Greek Cats and Pandemic Travel Musings

There’s no running from the truth. This post, as most of the Internet, was born from cat pictures. I nevertheless felt that the Zakynthian bestiary could not be topped. Perhaps I could go for a more serious topic. Like that moment when you extricate yourself from a ’50 pictures that prove cats are liquid’ collection and finish up a long postponed Excel about the productivity trends of your team. I therefore decided I would write about traveling during the pandemic, and more specifically, our overwhelmingly positive experiences in Greece.

I am all for it, the travel. There are obvious risks, as with most undertakings these days, but they can be mitigated if we go about it smartly. Our two week trip to Greece is what saved my sanity for 2020. It is also evidence that you needn’t shut borders to keep your case count low. Greece’s numbers are only rising now, in the context of a general continental spike, but still at a much lower rate than in most other European countries. The tourist season did not bring about the catastrophe some feared.

Oddly for a country that is famous for getting itself serially bankrupted, I have always come back from Greek holidays with the impression that, as opposed to many of its South-East European counterparts, Greece can actually function efficiently when it must. This summer was no exception. Tourists could return to Greece from early July, so overall only one month of what would be high season was lost, and that is the month when the seas are still coldest. The prerequisite to enter the country was filling out a so called Passenger Locator Form (PLF) which culminated in the sending of a QR code on the day of your travel. This is of course extra bureaucracy, albeit necessary one, and it thus caused some misery. Mostly to people who were unaware of the QR code’s existence and showed up at airports without it only to be refused boarding. It’s of course deeply unpleasant to have your holiday ruined even before it started, but, in all honesty, I can find no excuses. If you travel during a pandemic, make sure to check the requirements of your destination country. Besides, airlines would simply bombard you with emails and sms messages about this requirement. So really, if you did not have the QR, it was simply your fault.

I am talking about airlines, as our initial booking was for a WizzAir flight. The purple monster, as I call them now, proceeded to cancel this flight on the eve of our travel. Exactly at 11 PM CET, midnight in Greece, which meant that we would theoretically be charged for our entire stay on Santorini. I was frantically typing away an email to the guest house to explain the Greek tragedy that had befallen me when I received their gracious confirmation: they would only charge us for one night, and not the entire stay. A fair deal for both parties. For all pandemic travel, flexibility is key. Be prepared for last minute changes and have plans B to Z. Plan Z was Ryanair to Athens and then on to Hydra by ferry. Ryanair did not cancel on me. I am now possibly the only person in the world who loves Ryanair.

At Athens airport our QR codes were inspected and we were swiftly directed towards that strange phenomenon that is unheard of in Hungary: free testing. Theoretically entry testing was random, but they took no chances with our planeload, and tested us all, even if Hungary was at the time a lower risk country. People arriving from high risk countries were already required to bring a PCR test no older than 72 hours to be allowed entry. The procedure was quick and painless- the test was done from saliva samples, so no mummification style nose-digging was required. As per protocol, you were asked to mingle as little as possible on the first day. If your test were to come back positive, the authorities would find you Liam Neeson-style, and send you to a medical facility, all on the expenses of the beleaguered Greek state. This sounded nice of them and horrible at the same time, so I must admit I was a little uneasy on the first day. What if I am a famous asymptomatic carrier and will be the next miserable dent in the Greek budget. (Obviously, I was not.)

Drowning my anxiety in some soul warming tsipouro, I lived through the tension. All other signs were reassuring. The Greeks were overwhelmingly aware that they breathe through their noses as well, so wore masks properly in the spaces where they were required to do so, which was basically anything indoors. Taxis were equipped with glass dividers and were disinfected between rides. Hotels ran temperature checks and welcomed you with a long litany of what they were doing for your safety. I was totally taken aback when, after having retrieved my invoice from a disinfected printer that the clerk had not touched, I was presented with an oddly shaped receptacle. What could this be? It contained my pen, freshly sanitized. I remembered that pen fondly when, at Budapest airport, I was asked to fill out my quarantine papers and found a vile looking, sticky pen on the table that others had used directly before me. Yes, it may have been sticky from disinfectant. But how would I know that?

Breakfast was brought to your room by masked matrons, each dish carefully covered with a slip of paper, lest a pesky coronavirus jump into it from the ceiling. Room service only came to your room if you agreed that they did. Waiters wore masks and each table had its own disinfectant dispenser. This offered an interesting insight into human nature, as most people would use the damn thing just because it was there. A woman at a neighbouring table casually mentioned how her partner was using these disinfectants, something he had never done before, to which he remarked that he was curious about the scents. They were nice: lavender, mint, lemongrass. Not only useful, but good advertisement for the Greek cosmetics industry as well.

We tried to do our bit in return. Wore the masks when we had to, washed our hands (why is this a novelty to some people?!), avoided crowds. This last bit is particularly important: while we can keep tourism alive to a certain extent during the pandemic, this won’t be the mass tourism of old. Almost all case clusters on Greek islands were related to large groups going to bars and partying. If that’s banned for the years to come, I say good riddance. Just picture how much nicer summer nights are when you can fall asleep to the sound of cicadas and waves as opposed to being grinded into insanity by David Guetta thumping through the loudspeakers of a club. We were lucky enough to be on an island with no cars, so successfully avoided all forms of public transportation bar the ferry that took us there and back again. Needless to say, on the ferry everyone had to wear masks, seats were allocated with gaps between them, and you had to fill out a form pinpointing the exact location of your seat, so contact tracing could be done if needed. A lot of people seem particularly afraid of planes, I am guessing because of the feeling of confinement for long periods in the company of strangers. But to me, planes feel much safer than any form of urban public transportation. It’s much easier to keep distance (no flight is at full capacity these days), mask wearing is more strictly regulated, and the plane is sanitized after each trip. The one tram ride I had since March came complete with several people refusing to cover their noses and a child licking a metal surface which was then touched by a lady who soon grabbed her phone with the same hand.

Long and the short of it: we had an excellent time, interacted, with the right precautions, with people from outside our bubble of insanity and felt safe all along. The interaction part is something I feel strongly about: I worry that this pandemic will fuel isolation and nationalism, that random ‘others’ are going to be pictured as the enemy. Because it’s easier to fight an imagined, but visible enemy rather than a real, but invisible one. The only way forward, for me, is together- but at a safe distance for now. I’m also very thankful to all the Greeks who enabled this trip- sure they had their economic interest to do so, but they did it the right way. And now, some cats.

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