Cavafy writes: “When you set out on your journey to Ithaca / Pray that the road is long / full of adventure, full of knowledge”, but I wonder how these words apply to all the refugees and migrants one sees throughout Greece.
For my last evening in the peaceful port city of Volos, I dine out on the promenade, alone, looking out to the boats in the bay and dreaming. Volos’ typical luminous stillness is made even more beautiful by the oncoming sunset.
I order a small pizza and a Greek salad. The salad is enormous, and I have to leave half of it. A beggarwoman comes up to me and asks me for money. She is Indian, mid-20s, lean, clean, with long hair that is tied back.
She is aggressive. I say No, but I offer her the salad. She stops for a moment, considers, and decides to accept my offer. Of course, she can hardly pocket the tomato and cucumber and onion pieces and walk away. So she takes a seat.
The plate of salad came with a spoon, so she starts eating it with that. She stops, looks around, gets a salt shaker from another table, applies liberal amounts of it to the food.
She eats slowly, gracefully, a far cry from the scowly, aggressive personality that first presented itself.
She sits opposite me. The view I had in front of me was the gulf, the water, the ‘whole world’ as it were. Now I have another ‘world’ in front of me; an inner world, the world of a wayfarer, of a lost soul perhaps, a soul living an ‘alternate life’ (on the other side of etiquettes and duties).
I consider talking to her. She starts talking herself, but only to ask me for money again. And what a strange language she speaks. It seems to be a mix of Hindi with Greek. I decide to not converse with her.
Her begging is forceful and desperate. Once I said no again, she became calm again, and continued eating gracefully. The desperation is probably an act.
After some minutes, she finishes the meal, carefully wipes her mouth with a serviette, places the empty plate on the other plates, and stands up. She doesn’t say ‘Thank You’ to me, but she looks at me with an acknowledging glance. Moreover, there is a resigned and rueful look on her face, as if to say “Ah well, I was human for a second, now back to the grindstone.”
And yes, she immediately walks up to other tables and again is aggressive in her begging. One table is as forceful back at her, and there is an exchange of insults.
And I see one person looking askance at me for having allowed her to sit at my table.
The next day, I am at the bus station, I am leaving Volos to go live in Athens. And, in an amazing coincidence, the same beggarwoman is there, again approaching people for money, again forcefully.
She comes up to me and recognises me. And we start conversing, small talk. And she smiles. Is a smile the privilege of the happy? Or actually the privilege of the human?
The day before, I’m pretty sure she would’ve found it far easier to produce a double somersault than produce a smile.
This time, I give her money. She sees the bags at my feet and realises I am catching a bus to somewhere. In her broken Greek, she wishes me a “good road”. Not a good journey, but a good road. We journey on a road – the journey is the interior, the road the exterior. It’s less romantic saying ‘road’.
For myself, an Australian travelling in Greece with the luxury of dual citizenship behind him, having a good journey, a good road … well, it’s a piece of cake, really.
But for this strange beggarwoman, capable of both aggressive ugliness and graceful beauty, what is her journey? Did she leave the frying pan only to land in the fire? And where is she heading? Is she alone? Will she have a family? Will she end up completely destitute?
The Beggar’s Blues is a mixed-up music. On the one hand, there is no dignity in the act of begging. And on the other hand, beggars are opportunists, able to get money ‘for free’.
Complex as your life is, my good little Indian woman, I too wish you a good road.