The Summer of 2020

I am writing this from Greece, more specifically from the Island of Tinos in the Cyclades. I realize how privileged this sentence is in this strange summer of 2020. As I write this, the United States is #1 in total COVID-19 cases and in COVID-19 deaths. My second home, Louisiana, has the highest of COVID-19 cases per capita in the US. Americans are not allowed in European countries – including Greece. And many remain without employment, including so many of my spa and salon friends who are still not allowed to return to their jobs. 

Considering this bleakest of situations back home, it seems surreal to wake up to the blue Aegean, on an island where life seems unchanged since my first visit when I was a child. 

It also seems like gloating. Travel envy is as prevalent these days as Zoom fatigue. I had thus decided not to post anything on social media about my current whereabouts. And then I changed my mind. My friend Kelly reminded me that “people follow you to see your life; it’s not bragging. … Also most of your followers know you vacay in Greece.”   

So instead of pretending I’m not here, I am here. And I want to tell you about my trip. 

My husband and I left the US for Switzerland on July 11. We changed this date twice, and the airline changed our itinerary three times. Finally booked on a flight that would actually happen, we flew from DC and New Orleans (respectively) to Dallas, then to London, then to Geneva. I can travel to Europe as I have a Swiss passport (so Switzerland has to let me in) and a US passport (so the US has to let me return). Edwin can travel with me, with his lone US passport, because we are legally married, and our marriage is properly registered in Switzerland. Having said that, as we were checking in to our international flight from two different cities, just getting his boarding pass printed in New Orleans was a challenge. The system would not let the check-in agent do anything with his US data, until he was able to show a letter from the Swiss Embassy proving our marriage, my record locator proving we were meeting in Dallas and doing the rest of the trip together, and a photo of my Swiss passport proving my double nationality. 

Step 1, checking in. Done. 

Step 2, boarding the DFW-Heathrow flight. We were called by the gate agent prior to boarding and had to show all of our paperwork again. 

Step 3, actually being let in to the EU at Heathrow. At the automatic transit desk, where you usually scan your boarding pass and the light automatically turns green and the gate opens to let you through, we are surprised as instead, the light turns red and makes a loud unpleasant sound. We try again. Same thing. We sheepishly head to the stern-looking lady at the “in person desk.” We show her our boarding passes, including the one from London to Geneva. She types something in her computer. “Are you married?” she asks. Yes, we respond, as I show that prized piece of paper from the Swiss Embassy once again. She looks at it, picks up the phone, and starts explaining something to a superior. In the middle of the conversation, she asks us “You wouldn’t also happen to have a certified copy of your marriage certificate, would you?”. Well, as a matter of fact, yes of course we do (who doesn’t travel with their notarized marriage certificate?). We smile and hand it to her. More conversation with superior. And then, finally, she manually scans our boarding passes. The light turns green, and the gate opens. We are officially on EU soil. 

(Side notes for those considering travel: We wore N95 masks on every plane, and surgical masks in every airport. We had shields with us but neither of us used them. We did not wear protective clothing or glasses.) 

There is nothing further to report until we get to customs in Switzerland. Once again, our marital status is questioned. Once again, the magical Swiss Embassy letter comes in handy. I offer our marriage certificate, but the customs agent nicely says the embassy letter suffices. Before she clears us, she reminds us of the Swiss government mandated ten-day quarantine we are facing upon entry (implemented July 6), and that we must register ourselves with the proper authorities when we arrive at our place of quarantine. Here, my Swiss passport is of no help. I have come from the unfortunate United States of America – and so I too, not just my American husband, must quarantine. 

Indeed, this is why we had to change our travel date to start with. The reason for this trip was first and foremost my sister’s wedding. To be “free” on the 24th, for the rehearsal dinner, we needed to have 10 days (+2 for “just in case”) of quarantine. And quarantine, in Switzerland, well, is very Swiss. We called to register with the Canton (the state of Geneva) as required. Throughout the ten days, we each received two “check in” calls, aka monitoring calls. Were we taking quarantine seriously? (Yes) Had we left our place of residence? (No) And did we have any symptoms? (No). Ten days without leaving the house was a first for me, as it was for Edwin. Luckily, we found the most beautiful AirBNB (with a terrace) to spend these ten days, Courtyard #1 at The Hamlet in the center of Old Town Geneva. Nothing to complain about, other than my inability to go for long runs along the lake as I like to do. 

We made it. We were present at Rachel and Bernard’s ceremony of love and I was able to give my speech. And then, the last leg of the trip was upon us. Zurich to Athens

(Second side note: My father is a medical doctor, and offered to give us COVID-19 tests, with results coming in within 24 hours, at any time during our stay in Geneva. We declined, because we never had any symptoms, and also because we did not know what we would do with the information should this test come back positive.)  

Similarly to our ability to travel to Switzerland, we were allowed to travel to Greece because of my Swiss (and Italian) passport and our married status. We had to fill out an online travel form (the Passenger Locator Form) 48 hours prior to boarding. This included questions such as permanent address, and where we had spent the last 14 days. Based on this questionnaire, upon arrival in Athens, we would be directed either to baggage claim, or to a COVID-19 testing area in the airport. Should the latter happen, we would have to quarantine for 24 hours until our test results came back. Luckily, we were directed to baggage claim (I do believe being able to say that we had spent the last 14 days in Switzerland had much to do with this). 

And then, we were in Greece! Baggage claim, taxi to Rafina, slow ferry to Tinos (no fast ferries are running at this time due to decreased traveler demands). And then, we were in the village of Isternia, my happy place. 

So here I am. A blend of working from home and vacationing in Europe. Life in Europe (specifically Geneva and Tinos), is surprisingly normal. Limited travel offerings (from short airport lines, a closed restaurant at the Zurich airport hotel, the lack of fast ferries) remind me that life is not quite normal. People wearing masks (mandated on public transportation and inside stores in Switzerland, and in the grocery store on Tinos) remind me that life is not quite normal. Yet mostly, people are going about their business. Children are at summer camp or at the beach. Adults are on vacation, on their honeymoons, or working their normal jobs. Is it because summers in Europe are spent outside versus in the air conditioned indoors? Is it because wearing a mask has not become a political statement? 

I cannot help but return to thoughts of my friends at home, some who have lost loved ones to COVID-19, some who are suffering from the disease, many whose businesses are hemorrhaging. I worry about what will happen when school reopens (indeed the news from counties who have begun to reopen are dreadful). I worry about what will happen when unemployment goes up more. I worry about the fall and the holiday season. I do not know why things feel better, more “normal” here. But I do know that we, Americans, can do better. 

Tinos tips

I have been back from Tinos for almost two weeks, and its magic is still with me. A few of you have been asking about this island – my happy place. Part of me doesn’t want to share (what I love the most is how remote it is and how there are more churches than people), but sharing is caring. So here goes.

How to get there:

It takes two days from the US (did I mention it is remote?). Airplane to Athens. Taxi to the port of Rafina (about an hour). Ferry to Tinos. If you have time in Rafina, have lunch at Agoni Grammi.

The chora (aka the town):

Tinos is the name of the island, and of the main town (where the ferry will drop you off). This town is filled with restaurants, bars, clubs (yes – clubs) – more on that later. Make a trip to the main church, where many come for a pilgrimage. If you can avoid it, don’t stay there.

Rental car:

You will need a car in Tinos (although my uncle who now owns the house does not drive, he takes buses and taxies on the island – but trust me, you need a car). Don’t use Vidalis, they are popular and all over the island but extra expensive. Use Dimitris Rent a Car. Owned by Heike and her husband, they may be the nicest people on Tinos. Email her here: dimitrisrentacar@gmail.com. Don’t forget to get your international driver’s license.

The villages:

Tinos is known for its amazing villages. My grandparents bought a house in Triantaros in the 1960s (which is how I got to be lucky enough to discover this island). This village so close to my heart is known as the balcony of Tinos.

You must also visit Isternia (which I love equally as Triantaros), Kardiani (the garden of Tinos), Pyrgos (which has an amazing town square), and Panormos, which is by the sea on the opposite side of the island.

The restaurants:

Thalassaki – in Isternia bay. The best seafood on the island, maybe in the entire Cyclades. It is literally “on the water” – there are “splash tables” with disclaimers that your feet might get wet. Have the taramasolata.

Dinos – in Kardiani bay. Family owned, three generations of “Dinos’s” work there, the view of the sunset is breathtaking.

Exomeria – in Isternia. Maria is the best hostess, she does breakfast, lunch, apero, dinner, late night snacks. I am not sure when she sleeps. The view is as breathtaking as her pizza and vegetable pies.

Mayou – also in Isternia. Another breathtaking view. A great place for coffee or a drink.

Bourou – near Kionia. This is one of the first restaurants I discovered on the island, and it remains one of my favorites. The vegetable balls (yes, it’s a thing) are my favorite on the island.

Pranzo – in town, fabulous Italian, amazing people watching.

Tarsanas – at the end of the port in town, amazing fish and a very special type of rice (ask the owner how he makes it and watch him launch in a 30 minute very animated description).

The night life:

Zambarco – by the new port. The palce to watch anything related to the World Cup. Great also for breakfast.

Koursaros – which means “pirate.” Start your night there around 10-11 pm. (Next to Zambarco)

Argonathis – this is the best dance club on the island. It is owned by Catherine, and her business partner who DJs better than anyone other than my brother-in-law. Go there after 1 am, stay until the sun rises.

The beach(es):

There is only one beach: Kalivia Beach. There are so many reasons I love it the most.  The swimming in the bay is excellent. There are beach chairs and umbrellas. There is a beach bar with drinks and food. Mostly, there is Marco, who owns it, and his amazing team. If you are looking for me on Tinos after 1 pm, there is one place and one place only you will find me. Make sure you ask him for a shot (or a couple) of Raki – he makes his own… (did someone say Greek moonshine?). Use the Greek “cheers” – Yia Mas.

Apolamvano! (meaning, Enjoy!).

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