Tuesday, July 16 2024

Greeks abroad cut off from home amid lockdowns

Electra is in France, Marina’s in Hong Kong, Claire is in the United Kingdom, Odysseas is in Australia and Konstantinos is in the United States. Until very recently, they each led their separate lives in different parts of the world, connected only by their Greek roots and the challenges of their generation. Then the new coronavirus appeared, flattening our diverse and multifaceted world and, oddly, making it seem smaller and more united.

Our first stop is London and the flat of Claire Dimopoulou, a makeup artist. “As a freelancer who can’t eat unless I work and with a partner who works in food service, a sector that has been irrevocably damaged, we find ourselves getting almost desperate for the first time in our lives,” she tells Kathimerini. “In the early days, when the planet started entering a state of quarantine, we were mere observers, as the UK put off taking action amid talk of developing some kind of herd immunity. The only warnings were posters in the Underground encouraging handwashing. Now trains are emptier and streets as well. Supermarkets are running out of basics and you often can’t get toilet paper, not even online. There’s people with bullhorns heralding the end of the world on every second corner and all of this is taking place in a climate of anxiety and occasionally of silent reproach against people who choose to continue going to work (as this has not been banned yet). There is no question of coming back home. Our parents belong to vulnerable groups, so we don’t know when we’ll be seeing them again. The schools here finally closed and day after day the situation is becoming increasingly serious, leaving us in our living rooms wondering whether we made the right choice in time.”

Zurich is our next stop. “For days, people were saying: ‘What’s all the fuss about? It’s a virus. We’re not at risk.’ But I and a colleague, an Italian who could see where the whole thing was headed, talked about asking to work from home, but no one else backed us up,” says VS, who works at an architectural firm. A few days later, on Friday, March 13, the Swiss Federal Council closed all educational institutions and banned gatherings of more than 50 people at bars and cafes. “The shops were full over the weekend, even though shelves had started to empty on Thursday. Then 850 new cases were announced on Sunday and that’s when we started to panic. On Monday, we walked or rode bicycles to work and were keeping up with the news all day long. That afternoon, the government announced the lockdown. They sent us an SMS at midnight telling us not to go to work the following day. That’s when we started to calm down. It’s been very frightening, because you know that you are all alone and you can’t even be with your friends. You also don’t know whether a Swiss national will be given priority over you if hospital beds run out. After so much indifference from the state, you really feel terribly alone.”

VS’s husband works in the United States and was with her on March 12 when US President Donald Trump announced the flight ban. “He went to the airport to ask about going back. They told him he could leave right then, as he was, and they put him on a flight to the US. He didn’t even have his house keys with him,” she says.

“Hello from California. I have been waking up in a new world for the past few weeks,” says Konstantinos Roussos, who works in Silicon Valley as a software architect. This new world is one of closed schools and remote working; an odd world where basic household supplies are an issue. “People who have experienced the Soviet regime in Russia or Poland are apprehensive. But when they see the packed supermarket shelves, of course, they laugh at the Americans,” he says. “The biggest problem here, though, is that a lot of people don’t have any money, many people are out of work and you don’t have access to healthcare without a job. Another big problem is that many Republican are downplaying the issue and still talking about ‘fake news,’ even today.” Konstantinos estimates that casualty numbers will rise dramatically over the next few weeks, creating a panic.

It’s 7 a.m. in Melbourne when Odysseas Krypotos, a public relations officer at the Frontida geriatric care home, switches his computer on to call his family in Greece on Skype. “Hello, son, how are you? How are the children?” his mother asks. “We’re fine, Mom. How are you?” He still hasn’t found a way to break the news that this will be first time in eight years that they won’t be coming to Greece in the summer. “It was supposed to be the first summer for my second child, a child they have never met in person,” he tells Kathimerini.

“When my wife and I left Greece in 2012, we thought we had considered all of the bad scenarios – a pandemic, however, had not even crossed our minds,” says Odysseas, adding that he believes these difficult times will pass, “as long as we listen to the experts and not to the demagogues and social media ‘scientists.’” In every call to his mother, he assures her that next year will be better. “I switch off my computer and continue dealing with the epidemic and the guilt in my own small world,” he adds.

In Hong Kong, residents have already spent more than seven weeks in the grips of the pandemic, according to Marina M., who works in the financial sector. “After going through a period of terror when our lives started to resemble Wuhan, we started living relatively normal lives again,” she says, referring to the Chinese province where the epidemic first started. “But what is normal in 2020? Normal is home schooling for your kids, ditching travel plans, putting a mask over your makeup, holding teleconferences with your kids roaming around in the background, and taking three showers a day. Normal is being paranoid,” she says, adding that people will adapt to living this way – “as long as they don’t cough.”

Next stop, Paris. Electra Samoili, who works as an interpreter, is on a break from work, at home with her husband and children. “Our daily schedule involves home schooling, under the teacher’s instruction, then cooking and an exchange of world theories, articles, funny videos and photos with close friends on a WhatsApp group, followed by some quiet time, ‘Yoga with Adriene’ on YouTube, and then a Miyazaki film at night,” she tells Kathimerini.

“For a family that travels often – for work, vacations, and to visit relatives and friends all around the world – we are hanging in there for now,” she said. “But in Paris, as in all other countries enforcing similar measures, we are all scared by the same images: the police stopping passers-by and asking them to explain the reason they are out. And there is the uncertainty of it all – how long are we going to have to live this way? – and the suddenness of the whole thing. Until yesterday the bistros were full, groups of 18-year-olds were stretched out drinking beer on the banks of the Seine. Now it’s ‘pedalez solitaire,’ as they say here, ‘pedal on alone.’ Hang in there, everyone!”