On the first day of my first post-COVID holiday, on a Greek island, I got the post-COVID ‘super cold’. I’d booked the trip nine months earlier, and it was to be my first overseas trip in over two years, my second beach holiday ever.
I did not grow up with the British tradition of a summer seaside holiday abroad. When I first came back to live in the UK as an adult, I did not understand the profound animal need for light and heat that drives the yearly exodus of Northern Europeans to Spain, Greece and Turkey. I had grown up taking a surplus of sunlight for granted, as something that was potentially dangerous rather than life-giving. I did not understand the impulse to endure school holiday airports, surely a circle of hell, for two weeks of packaged sand and sun.
Living in Scotland, where summer may only appear for a week, a day or not at all, after a winter that lasts six months, I now crave the sun in my bones.
But beach holidays are for families and couples. An experiment, years ago, when I rented a studio on Naxos, merely extended my usual solitary lifestyle to an island where I knew absolutely nobody. Heaven for women who are constantly managing and caring for other people, at home and at work, but I was ready to leave at the end of the week.
The problem of how to go on a beach holiday alone, aside from a singles resort (I want a bit of company, not the attentions of men who feel entitled to holiday fun), was resolved by the discovery of a two-person outfit offering retreats for people on their own. Single-occupancy studios were standard, with the option of morning meditation, boat trips and shared meals—solo dining is often the least fun part of solo travel—as and when you fancied. Even better, the fundamental principle of the shared meals was that you only paid your own bill. For someone who doesn’t eat and drink that much, splitting the bill can be expensive, but it takes a strong ego to make a fuss by requesting an individual bill.
The weekly holiday-season flight from Edinburgh airport left at feck-o-clock in the morning. At least it was already light at 3:30 am. I hadn’t been to an airport since November 2019 and the experience was as ghastly as ever, an overloaded human conveyor belt. I didn’t regret not doing this in the two summers of COVID, with all the additional paperwork and the constant risk of quarantine, which seemed very much like imprisonment, in conditions of solitary confinement if you were on your own.
Arriving at the small island airport, I was embraced in a bliss of dry heat and searing light. It was hotter than usual for this time of year, I was told, but it was only about 30 degrees. I used to go to school in 40-degree heat, with no air conditioning, just ceiling fans that barely nudged the leaden air. Thirty degrees is the nice end of hot, if it’s dry heat.
I was assigned a ground-floor studio flat in a row of four, two of them booked by the retreat. Beyond the terrace was a thin strip of scrubby ground, and then a small rocky beach. Across the water, the mainland loomed hazily.
And finally, I had it: the pure animal pleasure of bobbing about in a warm, gentle sea beneath a benevolent, life-giving sun, an almost amniotic experience.
That night, participants met in one of the seafront tavernas for dinner. We learned and quickly forgot each other’s names. I didn’t need the denim jacket that I’d brought along, expecting evenings to be cool. The trainers I’d worn on the flight over would remain unworn the rest of the week. My toes, pale tuberous growths, were displayed in my fake ‘middle of Lidl’ Birkenstocks with gold straps, my nails a proper holiday pink.
I woke early the next morning to the sound of the sea. My bed was right by the terrace door, and I’d left the heavy glass doors open, leaving only the flyscreen between me and the night. As a security measure, I’d put a stool between the bed and the door. If the Random Bad Man tried his luck, he’d run into the stool and at least I’d have some warning. The Random Bad Man is never entirely absent from the calculations of a solo female traveller.
My retreat neighbour was already up, cross-legged on the nearby rocks, meditating. I made coffee and sat at my table, looking out at the sea. Here I was, my long-awaited beach holiday. I didn’t have to do anything, and nobody would be bored or irritated by this inaction. I was free to be utterly boring, one of the great benefits of solitude. I was not responsible for anyone else’s entertainment.
I went for another swim, pleased with my forethought in buying an extra swimsuit; one to dry, one to wear. I’d learned this the hard way on my previous beach holiday. Searching for a new swimsuit in May, I’d been part of the pre-holiday shopping rush, a larger communal experience. I’d found a nice one-piece in TK Maxx, but the luggage section was almost cleared out, as if by post-COVID holiday-mad locusts, and I had to order a new suitcase online.
The coughing fit began in the introductory session. We were in the retreat leader’s flat and she was explaining the rest of the week to participants who hadn’t been before. I was sitting directly underneath the air conditioning. When I started to cough, I couldn’t stop. I went onto the balcony, eyes streaming, and missed the basic principles of meditation (it’s not actually about ‘emptying’ your mind at all, but I didn’t hear the rest). My long-awaited, much-imagined holiday was already out of whack.
Nobody gave me obvious side-eye when I went back in, but I was newly conscious of being under suspicion, a potential carrier of the plague that had locked down the world. Back in my flat, I did a rapid flow test. I’d brought a box of NHS tests, the gagging kind with a throat swab that everyone stopped using when the nose-only tests appeared. It was negative. I did another, to be sure; also negative. It was just a cold, another banal experience that had been relegated for two years.
My sense of freedom restored, I went for another swim.
I didn’t go to morning meditation the next day. My cough was worse, and I didn’t want to destroy the experience for everyone else, even though I had the all-clear. The retreat leader said that I shouldn’t have worried; meditation occurs in the real world and people have to deal with the inevitable interruptions. When I said I’d done two LFTs, she said it hadn’t even occurred to her that I might have the plague. I wasn’t confident this attitude was widely shared.
That night, most of the group went into the nearest big town for dinner. We sat out on a long table on the main square, overlooked by old Venetian-style buildings and surrounded by other tables and the buzz of a busy Mediterranean summer evening. After a long hot afternoon, everyone was out on the town to enjoy the balmy evening, children on those annoying scooters, women in sundresses and shorts. There was a general sense of relaxation and wellbeing that you only get in warm weather. In Glasgow, the shock of a fine day (20 degrees) is so great that people take most of their clothes off in public. Also, such weather is fleeting, so there is pressure to ram an entire summer’s worth of revelry into a day or two, before another six months of winter.
As we gathered to meet the minibus for the return trip, the organiser announced that one of our group, who had not appeared on this expedition, had tested positive for COVID. We’d sat next to each other at dinner the first night.
The more I tried not to cough on the short trip home, the more I couldn’t help it. I felt like public enemy #1.
The next morning, although I’d tested negative yet again, I decided to get a PCR. The retreat leader drove me into town to a private clinic, where I paid the 47 euro fee, as set by the Greek government, and received the result (negative) within an hour. In the car trip there and back, talking non-stop to the retreat leader (except when I coughed non-stop), I realised that I’d been kind of lonely.
By this time, my throat was a septic mess, my coughing fits went on for several minutes, and my mucus turned green. I’d known in the abstract that people were getting super-colds, a reassertion of the rhinovirus against which we had no immunity. Lucky for everyone else on the plane, I’d worn my FFP2 mask the whole way, the only person who’d bothered.
I cancelled my booking on a day cruise. I was obviously sick, and I was already fed up with claiming my right to be in public through my negative test status. Also, sailing through turquoise waters in a personal sea of snot was not the experience I’d dreamed of in the long wait for this holiday.
I went for several dips a day on the small rocky beach. I bought a pair of ugly eight-euro jelly shoes from one of the tourist shops on the main street so I could walk into the water without wincing in pain from all the stones. I went for little shopping trips (milk, yogurt, apricots, peaches). I lay on a sun lounger reading not the books I’d lugged over from Glasgow, which were suddenly of no interest, but other people’s leavings in the library shelf outside the massage room.
(Along with the usual holiday reading of light fiction and local travel guides, the library shelf offered books on meditation and self-development, and a few Penguin classics. Who expects to read Paradise Lost on a beach holiday?)
As I had learned on my previous solo beach holiday on Naxos, given all the time in the world to myself, I can only spend so much of it lying in the sun, swimming and reading, as desirable as these unbounded non/activities seem in the abstract, deep in winter. I was aware of being restless and wanting company, but in my suspiciously diseased state, a twenty-first-century leper, I didn’t feel I could seek it out.
I paid a distanced visit to Rita, the woman who officially, properly, scientifically had COVID. Under Greek law, she was quarantined in her studio flat for five days. From her balcony, she could see the beach where she was not allowed to swim. Who would’ve blamed her for slipping out in the evening for a quick dip? Not me.
I sat on the low wall, a wedge of buffalo grass between us, and we enquired after each other’s health. She was relieved to hear that I’d tested negative, fearing she might have infected me. I was relieved that I hadn’t infected her.
Her initial symptoms—a sore throat and cough—had been very mild. There had even been the temptation, she admitted, to just ignore it: if you don’t feel particularly sick and you don’t test, then you don’t know you have it, and you’re effectively not sick. She was a very nice, proper woman, and I was impressed by this confession. How many millions of people have engaged in the same moral reasoning? Unlike all those people, whose number will remain unknown, Rita had done the right thing, not wanting to infect others. The pink stripe had appeared instantly, almost before the control line. Not that I needed further confirmation, but I’d inspected all my LFT strips with a torch and not seen the slightest shadow of a line.
Rita had booked for two weeks, so she’d still have half her holiday. I went back to my studio and had another swim.
Each evening, those who wanted company would meet at 7pm at the designated café and go on for dinner. Having skipped the morning meditation sessions, where group bonding took place, I began to feel like an outsider, a feeling that comes all too naturally to me.
At a certain point, loneliness breeds a certain defiance. One evening, I had a Shirley Valentine experience at the nearest taverna, a minute’s walk around the rocky corner of my little beach, patrolled by stray cats. I took a table close to the water, my back to all the couples, groups and families, and dined in glorious solitude. Because such defiance needs witnesses, I took a photograph and posted it on Facebook as ‘my Shirley Valentine moment’. It was instantly liked by two people I hadn’t seen in years, one of them a school friend I hadn’t seen since the late 1990s in Canberra.
Did I feel slightly less lonely for this? I’m not sure.
The ‘Shirley Valentine’ experience, along with a David Sedaris book from the library, had been recommended to me by another retreat participant. The previous night, I’d seen her sitting on her terrace, which was right by the taverna, and had bruised if not broken the retreat rule about privacy by wandering close enough to open a conversation. She said she wasn’t bothered by such incursions and said I could come by any time to chat.
(And yet, I didn’t see her on the terrace after this. Her shutters remained closed, and we did not speak again.)
By the last day or so, as the cold relaxed its grip, I was increasingly restless. I swam some more, learned to go to the artisan bakery early enough to buy a spanakopita before they ran out, and finished the David Sedaris book.
One morning, it was cooler than usual and I walked on the winding roads up the hillside behind the shore. I passed new holiday developments in rendered concrete, battered signs to pensions that no longer existed, abandoned boats in overgrown orchards and half-built houses sprouting bunches of rusted steel bars that scraped the sky. The dusty, ramshackle landscape was familiar; I’ve been on several island walking holidays in Greece and I used to envy, just occasionally, the holiday-makers who had time to swim and relax on the beach.
On the second last day, my neighbours on the other side, an English mother and daughter, not part of the retreat, left and were quickly replaced by a family whose language I couldn’t place. The father and son were large and loud, with semi-shaven heads. They stomped back and forth across the shared terrace, an incursion of personal space that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. The retreat rule about privacy included, very specifically, not walking across other people’s terraces. In my block, the scrubby strip of garden between the terrace and the beach was punctuated by two little exit lanes, to allow the residents of the middle two studios to access the beach without walking across private space. The new residents were oblivious to this detail and had no natural restraint.
My neighbour on the other side, the dawn meditator, was hosting a restorative yoga session the afternoon of their arrival. An otherwise even-tempered woman from Newcastle tried to explain, with some vigour, the concept of privacy.
Out the back, in the vacant lot that served as a car park—there were many overgrown vacant lots around the town, prowled by solitary, staring feral cats—I saw an SUV with a Moldovan number plate. I’d never encountered any Moldovans before, and this was not a good start.
The retreat organisers had provided some sun loungers, clearly labelled as for the use of retreat participants. These the Moldovans appropriated on their first day. At 8am the Moldovan son was stomping back and forth across my terrace to resupply his father, already installed on the beach, with fresh bottles of beer. Tipped off, the retreat organisers came by and quietly explained that the sun loungers were not a public amenity.
In the studio at the far end, an elderly couple—Germans, I think—kept their two sun loungers stacked on their bit of terrace when not in use. These loungers suddenly appeared on the beach beneath the Moldovan mother and father, the son making do with a towel.
‘Off! Off!’ The old German gent steamed down to the beach, gesturing at Mrs Moldova in her bikini as if she were a stray dog shitting on his front lawn.
Her piercing squeal brought Mr Moldova thrashing back to shore as fast as his extremely poor freestyle could manage.
After some violent shouting, the old German came huffing back up to where his wide-eyed wife waited on their terrace. (Had she spent a whole marriage enduring his temper?)
‘I will call the police! You are a thief! The police!’
A little later, two local women, presumably the landladies, appeared and spoke to the German. By the next morning, he, his wife and their sun loungers were gone. Whether they’d been evicted, left early or were due to leave anyway, I did not know. My own allotted time was up the next day, and I didn’t envy the next retreat guest who would inherit my Moldovan neighbours.
Back in Glasgow, it was 12 degrees and grey. It took me another two weeks to get over the cold. I miss the heat and the light and the sea, and I’ll be yearning for it when winter sets in, but I won’t miss walking solitary circuits around the harbour and main street, hoping I’d see someone to talk to.
I haven’t actually had COVID, but my holiday had a version of it.