Greece, Athens, July 2013. I’m here for a conference, with some free time to walk around. My hotel is very close to the Acropole and this is my first time here. The Acropole, shining in the sun, is an image that will probably stay with me forever. It is hot, not yet the hottest time in Athens, and the light is sharp, intense, almost numbing. The tourists… so many, in amazement, walking around mesmerized. An Asian young couple asking me to take a photo of them. I put my orange juice down and take the most amazing picture of this extremely young couple. Their faces are glowing and they look so incredibly young… I am puzzled, but then maybe it is just my inability to read their age so I stop thinking about them.
Coming down the hill – a woman with three children (10, 8 and 3), urging her older son: ask this young lady what the time is. ‘Am not that young any longer’ I say to myself and then answer the question the child is too shy to ask and we start a conversation. She is from Piatra Neamţ, a small town in Romania. She looks around fifty, but I discover she is actually exactly my age. There is such a sharp contrast between the two of us and in any other circumstance I would feel so proud to look so much younger than a woman my age, but now… I take no satisfaction and I almost feel guilty about it. I avoid the question when she tries to know about my age, as I avoid to tell her things about myself. I look like a young lady to her, how would she feel to realize it is not a matter of age, but one of unequal opportunities to keep one’s youthful appearance.
She wanted to abdandon her youngest at birth, but luckily for the child she had some complications after labour so she had to stay in hospital for a long time. And in the meantime they kept bringing her son to her to be fed and so she started to bond with him and… love him. If her body had been stronger, the child would have been given to state care. She was already very poor with two children at home and a violent, alcoholic husband: what kind of a future could she offer her youngest son? She had to work on construction sites for all the 9 months of her pregnancy and when the time came to give birth, her back was a wreck so she was forced to take a ‘holiday’ at the hospital. What to do? Sometimes one has to take an unexpected vacation, at an unexpected time and in the sort of life that some people live in, this leads to unexpected bonding with the son planned for abandonment.
The youngest is very thin and she says that he refuses food. The only thing he wants is juice and oranges, but strangely he does not want the remaining of my orange juice. She drinks it in the end.
The older boys earn their daily living and help her to survive. Each of them has a toy harmonica they play on the busy street close to the Acropole at a certain distance from each other. It is 7 p.m., the street starts being busy so the kids leave us and go to work urged by their mother. They are interested in the conversation and they do not want to go, their mother has to remind them several times that this is working time. Normally, they are the first ones who come to occupy their spots, but very soon lots of other kids join them. They have the street for themselves for a couple of hours: a bit later the ‘real’ street artists start their shows, crowding out these children who use their toy instruments to beg rather than play and entertain an audience.
How much do they make? 15-20 euros per evening. The oldest always less than his brother, as he hates doing this. For him every excuse is good to stop playing, take a walk like a local kid, talk to the people, go to a nearby restaurant and ask the owner for some food, wasting his working time. His brother is much more disciplined and stays put until his mother comes to take him. So he makes more money from playing his toy instrument, in spite of the fact that he can not hear well and he is also a bit retard, as his mother says.
A story in the story: the children were very small, the husband was very drunk, the mother was out for work on a very cold winter day. Mother comes back late in the evening, day after day, the stove is cold day after day, the boys stay in the bed under old blankets. And day after day the little one grows bluer and bluer around his little fingers and one day when the mother comes home the kid is obviously not well. She finally takes him at the hospital, where doctors start yelling at her and say that she is irresponsible to let her kids die of cold like that. They save him, but he will never be the same child again.
A few days ago the family went through horrific days. The older boys disappeared on their mother. The first day she was not very worried, as the boys know the city by heart and she assumed they ran off to take a swim in the sea. It had happened before, but they had come back. The second day she started to go to the usual places where they liked spending time, but no trace of them. The third day she became worried and the forth day very worried. The fifth day she went to the police, where a young lady (another young lady…) who could speak both Romanian and Greek helped her find the boys: they were in jail for begging. When they brought them to her they were wearing handcuffs like any other criminal, but she started to cry with relief. At least they were alive. The next day she took them on the street again: the rent needs to be payed regularly and the little one needs his oranges.
Do the kids go to school? Yes. They are here only for the summer. When the school starts they go back to Romania, where the kids who go to school have an allowance: 10 euros per month for the healthy kid and 20 euros per month for the disabled kid. Plus some other welfare she gets for who knows what reason – all in all: 100 EUR per month, plus what she can make as a day labourer. Could the authorities do more for her and her children? No. Nothing. What can they do? They live in a small village where only some people have a well in their own backyard, nobody has an indoor toilet and many don’t even have electricity. However, maybe there is one thing that can be done for her. She takes a long pause and a long breath: maybe the town hall could give her a very small piece of land so that she can build a very small home for herself and the children.
A couple of years ago, her husband left her, a wealthy family helped her build a very small home and she is very happy there. But the house is built on his husband’s land. What if one day he comes back and starts beating her again? Her husband left to Italy when she got pregnant with this third child. And she hoped their lot would improve, but he become involved with another woman and they have a kid about her son’s age. She is in touch with her mother-in-law and the mother-in-law said he wants to come back from Italy and start afresh with her. A cousin told her that he even wants to join her in Greece. She is horrified. She shows me a limp finger and scars on her hand: from the time her drunk husband took a knife and put her hand on the table, as she did not want to give him the money to go to the village tavern. Which money? He had already drank it all.
But now they are fine. The boys make some money, she can pay the rent and buy some food. And in the fall they go back to Romania, the boys go to school, get the allowances, she works when she finds work and they go on. Education is very important. She only went to school for a few years and she knows how important it is. Because she can not read and write properly and because she ‘remained stupid’, she can not find a stable job. She tried at the supermaket, but they cheated on her payment and then they did not want her any longer. It is better to have the boys play their toy instruments for a couple of hours a day then keep trying to find a job that nobody would give to her. She is now too old to learn a trade or something. She feel her time is up – she can only be a day labourer. So she wants the boys to stay in school. She does not have high hopes for the handicapped child, but maybe the oldest son can become a driver, a waiter, or something like that. To earn a decent living, become a ‘mister’.
But most of all, she is happy now she did not abandon her youngest. He is so cute. And yes it is hard, but while she could raise two children, she can surely raise a third one. But still, could the authorities do something more for her? No, just a small piece of land. That’s it. So that when her husband comes back she can keep him out of their lives. This is the big dream.