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


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.


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

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