New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
Those who have thus far avoided contracting the COVID-19 virus or did so lightly, as to not experience symptoms, know that during this catastrophic pandemic they are among the extremely fortunate Nonetheless, boredom, malaise, even depression, can creep in so long as pandemic restrictions still hold us in place. From under New York’s gloomy winter skies, we have thought that Greece, with its warmer climate and optimistic sun, would be a far more enjoyable place to be “stuck” as we wait it out. But the virus is everywhere, and although in the first go-around, well-prepared Greece did admirably well, imposing restrictions and keeping the number of cases down, suffering has increased again. The GN asked expatriate Sue Jones, who became confined to her home in Port Heli, Argolis when she broke a kneecap, how she perceives the COVID-19 threat in Greece and about herlife there.
Jones’s interview evolves into an eloquent love letter to the varied and singular beauty, and historical complexity of Greece, a timely lead-in to the Greek News Let’s Go To Greece! campaign, which will be in abeyance as we anxiously and hopefully wait for travel there to be made possible- sooner rather than later.
GN: I envy you being in the countryside in Greece.
JS: Yes, I’m locked down in Porto Heli, which is just bliss. I spent the earlier lockdown last year in Athens – I broke my kneecap early in the year so I was hobbling around on crutches and locked down before it was official. So, I was determined to be here if it happened again and basically just didn’t leave after the summer was over – and now I couldn’t even if I wanted to!
GN: How is it being “stuck” there during quarantine? Do you feel safe?
SJ: No-one can go anywhere or do anything much at present. But how lucky am I to be able to see the sea every day, and walk round its coasts and along beaches I know I’ll be lying on in a few months? The knowledge that we have so few cases in this area is comforting, so I am confident that the newly efficient Greek government will see that we eventually all get vaccinated and will protect us all as much as it can. Meanwhile, our job is to stay home – not difficult when you have beautiful views from your balconies.
Fortunately, I have company as my downstairs neighbours, who usually just come for the summer, stayed on, as did a couple of others, so in fact I do have a little gang and don’t feel too isolated. In fact, I think it’s altogether better here – nice walks and able to greet a few people, though of course nothing much open so no going out to tavernas or coffee shops! But with a few pals and great Wi-Fi to bring TV, zoom yoga classes and chats with friends, I’m not complaining.
GN: How do you feel about Greece’s handling of the pandemic?
SJ: The experience of the way Greece has handled the global pandemic we are now in the grip of has been exemplary, with far fewer cases here than in many other European countries, and markedly fewer than either the US or the UK. As a friend commented to me, Greeks listen to doctors but not politicians — but the latter have wisely allowed the former to do most of the talking, with the result that they now have rock star status!
GN: How did you come to live in Greece?
SJ: I had been to Greece on holiday in the early ‘70s, in junta times, when in 1975 I was offered an interesting opportunity linked to a UK publisher, based in Athens. Being in a mood for change after several years teaching English as a second language in London, I didn’t think twice, jumped in my car and drove to Greece. I arrived in Athens in September 1975, just as summer was winding down. I was young (29), ready for adventure, was taken under the wing of two of the attractive young men I worked with, and thus my Greek adventure began. I fell in love with it then, and I’m still in love with it, though of course I know far more about it, like to think I understand it and its history better, so I guess it’s a more informed love now, but love, nevertheless.
I spent the next decade doing all the wonderful things a young woman let loose in Greece could do in those days. My career progressed and I became the permanent representative of my company for its ELT products in Greece and various surrounding countries. I travelled all over Greece, attended book fairs, got to know most of the language school (frontisteria xenon glosson) owners all over Greece. I learned more about life and small p politics from this experience than most ordinary teachers ever get the chance to learn. Winters around Greece and in the tavernas and bars of Athens, summers on exotic beaches all over Greece, lunches, dinners, following the rhythm of the Greek year, Easters – it was an idyll. I made friends then who are still my closest companions.
GN: That you speak Greek, a difficult language for most, is proof of your feelings!
SJ: I gradually learned Greek. I had a little bit of an advantage, having studied ancient Greek at school, so the alphabet was no problem. Many of the verb and noun inflections were recognizable, not always easy for native English speakers who have no experience of languages in which the form of the word changes to show its purpose in the sentence, the tense and the person doing the action. Of course, I’m also a language nerd, so I find this all very fascinating, which not everybody does! So, I read grammar books, took a few useful lessons at crucial points, talked and listened, and I’m still doing most of that!
GN: Have you lived in Greece since 1975?
SJ: In the mid ‘80s my company offered me an opportunity in Hong Kong. I knew I wouldn’t be gone forever, so I locked the door of the beautiful flat I rented in Mets and left Greece for three years. I have left Greece a few times since, in pursuit of my career, but always knew I’d come back. In 1989 I bought my first Greek property, an apartment in Porto Heli in the Peloponnese, which is where, in 2021, I write this during Greece’s strict lockdown. In the small apartment block where I live, all five apartments have been lived in by the same people since they were built in the late 80s – so by now we all know each other pretty well.
When I first came to Greece, I was taken into the bosom of a kind family who lived in Astros, which really gave me my first insight into Greek life and culture. Now in Porto Heli I sit and look across Ververonda Bay and see Astros, locked down like all of us. It too has changed and developed beyond recognition from those far-off days.
GN: Have you travelled Greece?
SJ: I still travel a lot to the rest of the Peloponnese – to Kalamata and the Mani, to Lakonia and a lovely place below Leonidion I’ve come to love – Leonidion fascinatingly the capital of the Tsakonika region, the ancient language which there are now attempts to revive. I also visit the Pilio, where I have friends in a high windy home with breathtaking views over the Sporades and sometimes as far as the holy mountain, Mount Athos.
I’m fascinated by ancient Greek history and with a small group of friends make trips to visit Mycenean ruins, which are all over this part of Greece, imagining the lives and landscape of those late Bronze Age people. Everywhere in Greece offers so much – near here we have the birthplace of Theseus, Trizina, with a small, ruined Byzantine church built using stones from the ancient city. How can one not be enraptured by imagining the lives and experience of the people who lived in those times and evidence of whom is so widespread? We also have a nearby cave where there is evidence of human habitation 40,000 years ago. On the other hand, Greece has more than a thousand old castles, either Byzantine, or Ottoman, or Frankish, or Venetian – or sometimes a bit of each, as successive medieval conquerors came and went.
But the traditional world is still there, in the windy vehicle-inaccessible lanes of Kranidi, its graceful late 19th century mansions, many now sadly crumbling, its traditional seaside tavernas. Over the 45 plus years I’ve been coming and going from Greece, I’ve watched and appreciated the way in which Greece has retained its own traditional ways, recognized its unique history, but become part of the modern world and enabled these things to sit easily alongside one another. Of course, there has been, and still is, much hardship along the way, especially following the 2010 crisis, and many people are still suffering as Greece adjusts its old clientelist politics to the modern world.
Athens has become a vibrant modern European and world city. It’s small enough to be accessible – much improved by the metro – but international enough to be full of wonderful galleries, theatres, every kind of music, cinema, amazing new centres like the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre, the new Goulandris museum, the Megaron Mousikis, Gazohori and the amazing lively neighbourhood of popular Greek culture it has spawned. If you want to go out any evening it’s easy to arrange a last-minute concert. It’s cheap and accessible to see international artists as well as a wonderful range of Greek musicians. Wonderful music-filled lunches at popular venues showcasing the marvellous range of Greek musicians.
Of course, sitting in Porto Heli in lockdown, all of this is from memory.