By Gwendolyn Craig
It has been several years since the Bouloukos brothers were all together on one continent, let alone in one house.
They grew up in the Albany area and, like a modern-day Renaissance family, became actors, fashion designers, musicians and diplomats. A family home in Bolton, near Lake George, continues to tie them together, but so does the coronavirus pandemic.
“I have family in Italy, I have family in China, and I have family in New York,” said Adam Bouloukos, who is currently living in Saudi Arabia. “It’s kind of like the epicenters (of coronavirus cases), and everybody is sort of handling it in a different way.”
Adam’s primary residence is in Bolton, in the Adirondack Park, but his work keeps him traveling overseas for most of the year. While he is in Saudi Arabia, his brother Nicholas lives on an island in Hong Kong, about a three-hour plane ride from Wuhan, where the coronavirus first erupted.
Stratton Bouloukos lives in Manhattan, one of the hardest hit areas in the United States. Their eldest brother, Theodore Bouloukos, left Manhattan in March to stay with their mother in Adam’s Bolton home.
Through Skype and phone interviews, the brothers told the Adirondack Explorer what things are like in their corners of the globe during the pandemic.
At 10 p.m. in the Adirondacks it is 10 a.m. in Hong Kong. During this time on Skype, Nicholas turned his phone to show the view from his apartment balcony—a sprawling landscape of homes with a jungle of trees on the tip of an island, reaching out into the sea.
“It’s not Bolton, but it’s OK,” Nicholas said. “It’s not Lake George, but it will do.”
He lives near an airport, and typically planes would be buzzing overhead. Now, with commercial flights halted, Nicholas barely notices its presence. It’s just one of the many changes in Hong Kong since the novel coronavirus swept the country.
The youngest Bouloukos brother is a jazz pianist and has lived in Asia on and off for about 20 years. He experienced the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic during the early 2000s, the first time he ever wore a face mask in public. It was a strange precaution, he remembered thinking at the time.
“It’s very commonplace for people to wear masks, even if they have a mild cold or cough or any kind of sickness, so they won’t infect other people,” he said of residents in Asia.
As a musician, Nicholas tours and performs throughout China. In late November, he said, there were whispers about a kind of pneumonia going around in Wuhan. It wasn’t clear to him how serious this was until New Year’s Eve, when he was performing at a concert.
“Everyone was wearing a mask—the dancers, the crew,” Nicholas recalled. “I was the only one without a mask.”
On Jan. 7, the U.S. Consulate sent out an email warning American citizens about the new pneumonia, and telling them not to travel to Wuhan. Such a communication from the consulate was rare, Nicholas said. His family was on mainland China at the time, celebrating Chinese New Year. They flew back after the news.
A social media platform called WeChat is where many people in China share information, pay their bills, order food and post photos and videos. It is monitored, however, by the Chinese government.
Nicholas recalled seeing “really frightening” videos out of Wuhan on WeChat, before government officials took them down. Some, he said, included people welding apartment doors shut to keep those infected with the virus from leaving.
By late January, schools began to shut. Businesses shut. There was a toilet paper shortage for a while.
But just as New York is seeing a leveling off of cases lately, China was seeing hopeful signs then. It reopened a number of businesses in late February. Even Nicholas’s wife, who works for an architectural firm, went back to work, though donning a face mask.
Then, a number of Hong Kong students living abroad in Europe came home, and coronavirus cases jumped.
Things are shutting down again, and while Nicholas has said the Chinese government is doing a good job in some ways, he thinks some of the closures should have happened sooner. For example, Hong Kong didn’t close karaoke lounges or massage parlors until early April.
Nicholas does appreciate how the government posts information about coronavirus cases on a website. He can tell, for example, if someone is feeling unwell in his apartment building, but he does not know on which floor.
As of early April, Hong Kong, with a population of 7.45 million people, had 977 positive coronavirus cases and four deaths.
“That’s all due to the community and knowing how to respond to something like this,” Nicholas said. “They’ve lived through it before.”
And like people across the United States, Nicholas and his family are staying home, making infrequent trips to the grocery store, social distancing on bikes and walks far from the crowded downtown Hong Kong streets, and doing school work from their apartment. He’s not sure what work will look like in the future, considering he is used to performing in stadiums of 20,000 people.
“We’re cautiously optimistic in Hong Kong, and most people are” he said, “but we’re not out of the woods yet by any stretch of the imagination.”
He has worked and lived in Austria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Jordan, Denmark, Switzerland, Ethiopia and Uganda, and Adam Bouloukos’s latest post with the United Nations has taken him to Saudi Arabia.
He arrived in August to work as the country’s head of the United Nations Development Program, working on energy policy and helping the government diversify its petroleum-based economy.
Then, the coronavirus hit and the country essentially shut down. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy with a king, and in some ways that kind of government is good in a situation like a pandemic, Adam said.
“You’ve got really strong, senior leadership in the form of a king, who is actually making these pronouncements, and then people are following them because there’s really no debate,” he added.
There is a curfew from 3 p.m. to 6 a.m. Mosques, all 90,000 of them, have closed, a major move for the Islamic state with 33 million people. Shops are mostly closed. Schools are closed.
The Saudi Arabian Ministry of Health issues daily notices about COVID-19. One message to residents, which Adam shared, said anyone experiencing symptoms of the virus should go to the nearest hospital “to receive the needed medical intervention free of charge, with no need to bring proof of legal residency.”
Adam, his wife and two of his children, live inside a community surrounded by a concrete barrier. One of his children is grown and lives in the United States. His two youngest, with him in Saudi Arabia, do school work from home. To get out of the house, they go biking around the neighborhood.
It’s not too hot outside, but Adam and his family are bracing for the 120-degree summer days where the air is dry and thick with dust. While the U.S. Embassy offered him and his family a flight back home, they chose to stay. It’s where his work is, he said.
“At the moment, we’re kind of waiting things out,” Adam said. “It’s relatively well-managed here. We do have space, and we do have services.”
He is missing his home in Bolton, though, where he was supposed to visit this summer. Plans are unsettled for now. The family was also supposed to go to Italy, where Adam’s wife is from. His sister-in-law is a medical professional there, and she contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. As soon as her fever broke and she tested negative for the virus, she went back to work.
Meanwhile, Adam’s mother is holding down the fort in Bolton. Worried about his two brothers living in New York City, Adam encouraged them to go north and stay in his house.
Brothers Theodore and Stratton Bouloukos live in an apartment together in Manhattan.
Theodore is a writer, copy editor and actor. He was working remotely around the week of March 10, when news of the coronavirus picked up in New York.
One of Theodore’s friends, who was out of town, keeps a car in the city. Theodore received clearance to continue working remotely, so he borrowed it and headed for the Adirondacks.
“I knew it was a serious thing,” he said, of the coronavirus. “You better believe I high-tailed it out of New York (City).”
New York City has been the country’s epicenter of COVID-19 cases. As of mid-April, more than 139,000 people have tested positive for the virus and more than 15,500 people in the state have died.
After making it to Bolton, Theodore self-isolated for two weeks, staying in a separate wing of the home, away from his mother. When he did finally leave the house to do a grocery shopping, he immediately noticed the lack of precautions people upstate were taking when it came to spreading the virus.
Prepared with a face mask, gloves and disinfectant wipes for the shopping carts, Theodore said a couple of people snickered at him in the store.
Now, masks are required in any public space where one cannot be 6 feet from someone else.
Just as his other brothers are waiting to see how their jobs will change during and after the pandemic, Theodore is waiting. He was supposed to be in Texas, shooting a film, but production has been postponed. He has had a play reading canceled, an acting workshop canceled but he is grateful, he said, for his day job editing.
“There’s nothing like work to keep your sanity and to really distract you from what is this pervasive news reporting, constantly, that just reminds you how grim things are still,” he said.
When Theodore drove up to Bolton, the Fashion Institute of Technology had not closed yet, so Stratton remained in Manhattan. He is a faculty member at the institute.
Stratton has lived in New York City since 1984.
“I’ve seen so much, from race riots, to a staggering amount of gentrification, to 9/11, and now, here we are with COVID-19,” Stratton said. “We’ll get through this somehow, but I think it’s going to be very different.”
The fashion designer is now using video conferencing to work with his students. The challenging part is that they’re all over the world, so he is using multiple platforms to keep in touch. The school also made the abrupt decision to close, leaving Stratton without the ability to get any paperwork from his office.
So far, summer student internships have been canceled, but Stratton is looking at arranging things for the fall.
And rather than making tailored women’s clothing, which is what he is known for, Stratton is putting his sewing skills to a new task. Using loads of cotton, the designer is making masks for family and friends. He reached out to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office to see if he could make masks for health care workers, but he has not heard back.
Stratton is keeping a positive outlook while living in the city that is the talk of national and international news. He exercises and cooks, video chats with friends and family and wears a mask and gloves when running any errands.
He has considered going up north to stay with his mother and Theodore in Bolton, but it would mean taking public transportation. Stratton has decided he is better off “hunkered down in my apartment.”
The hardest part of living through the pandemic, he said, is the inability to rally together with friends and family, as people could do after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
In some ways, however, Stratton said self-isolation has led to a better appreciation for life.
“New Yorkers are tough people,” he said. “You have to maintain a positive outlook. Yes, this is grim, but you have to think, ‘We’ll get past this at some point.’
“This is not a short sprint. It’s a marathon.”