Irishwoman in Athens: ‘Being stuck in Greece isn’t exactly a hardship’

Ruth Gallagher, who works in shipping litigation, joined a lockdown buddy system

Ruth Gallagher on her recent break from Athens in Santorini, Greece

Ruth Gallagher on her recent break from Athens in Santorini, Greece

 

Trinity College Dublin law graduate Ruth Gallagher works in shipping litigation in Athens. She left Ireland in 2010.

What has Athens been like during the Covid-19 pandemic?

Greece was one of the few EU countries to take decisive (and what seemed like drastic) action in early March. It may have been a lot to do with Greece’s proximity to Italy, where news of a serious rise of infections and whole towns and villages going into quarantine was starting to make Europe pay attention.

We were asked to leave the office to start working from home on March 11th, and soon the country was placed in full lockdown. All schools, offices, shops, restaurants and bars were shut and people were asked to stay home. You could only leave your house for six reasons (including going to doctor, supermarket or for one hour of exercise outside your home), and you needed to send a text to a government number advising which one of the six reasons had brought you outside as well as carry your ID at all times.

Greece can hold its head high on this one. I believe their response in protecting citizens is to be applauded

There was a €150 on-the-spot fine if you were stopped by police without a copy of the text message/document explaining why you were outside (this included being in your car outside of your immediate neighbourhood). All the fines collected by the police during the lockdown period went towards fighting the pandemic and assisting the frontline workers.

It seems crazy to write about this almost futuristic dystopia now that we are out the other side, but at the time, there was certainly a feeling of togetherness and acceptance and by and large, everybody stuck closely to the rules. As a result, Greece successfully managed to keep a devastating outbreak of Covid-19 at bay. The new prime minister Kyriakos Mitostakis took decisive action, something that Greek governments have not traditionally been well known for. This time, many many lives were saved.

Did your life change?

Of course it did. Suddenly you are inside your apartment for more or less 22/23 hours a day every day, not knowing how this was all supposed to end. Going back to normal was a daunting prospect, and this has been felt worldwide now. My job as a lawyer could continue from a laptop, good internet connection and a kitchen table, luckily, and so everyone adapted to the “new normal” in respect of work life pretty quickly.

I did manage to change jobs however! It was a somewhat longer recruitment process, but I have just finished week one at the new company and it has been pretty seamless. I was supposed to relocate to head office in Newcastle, UK for a few months, but this was been put on hold until a degree of normality returns to the UK and elsewhere.

You work in shipping. How has coronavirus affected the industry?

I am a litigation lawyer, so usually when there are crises like this, you may see an uptake in claims between companies/contractual disputes. The commercial world has seen an unprecedented upheaval and I am sure a lot of plans and projects have been put on hold. But world trade and shipping couldn’t stop. In the background, shipping deals and contracts have had to continue in order to keep the world moving.

For many of my clients, there is an element of business as usual except for the particularly difficult issues relating to crew/crew changes on ships, where ports will not allow crew to disembark because of local government quarantine rules. There is a huge campaign from all shipping service-related industries to get governments to classify crew as key workers and allow them to disembark and get home after what can often have been six months (or more) at sea on long contracts.

The issue has reached a tipping point. Crew on these ships have brought us food for the supermarkets and PPE for hospital workers on the front line during the lockdown. Working in this industry, you realise how dependent we are on each other globally and why the industry needs to be protected. Long term, I do not think there will be a negative impact, but in the short term, there are definitely pressing issues with regard to keeping ships moving safely.

How is Covid-19 affecting people in Greece economically?

There was a complete stop in trading for many businesses. Greece depends heavily on tourism and the Greek summer season can start from the end of April on some of the islands. Seasonal hotels were not allowed to re-open until June 15th and international flights were not able to resume until 1 July 1st. Not only will many of these islands, hotels and associated shops and restaurants see their season cut in half, whether they can make up the numbers or turn some sort of reasonable profit for summer 2020 and the remaining months will be incredibly difficult for them.

I received a call from the Irish Embassy in Athens asking if I was doing all right and if I needed any help. Otherwise, would I be happy to be part of a buddy system assisting other Irish citizens in Greece?

There is now a huge push and marketing campaign by the Greek government to show that Greek summer is open for business. People are encouraged to come and the government will rely heavily on their success in containing the pandemic and show Greece as a safe destination to visit.

Conversely, while Greeks appreciate the importance of the tourism industry for the Greek economy as a whole, many are rightly fearful of the potential import and/or increase of Covid-19 infections as a result of opening the borders. A difficult balancing act between the general health of the population and protecting the battered but improving Greek economy will now take place. We are aware though , that if necessary, the government won’t hesitate to put on the brakes if people’s lives will be put at risk.

You have just returned from a holiday in Santorini. How was that. Are hotels and restaurants open?

The hotels opened on June 15th and a friend and I were booked into a hotel on Santorini by the 17th. How lucky we were, all things considering. We had the island to ourselves as international flights/cruise ships had not recommenced. The famous Oia sunset with only 25 other people was a once in a life-time experience, unlikely to be seen again.

As it was the first week, some hotels and restaurants were putting the finishing touches on their rooms and dining areas (making them Covid-19 safe), so it wasn’t all systems go. Bigger commercial islands such as Santorini rely heavily on foreign tourism as opposed to local Greek tourism so they were waiting for the international arrivals.

How do you think Greece has managed the pandemic?

In one word: brilliantly. As I write this, the confirmed number of deaths from Covid-19 stands at 191 with just under 4,000 confirmed cases. Whilst those figures are tragic in themselves, in a country with a total population of 11 million and a substantial older generation, these numbers could have been much more tragic had it not been for the swift action taken early on. It paid off. Greece, having had its fair share of bad press in recent years can hold its head high on this one. I believe their response in protecting its citizens is to be applauded.

What is the food situation there?

Delicious as always! Greece feels like it’s open for business and is back to a (new) normal in Athens. Socially distant tables and masked waiters mean the Athens restaurant and bar scene is buzzing again and so far, so good. Fingers crossed.

I hope European air travel remains affordable after all of this. Part of what makes living abroad easy is knowing that you can get back easily enough

Do you plan to return to Ireland at any time?

I have had two planned trips home to Ireland cancelled because of the flight situation and the 14-day self isolation period still in place for foreign arrivals in Ireland. Mentally, the lockdown has been the hardest for me - not knowing when I can get home to see family and friends, safely, is playing on my mind. “Patience is a virtue” and all that, but as an ex-pat with close ties to Ireland, this unforeseen consequence of the pandemic and 2020, concentrates the mind.

I sincerely hope that European air travel remains affordable after all of this. Part of what makes living abroad easy is knowing that you can get back easily enough. I am watching the Irish Road map closely and will be back home for a visit as soon as I am able. Although, to be fair, being “stuck” in Greece during summer isn’t exactly a hardship!

Does being Irish count there at the moment?

I received a surprising but lovely call from the Irish Embassy in Athens in early April asking if I was doing all right and if I needed any help. Otherwise, would I be happy to be part of a buddy system assisting other Irish citizens in Greece who may be cocooning or needed help with errands etc? I was matched with a brilliant Irish lady who has lived in Greece many years and lives 15 minutes from me. We would call each other and check in over the weeks of lockdown. Of course, there were some emergency tea deliveries!

When lockdown was lifted, we met for a coffee and had a great time chatting and getting to know each other. More lunches are forthcoming. I thought it was a brilliant and worthwhile initiative by the Irish Embassy and the Greek Irish Society.

Is there anything you miss about Ireland at the moment?

My dad, brother, sister, Border collie (Eddie), extended family and my friends. There has been one new birth in March (a baby boy), a baby coming in August and lots of other little babies getting closer to one year old that I am excited to get home to and see. A Superquinn sossie wouldn’t go amiss, either.

If you live abroad and would like to share your experience of how Covid-19 is affecting you there, email abroad@irishtimes.com

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