“Getting to know a new reality” with vendors in Greece and Germany

As their governments argue over bail-outs, austerity and debt, the peoples of Greece and Germany have been pitted against each other. So what would happen if two street paper vendors from Athens and Kiel swapped places? Could they overcome barriers of language and culture to promote understanding?

German street paper Hempels and its Greek sister paper Shedia decided to find out, and so for a week in May they put the idea to the test.

In the first of a three-part series, Hempels editor Peter Brandhorst reflects on what they learned from the experiment. Tomorrow we hear from Shedia vendor Lampros Moustakis about his time in Germany and on Saturday, Joachim Eybe from Hempels tells the story of his Greek visit.

Shedia vendor Lampros Moustakis and Hempels vendor Joachim Eybe pose for a photo after their vendor swap in Athens, Greece and Kiel, Germany. Credit: Heidi Krautwald and Harald Ohrt

By Peter Brandhorst, Hempels editor

At the beginning we were unsure how well the idea of a vendor exchange would work in practice. Alongside our INSP colleagues from the Greek street paper Shedia, we wanted to create to a greater mutual understanding between two dissimilar cultures. But would it be possible to promote tolerance through dialogue without knowing the host country’s language, being forced to communicate in English? We found out it worked amazingly well!

The idea for a vendor swap came about at the start of 2016 when our manager, Jo Tein, took a trip to Athens. The city is home to Shedia, meaning “raft”, which was founded in 2013 in the midst of the economic crisis. Tein learned firsthand the hardships felt by many Shedia vendors. Almost all of these 190 or so people lost their jobs to the crisis, and many had also lost their homes and savings.

Lampros Moustakis has been working as a Shedia vendor since the very beginning. The 54-year-old grew up in Brazil with Greek parents. He became a food technician, and then worked in Argentina in a meat cold store. In 1997, he moved to his parents’ homeland, Greece, and found work in hotel tourism.

As well as his mother tongue, Lampros speaks fluent English, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. He has been unemployed since 2010. His flat is now the property of a bank, after he was no longer able to pay his mortgage. He has been living for some time in accommodation funded under an EU programme.

“Every day is a struggle for us Greeks,” says Lampros. When he shares his impressions of being a Hempels vendor, it’s always with a friendly smile. Even after a few days, his image of Germany had changed.

Shedia vendor Lampros Moustakis and Hempels vendor Joachim Eybe speak to street paper customers about their vendor swap in Athens, Greece and Kiel, Germany. Credit: Heidi Krautwald and Harald Ohrt

From conversations with Hempels customers Lampros realised that many Germans know that “our country’s not full of crooks and layabouts who line their own pockets”. He added, “I know that you have to differentiate between policy and people.”

The vendor swap was Lampros’ first visit to Germany. He saw: “German reality as I hadn’t known it. When I’m in Athens I’ll tell people about it.”

After his time in Athens, Hempels vendor Joachim Eybe also returned home to north Germany full of positive impressions. As a young man, Joachim travelled around Europe with a rucksack for a couple of years and “experienced wonderful hospitality.” He hadn’t been to Greece before, “but the people’s friendliness towards me in Athens reminded me of earlier travels.”

From the conversations he had in English with his Shedia customers, it really struck him how stressed many people are. “It’s no wonder,” says Joachim, “you see poverty and hardship in a lot of places in Athens.” And another thing sticks in his mind: “You can’t say that people are lazy there. A lot of them try to keep their heads above water by doing some kind of work, even if it’s just selling a few flowers.”

Translated from German into English by Catherine Demaison-Doherty.