Return to Piraeus

”You have come back?!”

Georgios looked at me aghast as I walked into the hotel lobby last week, my travel bag slung over the shoulder.

It was not how the long-time director of the Cavo d’Oro hotel in Piraeus normally welcomed returning guests. Then again, what was normal these days? Georgios stretched out his elbow across the reception desk. It seemed more like a defensive move than a greeting. I lifted my elbow, our bones met.

“Why didn’t you stay in Germany?” he asked. “Things are getting crazy here with that corona virus. Are you feeling ok?”

“I feel good, thanks”, I said with a reassuring smile. “I got a bit of a cold, running nose, but nothing serious.”

Stepping back instinctively, Georgios reached for the wall and placed a key on the desk. “Room 503, as before. Now go up and get some rest.”

On the flight from Hamburg to Athens

The Cavo d’Oro hotel, built in 1967 and long past its prime, is my base in Greece. As I travel often, it doesn’t make sense for me to rent an apartment. At the hotel, I have everything I need: a room with a kingsize bed, a bathtub, and a balcony overlooking the Saronic Gulf and, in the distance, the mountains of the Peloponnese.

In the mornings, with my first coffee and cigarette, I watch the ferries plough through the waves, on their way to the Greek islands. At 8am every day, the overnight Blue Star ferry from Crete appears at the horizon.

The port of Piraeus, the largest in the East Mediterranean, is a ten-minute walk from the hotel. The thought alone calms me down. I can be a bit restless at times, and that’s putting it mildly.

Which is partly why I guess I left Germany after ten days and came back here. Otherwise, this move did not make much sense. The small village near the German coast where I was staying would have been a perfect place to stick it out during the corona virus lockdown. It was remote and relatively safe, surrounded by a beautiful countryside, ideal for spring-time nature walks. Good hospitals are nearby, with large intensive-care units.

I grew up in that village. I love it and I hate it. I moved out the day I finished school but kept going back for visits and longer stays. I even set up a business there for a while.

Today, my mother is the last family member to live in that village. She just turned 90 but is still in astonishingly good spirits and health for her age. Five years ago, she joined a gym at the nearby town. In summer, she takes her bicycle to get there.

Still, at her age she belongs to the most vulnerable corona risk group. She was not happy to see her son leave. I promised I would return immediately if things should get really serious.

As the German government advised people to stay at home, Hamburg airport was nearly empty. The few travellers sailed through security. The plane to Athens, however, seemed almost fully booked. Normally, this flight is used by German holiday-makers but this time I only saw Greek passengers who lived in Germany and were returning to their country of birth. My seat neighbour, who wore a face mask, told me she was heading to her native village.

“If I have to die, I want to die at home in Greece, not in Germany”, she said, a bit dramatically.

Was I flying in the wrong direction? I was beginning to wonder.

As I woke up the next morning, the sun was already rising above the Ymettus mountain range flanking Athens. The sea was calm, a few fishing boats were leaving the port. Sometimes, when the fishermen throw small fish overboard, dolphins gather around the boats. To the west, the concrete apartment blocks of central Piraeus glowed pink in the rising sun.

Seagulls flew past my balcony.

View from room 503

I went downstairs for breakfast. Georgios gave me a probing look and asked if at the airport they had scanned arriving passengers and measured their temperature. As I shook my head, he got upset.

“They should not let foreigners into the country like that”, he fumed. “First we got all the migrants flooding in from Turkey, and now this!”

I like Georgios but after living at the Cavo d’Oro for some time, I knew better than to discuss politics with him. Instead, I went for a walk into town. The elementary school in our neighbourhood was all quiet, with none of the usual children’s laughter emanating from the school yard. The government had just closed all universities and schools to prevent the virus from spreading.

With only 200 infections and one dead patient in the entire country, this seemed like a drastic measure. But the dire situation in Italy had demonstrated to other countries the price they would pay for waiting too long, and after more than a decade of economic crisis the Greek health system is in no shape to deal with an out-of-control corona pandemic.

The outdoor swimming pool, popular for its heated water all winter, was also closed, much to my regret. Restaurants and cafés were still open, including the Gazi Café where I normally spent my days writing. The waiters greeted me like an old friend, we chatted amicably. There was talk of cafés being closed soon, they said. I did not believe them – it was impossible, Greeks could not live without their lattes and espressos.

“See you tomorrow, at the regular time!” I said.

After lunch, I went to the barber shop to have my beard trimmed. As he ran his scissors across my face, the barber seemed oddly unfocussed. He kept moving his fingers through my beard to compare the stubbles’ length. I could not help wondering if he washed his hands after every customer.

“It’s good you came today”, he said. “Barber shops might have to close soon. And anyway, what are you still doing here in Greece?”

That was a good question, I thought, as I walked back to the hotel.

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