Toritto at the Acropolis – 1994
It’s 1994 and the Great American Travel Company sends me off to Athens to take a look at local operations. I haven’t been to Greece since 1966; Athens was a stop on my way to or from Eritrea. I would usually spend a day or two in the city prior to departing to Asmara.
It’s Summer and Athens is hot.
And polluted. Air polluted. Primarily from car exhaust.
It gets so bad that traffic into downtown is restricted daily to odd or even numbered license plates.
There will be the usual work routine, dinner with colleagues and free weekends to explore. On the roof of my hotel is a restaurant, open during pleasant weather, with a gorgeous view of the Acropolis. Breakfast with a view.
The hotel operates a bus into downtown because of car restrictions which I take daily to the drop off point from where I can walk to the office. It is across the street from the National Archeological Museum.
Temple of Olympian Zeus
During the weekends I stroll the city, explore the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Agora and of course the Acropolis. A great deal of rehabilitation had been done since I last walked the ground of the iconic building. I always find myself a comfortable place to sit, contemplate and enjoy the moment.
I mean, Pericles was here. Truly Zen.
Absorbing the moment is a key to living. I am always aware that I will probably not pass this way again. A picture of the moment,, a cup of coffee and a Macanudo Ascot properly memorializes such special times in life.
So tonight it’s dinner with Greek friends at a nice restaurant. Their English is excellent, the food and ouzo perfect and we relax.
Over coffee this dumb American asks a dumber faux pas question:
“What’s the big deal about the Republic of Macedonia?”
You think the stupid foreigner had burned the Greek flag in front of the Parliament building!
As background, Yugoslavia had broken up into a number of countries and one of these called itself the “Republic of Macedonia”. Greeks were enraged.
And stupid me lit the match.
“Not Acceptable! It borders our Northern province of Macedonia and means they have territorial ambitions! Macedonia is Greek!!”
Because of the hubbub the new country was admitted to the U.N. as “The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” while Greece and Macedonia worked it out. Greece and The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia finally worked it out last June as a thoroughly exasperated U.N. had agreed to accept any resolution worked out by the two countries.
The issue had been on-going for over 40 years although Greece and T. F. Y. R. O. M have had excellent diplomatic and trade relations. It was finally agreed by both countries that T.F.Y.O.M. would be known as the Republic of North Macedonia. Fine with the U.N.
In 1994 however it was, shall we say, a hot topic in Greece. And that dear readers is an understatement.
The now more ouzo than coffee conversation went “downhill” from there.
We moved to a comfy bar.
The destruction of Smyrna – 1922
“The Turks burned Smyrna and expelled the Greeks” (in 1922), “the Turks invaded Cyprus” and “Constantinople is Greek!” (ehh…you mean Istanbul? Not Greek since 1453).
The American is muttering to himself, the ouzo is flowing and we drank on talking of ancient slights, grievances and insults.
I learned something over the ouzo bottles – peoples have long memories.
And obsessing over past wrongs is not good for the soul. It is corrosive.
“After all”, I pointed out, “no Turk alive is responsible for burning Smyrna. And weren’t Greek armies fighting Turks in Anatolia at the time. And what of the Turkish expulsion from Salonika?”
Grumbling. A grudging agreement – sort of,
“But the Serbs still mourn their defeat at the hands of the Turks on the Field of Blackbirds!” ( in 1389!) “There is Serb blood on that field!”.
Unfortunately today the field is in Kosovo.
I stand up from the table my ouzo in hand.
“Anyone here a Serb? Anyone in this bar a Serb?”
“Naah! No! No Serbs here!”
“No? Ok let’s leave them out of this”.
“And the Turks invaded Cyprus!”
“Not till the Greek Colonels moved to annex all of it.”
And so it went. Grievances…..and blinders.
“Ah you Americans have no history yet! You wait!”
Americans have a short history compared to Greeks. And Turks. Maybe when we are a couple of thousand years old, if we get that far, we too might have age old grievances. Certainly our history with Native Americans and slavery created legitimate grievances against us. I like to think however we do not wear blinders.
Having solved the regional problems over ouzo, the drunks finally went home.
So sometime during the following workweek I catch the hotel bus at the downtown stop to carry me back to my temporary abode.
I am alone – bus driver and I. We chat.
He begins to tell me of his niece who has gone to America to study. “Bright girl. Going to college in America!’
“But my brother was not going to send her off to live alone!”
“No. No! She has to live with our family!”
Can’t have her living that American college dorm life.
“She is living with our brother Niko and his family”.
“In Tarpon Springs?” I asked.
Largest percentage of Greeks of any city in America and less than 20 miles from where I live.
His eyes lite up. Biggest smile I’ve seen in Greece.
“You know Greek Tarpon Springs yes??”
Oh yes. Americans can occasionally be so smart.
Typical Street Lamp in Tarpon Springs