BY Lisa Radinovsky

| Apr 18, 2020


Social Distance on a Greek Island in the COVID-19 Pandemic

This post was originally published on the blog Mom in Greece Today by Lisa Radinovsky and is reproduced here with her kind permission. Radinovsky is a writer based in Crete and founder of the website Greek Liquid Gold, dedicated to the wonders of Greek extra virgin olive oil.

When Greek schools closed to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus on March 11, my teenage son was elated. His first free days were full of outdoor adventures with neighborhood friends oblivious of the approaching pandemic. We parents were unsure what to do; the serious threat of COVID-19 had not yet fully registered on our Greek island, but with the prime minister taking such serious preventive action, we began to consider the implications. We first limited playtime to outdoor meetings, then some of the boys started worrying that they should stay home. That became the rule, and life began to get boring for unoccupied, isolated schoolchildren.

Our neighborhood quieted down, with just an occasional lone ball bouncing at the basketball court, and the chirps and songs of migratory birds. Even the dogs seemed hushed. The relative silence of the first days of school closure was soon replaced by the kk kk kk kk kk kk of drills digging into our rocky land, the buzz of electric construction tools, the barks of dogs, and the rush of wind in the olive and mimosa trees on surprisingly cold, rainy April days. Then the weather calmed, Orthodox Easter Holy Week approached, and birdsong prevailed once again.

After restaurants, cafés, entertainment centers, and nonessential stores closed in mid March, and all movement was restricted in Greece starting March 23, I began to see more neighbors outside. We are allowed out only for jobs, banking, and food purchases that can’t be done from home, to care for those in need, or to go to immediate relatives’ weddings, baptisms, or funerals, and doctor and pharmacy visits—plus exercise. Equipped with the permission slip I must fill out for myself, I greet neighbors from the other side of the street, maintaining the required social distance.

© Lisa Radinovsky

Neighbors have offered me lemons and loquats from their trees. One day, the doorbell rang! We all rushed to see why, opening the door, then stepping back to an appropriate distance. A neighbor who had been picking oranges in a friend’s orchard invited us to take some. “We need to stay healthy!” she said. I filled a bag from a crate she put down outside her house, and later left a wildflower bouquet on her doorstep.

Here I am in a pandemic lockdown in the foreign country I now call home, barely finished with an economic crisis comparable to the American Great Depression. Yet I know I am privileged: jobless as I am, I have a husband with steady work, a comfortable apartment, plenty of all we need, and a generally healthy family (knock on wood). Moreover, I live in a scenic area between olive groves full of wildflowers and the sea—and I deeply appreciate that scenery and those flowers. So my daily walks transport me beyond the stresses and horrors of the dystopian novel too much of the world has become.

As I walk, I stop wondering how I can find a job when so many people are unemployed and so many businesses are closed. I don’t worry about my family in New York City and California or the especially vulnerable homeless people and refugee families worldwide. I don’t wonder how a just-recovering Greek economy with hospitality and tourism at its center can survive as the lockdown continues. I don’t think about how many tens of thousands of beloved children, women, and men may die as a new plague sweeps the globe in a previously unimaginable neo-medieval threat.

© Lisa Radinovsky

To avoid such thoughts, I distract myself by admiring the cottony clouds in the blue sky above, focusing on the waves lapping against the rocks below, counting the 52 different species of wildflowers I pass, crushing chamomile and lavender between my fingers, and photographing and gathering blossoms. Later, when I can’t sleep, I visualize the bright yellow of spiny broom, the white and pink of cistus on green shrubs, the yellow and white of crown daisies, the light purple of mallow, the brilliant fuchsia of field gladiolas. Their colors cheer and calm me.

Aside from walks, my only other escape from home is the shopping trips that used to annoy me. On the second of my three drives outside my neighborhood in a month, I noticed redbud trees in bloom, blue-green sea currents meeting dark blue waters, a family of bikers, a yard full of sheep taking care of the weeds. In some supermarkets, we must arm ourselves with disposable gloves, plus a number to avoid overcrowding; in others we simply wait outside if there are too many to maintain proper social distancing. We can see people, but not approach them. Here in Crete, the store shelves remain well stocked so far; only alcohol, wipes, hand sanitizer, and yeast are sometimes missing. Many checkout clerks and shoppers wear gloves, and some wear masks, although the government recommends frequent handwashing and social distancing rather than gloves and masks. I have heard of just one confirmed COVID-19 case in our prefecture to date.

Fines for leaving the house without proper documentation and cause doubled to 300 euros as we approached the Greek Orthodox Holy Week and the country’s most important holiday, normally a two-week school vacation when city dwellers journey to their ancestral villages and extended families gather. Government officials have warned that Easter will be different this year, with no lambs roasted on spits, no trips to islands, no gatherings. This is unheard of; even in wartime, Greeks came together to eat, drink, and converse. Not this year: travel by car, bus, boat, and plane is forbidden, except for Greeks who are returning to their permanent home with tax forms showing that address. This is a huge blow to Greek tradition and culture, but most understand that it is a necessary follow-up to the early stringent measures that have helped prevent the level of tragedy seen in Italy, Spain, and the USA

© Lisa Radinovsky

In relative isolation at home with my family, I have been in touch with more distant family and long-lost friends than ever before: friends from middle school through grad school and relatives from Vancouver to New York. I read that Americans are making more phone calls than usual, but here in Greece I connect with North America using email, Messenger, Instagram, Facebook, Skype, and now Zoom. The New York Times reports that in the debate over screen time, screens have won. That they have, although I try to keep up the fight. What can I say to the son who says he has nothing else to do? (At least my daughter has more online classes, for more constructive screen time.) Exercise, play with the cats, complete the bit of homework now assigned—then use screens in the variety of ways enabled by multiplying free online options.

I am grateful for the internet connection that is more of a lifeline to the rest of the world than ever before. Amazon has not successfully completed a delivery to us in many months, a Greek bookstore has also failed us (although the postal service still delivers), and our TV no longer shows us any channels, probably due to a cable malfunction no one can fix now. It’s a good thing I have one of the largest collections of American fiction on the island of Crete; I am starting yet another round of rereading.

The state of the developed world in the pandemic: connected to screens, connected through screens, nervous, restless, wondering. The human world is in disarray, with unprecedented situations becoming the new normal. We reach out across cyberspace to connect with those we care about. Meanwhile, the natural world continues its seasonal course, with cold, wind, and rain alternating with calm, warmth, and sun. The wildflowers thrive; the loquats ripen; the olive tree buds swell and begin to reveal their delicate tiny white blossoms. Yes, it is spring, and the earth is still fruitful.