This rock’s been in the news this week, a lot. Of course, it’s been newsworthy in recent years for its tourism; good and bad. Most often found in the foreign press travel supplements and rarely mentioned even in the national press as a bit-player in the ongoing economic crisis – Rhodes has now entered The News. It’s gone all international. It always has been, of course. International, that is. In recent history, it officially became part of the modern Greek State in 1947, and has since taken in visitors, workers and residents from all over the globe – maintaining its international face, while keeping its parochial heart. I am one of those visitors. Rocks are my favourite places to be. I’m an islander by birth and persuasion. I am a citizen of the European Union, a British passport holder and English by birth. I have chosen to live here. I was fortunate enough to have that choice. And I can also choose to leave, to move on elsewhere. A gift from my parents, the choice, by virtue of their British passports and my birth in Colchester, Essex.
So, being here is my decision. And with every decision comes responsibility for the consequences. Here, despite much-heralded promises of reform, those consequences continue to involve eye-watering levels of bureaucracy. Much paper, many offices, many voices, type-stuff. Monday marked the day I finally had my name put on the electricity bill, after two months. The law changed in January this year, you see, and, in any case, clear steers have never been easy to find here. A good accountant found, I was on the home straight as I walked back and forth between his office, the tax office and the Public Power Corporation office. I was done as the security guard closed the doors behind me and the cleaner let me out of the compound. I went to a cool, quiet, dark space, drank a very cold bottle of water and breathed deep.
A short time before, just over the road from the tax office, a wooden boat carrying undocumented migrants had broken up on the rocks. Locals ran down to the beach and pulled the refugees from the sea as quickly as they could even while emergency services arrived. Despite their efforts, three died. The survivors were taken to the port police station or to the local hospital. They had nothing material. People continued to help by donating clothing and other basic necessities, as well as, importantly, care and affection. As news filtered through online, the, by now sadly predictable, voices of intolerance and ignorance seeped out from their pit. Some voices from my rock of origin, ignorant of history and their own mongrel background, poured forth views better suffocated at birth.
In any case, by Thursday, it was clear that survivors were being well cared-for and prepared for their onward journeys. St George’s Day dawned sunny and bright, with a clear, cold wind. I took part in a historical visit to the Old Town, learning more of the story of this island, this land of migrants – touring a building designed to fortify the town and repel the unwanted, which had grown almost organically with the years. We stood on the top of the structure, our group of the allowed, and looked out over hundreds of years of history from our vantage point in that UNESCO World Heritage Site. As we did so, Rhodes stayed in the news – photographs from the rescue effort on the beach had gone viral, and European leaders met to discuss ‘what to do’. In fact, with a General Election close by, the UK PM, suddenly conscious that the electorate saw this not as an immigration issue, but as a humanitarian one, was quick to the table.
On that day, one of the refugees was delivered of a healthy baby boy. His mother named him for the man who pulled her from the sea, and the saint on whose name day he arrived. Today, he’s three days into life on this rock. As he’s held and fed and loved and his mother contemplates the next stage of her journey, a marathon race will pass nearby. Those runners will set out on a mapped path; their progress monitored, their pace in their power. For that baby, his uncertain journey is just beginning. He’s yet to know the state he’s in.