It’s been a while…

I can’t tell you the last time I found myself awake in the wee hours of the morning, tiptoeing around in the darkness to find my laptop for a good old ramble. Tonight something just seemed to tell me it was the right time to have a bit of a reflection and so here I am. It’s been a while, but it feels just like the old days.

I find myself sitting here approximately three years after I made the rather spontaneous decision to come to Greece. Three years of experiences and stories that I could never have imagined would feature in my lifetime. With the next chapter, perhaps the greatest plot twist that I am sure no one ever imagined, the Big Fat Greek Wedding just a few weeks away.

I always think it’s important to take a step back and reflect when there are big events happening in your life. For me, writing has always been a mechanism to sort through my thoughts to find the message underneath all the noise in my brain. My blogs in Greece helped me understand some of the most challenging moments I faced, they didn’t always give me the answer or the solution but they helped clear things up in terms of what direction I was going.

Three years ago my life was so far from where it is now, and I could never ever have predicted what was coming next. I was 25 and very caught up in the concept of my quarter life crisis. I didn’t write about important world events or commentary on the darker side of our modern history, no, I had a blog about comedic failed attempts at Tinder dating.

My life before Greece had settled itself into a routine, something I have never been very good at. I had a good job in Edinburgh, my first grown-up job out of uni, I volunteered when I could in various community groups, something I’d done since I was a teen although it became a little harder when I decided to move back in with my Mum to save money. When I moved out of the city, my work day included a six hour commute, six hours. Six hours of my day spent on public transport, desperately trying not to fall asleep on strangers shoulders. When I think about that now, six hours of wasted life every day, I genuinely find the idea horrifying.

I woke up, I traveled to work, I worked, I traveled home, I slept. I never kept up with friends very much, I see many of them more now than I did back then when I lived just around the corner rather than thousands of miles away. On Fridays, I had lunch with the Romanian Big Issue seller who worked outside my office, ham and mustard sandwiches and orange juice with no bits.

The routine went as it did, week in, week out and I knew I wanted something different but I just didn’t know what. Then a series of events, I guess I see now looking back, triggered the need to do something more. I wouldn’t say I was miserable at that time, but I certainly couldn’t say I was happy. Then one of my best friends passed away, and another dear friend, who is the same age as me, was diagnosed with cancer. I guess subconsciously it shook me up a bit to change my situation.

I applied for a work programme in Armenia and quit my job, but my Armenian plans fell through at the last minute and I had no idea what to do next. Looking back now I see it was a blessing, a blank page with some perspective on how life needed to be lived, but at the time it felt like the Quarter-life crisis was reaching a peak.

I had been following the events unfolding in Greece for some months by this point, and then the world took notice after the picture none of us will ever forget of Alan Kurdi filled our screens and covered our newspapers. I said to my mum that I was thinking about going to Greece for a week to join one of the volunteer groups, I’d found a cheap flight and had reached out to some groups through Facebook who needed volunteers. I fully expected her, like on the many times I’ve come up with some far-flung idea, to tell me I was crazy (like when I told her I was going to move to Armenia) but it was the opposite, she said to go for it. I doubted myself and whether I could actually be of any use in Greece but every time I told someone I was thinking of going they couldn’t have been more supportive.

So I booked that flight, to spend a week on the island of Kos, and here I am three years later about to become Mrs Greek.

I guess the reason I had that story in my head tonight is that people keep telling me how happy I look. I’ve never really been one for accepting compliments well but this one is something that really means a lot and I think I wanted to take a minute to see where I had come from, to this moment, to see why there has been such a change. I never noticed three years ago how unhappy I was, I was just living a life that I thought I should be living. But, in all honesty, a lot of it really didn’t have much meaning.

These last years have taught me so much about life, about the world, and about happiness.

The last few months, well most of this year really, I’ve been feeling pretty selfish. After being involved in the humanitarian field in Greece for the two and a half years previous I needed some time out to process, and with big life events also going on I have felt a little me, me, me of late. I do feel guilty for taking some time out, but I also think it was really necessary to give me some perspective. The first few years here were tough, really tough at times and the world became something I didn’t recognise anymore.

When I got on that plane to Greece I had no idea what I was letting myself in for, and I was terrified as I didn’t know how I could be useful, I just knew I had to try. Over these years I’ve found myself in different roles, in different situations where I have definitely not been the most qualified or the most useful person to be there in that moment. I have also held responsibility so far above my station it felt entirely overwhelming. But in all these situations, at the end of the day, I just had to get on with it and do my best.

I hope that I did the best for those who needed support, although I know at times I wasn’t the right person, at the right time, and that I made mistakes. At all times though, I had the best intentions at heart and I did the best that I could do as me, and that was all I could do.

I say these years were difficult for me but I say this with a complete understanding of the privilege I have to say this. I have not faced anything like the kind of unimaginable devastation that those I have met on this journey in Greece have and I have nothing but admiration for those who have shown me what true humanity is and the incredible strength and resilience of the human spirit. I am honoured to have shared these experiences with so many truly inspiring people who have shown me never to take anything for granted. You never know what will happen tomorrow.

I do find it interesting now after these last years, living the most difficult moments I’ve personally ever had to face, that I find myself now the happiest I’ve ever been.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this and I think it comes from the biggest lesson I learned during my time here in Greece, the importance of love in our lives.

I don’t mean specifically finding love, although this has been an extremely welcome surprise.

I mean love in the sense of human connection, the importance of family, and I don’t necessarily mean family by blood but family by your own definition, the importance of friends, the importance of community.

You can lose your home, your job, your money, your belongings, the clothes from your back. These things are not what makes us human. It’s the connection to others. It’s the strength that comes from loving and being loved that keeps us alive.

I always thought my job title, how much money I had, whether I had a partner, what I looked like, what people thought about me were the most important things. They are not.

Loving the people in your life is important, and being loved is important.

And you know what’s just as important, learning to love yourself because you know what Ru Paul says “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?”

I have a sneaky suspicion this may be the last blog I write here, as I have been trying to put together a little bit of a more substantial story offline that I would love to turn it into that book I always promised everyone I’d write since I was kid, but who knows, I’ll leave this blog here for now, maybe I’ll be back, never say never.

Hey, I said I’d never get married and now we know how that turned out!

Whatever happens next, we all know the world is not the most comforting place to live at the moment, everything seems like a never-ending Black Mirror episode, and things just seem to get worse day by day. Be kind. Look after yourself and look after one another. Maybe we don’t have the power to change the world overnight but we can all make a difference if we keep believing that as human beings, we can be better than this.

Love will win.

We can all make tiny changes to earth.

 

If you’ve just stumbled upon this blog and want to check out my stories from the beginning of this journey you can find all my original ramblings here –

– https://wordpress.com/view/fromscotlandwithloveblog.wordpress.com

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A Guardian Holiday To Greece

I was just sent a link to The Guardian newspapers’ latest holiday offer, 7 nights, £2500pp, on a special safari tour of poverty porn on the islands and mainland of modern Greece. Sun, sea, a spot of refugee spotting and searching out local families whose lives were destroyed by the financial crisis. How quaint.

 https://holidays.theguardian.com/holidays/greece-and-the-euro-39a156d19967f52863d763098db88d16

The tour begins in the Aegean isle of Samos, famous for it’s wine, it’s breathtaking landscape, and shipwrecks. The lucky holiday maker can start their tour enjoying the vineyards of this sunny isle before heading down to the town to take a few holiday snaps of the horrific conditions the asylum seekers on the island find themselves trapped in. Don’t worry though I don’t imagine you would have to hang around in the dirt with them for too long, not like those who have been held in hotspots or in tents outside of hotspots, for months and or even over a year. After this little pity party, you get the chance to have a chat with some local aid workers to ask them those burning questions like – “Do you think it’s OK for me to be taking a tourist trip to see humans in cages and treating them like they are animals in a zoo rather than actual equal human beings on my special Guardian holiday?”

I’m not sure if there will be any specific excursions to the sites of shipwrecks, or any real insight into the true horrors which played out on this island and many other of the surrounding islands. Just over a week ago 16 people drowned not so far from this island, perhaps this will be mentioned as you lunch in the olive grove after your grape picking session mentioned on day two.

As your time in Samos comes to an end make sure not to miss out on seeking out the locals worst affected by the financial crisis. You can drive around and see some abandoned houses, some derelict half built buildings, some repossessed houses, you may even hit the jackpot and find some of those migrants you were looking for squatting in one!

Then it’s off to Athens, to enjoy the ancient architecture whilst seeking out some urban poverty.

You begin the central square of Syntagma, leaning about why the Greeks just love to protest so much, then on to the underfunded hospitals, stopping by to meet some local families who need to rely on free food initiatives to eat, oh and then some refugees struggling to survive inner city life thrown in for balance. What more could you want from your Easter holiday?

I am not Greek, however I have lived here now for the last 2 and a half years, I arrived as a volunteer in the summer of 2015, much like the volunteers you will meet on Piraeus port who fill gaps for a government unequipped and unwilling to deal with the crisis after crisis they face. I have been one of those NGO workers on an island and on the mainland, working with human beings, who deserve the dignity of being treated as people, not as a tourist attraction. I now call this country home and I am about to marry one of the locals, and I plan to do what I can to eventually become one of the locals. When I read this, my initial reaction was disbelief, followed by anger, by disgust and then again by disbelief. Was this an early, terribly thought out April fool? I deeply hope so as the reality is so much darker.

Yes, Greece has had an incredibly hard time over the last few years and the more I was thinking about this article, the more I tried to understand it is about learning about the reality of Greece, it is about raising awareness of the issues faced here, which I know are not always understood by those in Western Europe. I can see where this idea has come from and I can see that your local journalists want to share their story of this time, because Greece is in trouble and has been a long time. It is hard to face the reality that Greeks face under such austerity and it is incredibly difficult to survive here as a refugee. But, upon saying I understand where you are coming from this holiday is in the worst of taste.

If you want to come on holiday to Greece, come to Kos, come in the summer. Come laze on the gorgeous beaches, come sip cocktails at sunset. Come see that Greece is safe and tourism is still thriving here, I live here trust me, it’s paradise.

If you want to understand what is happening here, read the stories of refugees coming out Moria, follow the volunteer groups publishing the reality, hey you could even come and volunteer yourself. Read about the financial crisis, follow the journalists covering the realities of the poverty in Greece. Reach out to organisations, see what you can do practically to help.

Please, please don’t take a safari to gawk at people in need. It’s beyond disturbing. 

£2500 is a hell of a lot of money in Greece, it’s more than 4 times a take home minimum wage salary after all the lovely Greek tax.

A holiday in Greece is a great idea, the Greeks will welcome you with open arms, and in turn your helping the economy by spending those pennies here.
Doing something useful to help those struggling is also a great idea.
Using your privilege to make someone in a bad situation feel even worse about it as they become an exhibition in the museum of Greek crisis, is definitely not a good idea.

Hey, why not donate that £2500 to a charity supporting locals and refugees on the ground in Greece. Now there’s an excellent idea!

Anyway, I just had to have a rant about this as it is just such a horrible pitch for a holiday and I take so much offense, for so many reasons and it has definitely made me reconsider my relationship with the Guardian newspaper.

What a strange world we are living in.

Peace x

Yet another Greek tragedy…

It has been over two years now since I first came to Greece. Before I jumped on that flight on Sept 29th 2015, with no idea how that decision would utterly change the direction of my life, I had been following the unfolding crisis in Greece for many months.

I don’t know what I expected to happen over all this time, but I had hoped that history wouldn’t continually repeat itself over and over again with no lessons being learnt and no real change.

Yesterday morning I woke up to news of another shipwreck in the region of Greece I now call home. I saw the messages of friends in my new home, the anger of yet another tragedy upon our doorstep. I saw the frantic grief of the volunteers on the island of Kalymnos who have dealt with too much death upon their shores already. I saw the pictures of the local rescue squad out searching for the missing and recovering the dead from the sea.

The thing that shocked me most about my own personal reaction to this, was that I checked the date and thought, “Yes, here we are again, it is shipwreck season.” This thought both disgusted me that I just accept this now as winter comes that these tragedies are expected and at the same time infuriated me that after all this time, nothing changes, this is just what happens.

One night in January 2016 I was sitting on the port of Kos with my nightshift buddies, as we did every night, surrounded in blankets and bags of jumpers, there just to try and do anything we could for new arrivals to Kos. It was the middle of the night when a friend, one of the calmest people I’ve ever known, received a phone call and began screaming, swearing and kicking at a wall. A few seconds later, another friends’ car screeched to a halt in front of us and she threw herself from the car in tears.

At this point I didn’t understand much Greek but I knew instantly what was happening. It was a shipwreck. I will never forget that night.

Next to the small island of Kalymnos, just beside Kos, a horrific tragedy unfolded that night. The local residents of this island found themselves watching lifeless bodies wash up on their shores, helpless to do anything but witness the horror of death flood their island. I don’t remember the exact number of deaths from that night, even one death is a death too many but I believe around 35 bodies were recovered and many others were never found. The Aegean has swallowed too many souls over these last years.

Yesterday, that same small island was dealing with another tragedy.

It reminded me one of the most difficult moments of my entire time here in Greece, I was in Kalymnos at a meeting with the local volunteers who respond to these tragic calls when one girl broke down in tears. She has been there the night of the Shipwreck last January and she was recalling the fact that there were no doctors there, and that some time after the tragedy, it had been discovered that there was a chance that some of those who had been presumed dead on the night, may not actually have been dead when they were put into body bags. Not that there was any definite proof, but some may have been saved if there had been a proper medical response to the emergency. For this, no one will ever know, but for me it just highlighted the fact that normal people were responding to emergencies that they should never have to face and without the resources to deal with such horrific circumstances.

I will never forget that cold January night. I will never forget that conversation. I will never forget the tragedies. I will never forget the faces of the survivors of these wrecks. I will never forget the personal sacrifices and the incredible strength of the locals of these islands. I will never forget the phone call I received from a friend as she searched through bags for ID to try to help the police identify the dead of another wreck. I will never forget that empty boat on my first night in Greece.

Some things about the situation in Greece may have changed, but the dangers have not.

I am not my job, I am not my nationality, I am not my beliefs… all I am is human and as a human, I cannot bear to watch this endless cycle of death upon the shores of Greece. It is almost 3 years since the “refugee crisis” in Greece became headline news, and yet here we are, seeing the same things.

My thoughts and my love are with the victims and survivors of these tragic events.

I hope, one day, “shipwreck” will be a word we need never have to utter again.

28th September 2015

September 28th 2015, the last day of my “old” life.

Throughout your life, there are moments that define you. Decisions which will change your path, your direction, and sometimes to an extent who you are as a person. Some of these moments involve a big decision, options that are presented to you which will make great changes to your future so you spend days, weeks, months, weighing all the pros and cons before making that big life changing decision.

But sometimes, these momentous milestones, just happen. Sometimes, the biggest shifts in your life happen by accident, without deep thought and consideration, but the impact on who you are and the life you lead is incredible.

Two years ago today I was on the brink of one of these life changing moments, but I had no idea.

On September 28th 2015, I could not for a moment have predicted where I find myself now.

On 29th September 2015 I arrived on the Greek island of Kos, following a rather spontaneous decision to join the movement of volunteers on the island supporting refugees. I had packed two suitcases full of items from the needs lists posted by local volunteers and just showed up ready and willing to do what I could.

That first night I was with a small group who found an empty boat wash up by the port, the bodies of a mother and her two young children were found in the water a few hours later.

When I arrived in Kos, I arrived with the knowledge of the situation I was walking into, but the reality was something completely different.

The incredible juxtaposition which met me in Kos was a reality I could not have fathomed had I not seen it in front of my eyes. By night, hundreds of wet, hungry, traumatised people climbed out of flimsy little plastic boats onto the shores of Kos, having paid 1000-2000 Euro, sometimes more, to cross the 6km sea from the Turkish coast. Too many boats left the shores of Bodrum and never made it to Kos, so many souls lost in the dark water of the night. Yet, by day, the shores were filled with happy tourists sunning themselves, many planning day trips to Bodrum on one of the many tourist boats, which would cost them between 15-50 Euro, would take no longer than an hour to cross and where they could enjoy the sunny sights whilst sipping a drink on the deck.

The streets lined with tents, the wet families waiting for a blanket, the survivors of the shipwrecks, the dead of the shipwrecks, the faces of those fleeing from a reality I could not even begin to imagine – the humans behind the headlines will stay with me forever.

What will also never leave me is the solidarity of the human spirit I witnessed on these shores. The people of all nations, religions, backgrounds, coming together to treat fellow humans with dignity in their time of need.

I originally intended to come to Greece for a week, my best friends wedding was a fortnight after I traveled to Kos and I had every intention of attending. But, I did not make it to the wedding, or to a number of weddings following this, or birthdays, christenings, general celebrations. Somehow one week turned into two years. Two years.

To put this in a personal perspective I have never done anything for two years running since I left high school. I like to move around, change my scenery, change perspective. Even my degree I managed to do each year in a different school in a different place. So two years in Greece is really quite an accomplishment, to stay still for so long. The crazy part is it came so naturally , I didn’t even notice, and I have no plans to move on.

From first finding this island in great darkness, I managed to find so much light here and somehow I fell in love with my Greek life.

You hear often of the fascism in Greece, the negativity and racism, which yes, I will not deny it exists as it definitely exists but this can be found rising almost everywhere right now. The true Greece and Greek culture is as beautiful as it’s scenery.

I spent my first year here as volunteer, mostly living a nocturnal life, spending my nights waiting in the darkness for new arrivals and wishing every moment for safe passage for those risking their lives in the crossing. The last year my life was a little different but still connected to the reasons I first came to Kos.

To be honest, over time things never got better for those coming to Greece in rubber dinghys, yet they still come. They still dream of a better future. A safer future. In many cases, simply a future.

I have been thinking so much in the last days about how these two years have changed me as a person. How the people I have met have influenced me. What I have learnt, what I have gained, what I have lost.

But, although I think it is very important to be self aware and it is important to reflect on these last years, I think it is also important to have some perspective.

I came to Greece two years ago on a flight, with my British passport, leaving my cosy British home and family behind where they kept on living their normal daily lives. I can jump on a plane at any point and visit my loved ones. I can still go to my favourite places. My “old” life, physically, is all still there.

The people I have met here over the last two years, fleeing from war, from persecution, have nothing of this luxury. They did not choose to leave their homes. For many, their homes no longer stand. For many, their families are no longer alive.

They have left behind memories of pain to start a new life in a new land where they do not know the language, the culture. They live camps or in tents, some in detention, for months, years not knowing what will happen next, where they will end up.

The most profound thing about this entire experience of living in Greece during this time is my new understanding of resilience. The absolute strength that people have in the most difficult times. How people survive, how they thrive.

Greeks opened their homes, opened their hearts to strangers in need, at a time when they found themselves amid crisis after crisis after crisis. The situation in Greece is far, far from perfect but if you look hard enough, you will find the movements, the inspiring individuals who give you hope in a world that gets darker every day.

I am still the same girl I was on 28th September 2015, but I definitely do not see the world in the same way. I do not see my place in this world in the same way. I do not see humanity in the same way.

To everyone I have met over these last two years, who laughed with me, cried with me, taught me their language, showed me their love – you changed a crazy little redheads life and I will forever be grateful and thankful that our paths crossed.

 

From Scotland (via Greece) With Love

Peace x

Grounded

 

All through life when times get tough, when things start to run away with us or when things start to get too much we often hear the advice “stay grounded.” We are told to “keep our feet on the ground” to balance us, to remind of something solid, something steady that can help bring us down from those dizzying heights that challenging times can take us to. But what happens when that safety net fails, when you can no longer trust the earth to keep you steady?

Recently I experienced a rather nasty earthquake which has left this question playing on my mind. When we live in a world of such uncertainty, how exactly do we stay grounded when we can’t even trust the ground we walk on?

But this idea of losing trust in your surroundings goes further than a shift in tectonic plates, for me personally anyway. Over recent months I have watched the bubble of my own personal little world of experiences shift drastically. I now live on a little Greek island where the best and worst moments of humanity play out on a daily basis, here it is very difficult to stay grounded, particularly when the earth literally moves so I do tend to find memories of home a steadying anchor, or at least I did, until recent months.

I watch the outside world from the perspective of my little Aegean island mostly through traditional and social media and more often than I could ever imagine I wake up to the Facebook safety check icon informing me another friend is safe from another horrific moment in our modern history.

I see the pictures of Parliament and of London Bridge and read the messages of friends who were there, who witnessed the horrors and remember the times we shared much happier memories in these places which will be forever changed in both of our minds.

I see the pictures of frantic families trying to trace their missing children who had gone to simply enjoy a concert but became victims of a horrific attack in my old University city.

Most recently I see a place where I found a family not connected by blood but by love, a place that has always been my refuge, reeling in horror, in destruction, in terror on Las Ramblas. I still see the picture of a small boy who remains missing being shared on social media and remember the days I walked this street holding the hand of a little boy I love dearly with never a thought crossing my mind that anything so heartbreaking could have happened in this beautiful place.

But we all now have these memories of places we love being shadowed in the grief of terrorism or the new layer to our terror filled days – the rise of fascism. Every day we wake up to another horror, near or far, and it doesn’t seem to be stopping anywhere. So what do we do to stay grounded?

I mean we can always distract ourselves from the terrorism on our doorsteps with the escalating rhetoric of nuclear war between North Korea and the US? Or we can watch white supremacists march the streets waving Nazi flags murdering young anti fascist demonstrators? Or take minute to remember the still ongoing refugee crisis on the shores of Italy and Greece and the hundreds of lives still lost in the Mediterranean or the hundreds of lives still trapped in camps and detention facilities in an endless wait for asylum in Europe.

I could go on with many more examples but as you can see it’s pretty hard to stay grounded when crisis and horror become our every day. But what hurts the most is how we are now so used to this life that we have become so desensitized, but what else can we do other than detach, it is not possible to live day to day if you spiral into all in the grief in the world.

So again, how do we stay grounded, how do we not go to denial but keep our heads?

Honestly, I am not entirely sure, I am very open to suggestions. Answers on a postcard?

But I do know that the most important thing we can all do is just not buy into all the hate. Terrorists whether they be pledging allegiance to ISIS, the KKK or whatever the hell radicalized ideology do not represent their race, their religion or the colour of their skin. The white supremacists in Charlottesville represent me as much as the terrorists in Barcelona represent the religion of Islam. These individuals are a minority, they are not the majority no matter what the media may have you believe.

I don’t believe the world is as doomed as it may seem on the surface. The majority of people out there are kind and loving and just trying to get by in these bloody scary times. But unfortunately fear isn’t too many stops away from hate and when we are really scared our ignorance can lead to some pretty extreme standpoints on issues we never really felt too strongly about before.

I discovered something interesting recently about ignorance. A friend began to tell me about an article she had read about a new development in Artificial Intelligence and before she could even begin I asked her to stop talking about it because it scares me and I don’t want to know anything about it. That, my dear friends, is ignorance and it is as easy as that. Replace AI with something the media have told us to fear, for example refugees, and if you take the same stand point as I did and refused to learn any real facts, no wonder you are scared.

So maybe, to stay grounded we need to start learning more about the world we live in. We need to stop allowing the fear to take over and we need to discover how we can make change. I’m not talking about changing the world, but maybe little changes that can add up. Maybe even just talking to friends with a different viewpoint than you, opening up a discussion, challenging ignorance is a place to start.

I don’t know what will happen next, but I hope it is not as terrible as it all may seem right now.

Stand together, show love where you find hate and don’t let fear win.

 

Also, quick tip, if your boyfriends’ parents are staying at your house and you live on a fault line, make sure to always wear more than just your knickers to bed… that is an added horror no one needs when waking up to the earth shaking!

Be strong friends! Peace.