A glimpse of life on Symi in the turbulent and blustery days of mid-March, when we can have four seasons in a day.
Some recent photographs of life on Symi in February 2021, during the second extended Covid-19 lockdown in Greece.
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.
It is the first of October and the edge has gone off the heat. Overnight temperatures have dropped to the pleasant low twenties and the breeze is refreshingly cool rather than akin to the blast from an open oven door. The air has cleared and visibility is infinite. Walking to St Nicholas, some of the thyme bushes have started to flower again and the sage bushes are greening over. The stones on the quay are wet in the morning, slick with the mist that settles on them overnight. The second spring is on its way.
In the fields the new agricultural year has begun. Potatoes, cauliflowers and lettuces are being planted in anticipation of the first rains. The pomegranates are ripening and the first quinces have already appeared in the shops – an ephemeral and delicious fruit if you know what to do with it.
There are a few cruising yachts swinging to anchor in Pedi – all with EU flags as the border with Turkey is still closed to yachtsmen. German, French, Dutch and British flags are the dominant ones at the moment, driven eastwards by the storms over the Ionian and in the Cyclades in recent weeks. The Dodecanese is the turning point, the end of the line unless one is over-wintering in Cyprus. Wintering in cheap marinas in Turkey is not an option these days so decisions are no doubt being made as to whether to head north to Kos or south to Rhodes.
It is very dark in the mornings now. This was the scene at 5 a.m. yesterday morning, 30 September, as people waited to board the Blue Star to Rhodes.
By now you may have heard of the appeal to raise funds for Symi’s music school which is struggling to survive in the present economic climate. If you haven’t, I could not put it better than James Collins does in his Symi Dream blog. Just because children live on a small Greek island on the edge of Europe does not mean that they should be deprived of the opportunities to develop their talents. A team of dedicated music teachers comes over from Rhodes every Saturday to teach guitar, piano, violin and other instruments as this is not provided for in the school system but this needs funding. Usually parents are able to contribute to support this but with many of them out of work or struggling due to the virus and limited tourist season this year, these lessons are in jeopardy. Please go to the two links above to find out more about this worthwhile project and how you can help.
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.
We shall see what tomorrow brings.
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.
Simples, as the meerkat says on the BBC!