It’s been more than a week since Athens has started its gradual common sense and science-based lifting of anti-coronavirus measures. So far so good.
It was all so unnatural. Not to be able to hug people I love, not seeing a single familiar face for more than a month. On the first day, last Monday, nothing seemed different. But Tuesday May 4 brought a remarkable moment – around noon it dawned on me “I don’t have to ask permission to go out!” It was such a relief – and very revealing of what my fellow citizens must be feeling.
Two weeks before, there were darker moments. I had taken to post-midnight ‘exercise walks’ to the shore, but one night, I walked the three miles to the Centre.
After feeling happy to venture into areas I had begun to miss, a vague feeling emerged. One of imminent loss. Is it ever coming back, the Athens I had come to love since moving there two years ago? The wonderful cafes and restaurants with live music, lively conversations, and living waiters and waitress who smile when they see you walk through the door?
Passing the ruins of the Pillars of Olympian Zeus, I wondered: Could the ancients have imagined that not just this vast temple but the whole city, the Agora and its noble stoas, the Acropolis and – oh gods! – even the transcendent Parthenon itself, would one day be dust and shattered fragments?
The statues along Vassilisis Amalias Avenue were talking to me. Alexander: “Yes I built many cities, many named after me – almost all gone.” Lord Byron, dying before seeing the liberation of Hellas: “Life is not a poem – you cannot dictate its ending.”
More inner voices: “Do we have a grip on this thing?” Will Europe and America, Western Civilization – humanity – once more thrive or even survive? It was really dark that night.
I soon reached the representatives of the modern era – the elegant Hotel Grand Bretagne, the sedate but comforting Parliament Building. Look! There they are! As always, even at 2 AM during the coronavirus, the Evzone Presidential Guard dressed as Byron had seen the Hellenes. How reassuring!
My somber journey punctuated by bits of light continued, past the Metropolis Cathedral and the beloved little Metropolis next to it, like an anxious child holding his father’s hand, through the desolate streets of tourist-denuded Plaka, and then – there it is! – the floodlit Acropolis, inspiring hope despite its ruined state. But that thought was ephemeral, evaporating as soon as I turned to empty Makriyannis Street.
I am a natural born optimist – though wise teachers and good books have taught me to always base optimism on facts. But fears for friends, family, countries were resistant to “the power of positive thinking. So I stopped trying to stop them. I let them come, and then welcomed the positive.
The negative: They let us down: Leaders, religion, science and technology. Remember when everyone was shocked after 9/11 to find there were no Buck Rogers ray guns to protect the Pentagon and the White House from missile attacks? And it’s disturbing that so many of my friends are devouring paranoid conspiracy theories. Here is my tip: when you encounter an outrageous idea 1) remind yourself extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence; 2) call friends or relatives you trust who are experts in the related fields and listen to them. That is the antidote.
And although Athens is not anything like New York, that night brought my birthplace to mind. When I visit again, what will welcome me, what will be gone? I believe we will all be working at least two days a week from home from now on, so, will we need all those offices in Manhattan? Every New Yorker knows the real estate industry mantra “Manhattan real estate values never goes down” – but will those wonderful skyscrapers become the next…dinosaurs, felled not by asteroids, but viruses?
The positives: There are many brilliant scientists working on cures and social distancing has bought them time. As for the economy, we have more tools than in 1929. We know how to stimulate the economy without triggering hyperfinflation.
But there are heavy tasks awaiting. National and international institutions must be overhauled. The long delayed reforms of the UN and the EU are now existential matters for humanity and Europe – no country can go it alone, not even the United States and China – who must learn to cooperate. And coronavirus accelerated some trends: AI and robots may start really eating jobs.
So when the coronavirus is vanquished, we will have to make the tough decisions to solve the big problems. No one will make them for us – but we will have to elect more serious and competent leaders. We cannot be (I apologize, Constantine Cavafy) waiting for Barbaliens.