Montreal·First Person

My trip to Greece was nerve-racking at first, but it was worth the pandemic hurdles

As we enjoyed the spectacular relics at our own pace, I started to think to myself: this may never happen again for many years. 

Feelings of guilt and anxiety were mixed with the joy of finally travelling again

Ben had the Panathenaic stadium, and many other historic sites, to himself when visiting Greece earlier this month. (Submitted by Ben Mulchinock)

This First Person article is the experience of Ben Mulchinock, a student in Montreal. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I first noticed my mixed feelings about booking a trip to Greece when I shared my plans with others.

An undercurrent of guilt would creep in when I'd tell them. I was going against government recommendations — jumping the gun all for simple leisure. To some, I was smartly taking advantage of cheap deals and fewer tourists. To others, I was immorally, and needlessly, taking risks.

But after Greece opened up to visitors and Canada announced it was phasing out its quarantine hotels, I took a chance and booked my no-refund tickets — unsure what would happen next.

My international flight was surprisingly smooth. I glided through the Montreal airport without a second glance from security. My flight felt like a Greek name day celebration and the Athenian border guards couldn't wait for me to get onto their soil. The negative result from my $150 COVID-19 test was never even looked at. 

The loosest regulations were at the hostels. After settling into my room of 12 beds (at half capacity) and seeing the lack of measures in place, I started counting down the days until my second vaccine fully kicked in.

Over the next two weeks, I, along with my French travel companion, found that distancing regulations ranged from strictly enforced to mere gentle suggestions — depending on where you were. The central Athenian neighbourhood of Plaka and the touristy island of Aegina were airtight in their COVID-19 safety; the more residential neighbourhood of Pagrati and the smaller island of Agistri were seemingly less wary of the virus.

The other thing that made my experience so unique was how tame the normally chaotic peak season was. As anyone who's visited a European capital in July knows, there's no such thing as a calm day in the city centre. Yet here we were in the birthplace of Western civilization, and there were few crowds.

The Parthenon in Athens. (Submitted by Ben Mulchinock)

We had been warned by blogs and articles that the lines for the most monumental sites like the Acropolis and National Archaeological Museum were gruelling, but when we visited, we just waltzed through the main entrance, enjoying the spectacular relics at our own pace. I started to think to myself: this may never happen again for many years

But most memorable were the conversations I had with locals and their opinions on the incoming foreign nationals. I found a general trend toward two points of view among my many conversations over coffee or beers across Greece.

The first sentiment, which was mainly from the baristas, shopkeepers and restaurant owners of the country, was optimism. A couple that owned a traditional taverna tucked away in the side streets of Athens spent plenty of time chatting with me about how the resurgence of tourism is helping immensely after a quiet 18 months. Another owner was overjoyed to see my friend and me sit at his table and gave us more free snacks and shots than I'd ever been given before.

Most seemed almost shocked to see a Canadian in the flesh, and were far more patient with my broken Greek than they needed to be. 

Conversely, we found that the younger generation was far more indifferent or even hostile to the return of tourists. They were preoccupied with their own lives and struggles, and foreigners meant little to them.

Ben and his travel companion Yohann attended a concert at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a theatre on the slope of the Acropolis which was reduced to two-thirds capacity. (Submitted by Ben Mulchinock)

In the historically radical Athenian neighbourhood of Exarcheia, a student outlined for us the rise in police brutality against immigrants and the ongoing activism against it. He told us about the growing movement against Airbnb rentals — seen by some as a symbol of gentrification and the increased government push to (violently) remove the tourism-hurting refugee squatters from the area.

This final story had me reflecting on my travel problems, and put many of my benign complaints into perspective. 

Over my two weeks of travelling to a sometimes unprepared, often half-empty state, I learned how people were experiencing the pandemic an ocean away, and saw Greece as few do.

I'd do it again in a heartbeat. 

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Ben Mulchinock is a Métis student studying environmental geography and philosophy at Concordia University. He was born and raised in Victoria, British Columbia.