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Greece in the Time of Coronavirus

by on March 18, 2020 5:00 AM


THESSALONIKI, Greece — The sea smells particularly putrid today. Whatever direction the wind is coming from is the wrong one. The fishermen are casting along the seafront, as ever, though a local ichthyologist tells me he won’t eat anything that lives in the waters of the port. 

Still, the Aegean is lovely, and residents of Greece’s second city are promenading along its shores in even greater numbers than usual because the cafes are closed and there’s no place else to go…

I wrote that on Saturday. I joined the throngs that springy afternoon – all of us trying to keep our distance from each other. The usual buskers were out, as were the usual ποπκορν (popcorn) carts and the balloon man whose bouquet of cartoon characters is so large you wonder if he’ll lift off and float away.

Acquaintances who bumped into each other bumped elbows and laughed about doing so. It was an absurd way of greeting, but no more absurd than brushing cheeks and blowing air kisses. Few people wore face masks.

Being out in the open felt safe, though some sections of the 3-mile promenade were so crowded that it was difficult to maintain the recommended 6 feet of “social distance” from one’s fellow strollers.

The mood felt both defiant and celebratory. A snippet of an old Paul Simon song popped into my head: “an atmosphere of freaky holiday.” 

Maybe we were foolish to have released ourselves from self-quarantine and gone down to the sea, but if morale matters during a crisis, it was hard to argue against the psychic benefits of being out among one’s fellow citizens.

Sunday dawned rainy and raw, which made the festive mood of the previous day feel even more like a last hurrah. Though the bad smell had dissipated, the waterfront was almost deserted. 

On Tuesday, though, spring returned, and so did the crowds. By Tuesday afternoon, the authorities had seen enough. 

“People should be staying at home,” thundered the president of the municipal council, who happens to be a pulmonologist. “They shouldn’t be hanging out at the seafront. It’s irresponsible and dangerous.”

His message was reinforced by an emergency alert that appeared on my phone that evening. 

I felt a pang of guiIt and anxiety. Late last week, I received a message from the State Department that “strongly urged” Americans in Europe to “make arrangements to return to the United States as soon as possible.” The same day, I got a message from Penn State urging its international travelers to “consider returning home as soon as possible.”

My wife and I considered these two urgings. We even reserved a couple of seats on a flight to New York. But urgings are not orders. We let our reservations lapse and decided to sit tight.

Here, twisted though it may be, was my reasoning: The Centers for Disease Control has designated Greece, along with most of the rest of Europe, as a Level 3 country, meaning, “avoid nonessential travel.”

The way I figured it, since we're already in Greece, no travel, essential or otherwise, is required to get here. Whereas: If we go home, we have to share space with fellow travelers at two airports and on two airplanes. 

Of course, if it was safer to be in the United States than it is to be in Greece, we’d be on the next plane. But coronavirus offers stark evidence of just how tiny this “mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam,” as Carl Sagan called Planet Earth, has become in the age of air travel, with cases turning up on every continent in less than three months.

Which means no place is safe, which makes traveling from Greece to the United States “nonessential.” So by staying put, we’re heeding the CDC’s Level 3 warning, no?

On top of all that, I didn’t want to leave. I’m six months into a nine-month sojourn. I’m in the middle of a project. I like it here. 

Back in the states, my daughter Sylvie offered a counterargument: that home might feel safer in a crisis, even if it isn’t. 

Her argument might have carried more weight if we had a home to go back to, but our house is rented out for the year. And having to self-quarantine for 14 days meant we couldn’t bunk with family or friends.

So here we be, cooped up in our apartment by the sea. As an American Baby Boomer, I haven’t lived through one of those dancing-in-the streets moments that greet a liberation from an occupying army or the end of a war. I imagine it’s going to be kind of like that when the cafes reopen here in the town that supposedly has more cafes per inhabitant than any city in Europe.

Like Sinatra in old New York, I want to be a part of it. 


Russell Frank teaches journalism in Penn State’s Bellisario College of Communications. He is spending the 2019-2020 academic year as a Fulbright scholar in Thessaloniki, Greece.


A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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