Poetry in Athens, Greece During Covid

In mid November, I left for Athens, Greece, to study abroad in the neighborhood of Pangrati until May. due to Covid-19, I was sent home in late March. I decided to depict my relationship and goodbye to the city through this series of poems.  


Maybe I Will Realize I Am Unknowable in This City 


This city was more than I had inside of me. 

At first, I thought it was just a giant womb turned

inside out, the product of plasma,

but it was so much more. 


It was only a few short weeks before

I told myself I knew the hills, 

those slipping pink sunsets 

or the sweet carrots from the morning 

market that we would eat,

whole, in the calm clamoring 

of Friday mornings. 


Maybe I even told myself

I knew the man who slept

in the doorways and steps

of our street. Sometimes at night

as I stood on the balcony

I could see the orange and white cats

circling around him in the dark, 

and only then knew it was impossible.


Baudelaire said the city swarms

With innocent monsters. Sometimes

I would look down at my hand 

on the leather seat 

as the taxi sped through the boundless city,

and I swore it looked so foreign

I sometimes thought it was not 

my own. 


What the City Said It Was


Sometimes, the city was just the man

who sold blood oranges on the corner, 

his Έχεις όμορφα μάτια! exists like quicksilver,

but then flickers and is gone. 

In the early mornings, it was an old priest

waving through the net of vines 

on the yellow church windows. 

Here, it smells like salt and potatoes,

sweet pipe smoke and cats. 


It takes me awhile to love Syntagma Square 

and its quick ignition like the start of a star

in the same way I loved the pink sea

dissolving into sequins at sunset, 

or the quiet turns of the big garden,

but in the end everything gives me

some strange ache. 


At night, green birds chanted in the holes

of the sour orange trees.

I would grab the hand of whoever was beside me-

it never seemed to matter there- and say

I’m staying forever with my eyes

refracting the purple hills

as they melted into gold. 


February 8, 2020


The first call came through on the balcony

outside our apartment. Here it was a day of blues,

the dark mountains lying quietly 

under the indigo sky that I knew would melt 

into navy and stay that way until

sunrise. In China, the 63rd person died

since morning. I’m glad you are happy there, Mom said 

through the phone, while my fingers flicked on my thigh,

I am I am I am! There was something new in her

beautiful phone voice. 


We wanted to sunbathe but 

were told it was too American

so we sat in our clothes, 

revelling in the tick tick of dripping

sweat. Are you being safe I asked,

Are people beginning to worry?

Church bells began somewhere in the city below,

then stopped and echoed into the loud 

silence of the streets, the bells 

last murmur chanting with her,

I am I am I am. 


A Week Before 


The heat wave began before I left for Venice, 

but it was there too. I felt it

curled up in the alleyways, 

hanging low in the canals. I saw a cruise ship 

pull up to the docks from the top of Saint Marks, 

harsh and white and huge in the flush of dusk. 


When I got back

I was sick with fever, but 

the oily hit of pigeon wings as they slapped

together, the thick stench of urine and marijuana,

the sticky musk of the city cats didn’t help. 


A doctor was sent to my room. There was suddenly

a hundred of him in the mirrored walls of the elevator,

two hundred small eyes staring

above the blue mask. I lay on my bed, the springs 

digging into my back as he fingered 

each rib, Your last name sounds German. Are you

German? and my flatline response.

He says you don’t have it but 

washes his hands, anyways, until

they are raw.


As the elevator doors shut on a hundred grinning

doctors, I was alone in the dark. 

The shadows from the AC vent split my skin 

into lines. Through it I could hear the couple 

that began fighting at 9 pm each night

starting early, the men on the bottom floor catcalling 

the refugee girls from their balcony, a baby crying 

into an empty room below. 


Last Night


My fever sputtered, then petered out

on the day the government said 

we wouldn’t go to class again. 

The dark streets called us out, 

pulsing, and we let them take us 

into the salty midnight. I know you 

as a reckless city, a fuck-me city, 

a caring city, a big golden puddle city. 


The Polish woman that owned the bar

knew this was the last night for a while. 

The old man who was a famous artist

sat under the awning, watching us 

like we were flames. I guess it was

obvious that we thought we were invincible.

I heard he might close the borders tomorrow morning,

and we’ll be stuck here but we didn’t believe

  1. Then the calls from the US came before 3 am. 


The boys down the street were wild

in the denial of leaving, but they 

would be on planes in 2 days. 

As we walked back from the bars, 

the palm trees lining the streets 

caught in their hair. I saw the 

slow shimmer of every sunset they had ever seen

settled in their eyes; a never-leaving sediment.

I wondered if I looked in the mirror

I would see it there, too. 


Syntagma Square was empty as we walked home. 

The street dogs were stretched out on the road

sleeping and I went from dog to dog to make sure 

they were breathing. 


The stars moved as they always did.


The First Time I Cried 


The first time I cried was on the hill with the small white church. 

It was covered in cactus. People carved their names

into the thick palms, and I tried but my fingers bled, so

I stopped. I let my legs swing over the hill’s edge 

and watched the low-hung orange moon fall

towards the sea. The white church turned

pink and everyone went quiet, except for 

the rogue voice of a woman on her phone

predicting a lockdown. From here, 

it was obvious how the empty 

purple mountains squeezed 

the city together, and how easily

the city gave in. My fingers throbbed 

as I cried for the first time into the colored 

silence, and I wondered how something

so perfect could make my heart bend

and almost break. 


What the City Is 


I walked out to greet the 3 am taxi,

oranges catching under the wheels

of my luggage. The drivers voice 

was muffled behind a mask-

I’ve been going back and forth from the airport 

all night, you Americans really are trying 

to get out. As car began to move 

through the black, the panic

stirred low inside me. I tried to catch

one last look at our top floor balcony,

but it was too high. I swore I saw the homeless man 

shining against the marble stairs in the moonlight.

I felt ashamed I never 

looked him in the eyes. 


I cried as I watched the empty city flicker by-

the pockets of pine and cypress,

the orange trees below the white city blocks,

some windows thrown open in the early morning. I wanted to

catch the curtains and hold on. I wanted to drive until the sky turned pink. 

We passed the stadium and I cried because it was empty,

I cried because I couldn’t see the mountains in the dark, I

cried because I wanted to say thank you, thank you, 

thank you. 


The highway was deserted except for

a single blue car. The driver still managed to

give us the finger while weaving wildly

across lanes- maybe once

I would have been scared but now I clinged

to his recklessness, the last extension of the daring

city. I am not ready to face the whiteness of the airport

after three months in blue,

but my hand sits steady 

on the seat of the taxi.  

About the Author: Lillia Schmidt is a Junior at Trinity College, double majoring in Art History and Urban Studies with a minor in Creative Writing. She currently lives in Wilmington, Delaware.

Copyrighted by Lillie Schmidt. Editorial assistance provided by Ari Basche. This work is part of the “Telling Our Covid Stories” project by the Center for Hartford Engagement and Research (CHER) at Trinity College.

As the creator of “Poetry in Athens, Greece During Covid,” Iagree that this is my original work, and that I retain the copyright.

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