April 10, 2021
Accordion. In and out as required. It’s the nickname of the coronavirus strategy of Greece. Cases go up, we get locked in. Cases go down, we are allowed out. The accordion strategy has brought us to our fourth lockdown. In a few areas of Greece, they just entered a fifth, luckily, not where I am.
We are all feeling trapped in the accordion being blown around by those bellows and, and like an accordion when the bellows are moved in and out, there is a lot of noise. The unrest is loud. We have curfews too. After nine p.m. no one is allowed out on the streets unless they are essential workers or have a medical emergency. Nine p.m. is tough. Greece is geared for the night. At eleven at night, even families with babies and toddlers are a common sight strolling in parks and along restaurant strips.
But our restaurants, cafes and bars have been shut for seven months, not including the two months of the very first lockdown. Sunday mornings after church service the faithful once poured into the cafes, creating a bustling Christmas type atmosphere. Every Sunday. Not now though. It’s been so long since the matrons of Greece, young and old, have been to a church service or a café they now sit at home in their pyjamas watching the televised church services with just the clergy rattling around in huge empty churches. Greeks can’t wait to get dressed up again.
When the pandemic is eventually brought under control, I’m forecasting there will be promenades and parties so resplendent with colour and style they will become legendary. Nature has taken this opportunity to release some pressure and sent the floods, the snowstorms, the high winds. We thought we had seen it all and were feeling grateful the worst was over, then the earthquakes struck. There is nothing like a catastrophic natural event to take your mind off another catastrophic natural event.
Greece is a country of high seismic activity. Everybody is accustomed to a rumble here and there. Schools and workplaces have regular training for enduring and surviving an earthquake. There are no designer trendy desks in Greek schools. They are all sturdy with steel legs for students to shelter under and cling to in the event of a big quake. I’ve experienced a couple of small quakes of short duration in the past. Each time it was a couple of seconds of shaking. Uncomfortable, unforgettable, but inconsequential. Initially, it’s not the shaking that terrifies you. It’s the sound. A guttural groan rising from the earth. Only Nature can produce such stereophonic sheer terror. The earthquake went on for forty seconds. Forty seconds of blood-curdling screeching as if the Furies were descending upon us to tear us apart as they did Oedipus. Forty seconds of trying to stay upright and keep my wits about me.
Our little apartment is on the third floor of a five-storey building. The higher up you are the more you sway. And we were swaying so much I felt seasick. For forty seconds I kept looking at the walls waiting for cracks to appear. For forty seconds I gripped the door frame and waited for the falling to begin. For forty seconds I did not think of death. I thought of life. My only thought was to live to see my children and grandchildren again.
My poor mother was gripping the arms of the sofa and kept asking, ‘Why is the heater jumping around?’ I couldn’t get to her and if I could have, she couldn’t have made it to the relative safety of the door frame. I remember thinking, if she goes, she’ll go comfy. All I could do was try to shout over the horrific groaning swirling around us, ‘We’ll be okay.’ Forty seconds later came the quiet. I ran around checking everything in the apartment in case anything had shaken out of place. All was well. I rushed out onto the balcony and looked around. After what we had just heard and felt I knew the world was wounded. Nothing seemed out of place.
My mother’s sister, my aunt Viktoria, lives on the fifth floor. I ran up to check on her. Some of her glassware had smashed to the floor but otherwise she was well. I brought her down to our apartment and said to her and my mother, ‘Somewhere close by there is a lot of damage.’ I calmed them down with a hot meal before going online on my phone to check the news and to find out where the epicentre was. All it said was – ‘near the town of Elassona.’ The village where my father was born and is buried is near the town of Elassona. I immediately began calling aunts and cousins.‘We are fine. Very shaken. A few cracks here and there but we are fine.’ I hung up my phone as my aunt Viktoria was hanging up hers. She was pale with fear, ‘Turn on the television,’ she said. Her daughter, my cousin Jenny, lives near Elassona, in a village called Damasi. Every station was showing scenes of the earthquake. In the big red letters across the screen was written, ‘The epicentre was Damasi’.
Jenny is a dentist with her surgery in a neighbouring town. She was working on a patient in the chair when the earthquake struck. They managed to get out as debris was falling. She turned back before fleeing to see her expensive and sensitive equipment shimmying across the floor. The ten-minute drive to Damasi prepared her for what she would find. There were rockfalls everywhere. You reach Damasi by a bridge which spans over a river. The bridge had fallen. She sped to the second bridge tucked away behind a bend. It was damaged but still up. She closed her eyes and sped over it. Soon after she crossed that bridge collapsed too. Her house, right on the village square, was in ruins as was every building on the square. The school had completely collapsed.
She drove over to her husband’s winery. It seemed okay. He was there with their children. Jenny ran to them and saw the situation. The wine barrels had been shaken from their shelves and smashed to the floor. All his stock was destroyed. They had lost their home and their livelihoods in forty seconds. And insurance covered nothing.The entire region was without power. Pipes had cracked making whatever water came out of a tap undrinkable. Within a couple of hours, the army was mobilised as were their kitchens to produce three meals a day for the newly homeless and they erected tents on the soccer field and distributed winter-weight sleeping bags to give them somewhere to sleep. Most slept in their cars because of the cold.
The population of Damasi slept on the soccer field that night which was just as well because the next day there was another earthquake, shorter duration but equally strong. Two days later, there was another one. Whichever part damaged buildings were still up were now rubble.The quakes are still occurring. They will continue for at least the next two months as the earth tries to right itself after the collision of the tectonic plates. One month later and my cousin, her husband and two young sons are still sleeping in their vehicles. They are lucky. They have four. One regular car each, a delivery van, and a truck. They are sleeping a little easier since the government came forward with compensation packages and rebuilding plans. They’ve also offered to pay the rentals on any temporary home so my cousin and her family are about to move into a little house in a nearby town where at least they will have a real roof over their heads again while their home is rebuilt.
Those forty seconds changed the lives of many but for many more of us it gave us a break from living in the deep, dark shadow of Covid-19. The relief was brief and stark, a brutal reminder of who is really in charge on this earth. Nature. Just as Nature sends terror, she also sends hope through sights and sounds. The dull, grey skies are turning pink and white with blossoms bursting out of dry branches, and the birds are back. The squark of seagulls heralds the promise of summer which makes me imagine the feel of sand under my toes and the salty scent of sea spray. All my senses are being activated.
For the first time in a year, I heard children playing outside, giggling and babbling. We all know the children spent most of lockdown indoors with heads bent over a phone or tablet screen. You could feel their release at finally being allowed outside to play. They will return to school next week after months of lockdown. Hearing them outside again highlighted how surreal the life we are currently living really is. Things we once took for granted, blossoms, birds and babbling, today, for me, were sights and sounds so beautiful I now understand are sacred.
To vaccinate or not to vaccinate?I just received an email from the Greek government announcing they have received our applications for our vaccinations and for us to make our way to the nearest Citizens’ Bureau to proceed with booking an appointment. Do I fear side effects? No. I don’t fear poliomyelitis, tuberculosis, measles either – because I am vaccinated against them. For me, it’s a no brainer. I haven’t seen my children and grandchildren in almost two years. Being vaccinated means I will have an easier time travelling.
Freedom is only a jab away.