Monday, 6 July 2009

Athens Portraits: Beggar My Neighbour

They wait patiently at every traffic light, every shopping centre and every coffee shop.

Wearing their misfortune like a badge, they look at us with weary eyes and appeal to our kinder nature to help someone who's been dealt a much rawer deal than us. Some try to sell us goods we don't want or need, some try to clean our windscreens, some try to convince us that God will smile on us for helping them, and some blatantly accuse us for our inhumanity as they thrust their misery in our face and challenge us to respond.

They're that motley crew of beggars that have always populated the streets of Athens, but whose numbers have swelled considerably in the past few years. And with that surge has come a broadening of their diversity.

In the past couple of decades, the face of your average Athenian panhandler has changed from the cheeky yet pitiful gypsy children or the pathetic old hags that bemoan their fate as they rock back and forth on the pavement and offer you their blessing if you favour them with a few coins.

These days, they have been joined by a veritable United Nations of poverty and desperation in the shape of war-shattered refugees from the all-too-recent wars in the Balkans, some displaying horrific injuries in a bid to gain your sympathy, and a regular flotilla of hopefuls who have landed up in Greece after fleeing their homelands in Africa or Asia to escape tyranny or grinding poverty. Add to that an influx of new Athenians from the old Eastern Bloc and you will see that the face of the city's poor has witnessed some major changes in the space of two short decades.

When I first arrived in this bustling metropolis it was a huge culture shock to come face to face with such open misery and shameless begging (remember, I left the UK before the explosion of homeless on the city streets found a voice through "The Big Issue"). My finely-honed conscience made me want to empty my pockets for every beggar I came across, impossible though that was.
And it must have shown in my face, as I seemed to attract hopeful unfortunates like flies to a left-over lollipop on a hot day.

Even now, when you would have expected me to have toughened up, I'm still a soft touch. If I have spare change, I will usually cough up. But now and again, all I have on me is a 50 Euro note, which I can little afford to hand over, so I have to say "No". Unfortunately, the more insistent of the army of the unfortunate (and suspect the least needy) take one look my face, ignore my refusal, and start cleaning my windscreen or throwing little packs of tissues in my window.

Either I simply lack authority, or the bleeding heart hiding not too far from the surface is clearly visible to the trained eye.

Beggars of all shapes and sizes can be found everywhere you go in Athens , but there is one who stands out in my mind.I see him most mornings at the junction where I turn off from the main road to my office. There he stands, rain or shine, at the traffic lights, looking remarkably like a character from a Tolkein story. He's tall, thin to the point of emaciation, has a shock of wild greying hair and is dressed in rags. His left leg is misshapen and withered and he walks from car to car with the aid of battered old crutch. His slight accent brings me to the conclusion that he may be one of the legion of ordinary people who fled war-torn parts of the Balkans during the conflicts there in the 90s.

Yet, the most remarkable thing about him is the fact that he greets us all with a cheery "Kalimera!" (Good morning!) rather than the standard pathetic plea for help that most of his fellow panhandlers employ. And even on the days when I have nothing to give him, he responds with a smile and "Na'ste kala" (Be well) rather than a black glare of resentment and accusation. And for that reason alone, I am happy to hand over my paltry 50 cents whenever I can.

I know that he may well be a con artist, as many are, but - as a good friend once said when faced with a old-eyed child begging from table to table in a kafenion (coffee shop) - what if he's not?

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