An elderly man walks along a nearly empty street of Psyrri, in central Athens, on Tuesday, December 1. [Petros Giannakouris/AP]
Saturday evenings and Sundays make you painfully aware that there’s a pandemic, as the center of Athens is like a desert landscape come Saturday afternoon. Thoroughfares like Solonos Street, especially, become ghosts of their former selves. Combined with the early nightfall and chilly weather, you definitely feel that something’s wrong.
The feeling is not at all the same Monday through Saturday morning. In striking contrast to the spring lockdown, people are going to work this time and streets are busy. But on weekends, the lockdown bears its teeth.
That said, Solonos Street in particular has not changed that much as a result of the pandemic. The street running through the Athens districts of Kolonaki and Exarchia from Vassilissis Sofias Avenue to Kaningos Square near Omonia, has been on a path of decline since the riots and destruction that erupted in the wake of the shooting death of teenager Alexis Grigoropoulos by an off-duty police officer in Exarchia in December 2008, through the crisis and more destruction wrought during several extremely violent anti-austerity protests. Shops have been slowly going out of business ever since, expanding the tentacles of misery that seems to have gripped so much of downtown Athens.
The mood, however, changed instantly when you turned onto Skoufa Street just above Solonos. Voices, music, laughter and the sound of high heels clicking on the sidewalks sounded merrily in your ears. Making you feel that you were once more a part of a living, vibrant city. This is no longer the case.
When I go to my private office on Solonos Street on Saturday evenings, my own footsteps are the only sound I hear after I park my car in one of the many empty spots on Skoufa (one of the upsides of the lockdown). What few people I see are, like me, figures in masks. The bars are silent, the cafés storage rooms for tables and chairs. Like a solitary Christmas tree in a cold and empty house, a kiosk may shed some light on the empty street. And you know that this is not even the worst side of the pandemic. It’s true character can be seen in the hospitals and intensive care units, in the homes of infected people trembling at the idea of what the virus may do to them, forcing them to the hospital.
What looks like being the weirdest and saddest Christmas season lies ahead, as this unprecedented health crisis has come to do what the economic crisis failed to do on such a mass scale. The only wish on everyone’s lips is for a better 2021. Yet many homes have already been decorated for the holidays. You can see some of the lights shining into the deserted, silent streets.
Our generation may not have survived the hardships of previous ones, but the twin crises have taught us that things could be worse and, most importantly, that this too shall pass. Laughter, that uniquely human quality, will have the final say. We all know it deep down inside, even if we can’t really believe it right now: that some things cannot be defeated.