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A Covid Day in Athens

by Vincent Guy

Vincent is just coming to the end of a trip to Greece for a short break on the island of Andros and a few days rehearsing for a film project with ballerina Kalliopi Venieri.

Oh dear, I find I’ve left the charger for my Macbook in Scotland. Have tried researching the procedures for my home trip on Kalliopi's laptop but it’s all set up slightly differently, so my ability to get through the Covid regulations jungle is hampered. Set out to find where to buy a new charger. The fifth shop turns out to be a dedicated Apple franchise, doesn’t have the correct Apple accessory but another make which actually seems to do a better job. Back at Kalliopi's flat, Macbook charging up nicely, find it won’t connect to WiFi. My iPhone already presented this hassle yesterday; tried 20 times with the two codes on the back of the Hub: those for the Wireless Key and Password. In one of the shops visited, a helpful assistant has explained that the password is not the item called Password, it’s the one called Wireless Key - well, of course. Brief interlude of pleasure and creativity. We go to the studio for our pre-arranged 4pm appointment. The studio is occupied with a full-blown lesson by the studio head, Aliki. This is only a mild annoyance, as the lesson is fascinating to watch. Aliki is coaching five attractive teenagers in the basics of pirouette on point. The girls’ abilities range from “a natural” through “tries hard” to “will never make it”. Kalliopi offers them a short extra on spinning the head as you make each turn. It’s a first for me: I realise I have never watched a ballet lesson before. Aliki instructs me on closing the studio when we finish: lights, locks, sound system. Then we do our rehearsal, restarting after the Covid break of nearly two years. All goes remarkably smoothly including introducing a costume change halfway through. The end of our session is interrupted by another teacher, surprised to find the studio in use as he’s booked to do a private lesson. The studio manager has a new baby, so the schedule is not at the top of her priority list. We clear out to the smaller room, warm down and have a moment of quiet. For a few minutes we watch the lesson, quite different from the earlier one: a 9-year old girl, whose main line is gymnastics, showing snake-like flexibility at the bar. Next we take a bus to the airport. The idea is to get some info face-to-face about the Covid travel regs. My current scenario is: internet searches left me floundering in space and time. The rules for England and Scotland differ in subtle ways and all the rules will change on 4 October. But no sign of what the new rules will be, and my flight is on the 5th. The BBC has Nicola Sturgeon saying no tests will be needed after 4 October; my friend Hugh, himself a politician, concurs: says no tests required and anyway who will chase up on you. He’s planning to travel to Malta on the 3rd so he should know. A cool female voice on a Scottish government phone says the test I’ve booked at Edinburgh airport will be invalid; tests must be done at home (private bodging apparently more scientifically reliable than the work of trained medics). A phone call to Athens airport says they can tell me nothing, it’s up to the airlines; Easyjet offers no phone number, only a website which directs me back to the UK government website. An ill-tempered, patronising travel agent I spoke to on Andros knew nothing at all, but on a second visit grudgingly suggested a testing station in Athens. Well, I could go on; this is just a simplified summary. To the airport bus: getting onboard is already a tricky operation. Normally one pays the driver for a ticket and then goes through to the seating area. Now the main body of the bus is sealed off by a transparent sheet of plastic which I manage to slap into while Kalliopi is paying the man, “Okhi, Okhi, Exo!” You must go out of the bus and enter through the second door. Managed that and sit down. Everyone is wearing a mask like public-spirited folk but only one has it actually covering the nose. One has it on his wrist, another wrapped round his Coke can, perhaps to prevent drips. Half the seats have dazzling signs on them saying “STOP! - Don’t use this seat - Travel safely”. People simply sit at random. At one of the bus-stops two English speakers get on by Door 2. “No, no, you must pay me” shouts the driver. They get off and are never seen again. Another woman has also mounted and makes no move to pay. We reach the airport, feeling like figures in a bizarre film or an unsettling dream. At the Easyjet check in, we join the queue of people intending to fly tonight. Two women in front of us are denied access; they’ve had tests but their documents are in Greek and must be in English (or French or German). They get sent downstairs for new tests, at risk of missing their flight and being separated from their husbands and children. The man behind us has been unable to get confirmation for one of his forms (something that’s also happened to me in my explorations). They send him away wandering dazed across the airport hall; I wish him luck. My hoped-for face-to-face encounter at the desk is clear but limited:

“Test here in Athens and fill in the Locator form.”

“And testing on arrival in Scotland?”

“Nothing to do with us.”

But the poor women who got sent off for new tests give me a hint. I follow them downstairs where a Testing Counter stands clear and open. The girl there explains:

“You can come tomorrow or anytime, no appointment needed, Don’t do it now: you’d be outside the 72 hour limit.” I come away with a clear set of steps. Check the new scenario after 4 a.m. on Sunday night, then if required, come back to the airport for a test. Check again if my Scottish test is accepted on my Locator form; if not, book a different one that is recognised. Outside, a lengthy queue for the bus ticket machine, which has replaced the human being who used to be there to sell them. Another high-level decision to reduce human contact perhaps? We take a taxi back to town and set the alarm for 4 a. m.

The last part is plain sailing. A mere hour and a half with an IT specialist, who is nearly reduced to tears by the task. Included is a new test after arrival. I am still quick-witted enough to arrange it to be all done via Royal Mail, rather than the recommended Dropbox which would have involved me in a 40-mile drive to a remote location in Midlothian. All set. I wish myself “Καλό ταξίδι! Bon Voyage!”


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