The taxi driver’s first word to me was ‘welcome.’ That always brings warmth, doesn’t it? Maybe the same warmth that made his rosy cheeks stand out in the Thessaloniki night.
He used his name while he was telling me a story about him and his buddies, and it sounded like Toros, so that shall be his name.
The first thirty seconds of the taxi ride were quiet, perhaps because I could feel by the comfort of my seat and smoothness of the ride that I could have chosen a cheaper taxi. But we got into talking about his nifty device to track flights that his customers were flying in on. Yeah, this was definitely too nice a ride. For the 30-minute trip, I paid a price similar to what I would pay in Germany.
Yet in the middle of our conversation – of our ride – he told me 74% of what I would pay him would go to the government. Only 26 euro of every 100 euro he earned was actually his. He was complaining that nobody wants to invest in a country that lacks consumers. Industries could take their business 100km north to Bulgaria to make money.
Although they haven’t. Greece has certainly been in financial turmoil since 2011, but so has the whole region. In 2008, he went to Germany to visit family and friends as he does every year, but this time he had a little too much fun on the autobahn and got ticketed. The German cameras flashed as he raced over 200km/hr on the open road and just three days later, Greek authorities knocked on his door in Thessaloniki. He paid his fine and got his license taken away for a while.
He said he would have never done that post-2011. now he drives in Germany “like a lady.” (his words not mine)
And yet, this wasn’t the bulk of our conversation, nor the beginning. Amongst strife for himself and his family, he gave charity to and aided the massive amounts of refugees coming through his country. As soon as he said that he sympathized with the thousands of refugees in Greece before and after the EU-Turkey deal, I asked him only a few questions and he went off for five minute talks.
He used to give boxes of unwanted and unneeded clothes, dozens of them, to the charities operating within Greece. As a taxi driver, he knew full well the extortionate prices that bus drivers were charging refugees to travel not 30km to the Macedonian border. And after the borders were shut, they continued to charge and tell their customers that the borders were open, leaving them at the border. Mostly at Idomeni, where 11000 or so are now in limbo.
Toros complained that people have been portraying refugees as terrorists. He cited the example of one man who competed internationally in sporting events, yet was reduced to refugee status in this crisis. When Toros gave his cheery laugh, it sounded like a perfectly recorded soundbite of laughter. One time I heard it was when he was explaining how funny it would have been to hide a ticking clock in a suitcase of sand and leave it at the airport.
Naturally, I asked him if other Greeks shared his opinion of refugees, if other Greeks wanted to get rid of them, banish them, force them back into war.
“Greeks have been hospitable since Alexander the Great, for 2,500 years.”
He recalled talking to his father and grandfather about the hunger and pain that came during and after the Second World War. He said Germany, the once villain of Europe, allowed and even welcomed Greeks into their country for work and rehabilitation. Germany did this for several countries. Europe as a whole did this.
“The only bad person then was Hitler. Now is Hitler.” Some EU countries have bullied Albania, Macedonia, and Bulgaria to shut their borders tightly, even before the EU-Turkey deal.
I have my feelings about historical analogies, but such a parallel should be seen beyond that. The absolute vast majority of the approximately 1.3 million refugees (likely more) that have travelled to Europe have passed through Greece. Temporary residential camps filled with independent as well as big-name NGOs in his country provided the hospitality that prevented them from drowning, losing limbs to frostbite, losing their lives to simple diseases like measles, being deported, and getting taken advantage of.
Now the EU has purged all independent NGOs from these official camps, and the big-name ones, like UNHCR and Doctors Without Borders, have left in protest. The camps have turned into detainment camps, in every aspect including name.
The ride ended abruptly as I gave him a bit of a tip. He gave me his card to call if anything went sour on my five-leg and increasingly precarious journey (I didn’t need to call). As I set off to Idomeni, he spoke the last words I heard from him, and he didn’t make eye contact.
“It will hurt in your heart.”