For These Israelis, Lockdown Meant a One-way Ticket to Greece

In Greece, we found that we weren’t the only Israelis who had dreamed of a getaway

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An illustrative image shows a landscape of Crete through a laptop computer
"In Crete there’s no one and nothing. Apart from Israelis."
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman

Like the last of the storks – perhaps the weak, dreamy ones who weren’t ready on time and got left out in the cold after the rest of their elegant, symmetrical flock flitted across the sky and completed their autumn migration – we arrived at the empty airport early in the morning near the end of the Sukkot holiday.

Ten days earlier, my husband called at 1:45 P.M., seriously stressed. “Fast, now! Find tickets for Greece and buy them. Right now – it doesn’t matter where. Hurry!”

“Really?” I replied. “The last time I checked, tickets cost $800. It’s not for us.” But he was adamant. “Check again; maybe the prices went down. Now. They announced that anyone who buys by 2 o’clock can go.”

“What is this, the lottery?” I retorted, balking at the ridiculous deadline.

“That’s what it says in Israel Hayom,” he fired back.

I tried to mumble something about needing to ask for time off work. “Tell them you’ll work remotely, they’ll understand.”

I gave in. On the website of one airline, round-trip tickets to Athens were in fact going for $200. Another few hundred dollars got us the requisite coronavirus tests at home for the whole family. Still, it was clear to me that it wasn’t going to work.

Three days before our flight, Uri turned up at our house. He’s a “joggling” artist, practitioner of a sport that combines jogging and juggling. An affable fellow, he underwent vocational retraining earlier in the pandemic as a COVID-19 tester. Much to my daughters’ chagrin, he didn’t arrive in a cool, white spacesuit, just in a face mask like anyone else. The tests were documented in video clips from every angle, but not posted on TikTok. In fact, I warned the girls, from now on we’re going underground. Not a single photo, not a single clip. If anyone asks, we’re still at home, like everyone else.

“The principle of social solidarity during a time of national effort was given particular weight in the decisions I made,” Transportation Minister Miri Regev had stated, explaining why she decided to close the airport to outgoing flights for anyone who hadn’t bought a ticket by the time the second lockdown came into effect. The last thing we wanted was to be accused of lacking solidarity.

Ben-Gurion airport was deserted on the morning of our flight, apart from a few dozen families who also belatedly thought of joining the escape-from-Alcatraz trend. At the entrance to the departures hall, the security guards asked to see confirmation that we had bought the tickets before 2 P.M. on September 25, when the air-travel restrictions began.

The range of destinations of the few travelers included Rhodes, Heraklion, Athens and Thessaloniki. Everyone seemed to have shown up four hours early, as requested, certain that it would take forever to get through all the security checks and so on. But the whole check-in process was over in a quarter of an hour. All that remained was to sit and stare forlornly at the shuttered duty-free shops, while sipping on an obscenely priced cup of coffee from the only chain currently operating at the airport.

The sole attraction was a gigantic version of a robotic vacuum cleaner that wandered about the airport with impressive independence like a flattened brother of R2-D2. The kids chased after him and took his picture. Everything looked abandoned, but the eldest of my two daughters, who’s 11, sighed with satisfaction and said: I feel like we’re getting out of jail.

Police use water cannon against protesters in Athens on October 7, 2020.Credit: ANGELOS TZORTZINIS - AFP

The Israir flight to Athens was packed with families, most of them with a few small children. Someone in the back row made a last phone call before takeoff and could be heard telling a friend, with a sigh of relief: “This is it, we decided to leave the lockdown and escape from everything. We’re going to Greece.”

Upon landing, the flight attendants (all in identity-blurring white beekeeper’s outfits) explained that according to the instructions of the Greek airports authority, passengers would have to leave the aircraft in an orderly fashion, each row exiting in its turn. A longtime Israeli habit, of standing in the aisle of crowded planes as everyone tries to get their bags from the overhead bin and exit simultaneously, was abruptly reversed thanks to the utterance of one sentence that started with the word “COVID-19.” Suddenly it turned out that, when they want to, Israelis have the necessary patience to sit in a plane and wait their turn.

Political party or criminal organization

At the Athens apartment we had rented for our first two nights, the owner warned us to expect chaos in the city the following day, with traffic jams and roadblocks. Following a trial that went on for more than five years, an Athens court was set to decide whether the far-right neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, which won 18 seats in the country’s parliament in 2012, qualified for classification as a criminal organization. The party had been under police investigation since 2013, when several of its members murdered a rapper and antifa activist named Pavlos Fyssas in Piraeus.

Demonstrations were expected in Athens regardless of how the court ruled. The city was readying itself, the owner said: Her son’s school would be closing at 10 A.M. and she would pick him up, so she wouldn’t be in her office, which was located in the building where we were staying. “School” – a word that suddenly sounded exotic. Local customs there are sometimes different from ours, but demonstrations are something we’re very familiar with from home, so the prospect didn’t worry us all that much.

In the evening, we wandered around the Exarcheia, the neighborhood that’s considered the anarchists’ bastion in Athens. Every building is covered with graffiti and murals, some of them astonishingly beautiful. Afterward, we discovered that it’s not just the Exarcheia: The whole of Athens seemed to have undergone a heavy graffiti assault. Police were stationed at the corners of the bohemian neighborhood, perhaps in advance of the demonstrations and riots anticipated for the next day. The area has known its share of distress – a 15-year-old boy was killed here by the police in the unrest that accompanied the economic crisis of 2008.

Even though the bars and restaurants were still open, and you could go into stores, local folks looked sad, just like in Israel. COVID-19 has changed life.

Tattooed young people clustered on the other side of the street. Anarchists in Greece look very different from the older folks with the black flags and megaphones at the Balfour Street demonstrations in Jerusalem, or from the young people there, with their bicycle horns and weird costumes.

The next day, the court found the party’s leaders, including the 18 former parliament members (the party did not pass the electoral threshold in last year’s election), guilty of managing a criminal organization, in the wake of Fyssas’ murder and other attacks carried out by party activists, egged on by their leaders, against migrants and left-wingers. Demonstrators outside the courthouse demanded lengthy prison sentences for them. The major protests that had been promised, for and against the verdict, took place mainly away from the city center. Tourism continued apace.

While we were in the capital, we met a few other fortunate Israeli refugees who had come for only a week or two, just before the lockdown started, and had then decided to stay on… and on. In any case, they said, they could work remotely, or aren’t working at all. Some are apparently loaded with money and move around from luxury hotels to pampering resorts. A few said they were considering investing in local real estate. Some had already bought property.

The bars and restaurants in Athens close earlier than usual these days because of the pandemic, at midnight. We sat like transient refugees in an empty restaurant and did what refugees do: We talked about the homeland. If we were distinguished writers, like Thomas Mann or Hannah Arendt, there would be a certain grace to it. But no, this was an instance of just some bourgeois types who could afford to be there but were suffering guilt pangs for not displaying solidarity.

Even though the bars and restaurants were still open, and you could even go into stores – with a face mask, according to the rules, though not all vendors follow the letter of the law – local folks looked sad, just like in Israel. I thought it might be because the lockdown is no longer just an external thing, but in my case accompanies me now wherever I go, along with the sadness it casts. But from conversations with random Greeks – taxi drivers, shopkeepers, restaurateurs – I realized that I wasn’t imagining things. COVID-19 has changed everyone’s life.

Delaying the inevitable

Greece is a large country and it accommodates the regular vacation habits of many Israelis. There are those who swear by the name of an island that only they know about, or of a hotel owner who is willing to rent only to them. But coronavirus tourism has changed that, too. Now, anything goes. People who usually gravitate to the same remote beach every summer have found themselves wandering from south to north, and back south, either because they have more time on their hands or because they can’t find accommodations due to the pandemic or because it’s off-season. Delaying the inevitable, extending their tickets, ignoring the teachers who are pleading for their children to present themselves on Zoom.

The Zur family.

In an almost deserted tavern in Loutra Elenis, a coastal village at the northern end of the Peloponnese peninsula that looks godforsaken even though it’s only a 50-minute drive from Athens, we met three Israeli families who were spending the holidays together. Ofer Zur and Hadar Choresh Zur and their three children, from Tel Aviv, had been traveling in Greece for almost a month. Their original destination was Croatia, but before their flight it was designated a “red” country. They tried calling the airline in order to switch tickets, but to no avail, so they simply showed up at the airport, children and suitcases in tow, and said they wanted to fly somewhere else.

Ofer is in high-tech and can work from any place in the world where there’s a desk and a wireless internet connection. Actually, even the desk is unnecessary. Hadar is a self-employed interior designer whose work has stopped during the pandemic. They’ve crisscrossed Greece from south to north and back again. The kids had some Zoom classes, but were quickly given a pass, Hadar says, because they had plenty of that at home, too.

After two weeks they were joined by their friends from home, Avi and Riki Aikort, a real estate broker and a personal trainer, respectively, with their kids, and by Riki’s sister and her family.

Ofer and Hadar showed me photos of gorgeous beaches with crystal-clear blue water from their trip. Their unequivocal recommendation for next summer is the Pelion peninsula, in northeastern Greece. In contrast to regular vacations, Hadar notes, they didn’t post even one photo on the social media. The people stuck back in Zion would not be understanding.

The Israelis had stopped to eat in our village, on the way back from the far end of the Peloponnese to Athens, where their return flight to Israel was scheduled for the following day. Hadar said she was going back with mixed feelings, because the lockdown was an ordeal for her. Ofer was happy to be returning, because he had had enough. “We’re going back to our beloved Bibi,” he guffawed.

We bought the property a year ago, and now we discovered that all the land in the area that had been available before the pandemic had been acquired by Israelis.

Shirli Adler

Were you able to disconnect from what’s happening in Israel?

“Partly,” said Hadar – but Ofer admitted that he’s addicted to the news and didn’t disconnect for a second. Even so, he seemed pretty calm. A few days later, I send him a message asking how it was to get back. Terrific, he claims, adding, “The lockdown here isn’t serious.”

I couldn’t have run into Shirli Adler, a lactation consultant and a Satya method therapist of 47, because she spent her coronavirus vacation in Crete and in Pelion. But she’s a friend of a friend and had escaped like we did, so I called her. “Four days before the lockdown, we decided to buy one-way tickets to Greece,” she tells me. “Two days later we were on the plane, with our 5-year-old son. We knew that otherwise we would go crazy in the lockdown.”

After they managed to extend their planned trip to four weeks, they returned to Israel at the end of Sukkot so as to reunite with their older children, who remained at home.

Adler and her husband, an El Al pilot currently on furlough, are frequent visitors to Greece. A year ago, in fact, they bought land in Crete on which they intend to build a house. “It’s a wild region, in southern Crete on the sea, where there’s no one and nothing. Apart from Israelis.”

What do you mean?

“We bought the property a year ago, and when we were there now, we discovered that all the land in the area that had been available before the pandemic had been acquired by Israelis. Entire extended families – grandparents, parents and children – have decided to move to Crete. My husband is also an architect, and now that he has no work [as a pilot], he decided to reinvent himself. He established a company with an architect from Athens. Their idea was to find land to buy, to act as brokers between sellers and potential buyers, and also do the planning. Now they’ve found that swathes of real estate have already been sold to Israelis.”

Nafplio, an ancient coastal city in the Peloponnese.Credit: Tuul / Robert Harding World Imag

Why do Israelis like Crete so much?

“It somewhat resembles Israeli terrain and the Cretans are also hard, tough people. They’re not typical Greeks. During the crisis, people realized that they could work via Zoom from home. We went to a Greek wedding celebration and suddenly heard a song by [Israeli singer] Omer Adam. It turned out that they were Israelis who had conducted one wedding ceremony in Israel and another in Crete, with their new friends, because they’re moving there.”

Adler and her husband also plan to move to Crete. “Even before the coronavirus we intended to live there, because of the nature and because it’s not Israel. But the coronavirus situation totally accelerated it. In Crete you don’t feel the corona. It’s absolutely not there. On the one hand, Crete is the closest possible place to Israel, and at the same time, on Crete you can make dreams come true. The money it costs to build a house on Crete will get you a single reinforced security room [mamad] in Tel Aviv.”

The investment in Greek real estate started for the couple in Athens, where they bought a whole building and renovated it for use as student dorms.

Adler: “And Athens loved us back. Life there delivers a yield. We made the money for the house in Crete from the building in Athens. In Greece everyone comes to you with open arms. We met people there who became like family for us. It’s heartwarming. Our architect became our best friend. He slept on our land for a week in a tent in order to get the feel of the place, and he keeps rocks from there in his pocket, because he’s a romantic. He can think about the vibe of the house and send us poems.”

The whole family told us: Don’t come back, stay as long as possible. People in Israel are really depressed. Never mind politics, I’m talking about the overall atmosphere.

Miri Goldstein

Further north, in Pelion, Adler also encountered many Israelis. “I worked 25 years as a kindergarten teacher, and at the beach, wherever I went, even the most remote place, I met parents and children from my kindergarten. I even met some neighbors. To wander around there is like sitting in Café Tachtit in Tel Aviv. Everyone is like, ‘Aha, so you’re here too? What, you remarried?’ No one wanted to go back, and were all trying to figure out what to do, whether to go on working via Zoom. As for the children’s Zoom lessons, no one gives a hoot. They learn a lot more when they’re with their parents, hiking or kayaking.”

Then why go back at all?

“We wanted to stay on, but my older son is in Israel alone, and I didn’t know what condition the house would be in or how high the Wolt [take-out delivery service] bill would be. We knew there would a price to pay for this vacation, but we decided that it was a period when we would burn money in order to stay alive, keep our heads above water, in order to get through this period healthy. We’re living today as though there is no tomorrow. In Greece, as more time went by, we shed layers, achieved a deeper quiet, breathed with relief. To see from there what’s happening in Israel is very disheartening.”

Two weeks, 2,000 kilometers

In Nafplio, a beautiful, ancient coastal city in the Peloponnese, the narrow streets were almost completely empty during a sunny midday. Almost all of the few occasional tourists spoke Hebrew. In a small hotel, an elegant couple that was also having breakfast spoke Hebrew. Miri and Yisrael Goldstein, both 73, from Herzliya, had already been on the road for a few weeks. Miri is an education system retiree, Yisrael is in the tourism industry in normal times, bringing Christian pilgrims to Israel. At present they’re not coming.

“We decided to go before Rosh Hashanah, when there was already talk of a lockdown, because we wanted to rejuvenate ourselves,” Miri relates. “At Rosh Hashanah we couldn’t be with our children – they live far from us. So we bought tickets and flew to Athens on the day after Yom Kippur. We were concerned about whether the results of the coronavirus tests would arrive in time. We did the test on the eve of Yom Kippur, and the next day, on Yom Kippur itself, we already had the results. That was surprising.

“From Athens we traveled to Pelion and spent three nights there. We had a small B&B in a natural setting, in a grove; it was dreamy. From there we went to Meteora, which is quite a trip, and then to the villages in the Zagora region. We did lots of hiking. From Zagora we went to the island of Lefkada, where there are unbelievable beaches. We left there yesterday and came to the Peloponnese. We did 2,000 kilometers in two weeks.”

Where are you headed now?

Miri and Yisrael Goldstein.

“Back to Israel, it seems. We’re waiting for the lockdown to be lifted in a few days.”

Don’t you have return reservations?

“We bought tickets for six days on Israir, we canceled the return flight and now we don’t have tickets. The whole family told us: Don’t come back on the date you planned, stay as long as possible. We got the okay from them but we wrestled with it, because our children are in Israel as is my mother. But people in Israel are really depressed – and these are people who are close to us; they’re not pretending. You speak to them and feel sorry for them. You sense their gloominess, frustration, helplessness, and you don’t see the end. Never mind politics, I’m talking about the overall atmosphere.”

So I take it you weren’t crowing on Instagram about the beautiful places you saw.

“Obviously not. We didn’t want to make people feel bad. But we got a lot of encouragement from friends, and my sister said we should send pictures ‘to make us envious,’ and that the moment the skies opened up, they would come, too.”

Did you meet Israelis in all these places?

“Plenty. Everywhere. Ninety percent of the tourists we met were Israelis. There are hardly any others. You talk to people, and straight off they reply in Hebrew. In every corner we visited. In Zagora we saw other Israelis our age. We met couples who talked about wanting to delay their return. But they couldn’t, because there were no seats available. They said they were seriously contemplating the idea of just forgetting about the ticket and staying on. Others decided in advance that they were going to stay for a month. We also met lone tourists, Israelis, and some high-tech people who were in a hotel in Zagora, because it was suitable for them to work from a hotel, with little babies. But because of the coronavirus, a lot of places aren’t operating anymore, hotels and restaurants are shut.”

Miri admitted that despite the grim reports from Israel, she was homesick. “We’ll stay in the Peloponnese for a few days, because I’m tired of all the traveling. Beyond that, we’re not making plans. We’re playing it by ear. Do you have any idea how many beaches I saw, and how many fortresses and monasteries? What a pleasure to sit and talk a little.”

“You didn’t enjoy it?” Yisrael asks in dismay.

“Yes, I enjoyed it,” she reassures him, “and especially because I was able to do all that climbing.”

Miri later sent me a WhatsApp message to say me that even though the lockdown was still in force in Israel, they had decided to return to Israel in two days. “We miss the offspring,” she wrote. “And besides that, I feel like demonstrating.”

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