The State We’re In

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.


Walk/ Don’t Walk

This is a pedestrian story. Long ago, but not so far away, I went to live on Rhodes. I am a walker; not a hiker, not a rambler – a walker. I like it. It serves me well. The locals viewed my love of walking with curiosity; it was not within the realm of anyone’s experience to choose to walk. My behavior was passed-off as English eccentricity, which was fine. However, despite this ‘acceptance’, attempts were still made to change my mind.

On one memorable, quite typical, occasion, I set out for the coast to see how far I could go before nightfall. It was an autumnal Sunday and the weather was perfect for a walk; warm sunshine, cool breeze and clear air. I had only been on the road for ten minutes when my landlord’s car pulled up alongside and I was offered a lift.
‘Where are you going?’
‘For a walk.’
‘No, where are you going?’
‘For a walk.’
Five minutes later, I was able to start moving again, but the car motored next to me for a further five ‘in case I changed my mind’.

Now, I walk here and others choose to do the same. There are sponsored walks and runs. On medical advice, people walk up and down the waterfront at the nearly-new marina development. Dog-walking brings yet others out. This has seen a growth in sales of specialist clothing; many feel unable to take to the roads of Rhodes without the full kit. At one charity fundraiser, many of the participants were in outfits so new, they still had the price tags attached. They want to look the part. They want to be seen to have ‘changed their mind’.

People forget how to walk. It’s true. They can do the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other thing, but put them out in public and there’s no pathway code. This much is clear in the summer, when thousands of visitors are disgorged from planes and ships onto the streets. Far from their cars, in the heat of the sun, they forget (if, indeed, they ever knew) that they are in a living, working town and they wander. They wander everywhere. They wander off. Stop/start/left/right/back/forth. Walking with purpose becomes a slalom course. As a resident, you’re often invisible. I am at once irritated, frustrated and exasperated. Yet, I smile.

Why? You may ask. Because this experience, wandering on Rhodes, just might ‘change their minds’ when they return home and help them see that ‘for a walk’ is both a purpose and a destination.


A World Away

I recently returned from five days on The Rock. The Rock is a hard place of barren beauty, indubitably physically attractive and compelling. It’s an Aegean must-see. And this long weekend was no exception for the now-familiar visitors: the luxury yacht guests; the day trippers; the stopover holiday crowd; and the refugees.

Marvels of naval architecture grace the outlying bays by day, where their guests swim, jet-ski, kayak and paddle before heading for lunch at a beach taverna or on board. By night, those private vessels small enough approach the main harbour, when, twinkling, sparkling and glittering, their lights add to the glaring shop and street illumination on land. Idling by, some of us try to go through the looking-glass, speculating on who we’d meet aboard these modern wonders of the world. Others, smelling the cash (and heady on the aroma), trip over themselves to entice that money into their business.

The vast bulk of people see The Rock for the first time as day trippers on excursion boats. Emptied into the hot cauldron of the harbour, organized groups recover awed breath (lost at first sight of the harbour), put cameras away and look around for their guide. The guide who’s going to tell them ‘all-about-the-island’ whilst leading them past sponge and herb retailers at a pace suitable for product placement (not for dawdling), before plopping them down, hot, laden with ‘facts’ and shopping, at a restaurant. Food, under starter’s orders, leaves the kitchen as soon as the group arrives. Later, some may choose to take the little train around the headland to enjoy the views, the breeze and cheesy music. Others may cool off with a swim or at a bar until departure time. Many are back on their boat well before it’s time to set sail, having ‘done’ The Rock and it having ‘done’ them, too.

Those of us who choose to stay awhile spread ourselves out over the few hotels, numerous holiday rooms and apartments. Slowly but surely over the years, the choice and quality of this accommodation has improved. With restrictions on water supply, however, its density is limited – which, of course, adds to its attraction. The Rock is a holiday destination which also attracts a certain competitive element. Loud, alcohol-fueled, conversations detail the speaker’s belief in their intimate knowledge of the island and certain of its inhabitants. One visit more, one year earlier, than their audience and they’re content. For all of us who choose to visit, for however long and since whatever date, the sheer beauty of the place and its environment helps steer us past certain human anomalies.

The island is a welcome relief to all of us, none more so than the refugees. For years now, people smugglers have dumped those who could afford their extortionate fees on or offshore and fled the scene. The hapless folk left to fend for themselves in the perilous waves and on the treacherous stones are soon found. Sometimes, just in time. For those of us fortunate enough to be entitled to the right passport, the return taxi-boat fare from the harbour to the island’s southernmost beaches is €14. For those others, it is currently €4000 one-way in unspeakable conditions. Holidaymakers and locals take care of the people for whom that beautiful view is breathtaking for completely different reasons. Once found, they are taken to the police station, given medical treatment and looked after until they can be moved on. From the arched first floor of the police station, men, women and children from Syria and Afghanistan look out over the luxury yachts, the neo-classical architecture and the Aegean and wait.

In this world and yet not of it: we all escaped something during our stay. The Rock is a world away.