“April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land… “
Although T.S. Eliot didn’t have April lockdown in mind for the coronavirus with his poem “The Wasteland” from nearly a century ago, the Spanish flu of 1918 must have been a recent memory.
Who would have imagined the cruelty of April, with fiction turning into fact:
As April draws to a close, we’re still left with so many unanswered questions about the coronavirus pandemic that we’re living in: the nature of immunity to the virus, when (not if) the second wave will return, what drug is most effective, how the antibody test is done, why the disease attacks your lungs in such a sinister way, when the vaccine will develop, how long to continue “social distancing,” what’s the best way to handle going back to “normal” is there such a thing as “normal” now at all.
The weekend before last we could see helicopters circling over Athens to check if people were staying put in their houses and obeying social distancing in celebrating the Greek Easter. Houses, apartment building roof terraces and apartment communal spaces were under strict scrutiny.
Like a script for a detective series — the Greek police called it Epiheirisi exohika (operation country house) to be sure there was no exodus, as there usually is, out of the cities to people’s country or ancestral homes in the villages, countryside or the islands. Police were stationed at toll highways and at the port of Pireaus to check for violators. Only if you had a paper showing permanent residence outside the city were you allowed to “escape.” The usual 150 euro fine was doubled: 300 euros for the violation, plus taking license plates for two months. Still, some people (admittedly very few) tried to leave.
For days TV and youtube spots showed happy families cooking their leg of lamb, in the oven with potatoes, for just the immediate family, and getting across the message that “Easter is inside of us.” Menoume spiti, menoume nikites. (Stay home, stay winners).
It wasn’t exactly the countryside but we had a leisurely lunch on our large balcony, with lamb and potatoes, salad, grilled vegetables, tzatziki, the traditional red eggs, wine… In apartment yards, you could see some smoke from hibachis and smell cooking of paidakia (lamb ribs) and even the traditional kokoretsi (lamb intestines – people go crazy for it) . Kokoretsi is usually the traditional meze before people sit down and eat the lamb, which is slowly cooking on a spit. The taste of the lamb is so good that you can’t stop pulling it off the spit and eating it before you get to the table. (Sorry vegetarians!)
On Saturday night police patrolled the neighborhoods to make sure no one gathered outside the churches, waiting for midnight for the bells to ring. The Church, which at first resisted government measures, insisting that the virus could not be transmitted by Communion wine or wafer –(immediately disputed by health experts) finally agreed there would be no public services for the whole Holy Week. There were no gatherings, no candles lit, but fireworks after midnight burst out across the sky all over the country informally from terraces and rooftops. Athens had a programmed display. By the water, ships sent out flares to celebrate.
Measures will begin lifting next week from May 4 (a strategically chosen date after the upcoming May 1st long weekend) not to go away. Up until then, you still need to have with you a paper or form or send an sms with the reason for your being out, if it’s not for work (most common are reasons #2, supermarket, #4, taking care of an elderly person or #6, exercise/walking dog) No paper or sms/no i.d? Pay the fine. Police cars and motorcycles circulate throughout neighborhoods but I must say they don’t seem to stop pedestrians.
How is Greece facing the coronavirus? A number of articles have noted how well the country is doing with comparatively a low number of cases and deaths, and a health system that has not been overwhelmed as other countries’ systems have been. Worldwide, Greece ranks 58th in cases and 21st in the EU. In an interview with James Corden on the Late Late Show, Israeli historian and writer Yuval Noah Harari notes the lack of U.S. leadership during this crisis (no argument there!) and praises Greece.
It’s said that deprivation can be endured if you have a sense of shared higher purpose and I think the Greeks mostly have it now, a collective spirit of responsibility and pride. Last time I remember this was in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, with the slogan: oli I ellada se mia omada (all of Greece in one team!) Despite occasional infringements of the law, Greeks are pulling it together pretty well. However, with the lovely spring days, more and more people are out walking, especially in the “Riviera” neighborhoods south of Athens near the sea.
The face of the pandemic here is Dr. Sotiris Tsiodras. An infectious diseases expert with a 27 page CV, he heads the committee to deal with the coronavirus and is the one who gets most credit for instituting early and effective measures. Dr. Tsiodras gives daily medical briefings at 6 pm. According to a survey, a huge 94% of the population have a positive impression of him, making him the most popular Greek at the moment. When you turn on the TV channel, you see a gray haired man with round John Lennon glasses, kindly professor look, soft spoken, unassuming, humble and always cautiously hopeful, sitting at a long table. As far as I know, there are no mugs or socks with his face like with Dr. Fauci in the States, but he’s got a huge following on Facebook!
Tsiodras’ voice cracks and he often gets emotional, announcing last week for example, a day with no deaths, or expressing concern about the the overcrowded refugee camps, or talking about looking after the elderly, whose population number is actually second in Europe, behind Italy. He encourages pride in Greece’s accomplishments: “we’re showing the world what we can do.” Besides his medical background — he’s a professor at the Medical School in Athens, and a former associate with Harvard Medical School — he has seven children and sings Byzantine hymns at his local church.
The other figure at the table, at a careful distance of two meters apart, is deputy civil protection Nikos Hardalias, gruff and serious, the original “menoume spiti” (stay home) guy, talking on the importance of following the measures and fines if you don’t. He talks a little like the father admonishing and knowing what’s best for his unruly children. So, his congratulations after Easter for following the measures meant a lot to us “children.”
Personally, I don’t see any infringement on my freedom that we need to carry an i.d. and paper or send an sms when we go out, which we do. I’m grateful that the law is enforced and seems to be working here, grateful we can take our daily walks – especially now with spring bursting forth.
Not only Easter, but the Jewish holiday of Passover, on April 8 this year, commemorating liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, is also traditionally celebrated with large family gatherings, or in many communities, huge communal seders (dinners). There must have been hundreds of articles about seders this year held virtually, using the conferencing platform Zoom (with its 535% increase in use during the pandemic). Articles ranged from the light (to the point of what background to choose for your virtual seder — suggestion: a 17th century painting by Domenichelli of Moses and the burning bush):
to the serious, using this seder, more than ever to reflect on your blessings, and indeed from comments I heard, that it turned out to be a more meaningful seder than usual. In fact, all religious celebrations have been affected by the measures. The government has urged Muslim citizens to pray at home during Ramadan, going on now.
Thinking of freedom, the month began or actually the month of March ended with the death of Manolis Glezos, at age 97, who was a legendary figure of World War II resistance. In 1941, Glezos and Santas, another resistance member, sneaked up to the Acropolis at night and took down the Nazi flag. His imprisonment and torture was the first of many, where he was sentenced to death multiple times in his long active political life. Picasso remembered the flag event in a drawing:
In ordinary times, Glezos’ funeral would have attracted many, but circumstances being what they are…
The traditional April fools day had no meaning this year, which seemed to be obvious, but Google actually felt it needed to send its employees a memo saying it wasn’t the right time to do April Fools pranks.
In the early part of the month, I spent hours reading New York times articles trying to learn as much as I could about covid-19, hanging onto any kind of encouraging news, anything about drugs being tested successfully, but the news usually hit me like a ton of bricks. “Did you know the virus can also cause brain damage?” one of us would say, calling across the living room. “Did you know that the death toll in ……. has now reached …….” Did you realize that your oxygen level might be really low and you don’t feel it till it’s too late?” Reading about pandemics and plagues of the past, with much higher death tolls, actually seemed to offer some solace.
There were any number of heartbreaking stories like a couple married for 51 years, who died of the virus 6 minutes apart from each other. And there were also stories of couples in ICUs who both made it. Not to mention the stories of young people with no preexisting conditions who died.
TV images were hard to shake: people moaning in hospital corridors in Madrid, coffins held in Italian churches, doctors and nurses crying in NY that they didn’t have enough protective equipment or hospital ventilators. I started a rule of not watching news after 9 at night, especially with our kids living in hot spots like Spain and New York City, who in turn are worried about us.
For a sea and city lover like me, seeing images of great vibrant cities abandoned and incredibly empty, pains me. Besides the beauty of the music, note the deserted city images in the Andrea Bocelli video (from about 1 minute).
You can hear another version of “Amazing Grace” at the Church of St. George in the Pines in Banff, the Canadian Rockies, where the bells are played every day as a symbol of hope for the community. Instead of city images, note the gorgeous mountain pictures.
Some hospitals in the New York area are using upbeat songs to celebrate when patients recover. We’ve all seen pictures of hospital staff cheering when I.C.U. patients are discharged. Add the sounds of “Here comes the Sun,” or the theme of Rocky or “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” or “Celebration” or even “Empire State of Mind” to name a few of their “songs of hope.“
Music is also a gift to be offered as thanks. Several members of the state symphony orchestra gave a concert in the Attikon hospital courtyard to appreciative hospital staff, while beloved singer Alkisti Protopsalti sang from the top of a truck as it moved around central Athens.
Music might be food for the soul, but our health workers need energy from real food. A number of top Greek chefs are preparing meals for hospital workers.
Not to mention recognizing grocery store workers, bus drivers, taxi drivers who still need to go to work and are more vulnerable to the virus, while many of us can stay home and socially isolate. The google doodle expresses its appreciation.
Many individuals are selflessly giving their time to help others. Some foundations have generously donated to fight the coronavirus. For example, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, whose cultural center has given joy to so many Athenians over the last few years, has given 100 million dollars to support testing and prevention projects around the globe.
I noticed as April wore on that more and more articles started to appear, not on the medical aspects of the virus, but how to deal with being inside. “How to Thrive on your Online Life!” But I don’t want to thrive like that. “How to Meditate With us Right Now!” But I don’t want to be ordered to meditate “right now.” That command makes me anxious and doesn’t seem to go with the idea of meditation!
Besides articles on the virus itself, I’ve found thousands of suggestions on what you can do with your time! Knitting / quilting/ learning how to play the guitar/violin/bouzouki on the internet / baking bread, marie kondoing your home… Now is the time to learn the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s songs / read Proust /reread Buddenbrooks / Middlemarch / King Lear / write a series of sonnets . Except that it isn’t the time. When you’re cooped up, you don’t really have the right frame of mind to create…or you’re just not in the mood. When every day is the same, you think you can put that off till tomorrow. Maybe you’re repeating the same day every day, like in “Groundhog Day” where Bill Murray is trapped in a weird time loop with his 6 am clock radio alarm going off every morning with Sonny & Cher doing “I Got you Babe.” Imagine that…
Virtual visits to the Met. To the Great Wall of China. Taj Mahal. Pompeii. Watch all of Shakespeare’s plays on the Globe Theater site! Travel the world with your taste buds. Watch concerts from the Athens Festival. While disinfecting the bathroom, listen to a podcast on Albert Camus!
Actually that being said, the Athens Insider has a great list of museums and global landmarks you can visit. No pressure!
First I felt incredible anxiety about doing all the virtual activities: But as my late friend Godfrey would say “We’re human beings not human doings.” Slow down, what did you accomplish today? I did a wash, I cleaned the balcony, I made a coffee cake. As a New York times reader wrote “I found mates for the socks in my drawer.”
Actually, getting bored of downloading crossword puzzles for a few days, I turned to some projects: organizing photos from the last 40 years (“What kind of hair style is that? What on earth was I wearing?”) and — don’t laugh — cassettes from the same number of years. Cassettes that had been carelessly tossed into a closet cupboard. Stevie Wonder! Gypsy Kings! Charles Aznavour! Greek golden hits from 1994! If they played, I grouped them into different shoeboxes and carefully placed them into the same cupboard, probably never to be played again, but at least now they’re organized.
Like many Greeks, I’m watching the intrigues on the reality show “Masterchef” and picking up some cooking tips at the same time. Though when would you ever make a sorbet out of cucumber or a sweet out of homemade ravioli, soft white cheese, pumpkin and shredded caramel, I don’t know. Elias decided to try “lahanodolmades” one day (stuffed cabbage with avgolemono) — they were four times as big as they were supposed to be and a little heavy on the sauce, but delicious just the same.
On Facebook, people are doing challenges: child photos, landscapes, albums that have influenced your life. On Instagram, people are posting pictures of themselves dressed up to imitate or parody famous paintings. Of course, since you have time on your hands, why not dress up as a Caravaggio painting, using toilet paper? Actually, “tableau vivant” or imitating a work of art is an old tradition.
I’m doing my own challenges: reading a 500 page novel in Greek, I’m up to page 250! playing my old historic once-used-in-a-speakeasy upright piano, watching Spanish- language videos (Venga! Empezamos!), off and on doing Zumba routines to Ricky Martin…
Finally, craving humor as an antidote to sadness and alarming headlines. Whenever there are crises, humor follows as a way of getting distance from grief and why not, anger at inept leaders. (Didn’t Boccaccio amuse us with funny stories from those who escaped the black death while he made fun of the authorities of the time?)
Some jokes and memes concern the year 2020:
Glad I didn’t waste my money buying a planner for 2020.
Have we tried unplugging 2020, waiting 10 seconds and plugging it back in?
There are internet jokes, like a zoom Last Supper (“Judah, you on?”) and this meme:
There’s being home with children:
If schools close for too long, parents are going to find a vaccine before scientists.
And surely my favorite:
Then there are many video parodies of famous songs with lyrics about the coronavirus. Here’s a very talented British family doing a takeoff on “One Day More” from “Les Miserables.”
Talk about facing a difficult situation with creativity. And there are actually some who are enjoying the quarantine and not giving in to anxiety, stress or depression. If you have your health and are financially okay, it can be a time to reflect and take joy in small things. Some people are talking of a “realignment” of the world. I discovered how much I enjoy our walks in the woods and mountain paths in walking distance of our house. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the birds singing so much as this spring nor do I remember such a fragrance from the honeysuckles. And we’ve continually taken all sorts of paths, that we never knew where they led to before. (That sounds more symbolic than I meant to)
There might be a reason the birds are singing more. There’s good news; as we know, pollution has tremendously decreased. Los Angeles has actually turned into a city of walkers! Athens, which has never been a friend of bicycles, is welcoming them on the streets. The snowy Himalayas can be seen in northern India for the first time. In Venice, the canals have fish and swans and the water is the cleanest it’s been in centuries. Animals are wandering into cities: Images of puma in Santiago Chile, coyote on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, bobcats and black bears in Yosemite park in California, wild boars walking around Barcelona and outside Athens, and here a few blocks from me, a fox was recently spotted. Not a direct effect of the pandemic, but since I’m talking about animal news, the giant pandas in the Hong Kong zoo finally mated after 10 years of trying — better late than never! And in the Chicago Shedd Aquarium, empty of visitors of course, penguins were allowed to wander around the aquarium. Particularly fascinating was their look at the whales.
Lucky penguins, they got to expand their view of the world, while we’re mostly stuck with the same song every day. Just think, all the cancelled vacations that would have broadened people’s horizons! Meet “fauxvacations” where with Photoshop, you can put yourself into places you were going to visit but had to cancel or put on hold. We were supposed to be in Madrid and Andalucia the beginning of April. Well, here is the Alhambra without us:
Hopefully, though I love our walks on wooded mountain paths, I’ll be in the Alhambra photo in September, when we’ve rescheduled our trip. But then again, who knows.
“Who knows.” That’s the key expression today since nothing is certain about this virus. How many times I’ve said “Well certainly by ….. we’ll be able to travel/go to restaurants/meet each other for coffee/visit a museum/you’ll be able to visit us” and it can’t happen. The only certainty is that next week on May 4, the hair salons in Greece will be open to tame unruly locks. Getting a haircut was voted overwhelmingly the first thing people want to do after the quarantine is lifted. Don’t forget your mask…
In the meantime, the only traveling will be through my refrigerator magnet collection. Happy 1st of May! Yeia sas and stay safe!