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 didnt 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
It had dawned on us during that winter, when cold
winds in Athens burned the skin off my fair (ksanthos
Amerikanos) two-year-olds 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
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 dont 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
A slightly tattered, yellow Dunlop bag tipped off the
belt onto the carousel. Pinned to the side was a large tag reading Doctors 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
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 wasnt
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 couldnt 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 Dominos 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 NATOs 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.
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 anyones 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
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
oplo ton imperialiston
ton laon tis eirinis
We translated this as:
weapon of the imperialists
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 Homers 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
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 didnt know
whose face it was: one of the men's, one of the boy's, or one of those
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.
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, Toulas
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 Toulas 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 Americas 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?
Katherines 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
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
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
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