The beginning of the end. The end of the beginning.

Thur., April 2. 3:35pm.

The Greek doctors who’ve spent the bulk of the coronavirus crisis on the frontlines with almost no support from the government—

—got a rude April Fool’s Day prank played on them this week, with the delivery of thousands of Chinese masks which, the head of the National Federation of Public Hospital Doctors of Greece alleged, didn’t meet the necessary medical specs for healthcare workers treating Covid-19 patients.

The government fired back, in what quickly became a heated and predictably absurd debate about the serial numbers stamped on a box whose labeling just happened to be written in Chinese. (In this, as in all coronavirus-related matters, I’ve decided to defer to healthcare experts over government apologists.) It was the latest salvo in what’s increasingly become an Orwellian campaign of dis-, mis-, and non-information about the extent of the coronavirus crisis in Greece.

The same government, for example, that’s consistently taken victory laps on TV for its response to the pandemic has dodged questions about why widespread testing still isn’t taking place, or exactly why positive cases that have been found in refugee camps, and in a cruise ship that was recently allowed to dock in Piraeus, weren’t included in the official tally.

Meanwhile the mainstream media, or ΜΜΕ (μέσα μαζικής ενημέρωσης)—long accused of bowing to the corporate and political interests of the magnates who foot their bills—have been acting, as one Twitter user put it, like a dog who licks the floor as soon as you toss it a piece of sausage.

Throughout the crisis, TV newscasters have conducted breathless interviews with (Greek) doctors in coronavirus hotspots such as New York, London and Madrid, only to cut off doctors here in the πατρίδα as soon as they begin to complain about PPE shortages at Greek hospitals. Recent evening news broadcasts, meanwhile, have included a riveting ANT1 segment on how to make potato chips, with singer, model and former pole-vaulter Saki Rouvas, and a side-by-side comparison on Mega of the hairstyles of government spokesman Stelios Petsas before and after the onset of the pandemic.

Still other broadcasts drew attention to the alarming lines forming outside Athens banks this week, with at least one reporter flouting the measures on social distancing to demand of one patron why she wasn’t social distancing.

Deputy Minister of Civil Protection and Crisis Management Nikos Hardalias declared the situation “unacceptable.” But missing from the newscast was any indication that many of those gathered on the last day of the month were there to collect their pensions checks—those meager, ever-dwindling pay-outs treated by successive waves of Greek and European politicians as bargaining chips in the endless negotiations over austerity measures and debt repayments. As one opinion writer put it:

Ο συνταξιούχος…πάει γιατί η σύνταξη του προηγούμενου μήνα έχει εξαντληθεί εδώ και 10 μέρες. Με τη σύνταξη αυτήν την πενιχρή προσπαθεί να κρατήσει την αξιοπρέπειά του. Να πάει στον φαρμακοποιό για να πληρώνει τα φάρμακα, να πάει στο σπίτι για να μοιράσει τα χρήματα για το νερό, το τηλέφωνο, το ρεύμα, να πάρει τα παιδιά να δει τι λείπουν στα εγγόνια του. Αυτοί, λοιπόν, κατά Χαρδαλιά, είναι οι «απαράδεκτοι».

Κατανοούμε το γεγονός ότι δεν μπορείς να αντιληφθείς την αγωνία αυτών που παλεύουν να κρατήσουν την αξιοπρέπειά τους με τα ψίχουλα.

The retiree…goes because the last month’s pension was exhausted 10 days ago. With this meager pension he tries to hold onto his dignity. To go to the pharmacy to buy medication, to go home and split the money for water, the phone, the electricity, to see from his children what his grandchildren are missing. This, as opposed to what Hardalias says, is “unacceptable.”

We understand that you can’t comprehend the agony of those who struggle to maintain their dignity with crumbs.

But the Χρυσή Μούντζα—

Γολδεν να

—went to a recent Open TV report about the alleged hordes that descended on the waterfront in Thessaloniki on an unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon, footage of which has subsequently become a sort of Zapruder film for this generation of Greek armchair forensic scientists.

The footage, at first glance, seemed simple and damning enough: despite official stay-at-home orders, hundreds of unruly Thessalonikans could be seen power-walking, jogging, bicycling, and otherwise disregarding government calls to limit daily outings and stick to social distancing when they did leave the house. The following day, the παραλία was roped off to pedestrians.

Stare at it long enough, though, and you’ll start to notice funny little inconsistencies: a jogger who seems to be running in place, another who casts no shadow, still others who almost appear to be passing right through each other. One photographer pointed out how you could achieve this effect by zooming into a section of the waterfront from a distance, compressing the field of vision to make it seem much more crowded than it actually was.

But then the floodgates opened, as engineers and architects and conspiracy theorists—most of whom, in this homebound age, had a bit too much time on their hands to begin with—began deconstructing the fraudulent footage. For a few hours, Greek Twitter resembled a Super Bowl party dissecting the replays after the game-winning touchdown was, upon further review, overturned.

Beach

Beach2

Things only went downhill from there.

(You can find other creative video mash-ups here, or a more sober scientific analysis here.)

The most wide-ranging and straight-laced take on coronavirus in Greece I found this week came from CNN, whose Christiane Amanpour interviewed PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis about his government’s response to the crisis. It was bewildering at first to see a head of state speaking with intelligence and poise, so accustomed have I gotten to the three-ring circus of insults, lies, self-congratulation and corporate pandering that passes for President Trump’s daily press briefings.

To the PM’s credit—or, more likely, to the credit of millions of Greeks—the country has so far managed to flatten the transmission curve. “Our healthcare system is coping relatively well,” he told Amanpour. “It was battered after 10 years of austerity, so we were painfully aware of the fact that we were at bigger risk compared to other E.U. countries.”

For 15 minutes, the Harvard grad put on such a smooth and polished performance that I almost forgot the Sphinx-like proclamations he’s been making to the Greek public, insisting that we’re like “ελεύθεροι πολιορκημένοι, που επιλέγουν, όμως, να είναι πολιορκημένοι γιατί είναι ελεύθεροι,” or “the free besieged, who choose, however, to be besieged because they’re free.”

The PM also warned: “Δεν είμαστε στην αρχή του τέλους, είμαστε το τέλος της αρχής.” We’re not at the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.

We have many years before us.

Tue., March 31. 9:59am.

Easter’s been called off this year. Government spokesman Stelios Petsas offered the somber proclamation on Monday that “this year we’ll celebrate Easter from home.”

Δεν θα κάνουμε Πάσχα στο χωριό, δεν θα ψήσουμε τα αρνιά στις αυλές μας, δεν θα επισκεφθούμε τις Εκκλησιές μας. Αλλά έχουμε μπροστά μας πολλά χρόνια να το γιορτάσουμε με τα ήθη, τα έθιμα και φυσικά την πίστη μας.

We won’t have Easter in the village, we won’t roast lamb in our yards, we won’t visit our churches. But we have many years before us to celebrate it with our beliefs, our traditions, and naturally our faith.

Petsas then warned that the government might close toll booths across the country for the holidays to prevent Greeks from fleeing to their villages.

These have been trying times for the ol’ Ιερά Σύνοδος, which had to practically be strong-armed into canceling daily services and sacraments two weeks ago, even after the rest of the country had gone into lockdown. (The coronavirus pandemic has done more than just upset the Church’s spiritual accounts: the Holy Synod petitioned the Ministry of Labor to ensure that clergy are among the Greek workers entitled to the emergency €800 compensation being doled out by the government.) Church leaders have consistently downplayed the severity of the coronavirus crisis and refused to toe the party line in a country that ostensibly upholds the separation of Church and State.

For weeks, the Orthodox Church has insisted that receiving communion from a common spoon in fact poses no risk of coronavirus transmission, since worshippers would be partaking from the body and blood of Christ and therefore can’t be harmed. Last week, the Bishop of Corfu encouraged islanders to sidestep the nationwide lockdown in order to receive communion, urging them to commit a small act of Church-sanctioned fraud by telling the authorities they were going for exercise instead.

None of this should really come as much of a surprise: when I was applying for citizenship a couple years back, the Greek government was about as interested in the official record of my birth as the fact that I was shortly thereafter baptized in the Orthodox faith. Throughout the ordeal, I spent so much time trying to translate and certify official church documents that I practically rented a spare bedroom at the Archdiocese’s U.S. headquarters on the Upper East Side. It’s this odd flirtation with theocracy in an otherwise secular, democratic state that’s been one of the hardest things to swallow about modern Greek life.

On Monday, Greece mourned the passing of Manolis Glezos, the former resistance fighter who, as a teenager during the German occupation, tore down the Nazi flag flying over the Acropolis. From Helena Smith’s obit in The Guardian:

Then 18, the young Glezos had scaled the walls of the ancient citadel with a comrade in the dead of night on 30 May 1941 on a mission to remove the hated symbol. The first act of defiance under German occupation was credited with boosting morale and spurring the country’s resistance movement.

Glezos was, in a sense, a life-long leader of the resistance; after being elected to the European Parliament at the tender age of 92, he fought against the austerity measures being imposed on Greece at the height of the crisis, arguing, “Greece is the guinea pig of policies exacted by governments whose only God is money.” Smith again:

He was often to be seen, tousled white hair under seaman’s cap, his frame steadied by a walking cane, participating in mass anti-austerity protests and in one now notorious incident was carried away by fellow demonstrators after being tear gassed in the face at the foot of the Greek parliament.

Glezos

Glezos2

I came across the story of Glezos’ daring nighttime mission a few years ago, on my first visit to Greece as an adult. Like just about everything in the country’s past outside the realm of ancient myth, it evoked a history that was a complete blank slate to me. Under lockdown, I’ve been trying to Greeken up a bit, slogging my way through Η Τελευταία Μπλόφα (The Last Bluff), an account of the pivotal crisis years around the time of the great όχι referendum, and reading Patricia Storace’s early-‘90s memoir about her year in Greece, Dinner With Persephone. It’s the fourth time I’ve picked it up, this time determined to see it through to the end. Not that it isn’t written in beautiful, florid prose or meticulously researched; the problem, in fact, is that it’s too much of those things.

When Storace came to Greece she was fluent not only in the language, but in its history and philosophy, its writings and myths. The depth and breadth of her knowledge is staggering, as in, e.g., this passage where she describes the eerie sensation she felt after leaving a doctor’s office: “Staring absently at my bookshelf, I have a sudden enlightenment about the source of the déjà vu. It comes from the twelfth-century chronicle of the life of the Byzantine emperor Alexius Comnenus.” I had my own sense of déjà vu the other morning, when I’d staggered around the bathroom, my vision a blur, until I realized I was wearing two contacts in the same eye. Storace saw everything with crystal clarity, her mind a sponge absorbing every cultural tic and tell of her Greek hosts, until her narrative seemed to me like less an evocative exploration of her time in a foreign land than a pissing contest. As a writer and ersatz son of the soil, it was humbling to be so thoroughly out-Greeked.

It took me years to even think about my Greekness as anything other than a collection of stage props and performative rites we trotted out on certain holidays (“Αληθώς ανέστη,” he says, smashing his stigmata-red Easter egg.) Reading Glezos’ obit on M.’s balcony, I thought about how long it took me to learn about the Nazi occupation of Greece—said to be among the most brutal of the Second World War—and how old I was before realizing my dad’s youth was anything but the childhood pastoral I imagined after visiting his χωριό as a kid.

Village

It was the spring of 2012, and I’d gone out to Jersey to visit my folks in their new retirement community, Four Seasons, a Potemkin village of chestnut trees and shingled roofs and cheery neighbors who put out themed lawn ornaments for even the most minor holidays. The streets had names like Golden Willows Avenue and Starwinds Court and Summerwinds Drive; it was like my parents had moved into a douche commercial. Studying the clubhouse bulletin board, with its advertisements for bridge and karaoke nights, I tried to imagine my surly dad easing into a new life of congeniality, popping into the Joneses’ for pot luck and marveling with John and Barbara next door that golly, no, they couldn’t have ordered up a better day. It was impossible. Just a few years ago I could’ve pictured him driving up to a place like Four Seasons, blowing through the barricade, and mowing down the seniors doddering across the back nine. And yet there he was, running the garden hose across the lawn and gesturing expansively inside the two-car garage, finally molting his immigrant skin as he began a new life as American sitcom dad.

That afternoon we drove out to Point Pleasant for lunch, my dad in his BluBlockers behind the wheel, mouth working in apoplectic rage at the slow crawl of Jersey drivers. When the inevitable, dreaded day of his funeral finally came, there was no doubt his carcass would pitch forward in the coffin, telling the grave-diggers to get on with it so we didn’t have to go outside to feed the meters. Here, at least, was the dad I remembered: impatient, complaining about gas prices, flexing his hirsute digits over the steering wheel while an almost perfect spring day slipped by without comment or appreciation. Back at the Four Seasons 55-and-over “active adult community” he might have to comport himself like he was auditioning for a Centrum ad, but in the comforts of his car, my pop was free to be himself.

We got a table on the deck of the Shrimp Box. My parents tilted the menus and squinted through their reading glasses, as if they were studying particularly interesting lab specimens for signs of gene mutation. Little boats named for people’s wives bobbed lazily in the harbor, pensioners shuffling off to the all-you-can-eat salad bar, clutching coupons for the early-bird special. After our meal my dad sat there in the sunlight, wearing a look of contentment I’d never seen when I was growing up. “I remember…,” he began, a sign that my long stoic dad—a veritable Aesop in old age—was ready to spin another yarn.

I braced myself to hear about a fight for parking, or a Greek guy he met somewhere, or the treacherous shopkeeper who’d tried to rip him off on new spark plugs or a bag of fertilizer. But instead, he told me about the time his father had an epileptic fit and fell out of a tree. It was the first time I’d heard the story—or, I realized, almost anything about the grandfather who’d died nearly two decades before I was born. In my dad’s telling it sounded more like something out of The Collected Chekhov than an actual episode in the life of the man who used to drop me off at Little League.

Dessert came, and I prodded him to go on. He talked about the παιδόπολη, the “children’s village,” in Volos where he was raised after leaving the χωριό during the civil war, and the Communist guerillas who were kidnapping children and sending them to training camps in the Soviet bloc. He told me about the death squads, and the left- and right-wing sympathizers who ratted on their neighbors, and the German withdrawal in 1944: a scorched-earth campaign whose atrocities are still bitterly remembered by the Greeks. (Glezos, well into his 90s, continued to fight for German wartime reparations.)

The longer he went on, the more the Greece of my dad’s childhood sounded like the fractured places I’d encountered in my travels: Guatemala, Lebanon, the Congo. I was stunned by how little I knew about his past. Somehow the dad who’d spent more than four decades rooted to the same zip code, toiling with clockwork precision season after season, had had one of the most interesting lives of anyone I knew. Why, I wondered, had it taken so long for him to share this with me? And why hadn’t I ever asked?

Dad village

Sitting on M.’s balcony with my μπλοκάκια, doing my vocabulary drills, I thought about how I’d remember this time as I describe it to my children, and to their children. Even my Greek lessons bear the scars of our collective trauma, as I read stories about the virus’s εξάπλωση (spread), the worrying increase in κρούσματα (cases), the frantic ιχνηλάτηση (tracking) of each patient’s contacts, the crackdown on αισχροκέρδεια (profiteering), and how ultimately, if all goes well, επωμιστούμε το βάρος μαζί (we’ll shoulder the burden together).

But nothing’s for sure these days, except our collective uncertainty. As one user put it on Twitter: “The next two weeks will be critical in determining if the following two weeks will be critical.”

Now you remembered your homeland.

Sun., March 29. 4:18pm.

On Saturday came reports that the 25-year-old son of a Greek tycoon, returning from his studies in London, broke the 14-day quarantine imposed on all international arrivals by the government to head to Mykonos and Ikaria with two friends. One website provided a blow-by-blow account of the group’s movements as local authorities desperately scrambled to trace all their contacts on the islands.

Arriving in Ikaria on March 23, the group visited supermarkets in the Armenistis area to buy supplies, and visited a pharmacy as the 25-year-old allegedly already had symptoms of the coronavirus.

They stayed at the businessman’s family home in Raches, a village in Ikaria, but also spent time walking around the village visiting shops and even a bakery in Agios Polykarpos. Once it became known that the 25-year-old was the first confirmed case on the island, the bakery was shut down.

Last Monday, the government announced it was banning flights from the U.K., and that even Greek citizens were forbidden to return, unless it was for exceptional circumstances, such as medical emergencies, or if they’d been stranded in transit at an airport. (Thirty-two Greeks who had traveled to London for medical treatment were repatriated on Friday. Whether or not the island-hopping son of a Greek tycoon was among them isn’t clear.)

At a press conference on Saturday, Deputy Minister of Civil Protection and Crisis Management Nikos Hardalias declared that 2,850 Greeks had made repatriation requests in the U.K., adding that a general repatriation would be “detrimental to the public health of our country.” He then took pains to add a dismissive dig at his countrymen marooned overseas, sneering, “Τώρα θυμηθήκατε την πατρίδα.” Now you remembered your homeland.

There’s been an undercurrent of hostility, or paternalistic disappointment, from some of the government mouthpieces scolding the public for not taking enough “ατομική ευθύνη,” or individual responsibility, in all this—a hectoring tone eagerly taken up by the partisan hacks on the evening news, themselves in the pockets of billionaires. It’s not unreasonable to suspect the government is just trying to mask its failures to do more to bolster the country’s flimsy medical defenses—that it’s essentially offloading the burden onto the public.

M. and I have taken up our ατομική ευθύνη by binge-watching our way through the first season of Pose and offering robust support to countless Greek vineyards. Nearly a week after the new restrictions on leaving the house were put into place, we’ve become models of smooth and efficient social distancing, choreographing our movements through the backstreets of Kypseli like we’re performing a ζειμπέκικο, or auditioning for Dancing With the Stars.

With the crisper and cupboards fully stocked after Thursday’s shopping spree, we decided to exercise our right to exercise on Saturday. Or, in the concise words of the government’s ΒΕΒΑΙΩΣΗ ΚΑΤ’ ΕΞΑΙΡΕΣΗ ΜΕΤΑΚΙΝΗΣΗΣ ΠΟΛΙΤΩΝ: “Σύντομη μετακίνηση, κοντά στην κατοικία σου, για ατομική σωματική άσκηση (εξαιρείται συλλογική δραστηριότητα) ή για τις ανάγκες κατοικιδίου ζώου.” (That second provision, allowing for the needs of pet-owners, has fueled theories that Greek dogs will soon have absolute Olympian fitness levels, or will be departing for early graves.)

Pets

The day was mild, sunny, the sort of afternoon that under normal circumstances would have customers spilling out of the restaurants and καφενεία, cluttering the already too-narrow sidewalks. Thursday’s ghost town clearly had as much to do with the sodden skies as the quarantine; there were plenty of dog-walkers traipsing their pooches across the vast concrete expanse next to the courthouses, which on a typical Saturday afternoon would be crowded with young Pakistanis and Afghans and Bangladeshis playing cricket, using the garbage cans as wickets.

An African man in running clothes did dips on a broken park bench. Nearby, a group of dog-owners gathered in a large circle, standing at surreal, socially distant removes from each other—a tableau that looked like some odd meditation ritual, or a stage performance of Waiting for Godot. A paunchy, garrulous, violently excitable man with a Danzig head of hair was complaining about the neighbors whose unruly dogs carpet-bombed the sidewalks, one of the many daily indignities of Athenian life.

Looping through the park, we came to a graffiti-covered amphitheater where I’ve often seen packs of teens drinking and passing around spliffs. In the shade nearby, old men would sit around wobbly tables, arguing and playing cards and hacking phlegm into their handkerchiefs. I snapped a few pics of the hodge-podge of cast-off chairs left in their absence, likely rescued from sidewalks on garbage day, or commandeered from neglected kitchens, or requisitioned from nephew Takis’ ταβέρνα in Agia Varvara. Something about them spoke to the thrift and compromise of life in modern-day Greece, the war of attrition fought with each passing austerity measure and memorandum. I wondered about those old men who’d fought tooth and nail to survive the foreclosures and pension cuts, probably sitting in their rumpled σώβρακα, hoping that this crisis too would eventually pass.

Park2

Park1

Park

Coming home we crested one of the neighborhood’s hills, the view down the street a straight shot to the Aegean. Living in central Athens, you forget this is ostensibly a city built on the sea; when it comes to my daily life, the powdery beaches and gauche clubs of Glyfada and Vouliagmeni, the tourist-thronged ferry terminals in Piraeus, might as well be on the dark side of the moon. The little smudge of blue in the distance wedged something in my throat. In normal times, with the calendar turning into April, Greeks would be dreaming up their summer holidays around now, planning to flee to the islands or to their εξωχικά σπίτια, their country homes.

Sea

I thought about the afternoon I’d spent at a seaside ταβέρνα in Kerkuras last summer, the pearls of sweat gliding down my κατοστάρι of ouzo, the smoked herring drenched in olive oil and basking in the sunlight, while I stared toward the blue line of the horizon where M. was visiting her friend on the neighboring island of Paxoi. I had friends who in the span of a few summers had raced through all the Cycladic islands, the Saronics, the Ionian, the Dodecanese, like modern-day Argonauts hunting for their own Golden Fleece. But because of work, M. and I rarely made it to more than one island a year. We were more like those rumpled pilgrims you saw in Tinos, the shabby village women dressed in black who crawled the blistering, sun-scorched half-mile from the port to the sacred Church of Panagia Evangelistria. It felt like we fought for those island getaways inch by painstaking inch.

First World problems, to be sure. But like the rest of us in these anxious times, I’ve spent most of my energy on stockpiling non-perishables, checking in on loved ones, and managing the spikes in my blood pressure whenever the latest coronavirus stats are about to be announced at the Health Ministry’s daily press briefings. The emotional effort required to get through each day makes it almost impossible to think of the future in any concrete way; August feels as remote as the Pleistocene Era. I’ve been, in keeping with the New Age mantras making the rounds on social media, focused on Gratitude For What I Have, thankful that me and my loved ones have so far weathered the storm. Maybe that’s why that unexpected glimpse of the sea loosed something inside me—a sudden wave of grief and longing for something I took for granted, there, just out of reach.

There are no money trees.

Fri., March 27. 10:35am.

The lights went out on Thursday night, just as M. had fired up the oven for the marathon of food prep, wine-guzzling, and drunken dish-scrubbing that we formerly referred to as “dinner.” We’re eating better under quasi-quarantine than we have at any point in the 4+ years we’ve been together, M. revealing new depths of culinary skill and ingenuity that in a different world might not have been plumbed until we’d settled into our pensions. She’d popped the μπιφτεκάκια in the stove (and presented me with a handmade menu) when the power cut.

Menu

All this time, I’ve been bracing for the worst. The levees have held in Greece these past few weeks, the coronavirus case load increasing steadily but not alarmingly, the social contract bearing up against our barbarian instincts to pillage and hoard. I’ve been guardedly hopeful that this is something encoded in the Greek DNA, part of the same communal impulse that sends thousands into the streets almost daily, marching in solidarity with refugees and communists and farmers and pensioners, protesting against capitalism and corruption and fascism and austerity, parading banners festooned with inscrutable acronyms and impenetrable slogans.

Still, I’ve spent the better part of my life hearing stories of betrayal and treachery at the hands of the duplicitous village yokels populating my dad’s side of the family tree. Friends, our asses will be comforted with the finest three-ply until Covid-22 rolls into town.

Sitting in the gloaming as dusk settled over the city, I poked my head onto the balcony. Up and down the street the neighbors’ lights were flicking on, illuminating the busywork in the kitchens, the παππούδες settling in front of the TV to have the shit scared out of them by the evening news. In the hallway of our πολυκατοικία, all was well. Whatever entropy awaits in the weeks ahead, ours was the only apartment to go dark.

While we waited for ΔΕΗ, the state electric company, to send a technician, I thought about my fragile foothold in a country that—as a somewhat newly minted citizen—I still don’t have a grip on. Much of my faith in Greece during this time of crisis is anecdotal, circumstantial, the product of whatever I manage to observe with my own two eyes. Because the supermarket queues here in Kypseli are orderly, and I’ve mostly seen neighbors straggling out alone or in pairs, I’ve assumed that the lockdown across Greece has largely been a success. Because the country’s case load has only crept upward, I’ve assumed the government’s response to the pandemic has been sound and good.

This is a profoundly stupid and flawed way of thinking. At a time of crisis, my usual response is to Hoover up as much information as I can; even now, thousands of miles away from family and friends in the States, I spend most of the day on Twitter, waiting for the Twitterati to weigh in on the latest verbal atrocity to fall from the president’s mouth, or for N.Y. Gov. Cuomo to offer the grown-up and stabilizing presence you’d expect from your elected leaders. But in Athens, I was—figuratively and literally—in the dark.

Greek Twitter is mostly unintelligible to me, a collection of pop-culture riffs and political memes riddled with slang and neologisms I could spend the better part of a day failing to translate. (In fairness, this is just a half a step removed from my social-media literacy in the U.S. It’s like the contestants of Greece’s Next Top Model were doing the flip-the-switch challenge to ρεμπέτικο: somewhat familiar, mostly foreign, but meaningless all the same.) My Greek is more than functional but far from fluent—hardly ideal for wading through the swamp of social media. In these desperate times, though, I need the sort of real-time, fight-or-flight adrenaline hits that only Twitter can provide, a sense that the fate of the world is hanging in the balance every time I drag my screen down to reload.

Judging from the tweets that started to crowd my Greek feed, I wondered if I weren’t better off with my head in the sand. Whatever faith I had in the government’s swift and aggressive moves to put the country on lockdown crumbled; the grizzled pundits of the Greek Twitterverse, schooled in the sycophancy and cronyism of the modern Greek client state, were describing such measures as, at worst, a return to the brute tyranny of the junta years, and at best, as a blatant cash grab.

To take one example, the government paid €30 million to private labs for coronavirus tests while freeing up just €75 million in emergency funds for public hospitals. While states across Europe have been nationalizing public hospitals in an all-hands-on-deck mobilization of local healthcare resources, the Greek government has been renting ICU beds from private clinics, at twice the normal rate. (One Twitter user offered an imagined, itemized list for the daily costs, including €800 for μίζες πολιτικών, or bribes to politicians.)

Screen Shot 2020-04-03 at 3.08.22 PM

And in a move of almost staggering, head-slappingly comic incompetence (or call it malfeasance), the Mitsotakis administration said it had allocated €11 million in government funds for a coronavirus public information campaign that could’ve likely been put together by a couple of unpaid interns at the Ministry of Health. This just hours after government spokesman Stelios Petsas announced that Greeks would have to shoulder the costs of the coronavirus fight together, offering the immortal pronouncement “Δεν υπάρχουν λεφτόδεντρα”: “There are no money trees.”

Money trees

Cartoon

M. went downstairs after she’d buzzed the technician in. He’d staggered into the lobby in what looked like a hazmat suit, she told me, his eyes the eyes of a panicked woodland creature as they descended to the basement. I’ve had my own battles and gripes with ΔΕΗ in the past—one of my most searing images of Greek life was the sight of a grouchy civil servant at a ΔΕΗ payment center reducing a pregnant woman with unpaid bills to tears—but in this time of uncertainty, it’s hard not to pity a guy who spends his days making housecalls.

A few minutes later, the lights went on. Why they went out remained a mystery; we hadn’t tripped the circuit breakers in the apartment, although it was probably no coincidence that they went out as the oven, the boiler, and all the lights blazed. The μπιφτεκάκια went back into the fridge, but—rather than spoil a mood I’d describe as “romantic zombie apocalypse”—we had our dinner by candlelight anyway.

Candlelight

Unto the breach

Pericles, Plutarch tells us, was famous “chiefly for his caution”: “He was never prepared to join battle when there was considerable uncertainty and risk, nor did he admire and model himself on those commanders who were acclaimed as great, but who enjoyed brilliant good fortune at the risk of their own lives. He was constantly telling his fellow citizens that if it were up to him they would remain immortal forever.”

Wise and valorous words, to be sure, but it’s one thing to mount a defense of Athens against Spartan hordes and another thing altogether to keep the cupboards stocked in the middle of a pandemic. On day four of Greece’s official lockdown—but nearly two full weeks after M. and I had essentially retreated from public life—we decide to venture out for supplies.

Because I am my father’s son, and grew up in a household of off-brand snack treats sold in gargantuan, family-sized packages, I started stocking up on pasta, chickpeas, canned goods, and other non-perishables a few weeks ago, as soon as I got back from the Berlin Film Festival and the first few coronavirus cases were cropping up across Greece. By the time the government announced the new lockdown measures this week, my girlfriend’s storage closet looked like a backyard fallout shelter from the ‘50s, ready for whatever warheads might rain down on our apartment block and render Athens uninhabitable, the supply chain null and void.

But because my girlfriend values aesthetics and beauty and believes that both pleasure and fresh produce are not only worthy goals but essential pursuits during this time of collective angst, we’re schlepping to the Vasilopoulous on a damp, dour, overcast March morning when the rest of Athens is cozily quarantined.

As it turns out, our fears about the permitting process were overblown: just seconds after sending an SMS with our name, whereabouts, and reason for leaving lockdown, we get an automated reply with the all-clear. (The fact that requests are routed through an automated system and not some call center staffed with surly civil servants allays another pressing fear: that all requests will be ignored after 2pm.)

The streets are deserted. Though we’ve heard the police are starting to crack down on violators, there’s not a single cop in sight. (A friend who’d gone out to her own neighborhood supermarket this week reported that the only cops who passed on their motorbikes “seemed to want to look at the Ladies and grin,” a suggestion of normalcy in these trying times that made me feel buoyed and strangely proud.) I mention to M. that it reminds me of the week of Δεκαπενταύγουστο, the high holidays of mid-August, when it feels like someone’s picked up Athens, flipped it upside down, and shaken till every last straggler comes tumbling out. This, she insists, is worse. “The only people you see are wearing masks.”

Empty street

On the whole, the other pedestrians we come across look no more panic-stricken than I imagine we do, spritzing our hands with sanitizer and keeping a wide enough berth for the Diamond Princess to sail between us. We’re maintaining a discretionary distance even from each other, though just 7 minutes ago we were propped together in the hallway, wobbling into our sneakers while trying to keep Smally from licking and pawing at every available contaminated surface.

The supply chain, friends, is holding strong. The wheels of commerce continue to turn. Apart from the extended family of Dettol cleaning products and low-grade cooking oil, the shelves of the Vasilopoulos look like a buffet spread at a feast for the gods. There’s produce galore. Half the wine is 30% off. The process is orderly, everyone keeping a respectful distance at the deli counter and among the cleaning supplies. When two shoppers converge on the same aisle, a weird ballet ensues, a series of awkward shuffles and pirouettes. Xs are duct-taped two meters apart at the checkout line. The cashier sits behind a giant sneeze guard. When I wish her υπομονή and κουράγιο she gives me a weary smile, the surgical mask inching up her cheeks.

Cooking oil

Basket

Back at the house, more gymnastics: sneakers kicked off, sweatpants shimmied into a pile, taps turned on with a flick of the elbow, hamstring likely torn before I’ve managed to get the groceries out onto the balcony. When M. gets home, we spritz every single package of rice cakes and frozen veggies and flour and brown sugar and Emmental cheese. The process takes the better part of an hour, until, if the label is to be believed, just .1% of microbes remain.

Groceries

The cupboards and the storage room need to be reorganized again to accommodate the new supplies. Exactly how one arranges rainy-day provisions on the shelves of one’s doomsday cupboard is, it seems, a matter of interpretation and debate. I’ve undone M.’s artless cramming and replaced it with my own anal arrangement of food stuffs, the El Sabor wraps stacked like a deck of cards, the jars of mayo and tomato sauce like neat little regimens of soldiers heading to the front lines. I’ve used about 40% of the available shelf space and piled everything else onto the washing machine. This goes over about as well as you’d expect. We argue, and then I set about rearranging things as M. tackles the kitchen.

Cleaning out the vegetable bin for maybe the first time since the fridge was installed in 2016, she unearths a nearly full box of Moldovan Sânziene Chardonnay. It’s no less awful than the Franzia I used to drink in college, and is at the very least a guarantee that we won’t have to worry about disinfectant for the hallway anytime soon. Three liters of the stuff to go, easy. If it were up to me, we would remain immortal forever.

Smally in bed

Independence Day

The fighter jets are streaking over the Acropolis and the empty streets of a city under 24/7 house arrest. It was 199 years today that Greece liberated itself from the yoke of the dreaded Turks. The usual rites of remembrance, the parades and all the militaristic bombast, had to be called off this year, for obvious reasons. A nationwide lockdown went into effect across Greece on Monday. In his Independence Day message to the nation this morning, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said:

“Ο εχθρός τώρα είναι η πανδημία και απέναντί της θα παρελάσουν η ισχύς και η ενότητά μας” αναφέρει ο πρωθυπουργός και σημειώνει ότι “μόνο οι ενωμένοι λαοί μπορούν να ξεπερνούν τις δυσκολίες.”

Roughly translated: “The enemy today is the pandemic, and against it we’ll parade our strength and unity.” (Italics mine. I like what he did there.) “Only a united populace can overcome the hardships.”

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Sprawled out on a yoga mat, stretching the aching muscles of a cooped-up, almost-middle-aged body that hasn’t left the house for roughly 70 hours, I question the wisdom of spending taxpayers’ money on scrambling F-16s instead of bolstering a health care system devastated by a decade’s worth of essentially non-stop crisis. My girlfriend, as is often the case when my Americanness outweighs my Greekness, objects. “From the beginning, we said we have to do this together, as Greeks,” she says. “Reminding people what we’ve been through as a country keeps our spirits up.”

Now is not the time, I realize, to get into a squabble over the difference between raising the spirits of the nation and doing the same through the overt display of high-grade military hardware. My birth nation, after all, has been known to flaunt its terrifying defense budget for the sake of half-time pageantry (patriotic displays which, as far back as 2015, had already amounted to more than $10 million in marketing deals between the Dept. of Defense and the five major American sports leagues).

In truth, I’ve felt much prouder of my adopted homeland’s response to the coronavirus pandemic so far than of my actual homeland’s. For the past two weeks, since the government began tightening the screws of our nationwide response—more of which I’ll write about in the days ahead—Greeks have largely seemed to take each new measure with a level-headedness that, if we’re being honest, as the son of a Greek immigrant, I’d never entirely associated with Greeks. The Darwinian savagery on display in Costco check-out lines across America? I’ve heard few reports of Greek hoarders panic-buying their way through quarantine, and my anecdotal, eyeball reporting around Exarcheia and Kypseli has shown me nothing but orderly queues of patient, no-doubt terrified shoppers trying to fill their shopping carts, share some gallows humor with the check-out lady, and then haul ass back to the apartments their germophobic πεθερά has already been pathologically disinfecting since the Ottomans left town.

This is, I’m sure, partly the narrow view of the world I’m glimpsing through the keyhole of our Kypseli stronghold. Whatever plucky resolve I’ve seen firsthand these past few weeks has been offset by the lacerating criticism of the government’s response to the pandemic I’ve seen on Twitter. Emergency alerts have been periodically sent to the nation’s cell phones accompanied by piercing, high-decibel shrieks. The €800 billion bailout package to keep the economy afloat has been vague on exactly who can expect government checks, or when.

The messaging could be clearer. When the lockdown was introduced on Monday, Greeks were told that we could leave our houses for essential errands—grocery shopping, doctor’s visits, brief daily exercise close to home—but needed to carry a permit that could be obtained by PDF on a government website or by SMS. Soon after the announcement, the website crashed. We haven’t tried to brave the SMS system yet. This morning, me and my girlfriend argued over how to send the text. What if you want to go for a walk AND do shopping. Do you need to send two separate texts? Would the police slap a €150 fine on someone who left the house for exercise and came back with grocery bags? She decided to bake a loaf of banana bread instead. The smell from the oven still fills the house, hours later.

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I’m as scared as anyone. Through Tuesday the 24th, Greece had 743 confirmed cases of coronavirus, up 51 from the previous day. For most of the past week, the number has climbed slowly, steadily—around 40-50 new cases a day—but not the exponential explosion a lot of countries have seen nearly a full month after the first case was recorded. The Greek growth curve doesn’t look anywhere as terrifying as it does in much of Europe, never mind the U.S.

But do those numbers really tell us anything? Like half the world and all of Twitter, I’ve become an armchair epidemiologist, a stay-at-home statistician. Through Tuesday, Greece had conducted just 9,071 tests, or roughly 71 per million population: fewer than Armenia or Croatia, Lithuania or Finland. (Or, instead of plucking Baltic and Balkan countries out of a hat: fewer than most nations were doing at the same point in the virus’s trajectory.) Was telling the whole country to “μένουμε σπίτι” partly an acknowledgment that there’s no way our crippled health care system can stay afloat amid even a modest outbreak? A health official conceded last week that there were more likely 12,000 cases or more in the country. Trying to figure out how many ICU beds Greece has at its disposal sent me into a very dark place.

Meanwhile, priests in the northern Peloponnese town of Aigio drove through the streets in a farmer’s pick-up truck, sprinkling holy water to protect the inhabitants from coronavirus. The police reported 766 violations across the country in the 36 hours after the lockdown was introduced, including a man with a permit to go to the supermarket who was stopped in his car with three other passengers, 40 miles away.

Choppers

At 11 o’clock military choppers fly low over the rooftops of Athens. The family across the πεζόδρομο has unfurled a crisp new flag on the balcony to celebrate Independence Day. All across the city, church bells ring. My girlfriend, misty-eyed, holds her quaking Maltese to her chest, telling me how proud she is of the country, of the fact that she’s still standing. For many Greeks, I imagine, the pandemic is being folded into a larger national narrative, another test of their—of our, I try to convince myself—resilience. The crisis took a terrible toll on this country, and we might still have to pay a price for that in the weeks and months ahead.

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As the choppers buzz overhead, the neighbors are coming out onto their balconies. Across the way a father holds his two young boys, their tiny fingers clutching the trellis. We wave and then wag Smally’s little paw, until they giggle and wave back. The man on the neighboring balcony—gruff, unshaven, pot-bellied—leans over the railing to shout something down to the street. To the extent that we have a nemesis in the neighborhood, it’s this untidy brute, who spends summer nights shouting into his cell phone on the balcony, backlit by the garish fluorescent light from his kitchen. He’s chosen this first week of official lockdown to carry out his loudest home repairs; earlier in the morning, he’d dragged his unfortunate wife up to the roof to help him unfurl a dirty tarp over the tattered awning on their balcony. It wasn’t hard to picture him spending his allotment of daily exercise minutes rounding up migrants on the street.

And that may still be the case, when all this is through. But he’s shouting “Χρόνια πολλά” to someone on the street, and then he shouts it at us, and we shout it back at him and at the father with the two small boys. “Χρόνια πολλά,” everyone is shouting to everyone else as the church bells clang. “Χρόνια πολλά. Χρόνια πολλά. Χρόνια πολλά.”

Welcome home.

Wednesday, November 9.

[N.B. – In the usual messy spirit of this blog, I’m fast-forwarding a few weeks, as I still try to cope with the terrible backlog of things I’d like to write about Kenya. Below are some thoughts since arriving in Rwanda this week. In the days and weeks ahead, I’ll continue to fill in the blanks from Kenya in my typical, shitty, roughshod way. Thanks for bearing with me.]

You know you are back before you’ve even hit the tarmac, because the hills outside the window are green and seem to go on forever. You remember the phrase you heard before, how they called this place “God’s country.” Kenya is far behind you now; if you flew over the endless tree-freckled plains of the Maasai Mara, or the great silver saucepan of Lake Victoria, you can hardly remember. The world beneath you is lush, abundant, and you’re flying close enough now to make out the tiny figures of motorbikes and bicycles moving over dirt roads, the flash of sunlight on tin roofs. Banana plants, palm trees, the little hilltop shambas of manioc and taro and maize. The green quiltwork of a land cultivated to within an inch of its life. The pilot announces your first descent, into Bujumbura: the flight is a puddle-jumper, passengers hop on and off along the route from Nairobi to Buja to Kigali and then back to Nairobi, like a matatu. Lake Tanganyika, fingers of land jutting into it, the mountains of eastern Congo like a man who took his last tired steps and slumped onto his side. On the tarmac you pick up a WiFi signal. The second “u” in Bujumbura hangs crookedly from the terminal. There is a door for departures and a door for arrivals and a door into the salon d’honneur, for VIPs. A dapper man sits beside you, he has an Afro and a pair of flared plaid pants, a spiritual descendant of Fela Kuti, some Highlife legend. His accent is posh, he is visiting from Oxford. Family? Friends? The rural health clinic he founded? He doesn’t say. You try to place this man in your mental geography of the region. Perhaps his parents fled the ethnic pogroms of the ‘60s. Or were killed: he was raised an orphan in the UK. Some sympathetic, church-going retirees took him in, gave him the best of everything. He’s come back to discover his roots, to find some lost sibling, long thought dead. Or is visiting the parents who are, in fact, still alive. They had fled to Kigali, to Zaire. His father had worked in the Belgian consulate. His father was a prince. You cannot imagine this black man with a BBC accent being a casual tourist. To Burundi, of all places. This little forgotten country in the troubled heart of a troubled region. Last year the opposition parties boycotted the presidential elections; Agathon Rwasa, the leader of the last of the rebel groups, just went and disappeared. Rumors that he is hiding out in the dense, lawless forests of eastern Congo, that the FLN is regrouping, planning to reignite the civil war that destroyed this country. A few weeks ago there was a massacre in a border town, more than 30 people shot dead by soldiers in Congolese army uniforms. A witness said they were given instructions, “Make sure there’s no survivors.” To leave not a trace, no eyes to bear witness and record and remember. Memory in these parts is a dangerous thing.

We lift off again, adieu, adieu, Burundi, à la prochaine fois, dear heart. It takes 30 minutes to pass through the looking glass, to cross the imaginary line that divides two countries which share so much and so little. Dysfunctional Burundi, slouching toward another war, its great open-hearted people held hostage by kleptomaniacs and thugs; and now Rwanda, the West’s darling, the land of a thousand hills and a million miracles, of 8% annual growth, a marvel in boardrooms, on spreadsheets, a land that when I close my eyes to picture it resembles a clenched fist. The sky is blue, dazzling, as we coast onto the runway: the very heavens seem to be smiling on Kigali. A battalion of blue-capped peacekeepers, South African flags stitched to their fatigues, is waiting in single file on the tarmac. They’re holding flipcams and pointing cameras at us, maybe getting some cheap, prosaic thrill out of the simple fact of our existence, their senses scrubbed dull by long, hard months in the Congo. A Europair plane is waiting for them. Their very souls seem rumpled, worn. Off they go, homeward bound, back to Johannesburg and Nelspruit and Port Elizabeth, to the families who have sung Sunday hymns for them, to mothers who have bent on creaking knees, Lord Jesus, please, bring that one back in one piece. A man beside me, his suit double-breasted, his face double-chinned, carries a leather bag with a nametag that reads, Hon. J.B. Dauda, Foreign Minister, Sierra Leone. Another, fedora’d, speaking elegant French into his cellphone, holds a garment bag that says Francesco Armmani. Inside, the terminal has hardly changed. The immigration official is lean and frank and cheerless. The woman at the forex bureau is reading the Bible. A Rwandair billboard on the street outside says, Ikeze Iwacu: Welcome Home.

I am told that I once spent nearly six months living in Kigali, though this seems hard to believe. From June-December 2009, I rented a room in a beautiful house in Remera, a three-bedroom with a small garden and a lovely hillside location that faced the morning sun. The house had high ceilings and the common rooms were flooded with sunlight; of the grainy memories I have of that time, what I remember best is writing at the dining room with my morning coffee, the garden full of birdsong, the cries of children floating up from the valley. The mornings were tranquil, but it was a busy house: turnaround in Kigali is especially high, and every few months, there seemed to be a new face smiling at me in the kitchen as I wiped the sleep from my eyes. We’ve mostly stayed in touch: Lydia, an American, her laugh like automatic gunfire, now mulling a move to South Africa; Kari, who returned to the great wild wilderness of Alberta (me, qua New Yorker, imagining all of Canada between Toronto and Vancouver as great and wild); Francesca, who had come to Kigali with her boyfriend, whose compass poles never quite aligned with African life, now back in Italy, safely on the other side of the Mediterranean. I remember the musical sound of her voice as she and Pietro chattered over coffee in the evening, rehashing the day’s highs and lows. For a long while it was a strong conviction of mine that every house should come with its own pair of Italians.

Fond memories, but perhaps I’m mentally varnishing that period of my life, giving it an unnatural shine. In many ways, those were low months for me: I was broke, anxious, my career was going nowhere. Just a couple of months ago in Cape Town, visiting an old Kigali friend, I was reminded just how unhappy, how unsure of my footing, I was. (This was long before Harper’s and Conde Nast Traveler, before The New York Times.) It is hard to remember now how the days and weeks passed, the mileage I accrued on the backs of motos whisking me from Remera to Kimihurura to UTC. Little writing survives from that time; no doubt my Gmail archive is crowded with the futile pitches I sent to countless editors, emails that were sent and resent and always unreturned. Struggling to recreate those months, I’ve consulted a certain Delphic document, known only as “spent.doc,” in which I’ve been filing my daily expenses for the past three years. But here my cryptic notes leave few crumbs; whole days are recorded as little more than moto, moto, coffee, moto, beer, beer, moto. Perhaps this is revealing in its own way. But what fears, what abiding passions guided me through those months, grasping toward some distant fulfillment, have been buried by the steady passage of time.

And here is Kigali now, the hills knuckling under a cloudless sky, the airport road smooth as a pool table. The median is planted with palm trees, a long, leafy colonnade, as neatly manicured as Versailles. (Later in the week, briskly crossing one such median at night, I’ll be tsk-tsk’d by a Rwandan woman: walking on the grass, she says, is against the law.) The city has been growing, new construction projects flank the road, the rickety wooden scaffolding, the blue reflective windows much-loved in this part of the world. Sun Rise House, Agaseke House. The distant skyline of the city center, the swooping necks of construction cranes, new office buildings which could’ve been transplanted from Dubai. The phallic thrust of City Tower. “You can see it is changing,” my taxi driver says, chuckling, no doubt attuned to the Western platitudes we whites always utter upon setting foot in this, the great “African success story.” (Remembering here the memorable story about President Kagame, after a speech to a crowded auditorium in Boston, snapping at the young man who had praised him for the safety and cleanliness of Kigali. “What did you expect?” said Kagame. “That we are dirty and live like savages?”) Passing through Remera, Chez Lando, the Ndoli’s supermarket I trudged up the hill towards, shopping bag clinking with empty beer bottles. And then clinking again as I walked down the hill, the bottles now full.

There seems to be more traffic now in the city center, though perhaps it’s just my imagination: Rwanda, more than any country I know, breeds a certain kind of indoctrination. You believe in this country’s rapid growth and development partly because you see it, partly because you’ve been reading about the “Rwandan renaissance” for years. Past the Union Trade Centre another skyscraper nears completion. Then a corridor of bank towers, acres of blue glass, and a new city hall, still under construction, which looks roughly the size of the U.S. Capitol. In the afternoon, after I’ve checked into my hotel, after I’ve griped about the shitty value-for-money that, more than anything else, tells me I’m back in Rwanda, I have a coffee at the Serena Hotel. A peacebuilding symposium is in town, a UN-backed summit in which conference delegates look for ways to import the Rwandan-miracle model into their own shattered post-conflict countries. (Thus the morning’s tarmac’s Honorable Foreign Minister from Sierra Leone.) In the lobby, I manage to get my hands on a slick piece of propaganda for conference attendees, touting the 17th anniversary of Rwanda’s “liberation.” Glossy pictorials, fawning column inches. And then the obligatory tribute to the country’s Vision 2020, a computer-generated image of a futuristic downtown that looks less like Kigali than Kuala Lumpur. An American woman in a pantsuit, heels clicking briskly across the lobby, is calling out, “Ambassador! Ambassador!” Pragmatic faces at every table, a sense of handshake agreements, details to be ironed out, bold new partnerships being forged.

Above the reception desk, that familiar glower. His Excellency. The honorable and venerable P.K. I can think of no other country which has been so totally and swiftly forged in the smithy of one man’s will. You can imagine him sitting at his executive desk beneath a picture of himself; his face is hard, frank, practical. Consultants, advisors, multi-national supplicants come and go, bent at the waist, obsequious, bearing contracts and promises and opium visions, like Coleridge’s Kublai Khan. I’m reminded of stories I heard about apartheid South Africa, an isolated nation whose people were nevertheless eager to adopt any new technology, tinker with it, try it on for size. Yearning to be a part of the wider world. And so it is in Kigali, where a sign outside the Kenya Airways office in town touts the latest fares to Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Dubai. Bureaucracies have been trimmed and streamlined. Starting a business in Rwanda is roughly as expensive and time-consuming as ordering a cup of coffee. (An informative exercise is to compare that same process in other countries, such as, say, Nigeria.) A friend, a health care worker, tells me how a study had been brought to the Health Ministry’s attention last year, showing the causal relationship between bare feet and certain species of worms. Within days, the government had passed legislation requiring all Rwandans to wear shoes; it was around this time that I, much mystified, noticed the proliferation of cheap, plastic, primary-colored sandals around the countryside. “If we do a study, and we can prove something works, the government will pass legislation next week,” my friend says to me.

We are eating pizza and drinking magnums of Rwandan beer at Sol e Luna. My old house is just down the hill, a five-minute walk. The lights on the hillside are winking; somewhere far below us, we can hear children’s laughter, a stray dog howling at a near-full moon. The night air is bracing, and I feel a brief, sharp pang for the tidy little autocracy I once called home. How lovely and simple life can be here, for those gifted and blessed enough to have forex in their bank account. Around us the tables are full of white diners (another, less flattering, reminder of South Africa creeps into my mind). I wonder, often, about this Rwandan renaissance. The country’s leaders are certainly speeding ahead; often, though, you get the sense that Rwandans themselves are struggling to keep up. I recount at the dinner table a conversation I’d had earlier in the day, with a journalist friend and a young businesswoman from Kenya. She was looking to start an IT firm in Kigali, but had found the country still lagging far behind its glossy reputation. It was easy to start a business here, but there was still a terrific shortage in qualified manpower. In all likelihood she’d have to bring skilled workers from Nairobi, then hire and train a Rwandan manager who could help bridge the language and culture gaps. The much-lauded ICT infrastructure was still primitive; even the power supply was terribly unreliable.

Almost on cue, the hill across the valley goes dark. “Like a Christmas tree,” my friend says. We sit there staring out at the darkness; closer to us the houses glow like pearls of light, cars curve along bends in a road lit like a seam of gold. For a few moments I remember the frustrations of living in Kigali, the cursed Remera house where the power was spotty, where we would often go days without water. But the reverie doesn’t last; the lights are back on almost as soon as they’d vanished. The city is back in business.