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Letter from Athens: Pandemic, Heat Wave, Wildfires: Welcome to Greece

August 15, 2021

The summer of 2021 has been so hellish for Greece that the COVID-19 pandemic that's lingered almost 18 months was pushed out of the headlines by a brutal heat wave where temperatures hit 113-116 degrees and then wildfires that engulfed the country and it almost seemed like a disaster movie.

All that was missing was a young Bruce Willis' Det. John McClane trying single-handedly to save Greece while wisecracking, “Come to Greece, we'll get together, have a few laughs …” in the original Die Hard, the good one.

He must have been reading Letter from Athens because no sooner than this was written was there a report that Willis – the old, slow, greedy, lazy version – was on Corfu where he likes to vacation in summer.

The irony is that there were a flock of celebrities using Greece again as their preferred summer vacation spot or where they have homes, and tourists were starting to come in bigger numbers, with international air travel open again.

Then came August.

“I have barely slept all week,” a fruit vendor told National Geographic's Peter Schwartzstein, reporting on the blazes. “This year is just problem after problem after problem," he said.

Greece relies on tourists for as much as 18-20 percent of its annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 171 billion euros ($200 billion) and in another record-breaking year some 33 million of them poured into the country in 2019.

After the COVID wipeout year of 2020, where there was next to no international travel and people were afraid to even leave their homes, the New Democracy government hoped for levels this year of half of 2019.

It looked like that might be attainable, despite the coronavirus, before the heat wave broiled people on the streets and islands and had tourists ducking for cover. Then came the fires, which even near Athens were so intense that the capital was smothered in smoke and soot, not exactly what tourists want unless the cave to Hades is a side trip for them.

The Greek National Tourism Organisation, which over the years was so sleepy it could have promoted siestas, this year actually put out a good campaign called All You Want is Greece and by the time its video ended you know you wanted it.

The saving grace, if there is one, to all the horror this year is that the loss of life was far less, but no less tragic, than the July, 23, 2018 wildfires that killed 102 people and nearly razed the seaside village of Mati.

This time a volunteer firefighter died when a pole fell on him and two others suffered serious burns and had to be hospitalized, but even the scenes broadcast worldwide about the fires couldn't deter people from coming.

Thankfully, it included more than 125,000 Americans who had been blocked out in 2020 when the pandemic was at its scariest, everyone wondering if their next breath would be their last.

The fires, as did those in 2007 that destroyed even greater swathes of the country and hundreds of thousands of olive trees, were all over the place, from the second-biggest island of Evia near Athens, to the Peloponnese and around the ancient Olympic games site at Olympia.

Those which hit the suburbs north of Athens left smoke and white soot covering the capital and the only way to describe how heavy the smell was is to imagine you're next to roaring campfire and someone suddenly pours water on and heavy, black acrid smoke fills your face and lungs.

These disasters aren't as bad for Greece, of course, as was World War II that is unimaginable for those not old enough to remember it or to have lived through it, the dead being taken away in carts, but 2021 is suddenly slipping back into what 2020 was, a year to forget and one we thought was gone.

Adding to the misery here in a country of rugged, awesome beauty that lures people from around the world looking for a piece of ancient history or modern magic – an island sunset, a little cove no one else has found, browsing through Plaka in Athens or the streets of the ancient capital of Nafplio, exploring the countryside of the Peloponnese – is the unvaccinated.

If not for them, the pandemic would be retreating now but their refusal to protect themselves, and others, means the terror will go on and on and a minority of the most irrational of them who are required to be inoculated – health care workers for now – said they will accept suspension without pay.

Many years ago when I was looking in a magazine (it may have been Playboy where I was scouring the pages looking for the short stories) there was an ad that tempted people to get away from the tediousness of their everyday lives.

“What are you doing there when you could be on Mykonos,” it said, or words to that effect and all you could think about was being on that island and a part of the history of Greece.

Alas, as 2020 and now 2021 has shown us, life is full of disappointment because Mykonos is a tax cheater haven, a criminal outpost, and a place where defiance of health measures brought the pandemic back to life.

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