Thursday, August 21, 2014

Beggars on Holiday!

One of the predictable curiosities for expats living in Athens, Greece is the reality that almost everyone in this town takes a holiday in August. Sometimes, it’s the entire month; sometimes, it’s for two weeks; but, you can always count on very little getting done in August because nearly everyone who is normally here is somewhere else – on a sun-drenched island or a quaint village where great grandparents once lived and where the family still maintains a house!
The already, painfully slow Greek bureaucracy moves even slower during August. Mom & Pop street-corner businesses close completely, their windows and doors locked and shuttered down; the entire family is away, with signs left on the door wishing potential customers “Kalo Kalokairi!” “Happy Summer!”

The ordinarily clogged, tiny streets are much easier to navigate. Locating a parking space on my street in Pagrati is actually possible in August!
Among the “closed for holiday” businesses on my regular walking pathways, I have also noticed that the beggars are absent. The very-tanned young man with scraggly hair and dirty flip flops who ordinarily sits on a sheet of cardboard is nowhere to be found. The pre-teen Roma girl who holds a sign reading “Peinao” (“I hunger”) in one hand and, in the other, loosely cradles a crying, month-old infant with a dirty diaper is absent. Her treasured spot in the shade is vacant.

It caused me to ponder: Do beggars take a vacation? What do they do when not begging? Where do they go? Do they take their begging trade to a holiday spot? Are people on vacation more or less likely to give money to a panhandler?
While I am still searching for answers to those questions, it occurs to me that all of us –including you and me - are actually beggars of a sort! None of us, in our own right, earns the right to take a breath or to have a thought. Every one of us stands before our daily existential moments with our hands out, asking – yea begging – for another opportunity to live, to think, to breathe, to give, to receive and to become. What one of us has, in our own power, an inexhaustible supply of minutes to live and a guaranteed lock on a fully developed potential? Why is it that most of our prayers are selfish petitions, exposing us as beggars, asking God for what we want?

We are all, I insist, like panhandlers in this perilous, penultimate paradise of a world. While signs in the London Underground Metro warn that “Busking is not allowed,” every person I know lives most of his/her life in desperate need – of friendship, meaning, fulfillment, worth, legitimate response and other essentials. Although it is rarely in the forefront of our minds, all of us are very needy and unable, in our own strength, to meet those essential needs. Like a person who uses credit cards to finance a holiday, we travel about in our lives without knowing the full cost of our own mortality and rarely stopping to give thanks to the “ground of our being” (Paul Tillich) who generously gives “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17) to us beggars.
“Hey, buddy! Can you spare me a dime?”

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Another Trolley Ride!

Heading home from a downtown meeting with my Greek tax accountant on the same day that I sold the company car in preparation for our upcoming departure from Greece, I boarded trolley number 11. Well, I got on the trolley and grabbed one of those plastic wrist straps that hang from the ceiling. The driver was actually still in the street, arguing with the open-top, double-decker, tourist bus driver who had parked in his curbside passenger pick-up zone.
After a few minutes of in-your-face shouting and gesturing between the two drivers, as only Greeks can do, our guy hopped on board and, at last, we pulled away from the stop at Syntaugma Square. As we merged with too much traffic, the driver shouted several, well-chosen epithets, I guess, therapeutically to himself, but at a volume level which likely pierced the ears of most of those at the back of the bus. Another day at the office for this unshaven, shirt-tail-hanging-out jockey of one of Athens’ bendable, electric-driven people-movers, stuffed with folks like me, just wanting to get home.
Before we had travelled the distance of two city blocks, a boisterous argument broke out between a woman and a teen-ager, further up on the crowded, aluminum tubed, stiflingly hot, moving trolley. Since I couldn’t catch the gist of the argument, I asked the young girl next to me what it was about. She said, “They are having an argument!” (Duh!) Trying to be patient, I asked, “What is the nature of the argument?” In response, the now-bored and slightly irritated little girl in jeans and a tank top said, “This country has many problems. It’s the crisis. People get angry at other people.” I figured that was her final explanation, so I did not press further.
About that time, the pot-is-as-black as-the-kettle trolley driver stopped the vehicle in the middle of the street. To the accompaniment of a clamoring of auto horns, the driver used those same vocal chords which we had heard earlier and, looking into that long, rectangular mirror,  shouted back some words to the conflicted couple. Loud and with an irritated tone, he insisted that this type of boisterous, public dispute would not be tolerated on his bus and that these two miscreants should show some respect for him and his passengers and shut up! Lacking that, he asserted, he would be forced to kick the offenders off the bus!
As the trolley lurched forward, I noticed the extremely-short, almost-to-dwarf-sized, lady standing in the aisle. She nearly fell into the lap of a teenager who was proudly wearing a Miami Heat, official professional basketball logo shirt. When she regained her balance, she gazed up wistfully at the wrist strap above her head, slightly more than twice the reach of her child-sized arms. With resignation on her face, she shifted her tiny body-weight, as the driver moved us along, weaving from lane to lane, in search of some hard-to-find traffic advantage, against the flow of too many drivers, too much impatience and too little progress.

When we stopped at Agios (Saint) Dimitrios’ Church, the kid in the Heat jersey crossed himself three times in Greek Orthodox style - right to left to mirror the actions of the priest, as contrasted with Roman Catholic style - left to right. He concluded his religious gesture with a salute. I’m not certain if the salute was to the church, to God, to himself or to some of his friends who were disembarking at that stop. At any rate, I was impressed with the basketball fan’s finesse and gesticulating flexibility in merging the genuflection and the salute. Many Greek Orthodox people cross themselves when they pass a church. Although the official church position is that they are placing the cross on themselves, asking God for a blessing and remembering the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, functionally it serves as a sort of rabbit’s foot, carrying the same popular benefit as throwing salt behind one’s head, as a wish for good luck.
Indeed, in the midst of these times of difficult economic crisis in Athens, Greece, getting along with others at a superficial social level is about as likely as a dwarf-lady making solid contact with a public transit wrist strap made for normal-sized people. Whether from the right to the left or from the left to the right, with or without a final salute gesture, whether you follow the Heat or not, today will you join me in praying for this dysfunctional economic and social system in Greece and for all of my friends here who struggle to get along and to get home, while the trolley inches along in steamy traffic on a hot August day?