Cameron Takes New England

It is my moving karma to be set upon by other visits and trips not long before my other obligations set in, ensuring that I have to run a sort of obstacle course of fun while trying to take care of responsibilities at the same time.

I recently hosted, for the second time, my nephew Cameron. We could be a little more relaxed about New York, having done such a thorough job when we were last in the city. We went to a couple of comedy shows and ate exotic repasts – we even went to a Broadway show: An American in Paris, featuring Gershwin songs, which Cam is partial to.

On Thursday we made an excursion to the Edison Laboratory and explored it as fully as possible before heading back to New York for the second of our comedy shows, this one at Upright Citizen’s Brigade in the East Village.

When the weekend came, we drove out to Boston and explored the historic downtown in search bahn mi sandwiches, which we ate on the Commons before checking out the duck pond and the cemetery where Samuel Adams is buried.

IMG_6876

We found my friend Alexis’ house in Somerville and we got vegan tacos – delish! – before going to Cirque du Soleil.

The next day we made our way out to Provincetown on Cape Cod in time for a late lunch of lobster rolls for them and a veggie sandwich for moi. We walked out on the dock and explored the small town.

IMG_6905

We drove to Eastham, about half an hour away, where we had a room for the night. After a dip in the pool, we met up with some of Alexis’ friends who lived nearby with their three young sons. We had a typical Cape dinner of lobster and steak (for everyone else), potatoes, corn. Cameron loved it.

We drove back to Boston the next day and spent an afternoon there at the Boston Tea Party Museum.

IMG_6924

We dropped Alexis off and drove back to Brooklyn. Cameron kept saying “No sleep till-” and he read to me from the Oliver Sacks book I gave him, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat.”

We got back to my neighborhood, parked, and had late night tacos at a nearby restaurant – I made sure Cam tried a tamale with mole, because that shit is tasty, and the boy has quite the palate.

In the morning, we got bagels and headed for the airport. They let me go through with him to the gate and I did my auntly duty and got him on board.

It was hard to say goodbye to my sweet boy, but it was another great trip.

Now on the the hard work of packing etc. Sigh.

Love and miss,

Kira

Advertisements

The Refugee Crisis in Greece – The Human Toll

My post from last September about my time volunteering on Lesvos has had so many hits, I thought I’d write an update.

Since 2011 and the beginning of the Syrian war, I’ve watched the news with horror as the Syrian people lost their homes and livelihoods, their cities and heritage destroyed: their lives torn apart. I felt that we, as Americans, were responsible for much of the conflict and terror which led to the crisis and I wanted to do what I could to help. I doubted if my presence would make much difference, but I felt I had to try.

Last August, I found myself driving towards a dusty intersection on the Greek island of Lesvos. I was the only American with three other volunteers – two Danes and a Norwegian – and we were nervous. We’d never seen the so-called “parking lot” at Sikaminia, but we’d heard that just the day before, the growing crowd of refugees there had rioted and surrounded a transport bus in protest.

Boats had been arriving more frequently from Turkey as the Summer came to an end and there weren’t enough buses to get everyone to the camps near the capital in Mytilene. Sometimes the mayor of Mytilene would say the camps were too full and stop all buses from making the trip, leaving people stranded for days.

We rounded a bend, and suddenly there were people in the skinny road, lying on bits of cardboard or their brightly-colored life jackets. Toddlers wandered dangerously close to traffic and men and women were stretched out, trying to rest in whatever shade they could find. Their belongings were scant.

Shoes and socks sat drying in the hot midday sun, other items of clothes hung from trees or fences. Adults and children alike gathered around the one source of water: a spring-fed tap where they washed and brushed their teeth. There was no toilet or privacy. There were no tents or tarps for shade. It was a shocking sight.

This was nothing like the comparatively organized transit point in nearby Molyvos, where refugees had access to a decent-sized town and its amenities. Sikaminea is a tiny village with just a few shops and restaurants. Its main industry is tourism, like the rest of the Greek islands, but its secluded location in the mountains and normally pristine landscape had been radically changed by the influx of refugees.

11928707_10153024416222036_5713640210022477627_o

The waystation at Sikimanea – empty of people for once

Two volunteers were already there, attempting to group refugees in order of need and arrival. Each bus could only hold about 50 people so the volunteers – from France and Belgium – canvassed the crowd and used markers to indicate which groups would be first to board the next bus. They’d been working at Sikaminea for several days with little rest and no one to relieve them, so they were glad to have another group of volunteers take over. They gave us the battered map they used to explain to new arrivals where they were and where they needed to be. They gave us the lists of which groups should be first to board the next bus, and they left us in charge.

It was obvious in looking at the crowd of around 500 people – at least a third of them children – that not everyone was Syrian. Some groups looked Afghan, dressed in tribal clothes. When we talked to people, they told us they were from Palestine, Pakistan, Somalia, Iran and Iraq. There were old people and babes in arms. We set to work trying to see who still didn’t have a number indicating the bus they would be on. Suddenly, a bus pulled around the curve of hill above the makeshift transit center and tried to turn around at the intersection. The bus was paid for by Medecins Sans Frontieres, but the driver didn’t work for them – he wasn’t a volunteer or a doctor, but a paid driver.

We weren’t prepared for the mayhem that ensued and try as we might, we couldn’t convince the clamoring throng to back away from the bus. People began to rush the bus, paying no attention to our attempts to keep order. When the driver saw that the crowd was out of control, he shouted that no one would get on his bus like that. He locked the bus and walked into the village.

People calmed down a bit after that and we were able to reinstate a semblance of order, but it was too late. When the driver returned, he drove off without letting anyone on the bus at all.

It was only my third day on Lesvos and my fellow volunteers were similarly new to this. People would ask us, “Can’t we just pay for a taxi to take us to the camp?”

“No,” we would answer, and explain that it was against the law for any Greek to give them a ride until they were registered at the capitol city of Mytilene. Many of the refugees had money at that point in their journey and couldn’t understand why they were stuck at this intersection instead of being allowed to pay their way.

“Isn’t there a hotel we can stay in?” Some women were pregnant or had very small children. While some of the refugees seemed accustomed to a nomadic life, many were clearly city people and not at all prepared for sleeping on rocks under the stars. Again, we had to tell them, “No, it’s against the law for the hotels to take you till you have your papers.”

When another bus came, we were better organized. This time, we made sure only those marked for that bus boarded it, convincing everyone that if they tried again to rush onto the bus, it would simply leave with no one on board again. It worked and we were elated to wave goodbye to those passengers, their faces happy and full of hope. We knew it wouldn’t be easy for them once they got to the camps in Mytilene, and harder still after that, but there was no point dwelling on that then.

11930890_10153017846927036_2361473613410539069_o

Vilde escorting refugees to the bus

After the day’s last bus came and went, we had to figure out how to distribute food and drinks to those remaining. It was a daunting task in the dark. We went around in pairs distributing cups and juice (or milk for the children). We had bags of turkey and cheese sandwiches and boxes of fresh fruit, which we also handed out to the children first. Once everyone had something to eat, we distributed diapers and emergency blankets. Some of the refugees decided they’d rather walk to Mytilene – a distance of about 35 miles – than sleep at this cold way station with no shelter and little to keep them warm. We showed them the way on our battered map and gave them food and water for the long journey on foot. Those who stayed over night built fires to stay warm and we tried to keep them small and controlled, as the villagers had expressed concerns.

Each day at Sikaminia was the same: we would arrive in time to get everyone organized for the first couple of buses, which usually got there around 7 in the morning. Then we would hand out nutella sandwiches and fruit and pour cups of juice and milk for those who were still stuck there.

“Thank you,” they would tell us, “Shukran.”

“Are you with the Red Crescent? What group are you working with?” they would ask. “There is no group here,” we would reply. “We are just regular people who wanted to help.”

We’d heard that Medecins Sans Frontieres and the UNHCR had a presence in the camps, but other than paying for the buses to make a few trips a day, we saw no sign of them where we were. The Red Cross was even less in evidence.

11907143_10153018885782036_6888657260301889688_o

I’d come to Molyvos because I’d learned of a local restaurant owner there who was helping the refugees and, like the other volunteers, I just showed up at her restaurant and asked what I could do. Her name is Melinda McRostie and she and her family have been helping feed and clothe the refugees since they first began to arrive in Lesvos.

In the two weeks I was volunteering in Sikimania, we helped 400-800 people a day and sometimes more. If we could spot the boats coming in, I would take a car to the bottom of the steep mountain and offer rides to the women and children and the elderly. A few times, we got so many people in the little car that it could barely make it back up to the intersection. Sometimes their relief at having survived the harrowing trip would overcome them as we drove and the women would weep in the car, thanking me and thanking god for their safe passage.

11885737_10153029190487036_7331362944322218069_o

A group of new arrivals to Lesvos, helped by volunteers

Sometimes we had time to sit and talk with the people who were stuck at our little way-station. We would share cigarettes and talk about what their lives had been before the war. One man told me he’d walked all the way from Iran to Turkey and gone directly to the United Nations in Ankara. There they told him that there was nothing they could do to help him, so he spent the next year working in Turkey to raise the money for the smugglers’ dangerous trip across the Aegean. One person’s passage might cost anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 Euros. Another man had been a doctor and helped comfort and treat patients with what little medical supplies we had. I spoke with yet another man who had been an airline pilot and traveled the world, staying in luxury hotels in all the world’s major cities. Now he was sleeping on a roadside without so much as a proper blanket to keep him warm. Still, he helped us to translate and distribute food to others. These were not freeloaders or extremists: they were men and women with young children, grandparents, aunts and uncles, escaping from beloved countries which were destroyed by violence.

Now, six months later, the EU has closed its borders and left many thousands of refugees stranded in Greece – the last country in the EU with the money to handle such an influx of needy people. While other more wealthy countries, like my own, neglect to take in their fair share of these people, out of concern for our own security, the people of Greece have stepped up. The United States has offered to shelter only ten thousand refugees, while the mayor of Lesvos – a tiny island of around 90-thousand people – has committed to housing and caring for that same number.

While I questioned my ability to impact this massive, global crisis, the closing of the borders in recent months has meant that those I helped in August most likely made it to Europe, while those who arrive on Lesvos now will face a very different fate.

What I learned about the people seeking refuge in Europe is that many are educated professionals who just happen to be from countries where war made normal life an impossibility. These people are not our enemies, and yet the EU has now made a deal with Turkey – the same country that has been profiting off of UN money for the supposed housing of refugees, while sending newly registered refugees straight to the smugglers who then fleece them and wash them up on Greek shores. The smuggling of refugees is a billion dollar industry. Children have disappeared from detention camps and border stations, trafficked and traded like a commodity while the West shuts their eyes to the tragedy.

11885636_10153026819057036_2424752429301035096_o

A group of refugees who’d been saved from drowning, ready to go to Mytilene.

The group I worked with has since become The Starfish Foundation, which has scaled back its operations in Lesvos as the numbers of refugees arriving there has dwindled and focus has moved elsewhere. It seems to me that Turkey might be a place to volunteer, but those interested should do some research and perhaps contact the UNHCR to find out what areas might be next affected, as I did last May. Even people who’d come to Lesvos as tourists volunteered to help and made a difference.

I’m sure help is needed on the mainland, and it seems that most volunteer agencies have gone there instead of Lesvos. Eric Kempson of Lesvos is another passionate supporter and rescuer – he can be found on Facebook as well and might have some insight as far as volunteering.

I’m so glad I just showed up to help when no one was paying attention – I saw the best and worst in people, but mostly it showed me the human side of this very global problem. If you can spare even a couple of weeks, try to find the places in need now and offer your help. Two hands and an open heart are all that is required.

Love,

Kira

 

 

The Rites of Spring

I have news! Not only is it the beginning of a new year, with the onset of Spring, but I finally finished my book!

Technically, I wrote most of it by January, but I’ve been working since then to get it down to a reasonable number of pages, since it was 480 at its most bloated.

My book, “Dust and Light,” which is in some ways the culmination of this blog, is about my sister Erika’s death in 2011 at Burning Man, about her life before that point. For the last year, I’ve been incorporating sections of her journals into my manuscript and I finally completed that challenging task, producing a book which, I hope, manages to conjure some of her spirit.

eekaleek

Erika dancing with abandon in Uruguay – January 2011

It is strange being done with it. To have time that can be turned to other pursuits. Other story ideas have come flooding in of late and I’ve had more inclination for strumming on the guitar again. A couple of weekends ago, I managed to break a glass at my apartment and step on it, barefoot, slicing up a couple of toes and bleeding impressively. Yesterday, on Easter morning, the worst of the cuts decided to heal up and rejoin with its separated skin, which is a relief.

This year, as last, I celebrated Nowruz (nav-ruuz) or the Persian tradition of the spring-time New Year. Still celebrated throughout Iran, Afghanistan, and India, this festival probably predates Zoroastrianism and it bears many similarities to the “Christian” tradition of Easter eggs and candy: the Nowruz table holds symbols of the earth’s bounty. Potted plants, flowers, fruit, sprouting lentils, even eggs can make an appearance, though I haven’t bought eggs in some time, so I skip that bit of tradition.

nowruz table

Nowruz (nav-ruuz) table, featuring a copy of Shahnameh and symbolic plants, fruits, and other produce of the Earth

I add another more ancient tradition, mixing a dough from barley syrup and spelt flour and honey. It is a variation of the honey cakes devotees used to offer the Goddess of the earth – Bona Dea, Magna Mater, the Great Mother. In our lust to create a more advanced world, we have forgotten our Mother Earth. We talk about climate change in the abstract, but the truth is that we began down this path the moment we decided to sacrifice the sanctity of our earth for the production of human works. We chose to live at odds with the earth, rather than in harmony with her. We are in the process of destroying the very fertility of our planetary home in order to “progress.”

spring table

My table morphed for the full moon / eclipse – but the message is the same – the Star card is featured because the star goddess has always been associated with Spring.

So it is important, I think, to give thanks to the new fertility of the Earth, reborn in the form of eggs in nests and blossoms on trees. The doves on my fire escape have made their nest in an old pot, left to crumble with only a bit of moss growing on the hardened soil inside. But still, a safe haven for young chicks till they grow big enough to emerge on their own.

In a similar way, New York has been my haven as I completed my book (which no doubt could still use some edits) but it is time for me to start thinking of my future. Music, which has been on the back burner, bubbles up again, along with my passion for fictional tales.

I’ve also been spending time with a 5-year old girl named Eve, which is a lot of fun. As the weather improves, I’m excited to have a good excuse to play in a park, and good company.

me n eve

Eve did my makeup and I did hers – kinda looks like I have a black eye and def have lipstick everywhere. That’s a flower on my face. Proud of the unicorn princess I made her into!

I also got to meet up recently with a friend and former collaborator who switched coasts, the lady Evangeline. I wish we’d taken pics, but instead we ate vegan dim sum and caught up on each others’ lives. She told me she’s started praying to the Virgin Mary – she was raised Catholic, so that is the apparition of the Goddess with which she is most familiar. I was raised Methodist, so we didn’t have the same emphasis on Mary. I told her that Mary, called the Queen of Heaven, resembles in many ways the more ancient goddess forms like Inanna and Ishtar. I observed the ardor for the Virgin Mary expressed in Greece and in France, and I see how natural it is for us to revere a mother figure.

So happy New Year, happy Spring, happy Easter – celebrate your inner goddess and the outer forms of fertility and growth we can observe in the Earth!

Love and miss,

Kira

Someplace State of Mind

It took me a little longer than anticipated to get back to Brooklyn. Dad and I decided to drive down for a visit with my aunt in Miami and I didn’t mind indulging in a few more days of sunshine before returning to New York winter.

I stopped through North Carolina and visited with Mary Caton and her crew for a couple of days. Already, the weather was bitterly cold.

Since returning to the city, January passed quickly and I have been up to my neck in my memoir. I finally got to the end, and then began the process of refining, shaping, editing. It is painstaking work and occupies my endless days while the wind howls outside and the snow visits some mornings, blanketing the world in white for a while and then melting away in the next day’s sun.

I feel a bit like a madwoman at this stage, fiddling compulsively with my manuscript. But I know there is much to be done. Step by step, I’ll help this story emerge from the stone and dust of daily toils.

There was no Fashion Week for me this year as I start to tear free of the ties that bind me to New York. The truth is, I moved back here with hope in my heart and this book on my mind. Now that the book is nearing completion, and the hopes I’d had for reviving lost love in this city have long since dissipated, I can start to see my next steps forward. In July, I plan to go west as far as the Great Lakes and Detroit, and I thought, why not go farther?

I do so love the freedom of the road.

It isn’t a life or a career. A journey rather than a destination and all that. I’m just starting to peep my eyeballs over the setting suns of days past and look into the future again.

It feels refreshing to be on the far side of the last few years. On the edge of newness again. The days lengthen by minutes and the light lingers longer in the evenings.

My freezer bulges with bread and fruitcake from my father, sustaining me through the chill of the still raging winter.

Love and miss,

Kira

Return to My Garden of Eden

And another year gone. I made my annual pilgrimage to Sarasota around the middle of December, driving down to Durham for a night with my bestie and her family in North Carolina before continuing on the next day. I got to Tampa and my sister’s house in time for dinner as Cam worked on his homework and the girls got ready for bed.

In the morning, I drove the last stretch to SRQ. The weather in New York was strangely warm when I left; the transition from north to south hardly deserving of the name.

That afternoon, I was back again in my old familiar haunt at Elysian Fields. It was same, same, but different, as the founding owners had left and so had some of my old friends there, but others had stayed. It seemed almost the same. I got to work, re-familiarizing myself with the spiritual bookshop and the crystals in the bins, their description cards. The checklist for closing and the new products in the personal care section.

I’ve been going back to Elysian for a few years now. Perhaps it will be the last time I return to the store where I learned so much about metaphysics and crystals, about how to speak softly and calmly, about a meticulous attention to detail as a sort of spiritual practice.

On my days off, I luxuriate on the roof, getting a little tan back before I return to the sunless north.

I’ve even made pickle from starfruit and key limes.

IMG_6496

Up on the roof


IMG_6568.jpg

Key Lime Pickle!

For whatever cosmic reason, Christmas seems to signify a time of challenges for me: last year, as I drove down from New York, I had the last ever conversation with the man I had, until then, thought I might be spending the rest of my life with. In 2013, an old friend resurfaced like a bad penny, bringing up memories of our friendship and how it had dissolved in Spanish Harlem in 2009. In 2012, just a few days before Christmas, I heard from the man I’d fallen for that summer: he told me he’d loved me, and I thought for a few brief, giddy seconds that my dreams were coming true, until it became clear that he was speaking in the past tense. He had already found someone new.

Somehow, just when everyone is celebrating togetherness, I tend to end up isolated and alone.

This year, however, was a year of keeping others at a safe distance. Turns out I was still smarting from last year’s slings and arrows. I try to be the sort of person who lets things roll off my back, but some injuries don’t heal cleanly: they leave scar tissue, and it’s hard to open up again – hard to let others in.

But the blessing is that I’m not the walking wound I was a year ago. My heart may still be raw, but things are smoother between my mother and me. I’m sad that the love I felt last year has come to so little – the relationship I thought I had, dissolved like so much sugar in the rain. It is as if he simply ceased to be, though he’s made overtures of friendship since then.

But I do not know how friendship can exist without love – trust – honesty. What is there to discuss when nothing is what you thought it was? I try not to be the type who burns bridges, but this time of year seems always to whisper (or shout) to me “let go, let go, let go.”

And so, here goes! I release the sides of the slide and let myself zoom into the future. I resolve that this is the year I get to the bottom of my fears and flush out that barrel till it’s ready to hold something new, without the bad apples of the past to pollute tomorrow’s harvests.

But what about that past? Most of my former loves have moved firmly into the friend zone – the odd ones are the exiles – but even rarer is someone I used to love, whom I’d still consider a potential partner. I honestly didn’t think there were any. But then an old friend rolls back in, and you realize, things never really ended between you two.

I’ll confess: I can get good and stuck on a man. It is easy for me to fall in love, at least initially, since I can be a bit picky. I’m holding out for that teenage feeling, to quote Neko Case – in its absence, my interest flags.

I still love my high school sweetheart, but I think we both feel it is too late to rekindle those flames. I’ve moved thoroughly through most of my relationships, attaining closure – moving on. I’d forgotten someone I used to love. He was my first boyfriend in college, and we went through that intense time of changes together, frequently drunk. When he broke up with me for a girl from back home, I was devastated: up till then, he had been my best friend at Trinity. We managed to stay friends, and eventually became lovers again, but we were never really “together” again. When I was single the summer after college, we’d hook up occasionally. Then he got a girlfriend and I moved away.

Now that it’s been nearly a decade since I last saw him in the flesh, I’d nearly forgotten our friendship entirely. There were some messy parts – bits I guess I’d rather not remember. But up they come, as we start to be friends again. It feels so familiar. Like finding something you used to treasure hidden in a forgotten box under the bed. But is it a lucky charm or a monkey’s paw?

I’m a sucker for a good love story, and how ideal to be with one one already knows of old? Love works in mysterious ways, but I’ve never really circled back around successfully to an ancient paramour. If they didn’t love me the first time, what can have changed now? Better to find someone new. I have certainly been treated better since then. But then, I was in a traumatized state when I got to college. Not to psychoanalyze myself too much, but I had been through a gauntlet of death, sex, and love in high school. I didn’t know how to be casual. I was intense.

Anyway, I begin a new year reconsidering old choices; old friends are the ones I seem to hold the dearest these days.

Perhaps I’m just clinging again to the familiar. This time, I can let it go for real.

New Year’s Eve, I built a fire in the pit out back and we gathered around the flickering flames. We lit a Chinese sky lantern from the dock out by the lake – the dock another old boyfriend of mine rebuilt several years ago, before we broke up not long after my 27th birthday.

My nephew held the bottom of the lantern and my mother held the top until it filled with enough hot air to hover on its own, and then it was lifted above the lake, the trees, among the stars, to disappear, a smoke signal to our loved ones in the sky: we have not forgotten you.

IMG_6541

Cam and Mama lighting the skylantern


IMG_6542

Almost to liftoff!


IMG_6544

Up, up and away!

Love and miss,

Kira

Comfort Food and Gratitude

The annual landscape in the United States is structured by those holidays that bring families together, since we are otherwise so scattered across this vast country.

Growing up, my family celebrated Thanksgiving at home in Arkansas with turkey and all the trimmings. My sisters and I would set the table with the nice silverware and glasses from my German grandmother. After the meal, we would take the dogs for a long walk, up our meandering driveway and onto the dirt road. Fall in Arkansas is usually somewhat mild and the smells of dry leaves and woodsmoke would fill the honeyed afternoon air.

As I went from middle school to high school, our tradition changed and we started meeting up with cousins in Memphis for Thanksgiving, driving the 6 hours from Northwest Arkansas to cross that big muddy river. My sisters and cousins and I would stay in a hotel, while the adults all stayed at an aunt’s house.

After the Thanksgiving meal, we would take selections from dad’s enormous pie buffet back to the hotel, where we would snack on pie for breakfast or whenever. We would get dolled up and go out in Memphis, those of us too young to enter borrowing IDs from the older ones.

The day after Thanksgiving was usually reserved for going to the mall, which was a rare treat for kids who grew up an hour from any decent-sized town.

When I went off to college in Texas, I would still come home for Thanksgiving, still make the drive to Memphis to see the cousins. That first year, my sister had her little boy, Cameron. It was such a joy to have this new light in our family.

Thanksgiving became something to negotiate with boyfriends – would we spend it with his family, or mine?

But for several years now, it is a holiday I don’t much mark. I’ll spend the day working on a project or go out to eat a nice meal. The last couple of years, I’ve worked on Thanksgiving, serving the moneyed folk of Manhattan.

Of course, it isn’t the hardest holiday for me to give up, since I’ve been a vegetarian for most of my life. I’ve recently started to consider how our emotional ties to food affect us in ways we don’t realize. I never thought of my vegetarianism as a rejection of others – it was just my individual choice.

I don’t prosthelytize or judge, I don’t mind looking at or even sometimes handling meat. Yet, I sometimes find myself feeling rejected because of what I don’t eat: boyfriends who act like they’re doing me a favor by cooking their protein separately, even my family will act as if I’ve just become a vegetarian to annoy them at holidays.

Sometimes I wish I was so inclined, and I could just give up the complications of vegetarianism. It isn’t very fun to negotiate at times –  an invitation to a restaurant with no vegetarian items; trips to foreign countries where beef’s what’s for dinner; soggy portobello mushrooms on a bun, etc.

Food is often something we equate to love on a emotional level. Yesterday I was on the subway when a toddler came into the car with his parents. The little boy was crying for no apparent reason, though he was snuggled safely between his two calm, attentive parents. His face was a picture of vague, undirected upset as he wailed. Quickly, his mother brought him to her breast and he became instantly calm.

My first thought was, that kid seems a bit old to be nursing – not out of hunger – but to find a sense of comfort. However, I wasn’t going to complain, since it had stopped his fussing. But it made me think of how we are  the same as adults, we’ve just matured to the point where we know it is no longer appropriate or possible to be comforted by mother’s breast, so we find other replacements. Drinking, smoking, eating and (my personal favorite) kissing are all ways we express this longing for comfort and reassurance.

Most of my boyfriends have been carnivores and it was never a problem for me. I did most of the cooking, anyway. But I begin to wonder: should I be looking for a vegetarian lover? Maybe that should be number one on my list, since my carnivorous paramours perhaps feel some deep need goes unmet by my lack of flesh-eating. How can I ever make mama’s famous recipes, thereby bringing back that sense of comfort only she could provide?

Truth is, these days I don’t feel like I fit in much of anywhere. If home is where the heart is, mine might be packed up in a box. I’ve got family, though they’re far, and friends (ditto), but my heart is still searching for a home. New York has been a good place to get to work on writing my book, but as that process draws to a close, I start to think about what will become of me. My cousins in this city have left or are leaving. Friends, too, have begun to disperse and move on and I wonder why I haven’t.

After I transferred to the L train last night, coming home from my Thanksgiving shift, a man walked through the car with a cane, bent forward and asking for change in Spanish. His spine was twisted and exposed, showing  an old wound that was horrific to look at.

I gave him what I could and he was a powerful reminder of how fortunate I am in this life. I know if I’d been born at another time or in another place, I might not have the luxury of being a vegetarian.

I recall how nervous I was when I went to Germany for the first time when I was 12, to visit my grandmother. I had become a vegetarian the year before and I was afraid she would be insulted, somehow, that I was rejecting my German heritage.

But my sweet Omi was so kind to me. She didn’t act inconvenienced at all, didn’t frown or chide me. For dinner we had cheese sandwiches on dark rye bread with sweet pickles, and I was very thankful, indeed.

Love and miss,

Kira

 

 

 

Happy Birthday to Me?

It’s strange. Last year when I was in London for my birthday, I learned a lot about myself, though I came to regret staying there as long as I did. While it didn’t do my relationship any favors, it did show me how I re-enact my mother’s rejection of me on my birthday, creating situations in which I feel somehow hurt or slighted, especially as it relates to food.

Funny, throughout my childhood, my parents would always make whatever sort of cake I wanted (they owned bakeries); I always had big slumber parties and lots of fun. My high school sweetheart and I kissed for the first time the morning after my 16th birthday party. I’ve had so many good birthdays. But last year was one of several I’ve had where I attempted to spend my birthday with a partner and things do not go well.

Once I flew to Sarasota for my birthday, to be with an artist I (thought I) was in love with, only to find it felt all wrong. He wanted the fantasy he’d built of me from a distance, and vice versa. In reality, he was shorter than I recalled, his voice more effeminate. I was not the submissive he’d imagined. I found out about his new gf on good ol’ fb.

A couple of years ago, I met a Spanish artist (pattern? ha!) and we decided to take a roadtrip to Niagara and Toronto together around my birthday. On the day itself, he sweetly brought me flowers and earrings he bought for me. But during the trip, we got in little bickering fights, which escalated on our last morning in Toronto. He didn’t like where I had left my boots. Sigh.

Last year’s brief but intense relationship – with someone I thought of as an old friend, perhaps erroneously – forced me to look at many issues related to my mother and myself. In most ways, I’d say I’ve been able to find a positive outcome. I’ve had to look long and hard at myself and examine what seems to set off my sensitivities related to my birth.

Last summer, I went to a hypnotist for the first time, wondering about a fearfulness and lack of confidence I sometimes felt. Through the course of the session, I remembered that it was the moment of my birth when I was emotionally wounded. I don’t, of course, have any conscious memory of the moment, but I think the scar from such an early, elemental trauma, stayed hidden underneath all the happy birthdays that came later. I don’t blame my mother, because I know there are times in our lives when we simply cannot control our reactions – when we cannot reign in our sadness at a reality different from what we’d envisioned.

I’ve not been a stranger to sadness in this life, though I’m certainly no Job. But depression hit me hard in my teens, and I felt it in college, too. As an adult, I’ve been fortunately even-keeled, though last winter was a test of my equilibrium.

This year, I’ve done little to ring in the new cycle of the sun. I worked at local costumed sex party, reading tarot cards as a gypsy.  I’m hopeful for a clearer future ahead, with the ghosts of the past laid to rest.

Regardless, I see the purpose of the past, or a glimmer of it, anyway. It isn’t at all like I once hoped, but then I wouldn’t have made the choices I did if the stakes hadn’t seemed so high.

I have now officially outlived my big sister, Erika, who died at 33. I always followed in her footsteps, but it’s been four years now, since she took a step. I’m older than she will ever be.

Erika loved “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott. I wish, in a way, we’d grown up in those more civil times.

Erika was good at bringing that sense of magic into family situations, especially as she got older and Christmas became more about giving than receiving. I’d like to be better at bringing that magic home with me, sharing it with my family.

As a baby, I had no control over my situation and surroundings. It is common for Americans to assume that babies are unaware of their surroundings – that they can see little and understand even less. But we are highly attuned to facial expressions, eye contact, loving vocalizations, touch – it behooves us to realize how much these things affect a child’s brain development, if we ever think of having children ourselves, or if we want a greater understanding of our own makeup.

Here’s to another year of learning – let’s hope this year’s lessons are of the gentle variety.

Love and miss,
Kira

Athens and Istanbul – The End of My Journey

Since returning to the United States after my time volunteering with the refugees in Lesvos, I’ve been mostly obligated to get to work on the business of paying rent in New York City. I’ve also been able to pick up work on my memoir again, and I’ve made great strides since September, when the world turned and brought me back to this city, this sprawling metropolis of concrete and steel and human desire striving ever upward.

From pouring cups of “haleeb” for wet, frightened children, I went to pouring champagne for VIPs in the Lexus Lounge, for Fashion Week. I was too busy to reflect on how much has shifted in my life since last year’s fall fashion week, when the landscape of my life seemed new and magical – full of potentials that have since withered on the vine, disappeared altogether, like a mirage. I have a habit of confusing endings for beginnings.

While last years deaths (mostly figurative) were difficult veils to pass through, I can look back now and see what I might not have done, had things gone better for me, personally. Had I won my romantic dreams of love, I might have stayed contented in New York, wrapped up in relationship with one man, instead of going into the world and embracing the multitudes of desperate brothers and sisters, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons – whose needs are far greater than mine in this life.

I am fortunate to have been able to afford the time and airfare to go to Greece, as I am fortunate to have been born to a financially and otherwise secure family in a country where, at least historically, human life mattered, and no one was getting killed as a mater of course.

I speak in the past tense, because I am not so sure these things are true of our country anymore, but I digress.

My last few days in the Aegean were spent sightseeing in Athens – it was my first visit there, and time was short, so I scampered like my skirt was on fire to see the National Museum and the Parthenon before catching a bus into the mountains to the northwest of the city, to visit the ancient sanctuary of Gaia at Delphi, where the Oracles made pronouncements and predictions since time immemorial.

Parthenon

Parthenon

The Erechtheion at the Acropolis

The Erechtheion at the Acropolis

View from the Acropolis

View from the Acropolis

The Acropolis from the Acropolis Museum

The Acropolis from the Acropolis Museum

The forested mountains and picturesque towns reminded me of the Alps as the bus wound around the skinny roads till we arrived at Delphi.

The village was very small and I quickly found my hotel, despite my lack of a map, Google or otherwise.

I dropped off my things and set out to explore the city, in search of dinner and water. Lots of water, as I was still dry as a desert from dehydration. Before I’d gone far, I met a local man named Dimitri, who took me down the street on his motorcycle, where we had beer and I devoured half a pizza and drank endless carafes of water.

The restaurant overlooked the steep, impressive mountains, the deep alluvial gorge dove precipitously below us. Dimitri took me to the sacred Castalian Spring, which was below the temple site, spouting into a rock basin before draining elsewhere. I filled up my bottle with the cold, delicious water and drank deeply.

In the morning, I woke early and went to the UNESCO World Heritage Site – the remains of the temples and dedications built at Delphi over hundreds of years. A friendly local pooch walked with me down the road to refill my bottle at the Castalian Spring.A large rock marked the place where the priestesses used to speak their predictions. A dome-shaped rock, representing the omphalos or world navel, sat nearby. I spent an hour or so exploring the site and the site of the nearby Athena temple before refilling my water bottle at the Castalian Spring and going to the museum. It was full of incredible pediments and votive objects I was lucky to see.

Omphalos at Delphi

Omphalos at Delphi

Delphi surroundings

Delphi surroundings

With a sweet kitty at Delphi

With a sweet kitty at Delphi

Delphi

Delphi – the stone of the priestesses

Moi at Delphi

Moi at Delphi – in front of the Apollo Temple

I checked out of my hotel and got my things before shopping for lip balm for my lips, which were dry and chapped to the point of cracking. I ran into Dimitri on the main street and he bought me a Greek coffee – thick with the grounds. Then my bus came and I headed back to Athens, driving the winding roads down from Mount Parnassus.

I had hoped to visit Eleusis, the ancient site of the mystery ritual that was popular throughout the region until paganism was outlawed and the temples destroyed. However, I learned that it was closed on Mondays, so I was thwarted. I got my things from my hotel and got a text from some of my fellow volunteers, who were also in Athens.

I told them where to find me and waited for them outside the hotel. Maya and Kristof – a father and daughter from Berlin – found me and decided to take a room at my hotel, which was only $25 euros. We caught up and smoked a few cigarettes before I got the subway to my new neighborhood.

I was staying my final night near the Acropolis in a hostel, where I thought I might meet some interesting people, and I was right. As I was at the front desk to check in, a couple came in and got a room.

I found my dorm and encountered a French girl called Lea, who spoke perfectly unaccented English – or close enough. We decided to go out later, and in the meantime I figured I’d do some sightseeing in the area. It was late afternoon when I wandered along the base of the Acropolis, in search of the Agora.

I followed my nose (though I had a map, in case of emergency) and found the Agora, bordered by a large museum on one side and a train track running in front. I wandered through the museum and the grounds in the burning sun. I located the Eleusinian temple, which was only foundation stones, and visited the Hephaestus temple, which was beautifully preserved – even down to the colors!

Hunger pangs clanged in my empty belly and I headed back toward the hostel, stopping along the way for souvenirs for my family.

Once back at the hostel, I feasted on cashews and a tin of dolmas and drank a beer in the courtyard. The couple I’d seen at the reception came in and we began conversing. The man was Dutch and his companion was Belgian. I told them about my experiences volunteering in Lesvos, and they listened with great interest.

The man told me that he was ashamed that he, a European, had not done anything to help the refugees, when an American had. It inspired him to do something.

Lea and I went out for drinks to a place recommended by the front desk attendant. I had a feel for the neighborhood now and we walked back toward the Agora and found the rooftop bar, with a view of the Acropolis, where we talked for several hours about our pasts and our upbringings. Lea and I had a lot in common, though of course I was older than she by a decade, since I’m long in the tooth, I suppose, compared to your average backpacker. Nevertheless, it was one of those meetings that makes you glad to travel alone, so as to facilitate encountering strangers.

We went back to the hostel to find the room had filled with my fellow Americans. I packed my things and got ready for the next day’s flight to Istanbul. Someone in the room had set an alarm that went off in the wee hours, interrupting everyone’s sleep – except the culprit, who just kept snoring. There are definitely downfalls to hostel life.

In the morning, I checked out and walked to a nearby square where I got the metro to the airport. While exiting the train, I ran into Kristof and Maya one last time. We said our goodbyes and I changed some money into Turkish Lira before going through security.

I arrived in Istanbul in the late morning and took the train to the tram to get to my hostel. My Greek phone could no longer help me, but I remembered the directions to find the hostel and managed to make it there. I was out of sorts after the crowded tram, in which a man had inappropriately brushed against me, but there were a couple of fellows at the cafe/reception who shared their lunch with me and improved my mood.

One was a Turkish guy, Baran, who the same age as me, and the other was an English chap called Charley, a bit older. They wanted to see my guitar, so I showed it to them and we took turns playing songs for each other.

The two of them were going to the Asian side of the city that afternoon and invited me to come along. Despite my lack of sleep, I said yes. When in Istanbul. . .

We took the ferry across to this other half of the city and walked to the house of some friends, a couple who received us with hospitality. They had two small dogs and a cat running around their sunny apartment. I was allergic, but happy to be with these friendly people and animals.

We took the dogs for a walk to nearby Small Moda Beach, and I brought along my guitar. As the sun set, we sat on the rocks by the water and performed songs for each other. They were a good audience, and some other friends joined us, so we had a bit of a crowd, all drinking beers and eating chips, talking and smoking and singing.

With Baran, Tuba, and Ali at Small Moda Beach in Istanbul

With Baran, Tuba, and Ali at Small Moda Beach in Istanbul

It was after 10 when we headed back to our part of the city. Baran and I went back to the hostel, where the fellow in reception invited us for a drink before we called it a night.

The next day, I was on a mission to see what I could of Istanbul: I took the tram across the Bosphorus and walked up to the Hagia Sophia – the famous former church and mosque that is now a museum open to all.

In front of the Hagia Sophia

In front of the Hagia Sophia

However, the line was huge, so I decided I’d come back around lunch time, when I hoped fewer people would be there. I visited the famous underground Basilica Cistern, leftover from the time of Emperor Justinian (and a pleasant respite from the hot sun).

The Blue Mosque - Istanbul

The Blue Mosque – Istanbul

From there, I went to the archaeological museum, which had a great section on Cypriot and Syrian ancient history.

After that, it was time for the Hagia Sophia, which was finally relatively easy to get into. I wandered around the cavernous, domed building, exploring its nooks and crannies. From there, I got lunch in Sultanahmet before going to see the famous old bazaar. It was a beautiful sprawling network of hallways will high, vaulted ceilings, full of stalls and people buying and selling, bartering and bargaining.

I made my way back to the tram and back to my side of the Bosphorus. Baran was waiting for me, as he hoped to record me playing music in a nearby cafe. However, it was not to be: I discovered I’d lost my credit card and went into panic mode.

Once I’d settled things, we got dinner and took it up to the top of the hill, overlooking the water and the lights of the city. There, we sat playing music and talking till it was almost 2, and time to turn in.

In the morning, I went to the beautiful old Cemberlitas hammam, to get scrubbed clean of the dirt that had been building up since the archaeological dig in Cyprus, and no doubt increased exponentially while I was volunteering in Molyvos. The building was beautiful: a tall marble dome covered the bathing room, a large heated slab of marble was dappled with circles of sunlight, filtering down.

I rinsed off with soap and warm water from marble basins and went to lay on the slab, enjoying the serenity and silence. I had the place to myself, until a woman came in to scrub me. I recalled my visit to my first hammam, in Morocco in 2012. A visit to the hammam is many things: it is about cleanliness, of course, but it is also a ritual performed before praying or religious holidays.

She used soap and warm water to cover me in lather before commencing to scrub me with an exfoliating mitt. My favorite part of going to the hammam is watching the dead skin appear as if by magic.

When the scrub was finished, I rinsed off and returned to sprawl on the warm marble slab for a bit before showering and getting dressed. I tipped my scrubber and headed off toward the hostel on the tram. It was a beautiful blue-skied morning and the Bosphorus was full of boats.

I packed up my things and had one last breakfast with Baran at the cafe. Charley joined up and we walked down to the tram together. I said goodbye to my new friends and headed to the airport.

That afternoon, I flew to Zurich for a long layover and took the train into the city. I had a bed at a New Zealand-owned hostel in a nightlife district only about 15 minutes walk from the central station. The glowering sky let fall its cargo of gentle rain as I made my way across the bridge and past the military grounds.

The hostel had a bar/cafe downstairs and after I checked in, I sipped my glass of complementary rose and wrote about my experiences in Lesvos. A band set up to play a concert and I stepped outside to smoke and ended up talking with a couple of locals about my trip and the refugees. They told me about conservative political views in Switzerland, making it sound not unlike Texas in its stance toward guns and immigration.

I had a few more beers (and a falafel from a nearby Lebanese spot) and chatted with people who came for the concert. Finally, it was time to retire to my upper bunk and get some sleep before heading home to New York the next day.

I flew back to the city on the fourth anniversary of my sister Erika’s death. September 4th is a date that will always have significance for me, though this year the end of my journey had to suffice to mark it, where in previous years, I drank pink bubbles, at the very least. But I think my volunteering also was something I did to honor her, in a way. I try to honor her by living.

My return to the city has been both easy and odd. It is the same old city, but I don’t feel like the same old me. Lighter somehow. Happier with what I have and more grateful.

As my birthday nears (it’s tomorrow!), I’m reflecting on this year and what I’ve gone through. I feel in some ways that I’ve skimmed over the waters of loss without getting pulled in, which is a considerable feat for a Scorpio. I don’t love lightly, and letting go isn’t easy. But I have evolved through change and pain and my perspective is different now. I understand myself better through the difficulties I wouldn’t have chosen to face. The earth must be plowed before it is planted. I hope this next phase will be about that fertility – that loss is behind me for the time. But time will tell.

To quote Casablanca, the problems of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

All for now –

Love and miss

Kira

Volunteering with Refugees in Lesvos, Greece

A bit of background before I begin. For years, I’ve been watching the news with horror as the Syrian people lost their homes and livelihoods, their cities and heritage destroyed: their lives torn apart. I’ve wished there was something I could do, and this summer, I decided to see how I could help. I asked the UNHCR for suggestions, as I couldn’t find much information on where I could help, and they mentioned Lesvos. I did some research and came across articles about Molyvos, a quaint tourist town with cobbled streets and a picturesque harbor, where refugees would arrive in inflatable rafts very near where European holidaymakers were enjoying their summer vacation. I decided to go, and though I made some contacts on Facebook before going, I had nothing set in stone.

My first view of Molyvos by day

My first view of Molyvos by day

My first day in Molyvos, I went down to the Captain’s Table – a restaurant along the harbor, where an Australian-born woman called Melinda runs a grass-roots aid campaign for the refugees who arrive on Lesvos everyday. I’d read some articles that mentioned her, as I was trying to plan how to help the refugees during my trip. Melinda and her husband, Theo, run the restaurant together, and between cooking and greeting customers, she seems always to be on the phone regarding supplies, buses, and whether another group of refugees has been rescued by the coast guard. On top of that, people like me show up and ask to help in some way. It’s a lot to coordinate.

Anyway, some other volunteers came to the restaurant while I was there and I joined them, as they already had some grasp on the situation, though they were almost as new as I was. Vilde, a Norwegian girl, and I made sandwiches, as they are the easiest way to make and distribute sustenance to the many people who pass through. We filled the fridge – about 750 sandwiches, in record time (I thought).

A full fridge at the store room. Molyvos

A full fridge at the store room. Molyvos

Later that day, I went to the harbor area for the first time, where people who have been rescued by the coast guard are taken care of when they arrive, as they are usually soaked and traumatized by what they’ve been through. An Egyptian fisherman named Akhmed showed me the ropes, pouring out just enough cups of juice and separating bananas from the bunches. We passed out a sandwich – turkey and cheese – to each person, plus a banana and a cup of juice. Many of the refugees haven’t eaten in several days before arriving, as they wait for the Turkish smugglers to get them on a boat.

Arrivals at Molyvos Harbor

Arrivals at Molyvos Harbor

I went around with covert sanitary napkins and diapers for the women and babies, and we also brought down dry clothes from the donations people have sent to help the cause.

A group of refugees leaving the harbor for Mytilene.

A group of refugees leaving the harbor for Mytilene.

My second day in Molyvos, Vilde and I loaded up sandwiches and fruit and milk and juice and cups and diapers and everything we could think of and find fast enough – some biscuits, bandaids, babyfood. We followed our fellow-volunteers, Sami and Anders, to Sikimanea for the first time. It is a picturesque village a couple of kilometers from the port of Skala, where many refugees arrive. The place where the refugees stay is far from picturesque, however. Vilde and I looked at each other, horrified by what we saw.

We’d imagined a parking lot, at least, but this was just a dusty intersection where people had to wait for the bus. The area was way too small for the number of people, and some were camped out in the road, though it is barely wide enough for two small cars to pass each other. Families with small children used cardboard and their life vests to cushion the pavement and the lucky few had a nice shaded place under a tree. Others milled in the street or spread out along the ess-shaped road to another flat-ish patch, up the hill to the south. Everyone had laundry hanging out to dry. A village fountain flowing with spring water had people clustered around it to bathe or brush their teeth.

Vilde and I kept whispering, “I can’t believe this is real. This is insane.” Small children and babes in arms; families and groups somewhat divided by language, country, tribe, family.

A couple of volunteers were there already since the early morning, and they’d been having a hard time wrangling the over 300 people who were staying there, with no shower or toilet. There was a system of symbols to determine which group would be the next to leave, but it was all very confusing to us newbies. Eventually we figured out that there were 50 seats on each bus, and that the volunteers were counting and marking each group with a symbol, to know who was on the next bus.

The buses to the capital, Mytilene, had been suspended and many families with small children and babies had been stranded there for two nights already. The volunteers who were already there – a couple we all called the Belgian Girls – were exhausted from several days of little sleep and they passed the task of organizing people to get them on the buses to us. Sami went around with the marker, tallying symbols and numbers and we tried to get everyone ready for the next bus, but we missed the message that one was coming, and when it arrived, we were overwhelmed and couldn’t get people to stay out of the road.

Many of the desperate refugees just charged the bus and we couldn’t keep order, so after loading one bus with people in a very disorganized fashion, the second bus came and the moustached driver left, refusing to be boarded by a mob of people, for which I couldn’t blame him, but it made us all realize how we needed to take control of the situation, or risk more empty buses leaving people behind, when they needed to get to the capital.

The next buses came, and we made sure to warn the crowd in advance that the driver would leave if they approached the bus, or were disorganized when they boarded. We were able to get everyone to calm down and enter the bus in family groups. A Greek man drove the bus for Medecins Sans Frontieres. He wore a surgical mask and carried a metal stick. His English wasn’t great, but he would sometimes go on tirades to me about “what these people are doing to his island.” Despite this, I could tell that he was kind.

Vilde helping people into the bus - Sikimanea

Vilde helping people into the bus – Sikimanea

We got as many families as we could on the buses and then settled everyone in for the night with sandwiches and juice – or milk for the children. Fruit if we had it. Sometimes I had paracetamol – sometimes in syrup form, for children, and I would administer it to those who asked for something for a fever or sorethroat.

One night, a Syrian doctor was among the people who were stuck in Sikimanea during the bus suspension. He spoke English, Arabic and Farsi, so he helped me both as a translator and a doctor, answering people’s medical questions, explaining how the system of getting people on the buses worked.

The next morning we put provisions in the cars and came back early to get people ready for the buses which would usually come by 7:30 or 8. Two buses arrived in succession, and we loaded them up and sent them on their way, waving goodbye to the happy passengers, though none of us could help but think of how hard a time they would have in Mytilene and beyond. We had heard about conditions in the camps – non-working toilets and limited space, plus long wait times to get processed, especially for non-Syrians.

Perhaps at this point I should mention the makeup of the refugee groups we encountered in Molyvos and Sikimanea. I would say that half or just over half were Syrian, with the main part of the rest being Afghani. There were also Iranians, Iraqis, Somalis, and Palestinians. These were all people with serious conflict going on in their home countries – not simply people looking for a better life or more money, but people fleeing hardships and often the threat of death.

The nights were beginning to get colder and the refugees, understandably, began to build fires. We tried to convince them to keep them small and away from dangerous spots, where the foliage would hang over the flames, but aside from that, it was hard to be harsh about the fire-building, since the elevation and proximity to the sea meant that it was definitely colder up there at night than in other places.

During quiet moments, we would have time to sit with the people and talk to them about their lives, about what it took for them to get here, about the death and loss that they left behind them.

Vilde sharing stories

Vilde sharing stories other groups of volunteers would join us, bringing extra blankets, clothes and diapers

One man was from Iran, and he told me how he’d left for Turkey and gone to the UN, but had found no help and lived there for a year, working, before taking the smugglers’ boat to Greece with his son.

My second day at Sikimanea, I drove the road to Skala many times, filling the small car with as many people and their dripping bags as I could, and driving them to the top of the steep road before making another trip down. One car load of soaked women, a small infant cradled in the lap of the woman in the front seat, began to cry as I drove them up the steep hill. They were thanking God for their lives.

Some days we spotted boats coming in, as we had a clear view of the harbor at Skala and the entire skinny channel of sea they crossed, with Turkey on the other side of it. I would drive the car up and down the steep 3 kilometer hill to pick up women and small children and drive them to the transit area. Some of the people would arrive quite late at night and soaking wet. I could get around eight passengers into the little car, though once we were pulled backward by gravity – nearly into a ditch! They had to get out and help push the car till I could pull into a better starting position.

Other cars would also pick people up – some scooters, too. We gave them water and told them about the fountain to refill their bottles. We gave them emergency blankets and fresh diapers and whatever we had. Then we would drive the 25 kilometers back to Molyvos.

That first night, Sami needed to pull over not far outside the village. We were all overcome with emotion at what we’d just seen. It was as if we’d entered another world, in which these third world conditions existed. Now we were able to leave, to drive back to the bright, happy holiday world of Molyvos. There, people filled the skinny streets of the town in their new vacation clothes, all floaty white dresses and short shorts, sunburned shoulders and linen button-downs.

We unloaded the car and went down to the Captain’s Table, which was usually pretty full of people in the late evening. We would sit and talk and smoke – yes, nearly everyone was smoking. It just seemed like the thing to do. We met some of the other volunteers and drank, ate, talked about the stories we’d heard that day.

We’d met people who were pilots, professors, doctors in their home countries. Now they were reduced to sleeping in the dirt and defecating in the woods. We heard of women with urinary tract infections, because they couldn’t bring themselves to take down their pants outside.

It felt strange to move between that world and Molyvos, where I had a bed in a guesthouse, even if I didn’t get much time in it, most nights. Sometimes newly rescued people would arrive at the harbor late at night, and we would get the keys for the storerooms and scramble to get food and dry things for them.

Vilde and Anders at the Captain's Table - Molyvos Harbor

Vilde and Anders at the Captain’s Table – Molyvos Harbor

Each day, we split shifts of working in Sikimanea with the two Belgian volunteers, Letty and Emilie. After our late night, we took the morning shift, so that no one had to work early every morning. Sami, Anders, Vilde and I made a good team, working together to organize and fill the buses with as many people as possible.

Once we got 100-plus people onto the first round of buses, we had time to pass out food and drinks to everyone who was left. Often, men from the crowd would offer to help us distribute – passing out cups to be filled and carrying boxes of bananas. We learned the Arabic words for juice and milk – asir and halib. The Farsi words were different, as were the Afghan ones. “Shukran,” “merci,” “thank you,” people would say.

Sikimanea smiles - waiting for the bus

Sikimanea smiles – waiting for the bus

Some decided to walk and we would show them their route on the map. 15 kilometers to the next village, 35 more to the capital. We gave them caps and bread, sandwiches if we had enough, and sent them on their way, wishing them good luck.

In the afternoon, we would get replaced by the Belgian girls and return to Molyvos. Frequently, we’d stop by the parking lot, where refugees were kept to wait for the buses that would come to Molyvos. They had toilets to use, and a water fountain, but problems arose with both, especially after some nights when over 1,000 people were there. The toilets were shut down and the water turned off, at least for a time.

Everyone wanted to take a taxi, and we had to explain that it was illegal for the taxis to pick them up, as it was illegal for hotels to give them a room, until they had been registered in the capital, and had their paper. The only modes of transportation legally available to them were the buses, or their own two feet.

A few evenings, when we were back at the Captain’s Table, we would hear about casualties or missing people. One night, a boat arrived and at first no one noticed that one man was missing. Once they did, they all grieved, assuming he had died, but a fishing boat found him and brought him in, to the joy of his companions.

Sometimes, the refrigerators were empty at the end of the day, and Vilde and I would finish the day making sandwiches for the morning.

I quickly came down with a cold, which I powered through, but it caused me to lose my voice, making it hard to communicate.

When the first week was over, several of the people I’d been working with had to go back – Vilde needed to return to Norway, and Anders to Denmark. The Belgian girls would stay for a few more days. Sami and I brought some other volunteers to Sikimanea – a German man called Kristof and his daughter, Maya, plus another Dane named Michelle.

Kristof and Maya at the Captain's Table

Kristof and Maya at the Captain’s Table

One afternoon, Kristof and I went down to Skala, having seen boats heading for shore. He wanted to see a landing, so we drove to the harbor and there was a boat, deflated already, the motor being harvested by some enterprising Greek, who makes it his business to greet the refugees with this initial act of greed.

New arrivals celebrating safe passage in Skala.

New arrivals celebrating safe passage in Skala.

People arrived on the small beach just next to a tourist restaurant, and the local business owners urged them to move on, start walking up to Sikimanea. With the Greek economy strained as its been for years now, it’s hard to blame Greeks for not welcoming the waves of refugees more warmly.

Sometimes, the villagers would get very upset and come by the intersection to shout at us. Many of them didn’t speak English, but we could get the gist of what they were saying. One woman and her sons would come down with little cups of milk and rice porridge to give to the children, and to anyone else, if there was enough. They were full of kindness and sympathy for the plight of the refugees in their back yard. One local man told me how the problem had just been going on for too long, and locals were exhausted by the never ending waves of needy people, leaving life vests and laundry littering their lovely hillside.

One woman frequently yelled down to us about the filth in front of her house. I was used to her tirades, but when the bus came and a family was missing one person who’d gone to the mini-mart, that woman shouted where he’d gone – tried to help. I ran up the narrow path into the village, steep and twisted, looking for him, but it was no use. I turned back, and encountered an older couple who handed me a bag of clothes for the refugees.

When I got back to the intersection, it was empty of people for the first time since I’d started coming there. We cleaned up the area as best we could and went up the road for a coffee and to wash up in the W.C. there.

Love letter - left among the trash at Sikimanea

Love letter – left among the trash at Sikimanea

The café was situated on the hillside, facing the water, away from the transit area. But still, there was a padlock on the gate guarding the entrance to the W.C. We were always treated courteously, and I was happy to support the local businesses.

Sikimanea - empty for a short time.

Sikimanea – empty for a short time.

Sami cleaning up the life vests left at Sikimanea.

Sami cleaning up the life vests left at Sikimanea.

Most of the boats would come in in the afternoon and evening, and the intersection was rarely empty for long. A couple from Holland joined our team and started sharing shifts with Sami and me. Christian was a nurse and Martina a journalist. They had a car, which was the prerequisite for anyone coming to Sikimanea.

One afternoon, we had seven or eight boats arriving in quick succession, plus the five that had come earlier in the day. With each boat containing around 40 people, the numbers could add up quickly. We would get most of the young guys, the strong ones with no children, to walk to Mytilene. The alternatives were: spending a cold night on the roadside, shivering, versus walking towards one’s goal, and making it there by morning. We estimated it would take them 10-12 hours to walk there. They took pictures of our map with their smart phones and we gave them what we could. One wet group who came in at night – a Syrian family with three young girls – decided to walk rather than stay at Sikimanea. The girls were in damp clothes and we didn’t have dry ones to offer them that night. We gave them sandwiches and peanut bars and they set off towards Mantamados.

Mantamados, I’ve since learned, is a place people walk to outside of the refugee crisis. A church there, called Taxiarchis Monastery, is the site of an annual pilgrimage in honor of the Archangel Michael.

Two trucks full of donations from Slovenia arrived, and we spent the late part of the morning unloading them into the store house. A chain of us, German, Greek, American, Dutch, Egyptian, all worked together, first to unload the trucks, then reload one with provisions for the camps in the capital – mostly diapers and tents.

Donations from Slovenia

Donations from Slovenia

Donations from Slovenia

Donations from Slovenia

The last afternoon I worked at Sikimanea, we had more people than I could get onto the two buses we had coming. I convinced some to share seats, in order to get as many people as possible onto each bus.

It required difficult decisions – who has the most urgent needs? Who is the most at risk? Some people were traveling in a family group of 30 people. But it is hard to put such a large group before the many small families, the pregnant women, the elderly and infirm. With the compassion of the drivers, we overloaded those last two buses, just ever so slightly.

But even as they pulled away, more new arrivals were walking up the mountain.

“What group are you with?” some would ask. “We’re just volunteers. We don’t know where the groups are.”

One Syrian man and I talked as we waited for the next round of buses. He apologized for his English and said his mother’s was much better. She was in Turkey, so he called her and we spoke for several minutes. She told me how she also wanted to join her son, but she was afraid for her other children to make the dangerous crossing from Turkey. She referred to the “boats of death.”

We had a meeting one day. There were between 20 and 30 of us, from all over Europe. One man from the IRC was there and a woman from the Red Cross. We talked about the situation – more boats were coming in preparation for winter. The parking lot would be closed soon, as it belonged to the school, and school would soon be in session again.

Volunteer meeting - the parking lot, Molyvos

Volunteer meeting – the parking lot, Molyvos

No alternative place to wait for the buses was presented.

You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.

I got back to the Captain’s Table on my last night in Molyvos and the whole crowd was there. I stayed late, talking with Melinda and the others. As I walked to my guest house, over the arching cobbled road from the harbor, I saw a group of refugees, completely wet and wrapped in blankets, standing opposite a popular bar. Other volunteers were leading them to the parking lot. I carried one of the three children of a woman who seemed to be traveling alone. Melinda’s son picked me up on a scooter and we got the car and filled it with clothes and sleeping bags from the storehouse. Then we drove back to the parking lot, through the pedestrians and scooters. There we helped distribute blankets and clothes to the new arrivals.

The moon was full and low when we drove back to the harbor. It was after 5 when I walked to the guest house.

The next day, I went to Mytilene by bus, and I was struck by how easy it was, to board this air conditioned machine. It only cost 8 euros, or so, to go to Mytilene, yet, all these people were waiting.

Last view of the parking lot - Molyvos

Last view of the parking lot – Molyvos

I was suffering from dehydration for the second time – or perhaps I’d never quite righted myself before. I slept fitfully on the bus and remained asleep even when everyone else exited, thinking mine was the next stop.

I found a friendly hotel concierge who let me leave my bags there, then I went in search of a café. I sat there for hours, drinking water like it was my job. I ordered food, but couldn’t handle it. All I wanted was water. Mytilene was calm, though there were clearly refugees in the town, eating at the cafes, buying simcards and new shoes.

I kept getting messages from the volunteers on whatsapp – there were 17 boats heading for Sikimanea, and hundreds of people already there, with no more buses coming. Sami and the others were being told to pull out of Sikimanea, that a few volunteers couldn’t interact with such a big crowd.

Military Parade - Mytilene Port

Military Parade – Mytilene Port

My head throbbed for hours, until I’d finally had enough water and I could begin to function. I bought my shuttle ticket for the airport and got my bags from the hotel lobby. The man there spoke to me about the refugee crisis and told me that he was descended from Turkish refugees, so he helped whenever he could. Just before I was about to leave, a man walked into the hotel, and I recognized him as someone who had had to walk to Mytilene, because I couldn’t get him and his adult daughter on the last bus. We hugged, and he said they’d had to sleep outside one night already.

He had his papers and he was looking for a room, but everything was full on a Saturday night, the last weekend in August. The man at the hotel said he would have rooms tomorrow. He was very kind. We said goodbye and I wished him good luck

Then it was time for me to leave for the airport.

The plane to Athens was mostly full of Greeks returning home from vacation, but there were also families flying to the next destination on their long and complicated road to freedom and safety.

Love and miss,

Kira

Some additional information: Follow Help for Refugees in Molyvos on Facebook and look at their page for information on what you can do to help. Melinda McRostie and Eric Kempson can also be found on Facebook. Both of them have been working hard to help the refugees for months. The IRC and a German group called Borderline Europe were also taking an active role in what is happening in the Molyvos area. The situation seems to be changing there everyday, but so far the boats haven’t stopped arriving on Lesvos.

Greek Island Adventures

My last day in Cyprus was spent in Nicosia, the capital of that country. It is divided in two at the border between the Greek speaking part to the south and the Turkish half, to the north. I visited the museum there before heading back to Larnaca to say goodbye to my hosts there and catch my flight.

I left behind Cyprus – the island of Aphrodite – for Crete – the land of the Minoans. I’ve been interested in the Minoan civilization ever since looking through a book about them from my father’s library when I was a girl. I was instantly fascinated by this strange culture of bull-jumping acrobatics and bare-breasted priestesses.

On the flight from Larnaca to Heraklion, I was seated next to a couple of friendly guys from Crete, who live on Cyprus, but were returning to their home island to play traditional Cretan music at a village festival in a town I’d never heard of. Antonious was the one with better English, so we conversed the whole way to Heraklion and he told me about his studies in marine archaeology on Lesvos (aka Lesbos, but “b’s” and “v’s” are a bit mixed up in Greek). When we landed, he said his sister was picking him up, and she could also give me a lift to my hotel!

They kindly waited for me while I waited for my backpack, which I’d had to check, and then I used my magic phone to help navigate to the hotel, by the beach in Amoudara, just outside of the city proper.

Antonious’ sister was called Elisavet (emphasis on the “sa”) – Ellie for short – and she surprised me with her strong Irish accent. At first I thought I must have misunderstood about her being Antonious’ sister, but it turned out she had been living in Dublin for the last 8 years, so came by her brogue honestly.

They dropped me at the hotel and even helped me inside with my things, before leaving with promises to be in touch, and an invitation to join them for the festival in a couple of days.

It was nearly midnight by the time they left and I decided to go for a stroll, just to get a feel for the place. It reminded me a bit of India – I guess mostly Goa, as people were on scooters and it had a similarly tropical vibe. It was pretty calm, though there were some bars on the Amoudara strip playing dance music. I let one of the barkers convince me to stop for a beer at his bar and made small talk with him till I was ready to head home for bed.

I was to stay in an Airbnb rental that night, but in the meantime, my hosts were at work, so I left my things at the hotel and got a bus into the city center.

Heraklion Center

Heraklion Center

Heraklion center was charming and compact with small streets running at odd angles to one another. The city had been conquered by the Venetians, back when they were the major force in the Mediterranean, and they had fortified it with massive stone walls and arrow-shaped gates leading into the old city. I visited the large Greek Orthodox Church of St. Minas – the patron saint of Heraklion – before heading toward the harbor. There, I stopped into the Historical Museum, which was mostly concerned with the Byzantine and Venetian periods of the city (more recent history than really interests me, but it is interesting to see how the ancient traditions carry over, especially in funerary markers and columns).

I continued along the harbor and met a couple of French girls, whom I helped find the bus to Amoudara, as they were in search of the beach. The Archeological Museum of Heraklion was near the central bus stop, so I spent the rest of the afternoon there, steeping myself in the Minoan artifacts there. Among their burial relics were ritual bathtubs, very like the ones I had seen on Cyprus at the Aphrodite Sanctuary in Paphos and elsewhere.

Some of the earliest artifacts were stone-carved fertility goddess figurines, also reminiscent of those on Cyprus.

Once I’d seen everything at the museum, I met up with my Airbnb host at her apartment nearby and got the key before heading back to Amoudara to get my bags. It was a hot afternoon and I dallied at the hotel a while, swimming in the pool and chatting with some of the other travelers there before catching the bus back to the center.

Eiline, my host, had recommended a cute area with tables set up in the tiny cobbled streets. It was charming, indeed, though it felt a bit odd to be there alone, when everyone around me was gleefully talking amongst themselves and sharing the plates of mezze.

Greeks eat rather late, since the day is so hot and there is usually a sort of siesta period in the middle of the afternoon. I didn’t get back to the apartment till after 1 a.m. and I realized the I’d lost a coin from my favorite pair of earrings. I quickly recalled hearing the sound of a coin dropping as I walked toward the restaurant, and when I went to search for it, I miraculously found it on the street!

The next morning I caught the bus to Knossos, one of the famed “palaces” of the Minoan civilization. Though I arrived early, it was already crowded with tourists and difficult to enjoy, but I was able to see all of it except the so-called “King’s Chambers” or throne room, as the line to get in was ridiculous!

Knossos

Knossos

I made it back to the apartment and spent the afternoon packing for the trip that evening, when Ellie and her father would pick me up for the festival in Kamilari, south of Heraklion and on the other side of the mountains in the center of the island. My host, Eiline, came home and we shared my leftover salad from the night before, because I’d ordered way too much food and had barely been able to touch it!

Around 7, Ellie and her dad, Kimon, met me at the main square of Heraklion, and we headed off to the festival. We stopped along the way to pick up some friends of Kimon’s, Ileni and Lambrous, and share some raki with them – the traditional drink of Crete. It’s a strong, clear liquor made from grapes and we had two nips of it, with peanuts to help soak up the alcohol, before driving the short remaining distance to the festival.

The small town of Kamilari was full of people and tables were arranged in tight rows in the village center. A large space was cleared for dancing and in the meantime, everyone shared food and wine and beer and made generally merry. Antonious was there with his friend and musical partner Niko, and they began playing not long after we arrived, around 10 p.m. From then on, the music barely stopped and soon everyone was dancing, holding hands, first in a circle, then spiraling inward to the center of the circle.

Ileni and Lambrous in Kamilari

Ileni and Lambrous in Kamilari

Dancing

Dancing

Dancing in Kamilari

Dancing in Kamilari

Traditional Cretan dancing

Traditional Cretan dancing

Kimon speechifying

Kimon speechifying

Antonious and the band playing - Kamilari

Antonious and the band playing – Kamilari

Ellie and a local friend - Kamilari festival

Ellie and a local friend – Kamilari festival

Ellie taught me a couple of dances and once I got the steps, it was a lot of fun! Antonious was singing and I would occasionally hear my name being called out amidst the lyrics. We danced and drank and chatted till after 4 in the morning and finally it was time for Ellie to drive Antonious and Niko to Chania to catch an early morning flight. I went back to the house of Kimon’s friends in a tiny village called Agios Ioannis – St. John – for a few hours of much needed sleep.

In the morning, I awoke with Ileni, for a quick breakfast of coffee and toast before dressing and walking up the mountain behind the village to go to another Minoan site known as Phaistos or Festos. It is less accessible than Knossos, so there was hardly anyone there when I arrived and I could get a better feel for the place without all of the imaginative reconstruction perpetrated at Knossos by Sir Arthur Evans, who discovered that site.

Phaistos

Phaistos

Phaistos ruins

Phaistos ruins

Phaistos

Phaistos selfie

View from Phaistos

View from Phaistos

From the site, I could see the entire surrounding valleys, covered with olive trees and vineyards. I walked back down the mountain after and hour or so and met up with Kimon, who was giving me a lift to Paleochora, at the far southwestern tip of the island.

Since it was high season, I decided to eschew the hotel search and instead found a campground walking distance from the town center where I could rent a tent with a cot and mattress right by the beach!

Kimon dropped me off and we were both tired to the point of exhaustion. I checked in and headed straight for a swim at the beach across the street, where little juniper-like trees offered shade for the lounge chairs. I went into the crystal clear water and paddled around for a while before heading back for a snooze on my lounge chair, but it was barely a minute before I heard a splat and then another and then it began to rain! I had noticed the dark clouds over the mountains as we drove into Paleochora and asked Kimon if it ever rained there in the summer, to which he responded with a decisive “no.”

Yet rain it did, so I went back into the water and floated on my back, letting the fat drops pelt me softly and wet my tongue. There were just a few of us swimming – a girl called Rania who was working at the campground told me that I must be good luck, because she’d never seen rain like this.

I wrote for a bit that afternoon and met a small kitty near my tent who befriended me immediately. Kitties always feel like they are sent to me by my sister Erika, who was the patron saint of cats.

Beach near my camp - Paleochora

Beach near my camp – Paleochora

Me n Kitty - Paleochora

Me n Kitty – Paleochora

That evening I walked into town to meet Kimon for dinner at his cousin’s restaurant, but the place was packed and I had seen a vegetarian restaurant en route, called The Third Eye, that I was dying to try. Kimon, reminding me of my father, would have nothing to do with the food there, but I ate a curry and samosas with relish, accompanied by a small pitcher of rose. I was just about as happy as I could be.

The owner had lived in India for ten years and told me I looked like Joni Mitchell, traveling with my guitar. He said she’d lived in Crete for a while in the 70s, which I hadn’t heard before, but as I love Joni, I definitely took his comparison as a compliment!

After dinner, Ellie joined us at the family restaurant and I played some music for them on my guitar, attracting some locals to hear me. Before I knew it, it was 1 a.m. and Kimon drove me back to my campground.

I planned to go to bed, but there was traditional music being played in the restaurant there, so I decided to go for a raki and write in my journal for a bit. The manager of the camp brought me some snacks and somehow it was 3 by the time I went to bed!

Music at camping Paleochora

Music at camping Paleochora

The music kept going, though, but I’d had enough raki to knock me out.

The next morning I was feeling the edges of a cold start to take hold, from my many nights of too little sleep. I went for a swim and did some writing and napping before walking into town to meet Ellie as we’d planned to try out the main beach in town. Though it was sand instead of pebbles, I found myself referring the beach by my camp, which was less crowded and had slightly warmer water. Ellie helped me get some medicine to fend off the oncoming cold and then she went home for a nap.

I went back to the Third Eye for a different delicious curry and, afterwards, met up with Ellie and her cousin, Tonia, at a local beauty salon, where Tonia was getting mani-pedi’d. We’d talked about going to the beach club by my camp that night, but Tonia had other plans, so Ellie and I had a glass of sparkling at a place nearby and then she dropped me off at my campground.

My last day in Paleochora, I spent a lot of time talking with a friendly fellow camper named Lisia, who was Greek and a very kind and open person. We talked about many things and I told her about my sister, Erika. She said she’d always wanted a sister, and couldn’t she be my sister? She was very sweet.

Lisia seeing me off - Paleochora

Lisia – Paleochora

I did some much needed laundry and spent some more time in the delicious water before walking into town to have dinner at (you guessed it) The Third Eye. It had been so long since I had proper veg food, I couldn’t get enough! I had yet another kind of curry and then found Ellie and Tonia at the family restaurant, Finakis – The Palm Tree.

I finally left Paleochora and returned to Heraklion by bus to get my ferry the next morning to Santorini. I spent a whirlwind day there visiting the volcanic island and the ruins of the ancient town of Thira.

Santorini

Santorini

Santorini

Santorini

A kind local gave me a ride to the ferry at around 2 am and I continued to Kos, where I saw many refugees there, living in tents and some without even that comfort were just in the shade, whole families with small children.

I took another ferry to Bodrum that evening and spent a night in a backpacker hostel where very unfortunately, my iPhone was stole in the night, as I slept.

The next day I got the bus to Selcuk, where I visited the ruins of the Artemis temple – one of the ancient wonders of the world – and the remains of Ephesus. I stayed two nights there and got the ferry the following day to Samos and then on to Lesvos, at last.

In Lesvos, I had to stay one night in Mitilini, the capital, and again the refugees were everywhere.

The next night I got a ride with some other people coming to Molyvos, where I planned to spend the next two weeks volunteering to help the refugees. But that is for the next installment, as this one is long enough!

Love and miss,

Kira

The next night I got a ride with some other people coming to Molyvos, where I planned to spend the next two weeks volunteering to help the refugees. But that is for the next installment, as this one is long enough!

Love and miss,

Kira