Out of town, Stories, Streets
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The man on the bench

I was in transit today. Transit that took me from Piraeus, the port of Athens, to Agistri, a small island an hour away from the mainland. A day prior I was in the calm Peloponnesian countryside with my parents. Now I’m solo amid what feels like chaos.

Piraeus charged at me during my short stay. It sent out sirens, smells, and rushing commuters to provoke a response. Construction sites had torn holes in the city as if a meteor had hit and made a dense city even less accessible.

I offered a white flag. But it took until the morning of my departure for Piraeus to accept my surrender.

With takeout coffee and a book in my left hand, luggage slung across my right shoulder, Piraeus decided to go easy as I shuffled toward my port gate looking for a place to lay low. At precisely 10:30 am, the city gave me a leafy public park called Tinaneios Garden.

The garden was protected by a wrought iron fence and at its hub, a bronze statue. Mature trees provide shade that dappled light onto the scorched ground. Brittle wild grasses crackle as the breeze nudged them. This garden belongs to the city, yet I was allowed to borrow it.

The bronze statue stands on a plinth and glares through the trees toward the traffic outside and around it, a ring of benches. The sunlit ones are empty but those in the shade are occupied. One gets taken by me, another by an older man with a white moustache and belted, high-wasted trousers. Other custodians come and go; couples, friends and those needing some hush for a private phone call.

In a corner of the park beyond the area in which I sat, a man in his 40s read his book or just sat peacefully with his bags at his feet – as I did. He had a plain white paper cup at his side and wore a baseball cap. I imagined that he probably slept somewhere close by like I had, too.

I sipped my black coffee and as I lowered the cup from my lips saw two women entering the garden from its far side. One middle-aged, 50 perhaps, and the other in her early 30s. Both pulled tartan-print shopping carts and as they moved through the park traced the path behind the ring of benches, stopping where the man sat.

The women engaged him with a smile. He reflected their greeting and the group chatted for a few moments, beyond earshot and beneath the rumble of traffic. I looked on and after a few moments the older women paused, turned to her cart and produced from it a stainless steel vacuum flask.

I could see her press the lever to open the spout and I imagined the ‘pop’ it would make as air rushes in. She poured coffee into his lifted cup and returned the flask to its mobile home. The man nodded with gratitude before the women shared a small farewell with him, and then left the park from an exit close to me.

As they turn to leave I could see a weathered blanket peeking out of the younger woman’s cart. I decided that these unprepossessing shopping carts were the vehicles for acts of kindness. And that these women were the couriers.

Piraeus is a brash and boisterous city, but perhaps – just perhaps – it’s more forgiving than it first seems.

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