Holiday Day 19 (March 20th) A Friday reshuffle
I woke up around six the next day (I had a lie-in) knowing that we had a long day and a long night ahead what with overnighting in Athens airport to look forward to. What I didn’t know then was that we weren’t going to end up doing that at all, and wouldn’t get to sleep until the following night, about 40 hours later.
There was no rush for anything that morning, so we let the bears sleep in, took showers, and from the bedroom window, watched planes taking off. I think we saw one in the space of an hour; a bit on the slow side for one of the world’s busiest airports. There was a strange sense of ‘nothing happening’ across the distance between us and the terminal and runway, made even more creepy by the grey morning mist.
Downstairs, the bar/dining/reception area of the hotel was equally as calm and quiet, with a few people up and about, talking in respectfully hushed whispers as if we were in church. Maybe it was because it was still early. The wide-screen TVs were on, and the volume turned to an audible but low level, the flight announcement board showed more cancelled flights, and the staff went about their business calmly and with smiles. Remember, we were not yet at the mask-wearing stage, that precaution was only rumoured.
Yesterday (March 19th), the UK government “no longer deems COVID-19 to be a high consequence infectious disease.” Also yesterday, Northern Island reported its first death, the MoD formed a special force to support public services and civilian authorities, the Bank of England cut interest rates in an emergency measure and the government released £1.6b for local authorities, and £1.3b for the NHS so that 15,000 patients could be released from hospital. Prior to this, various countries had put border restrictions in place, cinemas had been closing, the BBC rescheduled programmes, there had been 104 deaths in the UK, the pound had dropped to its lowest level since 1985, theatres had closed, and the government had advised people not to travel if they could help it, work from home if they could, and, if you wouldn’t mind awfully, try not to mix with anyone there’s a good chap, and anyone over 70 should consider this advice “particularly important.” Remember, they were also telling everyone this wasn’t ‘a high consequence infectious disease.’ So, you can see why there was no great sense of urgency at our hotel, more a sense of ‘how inconvenient.’
Compare that to Greece:
February 27th. All carnival events in the country were cancelled
March 10th. The government suspended the operation of educational institutions of all levels.
March 13th. All cafes, bars, museums, shopping centres, sports facilities and restaurants in the country were closed.
March 16th. All retail shops were closed, and all services in all areas of religious worship of any religion or dogma were suspended.
End of. Get over it.
While here at Heathrow, we had breakfast, read our books, stood outside to get fresh air, and spent most of the day in our room. We washed our hands and sanitised them at every opportunity, and waited for the evening when we were to taxi over to the airport to wait for our midnight flight to Athens.
We were sitting in the reception area, well away from everyone else as most people were distancing, when I had a text message from Aegean to let me know our onward flight to Rhodes had been cancelled. That was it. ‘Your flight to Rhodes is cancelled, please check with your travel agent…’ Etc. As I was our travel agent, I checked with myself and thought, ‘What are we going to do about this?’ It was about three in the afternoon by then, and I took the executive decision to go to the airport now and see what was what.
So, we packed (checking wardrobes for left items), settled up, called a cab and scuttled over to the airport dreaming up all kinds of worst-case scenarios and thinking how interesting it would be to walk from the UK to Greece and experience the life of the refugee.
It turned out to be a timely move on our part, as we found the Aegean desk half an hour before it closed, confirmed our flight was cancelled, though the midnight one was still running (phew!) – though would probably be the last for several days. ‘Could we change our onward flight?’ was the first thought because often the very early morning shuttle from Athens to Rhodes is taken off and passengers moved to the one a couple of hours later, so that really wasn’t anything new. Answer: no, the next available flight from Athens to Rhodes that wasn’t full was a week on Monday, so that was no good.
‘Right!’ he says, adopting a Basil Fawlty voice as he strides across the concourse to find a place to sit and think. ‘Let’s start again.’
We still had Blue Star tickets for the following Tuesday, 24th, part of our original plan. It shouldn’t be too hard to bring them forward and change them to the Sunday 22nd sailing, as long as we could get to the office in Piraeus, assuming it was open as most other outlets in the city had closed a few days before. A fair amount of photo tapping occurred (not that FBI kind of phone tapping), and we cancelled the Plaza Hotel room booking for the following night and the Dodecanese tickets for the Sunday. There was no point trying to follow that route. The final leg of the journey had to start from Athens, and flying on from there was out of the question. I didn’t expect any refunds for those bookings which had been made the day before and now cancelled with short notice, but within a few minutes, the Plaza had refunded me the pre-paid room, and a little later, Dodecanese Seaways did the same. A ray of sunshine in a rather turbulent sunset, you might say.
All that left us with a 3.00 a.m. arrival in Athens and a potential three days there to wait for the ferry. So, back on the phone, more tapping and searching, and I came up with a hotel in Piraeus that was not only still open (many had voluntarily closed already), but one which also offered meals. That was handy, remember, because restaurants and cafes etc. had already been ordered to shut, unlike the British ones where we were able to have dinner in departures.
A hotel booked, we still had the journey to Piraeus, so I got back on the Welcome Pickups website (highly recommended) and booked a car to meet us at the airport. I’ve mentioned this company before, and since first using them a couple of years ago, now always use them when I arrive in Athens. You swap your details, phone number and even photo with a stranger as if you’re on some dating site, and they send you a picture of your driver and his/her phone number in return. You also pay in advance, so you not only are you not going to be ripped off, you also know who is meeting you and don’t get in the wrong cab.
That sorted, there was nothing to do but ‘relax’ until called to board which was due to happen at 23.20.
Closing down behind
As I said, we had plenty of time to hang around a quiet departures and find somewhere that was open so we could have supper and chill with a glass of wine while we waited. Most of the shops were closed, and I wasn’t sure if that was because of an edict or if they were always closed at that time of night, but we didn’t need to buy anything, so that wasn’t a problem. A pre-flight drink or three was more important and that all went smoothly, though not cheaply, until 23.00. Then, returning from a walk around, we decided on one last glass of wine at the gate, as it was right next to the shops and bars (handy).
We headed back to the last place we’d been only to be turned away as the shutters were pulled down. The government had, within the last hour or so, ordered that all bars and so forth across the country had to close at eleven. And they did. They couldn’t have made it 11.15, could they? Ah well… We found a sushi place that was somehow still able to stay open and even more miraculously had cans of G&T in its fridge, so going against the grain, we had one of those each while waiting to board.
Sorry if this reads like a list of obstacles and details but that was how that day and evening was, but finally, at 23.30 we boarded our plane, and at roughly one minute past midnight, it took off. Good old Aegean Airlines, I say. We didn’t have any accidental priority boarding on this flight, but we did have those seats near the escape hatch with extra legroom. The nearest seats in front of us were a good four feet away and the guys there were wearing masks.
The only notable thing about the flight was that we had to fill in forms before we landed. These asked what’s now become common, your name, address, phone number etc., but also your onward journey details, hotel, when you will reach home and so on. This was before the phone app that’s now in place and the other forms now in use, and there was also talk of random testing.
Maybe because we arrived at 3.00 in the morning, there were no testing stations, but the flights before us had all been tested, or the passengers had, at least, and we were only slightly disappointed we didn’t get a turn. (As it turned out, we were fine and still are, in case you were worried.)
Just to recap. So far on this trip, since joining the train in Toronto: The Canadian stopped running after we left it. The CN Tower closed to visitors after we dined there. Vancouver shut as we were leaving. The bars in Heathrow shut as we left. The shows we’d seen in London two weeks earlier were now dark, the tourist attractions shut, and we’d closed most of London too, it felt like. It didn’t bode well for the next two days, and we weren’t going to be happy and secure until we were on that ferry and it had pulled out of Piraeus. More about that to come as the race to reach home continues tomorrow.