First, I lost my workplace.
The Greek government shut down all cafés and restaurants, at least partly. No more sitting down, only take-away.
Disbelieving the rumours, I walked over to my favourite café in Piraeus, where I normally write. And indeed, the chairs were piled atop the tables, red-and-white ribbon cordoned off the outside seating area.
Like myself, a few other men were prowling around the café, incredulous. Most Greeks, in my observation, are not keen walkers. They prefer to sit. At most, they saunter from one café to another. To spend the day sitting around talking, and talking some more, seems to be part of their DNA. No longer being able to do this must be quite odd for them.
Here and there, I saw small groups walking around the marina, take-away coffee cups in hand. But they looked bewildered and appeared to have some difficulty coordinating steps and sentences. One guy stumbled and spilled some coffee over his girl-friend.
I called a friend in Athens and asked for her weekend plans. “I’m staying in”, she said. “This virus, I’m so scared.” She sounded a bit hysterical.
Another friend I called said he might go out that evening.
“Great, let’s meet up”, I suggested cheerfully.
“You’re not serious, are you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Man, you have just passed through two airports and sat on an airplane. There’s no way I’m going to hang out with you.”
“Why?” I still did not get it.
“Duh, because you might infected!” he said. “Do your quarantine and call me again in two weeks.”
With this, he hung up. I was left speechless. Wait, so having taken the plane from Germany to Greece turned me into a potential virus carrier, a persona non grata? I had not expected this, it had not even crossed my mind.
I called one other friend with whom I played chess sometimes and suggested we wear face masks and rubber gloves during the game.
“Forget it”, she said.
Even my therapist did not want to see me. Welcome back to Greece, she texted me, only to cancel our weekly session.
“You’re not an easy person to be with right now.”
Well yes, I thought, that was precisely why I was doing therapy.
“The thing is, your recent travels, and coming from Germany, make you a risky person”, she wrote.
My friends in Athens were one of the reasons I had left my quiet German village and returned to Greece. At least I would have some company during the corona crisis, I had reckoned. Wrongly, as it now seemed.
I began to feel like a pariah.
I walked to the beach, deserted except for a few stragglers, and sat down to reflect on my situation. Had I made a mistake by coming back here? Socially, it looked like I had navigated myself into a cul-de-sac. I was basically being ostracised and told to self-isolate.
Worse, if it was true that airplanes and airports posed a higher risk of infection, flying back to Germany would also entail a period of self-quarantine before I could go anywhere near people again, especially my 90-year-old mother.
I called a Greek woman who, as I had seen on Facebook, had recently been on an airplane herself. Since her return, she told me, her colleagues at the office had avoided her like a black cat.
“It was my birthday this week and only two of my co-workers gave me a hug”, she said. “I brought a cake but nobody wanted a single slice of it.”
Being fellow social sufferers, we arranged to meet up for a coffee. Under normal circumstances, this would have been code for a date.
When we met up the next day, we both hesitated over how to greet. Kisses on the cheeks would have been the minimal thing to do. More likely a proper kiss, as the physical attraction was mutual and obvious.
Instead, we stood facing each other for a second or two, and then clinked elbows. We had a take-away coffee and ended up spending the next two hours walking around, at a safe six-foot distance. We did not dare touch each other. It felt utterly odd but sensible.
Love in times of corona.
Tinder and other online dating apps, I suspected, must be grinding to a halt too. Who would take the risk now of going to bed with a stranger? This corona thing was beginning to remind me of the HIV epidemic in the 1980s.
“When do we meet again?” I asked her.
“Who knows”, she said.