The kid was turning his stubby little chest this way and that with his arms stretched wide like the wings of a glider whirling out of control. There were few people on the sidewalk of September 3rd Street and so his mother didn’t have to hold the groceries in one hand and him by the other. She let him walk along the side farthest from the road under a regime of partial autonomy.
The kid spotted the tin can in Victoria Square at a distance of about ten paces. Previously he had kicked a flattened soda can, a torn paper bag, a rotten lemon and an empty cardboard box that, with great delight, he had sent three shops further on. The tin can was not yet part of his collection. He glanced quickly at the guy squatting behind the tin can with his head to one side and his eyes closed. He was wearing a pair of threadbare jeans and a checked shirt. There was a cardboard sign hanging round his neck.
The kid kept on walking nonchalantly. As a result of all the sudden movements, his T-shirt had run up his body revealing an overgrown stomach in miniature. When one step away, he lifted his eyes toward the telecommunications tower at the same time that, as if by chance, his foot made contact with the tin can. The shot was soft but skillful, bent with the outside of the foot; the kind that fools even the most experienced goalkeeper. The tin can spun round a couple of times, turned upside down and the coins spilled onto the street. The kid didn’t turn to see the result of his kick, but ran toward his mother, just like the player who runs back to the center after scoring a goal. Consequently, he missed the opportunity to read the sign hung round the guy’s neck on a silver ribbon of the kind used to tie flowers or confectionary: “I’m a Serbo-Bosnian and I’m hungry.”
“You should teach your little darling a few manners, madam!” she said, loudly enough to be heard all around, though not by the mother and her little darling.
She went up to the tin can and, throwing the coin into it, happened to see the sign: “I’m a Serbo-Bosnian and I’m hungry.”
“And as for you lot, how come you’ve all ended up here?” she said, again loudly enough to be heard by the Serbo-Bosnian, but not by the passers-by. “Serbians, Bosnians, Serbo-Bosnians, Skopjians, Albanians… a life-time of civil war and begging.”
With relief, the Serbo-Bosnian watched the woman walk away. He didn’t want to attract attention. His experience had taught him that a good beggar had to blend in with the environment, like the trees and the benches. He drew in his legs, rested his chin on his knees and closed his eyes again. He didn’t want to appear healthy. Nor, however, did he want to look ill, a carrier of microbes in a public place. That’s why he hunched up and closed his eyes: neither healthy nor ill. Just harrowed and, consequently, unable to work. His inner clock told him when to open his eyes a fraction in order to survey the scene. He called this system of his patrolling and he repeated it at regular intervals.
It was while “patrolling” that he saw them. They were standing outside the café waiting to cross the narrow street into the square. Two strapping lads, with brawny arms and broad shoulders, who were joking and playing around.
“First one the other day, now they’re coming in pairs,” he thought to himself as, through his half-open eyes, he watched them coming toward him grinning and gleeful.
He pulled the shoulder bag from under his knees and tossed the tin can with the coins into it. The other two caught sight of him and stopped their joking. They split up, the one going toward September 3rd Street and the other toward Aristotelous Street, in order to head him off. The Serbo-Bosnian backed away with the aim of escaping down Elpidos Street.
They caught up with him at the corner. One of them put his arm round him and began talking to him in a friendly manner in Serbian: “When will you get it into your head? I told you not to come round here. This place is for kids. There are rich takings to be had off them. Now you’ve forced me to bring my friend along.”
He held him tighter, to keep him upright while his friend hit him silently, methodically and expressionlessly. A crowd had gathered: those who frequented the square, customers and waiters from the nearby cafés, passers-by. They watched and did nothing, as though it were a matter of principle not to miss the free show. Only one little toddler, in his father’s arms, punched the air imitating the thug’s movements.
He let the Serbo-Bosnian collapse to the ground. He simply stooped and took the bag. “I’ll take this as a fine,” he said in the same friendly manner.
The crowd made way for them to pass. The one who’d done the talking halted before the little toddler and pretended to box with him. Then heading toward Aristotelous Street, they went back to their joking and playing around.
When they had gone, the Serbo-Bosnian tried to get up. He didn’t want to give any opportunity to some belated do-gooder to call for the police or an ambulance. His concern proved pointless as the crowd had already started to disperse. He wiped his face with a rag and saw that it was bloodied. He felt his face to see where he was bleeding and began pressing the cuts with the rag to stop the blood.
He steadied himself against a wall until he was able to coordinate his steps, then he began to walk toward Phyli Street. He halted in front of a bouzouki joint. The keys were kept by the owner of the corner shop so he could open up for the cleaner or for the trucks bringing the redeye. He had agreed to give the owner something in exchange for letting him change into his work clothes.
“You look a mess.” The shop-owner stared at him, his eyes full of fear and pleasure.
“Give keys,” said the Serbo-Bosnian sharply.
He was in no mood for chit-chat. All he wanted was to wash his face, change and be on his way.
“Pack up your lousy rags and get the hell out of here!” said the owner in a tone that brooked no objection. “I thought I’d do you a favor but you’ll scare off my customers.”
He was in the washroom just long enough to clean the blood off his face. He was rolling up his clean clothes into a ball when he saw the owner standing in the doorway with his palm outstretched.
“My money,” he said. “You’ll be off in a shot and I’ve no way of finding you then.”
“Me no money… men take it all…”
“Don’t give me that, you punk. Do you take me for a sucker?”
He was about to grab hold of him by the shirt collar, but he saw the blood and backed off in disgust.
The Serbo-Bosnian showed him his face.
“Just because you got beat up, you think you’re gonna do me out of my money, do you? We’ll see about that!”
He watched the owner storm out of the door and slam it in his face. At the same moment he heard the key turning in the lock.
“You’ll stay there while I get the police to come and arrest you!” the owner shouted from outside.
He was suddenly gripped by panic. He began pounding on the door.
“Okay, okay, give you money.”
He thanked God for giving him the good sense not to put all his day’s takings in the bag, but to put some of the money in his pockets. Of course, now he would lose all his earnings, but, given the state he was in, the last thing he wanted was to fall into the hands of the police.
The door opened and the owner grabbed hold of the three thousand drachmas.
“We pay our debts here!” he shouted. “Not like you lot bleeding us dry through Brussels with all your unpaid loans. You come here and you take us for your own kind.”
He walked past him and went outside without saying a word.
He didn’t reply. He had covered his face with a towel soaked in ice-cold water. He felt worn out and couldn’t be bothered to explain it all again from the beginning.
“I mean, I was a French teacher in Sarajevo and now I clean the lobby and the washrooms at the Hotel La Mirage. It’s understandable. But you… I can’t understand you at all. In Bosnia you were Greek and in Greece you became a Bosnian.”
He went to soak the towel, which had dried. It was an excuse not to reply. The conversation wouldn’t lead anywhere. Things hadn’t turned out the way they had planned, that was all there was to it. After two failed attempts to get into university in Greece, he found himself studying to be a civil engineer in Sarajevo. It was there that he had met Milena. She was a little older than he was and had already graduated with a degree in French Literature. Vassilis’s mother had died while he was studying in Sarajevo. He had no other family. And so he became part of Milena’s family. Within three months of meeting, he had moved in with her and her brother’s family. The brother was a blacksmith. With the onset of the civil war, the university closed, no one wanted to learn French any more, and no one wanted new houses built; they simply demolished the old ones. Vassilis was their only hope. They packed up their things and came to Greece.
Begging was something he came up with by chance, more as a joke. On the day when the last door had been shut in his face, he angrily grabbed hold of a piece of cardboard and wrote on it: “I’m a Serbo-Bosnian and I’m hungry.” Then he hung it on a string around his neck and sat down on the ground. He wanted to show his fellow Greeks how one of their own kind ends up as a Serbo-Bosnian in his own country. He thought that in this way he was shaming them and punishing himself. He was racking his brains trying to find a solution to his work problem when he heard the jingling at his feet. He leaned forward and saw the hundred-drachma coin. He looked around to see whether anyone was watching and then pocketed it. Before long there was another hundred drachmas, a bill this time. And he soon came to a very simple conclusion: if you were Greek and you were begging, you were a junkie. If you were from a Balkan country and you were begging, you were an inferior being, who served to confirm the generosity of the average well-stuffed Greek. And so, quite by chance, he discovered the only profession that he was able to practice: professional Serbo-Bosnian mendicant.
“So, since you’re playing the Serbo-Bosnian, why don’t you at least get a job on a building-site? If you want, I can put in a word,” Milena’s brother had said to him. He was a craftsman and had soon got fixed up.
But Vassilis didn’t want to. Even if they didn’t ask to see any papers, he might let slip something in Greek while on the job and then he’d have a lot of explaining to do. Of course, even while begging he had to watch his tongue, but less so. And, in any case, he didn’t want any Greek contractors exploiting him as a Serbo-Bosnian.
While reflecting on all this, he searched his brains trying to come up with a new spot. He couldn’t go back to Victoria Square; it would be worse for him next time. He suddenly recalled that taverna at the bottom end of Lenorman Street. It had tables outside in the little park and it was open all day. He threw aside the towel and got himself ready to go out on a reconnoitering mission.
“I think I’ve just come up with a good spot,” he said to Milena in Serbian.
She made no reply. She stared at him for a moment in silence, holding back her tears. Then she flung her arms around him and held him tight.
At lunchtime, there were few customers and no one took any notice of him. But as soon as the first of the evening customers started to arrive, the grumbling began. One of the waiters went over to him and tried using single words and gestures to explain to him that they had work to do and didn’t want him getting in their way. Without a second thought, he gathered up his things and moved away from the corner. He set himself down against the wall of an apartment block adjacent to the taverna. In this way he lost the advantage of the street corner but avoided any trouble.
The taverna was called “Korahais’s Kebabs,” and when he saw a guy with shirt unbuttoned and drenched in sweat coming towards him, he realized that this was Korahais.
“We told you to move on, not change your spot!” he said curtly. “I don’t want you in front of my place.”
“Here not your place.”
“This here is my apartment building. Understand? Not my apartment, my building. All four stories. Pack up and move on.”
Whether out of fear or because of the unbearable stench of sweat and charcoal on Korahais, he moved. But, whatever the case, he wasn’t going to be shoved around. As soon as Korahais turned his back, he headed over to the little park. He chose a bench and sat on the ground beside it. Spread out opposite him were the taverna’s tables with the customers digging into their food. He felt his stomach rumbling. The Sarajevo syndrome, he thought. Whether you’re hungry or not, the moment you see food, you stomach starts rumbling.
“Yannis, give the beggar over there something to get rid of him. I don’t want him staring at me with that hungry look while I’m eating.”
“We’ve been trying to get rid of him since this morning, but he won’t go,” said the waiter.
“Anyway, what’s it to you?” said the customer to his wife.
“What’s it to me? It’s not enough that we’re stuck with them, do they have to bother us while we’re eating too?”
Vassilis saw the waiter and Korahais coming over to him, but he didn’t budge.
“Didn’t I tell you to beat it, you punk?”
“Here park, here not your place.”
“I’ll show you, I will!” And he grabbed hold of him to pull him to his feet.
Suddenly he was filled by that same anger that had taken hold of him on the day he had first made himself out to be a Serbo-Bosnian. He kicked out wildly at the waiter, who stumbled and fell against the table where the couple was sitting. The platter with the cuts of meat fell into the lap of the woman, who started screaming hysterically. He was jubilant because she was the one who had started all the fuss.
Eventually, Korahais, together with the waiter and the woman’s husband, managed to pin him down till the patrol car arrived on the scene.
The woman was still in a fit of hysterics. They had Vassilis trapped inside a half-moon, whose two points were the woman and her husband, while Korahais, the waiter and a police officer formed its circle.
“I can’t send him back,” replied the duty sergeant in a tired voice. “He’s from a country where a civil war is going on and he has the status of a political refugee.” He turned to Vassilis. “Let me see your papers.”
“Have no papers. I politic refugee, come secretly.”
He spoke like all illegal immigrants did in such cases, without looking the representative of law and order in the eye.
“So that’s it, is it? Any scumbag can come along and turn your place upside down and then make out he’s a political refugee!” said Korahais furiously.
“Where did you pick him up?” the duty sergeant asked the patrol car officer.
“In the park, sarge.”
“Do you have a permit for tables in the park?”
Korahais fixed his eyes on him to underline the obvious fact that he was greasing someone’s palm, but the sergeant remained unimpressed.
“Do you have a permit?” he repeated.
“And what if I don’t? Does that mean he can smash my tables and drive away my customers?”
“Bring a charge against him if you like.”
“And spend the next three years running round the courts?”
“That’s up to you.”
As he was getting nowhere, Korahais turned to Vassilis:
“With a bloody country like ours, no wonder you come here to strip our houses bare and smash out tables. Serves us right.”
“I don’t know what things are coming to. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were getting a kickback from the immigrants!” the woman said to her husband when they were outside in the corridor.
The sergeant heard her, but he was used to it and let it go. He looked at Vassilis.
“As there are no charges against you, you can go.”
“You good man. You friend to people my country.”
He no longer had any need to watch his Greek. It came out broken of its own accord, spontaneously.
“Cut the crap and beat it. Count yourself lucky I can’t stomach that jerk.” It was Korahais he meant.
He said “tankyou” one last time and went out.
He descended the stairs two at a time. On the ground floor he was stopped by a worried-looking lady.
“Do you know on what floor the duty sergeant is?”
“I don’t understand. I’m a foreigner,” he answered her in Serbian.
The station was on a deserted, dimly-lit street. The only light came from a late-night convenience store. He took out the sign that had gotten crumpled, straightened it as best he could, and hung it round his neck. He propped himself against the wall of the store and slid down the wall till he was sitting on the sidewalk. He had lost his tin can so he spread out his handkerchief. There were no cars or buses around at that time and the few passers-by were hasty and indifferent. But, undismayed, he went on sitting there late into the night with the sign around his neck:
“I’m a Serbo-Bosnian and I’m hungry.”