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.)
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.
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.
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.