Activists volunteering in a Greek refugee camp confront uncomfortable questions about European guilt and the limits of good intentions in this excerpt from Steinunn G. Helgadóttir’s novel The Strongest Woman in the World.
Listen to Steinunn G. Helgadóttir read from "The Strongest Woman in the World" in the original Icelandic.
There were five of us who moved into the abandoned basement apartment on Nýlendagata, and we lived there until we finished junior college.
A bunch of junkies had clearly been holed up here before us, and we spent a long time cleaning, painting, and throwing out syringes and other garbage. It was rather homey by the time we finished, but sometimes, on candlelit evenings, we wondered what had become of the previous tenants. We asked around, but it was strangely hard to find anything out; no one would even admit that there had been people here before us. All we had to go off of were those few hopeless traces, remnants from a congregation that worshipped a different god.
Clothes we bought at Kolaportið flea market and food waste were issues close to our hearts in those days. We learned to scavenge behind shops and restaurants, in dumpsters filled with all sorts of delectables, and twice a week we dressed in dark clothing, poked around back gardens, and rifled through dumpsters in the neighborhood.
I became the cook of the household and the kitchen my domain, where I was free to play with what motley ingredients I had on hand. My menu became increasingly experimental, my imagination and the offerings of the dumpsters boundless. I found freedom at my stove.
Mostly unbruised mango chunks, marinated in moonshine for several days and then blended with peeled oranges in a food processor until foamy.
Truffle oil; sell-by date, January 30
Mint from the neighbor’s garden
French bread, several days old
Two apples, no prob if they’re a little brown
Salad oil; sell-by date, February 15
Dill from the neighbor’s garden
Tear up the mushrooms that are still okay and heat them in the truffle oil
Add the innermost leaves of the leek along with the mint and chopped apples
Crumble French bread and layer the mushroom blend on top
Sprinkle moldy cheese over everything (fine if it’s started to turn)
Heat in the oven at 425° for 20 minutes
Plate with mint and a little squirt of dill-infused salad oil.
Sun-melted chocolate bar with nuts, remelted over a water bath
Yogurt; final sell-by date
Fill a glass with the yogurt and drizzle with melted chocolate.
We called ourselves activists, and whenever we had any money, we sat at Mokka Café with cups of coffee and hand-rolled Bali Shag cigarettes hanging from the corners of our mouths that my friend Már refused to light with anything but a match—he said using a lighter took the joy out of it. Mokka was the site of an endless stream of debates and arguments that we’d then continue at home, fueled by the moonshine and hash that was never in short supply on weekends.
Dóri, Már, and I were best friends, and we became the ringleaders. Már was the kind of guy who always did the right thing whether anyone was watching or not—he always jumped up from his seat on the bus if an old man or a possibly pregnant woman got on—and it was him who’d talk late into the night, stammering a little, about a better world. Már ignited the fire in us. Dóri, on the other hand, was driven by some kind of inner tension. It was like he couldn’t help being aggressive, even though he didn’t want to be. There was always this building sense of turmoil around Dóri in the lead-up to our actions that then tapered off afterward, only to increase again as we prepared for the next battle.
I hid it well, but I envied them their enthusiasm. Myself, I was the face of the group—that was the role I seemed best suited to—but I didn’t want to be. I recited Már’s words, played my part, but there were always doubts, even apathy, dozing just beneath the surface.
Our numbers soon grew, and my comrades’ ideals blossomed even as mine withered and died. A few girls joined the group, too, and I was insecure around them but hid it by treating them coldly. Mostly, I tried to fall in love with a girl who was hopelessly hung up on me, feeding and toying with her pointless affections, which made me attractively bitter. I felt years older than my comrades.
Not long after, Bergþóra came to a party at our place. She didn’t say much, but she was arresting. Bergþóra was tall, her voice deep and a bit husky, drowning out the other girls’, and she had a weird thumb—it was missing the topmost part of the nail. This was a girl who had definite opinions about everything.
The party ended in the early hours of the morning, but Bergþóra stayed, sitting alone and listening to music after everyone else had fallen asleep.
By the time I woke up, she’d already cleaned up. All the glasses had been washed, and she’d aired the smoke smell out of the living room. It was a nice way to wake up, and when she took off her dress and lay down next to me on the bed, she left an impression that would linger for a long time.
Bergþóra stayed with me all the next day, and before she left that night, we sat close together on the front steps. I could just make out the thin silk scarf that she wore to keep her neck warm under the wide collar of her sweater, and sitting side by side, we looked up at the sky and marveled at the stars that maybe didn’t even exist anymore, the occasional lone satellite.
“I like being with you,” I said, tracing my finger along the pale, pink silk. “I want you to stay. To never go home.”
“And you think you’re going to change the world?” She didn’t smile.
“Maybe,” I answered, and Bergþóra took control.
We sat on a broad, flat rock that the Norwegian audio engineer called “The Sweet Spot,” pricking up our ears while our butts went cold and numb, trying to make out where the sounds were coming from—the anxious voices, the cries of children, the sound of whirring motors blending with lapping waves in the coal-black Mediterranean Sea. No moon, no stars. I felt Bergþóra’s hot shoulder against my own and put my arm around her, but she didn’t notice. Her thoughts were with the people in the boats.
We’d been flown over into the capricious Lesbos spring the same day we joined the Norwegian volunteer association two weeks earlier, and had started working an hour after the plane landed. No preparation, just on-the-spot training because the refugees who’d been flooding our TV screens and newspapers back home were right here, right now. We volunteers mirrored them: mothers met mothers, bakers met bakers, teachers met teachers, and cooks, cooks. The wet sneakers and phones drawn out of plastic bags were just like ours, and we’d heard some of the same jokes being cracked.
There wasn’t much the international aid association could do in this place, and while the wind gusted indifferently through the great, wall-less tent that UNICEF had pitched on the site, the queue to the Greek police headquarters got longer and longer. The volunteers tried to keep the chaos in check, but the island had received 350,000 refugees and things were falling apart. Food was also in short supply; the three-gallon pot of soup on the gas stove in the storage tent hardly sufficed.
Our next-to-last shift was coming to an end. We’d peered through binoculars in the twilight, trying to count the boats on the horizon, but it was hopeless. New ones appeared, others didn’t move; some moved quickly, their motors silent. With so many boats approaching, it was hard to distinguish between them, and all you could do was hope they all made it safely to land.
The first boat that came out of the darkness was a big one. We tried to guide the people to a safe place to land, shouting and waving a flashlight and a neon pink life vest that was so torn and frayed that the noxious, wet scraps of paper that it had been stuffed with showed through.
“I think it missed the rocks and made it to shore,” said Bergþóra, and as it turned out, she was right—that time, the boat landed in one piece and the passengers waded joyously ashore. They were saved, they thought, and we tried to be happy for them. Tried to forget that the obstacle course was only now beginning, that the long road to Europe started here.
“We are safe!” a man in his sixties shouted in English. “I love you,” he added and hugged me.
“I love you, too,” I mumbled, clumsily blotting a little boy dry before I handed his mother a blanket. Then I offered the man a cigarette, though I could make out a crumpled pack of Camels in a taped-up Ziploc under his soaking wet shirt.
“Thank you,” he said, his green eyes glinting playfully in the glow of the lighter.
It wasn’t a bad shift, but it was one of the long ones, and we were happy to get back home to the hotel lobby, where the caretaker, Alekos, was sitting in front of the TV like usual, watching the broadcast from Lesbos get repeated, over and over, in news reports all around the world. He himself never went out; he didn’t care to see what was happening. All the curtains were tightly drawn, both in reception and the little room that he had on the ground floor between the slimy swimming pool, which hadn’t been cleaned since the last tourists left, and a closed-up restaurant with Kouzzina written on a blue sign that got a little less blue every time it rained, and which was now swaying ever so much in the evening breeze with a faint creaking sound.
“Does he really live here?” I once asked the hotel owner.
The man, who was never called anything but Owner, looked up proudly from the pyramid he was building out of glasses.
“Yes, it’s part of his wages. He’s divorced, you see,” he answered as though that explained everything, then squinted one eye and held the glass he was drying up to the light. “I just can’t help being helpful sometimes,” he added.
“Eesh, that must be a lonely life,” I murmured. “People who’ve just gotten divorced need company.”
“No, not Alekos. The divorce was a cakewalk—it was the wedding that ended in tears,” said Owner, boldly placing the glass on the tip-top of the pyramid.
We’d now long since ceased being curious, though, and I just nodded toward Alekos as I trotted after Bergþóra up to the shower on the second floor.
“I want to stay on here,” said Bergþóra, massaging the shampoo into her hair. “There’s such a dire need.”
“I want to go home,” I said.
“Don’t be like that,” said Bergþóra, splashing water at me. “You’re the tough guy, remember? Our fearless leader.”
Wrapped in towels, we tiptoed to our room, where Bergþóra rinsed our dirty clothes while I made sandwiches. After eating our simple meal in bed, we put on our other set and went to Parenthesis, the wood-paneled bar on the ground floor.
On our way, we ran into Mabel from Finnmark and Karen from Romsdal, who had both thought they’d spend all the safe, lonely evenings of their lives knitting and sitting in front of the television. When news of the situation in Lesbos broke, they both withdrew their savings and bought flights here without any further planning. Only just landed and a little dazed, they’d immediately found one another and were now looking for the bar, where every voice tried to muscle out the others and the burble would abide no silence.
It was early when we went back up to our room. “I feel like we’ve always been here,” murmured Bergþóra as she fell asleep, leaving me alone in this place where the hotel sign howled and the boats that were sailing around in my head got stranded on unfamiliar shores.
We always set out the day’s plan over breakfast; we knew it would fall apart within the first half hour, but it calmed us.
There were five of us in the old jalopy that we carefully drove past the people who were walking toward the bus stop with what was left of their worldly belongings. There were lone travelers, parents, children, old men, and one person in the only available wheelchair. Everyone was on their way to bigger, unseen refugee camps, and they lined up resignedly, hoping for buses that sometimes came and sometimes didn’t.
We started by asking if anyone needed water, and questions rained down upon us. We had to say the same thing again and again:
Yes, the bus will leave from here. No, I don’t know when.
“It’s strange to think that once the bus comes, we’ll never see these people again—they’ll just disappear,” said Bergþóra, looking over her shoulder as we inched along the sharply winding road, wending between bags and the various and sundry items scattered all the way to the camps.
“And in the end, so will we,” I said.
Finally, we reached the beach. Ruined orange life vests bobbed on the surface of the water and among them battered dinghies, their motors drained of whatever remaining dregs of gasoline.
This last shift, the boats came in all night and we ran out of everything—the mylar blankets, too. Two boats capsized and many were drowned. We sprinted back and forth, trying to drag as many people ashore as possible, and around midnight, a baby was born on the beach. The woman who acted as midwife had given birth herself and helped with lambing; now, she used one of her shoelaces to tie off the umbilical cord.
The last person I met in Lesbos was a teenage girl who waded ashore with her tiny, terrified brother in her arms and a phone in a plastic bag dangling from her wrist. Through the plastic, I could see that the phone was pink and patterned with hearts and unicorns. When I’d wrapped a blanket around the siblings, she looked out over the sea and started to cry.
“Why this my life?!” she asked in broken English. I couldn’t answer, just hugged her for a long time before I followed her to the car, where she left with the boy who was now her responsibility. I never saw her again.
The people were cold, and we gave them what we could. One of the Swedish women tried to set up a nursery of sorts in a car on the beach to keep the littlest ones warm, but when we left the site, we heard a woman’s voice telling her off for separating children from their parents, and the last thing we heard as we walked in the direction of the hotel was the thin, apologetic Swedish voice of a woman who had only meant well.
Dead tired, we stood with empty backpacks in front of the caretaker in reception, waiting for the car that would drive us to the airport.
“We have to come back here,” said Bergþóra.
“Maybe many, many years from now,” I answered. “As tourists. We’ll lie on the beach during the day with cold drinks and look out into the clear blue sky, long after all these people are living peacefully back at home.”
A Finnish volunteer on his first day came in. “A child’s body just washed up on the beach,” he said, teeth chattering.
“Maybe it’s better this way,” said Mabel ruefully. “The child’s in a better place, at journey’s end.”
I felt sick, stood up, and ran out with Bergþóra behind me.
“Do you think you’ve come down with something?” she asked, concerned, and I didn’t even try to answer.
Once in the dilapidated taxi, we were silent the whole way to the airport. Driving out of town and into the darkness, we passed a cheerful, well-lighted shop window I hadn’t seen before. The warm glow illuminated a beautiful array of colorful books, and I tried to keep the window in sight as long as I could, stared at the yellow square getting smaller and smaller until it finally disappeared in the darkness. I didn’t want to stop looking; it was the only constant in this place where everything left.
From Sterkasta kona í heimi. © Steinunn G. Helgadottir. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Larissa Kyzer. All rights reserved.