January 20, 2021

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I was warned not to holiday in Greece because of coronavirus – but I felt safer there than at home in Manchester

We flew to Crete just before a partial lockdown was imposed and realised all the covidiots were in the UK

For millennia, the Greeks have aced hospitality. In fact the ancients had a word for it – Xenia – which rendered sacred the imperative to show a warm welcome to those visiting far from home. But flying into Crete the other week, it was clear transformative tweaks had been made to the historic Hellenic reception.

The habitually cheery “kalimera” had been supplanted by a crisp demand to see papers allowing us access to the country. Meanwhile random travellers were tersely pulled over (“you, please, to the right”) for a swab-and-go Covid test. Slightly bewildering for my husband and daughter since I was arbitrarily plucked from the line.

Not that I minded. Even if it did make the first 24 hours of my vacation something of a nail biter. Who can argue with an island – a country – taking the virus seriously? Especially where we`d come from.

We`d squeaked into Crete within a whisper`s breath of the partial lockdown of our home city, Manchester. Dispirited by the number of so-called covidiots whose behaviour had triggered a spike in cases, it put the contrast with Crete into even sharper perspective.

Frankly, I felt safer on this sprawling Greek island 2,500 miles away, than I did in a city I’ve lived in my entire life. Ironic really when the clatter and chatter on WhatsApp prior to departure comprised of friends who baulked at the very idea of going abroad. One suggested I was being reckless.

But we`d been encouraged to holiday in Greece by the fact the country had weathered the pandemic well – containing the spread of the virus through early measures.

Flights to the mainland and islands only resumed in the middle of July – two weeks after other air bridge countries connected with the UK. And though cases have inevitably begun to rise since the start of the tourist season, the total number since the pandemic broke out in Greece is 5,623. In contrast, 310,825 have tested positive in the UK.

It’s not hard to see why the country has done well. Before travelling, Greek law compels visitors to fill in a passenger locator form – the papers demanded of us at the airport. Failure to do so can net a €500 (£442) fine on arrival. You may even be sent packing from whence you came.

There are so many other measures to admire too: the taxi driver who told us the police would pull him over if we didn’t wear masks, and the temperature checks before we entered the hotel building – not only for ourselves but for the cab driver, even though he ventured no further than the courtyard. And, of course, the mandatory wearing of masks at all times indoors – not simply in shops.

Indeed dawdling in souvenir shops among fake Gucci sweatshirts and smutty Aristophanean playing cards, one store holder politely reminded me that if I didn’t put a mask on (I’d forgotten) the government officials circulating nearby would clobber me for a hefty wedge of my holiday spends.

There are practical reasons why Greece is watching its back – tourism accounts for more than 20 per cent of GDP. But for the visitor – this visitor – what endures is how less safe I feel in my own home since making the trip.

Bad enough that the cloud was thick and gun metal grey when we touched back down at Manchester Airport. Considering Manchester was in partial lockdown, not so much as a temperature test – a simple 30 second procedure – was offered to arriving passengers.

Later, in a local shop, I asked the cashier why he wasn’t challenging other shoppers whose faces were uncovered. He shrugged helplessly. Apparently it isn’t his job to be in loco parentis for the government.

While travelling on the Manchester to London train this week, a family of four sitting without masks left me sprinting from my seat to find `safer` passage.

Ah, you may wonder. But did such appropriately draconian measures – Draco being, of course, the poster boy legislator of the Hellenic world – impair my break in Greece? Lounging by the pool at the Malia Park Hotel, spearing juicy football-sized tomatoes at their “beach shack” café or draining another – another – ouzo on a night when the sky was as soft as velvet. What do you think?

Sure, some of it felt weird. At breakfast, the buffet is roped off. Instead, gloved, masked staff stand to attention, plates at the ready, to serve guests. You simply point to what you want. (A net benefit being that embarrassment quashes holiday greed).

Principally, it turns the spotlight back home. Why don’t shop keepers play their part, the police up their game, the public – certainly in parts of Greater Manchester – realise the collective responsibility of fighting a pandemic?

I wish I was still in Greece to offer answers on a postcard. Though perhaps the biggest question of all is, why did I come back so soon?

Angela Epstein is a freelance journalist and broadcaster.

independent.co.uk

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