat and shouted up to Freya, the Help Refugees coordinator for Athens, who we had been messaging. We met her briefly, she had a kind face and gave me a big hug. She said she was sorry about my Grandpa and I realised that it still didn’t feel real. I tried not to cry, tried to smile and seem normal. She showed us the flat and we talked for a few minutes. She said she had to shoot off to a meeting but she would be back later.

A man with a fuzzy beard and a wonderful smile came and hugged me and Haydn, he introduced himself as Mohammad. He said he was living here temporarily. I felt glazed over but immediately relaxed by his presence. We told him what had just happened and he gave me another huge hug and said he was really sorry and we should go and relax and make ourselves feel comfortable in our new room.

After a few minutes, Mohammad knocked and brought in a plate of traditional Syrian food of flatbread, soft cheese and tomatoes. He put some tissue near me for crying. He gave us some mini chocolates too. Then he left. I felt overwhelmed and slightly lifted out of my sad daze. He was so thoughtful and had made us feel so welcome and safe in this new place that felt gloomy and strange.

Later, I explored the flat further. The living room was lovely with a huge, carved mahogany table, patterned carpet and vintage, faded rose coloured chaise-long.

The narrow, dark kitchen gave me the heeby-geebies. It’s one window looked into the dim internal column of space – the long oesophagus – of the huge tower block. However, the kitchen itself was not as creepy as what it led onto. At the end of the narrow kitchen was a door that led into a room with no windows. A huge black burn mark scared the back wall and a single lightbulb illuminated the space. Tall, narrow cupboards led off from this space, one had a disused shower and toilet inside.

Freya later told us that this was probably the servants quarters and it suddenly made sense. There were buzzers in every room that rang a bell in the kitchen space.

I tried to make our room as bright and fresh seeming as possible and it soon felt cosy enough. Despite the dark oddity of the flat, we were both just incredibly grateful to have somewhere free and safe to stay for our time in Athens. We knew our knew flatmates would be gorgeous people, going by all the Help Refugees volunteers so far.

And it turned out to be true.


On the day we arrived we sat down in the living room with Mohammad. We smoked cigarettes and drank tea.

We immediately fell in love with him; his softness and his charm.
His warmth and positivity made me feel at ease in the fresh storm of my grief.

Through the fresh rivers of conversation, he bravely began to unfurl his story before us. Soon we were just sat, enraptured, listening.

He was from Damascus. He had a degree in engineering and had been working towards a Masters in English. He had also been training as a nurse. In a particularly dangerous area of the city he had created an underground emergency hospital to treat those wounded by government troops and artillery. He told us with a secretive pride in his eye that there is an entire Damascus under Damascus.

He told us of the trauma of trying to save a little boy who had a serious head injury from a government bomb dropped in a civilian area. He tried everything he could but he couldn’t save the boy. He died right in front of him.

While running the underground hospital he was caught by government troops carrying medical supplies in the deadly streets. He said he was lucky to not have been shot point blank for being on the surface level in that part of the city. He was imprisoned. The cell was filled with many others. They could barely move. They had to shit in a bucket in the corner of the room, in front of everyone. They would be taken out daily, blindfolded, stripped and beaten with batons. He was tortured. He was released knowing that if caught again he would either be killed or have such a long sentence he may never be free again.

He still ran the hospital. His fellow workers and him, saved many lives.

One day he received a phone call from a close friend. He said that he knew Mohammad’s name was on a government wanted list and they were going to come looking for him very soon. He told Mohammad he needed to leave by the following morning.

His baby sister had just been born. Fresh and new and delicate, into this deadly place. She didn’t even know his face yet.

There was nothing he could do if he wanted to stay alive. He left his beloved mother, father, sister, girlfriend, friends, his possessions, his formal education, his city, everything he knew, his entire life.

He walked from Damascus to Athens.

He didn’t know if he would ever see his family again. He couldn’t communicate regularly with them incase his communication incriminated his family in the knowledge that he, a wanted man, had fled. He never told his family where he was for their safety. His father had to keep insisting to government forces that they didn’t know where their son had gone, that he had run away.

Tears rolled down my face and I wrapped my arms around him. I said I thought he was the most amazing person I had ever met and that I felt deeply honoured that he had shared his story with us. What a blessing. To know a real story of someone that in our tiny way, we wanted to help.

His story is the reality.

These are the super-human people who deal with huge trauma with vast braveness and optimism. They deserve all the love in our hearts and anything we can offer them. They have been dealt the worst hand in life and we cannot sit idly by in our comfortable lives and put the shutters down. They are our brothers and sisters.

That one conversation provided enough inspiration to cycle around the world, three times over.

Portrait of Mohammad by Haydn

Going Home to Grieve

Haydn and I flew back to be with my family and to help arrange and attend the funeral.

I saw my Grandad’s body when I went home. It took me a while to work up the courage to walk down the corridor in the funeral parlour and walk through that door. I didn’t know what it would be like. The room was dark, candlelit. He was laid out in such a formal way, like a wax work. It felt like we had gone back in time to the Victorian era. He didn’t look like him, charming and a bit fuzzy round the edges, like he had in life, he looked altered, shiny and manipulated. His mouth looked all wrong, like badly moulded plasticine. His teeth looking too big for his mouth, underneath his strange, stretched skin.

As he had died so suddenly, there had to be an autopsy done to determine the exact cause of death. Stood there staring at his altered face, my mind reeled back to the conversation I had had with a wonderful young med student from the Calais warehouse about autopsies. I had sat in her passenger seat, while speeding to Brussels for my impromptu birthday visit, asking eagerly for more of the gory details of how she had cut up dead bodies to decipher their cause of death. I wished in that moment I could undo those words now emblazoned in my mind.

I hated the idea that someone who didn’t know or care for him had been fiddling about with his body. I wanted us to have done it all. His family. I wanted us to have held and washed him. But I suppose this is the strange and distant way we deal with death in our country.

Seeing my dear old Grandpa laid out like that was as disturbing as it was cathartic. I could see he was definitely no longer here with us on this planet, in this life. Only the vessel that carried his unique Grandpa-ness remained. That and his belongings and the love and gorgeous memories that so many still hold onto.

Helping to organise and then being at the funeral was as strange as it was beautiful. It was surreal to see my whole maternal side of the family after being away travelling. Tales from the road were told and we connected over our shared sadness for Grandpa’s passing.

Haydn and I both decided to spend Christmas in England with our families. His family had also experienced some bad news and we both felt it was important to be at home.

Christmas was a gorgeous, over-indulgent time and a bizarre contrast to life on the road.

Back to Athens

We came back to Athens the day before New Years Eve.

Freya, Johnny, Haydn and I got our glad rags on and went to see Giles Pertson DJ in a square full of mainly Greek middle-aged people who didn’t seem to know who he was. We had a great, crazy dance though.

On New Year’s Eve we were also introduced to Exarchia Sqaure; the anarchist epicentre of Athens. A bomb exploded very close by and shouting over our temporarily deafened ears we decided to go back to the flat. The party continued there, late on into the night. It felt like a welcome relief from the life we had been living on the road but contrastingly felt almost lonely. We didn’t know anyone well enough yet to feel a real bond and celebration about our achievement and what was yet to come.

A few nights later, I woke to a huge crashing sound and the whole bed shaking violently. It was pitch black. We both sat up on our elbows and held each other nervously whispering. We thought for some reason it was someone breaking into the flat. We slowly edged out of bed and checked the flat with our phone lights guiding us. We didn’t find anyone or anything suspicious so we went back to sleep. We woke in the morning to read that a Magnitude 5 earthquake had rippled across Athens at 3am in the morning. Wow. We hadn’t expected earthquakes when we had come of Athens.

After a few settling in days, Haydn and I started at Project Elea.

The activities that the project created and managed were incredible. Arts and crafts, yoga, language teaching, gardening, sports activities, women’s time, clothing distribution, a school for very young children, trips into the city, theatre class, dance class. All things that I felt I should have easily slipped into and enjoyed but I found it hard to assimilate myself and my skills in the chaotic environment of the camp.

I worked there for two weeks with two days off and then hit a wall.

Found it very hard to adapt to volunteering in this way as it was so different to working in Calais. I didn’t feel confident or energised enough to get really stuck in and start voicing and implementing my own ideas.

After a very bad morning at Elea, I had to leave crying to get the bus. I just couldn’t handle it. Over the next few days I decided it would be better to try and enjoy Athens by exploring it more.

In my own way.

I researched some cafés and bars where I could go and write.

But soon I became more reluctant to venturing outside as it was so chaotic. I started to sleep restlessly and lightly, I wasn’t enjoying food much, I wasn’t actually enjoying anything much.

I felt so lucky to have been given the opportunity to live in Athens but I wasn’t enjoying it.

Too Much Too Soon

I became very annoyed at myself for not being able to revel in the experience of living in a new city and this only made things worse. A burning self loathing was becoming a daily presence in my mind.

The empowered, strong, resilient creature that had cycled into Athens seemed to have dissolved and now a weak, anxious, unhappy shadow remained. I developed raging acne on my cheeks and each night developed intensely itchy rashes all over my body. My sadness was now an ever-present veil and melting into sobs at the slightest provocation was becoming a daily affair.

My fear of another acute depressive episode, like the year before leaving home, heightened my anxiety and the downward spiral began. Soon I was experiencing moments of suicidal ideation and then I knew I was really in trouble. The thought of needing to return to the safety parachute of medication was becoming a serious consideration.

Haydn was incredible. He brought me food and tea and cuddles when he saw that I was struggling. He was my rock in this new environment.

Soon he was fully involving himself into the brilliant work of Project Elea, going in most days. So I began to spend many days alone. Venturing out to a cafe to write or walk the jostling streets. I was trying to assimilate myself with an environment that had many connotations to my last year at university in London. I felt lost and overwhelmed, oscillating between isolation and agoraphobia.

My decline was in no way representative of how gorgeous our new flatmates and their friends were. We felt wholly welcomed by Mohammad, Freya, Johnny and Tim. They were all extremely kind and very interesting people.

After one month of attempting work at Project Elea, doing a map mural for the Help Refugees office and trying to enjoy my time in Athens, I had a realisation. I was burnt out. Neither Haydn or I had found the time for necessary rest and recuperation after the first stage of our cycle journey. I was suffering from a prolonged and melancholic exhaustion that wasn’t being given the chance to repair in Athens.

I finally recognised that I didn’t need to force myself into love with Athens. I decided to let myself off the hook and go home for the time I had left. I had a choice. I could go somewhere I felt safe and knew I could do all that I had been longing to. I needed to be in a good headspace for setting off on the next part of our journey. It was time for some significant self-care.

Hugging Mohammad goodbye, I saw a flicker of sadness on his face as I said the words – I just really want to see my family – and suddenly realised how insensitive that statement was. He couldn’t get a flight home and see his family no matter how much he missed them. I hugged him again and whispered, I’m sorry – I know how lucky I am. He smiled his glorious, warm smile and said he would miss me.

In that moment everything was shifted into perspective.

I was so damn lucky.

Home Sweet Home

All the things I had fantasised about; having a proper cup of tea, having a cuddle with my mum or dad or sister (or all three!) and watching a film on the sofa, walking my dog in the sun-spattered woods, sidling up to a real, working fridge, opening it and seeing the delicious variety of food inside. Having a chat face to face with an old friend that wasn’t over the small screen of a smartphone with dodgy wifi. Having night after night in a pitch dark, silent room with a thick, glorious duvet. And waking up to realise that it was my own bedroom that I had created and filled with my things. All these luxuries that we take for granted everyday, now provided me with golden moments of delight. I could now really revel in them. They truly lit me up for the first time in my life and my supreme fortune was glaringly evident.

Unfortunately it doesn’t last. Unless I was mindful enough in brief moments to remember the nomad existence that was recently my reality, the novelty would vanish and the acceptance of the old ‘normal’ life infiltrated.

I had ten days in which to fully rest and didn’t allow myself to pressurise a to do list onto that time, like I usually would.

I felt even in ten days the wounds of tearing exhaustion begin to heal and I knew I had made the right decision. I was able to begin addressing my anxiety which had been bubbling out of control.

It was a healing time of rest, food and family, which was all that I needed.

Return To Athens & To The Road

When I returned to Greece, Haydn’s best friend Ben had come to stay with us and I finally had enough energy to actually enjoy the melting-pot-madness that is Athens.

By day we visited the tourist sites and by night we explored bars and slicked our happy throats with hot honey Raki. Ben soon became an integral part of the Project Elea team and we loved having him with us in Athens.

We decided to set off again on March 1st and get an overnight ferry from the port of Pireas to the island of Chios.

Packing up again and readying the bikes felt very strange. I felt that electric butterfly feeling of nerves and excitement in my stomach.

Cycling off on that drizzly March evening, just after the sun had gone down felt like we were leaving at the wrong time. The weather was supposed to be bright and sunny like it had been for so many days before. We were supposed to glide away effortlessly, waving and smiling into the glow of the future.

But we all laughed at the rain as everyone came out onto the pavement for hugs and waves. We said a huge thank you to our flatmates for having us to live with them. My heart compressed in my chest as I squeezed these glorious people. We were leaving the safe cocoon of the flat and the soul easing support of friends. These friends and their beaming faces and their words of encouragement, I wanted to grab them and stash them in my bags for a rainier day on the road. I gave lots of double-hugs.

Then we were off.

We cycled through the dark, neon lit streets towards the port.

Even in the dark and drizzle I felt completely elated to finally be on the road again. To be free. To be exploring again. To be going to places I had never seen and couldn’t yet imagine.

There was a huge, bodily sense of relief and joy at leaving Athens behind and starting anew.

It felt like this, right now, was when the real adventure begins.

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One Reply to “Greece ~ Part II ~ Life & Death in Athens”

  1. Very, very moving, Molly. Your growing self understanding, compassion and strength all shine out from your writing.
    And your story paralleled with Mohammed’s is the most touching insight into the true, individual life of a true refugee, instead of the depersonalised ‘mass’ we usually read about.
    Thank you. You are a wonder and an inspiration! Xx

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