Biometrics, Barbers and the Blue Star

Traveling in a pandemic is strange at the best of times and usually to be avoided. Sometimes, however, it is necessary. Like many millions of British people who have made their lives in the EU, I have had to apply for a special biometric residence permit as my old ‘blue card’ as a citizen of the EU is no longer valid (thank you, Brexit). When I phoned up in January to make my appointment at the Immigration Office in Rhodes none of us thought we would still be firmly in lockdown on 22 March. Residents of Symi were given Monday or Wednesday appointments as those are Blue Star ferry days and the time slots are tightly controlled. Miss it at your own risk as the next slot available is now September!

Apart from gathering a vast amount of paperwork, plus a few extra bits just in case, I also had to get a piece of paper from the KEP, Symi’s Citizen’s Advice Bureau at the town hall, in order to justify being allowed off the island. No ferry tickets for jolly outings.

The Monday Blue Star comes through Symi at 5 in the morning, arriving in Rhodes shortly after 6. My appointment with the authorities was for 12.30 midday. With the lockdown there is nowhere to go in Rhodes and the only way to be allowed into the usual Symi ‘killing time zone’ at the Plaza is by booking a room for the day. By walking from Akandia to the hotel, remaining in my room apart from my appointment nearby and then walking back to Akandia for the ferry back to Symi I think I was pretty well protected from picking up any unwanted souvenirs. Although I have had my first Pfizer shot, as we all know that is not a cast iron defence against the current plague.

Rhodes was moved from the Dark Red category to ordinary Red over the weekend, with effect from yesterday. The only effective benefit of this recategorisation as far as I could see was that barbers, hairdressers and manicurists are allowed to reopen, by appointment only. On my walk from the hotel to the port the only businesses that I saw that were conspicuously open were three hipster barber’s shops where trendy young men in their thirties were having their man-buns coiffed, moustaches waxed and beards groomed. The male peacock resplendent.

The rest of Rhodes town was looking very forlorn. Some places aren’t just closed due to the lockdown but definitely gone for good – windows boarded up, piles of bills stuck in the doors and for sale stickers on the walls kind of closed.

Click Away and Click and Collect type systems are supposed to be in place for the limited retail outlets currently allowed to trade but I saw little evidence of this in action. Central Rhodes town shops are mostly fancy shoe shops and designer clothing outlets – the sort of places where people want to browse and try things on before making decisions, not pop in quickly to pick up a known item. There were signs in doorways giving phone numbers for people to call to make appointments to be allowed in, along with signs advising 1 customer per 25 square metres of shopfloor, but most places were firmly closed. Masks to be worn everywhere, indoors and out, countrywide.

The lack of cafes, bars, tavernas and other eateries has also stripped central Rhodes town of people. Usually in the winter there is a thriving coffee culture, particularly around Mandraki but yesterday even the big gyros place by the bus station was closed. Take away food is permitted but if there are no people out and about there is no demand so no point in opening.

Back at the port, I was stopped by police who wanted proof that I live on Symi before allowing me to board for the return voyage. I suppose I was obviously foreign and may have looked like some kind of geriatric hippie back-packer as they didn’t seem to be checking anyone else. There were very few other passengers on the boat and most seemed to be obvious medical cases – old ladies with zimmer frames, young men on crutches or arms in plaster. Lots of soldiers, this year’s fresh conscripts heading for the excitements of a posting on Symi. No Jumbo bags or conspicuous shopping. The ferry companies are dependent on shifting freight and goods from island to island for their survival these days. The Flocafe had a meager display of buns and filled rolls that did not change perceptibly between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m.

The other piece of news is that Symi has its first confirmed cases of Covid-19. A policewoman and her daughter who had come from Ioannina on the mainland. They are now in 14 days quarantine and others with whom they had come into contact are being tested. According to the report in Sky Rodos is that it was the child who was noticably ill whereas the mother is asymptomatic. The news broke on Sunday morning and after a certain amount of pressure, Symi town hall issued a statement to confirm the rumours. There was also an announcement in one of the Rhodian news sites. The irony of the disease being brought to the island by one of the police is not lost on the islanders. The atmosphere is subdued.

On that happy note I shall leave you.

Spring Shots on Symi

Spring is the prettiest time of the year on Symi. Every day brings new flowers, new scents and new colours to the landscape. Orange blossom, hawthorn, cyclamens, daisies of all sizes and colours. The sheep and goats are spoiled for choice. This spring has also brought the Covid-19 vaccination to the island, of which more later.

This weekend is normally a holiday weekend in Greece, with carnival celebrations followed by the traditional Clean Monday picnics and kite flying in the countryside. This year there is no carnival, as was also the case in 2020. The Clean Monday kite flying is permitted under SMS code 6 for exercise, with the proviso that people can only go to parks to fly kites if they go on foot or by bicycle and maintain the social distancing rules. Anyone who has been following the recent upheavals in Nea Smyrni, Athens, will be wondering how well this will go down. On Symi, which dances to its own tune, families will no doubt head up the mountain to their usual family places and do what they usually do. Athens seems a long way away.

The vaccination program has been underway on Symi for several weeks now. Our age group came up last week and we received a phone call from the clinic, telling us exactly what time to arrive for our appointment. After 3 weeks of dry weather of course vaccination day had to bring torrential rain and gale force winds. The clinic door was locked to control entry and exit with everyone only allowed in as their time slot came up. Effectively not more than 4 people were in the surgery at any one time, excluding the staff – the person currently receiving their shot, the next in line and the previous two waiting out the 15-30 minutes recovery time (30 minutes for those with a history of allergies). Everything was done in a very smooth and professional manner. A brief medical history was taken before hand and the right questions were asked. We received the Pfizer injection and are happy to report no side effects. We are to report back at the same time in 3 weeks to receive the second shot. By the way, other routine business such as the issuing of repeat prescriptions was being conducted through the open window of the waiting room. The KEP office at the town hall operates similarly.

According to various articles in the press, the general idea seems to be to try to get the island tourist economies up and running again as quickly as possible with a target date of 14 May. This will be dependent on getting enough people vaccinated for this to be deemed safe and, of course, for borders to open to international travel. As the situation changes on a daily basis everything is still very uncertain.

Simply Red?

An update on yesterday’s blog posting as the rules changed again after publication.

After Wednesday evening’s shock announcement that Symi, Tilos, Halki and Kastellorizon were going to be under the same Deep Red restrictions as Rhodes, by virture of being part of the same municipality, Symi parents received messages from the schools to say that their children had to revert to on line home learning with immediate effect. The Mayors of Tilos and Kastellorizon hit the phones to high places, pointing out that in the case of their particular islands their populations had already received their first vaccinations and various mixed messages were received by local authorities seeking clarification. By late morning on Thursday it was confirmed that while Rhodes is to go under the same Deep Red restrictions, Symi, Kastellorizon, Tilos and Halki were now exempt.

As I understand it, this means that our curfew remains at 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. and the primary school children can go back to school. Other restrictions, however, remain in place as the amendments to movement regulations are countrywide, regardless of which shade of red one is on the map.

This could, of course, all be different by tomorrow…

Deep Red Sends Symiots Early to Bed

The latest lockdown news from Symi as new restrictions are implemented.

Greece has been in a country wide lockdown since 7 November 2020 in an effort to control the spread of the ubiquitous Covid-19 virus. Every time it looks as though the situation is under control it surges again, particularly in Attica where the UK strain of the virus is gaining hold and ICU beds are full. Meanwhile the number of cases in Rhodes has risen sharply in the last two weeks, also causing concern. Yesterday afternoon the government announced that the whole country was going into a more restricted lockdown but areas designated Deep Red would have even stricter measures. As Symi falls under Rhodes, even though we have yet to have any cases on the island, we too are now Deep Red.

On Symi the main impacts are that the schools have closed again with effect for today and the curfew now starts at 19.00 instead of 21.00 and continues until 05.00. Shops are closed apart from food and essentials and this has to be done locally, with a time limit of 2 hours from getting the permission code. We are no longer allowed to drive to places to start our daily exercise but must do it entirely on foot or bicycle. No drives into the countryside to then walk to mountain monasteries. SMS code 4, to render assistance to the elderly and vulnerable, is to be more closely monitored and the police may actually accompany you to make sure that you are indeed taking essentials to someone in need and not using this as a cover for attending an illegal birthday party or other furtive social event. No doubt more information will emerge in the media in due course.

On the vaccination front, Symi town hall has just put out an announcement asking everyone over 60 to register for the vaccination. The over 80s and over 75s have been done, as have the front line medical workers. Apparently many of the locals are reluctant to be vaccinated, on the grounds that only tourists who have been vaccinated are likely to be allowed onto the island anyway so why should they? The expat community, on the other hand, remember how polio vaccinations – and others – changed lives and are not so flippant. When I went down to the town hall yesterday, the only people I saw registering were all British residents. Hopefully attitudes will change as results are seen in the rate of hospitalisations as otherwise it is going to be another very long year.

Sunday is 7 March, Dodecanese Day, the day when the Dodecanese Islands became part of the modern state of Greece in 1947. For the second year running there will be no parades or festivities. The 25 March should be an even bigger holiday in Greece this year, celebrating the bicentennary of the Greek War of Independence from the Ottomans but that too is being toned down.

The only thing running to plan at the moment is spring. The days are getting longer and warmer. The lambs are gambolling, the birds twittering, the flowers opening before our eyes. The air is scented with hawthorn, citrus blossom and wild cyclamens. The trees are humming with bees. We have not had any rain since 21 February and there is none showing up on the long range forecast.

A strong earthquake hit central Greece yesterday, causing widespread damage to buildings. You can read more about this here.

Dodecanese Seaways have launched a new service in conjunction with a supermarket chain on Rhodes, enabling people in Symi, Halki, Tilos and Nissyros to order their groceries on line and have them delivered to the boat. The boats are well equipped with freezer and fridge storage as they already bring perishable supplies to supermarkets and other businesses along their routes. Apparently on Symi the goods will then be delivered to home addresses. For the other three islands, customers will have to come down to the boat to fetch their shopping. It will be interesting to see how this works in practice and how many people will take it up. Looking at the website, there did not seem to be anything in particular listed that would be significantly cheaper than on Symi or not normally available here in some form or another but I know from visiting the other three islands, which have tiny populations, that they have very limited grocery shopping facilities. We shall see.

February Postcards from Symi

Some recent photographs of life on Symi in February 2021, during the second extended Covid-19 lockdown in Greece.

Storm Medea – snow falling over Turkey on 16 February 2021
Later the same day the clouds cleared. This was the view from my front balcony in Pedi. Apologies for the fuzz – my camera’s zoom was stretched to the limits.
The week before Medea we experienced abnormally warm temperatures which brought out the spring flowers ahead of time.
Wild cyclamens in the Pedi valley.
A fine figure of a goat.
Calm and empty seas on 6 February 2021.
Almond blossom
Looking down on Pedi waterfront from the monastery of Zoodochos Pigi – the life-giving spring. Yes, that bright green is real.
Looking towards central Chorio and the windmills from the same vantage point.
Masters of all they survey.

The Symi Bubble

Greece went into its second lockdown on 7 November 2020, initially until the 30th of that month. The figures continued to rise and the lockdown was extended – and extended – and extended again. Since that date no one has been allowed to travel to or from Symi unless they have very specific reasons to do so and can produce documentary evidence of that reason. Effectively we are living in a very efficient quarantine bubble with nary a winter cold or sniffle to be seen. What keeps coronavirus out also keeps colds, flu and other contagious diseases out too. This could be the island’s healthiest winter ever – even if also the most boring!

Retail restrictions were partially lifted in Greece a couple of weeks ago but on Symi that has made little difference – it is in Athens and Thessaloniki that shoppers starved of retail therapy have thronged Hermes Street and in Rhodes that people from outlying villages have queued to get into Jumbo and Zara.

Meanwhile, on Symi where retail excitements tend to focus rather on who currently has the freshest root ginger and whether the Chinese shop in Chorio has cheap fleeces in the right size, there is no sign of a shopping frenzy. Instead, as there is no limit on the number of times one can send SMS code 6 or how long one can stay out for personal exercise, as long as the regulations are obeyed, Symi people are rediscovering their island in a big way.

Remote mountain chapels, abandoned farmsteads, long forgotten archaeological sites and indigenous forests are seeing more activity than they have in decades as locals and expat residents alike go hiking every sunny day. A spin off of this is that Symi’s vast natural resources are finally getting the attention that they deserve and the rationale behind walking trails and attracting walkers back to the island is being understood. One can only hope that this does not precipitate another rush of hastily laid concrete paths but leads to a controlled project to restore the old kalderimis and to reinstate the access points that were destroyed when the road to Panormitis was tarred. Symi is not just a beach destination and there is more to the island than the neo-classical harbour.

As I write this we are once again waiting to find out if the lockdown regulations are changing. Will the high schools reopen on Monday as intended or will the increase in cases in Attica roll this back? Will the shops be closed again because people in Athens cannot be trusted to behave responsibly when given the opportunity to buy Marks and Spencers knickers in person rather than on line? Who knows. The only certainty is that every sunny winter’s day there will be people walking up and down Symi, from end to end, enjoying the views from mountain tops and counting how many islands they can spot on a clear day.

Symi’s Second Lockdown

Here we are again, nearly four weeks into Greece’s second full lockdown. While Symi pottered along quietly into November with a few lingering tourists enjoying some late sunshine, things were escalating rapidly in northern Greece, particularly in Greece’s second city, Thessalonica, and Athens wasn’t looking too good either, so the government took the step virtually over night of shutting the country down. The announcement was made on the afternoon of Thursday 5 November that the lockdown would come into effect from 6 a.m. on Saturday 7 November.

Symi regulars will know that the weekend of 7-8 November was the Panormitis Festival and the Feast of St Michael. Pilgrims and hawkers had already started to arrive – in a socially distanced sort of way, of course. They were all instructed to return from whence they came. The Blue Star on Friday 6 November had a Dunkirk air about it as this was the last boat out before the lockdown. Tourists rescheduled flights, home owners had to make hasty decisions as to whether to dash for home now or take a chance that they might be stuck for an indefinite period of time, Symiots took advantage of the last opportunity to go to Rhodes to do shopping and essential business before everything closed down.

Dodecanese Seaways had cancelled all their scheduled routes for the Saturday and Sunday, which had been intended to shuttle people from Rhodes to Symi for the festival and ferry travel from the Monday onwards would be under the lockdown protocols, involving a lot more paperwork. Travel between prefectures and regions is also forbidden under the lockdown except for a very narrow range of reasons. Apart from medical appointments there is no passenger movement between the islands and Symi really is very isolated now. Dodecanese Seaways comes through twice a week to bring supplies and courier items, as does the Blue Star so there is no shortage of food or medicines. Normally this is a busy time on the boats with everyone going over to Rhodes to do Christmas shopping.

Once again a permit and SMS system has been imposed. Basically you can only be outside your home if you have Document A which is to prove that you are going to and from work or B, either a document or an SMS allowing you to be out for a very limited range of reasons. Anyone going out must have either the form or the reciprocal SMS, passport or ID and a mask. Here on Symi police checks have been fairly relaxed and random – but there, nevertheless. In the towns and cities, however, the rules are more stringently imposed and fines are steep.

Initially the lockdown was to be until 30 November 2020. Unfortunately with the continuing high death rate, high number of intubations and high number of new cases on the mainland the lockdown has officially been extended to 7 December and at time to writing we are awaiting an announcement if this will be extended further, to 14 or 21 December. Whichever way it goes, it is going to be a low key Christmas in Greece.

Speaking of Christmas, the municipal workers have been busy and the Symi Christmas lights started to go up earlier than usual this year, at the start of the lockdown. We have a curfew from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m. but if we look out of our windows we have sparkly lights to cheer us up.

The weather on Symi remained mild and sunny well into November with rare rainy days and thunderstorms. That is now changing to more frequent wet weather and temperatures are now around 15 degrees in the day, dropping to about 10 at night. Northern parts of Greece and high lying areas have already had snow and frosts while we are still enjoying the Symi ‘second spring’.

Stormy Skies and Sleepy Cats

Half past six in the morning and dawn breaks behind St George’s church in Pedi.
The beach at Apostoli’s has been cleared to receive the first boats for haul out. In the background you can see shuttered houses, secured against the winter storms. Some property owners have special storm shutters made from sheets of painted plywood which they put in place to protect the traditional wooden shutters from the elements so that they don’t have to be repainted every year. Symi’s charming neo-classical architecture is very high maintenance.
Our cauliflower-eared ginger friend, checking out sandbox conditions.
Looking back from the path to St Nicholas beach yesterday morning, 26 October 2020. The squills have lost most of their flowers now and are mainly naked stalks.
A closer look reveals three kayaks, paddling out into the bay. Symi might not actively court adventure holidays or provide much in the way of amenities to facilitate such activities, but those who are happy to organise their own, arrive with kayaks, mountain bikes and such like. Symi’s dramatic landscape and spectacular bays and coves lend themselves to a lot more than sun-bathing.
A different ginger cat, this one with ears intact, snoozing under a rosemary bush outside the Pedi Beach hotel. The hotel is now closed, the front terrace deserted and the staff busy, packing things away, pruning tamarisk trees and securing the property for whatever the winter may toss at Symi.

Storm Circe is approaching and this is likely to be the last calm day for a while. The storm is expected to reach Symi tomorrow afternoon or evening, leading on to at least a week of unsettled weather. The clouds are already thickening and the sky is the pinkish grey that portends red rain.

Tomorrow, 28 October, is also Ochi Day, a public holiday and national day in Greece. Usually celebrated with parades around the country, this year the parades have been cancelled and the wreath-laying will be low-key. The last tavernas remaining open are expecting good lunch time trade tomorrow, if the weather holds, as families often eat out on this day. This year they will be skipping the parade and moving straight onto the lunch! Social distancing still applies, with an official limit of 6 to a table.

Dodecanese Seaways ferries have started laying on more routes to bring people from Rhodes and other islands to Panormitis monastery in the run-up to the Feast of St Michael on 8 November. Allowing groups to visit the monastery over a longer period of time makes sense in these days of social distancing, particularly as there is a limit on how many passengers ferries are allowed to carry at the moment.

Speaking of limits, the last bus out of Yialos is now 9 p.m. and on Saturday evening by 10 p.m. there was not a taxi to be found, even though there were quite a few people around. Understandable, really, as the last few times I have caught the bus at various times of the day or evening I have often been the only person or one of only a handful of passengers.

Symi Snapshots

Life on Symi in the middle of October 2020.

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Today is 15 October, the date traditionally regarded as the end of the tourist season on Symi. Seasonal businesses sign off the last of their staff, if they have not already done so. The water taxis are already out on the hard in Harani. Businesses that depend primarily on tourism for their purpose in life are wrapping up. Some may stay open for a few hours a day if there is an excursion boat from Rhodes but these are thinning out now, as Rhodes also empties.

This doesn’t mean that the whole island shuts down. With around 3000 permanent inhabitants, supermarkets, shoe shops, pharmacies, banks, the post office, the butchers and various other businesses stay open all year. Traditional cafes, bars, the gyros grills and other eateries that are supported by local residents stay open for as long as they have customers and tend to adapt their hours and their offerings from year to year, depending on demand.

Taverna Dafnes at Toli Bay has just announced on Facebook that they will be staying open until the end of November, weather permitting. This is popular with locals, particularly those who live in the garden village of Xisos, as it is accessible by road. The Panorama Cantina at Agia Marina is finishing this weekend but Constantinos View, the upper Cantina on the road to Panormitis, will stay open for as long as they can. Down in Pedi, although the sunbeds are disappearing fast, it is still possible to have a meal at either of the two tavernas.

The Poseidon excursion boat is doing a final round-the-island boat trip tomorrow, Friday 16 October. Apparently the caique ‘Maria’ will keep running until the end of October as long as there are sufficient people, weather permitting. They need a minimum of 8 people so if you are on Symi and hankering after a boat trip, why not round up a few friends?

Information about the Panormitis Festival is still vague – in theory large gatherings involving thousands of people are not permitted – but Dodecanese Seaways has just announced their ferry schedule to bring pilgrims to the monstery from 30 October to 9 November so we shall see.

The chicken seller is back, hawking Rhode Island Red pullets and young turkeys from the back of his lorry (see photograph). We have already seen the first carpet seller, hawking his wares up at Kampos in Chorio.

Anyone visiting Symi from now on won’t be having a tourist experience. They will be living like a local – and that was always Symi’s unique selling point.