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.
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.)
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.”
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.