Sunday, March 21, 2021

Normal - a matter of perspective

We've passed the mid-point in our Pacific Northwest stay. The month we allotted ourselves here is slipping by as rapidly as did the year we spent in Greece before working up our courage to tackle a trip back during a time of Covid-19.

Lake Chelan and its Butte - Washington State

This is 'normally' the point in our U.S. visits where we start daydreaming of those Greek salads and other foods we are missing and the tavernas where we will eat them, the people we want to get together with as soon as we return, and the places we want to go after we get back. 

Greek Salad

Instead of daydreaming about what we will do once we get there, we are planning how to accomplish the steps required to return to our expat life in the Greek Peloponnese: Where to get the Covid-19 test, a requirement for travel as well as entry into Greece? Timing the submission of the PLF, passenger locator form, to meet another of Greece's Covid-related requirements for entry into the country. Making sure the residency card is ready to display, as only Greek citizens and residents traveling from the US are allowed into Greece right now. . .again, thanks to Covid.

'Normally' time to start planning more Greek adventures

That's not the case this year. 

What we 'Normally do' went out the window when the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic a year ago.

Government SMS sent a year ago still applies

One year later, Greece remains in its second multi-month lockdown. This one began the first week of November. It, like the first lockdown in the spring, has closed most everything, other than businesses like pharmacies and grocery stores which are deemed essential services. For a time Greek authorities reduced movement to a two kilometer radius of one's home which pretty much allowed us to get to the pharmacy, grocery store, and gas station in the village. A nighttime curfew remains in place. We still need to text the government to get permission for 'movement outside the home'.

'You've been  able to sit outside at a taverna, haven't you?' asked a friend here in our US who had visited us in Greece. 

Dining out in the village before the Nov. lockdown

'Not since last October. And we've not been allowed to sit inside a restaurant or taverna since last March when the first lockdown began,' I replied, noting that for a time we could stand in parking lots or at the side of the road, consuming 'to go' items. 

Somehow when we were in Greece, the lockdown started to feel so 'normal', so accepted by all, that things like texting for permission to leave the house, didn't seem as harsh as they sound when I am sipping wine at a nearby winery in Washington State describing those measures to friends here. 

Athens Airport Feb. 26 - no problem distancing here

However, in Greece citizens and residents are getting restless. Media headlines there call it 'lockdown fatigue'. Last spring the lockdown kept Covid numbers low, but that hasn't been the case the second time around. The numbers of Covid cases continue to skyrocket, and intubations are at an all-time high. The Greek authorities struggle with how to open the country and jump start the economy and tourism, while the health system remains overwhelmed with patients. 

Those same authorities continue to grapple with how to vaccinate their thousands of expats who call Greece home. A measure to set up a system is, or was, being debated in the Parliament (stories differ as to whether it continues or has been decided). Then if/when passed, a system will be put into place to apply for the vaccination. Then a schedule to get the vaccination.

In all fairness, it isn't just Greece, expats in Spain are experiencing similar obstacles to getting jabs.

A Taste of Normal

Our roots are planted in Washington State

We arrived in Washington State -- that one tucked up in the furthest northwest corner of the continental states -- and the place our US roots are planted, during what is called, Phase Two.  That is pandemic jargon for the gradual steps being taken to reopen and try to return to 'normal' here.

Our return to the U.S. was finally prompted by a lengthening to-do list here including the need to finally have several 'annual' but long-over-due medical appointments as well as to seek out and hopefully get Covid-19 vaccinations. We will have checked every item off that to do list after we receive our second Pfizer shots on Monday.

We were among eight people here on a weekday night

Phase Two requires wearing masks in public and social distancing. Most retail stores are open. You can dine and drink inside or outside, with capacity limits of 25 percent inside for those places that have reopened, however a number of restaurants remain closed. You can travel where you want, when you want. By the time most read this, the State will be implementing Phase Three which will allow 50% inside and open some of the non-essential facilities that are still closed. 

There are many in this state not happy with these current mandates and they make their unhappiness known on social media, printed signs, and in everyday conversation.  Most abide by the rules even if they grumble about them.  We are not empathetic. 

Sunday morning drive around Manson

From our perspective, we feel like we have landed in Disneyland!! We are kids in a candy store!! We don't have to text for permission to walk into the village for coffee.  We can go to any of the dozen wineries around us and sit there and sip wine.  We have dined inside five times since arriving back. (And I might add have always felt well-distanced from other diners and servers wore protective gear, masks and gloves and cleaning seemed a constant.) 

Sitting inside a coffee shop is a treat!

Seeing friends and family has been a highpoint of the trip. While the days of greeting each other with hugs and kisses are over, just seeing people again, hearing their voices and being face-to-face has been the shot of adrenalin we needed. We miss that social interaction with friends in Greece.

 Normal is as Normal Does

Highway sign in Greece

We are surprised at how quickly we adapted to this freedom of movement and being among people again. It will be interesting to see how quickly we re-adjust to not having those freedoms in Greece.  Who knows? Perhaps by the time of our return, it will have returned to 'normal'. . .whatever that might be, these days?

Thanks for being with us today. We wonder how you are handling your current 'normal' in the world of Covid? How about telling us in the comments or shooting us an email?

Linking sometime soon with:

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Travel Tuesday
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Wordless Wednesday


Friday, March 5, 2021

Just to the left of the Moon

After more than a year of having not been back to the United States, I'd like to say that our return last week sent us over the moon. 

Over the North Pole to the left of the moon

But that wasn't quite the case. . . we did go near it though, or so it seemed, from our window as we flew over the North Pole.

Our plane over Iran

Fysika'!, (Of course!), as we say in Greece. . .our first trip after being grounded for more than year by a pandemic would involve passing 'by' the moon and over the North Pole! And just to keep me -- the family's 'white knuckler' -- on my toes, we were flying Boeing 777's - you know, the model plane (thankfully with different engines) that has been in the news in recent weeks for the engine problem. . .

Travel planning - a new dimension

Athens Airport - rather empty

This trip has literally been seven months in the planning. We'd even twice purchased tickets, only to cancel and go back to the drawing board. We waffled 'betwixt' and 'between' in deciding whether our reasons for returning balanced the risk of traveling in a time of Covid. 

Long overdue 'annual' medical appointments and the quest to get Covid vaccinations finally tipped the scales in favor of heading to the US. (Greece is currently vaccinating its citizens. It is working on a way to get expats registered.)

Dubai's airport, like the city, is sprawling 

Covid has sent travel planning into a whole new dimension. In the 'old world' we simply went with best price, comfort level and shortest route. Now planning involves knowing the entry requirements of the countries we are traveling to and returning to, as well as those we transit (there are no direct flights between Athens and Seattle). We also monitored the constantly fluctuating Covid 'counts', lockdowns and quarantine rules for all of those countries as well.  

Then there was the matter of finding an airline still flying from our part of the world to Seattle, then reviewing its Covid safety protocols and cleanliness.

After taking all that into consideration, we ended up with a rather circuitous route back.

Sands of Iran from the plane

The first leg of our journey was a four-hour flight from Athens to Dubai, last Friday evening. We overnighted at an airport hotel and then a Saturday morning flight of 13.5 hours brought us to Seattle from Dubai. The plane sliced right up the middle of sand-covered Iran, the immense Russian landscape, over frozen tundra, and the North Pole and the snow-covered Canadian Rocky Mountain range. 

Snow capped Canadian Rockies

That flight, the second longest we have ever been on, seemed so much longer than those 13.5 hours that ticked so slowly past. We are obviously out of practice when it comes to travel! Because it wasn't for lack of pampering as we had cashed in air miles to fly Business Class on Emirates Airline. We did so knowing the flights would be long and to hopefully gain more 'distancing' on board. As it turned out, spacing was not a problem as the load factor was so light. It was a nice way to travel, though!

Mask, gloves, protective goggles and clothing - a new world

I know many of you are pondering similar trips and have asked about how safe we felt, related to Covid.  I can sing the praises of Emirates as they seemed to have gone the extra mile for safety. They announced that the plane's air filtration was at hospital level 98.97% and that it circulated every two minutes.  Flight attendants wore masks, face shields, gloves and a protective covering over their uniforms. They went so far as to have a staff member on board specifically assigned to clean toilets every 45 minutes.  

Passengers were required to wear masks at all times when not eating or drinking.  New masks were distributed regularly and a kit with gloves, masks and sanitizer was distributed at the start of the journey.

Our welcome gift on board

Dishes served in Business came with plastic covers that we could remove, glassware was wrapped. Wine was poured so that we could see it coming directly out of the bottle and into the glasses. 

Business Class Emirates

As mentioned above we flew a 777- 200, which can accommodate hundreds of passengers. There are 38 Business class seats on this aircraft.  We had 8 passengers in Business from Athens and 11 from Dubai.  There were maybe 100 people on the entire flight to Seattle, fewer on the flight to Dubai.

Compartments were large and private

The Business Class configuration is such that the two of us sitting side-by-side couldn't see each other or talk with each other without making an effort to do so.  No problem with distancing.

Before Boarding the Plane. . .

Covid test in our Greek village

The Covid Test: Within three calendar days of boarding a flight to the United States, passengers must be tested and found negative for Covid. Luckily, we have a state-of-the-art modern blood lab in our villages so the test was done in the parking lot - the staff came to the car window -- at noon last Wednesday. By 7 p.m. we had our 'negative' results in email form. 

The authorities require the report to be printed on paper - those documents were ready the following morning. That piece of paper became as valuable as our passport - we had to show it in Athens and four times in Dubai. No one checked it upon our arrival in Seattle.

US government required attestation form

The Attestation Form: U.S. government also requires that a passenger Covid attestation form be completed by the passenger, swearing that they either tested negative or if they had previously had Covid that a doctor had determined they were clear to travel.  Those forms are collected by the airline - no attestation, no boarding. 

Greece - has tight controls for movement these days

The Greek Passenger Locator Form (PLF): another new Covid step is completing a form required for all travelers both arriving and departing Greece. These must be completed within 24 hours of the departing flight. This is done on-line and a QR code is sent back to the applicant by midnight prior to the flight. Our code came back immediately - however no one at the Athens Airport asked to see it.

What Greek officials did want to see was our biometric residency permit card. . .right after they checked our U.S. passport and saw that we entered the country more than a year ago. Greece, is a Schengen country which allows a 90-day stay unless you have proof of residency.  Finally, those cards we worked so hard to get, came in handy!

Was it worth it?

First jab - Monday

Yes! A resounding YES because a major reason for this trip was the hope/plan to get our Covid vaccine at some point during our stay and we have already accomplished that. For weeks, while going through the trip planning, we were also monitoring vaccination sites and schedules and putting our names on waitlists. Then an unexpected fluke in scheduling got us appointments at a mass vaccination center in a city near our home here.  We stopped and got our first (Pfizer) shot before we got home!  The next day we were notified we had cleared another waitlist and could have gotten an appointment in the Seattle area.

We also threaded the needle in leaving Greece when we did. Yesterday the country recorded its highest number of Covid cases, several hospitals in Athens are at 90% ICU bed capacity with Covid patients and the country went into its most severe lockdown since last spring. The lockdown limits movement to within the village, and limited movement in the village. This lockdown is set to end March 16th. We are set to return the end of the month. . .we may have a whole new travel adventure back.

Again, we thank you for the time you spent with us today and hope to see you back for the next installment of this journey to Washington. . .

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