Strangers no longer

In honor of Christmas we need a story of people at their best: warm, generous, compassionate. Since my friend Martha Frangiadaki is warmth, generosity, and compassion incarnate and a born storyteller to boot, I’m turning it over to her today.

Lunch with Martha and her husband Mark by the sea in Athens.
Lunch with Martha and her husband Mark by the sea in Athens.

If you’re a regular reader (even when I’m not a regular writer) you may remember Martha from the July 29, 2013 Hope in Greece about the remarkable work going on at the Metropolitan Community Clinic at Helleniko. Turning experience into a story is Martha’s best way of processing it, and here’s one I’m fond of about an incident at the clinic last fall. The story is fiction; the central plot is not. Happily,she reports, the situation described in the story is now a bit better, and the clinic—now 240 volunteers strong–just celebrated its third birthday (if celebration is an appropriate term for commemorating an organization that shouldn’t have to exist).

Martha volunteering at the clinic.
Martha volunteering at the clinic.

Καλά Χριστούγεννα, readers. May the spirit of the season be with you. 


Martha Frangiadaki

The sun danced with the tinkling strips of painted glass hanging in the kitchen window. This was a small pleasure that would never change; God knows everything else had. Eleni gazed out the window while she did the dishes.

She looked at the garden through the simple wind chime that Dimitri had given her when he was only six. He bought it with his first pocket money at the festival at St. Dimitri’s—his own name day. She had thanked him for it most seriously and hung it over the kitchen sink and enjoyed it ever since. She felt her heart twist inside her to think that his token might out-live the boy who had given it to her.

Despite herself she smiled at Costa crashing out of the garden shed, dragging tools, lining up his weaponry to turn the soil in the garden plot. By sheer force of will they would have fresh tomatoes and cucumbers in the summer—that would be after the peas, runner beans and lettuces of early spring.

“This year, all organic,” he swore. “It could be the goddamn chemicals and pesticides that did it, so this year, nothing but manure.”

And he brought a great sack of the stuff back from the village. Even in the trunk it stank up the car the entire trip.

“Fresh vegetables – real food, and that will do the trick.”

It wasn’t a trick; it was the world crashing in on them.

Four years before, all the talk of austerity measures and belt tightening had nothing to do with them. Costa provided building services to larger construction firms. Like everyone else, he struggled but he made his family a good living but within two years the bottom dropped out of construction. By the time he let the employees go he was hopelessly behind with pension/insurance payments. That forced the close of the business. He got the occasional under-the-table job, but it didn’t fill the gap.

Maria, 19, dashed between university and working in a corner market. Her boss paid her when he could. Dimitri was their fall-back; he had finished university in something incredibly technical, and a master’s as well. He had gotten a job in Germany as a systems engineer as they paid better abroad. Now the young ones emigrated if they wanted to build a career. It reminded Eleni of her grandmother’s time; it wasn’t supposed to be like this anymore.

An air of frenzy and hopefulness pervaded the house throughout the long lovely summer. Dimitri was either cramming German grammar or on Facebook with other Greeks living in Munich.

Late September brought the change. Dimitri was tired, tired all the time. At first they thought he was melancholy at leaving home. Eleni finally dragged him to the hospital. They had done it well, the doctors. They never said, “Your son may die.” They said, “These tests are not conclusive. We’ll see what the next test brings.” And there were always tests. Eleni and Costa had lost their insurance a year before, but Dimitri had access to the health system through December.

“And then what. And then what.” When she wanted to scream, she would cook a large pan of spinach pie or anything that Dimitri might like. She banged pots and pans while Costa wrestled with that idiotic bag of manure in the garden. She cooked for her beautiful boy. He was only 23. In the name of the Virgin, it was all so unfair.

By December the thing had a name – Chronic Myelogenous Leukaemia. Eleni didn’t understand. There were phases, it could be controlled but medications were expensive. They worked, but not all the time. Dimitri went into hospital for a final battery of tests and consultations as to the best treatment. They provided him with a box of Glivec. The drug cost €2,000 for a month’s supply and in two weeks he would have no insurance and no way to buy more.

The hospital pharmacist said, “Even if you had insurance, we probably won’t get any more in – we can’t afford it. There is a volunteer clinic in your neighborhood. Go to them; we work with them. If you respond well to the meds, they may be able to assist.”

He did respond well; his blood tests were significantly better by Christmas. The hospital pharmacy stamped his prescription with “medicine not available,” a necessary step in obtaining it outside a hospital setting, and they counted down the days.

The four of them argued from the moment the medicines started to work.

“These are volunteers, Costa. They help the uninsured. Dimitri’s going to need help.”

“Don’t! Stop! If you volunteer, you’re a malakas. Rich bitches with nothing else to do but take jobs from the working class. No one is going to help us but us. Family is the only thing that matters. And I don’t mean those good-for-nothing cousins in the village, and I mean you, me, Dimitri and Maria. Those are the only people that matter.”

“Papa,” said Maria, “I’ve heard this from you from the day dot. Taking what jobs? Public health clinics are closing. They’re already closed to the uninsured. This is beyond us.”

Arguing was useless. Maria and Dimitri went to the clinic and had him enrolled. He was quickly seen and his diagnosis confirmed.

“And papa, the people who work there, are like us. Most are unemployed themselves. Everyone, even the doctors are volunteers.”

Dimitri said, “They think the Glivec is my best chance. But if we can’t get it, there are alternatives, all of them with disadvantages. If I stay on the therapy consistently, I might even be able to work.”

“We’ll get it,” said Costa. “I’ll get it.”

But how? The land in the village wouldn’t fetch more than three months worth of the medication and that was before the new taxes. And who had the money to buy it? Could he sell the house, trading in the long term security of the family?

Eleni watched her china-shop bull tearing around the house the next day. He was looking for an old life insurance policy. He found it, long since lapsed; he had nothing to give his boy.

Over lunch, Costa repeated his mantra. “It’s the damn chemicals in the food that did it. No more artificial food. We’ll eat what we grow here.”

Dimitri said, “Papa, we all like junk-food now and then. We’ll find a solution.”

“What, from your Vo-lun-teers? Don’t make me weep; I mustn’t weep. There is no hope in strangers I tell you.”

And then, “I’m going to sell the car.”

“Papa, it’s 14 years old; what will you get for it?”

“And it still smells like manure, that’s got to affect the price, at least a little,” Dimitri said.

And to the surprise of them all, they laughed. After dinner, while Eleni napped, the two men went to the garden. January’s halcyon days were in full glory. Dimitri and Costa set up the stakes for the pea runners that would soon be going in.

“I’m thinking of melons in the summer. You’re fond of them, and your mother is always banging on about how delicious they are when home-grown.”

The Glivec finished in late January. His cell count numbers rose to unwanted levels in a remarkably short period of time. The clinic issued an extraordinary appeal, asking for a donation of the drug and they waited.

The doctors assured Dimitri he wouldn’t feel differently. It was his courage that failed. He stayed in his room longer each day doing God-knows-what on his computer. Eleni worried that he lived in an unreal world with these computers. But who was she to judge. That world had promised him a high salary in Germany before… before.

One Tuesday, over lunch Dimitri said, “We’ll have visitors today.”

“Who, did someone call?”

“No Papa, I received an apparition!! On Facebook. Some guys I’ve been talking to, they’re coming for coffee this afternoon.”

“I’ll be in the garden,” said Costa

“You will not,” Eleni said. “We have guests and you will be here. I wish I’d known. I don’t have time to make anything.”

The door bell rang in the early evening. Eleni had arranged slices of warm lemon cake on the best plates and the candied sour oranges in her mother’s cut glass bowls. A young man barely older than Dimitri and another in his mid-30’s stood at the door. Eleni beckoned them into the parlor. They sat, uncomfortably staring at each other.

“I suppose you must be volunteers at this famous clinic,” said Costa.

“Yes, I volunteer,” said Stavro, the younger of the two. “But that was after I was there as a patient. Like Dimitri here, I lost my insurance after I finished my studies.”

“I don’t have time to volunteer. I have a job, for which I’m grateful,” added Yianni.

“So how do you two know each other?”

“This is the first time we’ve actually met. We’ve texted for some time, decided what we were going to do, and came here to tell you about it.”

“Well that’s decent of you. What have you two do-gooders come up with?”

“Papa, stop it. They are guests; I invited them.”

Stavro said, “We have been communicating with Dimitri for about a month now. I developed CML two years ago. Yianni has been dealing with it for more than five. We’re both still in chronic phase, thanks to the Glivec; we’re both on it and so far we’re responding well.

“Seriously?” asked Costa.

“Deadly,” said Yianni. “Quite a club, we are.

“We know that the clinic is looking for the medicine and they’ll find it. They always do. Maria is a miracle worker. Dimitri knows her. You have to meet her; she works exclusively with us cancer patients.”

There, the word had been uttered in the house for the first time.

“She’ll find it, but not tomorrow, or even this week.”

Yianni continued, “I got a new box from the hospital a few days ago. Since I work, I have insurance. I think I got the last box they had.”

Stavro said, “And I have 30 days worth left before I have to panic.”

“So we decided, Stavro is giving 10 of his pills, and I’m giving 12 of mine. That means that we’re all covered for the next 20 days, by which time Maria had best have worked her miracle.”

They placed the blister packs on the table next to Eleni’s slices of cake. They all just stared at them.

“How can you do this?” said Costa.

“How can we not, Mr. Costa. We’re all facing this together. It’s not a choice.”

“Besides, Maria is a magician. She’s probably arm-twisting some pharmaceutical executive as we speak. She’ll find it.”

The five of them drank coffee and munched on cake in silence. Costa stared at these two strangers in his house and asked Yianni, “Do you really believe that this woman is going to find this medicine in time?”

“I don’t know, Mr. Costa. I try not to think too much about the future these days.”

Eleni rose and hugged the two men, strangers no longer, her boys from now on. Dimitri could not find his voice. The three young men took turns embracing, till they each smiled. They parted with pledges to chat and text. Eleni, at the door insisted that they and their families come to the house for Sunday lunch. “We’ll eat, talk, spend the day together.”

Eleni couldn’t hold back the tears. “Oh my boy, call your sister, call her now.”

Costa didn’t move. Eleni had never seen her husband so still. He wrapped his son in a fierce embrace; tore himself away and then barely said a word the entire evening.

By morning, he’d recovered. Gulping his coffee he bounded out to the garden shed and started crashing about.

On one of his forays into the house she asked, “What are you doing out there?”

“None of your concern, Eleni-mou. I’ll be out most of the day.”

“Out where? Maria took the car.”

“I’ll tell you later. I’ll take the bus.”

She watched him pile the large tool box holding his drills and electrical tools, the smaller one and the extension cable on the hand cart and then wrestle them to the bus stop.

An hour later, he dragged his cart through the door of the free clinic, cut in front of the line and walked up to the receptionist.

“Can I help you?”

“Yes, I called earlier. I’ve worked 30 years as a builder and I hear you need repairs.”

“Are you any good at electrical work?”

“Make a guess.”

“Then thank God. The pharmacy refrigerators are playing up; the wiring is not up to the load. It’s a long job.

“Doesn’t matter.”

“And there are dozens of other jobs. You’re here to volunteer then? Long-term?”

Did she have to dig it in?

“Yes, ready, for as long as it takes. Enough talk, my girl; I need to get to work.”

Hope in Greece

“People are getting INVOLVED — Folks are DOING something, and that is a magical thing to watch, and even more magical to be involved in,” my dear friend Martha wrote to me this spring from Athens.

The news of Greece, as you know, hasn’t been good. Austerity strategies are a cruel joke, based on false premises. Homelessness, drug addiction, prostitution are on the rise in Athens, as you can see captured in Angelos Tzortzinis’s heartbreaking photos.

Maybe this is all you’ve heard about Greece—one  wave after another of failed bailouts and government infighting. Maybe you’ve tuned out, writing it off as a hopeless cause. Beautiful country, great weather, hopeless politics, nothing to be done. Maybe, then, you need to learn about a remarkable crisis response in Athens: the Metropolitan
Community Clinic at Helliniko
, a free clinic that has sprung up to help the unemployed, uninsured, and/or impoverished Greeks, immigrants, and others who are falling through the widening cracks in the system.

Volunteers bringing medicines to the clinic. Photo from the BBC.
Volunteers bringing medicines to the clinic. Photo from the BBC.

(The space, may I add, is an inspired repurposing of a former American Air Force base.)

The clinic’s been catching some much-deserved media attention: this BBC News Magazine story, a visit from Naomi Klein (scroll down to 29 May 2013). But I know about it from Martha and her husband Mark, who have been volunteering there since its inception (read her quoted in the BBC story). Not the type of folks who sit soliloquizing while something is rotten in the state, they have been translating materials for the clinic’s website, sorting medicines for the storeroom, listening to patients’ stories, chipping in to pay for medicines to keep people going, providing good will and hope.

An authentic hope, as my colleague Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer puts it—one which “pays attention to problems as they actually are to the best of our understanding, even if problems are grave and solutions are demanding or uncertain.” Not the feeble wishful thinking, the “optimism disconnected from reality” that passes for hope in most of our public discourse (and private conversations, for that matter).

Outside of Greece we’re always reading about the high unemployment rate, especially for young people, who are depicted as futureless. In contrast, Martha sees their vibrant creativity at work: “The young people will save us.  There are so many new ideas, initiatives – young folks coming up with wonderful things – ranging from apps that can be used by free clinics to track medications to fun ads for Greek tourism.  Wonderful stuff.”

One of my writing idols Rebecca Solnit profiles the ways communities can rise up in crisis situations: the generosity that individuals show to one another, the calm they find together at the center of the storm. Instead of complaining about how the situation will never be ideal, we could be heroes  building on hope, knowing that “to be hopeful means to be uncertain about the future, to be tender toward possibilities, to be dedicated to change all the way down to the bottom of your heart.”

A logo photo from the clinic website.
A logo photo from the clinic website.

In 1822 Byron wrote to his friend and banker Douglas Kinnaird, “the longer I live – the more I perceive that Money (honestly come by) is the Philosopher’s Stone. . . . I want to get a sum together to go amongst the Greeks or Americans [he meant South Americans] – and do some good.” He did just that: got a sum together and spent the last 100 days of his life trying to do some good in Greece.

I’ve recently returned from the International Byron Conference  at King’s College London. International Byron Conference, King's College London
International Byron Conference, King’s College London
At the home/office of John Murray, Byron's publisher.
At the home/office of John Murray, Byron’s publisher.

The conference theme was the politics of poetry (and poetry of politics), highlighted by a keynote address by Professor Roderick Beaton, whose new book Byron’s War narrates the trajectory of Byron’s life that led him from romantic young traveler and Romantic poet to statesman working for the Greek cause.

Byron's War cover

Much of what Byron faced in 1824 he would in 2013: petty bickering and mutual undermining between factions who should be working together for a common solution, economically-interested meddling from European leaders who wanted their own piece of Greece, quiet indifference from the many. The venture, then as now, was fraught with uncertainty: are you funding the right people, is your money being used effectively? Will any lasting good come from this? And what precisely do the words “right” and “effectively” and “good” in this situation mean?

It’s easiest to do nothing. But Byron, and Martha and Mark, and countless unsung volunteers, put their philosophers’ stones to good use and sprang into action. Byron’s death in Greece galvanized a movement, and a mythology. Martha is more sanguine: “we will survive and will come out of this different, utterly changed, and pretty much the same.”