Human tourists might be unable to travel but the migratory birds have no such problems. The barn swallows are nesting in quiet corners of Pedi and every evening we hear the owls calling across the valley.
As 1 May is a big holiday in Greece and falls on a Friday this year, once again a strict vehicle curfew will be in place for that weekend to prevent people leaving the cities to head for country houses and islands. Effectively the lock down definitely remains in place until at least 4 May for this reason. We are, however, expecting an announcement, either this evening or tomorrow, outlining the proposed stages for re-opening the country. Starting with easily controllable businesses such as bookshops and hair dressers and, eventually, seasonal hotels.
We have already been told that the most we can hope for is a 3 month tourist season, from 1 July to 30 September, with various restrictions in place concerning which country nationals will be allowed in and what measures will be taken to ensure the safety of both the tourists and the locals. This is all being hammered out with the EU as a whole to make a co-ordinated plan. Proposals including opening up the larger hotels first but reducing the number of rooms occupied as it is easier to impose social distancing in larger premises, replacing buffets with table service, changing bars so that drinkers sit at spaced tables with table service and so on.
It will be interesting to see how the airlines tackle the issues of social distancing, disinfection and hygiene and still keep their planes in the air. We saw huge changes in the travel industry after September 11 but this is going to be even more momentous. Even if people like Mike O’Leary of Ryan Air complain about the costs involved and refuse to fly within the limitations unless the state picks up the shortfall, the reality is that airlines are going to have a hard time persuading people to travel on their planes unless they feel safe. With awareness of the importance of hygiene at an all time high, the average person is more likely to be conscious of just what might be lurking on armrests, tray tables, back rests, upholstery and the like, not to mention plastic bins at security checks, airport seating and so on. It is not just the recycled air which people have been complaining about for years. Now the threat is not just catching a cold or flu. Unlike trains, buses and other forms of public transport which are a daily necessity for many people to get to and from work, it is rare for flying to be essential so consumers have the luxury of the last word.
Symi has turned into a garden this year. Those long soaking rains for months on end during the winter gave us a spectacular spring and the mountain herbs are putting on a show for far longer this year. Even people who usually come in June are commenting on how bright the thyme flowers are this year. While other countries may be worrying about their bee populations, Symi’s bees are absolutely wallowing in thyme pollen at the moment and the hills are humming.
Recycling has been a big topic for all parties involved in the recent elections. In reality, the bins have obviously been in the pipeline for a while regardless. Rhodes has had them for some time and this is not the first time we have seen bins for collecting aluminium cans on Symi – we covered the same story in the days of the Symi Visitor newspaper, more than a decade ago. The crucial thing is not so much encouraging the locals and tourists to use them but that the contents are then actually taken away and recycled in a sustainable way. Greece has very few recycling facilities and they are all on the mainland, a 17 hour ferry journey away. Rubbish, whatever it is, tends to be high volume, so a cost effective way of transporting paper, bottles, cans, plastic and so on has to be provided to form the next link in the chain. Otherwise we will see yet another recycling initiative fall by the wayside as the contents wind up in a landfill somewhere. In the long term the real solution lies with the packaging industry finding better alternatives that are still effective for their purpose but without the negative environmental implications.
As many of you probably know, I look after holiday homes for various people and provide the services they need to keep them running smoothly. Recently I received a consignment of all the sheets and towels necessary for one particular house. Three sets of everything. They were ordered from an on line source by the owner of the property and arrived in big boxes by courier. Every single individual item, whether it be a sheet or a pillow case or a towel, was folded around a piece of cardboard to give it a neat shape. It was then encased in a printed paper sleeve, giving details of the item. Each of these was then in a separate resealable plastic envelope. That means that for each item of bedding or towels there were 3 items of packaging. What kind of madness is this? Even if those separate pieces of packaging are recyclable, in a place where those particular materials can be recycled, bearing in mind that facilities are not universally available, is it really necessary to fold a pillowcase round a piece of cardboard, wrap it in a piece of printed paper and then put it in a plastic bag? Many of us are old enough to remember when someone would have counted out the appropriate number of items. Laid them on a sheet of brown paper, wrapped it up into a parcel with tape or string and that would have been that.
The Greek Island cliche of the tourist brochures is blue skies, calm seas, endless sunshine and idyllic beaches. That is only part of the picture. Greece, like all the other countries in the Europe, also has winter. While it seldom involves metre deep snow drifts – unless you live in northern Greece – but it does usually involve a lot of wet stuff and that, in turn, translates into a lot of green stuff. The Mediterranean climate has two defining characteristics – long hot dry summers and relatively mild wet winters with high rainfall. Spring and Autumn are such short seasons, only 2-3 weeks between Summer and Winter that they hardly register at all in Southern Greece. We would not survive those summer droughts without the winter rains and on naturally arid islands like Symi which have no springs or rivers, harvesting the winter rains in cisterns has been a way of life for thousands of years.
If you have only ever been to Greece in the popular summer months of July, August and September you may find it hard to imagine a landscape of wild cyclamens and silvery asphodels, bright green annual grasses and waist high corona daisies. The first rains usually fall sometime in October, around the same time that the squills start punching through the sunbaked earth to remind us that Persephone is on her way back to Hades. Within a day or so a delicate green bloom tinges the rocky landscape as dry scrubby herb bushes regreen and grass seeds germinate. The wild cyclamens poke small heart shaped leaves out of stony terrace walls and rocky hillsides. The delicately scented pale pink flowers follow later, in February and March. By April the country is a riot of flowers as nature pushes to complete complex life cycles before the first heatwaves of May and June bake the earth.
It is quite possible to see no rain at all between mid March and early November but most years the drought on Symi lasts from April to late October. A long time without water.
The next time you look at a photograph of gleaming white Cycladic houses against a brilliantly blue sky and sea, remember the other Greece. The wintry green one of rain and cyclamens.