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In 1993, my husband, Stephen, and I moved our young family to Corfu for six months. The move was rugged. The winter was rugged, too. Icy winds sliced down off the snow-covered Albanian peaks, two kilometers away across the water. We had expected a sunny, travel-poster Greece; we had been poised to fall in love with Corfu, the Odyssean paradise. Instead, we moved right past the love affair into the marriage. From the start our relationship with Greece was a serious one. The water pipes froze every night. The phone and electricity didn’t work when it rained, as it did in torrents through February and March. We spent a full week in February huddled in front of the olive-wood fire keeping warm next to racks of wet laundry. Heating oil is three or four times more expensive in Greece than it is in America.

It had dawned on us during that winter, when cold winds in Athens burned the skin off my fair (“ksanthos Amerikanos”) two-year-old’s cheeks, that Greece is a Balkan country. What we deduced meteorlogically was borne out politically. Steve was teaching at Ionian University for the Fulbright Foundation, and for months during the conflict in Bosnia, he looked out from his classroom onto the decks of French and American aircraft carriers. Among them was the Theodore Roosevelt, which this past May mounted attacks on Serbia from the Ionian Sea.

When he expressed our nervousness about the political instability in the Balkans to his students, wondering if it was safe for our children to be in Corfu, they pointed out that in Greece we were much safer always than in America. Greeks, they told him, do not carry hand guns.

 

This past May, I returned to Greece for the fourth time, further straining my relationship with that Balkan nation, this time to accommodate the NATO air war in Yugoslavia. At the Athens airport, as I waited for my bag to appear, the warnings we received before my departure (my husband would be arriving in two days) came to mind: the British professor who informed Steve, “The only place you don’t want to be in Europe right now is Greece”; the prospective landlord who, when told about my coming trip, grew suddenly grim and warned me to be careful; the friend of my mother who phoned daily to see if we had come to our senses and canceled; the friend of mine who left panicked messages begging me not to go.

A slightly tattered, yellow Dunlop bag tipped off the belt onto the carousel. Pinned to the side was a large tag reading “Doctor’s Without Borders.” My first brush with the war. At the various airport information desks — the EOT, the tourist police (no hand guns here, but lots of thievery) — I received conflicting advice about finding a bus to nearby Varkiza. One woman told me, brusquely, that there was no bus; another, that I would have to go first to Piraeus, 45 minutes in the wrong direction before doubling back. I asked two policemen, who assured me that my bus was 50 metres up the road. Out of earshot, I laughed out loud at the characteristic Greek inconsistency in giving directions. I passed a line of air-conditioned buses, CHAT tours, cruises, Americans traveling with other Americans in behemoth coaches.

As I walked on in the mid-day heat, following the directions of the astinomikoi , because those were the most appealing, I hit a stretch of deserted road. I belted my packs a little more securely, remembering our friend who had had her purse grabbed in Athens the week before. Turning to pull a strap tighter, I ran straight into a bank of anti-NATO posters. Suddenly, I wasn’t worried about losing my valuables. Hearing a scooter slow down behind me, I was worried about being an American in pro-Serb Greece.

At the main thoroughfare, I stopped at a kiosk for directions. I sensed hostility in the voice of the woman who directed me down the road to a station that, I found later, did not exist. After casting about in the heat for another 15 minutes, I discovered the stop I wanted was right in front of her kiosk.

The mid-day sun was blazing. A man in a van finished talking on his cell-phone and spun his tires aggressively inches from my foot. Boarding the bus, I imagined I felt cold stares on my back, on my bags with their prominent American logo. I asked the driver a question and was stymied by his barrage of Greek. A woman whose face had seemed a shade too hard the moment before, softened. “To telos,” she said, and turned away. The end of the line.

On the next bus I began to draw into myself. It was I who made no eye contact, I who stood stiffly, inaccessible. When the bus approached a town, I turned to a woman on my right. “Varkiza?” I asked in Greek. No, she replied, Voula, Vari, Vouliagmeni, then Varkiza. “All Vitas.” I couldn’t help myself, referring to the Greek letter beginning every word. We struck up a conversation. Where she lived. Where I was going. How expensive hotels were in the spa town of Vouliagmeni.

Then came the question I dreaded. “Apo pou eiste;” Where are you from? I had worked this out ahead of time. Not what I had been advised to say — “From Canada” — but my own difficult truth. “Dustikos, apo tin Ameriki.” Unfortunately, from America. Unfortunate for our conversation. Silence ensued. The bus whizzed past a Domino’s Pizzeria. Shaking my head, I spoke. “O polemos.” The war. The woman replied fervently, but not unkindly. “Einai poli kakos.” It is very bad. Wholly bad. “Yes,” I replied, “for everyone.” I meant the sting in my voice. I was thinking about the rapes and massacres of Kosovar Albanians, against whom the Greeks harbor deep enmity. She, I felt, was thinking only of NATO’s bombardment of the Serbs, whom the Greeks treat as friends and allies.

As the woman got off the bus, she turned and said, “Sto kalo.” I returned the salutation. “Sto kalo.” To the good.

 

I returned to Athens by bus from Varkiza to meet Steve. Near the National Gardens I ran straight into an anti-NATO demonstration. I wheeled around and walked in the other direction, away from the mass of people yelling through megaphones. Our few hours in Athens were punctuated by commentary about the war. The refined Athenian who owned the hotel drew her finger across her neck and said, emphatically, “Al-bright.” The clerk in the pharmacy wanted to discuss the vomvardismos with Steve.

Days later, travelling by train west from Patras, we heard war planes for the first time. We heard them before we saw them: supersonic aircraft slicing through the sky over our heads. We were told they were Greek planes, on reconnaissance no doubt; old ones, bought from the U.S. after Vietnam.

 

We were on our way from Diakofto to Kastro, a small town in the western Peloponneses, where the Gulf of Corinth opens into the Ionian Sea. I had been in Greece a week, Steve five days. The Greek filoxenia, or famed hospitality, had prevailed so far, though the war was never far from anyone’s mind. For every Greek face that hardened against us, two opened up, questioning, answering, lamenting. We had determined to keep to ourselves, hoping to appear less conspicuous; yet war-talk, punctuated by the inevitable“ Apo pou eiste;” awaited us at every turn.

In Diakofto our caution had been justified. The grandmother with her baby grandson, the young men hanging out by the village spring, the middle-aged men on their street-side balconies, the alarmingly handsome gray-haired man: their eyes pierced us. Who were we? Were they suspicious of us, as they would be of any strangers in their midst? Or did these eyes that stayed on us moments too long express feelings about the war? We were certainly NATO. French? German? American?

We stopped before an anti-NATO poster and translated it. We noticed that the two offending flags were those of the European Union, on the upper right, and the U.S.A., on the upper left. With nineteen countries in NATO, one of which was Greece, the math was simple. The United States was perceived in Greece as eighteen times more responsible for the bombing than any single European nation. Below the flags in bold letters was written:

 

NATO

oplo ton imperialiston

EXTHROS

ton laon tis eirinis

 

We translated this as:

NATO

weapon of the imperialists

ENEMY

of the people of peace

 

The poster had been put out by the KKE, the Greek Communist Party, and was stamped with a red hammer and sickle. Walking back through town, I wondered which of the people we passed had put up the poster.

Early the next morning, we boarded a rack-and-pinion railway in Diakofto, bound for the mountain village of Kalavrita. We were going to visit the monument commemorating the 1943 Nazi massacre of the men and boys of this small Greek town. We arrived and, approaching a kiosk, I worked out my question in Greek. “Pou einai to mnmeio yia tous pethamenous;” Where is the monument for the dead? The woman was clear as Homer’s gray-eyed Athene. She held my gaze as she directed us to the terraced stone path up the hill behind the village. On the way, I imagined Simon, my eight-year-old son, Sam, my twelve-year-old son, and Stephen, their father, being shoved brutally up the slope by the butts and points of Nazi machine guns. I imagined myself left behind to grieve for them.

When I reached the first marker, a large vertical brown stone tablet, Steve was beside me, and through my tears and his courageous silence, we translated together:

ON 13 12 1943
ON THIS GROUND THE
GERMAN CONQUERORS
EXECUTED IN A MASS
THE ENTIRE MALE POPULATION
OF KALAVRITA FROM TWELVE YEARS
OF AGE AND ABOVE

I found no comfort in the fact that Simon, our younger son, would have been spared. How could we have survived together what I could barely survive alone? How much harder to compound the grief, the guilt, the loss?

The monument brings to mind the Vietnam Memorial on the Mall in Washington. This one, though, is white and reflects the fierce glare of the Greek sun. Huge tablets of white marble obscure a view of the higher ground where the executions took place. In order to reach the large white cross above, one must walk through the stone panels bearing the names of the slain. The first two list all those eighteen and younger who lost their lives. A boy of twelve, several of thirteen, fourteen. Below the final ascent, a sculpture stopped my progress upwards. It was a haunting likeness of a woman wound into brownish-grey stone, her grief turning her in on herself like a fetus, her face twisted so that before reading the plaque, I didn’t know whose face it was: one of the men's, one of the boy's, or one of those left behind?

The inevitable coach pulled up as we reached the cross, and Steve and I braced for the onslaught of tourists. But out of the bus poured the Greek children who had been on our morning train, girls and boys from the skoleio, some perhaps as old as eleven. They scampered about, laughing and playing, while their teachers struggled to focus their attention on the monument and the history. Their history.

Looking out over the valley below, I knew that any valley in Kosovo would look much like this one, and that, right now, massacres similar to this one were being committed by Serbs. Would the Greek schoolteachers be teaching this to the children?

Back in the village, we again approached the kiosk, this time looking for the clock that was stopped at the hour of the execution. The woman, who, I suddenly realized, could have been a small girl in 1943, directed us to the lower, left-hand clock on the church and asked gently. “Germanoi;” Germans? “Oxi, apo tin Ameriki.” This time I was glad to say it. No, from America. She gave me a big smile.

 

Later, at lunch time, Steve and I were trying to call home from a taverna in a tiny hamlet along the train line. Steve had enlisted the help of a Greek man from Australia, named Michael, who was negotiating with the owner of the taverna about using his phone for our credit card call. Suddenly I heard shouting, and, moving closer, heard Michael quickly translating. “He says 'Tell Bill Clinton to stop killing people. If he wants to kill Milosevic, tell him to go find Milosevic.’”

Arriving in Kastro just before mesimeri, or siesta time, we checked into an apartment for the night, and were greeted warmly by Katherine, a lovely woman who spoke seven languages. We inquired about a meal and were steered toward the tiny taverna run by a toothless grandmother named Toula. While we ate, Toula’s five-year-old granddaughter, Nikoletta, played in the street where we sat, riding her bicycle, singing, inventing games. At the end of our meal Toula sat down at our table. She had no English, so we made do with our limited Greek. When she described the casualties from the NATO bombings that she had seen on television, tears ran down her lined face. We poured three small glasses of Toula’s amber-colored wine. “Stin eirini,” we toasted. To peace.

The next morning, before taking a ferry to the Ionian Islands, we talked again with Katherine, whose English was almost flawless. The subject, again, was the war and America’s role in it. This time I articulated what I had withheld on the bus to Varkiza. “But what about the treatment of the Albanians by the Serbs?” Katherine’s answer amounted to “Yes, but...” The conversation moved quickly away. Again I was haunted by the impression that the suffering of Albanians is inconsequential in the minds of Greeks.

That evening we ate downstairs in the family restaurant. The wine this time was the color of garnets, and again the toast was to peace. After our meal, Katherine's sister-in-law, Eirini, sat down at our table. We were charmed by her vivacious personality, and even more by her theory of politics. She spends several months of the year in Germany, and has decided that every person needs to have two patrides, or fatherlands. If this were so, Eirini surmised, we would all see the world in a less nationalistic, hence a less dangerous, way. We would be more inclined toward diplomacy, less inclined toward war.

How affirming, I thought, that her name is the name for peace; how curious, remembering what the Germans had done at Kalavrita.

 

We came home at the end of May. In the Peloponneses we had heard bitter recountings of past injustices perpetrated against the Greek communists after the Second World War, when the nations of the West had turned against the former Greek Resistance. We had seen NATO painted on rock walls with swastikas in the “O,” along with swastika = $. Greeks had told us that America makes money by bombing Yugoslavia. We had seen signs and red paint on stone walls and abandoned buildings denouncing Americans, calling us foniades, murderers of the Serbians.

And, there was the NATO list of lathi, mistakes: bombing the refugee convoy; bombing the Chinese Embassy; bombing the maternity hospital. Katherine in Kastro told us about this, in detail: women giving birth in bunkers; tightly swaddled newborn babies being lined up “one after another after another” in an underground shelter.

But Greeks had ignored the persecution of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. They supported the Serbs, the Serbs supported Milosevic. Days after our return, he was indicted as a war criminal by the Hague Tribunal.

I must remember that NATO, led by my country, waged war and killed civilians. At the same time, I must remember that the Serbs massacred over 10,000 villagers in Kosovo. Above the monument in Kalavrita which marks the execution ground of over 1,000 men and boys, there is a small crypt-like structure. Around it, spelled out in whitewashed stones, read the words:

OXI PIA POLEMOI. EIRINI.
No More Wars. Peace.

Setting white rocks in the ground is a simple gesture of hope, easily eclipsed by the enormity of the present war. Yet again I cannot help myself. Elpizo. I hope.

 

_____________________
Sandra Bain Cushman, 1999

 

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