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Chapter 26 - Volunteering with Refugees - Greece

By Neil and Nkki

sunny 29 °C

It was the image of this little boy, 3 year old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, washed up on Bodrim beach in Turkey, having drowned at sea in September 2015, that galvanised the world into action for the tsunami of refugees that were arriving in Europe from the Syrian War. He’d been trying to get from Bodrim in Turkey to the Greek Island of Kos in a tiny rubber raft.

The body of 3 year old Alan Kurdi, washed up on a beach in Turkey after the boat he was trying to escape Syria in capsized, killing him, his infant sister and mother. Only his father survived.

The Kurdi family were trying to reach Canada, a place which for many seeking asylum has been considered the ultimate safe haven.

If a photograph can be powerful, so can music. An Australian musician, Missy Higgins, was so moved by Alan Kurdi’s death, she wrote the song ‘Oh Canada’. Both the music and imagery are searing.

An image from the video to the song ‘Oh Canada’ by Australian artist Missy Higgins (search ‘Youtube Missy Higgins Oh Canada – Official Video’ to listen to and watch this beautiful tribute).

This only firmed the resolve of Nikki and I to volunteer in a refugee camp in Greece during our Big Trip.

The Thermopylae Refugee Camp near Lamia, Greece.

“Thermo-pylae” is Greek for “hot-spring” and the sulphurous natural springs at Thermopylae in Central Greece have existed for well over 3000 years. There is an old abandoned hotel near the hot springs and about 12 months ago the Greek government decided it would be a good location for a refugee camp.

The Thermopylae Refugee Camp – Greece. One of the accommodation blocks.

There are about 800 refugees in the camp. About 120 are school aged children. Approximately 75% are Syrian, 15% Kurdish and 10% Palestinian.

We volunteered for an organisation called Happy Caravan, whose primary goal is to provide English, maths and music lessons, as well as cinema and dance activities, for the children in the camp.

The Classroom at the Thermopylae refugee camp.

Before describing our time there, I wanted to give some background around the refugee situation for those interested…..

The Refugee Situation in Europe

Take a look at the immigration of non-EU nationals between 2010 and 2013 (in green). Its sitting at about 1.3 million per year.

Now take a look at the asylum seekers (orange) and illegal border crossings (blue). Prior to 2014 they were about 400,000 per year. Then in 2014 it starts to spike up to 900,000.


In 2015, however, the wave became a tsunami.

Mediterranean sea arrivals to Greece and Italy from January 2015 to September 2016.

Yes. In October 2015 about 215,000 people arrived in Greece by boat. Over a million in a 12 month period, into Greece alone. And these were the lucky ones. They made it across the Mediterranean to the refugee camps. An estimated 10,000 for the period 2015 - 2017 did not survive the crossing.

(The “EU-Turkey” deal refers to an agreement that any people arriving in Greece from Turkey would be returned to Turkey).

Where were the asylum seekers coming from?

Sea arrivals into Greece and Italy in 2015

The chart below shows that, whilst I’ve called this section ‘The Refugee Situation in Europe’, you can see that the countries with the highest number of refugees are Pakistan and Turkey, with over 1.5 million and 2.7 million respectively. It also shows that around 4 million refugees have come from Syria, and 3 million from Afghanistan.

Chart showing where refugees are coming from and going to in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

The Story of One Refugee – Alaa Eddin Jnaid – Founder of Happy Caravan.

In 2013, Alaa was a 29 year old bloke living in Aleppo, Syria when war engulfed his city.

Map of Syria.

Alaa was just an average guy, living and working away in Aleppo. Then bombs started dropping on his city. One day, while he was eating his dinner, a bomb landed on his car out the front of his house destroying it completely. Then Islamic State came into Aleppo. Alaa was working for the Jesuit Refugee Service. Due to this work, his name was ‘put on a list’ by IS and he realised that if he didn’t flee, he would be murdered.

Alaa Eddin Jnaid – Netherlands citizen – Syrian Refugee – founder of Happy Caravan.

He swam across a river to Turkey and eventually got on a boat to Greece. The boat landed on the island of Samos, on a remote rocky outcrop against a sheer rock face. With no help in sight, a dozen men, including Alaa, decided to climb the rock face to try and find assistance. During the climb 3 men fell to their deaths. However, there was no choice for the others but to go on. The people on the beach had no water or food and risked dying of exposure.

At the top they eventually found assistance and made it to a Greek refugee camp.

But What Happened Then?

So, it’s time for a bit of Asylum Seeker/ Refugee Class 101.

I said in an earlier blog that the United Nations was formed out of the crucible of the Second World War. This is also true of Human Rights.

Eleanor Roosevelt, the leader of the international effort to develop the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with the Spanish version of the Declaration. It was ratified by the UN on 10th December 1948.

The Declaration forms the cornerstone of Human Rights Law in the world. Important for Asylum Seekers, Article 14 (1) states:

1. Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution

I think probably Article 2 and 3 are then important to note:

Article 2:

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status……

Article 3:

Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.


Now, onto the Refugee part:

Once again, following the Second World War and the millions of refugees that that conflict caused, the UN started working on a Convention for Refugees. This became known as the 1951 Refugee Convention and was ratified by the UN in July 1951.

Of course, the cornerstone of the convention is the definition of a Refugee. This is defined in Article 1 of the Convention and is:

“A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, and nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

The assessment of whether an asylum seeker meets the requirements to be a 'refugee' is made by the government where asylum is sought, or by the UNHCR (if requested by that government). (More on this from an Australian perspective later on).

Once someone has been granted refugee status then the rights under the 1951 Refugee Convention come into effect. These, in simple terms, give refugees the same rights as the local population with respect to welfare, healthcare, education, housing, employment, etc.

Regarding resettlement, however, under Article 34 of the 1951 Refugee Convention, it states:

‘The Contracting States shall as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalization of refugees. They shall in particular make every effort to expedite naturalization proceedings and to reduce as far as possible the charges and costs of such proceedings’.

BUT!!! I ain't a lawyer but note that it doesn’t say ‘will’, or ‘must’. This means that states are obliged but not compelled to resettle refugees. However, the European Union appears to have taken the 1951 Refugee Convention in the spirit in which is was written. It’s set up the European Asylum Support Office and the Dublin Regulation and the EU Emergency Relocation Mechanism. The Dublin Regulation is a European Law that determines by fingerprinting the EU Member responsible for an asylum seeker claim and is linked to the EU Emergency Relocation Mechanism which is where the number of refugees each country in the EU should resettle is allocated.

In addition to the amazing efforts of Germany in 2015, the EU Emergency Relocation Mechanism is making real progress. Not all of the countries of Europe are meeting their obligations, with some refusing to take any refugees (Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are all subject of legal action by the EU Commission for failure to meet their obligations under the Agreement). However, the number of refugees now in Greece is around 60,000 and the resettlement into Europe is underway. But Greece, and no doubt the other countries, are struggling to provide basic services for the refugees coming to its shores, including schooling for the children (which is ad hoc at best).

Back to Alaa’s story:

After a while in refugee camps in Greece, Alaa decided that he needed to get to a third country in order for his application for asylum to be processed. He paid people to get him to the Netherlands and in around 2015 was granted asylum.

However, as soon as Alaa finally found a safe haven for himself, he found that he could not abandon the others facing the same fate in Greece and Italy. Alaa went back to Greece and volunteered his time with a number of refugee organisations, before he founded Happy Caravan, hoping to provide education to the children in refugee camps.

Alaa on his 33rd birthday being given presents by some of the Happy Caravan family…

Alaa is a magnetic individual. At times animated. At times, retreating to fight the demons scarring his psyche. Engaging. Empowering. A true leader. Alaa has the ability to attract and motivate talented individuals and then let them “fly”. He has strengths and can attract people who can fill his weaknesses.

He set up Happy Caravan only 5 months ago with nothing; no money, no equipment, but with a zeal to help. And now, there is a classroom, a large and steady stream of volunteers, a project manager to run the program at Thermopylae, an apartment for the volunteers, and teaching equipment.

Nik and I cooked a birthday dinner for Alaa. In the photo we have Zakrya, Alaa, Audrey, Nik, Hannah, Yvonne, Piotr, Agatha, and me.

If you are interested in a greater perspective about the true human impact and cost of war, Alaa previously completed an interview about his experiences. It can be found by searching the net for "Alaa Jnaid YouTube (Little things can make a difference)". Please be aware this interview is an incredibly honest and personal account of Alaa's experiences and is confronting. It is however, also a rare first hand account of the trauma caused by the Syrian war, a perspective often missing in today's media.

Happy Caravan:

When we arrived at Happy Caravan there were 5 other volunteers, a truly international contingent; 2 Spanish, 2 Polish and one Dutch - plus Alaa!

Piotr, the Polish bloke is an associate professor in Art and taught Art in an inclusive, inventive, and ever-changing way. One day getting the kids to make masks, the next painting a big cardboard castle.

We were driving from Lamia to Thermopylae and Piotr saw an enormous folded cardboard box. We stopped the tiny “Ford Ka”, put the cardboard through the back, against the roof of the car, and there was, in his mind, a castle for the children to paint.


There was gorgeous Agatha, who had taken on the mantle of Program Organiser for her 4 week stay. She sorted out the schedule and the plan for the centre, as well as coordinating all of us while we were there (no small job, I assure you!).

And our beautiful compatriots from Espana, Carla and Angela! These two amazing women taught English and Maths to the children with such fun and passion, it was inspiring.

Angela and Carla who taught English and Maths before Nikki and me.

And finally, but far from least, the amazingly creative Lisette from the Netherlands taught Art and all sorts of creativeness to the children, who absolutely loved her and her infectious smile!

Lisette. Art maestro!

Nikki getting a girl hug


There are two groups of children at the Happy Caravan school. The first group, older children aged from around 7 to 14, came to morning lessons. The second group of mainly younger children, came for a shorter afternoon session. There could be anywhere from 5 to 20 children in each class, depending on the day.

A surprise farewell for Lisette

We were lucky enough to have two Arabic speaking volunteers from within the camp assisting us, Zakrya, a 46 year old from Aleppo, and Khaled, a student from Syria. Zakrya had a successful air conditioning business, 2 houses, a wife and four kids before the war. His business and houses were destroyed during the conflict and he and his family fled to Greece. Zakrya’s wife and children have already been granted asylum and are waiting for him in Hamburg, but due to ongoing bureaucracy he has been waiting in Greece over a year to join them.

Zakrya having fun in art class...

Khaled is a Petrochemical student who had had to flee Syria due to the conflict and is waiting for resettlement.

Khaled sporting the glasses that Nik kindly made for him….

The classes for the first group started at 11am and went until 1.30pm, and from 2pm to 4pm for the second group. From 4.30pm each evening all the children would come to the school for English movies or cartoons, and of course popcorn! Or occasionally music…

Zakrya and I teaching that Old MacDonald had some weird animals on his farm…

One day Nik and another one the volunteers, Audrey, took four of the older teenage girls to the beach. Too old for school, too young for independence, these young women spend their days confined to their family rooms, never experiencing anything so normal as a day shopping or coffee with their girlfriends. Nik and Audrey tried to give them a taste of this. Afterwards Nik said “What makes me so sad is that these girls could be anything - scientists, doctors, lawyers - but each day in this limbo they fall behind their peers - making it harder for them to achieve their dreams”. Writing that I can’t help but think about my own kids, the education they’re getting, how they are fulfilling their potential and how I’d feel if their lives were suddenly torn apart and put on hold.

Nik and Audrey with the teenage refugee girls they took to the beach. Each day in the refugee camp makes it harder for them to reach their potential.

And then I think about the waste that is each day that these people are in limbo.

With all of that said, we found the children to be wonderfully warm and accepting. There were of course issues and tensions at times, especially between the Syrians and Kurdish children, but overall they seemed to be coping better than we had hoped, at least in the school environment. They genuinely wanted to attend school and learn.


Sitting down and thinking now, a week after we left the camp, I reckon that Greece is doing a really good job with the refugee crisis. Yes, it could be better, but I think in light of their own troubles, they are making a commendable effort.

Alaa is a truly inspirational individual. Similarly to Berenice, the manager of the Manos Amigas charity in Colombia, he has that selflessness that leaves me full of admiration.

I really, really hope that Greece lifts it’s game to provide education for these kids soon.

I really hope that Europe, at a minimum, meets its self-imposed refugee quotas soon.

I really hope that the Syrian conflict stops soon.

Which brings me to war and conflict.


The Syrian War, and War and Conflict in general.

I’m sure I’m not alone in having only a poor knowledge of the war in Syria.

The clearest explanation I’ve seen is in from the Wikipedia pages on the Syrian Civil War. It includes this diagram of the protagonists in the war and their relationships:

A diagram showing the protagonists in the Syrian Civil War. You don’t need to be able to read the names in the circles to appreciate that it’s a horrible, convoluted, interconnected mess.

The map below shows, at present, who’s in control of which parts of the country:

Map of the current (Sept 2017) situation in Syria. Red = Syrian Government, Green = Syrian Opposition, Yellow = Rojava (SDF), Grey = Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, White = Tahrir al-Sham (formally known as the al-Nusra Front).

Sources also refers to the Syrian Civil War as the ‘Iran – Saudi Arabia Proxy War’.

Based on the above, it’s clear that peace in Syria will be a long time coming. But it will come. I was convinced in the 1970’s, 1980’s and early 1990’s that peace in Northern Island was not possible. The animosity ran too deep. There had been too much death. Too many murders. And yet, in 1998 the Good Friday accords were signed and there has now been peace for over two decades.

We were in Colombia when the protagonists in the Colombian War signed the peace deal that, interestingly, President Santos of Colombia had based on the Good Friday Accords. The Colombian War had been going on for 60 years.

Which brings me to writing about War and Conflict in General. Since the Second World War the United Nations has mediated 172 peace agreements. And yet between 1956 and 2016 there have been 43 genocides resulting in the death, the murder, of 50 million people. There have been dozens – no hundreds – of wars and conflicts. And, having just volunteered in a refugee camp in Greece, we read about 400,000 Rohingya refugees fleeing from Myanmar into Bangladesh. You’d think that, as a human race, the world would be better than this. There are many simmering tensions in many countries in the world. What is it that suddenly, or seemingly suddenly, makes a tension boil over into full blown conflict? One thing is for certain, things have to fall to shit in a massive way before people will flee. Plus, given a choice, many people would prefer to go “back home” if the situation became “normal” again.

In my view the United Nations, which encourages the “talking is better than shooting” ethos is a positive start. But it isn’t enough. Nik has said that I should look to the history of humankind which shows a natural tendency toward war and conflict, but I think that, whilst that may be true, we as a species should be, and can be, better.

I am sure that we are, we must be, we can be, we will be, better as a human race……..


Australia, Asylum Seekers, and Refugees.

Australia. The Lucky Country. The Rich Country.

I’ll try to put this down as factually as I can and you can be the judge of what you think.
The 1951 Refugee Convention states that it is common that an Asylum Seeker may not follow the normal paths to enter a country and that “Contracting States”, ie states that have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention (which Australia has), should give due consideration to this when considering the treatment of an Asylum Seeker. The Australian Government, and the Australian Opposition have given due consideration to this and both agree that Australia is, and should continue to be, the only country in the world with indefinite mandatory detention of asylum seekers.

You’ll have read earlier in this blog that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (of which Australia is a founding signatory), states that “Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”. The Australian Government, and the Australia Opposition, both have a policy that, if anyone arrives by boat, and actually gets to Australia, they will under no circumstances be granted asylum. In addition, not only will they be put into indefinite mandatory detention, but it will be offshore. Aussies out there will be interested to know that the Australian Government, whilst admitting no guilt, has just settled a class action bought by the asylum seekers in off-shore detention for pain and suffering caused by their incarceration. How much did the asylum seekers win? AU$70 million + costs.

You’ll have read earlier in this blog that if an asylum seeker is granted refugee status, that brings with it considerable privileges; education, welfare rights, employment rights, etc. The Australian Government, and the Australian Opposition, both support stretching this process out for years (1 to 5 years). All the while this process is stretched out, the asylum seeker is locked in a concentration camp with no rights of any kind, including that of safe or sanitary living condtions.

And there are many, many more examples of where the Australian Government, and the Australian Opposition, support Australia not meeting it’s international Human Rights, Asylum Seeker, and Refugee obligations and commitments.


Yeah but what about letting in terrorists? And they’re queue jumpers! And they’re not Aussies (or French, or German, or [Insert nationality here])! And they’re all on welfare and wont get a bloody job! And they’re Burqa wearing Muslims! And it’s leading to the rise in Ultra Right-Wing Parties!

I want to tackle these head on. I absolutely believe in the Voltairean principle of “I might not like what you have to say but I’ll fight to the death for your right to say it”. And if people are free to say comments like the above, I’m free to respond.

Let’s take the last point first. The rise in the Ultra Right-Wing Parties. There always have been, and I suspect always will be, people that support the far right of politics. However, I think perspective is needed. And a really good example of this is in the recent German election. After having granted asylum to over 1 million refugees between 2015 and now, (i.e. 1 refugee for every 80 German citizens), 87% of the German electorate voted either for the present Chancellor, Angela Merkel, or for other non Far Right parties. That, I reckon, is a resounding vote of confidence in the Chancellors actions.

Next. They’re not Aussies (or Germans/ French/ or [insert nationality here]). Righto. Let’s take Australia first. 1% of Australians are “real” Australians, i.e. haven’t “blown in” over the past 230 years. I.e. they’re Indigenous Australians. The rest of us are blow ins.

The package for Heinz tomato ketchup that makes reference to 57 varieties. This has led to the comment some peoples cultural heritage is a bit of a “Heinz 57”, ie like Heinz Tomato Ketchup, they’re made up of 57 varieties.

Nik is a case in point. She has German, Irish, Scottish, and English blood, plus I’m sure a few more varieties. In Australia we’ve had waves of migration including the Irish in the 1880’s, the Greek’s and Italian’s post the Second World War (Melbourne had for a time the second largest Greek city in the world after Athens), the Vietnamese in the 1970’s, the Indians and Chinese now. Whilst working for AGL Energy in Melbourne about 8 years ago we had a Sri Lankan Buddhist Australian, an Italian Catholic Australian, a Malaysian Hindu of Indian origin Australian, a South African Protestant Australian, me (an English Protestant) Australian, and a “Heinz 57” Australian all working together in a team. The team was stronger than a monocultural team. The different viewpoints, the different cultural heritages, the different psyches made us stronger.

As for Europe. Crikey! Everyone’s invaded/ been invaded by everyone else over the centuries.

People have their right to their view, even if, in my view, it is bigoted and wrong.

They’re queue jumpers! So you’re rotting in a camp in Indonesia having lost everything in Syria. You’re hoping you’ll get resettlement but when? What would you do?

Well, I’ll tell you what Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser did in the mid 1970’s. He didn’t want people dying at sea, so he set up centres in Indonesia to process asylum claims.

Whilst I was researching this blog I learnt that, following the death of Alan Kurdi on 3rd September 2015, Australia announced that it would issue Permanent Residency (PR) visas to 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees. This was in addition to the existing quota of 13,750 refugees that it had committed to issuing each in 2015/16 and 2016/17, i.e. 39,500 in total. The actual number issued? Less than 23,000. Having just come from a refugee camp, I am bitterly disappointed, but not surprised by the misleading actions of the Australian Government. There is so much need and yet the Australian Government is not even doing what it committed to.

And they’re Burqa wearing Muslims! Yeah, and that’s just the blokes. Crikey! Live and let live. Living in Australia where in the 1880’s there was vehement partisan comments against a boatload of Irish Catholic Orphan Girls being allowed to settle in Australia “They’re Catholics! They’ll breed like rabbits and we’ll be overrun”. Then after the Second World War, there were the Greeks and the Italians (“We’ll be overrun! They never work! They’re not Australian!”), etc, etc. I have zero time for that silly racism.

And they’re all on welfare and wont get a bloody job! Ok. I’ll start with the anecdotal evidence first and then move onto research based evidence.

So, Mr and Mrs Gupta arrive from India. They open a corner store. How many hours is it open? All the hours that God sends. They have kids. How do Mr and Mrs Gupta feel about education? Rather strongly! What jobs are the kids likely to get? Doctors, lawyers, etc.

Now onto the factual stuff.

The research by Philippe Legrain, former economic adviser to the President of the European Commission, shows that each Euro invested in resettling refugees gives a return of 2 Euros within 5 years. Labour organisations have also shown that local wages are not detrimentally affected by resettling of refugees.

Also, I included in Chapter 23 of this blog, The Australian Goat Story that showed the benefits that two Lebanese brothers have brought to the Australian economy.

Lastly, what about letting in terrorists? For this I’m going to go straight to the research…..

A paper by Alex Nowrasteh from the Cato Institute in September 2016 showed the following statistics for the period 1975 to 2015 for America:

- The probability of an American being murdered by an American is 1 in 16,000
- The probability of an American being murdered by a foreign born terrorist is 1 in 3,900,000 (3.9 million)
- The probability of an American being murdered by a refugee is 1 in 3,640,000,000 (3.64 billion)
- The probability of an American being murdered by an illegal immigrant is 1 in 10,900,000,000 (10.9 billion).

QED. Quod erat demonstrandum. Thus it has been demonstrated. It has been demonstrated that the concern about terrorism from letting immigrants (and particularly refugees) into a country is unfounded.

That doesn’t mean that countries do not need to keep focussed on terrorism and its causes including radicalisation, ensuring integration into the communities in a country, and investigating rogue elements in a community, no matter what their cultural background.


Wow. Exhausted? I am. But thank you for sticking with me on this one. The crisis that the world is facing due to conflict is one which we in Australia are so often removed from and are able to avoid by simply changing the channel on the TV. Both Nik and I have often felt powerless in trying to help as each, seemingly endless, disaster or conflict unrolls before us. This trip provided us with an extraordinary privilege in not only witnessing some of the reality first hand, but more importantly, showing us that there are ways that everyone can step up and help. Both of us feel more inspired about how we can contribute going forward. And are more appreciative than ever of the amazing opportunities we have been so lucky to have and of the incredible people we are so fortunate to call friends.

Posted by capetocape2017 10:13 Archived in Greece Tagged greece happy syrian caravan refugees thermopylae alaa eddin jnaid Comments (1)

Chapter 25 -Anyone for a Good Impaling? South Eastern Europe

By Neil and Nikkii

sunny 30 °C

Vlad the Impaler

You read that I, literarily, winced when I described in an earlier blog that Peter the Great had his son murdered in an extremely unpleasant way.

Well, Vlad the Impaler? Yes, when you were in the dog house with him, it really wasn’t good at all.

Vlad the Impaler – born 1431, died 1477

But more of that later. We had to get to Romania first.


Bratislava, Slovakia

In 1993, Slovakia decided it didn’t like the Czech Republic any more and got a divorce. Not quite sure why. As an Australian it seems a bit pointless. Victoria, a state in southern Australia is 482,000 square km’s. The Czech Republic is 79,000 square km’s with a population of 10 million and Slovakia is 49,000 km’s with a population of 5 million. Their separation in 1993 would be like Woolloomooloo (a suburb of Sydney, Australia) saying “I don’t like those Sydney people, I want to be a separate country. Sort of. I’ll have open borders and free trade but I want to have my own President and call her Ingrid”.

Still, they did it. We got an extra country on our list (country #30, I think). And experienced some food porn…

Pear and Goats Cheese entrée in Bratislava. Definitely one of the best meals of the trip.

…did some washing and had a ‘Bed Day’. The Bed Day is a concept that usually involves a champagne breakfast, the leisurely reading of books, followed by a white wine lunch, lots of sudoku or crossword puzzles and just a whole lot of not much. In this case there was not so much bed, champagne or a long boozy lunch, but a day hiding out from the world in our apartment and definitely NO sightseeing. Sorry Slovakia!


Budapest, Hungary

In Cuba we’d met a fabulous Budapestian couple who invited us to stay. But, its time to go off on a tangent…….

Our mates:

Before travelling through Eastern Europe, I had heard but not really understood some of the stories and connections our friends and their families had with Eastern Europe. Let me start with my best Australian mate:

My Australian Bestie, Cobber:

So my best mate in Australia, “Cobber”, is an amazing bloke. But his family history is amazinger.

His mother and father are from Hungary. They met in Budapest in 1949 and fell in love. They decide to escape the Stalinist government in 1949 and crossed first into Czechoslovakia, but were picked up by a Soviet patrol trying to cross into Austria at a forest crossing. They put them on a truck to take them back to Hungary but, when the truck slowed to turn a corner they jumped off.

His mum make it to Austria, but his father hid out in an attic in Bratislava for 3 months before eventually making it over the border. They met in a refugee camp in Salzburg and in 1950 got asylum in Australia.

A work mate of mine:

I knew my work mate was from Eastern Europe but I never knew until recently that their heritage goes back to some very interesting events in Hungary.

In 1956 the Olympics were held in Melbourne, Australia from November 22nd to December 8th.

In 1956 the situation in Hungary was tense. There were protests that started on 23rd October 1956 and by the end of October the communist Government had fallen.

Flag of Hungary with the communist coat of arms cut out of it. The flag with a hole became the symbol of the revolution.

Having initially said they were prepared to negotiate the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Hungary, the Soviet Politburo ordered the invasion of Hungary on 4th November 1956. By 10th November 1956 2,500 Hungarians were dead and 700 Soviet soldiers had been killed. 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees.

My work mate’s Grandfather was a coach on the Hungarian Olympic team, and while in Melbourne only two weeks after the crushing of the 1956 Revolution he and 47 other members of the Hungarian team defected! Very soon after, my mate’s grandmother and father defected, eventually settling in Melbourne.

A Melbourne Friend:

Originally from Czechoslovakia, her family were getting considerable grief from the Communist party just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The situation got to the point where they had to flee. The family got asylum in Australia in the late 1980’s.


I was just unaware of the sheer number of our friends who had direct, and very recent connections, not only to Eastern Europe, but the fall of the Iron Curtain.


Budapest, take two:

We had a lovely time hanging out with our friends at their wonderful home in the hills outside of Budapest.

We took a quick look around town:

A picture of us taken from Buda with Pest on the right side and the Danube in the middle.

Visited St Andrews, a beautiful town on the edge of the Danube:

View of St Andrews and the Danube.

And discussed, for quite a while, and developed some rather fabulous conspiracy theories including:
- The moon is in fact, made of blue cheese
- Elvis Presley is living in Columbia and having a nice time.
- The earth is flat
- JFK was killed by Martians.
- In the moon landings, they didn’t actually land on the moon, but it was filmed in a studio. If they had actually landed on the moon, they would have melted the cheese.

We also discussed the fact that Hungary apparently has the biggest transfer of public wealth to private hands in the world. Hard to comprehend if you don’t live there, but this sentiment of extraordinary government corruption was one repeated by people we met across Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria....

Ah Public celebrations….

In Australia there is a public holiday 26th January, being the day that Captain Cook put a British Flag in the ground in 1788*.

(*For those that are interested there is currently a move in Australia to move Australia Day from this date, as it is in fact also the date that the subjugation and destruction of the indigenous population commenced. We are aiming for a more inclusive date for Australia Day that all Australians can celebrate….)

While we were in Hungary on 20th August, they celebrated their annual National Day, but of particular note this year they celebrated 1,000 years since King Stephen (Istvan) came to the throne. Yep, back in 1017 AD.

We played virtual tennis…

Arpad and I playing virtual tennis....

The Hungarians like King Stephen so much they wrote a Rock Musical about him which gets played every National Day:

King Stephen from the 1983 Hungarian Musical, “Istvan, a Kiraly”

The Geezer King in the coffin.

The battle between Christianity and Pagan beliefs:

The battle between Christianity and Paganism. I think. Or maybe I found a link to a music video.

And the crowing of the main Dude, King Istvan. Hoorahh!

Istvan, a Kiraly

It is completely fabulous and definitely requires a viewing on YouTube. Drink something strong first….


The Main Gig, Man….

Then we finally made it to Romania.


And yeah, yeah there’s lots about the country; Economic Tiger of Europe, 2nd biggest building in the world after the Pentagon:

The second biggest building in the world, The Palace of the People in Bucharest.

But really, for me Romania is all about Vlad.

I mean he killed people in really nasty ways but I just like putting the voice down an octave and saying “Vlad the Impaler”. Go on. Put on your deep scary voice and say “Vlad the Impaler”. Fun isn’t it?

Plus of course, if the “Impaler” epithet wasn’t good enough on its own, then there is his real name which was, wait for it ……. Vlad Dracul.

Dracula from the 1931 Movie.

We really had a bit of a Vlad pilgrimage. We started off in the room that he was supposed to be born in:

Vlad’s supposed birthroom – Sighisoara, Romania. On the left is a smoke machine. On the right I’m having a look into the coffin.

Then a walk around the beautiful town of Sighisoara:


A couple of views of the 14th century town of Sighisoara, Romania.

And, I’ve got to include a couple of photo’s of inside and outside of our room in Sighisoara…..

No room is complete with stuffed animals outside. This particular room in Sighisoara had 4.

I am unsure of what is the most fabulous feature of this room. The Crimson Bed Sheet? The Pink wall? The Flowers?

Then onto Dracula’s castle outside of Brasov:

Vlad the Impalers digs. Bran Castle. Outside Brasov. Romania. I’ve decided that I’m going to do some renovations on my house when we get back. I’m going to get a turret built onto it!

Of course, there was lots of stretching of the truth around Vlad. He didn’t spend much time in either place but ‘Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story’.

Enter Bram Stoker in 1897 and he needed a good location for his story about the bloke with the big incisors, and Transylvania, and Bran Castle came to the top of the list!

Of course, Hollywood loved the idea:

Poster advertising the 1931 Movie.

Then, of course, there was the rather fabulous ‘Sweet Transvestite, from Transexual Transylvania’. Yes, the Great Frank’N’Furter.

Frank’N’Furter (Tim Curry) from the movie “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” – 1975 (with Columbia, Magenta, and Riff Raff).

I think most people will have seen the film and/or the show. If not, go and see it straight away!

Anyway, that really doesn’t say much about Romania, but, well, it’s what struck me from our brief stay in Romania


Sofia, Bulgaria

Bulgaria. It absolutely pops to the front of your mind when you think “I really want to take a holiday in…..”. OK. Maybe it doesn’t, BUT!!....

Everyone else has been trying to be the Head Honcho in Bulgaria for a thousand years. The Greeks. The Persians. The Turks. The Austro-Hungarians. The Soviets. We’d been told that Sofia was a bit Blah, but we liked it.

It was the first country we’d been to in Europe where the influence of Islam was really pronounced.

Banyi Bashi Mosque, Sofia, Bulgaria.

Then there was the alphabet:

“How do you write Bulgaria in Cryllic Script?” I hear you ask! Like this!

Then Nikki was very taken with Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia, Bulgaria. Alex, the grandson of the fabulously named “Vaselovod The Big Nest” (we saw his church in Vladimir in Russia), fought some big battles against the German and Swedish invaders in the middle of the 13th Century


And onto Greece.

Oh dear! Nikki said to me “How long since you’ve been in Greece?”

Yes. 1989 (ish). Oh dear. That’ll be over a quarter of a century ago. Tales of my mate Gregor and the Goat. Tales of playing “Beer Hunter” with my mate George and friends on a boat from Piraeus to the Islands…..

Ok. You asked. So you get half a dozen cans of beer. And 7 mates. Then 6 mates turn their backs on the beer. The 7th mate takes one of the 6 beers and shakes it really hard and puts in back in the 6 beers and mixes them up. The 6 mates then open the beers next to their ear. Of course, one mate gets sprayed with beer. Or probably all mates, because you don’t play it once……

Anyway, we’d arranged to meet up with my Dad and his wife in Kalamata and then move onto Athens for three days.

The train from Bucharest, Romania to Sofia, Bulgaria was 9 hours and at least 1,000 degrees centigrade. So when it came to getting from Sofia to Thessaloniki, Greece, Nik and I decided to take the bus. And my word! My Aussie Mate “Cobber” had said “Bloody Oath Mate! The Bloody Hills and stuff on the way from Sofia to Greece is bloody Ocker!” (Let me translate. “Good Heavens Neil. The scenery on the way from Sofia to Greece is rather spiffing!”). And he wasn’t wrong. It really was spectacular. Winding through the mountains and hills with beautiful streams and fields either side.

Scenery – South Western Bulgaria

Unfortunately we got into Thessaloniki late and only had one night there. But we wandered down the foreshore and saw the White Roundy Castle thing. And ate Greek food.

It was nice to be back in Greece!

Let’s spice it up and add a map in French!

Then off to Kalamata via Athens.

Kalamata is kind of famous for its olives. There are lots and lots of olive trees. No, I mean millions of them…. 132 million in Greece last count!

Now did you know that the Kalamata olives have to be picked by hand to avoid bruising? That’s a lot of olives…

It was great catching up with Father and Yvonne:

Young Mr Cooke and Even Younger Mr Cooke

Yvonne with large frothy coffee.

Kalamata sunset. Greece really is very pretty.

The last time I was in Greece it (or I) was a tad more Hedonistic.

Greek stuff – Its everywhere!

So Hedonistic. From the Greek word “hedone” meaning “pleasure”. And it was all started by Aristippus of Cyrene, a student of Socrates. Blimey. A student being focussed on pleasure! Who’d’ve thought?

Then there is the lingo.

Before the trip I spoke French and German in addition to English. And a smattering of Spanish. The Spanish really came on during our 4 months in Spanish speaking South and Central America and Mexico.

Then, after the US and Canada we had a month in Russia. Russian was the first language where I’d had to learn a different script – Cyrillic. It was a tad
tricky but not too bad. “P” = “R”, “C” = “S”, etc.

There was also this bloke’s trilogy that I read in Australia before the Big Trip:

Sir Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor DSO OBE. Intrepid Traveller. Heroic Soldier. Writer. Polyglot. Born – 1915, died – 2011

In 1933 at the ripe old age of 18, after being expelled from The Kings School, Canterbury for holding hands with a Grocers daughter and being told he was “a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness”, he decided to walk the length of Europe from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. Probably therefore proving the latter, if not also the former. He walked through Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and into Greece. He arrived in Constantinople in January 1935. The first book of Fermor’s trilogy about his amazing trip was published in 1977 (42 years after he finished the walk), the second in 1986 (51 years after the walk), and the final volume posthumously in 2013.

Part of the reason I mention him and his writings now is that he was a linguistic genius. A Polyglot. He had the ability to master numerous languages. He wrote about how Hungarian is one of two Finno-Ugric languages in Europe (Finnish is the other). But Finno-Ugric is a separate language base. It is not based on Latin. Or Greek. Or Arabic. It is totally separate. Hungary is an island of Finno-Ugric in a sea of Latin and Slavic languages.

He wrote about how Romanian is a Latin language, sandwiched between the Cyrillic languages of the Ukraine and Bulgaria, the Slavic languages to the West, and the Finno-Ugric to the north.

Bulgarian script is the Cyrillic script.

Then we got to Greece and I had a “eureka!” moment. It was a mix of remembering my schoolboy and University maths (“Oh!. So the ‘Pi’ symbol is how the Greeks write “P”. And the Russians use basically the same symbol!”). Take a look at this!

A comparison of some letters in the Greek, Cyrillic, and Roman Scripts.

Then Nikki reminded me that it was Saint Cyril who developed the Cyrillic Script in about 830 AD obviously using Greek as a base.

Saint Cyril and Methodine – inventors of the Cyrillic script

In a later blog I will write about how Arabic is also linked to Greek.

Sparta and Mystras

Nikki was fortunate to have studied Greek mythology and history at University, and so was a tad excited about the prospect of visiting many of the ancient sites that she had only read about. As you can see from the map above, Kalamata is on the Peloponnese peninsula as are Sparta and Mystra.

Whilst the Brits were still living in mud huts wearing animal skins, the Greeks were building things like this:

Image of how Sparta may have looked at its peak.

Of course, it looks a bit different now.

The ruins at Sparta

To say the Spartans lived a spartan existence and were focussed on war is like saying Russians are a bit fond of a vodka every now and then.

Less than perfect children were killed by throwing them off a cliff. Seems a bit harsh!

“the Spartan child was bathed in wine to see if it was strong. If it was not it was thrown off the top of Mount Taygetus…”

Boys were removed from their parents at the age of 7 and taken off for military training. Troops were kept permanently hungry to make them more aggressive.

Sparta now is very pretty but not much is left of the original. The buildings are only 2,000 years old….

Mystras is a hill fort town established in the mid 13th Century…..


Mytras Ruins



Neither Dad, Yvonne, Nikki or I had been to the Parthenon, the Acropolis, or the Archaeological Museum in Athens before.

The Parthenon, built in 480 BC is just stunning. Built in honour of the God Athena (hence Athens. Yes. I know. It’s obvious. But I hadn’t made the connection), it has survived being a church, an armaments store and being blown up by some careless army sorts. And still it is amazing:

View of the Parthenon from our hotel in Athens

The Parthenon, Athens, Greece

The Parthenon Selfie!

Anybody hear the Chariots of Fire theme? Me and Dad at the Olympic Stadium. Originally built in 330 BC and the site of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896.

The National Archaeological Museum in Athens is said to be one of the great museums of the world. And it is. It’s difficult to know what is more amazing, sculptures that are 2,500 years old:

Ancient Greek Sculpture

The pottery that is 8,500 years old

Ancient Greek Pottery. Maybe from 6,500 BC?

Or the Antikythera Mechanism that was retrieved from a 2,000 year old wreck in 1901. It was so far ahead of it’s time that my jaw dropped.

Antikythera mechanism retrieved from a wreck off the Greek coast in 1901. It was believed to have been built around 100 BC.

It is the first analogue computer and was used not only as a clock but it could predict astrological positions and eclipses. It is truly amazing today, let alone 2,000 years ago.


Some clever clogs decided to remake it. These are the reconstructed Antikythera front and back panels. Truly Amazing.


So after 15 countries in 37 days to reach Kalamata in time to meet my father and Yvonne, we have decided to slow it down a little and spend some time thinking about, and hopefully helping other people. We are now on our way up north to Lamia to volunteer at a Refugee Camp for 2.5 weeks. After our time working with children in Colombia, we are both really looking forward to it. But that is another story…….


Posted by capetocape2017 05:40 Archived in Romania Tagged greece the romania hungary slovakia bulgaria dracula vlad impaler Comments (2)

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