Views of America by Laura Kwong

August 1, 2009

I’ve talked to four or five Greeks now who believe that September 11th was organized by Jewish politicians and businessmen as a plot to further their stranglehold on the world economy. I’ve been told that Bush’s helped orchestrated the fall of the Twin Towers so he could launch a war on Iraq and Afghanistan and open a path for an uninterrupted flow of oil. I’ve heard that Obama is “white inside,” no different than any other politician, and that big pharmaceuticals control the U.S. People have told me that Americans landing on the moon is nothing but a “good Hollywood movie”. One man I talked to believes that maybe now robots have gone to Mars but another girl said that she is not convinced the international space station is real. Some of these ideas I have heard before, some of them I agree with more than others; they are all good food for thought.

Conspiracy, corruption, ignorance, media propaganda—is ignorance bliss? Need I be afraid? What can I do even if it is all a conspiracy? How can I defend my country when the retort is always, “There’s no evidence because they do a good job covering up.”? Are they right?

There is a lot of pride in Greece for the present-day country and the ancient civilization that so much of the world revolves around, but there also seems to be a significant amount of fear, doubt, insecurity, and anger towards immigrants, tourists, and even the EU.

I have much to learn.


Day off in Delphi by Laura Kwong

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Today was my day off, so Andy and Nick dropped me off at Delphi on their way to Itea to get some paperwork done. Delphi hosts the ruins of the Temple of Apollo, most prominent in 4th century B.C. when votives arrive from across the West and East. Everyone wanted to be in Apollo’s favor. Who wouldn’t want the god of victory to be on their side? The ruins were impressive in and of themselves, showcasing two ancient treasuries, a Roman theater, an ancient stadium, and three columns of the once-exquisite Temple of Apollo. I equally enjoyed the museum, which displayed a few of the actual offerings that have been recovered. These included a bull made out of silver plates, a bronze statue of a charioteer preparing for a race, a thirteen m marble column topped by “dancing” girls that once held a bronze cauldron, and an enormous sphinx (a mythical chimera composed of the head of a woman, the body of a lion, and the wings of an eagle).

While the scenery, archeological site and artifacts were intriguing, I must say that half of the pleasure of Delphi was talking to two Americans from LA who have been traveling the islands of Greece for the past three weeks. It is disappointing but somewhat reassuring that I am not alone in my not-so-great impression of Greece. (I really feel that I shouldn’t say that while I’m still in the country, but that really is how I feel.)

Before I came to Greece everyone told me how friendly Greeks were and how “there are a lot of people who speak English”. Unfortunately, not so much on either account. “Filonexia” seems to have disappeared with the inundation of tourists. Nick told me that there has always been tourism, which I believe, but I think the way Greeks interact with foreigners must certainly have changed when tourism became Greece’s number one industry. I don’t feel that I am seen entirely as a moneybag, as I did sometimes in Southeast Asia, but I do feel that I’m treated as “just another tourist,” not anyone with whom to have a good conversation, just a tourist who might come in and buy your kitshy merchandise or sit down at your taverna. In my mind, Greek filonexia meant that people would smile and say hello, they would invite you in for coffee if you were lost in the middle of nowhere, they would chat with you in the street. But the first person that smiled at me in Athens (after three weeks in the bumbling city), was a Danish woman who had just come to visit for a few minutes. As far as striking up a conversation or being into a farmer’s house, the language barrier has prevented. The filonexia I have encountered came from connections to Yeoryia and her family. It seems that without connections, there isn’t much of filonexia left for the tourist to encounter. Maybe I’ve just been in the wrong places; I hope so.


Sheep by Laura Kwong

Sunday, July 19, 2009

This morning I got to feed the sheep! Okay, so I’ve been taking the sheep out to pasture for the past three nights, bringing them to their food, but today I got to bring their food to them. I shouldn’t enjoy this unnatural order, especially since the sheep were being unruly, but I did.

First I turned on the milling machine to spit out a bucket of ground corn (a mixture of oats, barley, and wheat). Then I used the loped off top of a plastic bottle to dish a scoopful of feed into the tray where the sheep would place their munching/slurping/guzzling lips. After ensuring the gate to the feeding area was fastened shut, I untied the rope that secured the gate to the holding pen. The sheep filed out one by one (regulated by the narrow passageway), except when a sheep got too excited and literally jumped the line. The dashed and crashed their way to the feeding troughs and inserted their heads through narrow slots. As they did, the pushed down a metal bar with their necks that flipped a metal bar over the top of their necks so they would have to stay in the slot and keep eating until I let them go. It seems rather ridiculous to have to make the sheep keep their mouths next to their food until I decided they were done with the meal, but the few slots that didn’t have bars to keep the sheep locked in made the reason for the restriction quite obvious. The sheep would eat a few mouthfuls, then wander over to another sheep’s slot and try to get at her food. Of course, there wasn’t any room to get in, so they would put their hooves on the other sheep’s back of try to nudge the other sheep away. There was one slot that had no bar and fit two sheep, but the pushy German sheep, who ate a lot and ate quickly, would always try to barge in and take more food if there wasn’t a bar to restrain them.

The trickiest part was getting the sheep to leave the pen. After everyone was finished eating, which took considerably longer for the little spotted sheep compared to the pushy, big-mouthed German sheep, I released the bars that held their necks down and opened the gate to the outside. The problem was that the sheep, not accustomed to my presence, where quite scared to enter the three foot radius around me and wouldn’t come through the gate when I opened it. I had to prop the gate open and move to the back of the pen, scaring all the sheep to dart in front of me, before I could turn around and shoo them out. By this time the sheep that were already outside had pushed their way through the secondary gate and some were coming in the gate that I was trying to push the other sheep out of. Ay! Exo, exo! Exo! I yelled and sometimes gave the sheep a little tap on the back to get them going. After Andy discovered that I still hadn’t fed all the sheep, he told me that I was supposed to both the gates and then release the sheep from the feeding troughs. This may have helped a bit, but I don’t see how it would prevent the other sheep from coming back in. They would probably only have stopped making trouble if I had given them some water, which I didn’t really have time to do because I was filling feed troughs, trying to prevent a sheep that was caught sideways in the shoot of the holding pen from being torn in two, and dealing with sheep that were pushing their way back into the feeding area. Andy had made it look so easy! What an experience.


Pasture by Laura Kwong

This morning I moved bales of clover. I moved 450 bales an average of 4 meters. And at 10-15 kg each, that is a lot of work. I could figure out the number of Newtons if I care to draw the force diagrams, but let’s just say that it took me three hours in the hot sun and even I took a break to lie in the shade on the clover.

When was the last time you laid in a pasture? And not just on the pretty green grass in your front yard (although that was probably a long time ago, too), but in a field of grasses with orange and white butterflies fluttering about, incessantly buzzing flies, crickets jumping from here to there, and birds chirping in the shady tree above you? I watched a ladybug climb up a blade of grass, over and around the top, and back down a few paces to rest. I thought, “What a head-rush she must be having, clinging to that blade of grass upside-down.” Good thing ladybugs don’t have blood and a circulation system like we do. Good thing they are not like us at all because if they were, not only would this little ladybug have a head-rush, but she also wouldn’t be climbing on a piece of grass and her little feet wouldn’t be perpendicular to the ground. As I watched, a little yellow aphid climbed up the same blade of grass and I thought for sure that I’d see the food chain in action. The aphid climbed up and around the top, and back down, right in front of the ladybug. Either she was blind or not hungry, because she let the little fella go.

I listened to the cicadas and tasted a few of the purple clover flowers that the sheep love so much. Sweet. With a salad of clover leaves, it was easy to see why the ruminants were always trying to escape to the clover pasture. They made one break-away attempt last night, but I dropped my rucksack and ran after them, routing the naughty four-leggeds just in time. It is always the big, white German sheep that lead the breakaways. Andy has three types of sheep, the big, white Germans, who have been domesticated so well that they grow better on milled corn (a general term in Europe for any grain) than in the open pasture. The all-black sheep that are native to this area graze well, but Andy is shifting his flock over to the black-headed, black and white spotted sheep that graze better than the other two breeds. By “graze better”, I suppose he means that they are more efficient munchers, eating more quickly when they are taken out to the pastures every morning and evening.

Efficient grazing is important because, whereas shepherding used to mean watching the sheep in the fields from dawn to dusk, allowing the sheep to graze all day, Andy’s sheep only get to graze six hours a day. Sheep don’t graze well in the heat so being a sheep farmer in the summer in Central Greece means long days. Andy wakes up at 5 am and takes the sheep out until 8:30. He comes home and has some toast with us (his voluntary workers), before we all head to the barn to work on various tasks until half past noon. After showering, we eat lunch around 1:30 and rest until seven, at which time we take the sheep out for another three hours. Chores aren’t usually finished until 11 and lately we haven’t been going to bed until midnight to give our stomach half an hour to digest our late-late-night dinners. At five am the work starts again. Enjoy that meat you are eating, because raising it well, in a traditional pasture-fed manner, takes years of labor, working day after day from before dawn until after the sun has gone to bed. When you eat your next chunk of meat, remember to thank the farmer and the animal he helped to grow.



Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce and Bits of Sheep by Laura Kwong

Andy, the sheep farmer I’ll be helping for the next two weeks, is an inventive cook who whips us some tasty concoctions. He was born in Brazil to Greek parents, and lived in England for a number of years before starting this farm in Greece 15 years ago, so his cooking has international influences. He told me that he has always liked to cook but his mother got angry when she saw him in the kitchen or heard that he had cooked for his wife. “I’m not supposed to do this thing [cooking],” Andy told me, “…and when I was the plates…She [his mother] shouts be afterwards she enjoys it.” He was also scolded when he participated in rearing his three children. I asked him if Greeks still think this way and he said, “In Athens you have a lot of young couples but in Greece, yes, the woman is supposed to raise the children and the man work and bring the money.”

The first night I arrived at the farm, I had spaghetti and tomato sauce with chunks of Andy’s own sheep—really good.


Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce and Bits of Sheep Serves 4


2 c sheep meat, cut into small pieces

1 onion, finely chopped

3 sun-dried tomatoes, rehydrated

½ c raisins

½ medium carrot, sliced into thin rounds

1 can/package of chopped tomato

4 bay leaves

1 cinnamon stick




Salt and Pepper


Sauté the onions with the sheep meat. After several minutes, add the remaining ingredients, seasoning as desired. Let the sauce simmer for 15 minutes and serve over spaghetti.


Bralos by Laura Kwong

I am in a little slice of paradise. I have arrived at the farm of Andy Agouropoulos near the village of Bralos, in Central Greece. Andy has 110 sheep, 2 cows, chickens, a turkey, seven dogs, an armload of cats, 100 acres of land to graze the sheep, an overgrown garden, and a son to help him run the farm. He also has WWOOFers. WWOOF (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) is an international organization in which travelers trade their labor for room, board, and an introduction to farming. I have tried WOOFing once before, and ended up as a babysitter who watered the lawn and pulled the weeds in a family garden, but the farm I am at now is the real deal. A friend told me about Andy’s place and she said it was nice, but she didn’t tell me it was like this. I feel so fortunate to be here and experience Greece as it was fifty years ago.

Tonight, I moved bales of hay from here to there, dragging the 15 kilo packages across the ground with a metal hook. I thoroughly enjoyed it what others might consider to be work. I reveled the smell of the straw, the rolling slope of the land, the tans and greens of the neighboring fields, the mountainous backdrop, the setting sun…I even stopped trying to be efficient with my hay hauling so I could just enjoy the sweet smell of life instead of solving an optimization problem of how to finish the task as quickly as possible. I smiled as I worked. What a wonderful place to be.


Thebes afterward by Laura Kwong

Monday, June 22, 2009

I’ve been thinking about my friends in Thebes and their problems for days. I can’t get them out of my head. I don’t know what I can do because the problem is so big, and I’m not even talking about ending the war. It would be hard enough just to help my friends improve their situation, much less get to America. I feel like I should start a fund-drive to help them…but what can I really do? I can buy them all plane tickets, but how do they get into the US with no money and no job? Perhaps I could organize a support network….the first thing I need to do is to educate myself. Adel, Izet, Ali, I want to help you but I’m not sure how. But I told you that I’d do my best and I am true to my word. First, you have spurred me to educate myself. Then I’ll see how to best employ my effort.

I’ve also been thinking that I’m frustrated with myself for not being more outraged at the situation of my friends and the conditions that they are living with. I think that I am not as upset as many others would be because their home and food are not unlike the home and food I would choose voluntarily. I like living in a tent and cooking nightly over a stove. I like living with a large group of people.

The other factor that diminishes the apparent gravity of my friend’s situation is that they were all outwardly happy. They had enough food to get by and a few men even had a little bit of a belly. (Although, I found out later that Adel, Ali, and Muhammed all have stomach ulcers that were being treated in Iran but not in Greece and that Adel suffers severe tendonitis from working in the rice fields of Baklan.) They lacked fruit but not necessarily because they lacked money. They felt that fruit was too expensive, but they did splurge for cigarettes and pop. But all considered, they had smiles on their faces, they sang and danced and talked on their cell phones. They didn’t seem desperate. Inshallah, they shall never be so desperate that they can’t smile around friends.

The world is big and I have much to learn.


Thebes II by Laura Kwong

Important words to know: προβλεμα = problem, οχι = no, καλο = good

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

It is unfortunate, beyond unfortunate, that these young men spend twelve hours a day in the shade of their concrete brick shelter, sleeping, chatting, and drawing, just to trying to keep cool and pass the time. They are aspiring doctors (“because Afghanistan has no doctors”) and engineers, with strong muscles and ready minds. It is a shame they cannot go to school, or at least work.

No work, no money. Problem. How do these men get by? They work when work is possible (and when Greeks, who respond to their “καλιμερα” with “Fuck you,” are willing to give them a job), but even then they only earn €50 for a twelve-hour day. They don’t pay rent, don’t own automobiles, and don’t have to (or get to) worry about tuition or health insurance payments, but they still must eat. How do they provide food and other necessities, few that they are, for ten people? Dumpster diving, reusing other’s refuse, must help, but it certainly isn’t enough. Adel says that his father send hi money via Western Union. His father sends him, the emigrant, money? That’s not how it is supposed to work.

But I guess that’s what happens when one flees his nation, not for economic opportunity but to escape being caught in the cross-fire. Maybe, someday, they will have good jobs in Italy, France, Spain, England, Canada, or America and they will be able to send money back home. Right now the problem is not money but danger. At least they and their families are still alive. Except for Izet. His fifteen brothers and sisters and both of his parents died in a bomb blast. He has no family except for these brothers with whom he has walked across nations.

There were frequent cell phone interruptions during our conversations, which I thought was funny because cell phones are not objects one usually associates with struggling refugees. Cell phones are extremely important to the men’s well-being. Phones keep them connected to their families in Afghanistan, their brothers in Canada and England, their friends in the US and other Afghanis in Greece. It allows them to keep up on the situation at home, to laugh with friends far away, to watch music videos and to kill time. They all have phones and fifty percent of the time someone has a phone I his palm, either talking or texting or listening to music. I’m not sure how they keep these phones charged, but I am glad they work because they are so vital to communication and entertainment.

I got the boys to draw a map of their homeland and route to Greece. From there out came paper and a pen and we drew for the next few hours. Actually, I have no idea how long it was. When you are enjoying company and have nowhere to be and nothing else to do, time is not important. There were some not-at-all realistic drawings of animals and a sketch of the living area by Ali (who would like to be a painter), before we started drawing portraits of each other. I drew Ali and he drew me. When he say my drawing of him (which I would be ashamed to show either of the art students I am living with in Athens), I think he was unhappy with his drawing of me because he wouldn’t sow it to me but instead immediately started on another drawing. His sketch was quite funny, as were all the other drawing the guys made of me, because in each on I had a foot-long afro! They really liked my hair! I wish I had saved those drawings, but I think they all got burned.



Thebes by Laura Kwong

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

I got on a bus to Thebes yesterday for no other reason than it was cheaper and less touristy than Delphi and it was somewhere other than Athens, where I’ve spent the past two weeks venturing among the stone ruins, graffiti-ed streets, museums, and bakeries, and staying inside to avoid the heat. I got off the bus at some random spot, somewhere in Thebes, I think... I figured it didn’t matter where I disembarked since I didn’t have a destination-tourist spot, lunch spot, hostel or otherwise. I was immediately disappointed with myself and my surroundings. I had paid E7.20 and traveled an hour and a half for what? I was in another city, with the same type of stores, and presumably food and people, as Athens. It was hot, dirty and not in the least exciting. What had I accomplished?

I didn’t plan on it, but I ran into some Afghani boys. In Greece? Yes, they are here on temporary, five-year work visas issued by Greece. They are trying to find work so they can save money so they can pay smugglers ε4,000 to reach Padua, Italy. From there they hope to go to France, Spain, Norway, the UK, Canada, and the U.S. But there is a problem. Greece problem, police problem. Ολα προβλεμα – all problem: lamp – problem, room – problem, νερο (water) – problem. Imagine that one of the few words you can communicate to an English-speaker is “problem” and it describes most of your life.

Greece is a problem because of an EU refugee policy called Dublin II that states that refugees must apply for visa in the first EU nation that they enter. For Afghanis, this means Greece. The problem is that Greece refuses to grant refugee status to Afghani political refugees. According to The Christian Science Monitor, “In 2007, just eight people were granted refugee status by Greece on first application. On appeal, an additional 132 were.” This amounts to 0.5% of the 21,000-some applicants. Afghanis who enter Greece can’t legally cross into other EU nations because they are required to first apply for a visa in their country of destination before they arrive. When you can’t read or write in your mother tongue, much less in the Greek or English or Italian or German or Norwegian, this is a problem. It is a problem even if you can read and write.

My Afghani friends walked here through Iran and Turkey paying E4,000 for food and the protection of smugglers. They paid E3,000 for a dingy to cross from Izmir to Mytilini and have temporarily settled in Thebes because they are politically restricted from walking any further. If they didn’t risk deportation in Macedonia, Serbia, Albania, and Romania, they would walk all the way to Norway. Police (action of handcuffing) – problem, back to Afghanistan.

What has my country done? American, do you know what troubles you have caused. The Taliban bombed our Twin Towers and destroyed thousands of lives, but we have killed thousands of civilians and forced two million Afghanis to emigrate just this year. And this is year eight. What kind of problems have we made in this land neither I nor most American know anything about. WE know about the Taliban, opium poppy cultivation, the repression of women, and Kurdish freedom fighters. We’ve heard of cities such as Kabul and Kandahar, and may even be award that the president is Hamid Karzai. We know that there have been and still are big problems: opium is a major export, literacy stands at 36%, life expectancy is less than 50 years, there were 811 deaths from landmines in 2007, there continue to be scores of civilian deaths from stray bombs and bullets, there is a lack of infrastructure, and there is a continuing Taliban presence. It is this last problem that drove the ten men I ate dinner with last night from their homes and families in Afghanistan to Greece, where they are unwelcome and jobless. What a life. To flee from one’s own country only to be scorned in a supposed refuge.

They are so kind. I will stay today and tonight and then go. Where, I don’t know. I love living here, sleeping under the stars, trying to converse in a mixture of Pashtun, Greek, and English, cooking and eating together, drawing, playing games…

The boys just emerged (8:35 am) from their concrete block house and are now squatting in the shade. They gave me the protected spot, under the outdoor sleeping platform, and cushioned it with a sleeping pad and pillow for me. I really like these guys. I am keeping my bag with my books, money, and passport around my torso, but I really do trust them. I did sleep here last night without any protection against evil acts except for the human spirit and Allah, who is, in fact, himself a product of the human spirit. I am thinking about what my grandmothers and mother and uncles and cousins would say. You may think I am foolish, but I do consider my safety and I am observant of my surroundings and the people who surround me. Many people would be scared of these boys because they are poor, “foreign,” and Muslim. But they are good men. Though they have been through much, age-wise they are still very much boys. Adel is 19 and his brother Rohala is 16. Norachman is 18; Izet, 19; Nabee 19; Nasser, 20; Saif Fullah, 17; Ali, 22; Muhammed, 22; and Saeed Agha, 30. I am not scared of them because they are poor; they are rich in spirit and generosity and kindness. I am not scared of them because they are Muslim; they are respectful of women and good at heart. Last night, it was Adel’s idea to put my backpack between our sleeping mats to be more respectful of my space. It was Adel who gave me extra blankets and mesh to keep out the mosquitoes. It was Ali who reassured me that my new friends were all my brothers, rora. Brothers, inshallah they will always be brothers who will have good, healthy lives. Inshallah.



Athens and Research by Jacob Walls

Since coming to Athens I've realized that Greece is not a place that you can equate to other places that easily. I have tried explaining it as a cross between Italy and Israel but that just seams like a painful analogy to try and comprehend. Maybe, a better one is: an overgrown Malta, but other than that I think its best to say Greece is its own thing altogether. I've been struck by the family atmosphere here and how community oriented everyone seems to be. Athens really is as if a sea of small communities that just happened to grow into each other. Lacking a metropolitan downtown and skyline it’s obvious that the tallest structures are still the oldest ones dominating the top of the Acropolis. I think because of the neighborhood feel that permeates throughout the city, Athens is a place that becomes casually and pleasantly underwhelming and if you're one for quaint esthetics it can become simultaneously affixating yet anxiously enchanting. Athens can also be a place of literally endless pubs, coffee shops and conversation, enigmatic windy streets, mesmerizing traffic flows and Greek style piazzas. So, the past few weeks for me have been an adjustment to a new country and an experiment in figuring out how to approach this city and ultimately my project.


My project has been going extremely well, I recently went to the Cyprus Embassy and asked if there were any Consular Officers available to speak with as I am going to Cyprus soon. After a long conversation front desk personnel I finally was able to convince them that first: I was not there for a Visa and second: I didn't need a visa to visit Cyprus. So they sent me to the Trade Office for Cyprus, like a commercial office, which has nothing to do with politics but I think the front desk thought that I'd give up after that.


Located in what looked like a converted apartment I found a few Commercial Officers hanging out and we got to talking, they said, "you know, I think you probably want to be talking with a Consular Officer at the Embassy." He goes over to the phone and starts chatting with someone and tells me to grab the phone, he says it’s the DCM, the Deputy Chief of Mission, which is the second highest diplomat in the country representing Cyprus. Needless to say, no one gets to have an interview with the DCM unless you jump through a lot of hoops and red tape, this guy practically just handed me my top interview in a matter of minutes. A couple days later I was at the Embassy again, being asked if I needed a visa. This time however, after saying whom I was there for, I was quickly ushered inside with smiles and escorted to an elevator. The DCM was waiting for me and was more than warm in receiving me. Over two and a half hours later he had answered every one of my questions both on and off the record, brought in one of his Press Officers and gave me an entire bag full of books and literature concerning my project. More than a diplomat, he was a genuine people person. Shaking hands at the end he handed me his card and said, "call me if you ever need anything or have a question." Now, sure I've heard that before but to have an open invitation to simply call the DCM is a pretty validating experience, especially when you got that interview through pure people skills and zero name recognition. One down, I don't even want to think of how many to go, but it will include a flight, a passport and a lot of unknowns.


Wrapping up, I'm hanging out in Pangratti having a coffee and sandwich on a couch outside surrounded by palm trees, chatting Greek-Cypriot politics with the shop owner's son, reading and virtual journaling, aka blogging. Ups and downs for sure, but overall, not a bad gig.