from Nike in Katerini, Greece: I went to church with a knife …

28 August. I went to church with a knife in my bag. A serrated one. Sometimes such things are necessary.

Carrying the fanouropita to church.

27th of August is the feast day of Saint Fanourios. He is the Saint to whom you pray to reveal lost things. That’s what his name means. Revealer. Tradition is that the evening before his feast day you bake a special cake called a Fanouropita and take it to church to be blessed.
Together with my aunt Βικτωρια Δαμδουνη we went to church with our Fanouropites. Most worshippers were wearing masks and there was at least an attempt at social distancing.

The magnificent cathedral of The Assumption

We placed our cakes on the left side of the church along with all the other cakes and found places to sit to enjoy the service. It was a bakefest. Women prided themselves on their recipes and decoration.

The blessing of the cakes.

After the blessing of the cakes there was a non-social distancing rush to retrieve our cakes and take them home for our families to enjoy. The younger female members especially look forward to this because it said if you place a piece of fanouropita under your pillow that night you will dream of the man you’ll marry.

The knife bandit.

Before we left the church, it happened. I had to use my knife. Other women approached us for a piece of our cake. It’s what you do apparently. You try other people‘s cakes. So, I sliced away and shared our cakes. You don’t have to be a believer it’s just a beautiful tradition to be enjoyed by everyone.

From David Vincent in Shropshire, UK: Having Babies

July 29. A Minister of Health, Nadine Dorries, is reported as speculating that nine months on from the start of the lockdown there will be a bulge in business in the nation’s maternity units.

Should we take her seriously?  There are two levels of response to this question.

The first is ad personam.  This is the same Nadine Dorries whose first book, published in 2014, was described by the Daily Telegraph reviewer as ‘the worst novel I’ve read in 10 years. Only with imaginative effort might some readers of a mawkish disposition like The Four Streets. A sequel – may the Holy Mother protect us – is due in the autumn.’  Undeterred, she appears to have written another fourteen novels, all of the same quality.  In the meantime she earned a reputation in Parliament, as an especially thoughtless, publicity-seeking Brexiteer, opposed to gay marriages and abortion counselling.  So it was when Johnson came to form his ministry-of-almost-no-talents, she was appointed a Minister in what would become the key Government Department for responding to the pandemic.  Here she distinguished herself by becoming the very first MP to be infected with Covid-10, getting diagnosed on the same day she attended a reception with the Prime Minister at Number 10.

Then there is the scientific evidence.  Studies beginning with the 1889 flu epidemic in France and the 1918-19 global Spanish flue pandemic have long established that birth rates tend to fall rather than rise after a medical crisis.*  This applies also to natural disasters like major earthquakes.  In the case of our current event, in a recent study people under 35 living in five European countries – France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK were asked whether they intended to have children this year.  Between 60 and 80% of respondents replied that they were postponing or abandoning altogether such a decision.

The reason for this caution is not hard to find.  Parents seek as much security as possible for the early years of child-rearing.  In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, every forecaster is predicting the worst economic recession since as far back as records exist.  The only question is about the speed of recovery.  It is recognised that the aftermath of the 1918-19 pandemic, compounded by the Slump of 1929, depressed birth rates in Britain throughout the inter-war period.

What is different this time is the demographic context.  I have always felt vaguely guilty that my three children have been a contribution to the unsustainable rise in the global population.  Since 1970 the number of people on the planet has almost doubled to the current figure of 7.8bn and was thought to heading to 11bn by the end of the century.  Now a new study by Washington University is predicting that the peak will be reached in 2064 and will be followed by a major fall in most populations outside Africa, with a halving in countries such as Japan and Spain.**  In Britain the Office for National Statistics reports a 12.2% fall in the birth rate since 2012, giving a reproduction rate of 1.65 per woman, well below the level needed to maintain current numbers.  

If these projections are even distantly accurate, they pose a major threat to the sustainability of modern economies.  The old will no longer have enough people of working age to pay for their pensions and their health care.  The long-term remedy will involve major changes in the notion of what a ‘working age’ is.  Mine may be the last generation ever fully to retire.

In the short term there are only two solutions in the UK.  Increase the birth rate by attacking child poverty, restoring Sure Start, improving nursery provision, reversing reductions in per-capita educational funding.

Or increase immigration.  Not a policy favoured by Nadine Dorries.

* A. Aassvel, et al, ‘The COVID-19 pandemic and human fertility’ Science,  vol. 369, issue 6502, 24 Jul 2020, pp. 370-1

** Stein Emil Vollset et al, ‘Fertility, Mortality, Migration and Population Scenarios for 195 countries and territories from 2017 to 2100: a forecasting analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study’, Lancet,July 14, 2020.

Guest Post from Jonathan Merrett in Sallèles d’Aude, France: three activities …

In February I had three activities lined up:

our house was already rented out for six weeks over the summer holidays, and we expected the gaps would be filled in;

I had six weddings booked over the same period (I officiate at weddings at a local chateau); and

I was due to go and inspect schools in Nepal for a week in May.

By the end of March, the Nepal trip had been cancelled and so had the house bookings. As I write this, one wedding has moved to October, one has cancelled, and the remainder are waiting to see what happens.

Looking at the house bookings, since the French government has loosened the travel restrictions, we have had a number of French families and groups book the house (about five weeks’ worth currently). This reflects the government’s move to encourage French families to take holidays within the country. They have not gone as far as the Polish government, for instance, which has given out financial incentives to people to holiday in their home country, but the message in France has been to encourage people to stay within the country and take advantage of the wealth of opportunities here for rest and relaxation. With beaches now open and restaurants and bars being able to serve food and drink (with a one metre distancing rule and clear instructions about table service) the local tourist industry can operate, partially, and hopefully survive.

The wedding situation is much less clear as all of the couples and their families are UK-based. Will borders be open or not for what might be classed as non-essential travel? The bizarre introduction of a 14-day quarantine by the UK government has made things even more complicated – families don’t know whether to book their travel or not and don’t know whether they will have to fulfil quarantine rules or not on their return home. I say bizarre as so many of the rules in the UK at present seem to be not rules as we know them but sort of ‘indicators to follow if you feel like it’ – thank goodness most people are sensible and follow the rules and resist driving to Barnard Castle.

Over the past nine years I have travelled to southern Africa, South America, Nepal and various bits of Europe inspecting international examination centres for Cambridge Assessment. What will be the future of international exams now, or even exams in general, now we have had a summer without them? Students have graduated and will pass on to universities (though what are they going to look like in September?) without having sat or passed exams – perhaps this already suspect way of assessing students will change?

And what about international air travel? When will we feel safe to travel inside that oversized sardine tin again, breathing each other’s air for hours at a time? Will countries that have reduced the effects of Covid welcome guests from countries where it is still rampant (the UK, for example) and will we want to visit countries where the virus is still active in the population?

All three of the above are income streams which the virus has affected. None is our sole income, all are significant; but what of the future?

From Brenda in Hove: “It is the lives we encounter that make life meaningful.”

11 June

 “One key feature that we have come to appreciate about Covid-19 is that it is a disease of old age. The chance that a person over 75 will die from it is actually 10,000 times greater than it is for a 15 year-old who gets infected.” * If you are, like me, over 75, that sentence concentrates the mind. It also puts you on notice that, unlike most people in the population, your life won’t change dramatically when lock-down is lifted until a vaccine is found. Even then you are highly unlikely to be anywhere near first in line to get a vaccine. Administering a vaccine to a sufficient number of people to make a difference takes a long time – a very long time. Years.

Pondering what this means to my life put me in mind of the novel A Gentleman in Moscow and an arresting quote: “Adversity presents itself in many forms, and if a man does not master his circumstances, then he is bound to be mastered by them.” The novel is about a Russian aristocrat, Count Rostov, who is ordered by a Bolshevik tribunal at the time of the revolution to spend the rest of his life in a luxury hotel in the heart of Moscow. He has to vacate his suite of rooms in the hotel and instead take up residence in the servants’ quarters – and all his activities are bound by what can take place in the hotel. It feels a bit like what we oldies are to endure – and how we can find meaning and pleasure in our much reduced circumstances.

When we started out as a group recording this time of Covid, I was immediately pre-occupied by getting my affairs in order, dealing with the practicalities (like wills and other personal papers) as indeed the Count does in the story. The Count is portrayed as a very disciplined person who does not allow himself to drop his personal standards in the matter of dress and daily exercise. He also sets himself the goal of reading the books he has always meant to read (Essays of Montaigne!) but never got around to. Intellectually, one agrees that these things are important when confinement is visited upon one. I even set out to do the very same things! I failed – not miserably, but a ‘fail’ nonetheless. I can’t say I feel ‘mastered’ by circumstances but I do feel challenged. Standards have definitely fallen around here. I wear the same clothes for days on end (who cares?), my hairstyling is left to the tender and haphazard mercies of my husband, my exercise regime goes in fits and starts, and my concentration levels don’t seem to extend to the great books I was so determined to read at the start of all this. Getting the apartment in order after our big move doesn’t seem that important any more. We will take it at a much slower pace. One thing is true and that is that my bridge has improved. Better than nothing, I suppose. Even the inestimable (fictional) Count didn’t get to finishing Montaigne!

If television and YouTube and the vast domains beyond are to be believed, the on-line world is practically humming with self-improvement: virtual exercise classes of one sort or another, language lessons, choirs, orchestras, zoom encounters from one end of the world to the other. I am lost in admiration – but I can’t help noticing it is mainly younger people who are keeping all this going. It is one thing to throw yourself into these activities to pass the time until lock-down ends, it is quite another to embrace this as a new way of life. My world is enhanced by real people interacting with real people in real time. Of course I miss theatre and concerts and exhibitions and dinner parties and book clubs and journeys to far-away places – but they all seem relics  of a life denied for the foreseeable future. Does this challenge my will to live? No. Not even close. Maybe the phrase “master my circumstances” is a bit too ambitious. It could be that we are coming to understand the essentials that make life worth living.

Certainly the essentials for me are the people in my life: my family, of course  – but importantly, my friends. Strange to relate, Covid has brought us closer together. Thanks to the wonders of Whatsapp I can spend hours and hours, week after week, talking to friends all over the world. Most of them I have known for a very long time and we never tire of talking to each other, sharing our ups and downs, our insights and issues, our families’ fortunes and misfortunes, exchanging book and film titles, tips for getting on and leading meaningful lives. It was Guy de Maupassant who said “it is the lives we encounter that make life worth living” and how lucky am I to have such marvellous friends  – and, it must be said, to live in a technological age. Where would we be without technology?

*The Guardian quoting Mark Woolhouse, Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, 7June.   

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Free and not free

June 11.   In the lockdown, I have tried to be sensible.  I have maintained my hours of work despite the absence of timetabled commitments.  I have written diary entries.  I have resisted drinking all of our not very capacious wine cellar.  My one besetting sin has been newspapers.  Deprived of hard copy I have set up online feeds from the Guardian, The Times (for an alternative view), the Financial Times (for hard evidence) and the New York Times (for the rest of the world).  Unlimited words, limitless time consumed.

Much of the knowledge thus gained has not illuminated my life.  Today I learn that there is a looming shortage of marmite (caused by a decline in beer brewing, who knew), and mounting anxiety about the closure of public lavatories.

Occasionally, however, there is a story that seems to encapsulate all that is now going wrong.  Yesterday’s online Times has an article headlined: ‘Lockdown eased to allow lonely to meet another household.’  It was part of the good news narrative that Johnson is trying to promote.  Day by day things are getting better.   In every other regard it brings no comfort.

First there is the nominative disarray I discussed yesterday; the confusion in this case between those living alone, and those who are lonely.  A third of UK households are occupied by one person.  Some of those are lonely; most are not.  All of them with grandchildren are probably missing them.

Second there is the small print.  Everyone can go and see their grandchildren except those in lockdown, which includes all those over seventy.  My wife and I, as it happens, are bang on the demographic average for the birth of our first grandchild (we were 63).  But now we have more years and more grandchildren.   Under the new regulations, we are too old to see them.  It’s as if the Government had announced with a fanfare that everyone was now free to play football, except those under thirty.

Third there is the surrounding argument.  The fifth paragraph of the same article reads:  ‘However, the government’s claim to have made the right decisions at the right time on the pandemic was dealt a severe blow when one of the architects of lockdown said Britain’s death toll could have been halved by imposing it a week earlier.’  What has collapsed in the last few weeks is not the infection rate but public trust in the entire official management of the crisis.

Every recent decision, whether about schools, testing, opening shops, allowing grandparents out of the house, quarantining international arrivals, has immediately been met by criticism, counter-argument and in some cases legal action.  The point is not so much the rights and Priti Patels of each issue, rather the belief that everyone is free to advance their own view and can find an ‘expert’ somewhere to back them up.  Deference towards politicians, and towards those who advise them, has disappeared.  In the early days there was a tendency to accept what we were told in the grave surroundings of No. 10.  We needed to believe that those with power were doing the right thing, and anyway it was difficult for amateurs fully to understand the science and the projections.  That comfort is no longer available.

The largest argument, referred to by the Times journalist, is about what was not done in February and March and how many tens of thousands of people died as a result.  The Government’s repeated hope that this kind of retrospective analysis could be left to a post-pandemic enquiry is in vain. 

We are all historians now.  And that is a measure of the trouble we are in.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Here and not here …

June 10.  Too many of the accounts of our present circumstance draw a hard line between what we are doing and not doing.  We are inside our houses not out in public spaces.  We are permitted to share the company of certain people and kept apart from all others.  But it is the essence of our human condition that we are not confined to such binary choices.

We have imaginations, the capacity to create and inhabit worlds apart from the actual present.  We all know this.  In better times, it is how we deal with that reality, offering us escape, solace, explanation.  In the lockdown, the media are full of devices for getting us to places that we are currently forbidden to enter.  Books are recommended that will take us to the holiday locations we might have visited this year (headline in yesterday’s Guardian: ‘10 of the best Latin American novels – that will take you there.’)  Television programmes, magazines and digital outlets let us wander through the gardens and art galleries that are now closed.  Food and sport journalists recycle stories that can at least remind us of pleasures denied.  And the imagination for its own sake, more important than ever, is succoured by print and electronic media.

My wife and I, inveterate readers and consumers of film and theatre, are at home in these parallel universes.  Nonetheless we grieve the physical absence of our grandchildren, going through changes which we can only witness in weekly Zoom meetings.  Unless Johnson and company sort out the mess their incompetence has compounded, we will miss the first sight of a new grand-daughter in a couple of months.  Yet even this basic dichotomy of presence and absence can be bridged.

On Sunday we tuned into our weekly family get-together to find that my London-based elder daughter, her partner and her five and eight-year old children, had something to show us.  For some weeks past they had been secretly building a scale model of the house and garden of the parents and grandparents they could no longer visit.

Everything that mattered had been re-constructed.  The black and white house with cotton-wool smoke coming out of its chimney.  The car (a sportier model than our ageing Volvo) in the drive behind the gate.  In the garden were flowers (miniature versions of the actual flowers now blooming), fruit trees, a vegetable plot, a greenhouse, a paddling pool, a swing, a sandpit with real sand, two wigwams.  There was even a miniature wheelie-bin which the children help me fill when they are staying.  Around the perimeter was the River Severn, now alarmingly close to the property, but a reminder of its existence in our country life.  Rus in Urbis if ever there was.

They still want to come and see us.  We for our part felt still more strongly the pain of their absence.  But nevertheless, it was such a joyful achievement, such a demonstration of how the creative spirit can bridge the gap between what is and what is not in our locked down world.

from Nike in Katerini, Greece: lockdown to ease on Monday

poppies appearing in the streets

May 2. Melina Mercouri once said, ‘Enthusiasm is a wonderful thing. In South America they throw flowers at you. In Greece they throw themselves.’
It’s true.
Lockdown begins to ease on Monday. I even have made a hairdressers appointment. We can only go in one at a time and all must be masked and gloved. I’m prepared. I’ve bought my mask and gloves supplies, Just hope everybody else has.
Pre-Covid, Neighbours would stop me for a chat and pull me into their homes or onto their balconies for a coffee. People stopped me on the street to enquire after father, mother, cousins, children. Greece is a crowded place. We have a small population of around 11 million but we also have a small country. Greece holds three spots in the List of top ten most concentrated areas of population in Europe. (with those statistics in mind it is truly phenomenal what Greece has achieved).
Streets are narrow, our pavements and narrow, most shops are small, fabulous – but small. We get close.
On my last outing two days ago the weather was magnificent and more people were out as restrictions ease. I stopped walking to take a video call from my son in Australia. My little grandson was blowing me kisses. A neighbor spotted me, rushed over, put her arm around me and wanted to share my joy. She blew kisses back to him and gave the cautionary spits to shoo away the devil. She ftou-ftoued all over me. Two months ago we would have linked arms and strolled to the nearest cafe to keep talking, the olive seller could wait. Instead I froze, clamped my mouth shut and fretted if I’d inhaled any of those mine-shaped polemic bacteria.
Overcoming paranoia might be my biggest problem. I silently scolded myself for not wearing a mask. Around 50% of people are wearing a mask. Government directives are as of Monday we will all be wearing masks until further notice.
But, the poppies have appeared. They are brightening up dreary urban landscapes. I must remember to pick some to collect seeds and scatter them through the garden at the Olympus house. I’m aware nothing will happen but hopefully some of them will lock into the earth and next spring sprout between weeds offering spots of colour like the flushed cheeks of blushing maidens. Ah, Olympus. I can go there as of next week.

from Susan S. in Washington, DC: dreams and birthdays …

“ This is one birthday I’m not likely to forget.”

I woke this morning after the first fitful night of sleep since the C-19 pandemic began affecting my community.  Normally I don’t remember dreams, but last night was one awful pandemic-related dream after another.  I was in impossible and dangerous situations I couldn’t escape from.  Different people and different circumstances in each dream, but all with the same theme.   I read an article in the Washington Post recently about people experiencing frightening dreams.  I’m no expert, but this seems perfectly understandable.  We are all coping as best we can, and then at night the demons of our fears grab us in a way that our normal defenses protect us from during the day – most of the time.   One more consequential cost of what we are all experiencing worldwide.  

Last week my mother turned 97.  She lives in a retirement community that has different levels of care. Thank goodness she is still able to live independently in her own comfortable apartment.  Two residents in the assisted living unit recently died and several members of staff tested positive.  As a result, all residents in independent living have been quarantined in their apartments.   Today is day 27 of that quarantine.   We were able to get permission from the staff at her community to let a few members of the family who live nearby sing happy birthday to her – us standing in the open courtyard and Mom on the 2nd floor balcony of her apartment.   Here’s a photo.  Her comment after we’d sung and congratulated her – “ This is one birthday I’m not likely to forget.”

a neighbor’s statement of the times

My neighbor decided to make a statement about C-19.  Please see the photo of the large boxwoods for which he fashioned wire glasses and masks.  It’s drawn a lot of attention from people in the neighborhood who have been out in the good weather. 

Meanwhile at the national level, President Trump is exploiting the C-19 crisis to accomplish his right-wing political agenda so he can tout his accomplishments to his base support in the presidential election process.   He has relaxed regulation of mercury in the air and water; he is appropriating private land by imminent domain along the southern border to build a wall; he has banned immigration for 60 days, and the list goes on and on.  Former VP Biden’s fundraising is $187 million below Trump’s and Biden’s staff is not in place – he has 25% of the number of people Trump has running social media end of his operation.   Still, there are more of us than there are of them, and with the recent unity in the Democratic party, I remain hopeful.  

Keep well  and remain resilient.