As you may have noticed, life in the time of coronavirus changes quickly. Two weeks ago, I wrote about deciding to stay in Greece, though the U.S. government and the Pennsylvania State University were shooing me home. The day after that column was published, we heard that all flights in and out of Greece were about to be grounded.
My wife and I didn’t panic, exactly, but, fond as we are of Greece, we didn’t relish being stuck there for an indeterminate amount of time. So we booked passage from Thessaloniki to Istanbul to New York.
That was two Thursdays ago. We spent Friday and Saturday packing, cleaning our apartment, saying remote goodbyes, and saying one goodbye in person: to the Aegean Sea, whose shores we walked every day for six months.
The sparkle of warm sun on blue sea and the thought of all we had hoped to do during our final three months made it hard to leave. I thought of a line from poet Charles Olson: “It is undone business I think of, this morning, with the sea stretching out from my feet.”
On Sunday, we left. At the airport, as I feared, it was impossible to keep 2 meters – I mean, 6 feet – away from our fellow travelers, some of whom seemed not to have heard about social distancing. Some wore masks but no gloves; some wore gloves but no masks. Several mask wearers pulled down their masks and scratched their noses. One of my gloves caught in the zipper of my suitcase and tore. Then I went gloveless, hand-sanitizing like I’d just iced some Scottish thanes.
Istanbul Airport is one of the world’s great crossroads, where you can see every kind of human wearing every kind of raiment. That Sunday, though, the place was – well, it would be in poor taste to call it a morgue, so let’s just say it was nearly deserted. The flight board showed that almost all flights were cancelled. Ours, therefore, was full — and in economy, full means zero social distance.
Over Iceland, the woman sitting next to me had a coughing fit. Over Greenland, a flight attendant got on the horn to ask, on behalf of another patient, I mean, passenger, if there was a doctor on board. It didn’t seem like the right moment to offer my services as a Ph.D. in Folklore.
Instead, I watched “Casablanca,” the plot of which centers on a resistance leader’s efforts to fly out of French Morocco before the Nazis nab him – a situation not unlike my own except with thick fog, snap-brim hats and Ingrid Bergman.
In JFK airport, we were again brought into close contact with others while waiting for a Centers for Disease Control technician to check us for signs that we should be quarantined from others. The technician aimed a thermometer gun at our heads, found that neither of us were feverish and sent us on our way.
We wanted no part of plaguy New York, so we beelined for the George Washington Bridge, bunked at an empty hotel off I-80 in Jersey, and awoke, laughing, to snow.
As I brushed off the windows of our rented car so I could see my way to a couple of breakfast sandwiches at the doughnut shop down the street, I felt America erasing my time in Greece.
Now, because our State College house is rented through June, we are in a fishing cabin on a creek a few miles out of town, living under the baleful gaze of a giant moose. We almost moved out the day we moved in: It was cold and the propane tank was empty.
The owner of the cabin called for a refill, helpfully suggesting that the delivery person keep his distance because the inhabitants had just returned from Europe.
The response: “I can’t expose my drivers to people who just got back from the Europe.”
So then the owner had to find someone else to make the delivery.
That solved, we settled in. During a long, hard rain over the weekend, the creek sloshed over its banks. Were we going to evacuate twice in one week? We piled our valuables by the front door, just in case.
Now, halfway through our 14-day quarantine, all is calm. We have groceries, thanks to friends who shopped for us, and we have a car that runs, thanks to our tenant, who replaced a dead battery the day we arrived. The forsythia are opening, the robins are fattening and when the sun comes out, we sit by the water — not Homer’s wine-dark sea this time, but a pretty creek that flows into the Juniata River, which flows into the Susquehanna, which flows into the Atlantic, some of which sloshes into the Mediterranean and the Aegean and washes onto the shores of Greece.
Weird homecoming, huh? We’re home but not in our house, in State College, but unable to see our friends.
We are home and we are away from home, discombobulated but grateful for the gifts of health, love, shelter and food.
Russell Frank teaches journalism in Penn State’s Bellisario College of Communications. Until two weeks ago, he was spending the 2019-2020 academic year as a Fulbright scholar in Thessaloniki, Greece.