Certain personal matters necessitated that I leave for Greece while the country’s borders remained closed to international travelers.
I wanted to share my experience, first and foremost as a guide for potential travelers seeing to come to Greece before the borders open officially and second, to draw some attention to certain institutions that are doing important work in keeping the public informed during these challenging times.
First and foremost— I must commend specific staff at the Greek Embassy in Washington DC and the Consulate of Greece in New York, who were immediately responsive to my emergency request and helped me navigate the process to obtain the necessary approvals.
As an American citizen with a U.S. passport, I am still barred from entering Greece. Being married to a Greek national, however, allowed me entry if traveling with my spouse, considering that the necessary paperwork was in order.
Mr. A., a diplomat at the Embassy of Greece in Washington DC outlined the process and provided me with a road map to get the necessary permission to enter Greece.
Mrs. K., a consular officer in New York was a true professional in her efficient handling of my paperwork— all in the midst of New York’s lockdown. She was explanatory and responsive and despite the stress that everyone was under in New York City, she handled my situation with calm, respect and care.
The entire staff at the Consulate— and I interacted with numerous individuals to complete several necessary forms— were efficient and responsive while most of them worked from their homes. They provided me with all of the necessary forms and details electronically and in advance of my required appearance at the Consulate.
When it was finally necessary for me to appear at the Consulate in person, I was pleasantly surprised at the protocols and measures taken by the staff— from waiting outside until it was my turn to enter, to the entire signature process done with distance and safety— to the payment process at the end.
I must also commend U.S. Ambassador to Athens Geoffrey Pyatt and the emergency response team that he assembled and implemented via the Embassy’s website. The Covid-19 Update contains daily updates with travel information for American citizens traveling to or from Greece, as well as what to expect once inside the country and all of the new laws and regulations in place.
In this era of false information promulgated on various social media platforms, the information on the Embassy’s website was a breath of fresh air to find the latest official information.
We flew on United Airlines from Newark to Frankfurt and connected in Frankfurt on a Lufthansa flight to Athens. If I could describe the whole travel experience in one word— it would be “surreal.”
Newark Airport was empty. It was like being in a Sci-Fi movie and walking in a cavernous building as one of the last survivors of a nuclear holocaust looking for survivors.
The departures board had less than a dozen flights listed on a single screen while the second and third screens were eerily blank.
When we got to the gate, there was a long line of masked people waiting to get their preliminary approval to board. Four agents from United Airlines and three armed police guards maintained the line as one by one, people who were constantly reminded to stay 6 feet apart approached the desk to have their “documents” inspected.
The “document check” was like a scene out of a 1970s spy movie with would-be travelers waiting to cross into into East Germany.
Before me, an Italian woman and her American husband pleaded with the agents and showed a pile of paperwork they had in a folder. From what I could gather, the couple was married in the United States but hadn’t registered their wedding with Italian authorities. The United Airlines agent called the Italian Consulate in New York to verify the paperwork. This lasted for about 10 minutes while the husband pleaded with the United staff. They were eventually allowed to board.
A young American girl who was flying onward to Finland was denied boarding all together. Despite showing paperwork that showed she had a job there and begging the United agent, he explained to her that Finnish authorities had closed the border to non-citizens and that her employment paperwork wasn’t an automatic “permission to enter.”
It was a serious inspection process. The agent told me that German authorities were imposing hefty fines per person on the airlines for letting people on board who didn’t have the necessary permission to travel— not only to Germany, but onward to their destination countries.
When it was our turn to board, they went through every single document that I had, asked me a few questions and eventually scanned our boarding passes.
While in line, we were constantly reminded to stay 6 feet apart from each other— only to board the aircraft and find a packed flight with passengers a few feet in front of me, behind me and next to me.
We did get a sanitizing wipe when we boarded and were encouraged to wipe down all plastic areas around our seat.
The flight was uneventful. Masks were required. Flight attendants wore gloves. Food service commenced as usual but for some strange reason, United wasn’t serving ice in their drinks, or any hot or alcoholic beverages.
The United flight attendants were very professional in their handling of an obviously uncomfortable situation and made the whole experience much more tolerable.
We were asked to fill out forms that were required by the German federal government.
When we landed in Frankfurt, we were taken off the plane in groups of 20 to maintain distance during the de-planing process.
Frankfurt Airport was pretty much like Newark. Empty, desolate and creepy.
We went through a document check there, as well. In addition to asking for our passports as they normally do, they asked for our permission to travel documents, which we were able to produce for them. An American couple in front of us got a grilling. They were repeatedly asked why they were traveling and host of other questions, before being escorted to a private room near the inspection booths.
We eventually cleared after our papers were approved. We had a short layover before boarding our flight to Athens. I only saw two shops open at the airport— a coffee shop and a pharmacy.
At the gate for the Athens departure, we were again reminded to keep a distance from each other while we boarded, only to get on a completely packed flight— not a single empty seat. Masks were required.
Unlike United, and for reasons I still don’t understand, Lufthansa did serve ice in their drinks and offered hot beverages. We were given forms to fill out that were required by Greek authorities.
Upon arrival in Athens, things got real.
We deplaned 15 people at a time and were escorted with armed police to a testing area where individual booths were set up and we were taken in, one person at a time to be swabbed.
Medics were wearing full protective gear and a face guard. One by one we entered the private “booth” area and were swabbed in the back of the throat.
Once our group of 15 were all tested, we were then escorted to the baggage area to retrieve our bags and then, out a side door— always under the watchful eye of armed police officers— directly onto a bus for transport into the city.
The baggage area at Athens Airport had green stickers on the floor telling people where to stand to await their bags. It made sense in principal, but just having come off an airplane on which we were crammed like sardines for the past three hours, it seemed a bit ridiculous.
Upon arrival at the hotel, there were government officials from Greece’s General Secretariat of Civil Protection passing out additional forms that asked things like our address in Athens, telephone numbers and emergency contacts.
This government agency has done a remarkable job during the pandemic, keeping things in order in Greece, but also maintaining the process of the borders while the country has remained closed to most international travelers. Their website contains important information in a dozen different languages.
We were placed in hotel rooms and were told that we were not permitted to leave the room under any circumstances and would be subject to a €5000 fine if we were caught out of the room. The instructions and restrictions were given to us in writing.
They delivered bagged meals to us upon arrival— souvlaki and rice. Quite Greek… Thankfully I’m not a vegan… they brought meals for breakfast and lunch the following day, as well.
At one point upon arrival, I phoned the front desk and asked about permission to take my dog out for a walk. I was impressed to see that they had a plan for people with dogs. A bellhop came to escort me out the back door of the hotel, away from the lobby area, and out to an area off the garage. He told me to take my time so my dog could do his business but watched and waited for me the entire time.
About 20 or so hours after our arrival, we got a call from the front desk that our COVID-19 test results were negative and we were free to check out and head to the address we had designated as our 7-day mandatory quarantine location.
We had to give authorities the location we would be completing our quarantine, as well as our phone numbers. We were warned that if we were caught violating quarantine, we’d receive a €5000 euro fine and were subject to a lawsuit by the Greek state.
Had we tested positive, we would have been required to remain in the hotel for 14 days with medical supervision daily— and psychological support if we needed it.
And here I am now— the last day of my mandatory 7-day quarantine in my apartment in Athens.
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