Long Reads

“Going to a restaurant felt like sheer luxury”: one woman on easing out of lockdown in Greece

Greece entered phase four of its coronavirus lockdown exit strategy on 25 May, with bars and restaurants reopening and ferries running between the mainland and islands, with social distancing measures in place. Here, one woman describes how it feels to finally ease out of lockdown and enter into a “new normal”.

It came at the wrong time, if there ever is a “right time” for the lockdown of an entire nation

I’d just been to Hydra and Corfu, jetting off across Greece on ferries for work. As a travel journalist, I am rarely “at home”. I split my time between London and Athens, with many excursions in between. 

When Greece announced the borders were closing, I was leaving my grandmother and the rest of my family behind in Corfu, about to begin the five hour journey back to my apartment in central Athens. Had I known I’d be in lockdown with just my boyfriend for company for the next two months, I would have turned back round to the olive groves, the sandy beaches and the warm embrace of my grandmother. 

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Greece’s measures to avoid the spread of Covid-19 have been draconian. Owing to an already fragile national healthcare system, the country had to secure its borders and it had to do it fast. Along with its borders, the tavernas, kafeneions, bars and museums were all shut from 13 March, closing down all the makings of a Greek holiday. Even swimming in the sea was off limits. 

The country’s lockdown was announced on 22 March, so into my apartment I went, one day ahead of the UK’s lockdown and months before I’d finally be allowed out without a state sanctioned “OK”. 

"To leave the house in lockdown, I had to send a message to the government giving one of five reasons for each day’s mini outing."

To leave the house in lockdown, I had to send a message to the government giving one of five reasons for each day’s mini outing. Going to the supermarket, the pharmacy, walking the dog and an hour of exercise were allowed. In order to go about our “essential” activities, we had to wait for a text back from the government, giving us the go ahead. During lockdown, I was stopped by the police seven times.

The fine for leaving the house without the sanctioned OK was €150. Even across the islands and within tiny villages in remote parts of Greece, the lockdown was observed. My grandmother did not leave her house in Corfu. To date, Greece has one of the lowest death rates in Europe, with 172 recorded deaths (at the time of writing). 

Then on 4 May, 43 days after being confined to the 70 square metres of my apartment, the easing of lockdown finally began. Salons, bookshops, repair and sports shops reopened, and we could visit them without having to text the government first.

The first day was odd. It was almost as if the world hadn’t been put on pause for two months. Almost. People spewed out of apartment blocks and into squares, cold coffees in hand. Kids flew down pedestrianised streets on bikes and I couldn’t help but think their parents were irresponsible for letting them fling themselves into the hordes of people with such gusto. 

The streets were so crowded that keeping the two metre distance was near impossible. Many people wore masks and plastic gloves, which would be OK if they weren’t smoking cigarettes with their gloved hands and fiddling with their face masks. The words “false sense of security” kept coming to mind. 

friends-social-distaned
"Some friends have become less willing to leave their houses over the past few months": Anastasia meeting a friend for a socially distanced catchup.

I carried antibacterial hand gel and didn’t quite know what to do with myself on my walk, which felt almost like any other walk around the local park I’d taken in lockdown. What to do with this freedom?

I messaged a friend I hadn’t seen in months, the most outgoing pal I have, to see if she fancied a stroll. She responded saying she isn’t coming out of lockdown just yet. “I’m easing out really slowly, probably from next week,” she said.  

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Other friends, too, have become less willing to leave their houses over the past few months. Upon arriving at my Italian friend’s apartment for a catch up over gin and tonic (he had also refused the walk), I flung myself at him in my excitement to finally see him, only to have him step back and away. 

“Not for another month or so, Anastasia,” he told me and I gingerly backed away, took off my shoes at the door and made a point of washing my hands. The new normal.

birthday-in-lockdown
"Chocolate cake and Victoria Sponge, scones, tuna sandwiches and pots of tea were all arranged on my rooftop for my 30th birthday."

My boyfriend had other plans that day, and I arrived back at my apartment to a great British birthday lunch. Chocolate cake and Victoria Sponge, scones, tuna sandwiches and pots of tea were all arranged on my rooftop – along with two of my closest friends. Having spent my 30th birthday in lockdown, he’d delayed the surprise until at least a few of my friends could attend. So we toasted the easing of lockdown up and away from the crowds, on my rooftop with views of the Acropolis. 

As night fell, I emerged back onto the roof after a brief stint on FaceTime with my brother in Manchester, to find six of my best friend’s faces (all in London) projected onto the building opposite mine. My boyfriend had managed to loop them all into a House Party call and used our projector for a magic moment I won’t ever forget.

It wasn’t quite the 30th birthday party I’d planned, dancing with them all on a beach in Corfu, but I loved seeing their giant faces projected big enough for all my neighbours to poke their heads out of balconies and ask “what on earth is going on?”

lockdown-birthday
"Having spent my 30th birthday in lockdown, my boyfriend delayed my surprise party until at least a few of my friends could attend."

As the first week out of lockdown went on, each day opened up new possibilities. A stroll into town for an ice cream. A hike up Lycabettus hill (previously off limits on lockdown) with friends – always at a safe distance. Swimming off the rocks in Vouliagmeni. Pizza in the doorway of my Italian friend’s pizzeria. A beach picnic on the hottest weekend Greece has seen in 50 years. 

Finally, a trip along the coast to a beach in Sounio, where all social distancing had been completely abandoned save for a single girl in an orange bikini demanding, “everyone, please, can you keep the two metre distance”. It was a request all those around her graciously ignored. 

On 25 May, we were given the OK to travel from mainland Greece to the islands, and all the ferries booked up fast. The only one I could find left for Corfu was a 4am ferry from Igoumenitsa, which meant driving across Greece for five hours through the night. It was all worth it though, to finally see my grandmother’s face as she opened the door. Not all is as it was though, and I wouldn’t let her in for the obligatory crushing hug that I’m used to. I’m still scared for her and keeping my distance, so even meals are enjoyed with at least two metres between us. Eating her oregano fries for the first time has been my highlight of coming out of lockdown. 

My first night back in Corfu also coincided with the official reopening of all bars, cafes and restaurants in Greece. After two months of cooking, baking and fermenting at home, I was ready to pay my favourite taverna a visit. I was the first to arrive and was promptly shown to a table outdoors – spaced, of course, two metres away from the other tables.

ice cream greece
Greece's lockdown measures have not completely eased yet.

My friends drifted in and we air hugged, ordered beers and began reeling off the many meze dishes we’d all been craving for weeks, only to be told we couldn’t have any of them because the menu had been cut down to reflect the fewer customers expected through the door. Still, not having to do the washing up for once felt like sheer luxury, and it was incredible to be doing something I’d previously considered completely normal – sitting in a restaurant with friends.

The lockdown measures have still not completely eased. The zone around the Parthenon, usually packed with tourists, remains eerily peaceful. Having read about other Eastern nations who’ve eased their own quarantine period to see a fresh rise in new cases of Covid-19, I can’t help but think, it’s the calm before the storm. 

Images: courtesy of Anastasia Miari