Hellenic Protocols: Greek island hopping during a pandemic
One of our Berlin on Film members set off for some Mediterranean escapism in the brief window left by Coronavirus this summer, capturing the strange tranquillity and trying to understand the effects of the crisis on the South Aegean.
In between his grumbles, I feared at some point that Babi might fail to lower his grubby face mask before trying to take a drag on his cigarillo. However, despite the sweltering heat, he was just about managing the sequence of actions. He had just whipped me up surprisingly delicious little gyros, and was a good company to while away a little time on yet another baking afternoon. “It’s the same, this weather, stays like this for months!” Sat heavily on a chair staring out past his glasses and mask, you could be forgiven for initially mistaking this beach bar owner’s mood for sour. But as I was fairly quickly coming to learn, this ready-to-hand venting in fact belies or perhaps enables a generally resilient Greek outlook. “Ah it’s the protocols, the fucking protocols” he said swilling his Coke Zero. “All this, it’s too much bla bla”. Our topic of conversation had of course quickly arrived at the state of affairs during the Coronavirus pandemic, although not before some reassuringly standard banter about football and the weather. Despite the apparent predictability, chatting with Babi actually didn’t feel generic. It felt like a real exchange, probably because, aside from his personal warmth and humour, there is a heightened empathy that appears when strangers meet during a crisis.
“So a few old people died, how many are there really though, and maybe they would die from the flu anyway?! And now they closed Finland, terrible.” I really felt for him, and didn’t push too hard the other way. I wanted to say how things have been much worse elsewhere and they wouldn’t want that here. But I didn’t. His frustration was understandable given the consistently low numbers of cases in July and August in the south Aegean islands, even after reopening travel. Not to mention the terrifyingly high economic and job reliance on tourism, directly responsible for 12% GDP for the whole of Greece and significantly more across the Dodecanese.
A six-hour ferry ride to the south east, a Cornish yacht builder in Rhodes Town had given an even more frank appraisal about the slowly emerging effects of the situation. “It will take years to recover. The problem they are stuck with is the fact they are relying on 6 months of the year financially to cover the rest, and it’s just on tourism, it’s a crazy way to run things. There will be fewer boats coming in too. I was lucky I could keep my workshop open and keep working during the lockdown, but eventually, that will get hit. A lot of boats have already gone back to where they’re originally registered.”
Feeling like a free agent, weighed down with only a small backpack and a couple of cameras, I was meandering across these beautiful islands set in sparkling turquoise waters without too much purpose or direction. With so few other tourists and plenty of time to spare, I found myself easily engaged with local folk at the places I came to. Among them, I met several mainlanders who had sought island escapism. One was a hotelier who had only just opened her boutique establishment 9 months before, in a sumptuously renovated medieval property in the heart of Rhodes old town. She was typically hospitable and upbeat about the situation, a shrug and a “well, let's just see” epitomizing the resignation and resilience people have been forced to adopt here. And one vaguely glimmering positive of the crisis, also noted in other normally oversubscribed tourist destinations, was that a very small part of the tourism gap in the Dodecanese has been plugged with domestic staycationers. A peppering of Greek families on the beaches, and one or two young Athenian backpackers working casual jobs or hanging out in bars which normally catered for transient holidaymakers.
The enigmatic archaeological sites on these Greek islands stand ambivalently towards our current plight: from Hellenic pillars to Byzantine shrines, medieval ramparts, and Ottoman mosques. However, for travelers and locals alike, the layered problems of modernity are fully revealing themselves here too: an underfunded health service, with only around ten ICU beds for Rhodes island and surrounding neighbors; a continuing refugee crisis reaching a peak of mishandling domestically and neglect internationally; and the cherry on the cake, warships in clear view of the unfulfilled holiday beaches, as tensions rise with Erdogan and Turkey over gas exploration rights just a few dozen kilometers away from Rhodes.
Despite all these problems, and the acute strangeness that should have punctured every aspect of summer 2020 here, it was a breeze traveling around these islands at a time like this. Transport links ran smooth, people were relaxed and chatty, and places simply did what was needed to adapt to the protocols and the dearth of mass tourism.
In a village on Kalymnos, beside a blue-on-white painted sign that read “treasure from the sea”, a brawny sponge diver and his son sat in their workshop cum tourist store, trimming the freshly dried and shaggy sponge lumps to reveal their intricate natural shapes. The diver explained that they already used to export plenty of their products anyway, but this year they were hoping the foreign markets would take up the slack that the bright but now redundant shop had left behind.
As you approach the north side of Kalymnos, at what feels like the edge of the map, one final ride from a local ferry man brings you to a tiny island sitting out in the bay. In this tranquil place, with as many goats as people, with no roads and just a few whitewashed buildings, a local band sings traditional songs in the afternoon shade of a taverna. They sit around with their friends, sharing beer and wine, sausages and seafood, and trade vocals with accompaniment on lutes and guitars. The men and women, some of them actually born of this island, are making music for themselves, and passing the time during a long hot summer as generations of locals here have always done. Behind the anonymity of my camera, scenes like this strike me as inherently positive. The deeply ingrained traditions and the millennia-old rises and falls of fortune that these places have witnessed, perhaps give the people here their thick-skinned but warm nature. And maybe despite the protocols, these islands can find a way to sustain through the complexities of a global crisis that has us all in its jaws.
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By Duncan Miller