Last day on Lesvos

Very belated, but as promised for Anna-Karin, here is my last diary update from Lesvos. Bit odd rereading the retsina-y scrawl. Feels a lifetime away. Looking at the Calais eviction happening soon has made me think about another trip.


My last full day. New Year’s Day.

I have a headache but it feels like a routine now. Struggling with the shower with its three-foot short curtain and the water that sprays anywhere but on me, soaking the floor, having a cup of coffee in the foyer of the hotel, a boiled egg and some orange juice, and then the same conversation that I have every morning with the Greek lady at reception, she with the same hands on hips stance and the same strong waft of lavender.
“You help refugees?”
“I’m trying to.”
“You help refugees.”
“Thank you.”
It’s all in the intonation.

Today she carries on, though. She raises her eyebrows and says with her smoker’s growl
“Dance, yes.”
It’s seven o’clock in the morning and I really don’t know how to reply to this. I can feel my face creasing.
“You dance.” She’s smiling now and comes up to kiss me on the cheek.
“Now?” I can’t possibly dance with her now. “I’m afraid I have to go.”
She laughs and pushes me in the chest.
“You dance last night. Is party.”
“Ah … yes. “ Feel a little embarrassed. “I thought … yes …. we danced. Yes, yes.”
We had. When I got back to the hotel after pizza with Olly and Meredith, Asha, the pretty but depressed Arabic translator, the ambulance crew and the suave hotelier were all having festive metaxas in the hotel foyer. I stayed for a couple and we did a few stumbling rounds of syrtaki.
“Many happy New Years.”
“And to you too’.

Down the hill to the cafe – relieved – for some reason there’s always a dog turd somewhere on the corner of the hill. It’s cold in that see-your-breath way and it’s still dark at 7.30am. As per usual I’m a little early. Another coffee at the cafe with the old barista with a voice like a bust Vespa, and then the others arrive. They’ve explained several times now where they’re staying but it still doesn’t quite make sense to me. Somewhere a few blocks from the harbour in the cobbled lanes. Linda is looking a lot better for her early night. Smiling, less exhausted – all that furious energy is back. Meredith is coughing, sniffling and stoic . And then Olly turns up with the car, tired, cheerful, chatty and mortified as always for staying in a nice hotel. I love these three people.

We drive along the seafront, past those colourfully blanketed sleeping families by the port and then on past the castle to Moria. We slow the car to say hello briefly to a group walking along the road that Olly has recognised. Doctors, including lovely Anna, all walking back home after being up all night helping in the camp over New Year’s. It seems miles and I can’t understand how they are they still walking after an all-nighter helping out. Anyway, they wave us off smiling and we say sleep well. The Swedish medics make me feel a little like an Oompa Loompa . I’d probably resent them for it if they weren’t real-life superheroes.

We arrive, pick our way through the olive grove to the spare clothes tent and say hello to the night shift. They look dead on their feet. 5 boats came in at 2am, freezing cold conditions, then another couple in at 4.30am. Lots of women and children. The dry clothes tent is almost empty. Everyone’s quiet at the handover. One of the blonde twins with from the Midlands has been crying – her eye shadow’s run. Normally she makes a deadpan joke and winks but she just walks off today. Exhausted and upset.

“Happy New Year”

Everything seems tired in the camp today. Washed-out blue, bitterly cold and empty. We help unpack clothes, fold up and label shoes, readying for the next rush. Everyone’s talking about how grim last night must have been. Everyone’s saying how important it is we stock up as much as we can. The tent crew work well together I think. We busy about things – I’ve stopped judging the clothes. They’re just sizes. Size 42 shoes. Medium Trousers. Children’s socks. Olly has to go – deliveries to run to the north of the island – but says he’ll be back. It feels like it’s going to be busy. I start fidgeting and checking the Slack reports – numbers are big. People start talking about how calm the seas are and how that means there’ll be a big load coming over. We wait, readying for the rush.




“Is there anything you want me to do?” “How can I help?”

Norwegian teacher Arne and I start crunching cardboard boxes together. They hold the donations and we then reuse them to give to the refugees – the cardboard acts as good base bedding. Arne’s likeable, easy company – we compare professional notes. His travelling companion Siri, also a teacher, wanders past every now and then joking with him about how little he’s doing. They’ve both got colds. Again can’t help thinking how much I like the characters Moria seems to have attracted.

In comes a boat. 60 odd. Slow. Where do we go. Grey blankets, silver-gold survival foil, shivering. Funny what a week does. I feel pretty comfortable telling people to come forwards if wet, tell those looking for spare shoes to trade to leave, bossing them into single file. Maybe it’s the ridiculously big high-viz jacket I’ve got. Miming at them, smiling. Some of them are even beginning to mimic my continually asking them to line up single-file. “Wunn by wunn, Wunn by wunn” they say to me, imitating me with a laugh, as if it’s going to get them a special pass to the front.

All too soon nothing again. Which is good, I suppose. A couple of children come up to the empty line and ask where I’m from. Deutschland? No. We sit down together and make a sign out of a cardboard box. It says: Tent shut for restocking. Come back in 2 hours. One of the young boys, he looks about ten, gets his father help translate and the young boy writes onto the cardboard the same in Farsi. Both children then runs off and in a moment come back with another child, a slightly older girl who translates it into Arabic. Our American translator, Gentle Jim (I still don’t know what he’s called), looks at it and nods his approval. The children dig into their pockets and then start to add stickers to the sign. I’m not sure where they found them but they become for a moment graphic designers, deciding where that star should go and where that unicorn should best be placed to give the sign maximum impact (they end up deciding to save it). Then they sit there at the start of the line proudly explaining the sign to all-comers.


I wander over to the chai tent and wish I hadn’t. Over a cup of hot sweet tea I hear about a 6 month year old child who froze to death about 10 metres away from where the dry clothes tent is. They had a funeral but only the mother had been able to make it. The father had been off around the camp trying desperately trying to find blankets for the rest of his family. They also tell me of a woman who gave birth on the boat coming over. I say goodbye and go back to find the children and the sign but the children have, understandably, sloped off.

The day drags. Bleak.

Dinner is planned at Scala. Olly, Linda and I make the 45-minute drive up to meet Melie and Kathy at about 7. We’re shown a tour of the mini-camp and it seems a world away from Moria. Dr Montana Katie is there, smiling as always, tents have names, there’s a smart bonfire dining area, a petting lamb for children – it’s like a first class refugee camp. I can’t quite believe it. We look at the dry clothes tent and Olly, Linda and I raise eyebrows at each other. A couple of enormous Swedes (cooler than Danes in every way) wander past with drills – they’re upgrading the lighting. We chat and seem to have lost Linda and then a boat comes in. Olly and I try to get out the way, letting those on duty do their thing. There’s one French girl – eighteen or so – in the dry clothes tent. We ask if she’s ok but she says she’s never done it before. We start to help and she leaves and so Olly and I are handing out socks, trousers, pants and shoes. It’s different here. We work for two hours or so, the same hectic non-stop what do you need, socks, who’s got size 42, where are the trousers, not him, he needs to come forward, women and children that way, take your families that way first frenetic activity but there is less of a crush, more hope in their faces. . Still not quite sure who should have been doing it instead of us. Dry clothes done we help one of the tall Swedes (so much cooler than Danes), a nightclub owner when back home while we wait for the others. We shove sea-sodden clothes into black bin bags to be washed and reused. Linda, no surprise, has thrown herself into helping out in the women’s and children’s tent.

Olly and I have one of those embarrassing conversations while he’s smoking a roll-up.
“Are you cold?”
“Me too.”
“I’m not dressed for this. I thought we were just going for supper.”
“Me neither.”
“Feel a bit pathetic saying so.”
“Me too.”
Then a young 21-year old refugee who we’ve just dressed and who is still shivering from the crossing comes over, he makes a special effort to say to us, apologising for his English, that
“This place is beautiful. Thank you” and bows.
We shake hands and smile and wish him luck. Then Melie and Linda turn up. They’ll come to supper but Katie might be a little later as there’s a 2 year old who’s being checked for pneumonia. As we’re walking to the taverna, Olly and I agree sheepishly that our conversation never happened.

Warmth, buzz, chat, usual Greek menu. One guy in cowboy boots waiting outside smoking Marlboro reds makes it a little surreal. This is “the best” food on the island, apparently. I always cringe when I hear that. My ordering a bottle of Malamatina for people was a mistake: no-one likes retsina. In children’s book terms, “Melie tries it. Melie thinks it’s a cruel joke. Kathy tries it. Kathy is a diplomat.” Katie Montana is grinning about calamari – “they’re kind of rare in Montana” – and she orders seconds of them. Everything smells of olive oil.Then in come the Spanish lifeguards in their trademark bright orange. Laughing, smoking and oozing cool – they have a regular table. These are the men and women that dive in to save lives. It’s hard not to stare; Melie starts twinkling and taking selfies of herself with the lifeguards in the background. There is some brief conversation about what a shame it is that there isn’t a proper hairdryer and how bedraggled people feel but for the most part people are on their phones, checking back with families. Kathy and I share a moment of old-fashioned disappproving raised eyebrows when we are the only two on a table of ten who are not texting. It is wholly unfair, people are away from families and are working full-steam during the day.

Olly taxis Linda and me back to Mytilene. Linda nods off in the back while Olly and I chat away like old friends. It seems a long time since our first drive up the island and our special emergency delivery of flip flops. London feels a world away. I’d thought I might wander round Mytilene tomorrow morning before I fly but I’ve realised I’ll be going to Moria. I couldn’t not. A part of that is down to the little I’ve seen. But a large part too is because Olly, Linda, Meredith, Anna, Arne, Siri, Melie, Kathy, Wade, Katie, Mysterious I and all the many others I’ve worked with are genuinely inspirational.

This island is full of good people and good people, I’ve realised, make you better.

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