When I visited Athens over the holidays in 2020, I felt like I was in a dictatorship, with strict evening clock rules and mandatory text messages that had to be sent to a government agency before I could venture outside. In the hours after the curfew dropped, it was so quiet it looked like the streets were lined with straw.
This time we were allowed to move freely, as long as we could show proof of vaccination and ID before entering indoor spaces such as restaurants and bars. In England, there have never been Covid check-out rules, nor do you have to explain to the authorities why you are leaving your home, for which I am grateful. By taking the Tube every day, I often sat next to people without masks. But in Athens, a friend was fined € 300 for walking on Syntagma Square without one.
Every time I drove downtown, there were anti-waxxers protesting against Bill Gates, against big capitalism, against the supposed master plan to eliminate a large part of the human race through a false pandemic, apparently the biggest cover-up in history. It reminded me of a sign I once saw outside a Baptist church in Alabama – “Whoever prays for rain, please stop”.
The anti-vaxxers are mockingly known in Greece as the “sprayed”, as they often belong to conspiracy theory groups that claim that government forces spray us from a high altitude to impair our cognitive abilities. Consequently, we do not challenge authority and inject ourselves with questionable vaccines.
Although the Orthodox Church supports vaccination, a large number of priests, mostly in northern Greece, have been stabbed, and many of their congregation members have died. According to the latest figures, the rate of full vaccination in Greece is 66 percent; the government ban on unvaccinated people entering indoor public spaces, announced in November, has apparently had little effect. Omicron is on the rise, with coronavirus cases running at around 35,000 a day.
In mid-December the death of Giorgos Tragas, an unvaccinated celebrity commentator and head of the political movement Free People, made a sensation. The Greek journalist, who died of complications from Covid-19, was a firearm of the anti-vaccination movement. Tragas’ polemic against regulations has made him an influential, albeit controversial voice, condemning government mandates and lock-in measures.
The populist movement in Greece has its roots in a macho culture that affirms virility and male identity by rejecting authority. In other words, if you do exactly as you are told, you are a doormat. According to an ancient Greek saying, a woman should never touch a lighter, a doorknob or a bottle; a man should light her cigarettes, open doors and pour the wine.
The world is divided into facts and non-facts. Until a few centuries ago, people believed that tides existed just to help ships enter, that spirits could exploit electric currents. It seems that progress comes in a zigzag, not in a straight line.
My favorite story about empirical evidence is about an early meeting of the Royal Society in London, which was allegedly attended by the king, about a bowl of water that at the time assumed it weighed the same with a goldfish as without it. When a balance was brought, the experiment was performed. The bowl was put on the scales, then the fish was added. It is not surprising that the weight of the bowl increased with exactly the weight of the fish.
You can not just walk into a restaurant more, I reflected as I fiddled with my NHS application to get into a familiar fishing spot. I could not help thinking of Yuval Noah Harari’s grim predictions about data that will govern all aspects of our lives.
But there are still traditions in Greece that have been untouched by the technological revolution. I know people who turn their empty coffee cups upside down on a saucer to have their future read by an aunt (the coffee drops leave prints and shapes to be interpreted); and friends of mine will sometimes pay € 50 to go to a fortune teller in a meager part of town to find out if they will get a promotion at work or what will happen to the men they desire.
And on January 1, a cake dedicated to St Basil is cut and distributed among all the members of each family to see who will win the mascot, usually a € 2 coin (10 drachmas before 2001) wrapped in tin foil and in ‘ a slot is placed at the bottom of the cake so that it is not visible. Whoever finds it in their piece is the indicated recipient of happiness for the year ahead.
On New Year’s Eve I had dinner with friends at one of the oldest Athenian restaurants, where I once held my wedding party. We were six of us at a round table, the maximum number allowed by government regulations. My friend complained that her nostrils were sore from excessive testing. Her 22-year-old daughter was ready to go to an illegal gathering.
Before she left, she took out her phone to show me an invitation to a disrespectful party called “Positive Vibes”, which you could only attend with a positive PCR test taken within the last 24 hours. The location was unknown and there was a complicated process to go through to find out the address, as the fine for private parties starts at € 50,000. Not to mention that anyone has to isolate themselves with Covid himself.
Between corridors and bottles of red wine was the conversation about the trials of two women, Ghislaine Maxwell and Elizabeth Holmes. I just looked again 12 Angry men (1957), probably the best film screening of the part of the U.S. Constitution that promises defendants a fair trial and the presumption of innocence. If the world is divided into facts and non-facts, this is a film about the importance of reasonable doubt.
With dessert, an email pinged on my phone. It was a lab notice that the PCR test I took that morning proved that I did not have Covid-19. That meant I could fly home to London. I could not check in unless I uploaded a negative PCR test result and a passenger tracking form, and I could not upload the latter unless I had a confirmation number for a prepaid Day 2 test to be taken on arrival . The world as we know it is gone.
“Stay negative” was the text that circulated when the new year was about to begin. No music was allowed in the restaurant, as part of the current measures, but everyone roasted until the end of the pandemic, that life resumed at full speed. A few minutes after midnight, my son called to say that in his grandmother’s house, the cake had just been cut and the coin had been found in my cut. This is apparently my year.
Follow @ftweekend on Twitter to find out more about our latest stories