An encounter between an out of work Greek and a Jordanian academic presents different perspectives on the European migrant crisis.
The drivers in Athens were on strike, so there were no taxis at Eleftherios Venizelos airport that afternoon. Tariq would have to take the Metro to Syntagma Square. Because he had never been to Athens before, he didn’t know which platform he ought to wait at for the train.
He purchased his ticket, walked down the escalator ahead of the ticketing booth, put his suitcase down and looked around for someone whom he could ask for directions. There were many people on the platform. In front of him was a blonde family with large backpacks, and behind him, a young couple deep in conversation.
Panos was seated on a bench along the platform waiting for the M3 train. He had been at the airport to see someone about a trolley collector job, but was told he was too late and the position had already been filled. He was hungry and thought about unwrapping the chocolate bar in his knapsack. No, he had to save it for his wife, Rodoula. It was her birthday tomorrow and the chocolate was meant for her. Instead, he gnawed on his ticket stub.
Tariq saw a big, tall man chewing absentmindedly on something. Of all the people on the platform, he thought this man had the friendliest face – round, ruddy cheeks, a smooth forehead, and thick eyebrows set above hound dog eyes. Tariq walked up to the man. “Excuse me, I want to go to Syntagma Square. Is this the right train?” he asked.
“Yes, here. You are at right place,” the man said to Tariq in a thick Greek accent, pointing to the overhead digital screen that showed the arrival times of the trains. “This is go Syntagma. Train come in fifteen minutes.” He told Tariq he would be riding the same train. “You follow me. I let you know when your stop.” The man smiled broadly, revealing a dimple on his left cheek and a gap in the right corner of his mouth where an incisor ought to be.
“Ah. Excellent. Thank you,” said Tariq. Tired from his long flight, and not in the mood for polite chitchat, Tariq wanted nothing more than to scurry away to the other end of the platform to be alone. But having grown up with a father who was a diplomat, his upbringing compelled him to be congenial. “A stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet,” his father had said when Tariq had clung to his leg as a child because he was too shy to talk to the other children at school. He missed his father immensely and thought he ought to act in a way that would make him proud. So despite his desire for solitude, Tariq extended his hand and introduced himself to the big Greek who had assisted him. “My name is Tariq,” he said shaking the man’s large, meaty hands.
“Panos,” said the man with a grip that was a little too firm and clammy. “You on holiday?” he asked Tariq. “From where you from?”
“Jordan. I’m just here for a few days, for an environmental conference at the Electra Palace Hotel,” he said.
“Oh? Wow! What your job?” asked Panos.
“I’m an environmental biology professor. I teach at the University of Jordan,” said Tariq.
Panos’ eyes widened. He had never met a professor before, or anyone who could afford to stay at the Electra Palace. He did not know what environmental biology meant, but he guessed it had something to do with earth and life. Panos perked up. A professor had asked him for help. How special this made him feel.
Panos had grown up among farmers in the countryside of Konitsa in northeastern Greece, where the heady scent of oranges and figs ripening in the sun encouraged afternoon naps under the shade of olive trees. None of his siblings or fellow villagers had gone to school. Sometimes Panos wondered how different his life might be if he had read books or studied math, but where he came from, nobody thought much of novels or algebra. A life was made not by looking at letters or numbers, but by calloused hands that lifted, hoed and tilled. The boys all assumed that when they grew up, they would plough their fathers’ fields. Every season, the fruit from the olive groves, or the milk from the cows would take care of them, like it did their fathers, and their fathers before them. The girls would grow up sun-kissed and full-bodied, and they would marry the boys. They would make babies, and their children would grow up healthy, strong, and eager to help on the farm. That was the way it was meant to be. But as villages became towns, and towns turned into cities, the land seemed to shrink and weaken, and the value of their crops and livestock plummeted.
Panos assumed that the professor was on his way to meet with powerful, influential people to discuss big, important things. Even though he did not personally know any university professors, he thought they ought to be taller, and for some reason fairer, so he found this man’s swarthy complexion, small frame, and bird-like features rather unexpected.
The professor was a head and a half shorter than Panos, with bony shoulders, dark, closed cropped hair, and a neat beard. His lips were thin, and the thick-lens spectacles he wore magnified his already large eyes so they appeared to bulge in a way that conveyed bewilderment. He was wearing a white shirt, corduroy trousers, a navy-coloured jacket, and shiny, brown leather shoes. He had with him a small, hard suitcase, and a brown leather briefcase as shiny as his shoes.
“The Electra Palace, very nice hotel,” said Panos to his new friend. “Very expensive. Environment con-fer-rance. Wow! You very smart, yes?”
Tariq wasn’t sure if the Greek was mocking him, but the big man’s expression made it clear that he was simply paying Tariq a compliment. “Oh, no, not at all,” said Tariq shaking his head. “And what about you Panos? What do you do?”
Panos was embarrassed to tell the professor that he was, or rather had been, a truck driver. “I work for my friend who I know since we little boys. He have food export business. I drive to bring olive oil, fruit and vegetable to big supermarkets. Most time in Bulgaria or Turkey,” he said, looking down at his right shoe. The rubber sole had come loose from the fabric near the front, exposing the tip of his big toe. He suddenly felt ashamed, and hoped the professor would not think less of him.
To read more, buy my book Without: Stories of lack and longing