Not Lesvos but Athens – an appeal

For the past couple of years in February (there are accounts here and here and here and here) I set off for the north shore of Lesvos, Greece, to offer what little help I could volunteering with the wonderful Lighthouse Relief. This year, that’s out of the question – because… Covid. But also because Lighthouse has had to suspend its emergency response operation for refugees arriving on the island, and transfer its efforts to the streets of Athens where ever-growing numbers of asylum seekers, abandoned by an uncaring, unsupportive system, find themselves with nowhere to go but the streets.

I can’t go, but I’m asking you please to consider helping Lighthouse Relief with a donation to support their vital work. I’ve set up a fundraiser. Anything you can give to help will be wisely used and greatly appreciated.

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23 September 2020

We hummed and we ha-ed but in the end we went. It seemed such an irresponsible extravagance, holidaying in Greece when the world is sliding back towards Covid limitations and lockdowns. Now, as we head home, we wonder what we worried about. I hope we’re not kidding ourselves.

Against all expectations, rattlingly empty Fiumicino airport didn’t seem threatening. Neither did the plane to Athens which was about one quarter full, rigorously masked and somehow as timorous as we felt. I liked the instruction not to use your individual overhead aircon jets. The ferry to Andros was rather busier than I would have liked. But with C and B – who collected us at Athens airport – we nabbed a table in a sunny stern-facing corner and stoically kept our masks on. Are people getting tans with mask-shaped cut-outs these days? Or are only we obsessed enough not to remove them with sea air wafting contagion away? We were certainly the only ones on that particular part of that ferry to remain covered.

In our great family tradition of September seaside holidays, this one looked set to run straight into lowering skies and house-rocking electrical storms. But the sound of the sea on the one truly stormy night was glorious. Downpours forecast for the rest of our stay evaporated. We were battered by high winds in exposed spots. But on the whole, the sun shone and the air was warm.

Andros is the kind of place that makes you wish you knew more geology. The sear hills are criss-crossed by stena (sing. steni), a kind of twitten flanked by walls of shimmering schist – smaller pieces horizontal and large slabs upright in an arrangement that feels truly archaic, tended over millenia and allowed to decay only in recent decades when the human soul rebelled against a life of unspeakable hardship and moved to infinitely less beautiful but also less soul-destroying places with warmth and water and television. 

Through the schist run slashes of quartz and mica and rocks of all colours which of course I’m incapable of identifying, squashed and ripped and contorted in dramatic fashion. 

On spectacular Achla beach – far down a long rocky descent on white roads populated by the occasional goat – the smoothly perfect tiny pebbles underfoot were multi-hued. Pockets in the wind-sculpted rocks around the bay were of the same copper-green as reflections from the water. On ‘our’ beach beneath our rental house (a pleasure craft sped towards it one afternoon, then directly whizzed away again; we never saw anyone else down there), a darker shade of these green rocks had been pulverized into something which at first glance seemed to be a veneer of alga but turned out to be the softest moss-green sand. Very special.

Though Andros looks as dry and burnt as any Greek island at the end of a rainless summer, there are springs everywhere, with outbreaks of green around them. It’s mainly tree-green rather than low-vegetation green, but it goes soothingly with the sound of water over rocks. 

In inhabited spots, the springs tend to give rise to an ugly tangle of plastic pipes feeding houses, but every now and then you stumble across ancient water-channels funneling the previous resource into open tanks green with weed, festooned with maidenhair fern (Adiantum spp) and with flag iris (Iris pseudacorus) growing along edges which must be glorious with yellow blooms in spring. In pretty Melites the water gurgles into a long stone trough through lion heads.  

Elsewhere, the island feels clean and comfortable. In an economic sense, I mean. This is a small Greek island with no glitzy tourist trade even in a good year. It’s difficult though (shades of CdP?) to imagine how they make a living except for tourism: the wild hillsides are terraced in places but there’s little sign that many of these areas are still cultivated, and any agriculture is of the sparse kind: a spattering of goats and sheep, some olives though not in the concentration of – say – Lesvos. Each garden has its orange tree and fig tree and mulberry tree and heavily laden pomegranate, but plantations of any size are few. We passed hardly any vines. The barren valley leading to Zorgos beach and the amazing wave-view cave nearby had rows of beehives all along it.

But Chora, the capital, is a tidy, properous-feeling place with the stately town houses of a past mercantile gentry neatly renovated. The marble-paved streets and muted colours of the seaside suburb of Kouthiou give it a genteel feel. Moreover, it’s all remarkably rubbish-free – due perhaps to lack of visitors as L pointed out when I commented on the pristine state of the impressively way-marked walking routes: we saw a total of two other people on the ones we slogged along, though we spent several long long mornings exploring on foot. 

The port at Gavrio bustles. Batsi is busy but a little too tourist-oriented for my tastes, with a surfeit of seafront tavernas serving identical food… not that Greek food is ever particularly ‘different’. But at least the predictable dishes served to higher or lower standards depending on the establishment are made of real food.

Which leads me to some pre-hols musings, starting with what people put in their mouths… 

In Greece, I see, only 13.7% of the food that’s puchased is ultra-processed. Italy shines with just 13.4%, beaten only by Portugal with an admirable 10.2% in this chart of the degrees of European disconnect with genuine nourishment which I find shocking though not, of course, surprising. What is with the UK? And all those pasty northern places? Why has industrially transformed once-food become the norm? File under the heading ‘reasons to feel smug about being Italian’ – a list which is becoming longer by the day.

Take, for example, tourism in this diabolical 2020 summer season. There’s nowhere that’s not a basket case but Italy, at least, can smirk a little when compared to France and Spain… mostly, according to this article (in Italian – sorry) because Italians have buckled down and taken their summer breaks in their own country. 

It has also helped that Italy, with its enviable (so far and touch wood) record on virus-containment, has gone on no one’s ‘don’t go’ list, with the result that some foreign tourists have actually come. (We can argue about whether that’s a good or a bad thing.) And with its test-and-trace system so convincingly in place it has even managed to continue allowing movement to and from some areas that other countries have had to ban altogether… like Greece, which actually isn’t doing badly at all itself except for some party islands – Mykonos for example – where foreign clubbers have imported their own coronavirus outbreaks and subjected locals to the pain of having to nip pale signs of a tourism revival in the bud. 

I’m writing this on the plane home. In Fiumicino we will queue up obediently for our Covid test (but see my footnote below). If we don’t do it there (in what has been named Europe’s best airport for testing arrangements, and the first offering guaranteed Covid-free flights) we have to arrange to do it the moment we get home, with an obligatory 72-hour quarantine period.

Of course one wonders how closely this is followed up. I have talked, for example, to one CdP resident whose brother returned from Romania and had no intention of following rules and self-isolating for two weeks. After all, she told me, he had to work otherwise his family wouldn’t eat. Did authorities eventually catch up with him and force him to stay indoors?

The evening before we left for Greece I bumped into Pino, who washes my linen for Pieve Suites. At the quieter end of summer, it had been a couple of weeks since I’d needed his services. “It’s so good to be out again,” he told me when I asked how he was. “Nearly two weeks – it’s been a long long time.”

Which could only mean one thing. Right at the end of August, he said, he had a coffee with a friend in a CdP café (quite incidentally the same one at which he had a coffee with me, perhaps the very same day). Two days later, he was called by the local health department and told to go straight home. His friend had developed symptoms, and he was on her list of contacts. 

A team arrived to test him the next day. Negative. But that didn’t suffice. Another ten days of quarantine and the team returned. Negative once again. That was the evening I bumped into him. 

Did he feel aggrieved about being locked away? It was difficult, he said, for the first few days when his work load was still heavy and he had to impart orders from his living room to the poor girl who gives him a hand at the laundry. But on the whole, no. It was only right and fair. 

It fills you with confidence, I think, not only that he was traced and confined to his own safe place but also that he saw why this imposition should be taken with philosophy. As I have said before, here in Italy we’re reassured by the feeling that we’re in good hands. 

A footnote:

We were off the plane and into Fiumicino airport’s Covid testing station in less than 15 minutes. There was no queuing: I barely had time to put my name and address on the piece of paper they handed me before I was being called in for that information to be digitalised, then moving straight on to a testing booth and having a long swab stabbed irritatingly up each nostril. Half an hour’s wait. Then bingo, a result: negative.
It’s a rapid antigen test which is minimally less accurate than a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test but it’s also cheaper, faster and really pretty good anyway, especially if you repeat it from time to time. L summed the experience up in a tweet which, at the time of writing, had almost 9K ‘likes’, not to mention a long stream of comments suggesting that Italian efficiency is the envy of many. Whoever would have thought?