Birthday party in the Time of the Virus

Thodoris, 41, wearing a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19, gets ready to blow the candles during his birthday outside a bar in Cholargos district, in Athens, Greece, Wednesday, Apr. 14, 2021. © Michael Varaklas.
Text and Photos by Michael Varaklas

When Thodoris came back with my beer, he said to me “Man, the only cold one they had was Corona”. “Oh, the irony”, I thought. And then I just pushed in the lemon slice and I chugged that bad boy like a motherfucker.

Being in lockdown for so long makes us reevaluate things taken for granted. Like going out for a cup of coffee, or a beer, or meeting with friends at a bar to celebrate someone’s birthday. Oh, birthdays. The day of the year most people want to spend with beloved friends and family, gathered at home or a bar, without any restrictions or curfews. But the unfortunate circumstances of the pandemic have forced us to celebrate birthdays with a limited number of people at a little bit more alternative places.

Thodoris, 41, talks with Maria and Visarionas at Faneromeni square in Cholargos district, in Athens, Greece, Wednesday, Apr. 14, 2021. © Michael Varaklas.

Our friend Thodoris had his 41st birthday. It would be his second birthday during a lockdown. “It feels like I’ve missed an entire year,” he complained while smoking his cigarette. Thodoris is an engineer who works from home and occasionally goes to his office. My wife, Idyli, and I met with Thodoris on a cloudy day at the square in our neighborhood for coffee.

The sky in Cholargos district, in Athens, Greece, Wednesday, Apr. 14, 2021. © Michael Varaklas.

Children were cheerfully running around and playing, couples sitting on benches, pensioners chatting about sports, politics, and of course, the pandemic. Our conversations were not much different either. Well, except the sports topic maybe. Thodoris invited us to his birthday party. Not a party exactly, but more like a small gathering to wish him a happy birthday. His invitation was an opportunity for us to have a drink with friends after a very long time, so we agreed with pleasure.

Thodoris, 41, holds his drink at Faneromeni square in Cholargos district, in Athens, Greece, Wednesday, Apr. 14, 2021. © Michael Varaklas.

When we met with Thodoris again, he was already outside the bar that served take-away drinks and beer. He didn’t dress for the occasion, neither did we. He stood there with a box of candy and two candles put in two of the candy. There were a few people around waiting to take their drinks, and others waiting patiently in line to order theirs. Everybody was wearing a mask and kept the proper distance.

The music was playing so low that we could barely listen to it. Some people were chatting with an occasional laugh, holding their drinks, having a smoke, right outside the bar. For a moment, it felt like it was normal again until someone would put out the cigarette and put on the mask.

But that’s how things are. We need to stay alive and well to fight that son of a bitch off our lives. Half an hour later, we were six people in our group. Thodoris blew the candles, we all wished him a happy birthday, and we had the first sip of our drinks.

The irony, in Cholargos district, in Athens, Greece, Wednesday, Apr. 14, 2021. © Michael Varaklas.

And then it was time to move. We could not stay close to the bar because there would be trouble with the police if they showed up. We moved to the square, and we sat there always at the proper distances. It had gotten dark by then and a little chilly. There was still a lot of commotion from children playing, but as time was passing, all those voices would slowly silence. Most people were gone, and the few dog walkers were on their way home.

Maria picks up the trash at Faneromenis square in Cholargos district, in Athens, Greece, Wednesday, Apr. 14, 2021. © Michael Varaklas.

Our topics of conversation, amongst others, were the situation of the COVID19 pandemic in Greece, lockdown survival tips, fitness workout routines at home, etc. We were talking about music, stories of how we met each other, and all of a sudden, I realized that I was on my third beer.

Thodoris, 41, holds his drink at Faneromeni square in Cholargos district, in Athens, Greece, Wednesday, Apr. 14, 2021. © Michael Varaklas.

We were all having a blast, even though we were cautious all the time. Six people found the opportunity to blow off some steam and be reminded that we humans are social creatures. Being at the square instead of a bar or someone’s place made no difference. The only things that reminded us of the situation we were in were the masks and the distance. We were talking, laughing, and cheering.

From left to right, Maria, Stefanos, Thodoris and Idyli talk at Faneromenis square in Cholargos district, in Athens, Greece, Wednesday, Apr. 14, 2021. © Michael Varaklas.

The time passed, and we had to go back home. On the way home, my wife Idyli and I talked about how foolish it would be not to go. There are times that boredom tries to prevail and drag you down to a dark pit. We were wise to go to this party, even under those circumstances. We were careful, we did not take any risks, we followed all the instructions, and we still had a good time.

Stefanos and Maria hug each other at Faneromenis square in Cholargos district, in Athens, Greece, Wednesday, Apr. 14, 2021. © Michael Varaklas.

Someday we will remember that day over a beer sitting at a bar, with loud music and full of people. But for this day to come, we need to stay strong, alive, and well.

Happy Birthday, Teo!