Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Year-End Report: Greek glass half full at best

For the record, I have lived part-time in Greece for the past 3 years, or 18 months out of 36 -- mostly in a rented studio apartment in my father's hometown of Naousa, a traditional yet modern town of about 20,000 people in Central Macedonia about one hour northwest of Thessaloniki. From there I have visited a number of Girls School/American Farm School grads in their villages around Northern Greece and beyond. In September I spent 5 days in Cyprus. You have read many of my "Dispatches from Greece"* -- so you won't be surprised that I have mixed feelings about the Greek reality as we gear up for the New Year. Let's call it a glass half full at best.

Naouseans are preparing for the holidays enthusiastically just like you and me. Christmas decorations have filled store windows for weeks. "Kazania" -- the traditional boiling of grape skins to produce stronger than ouzo tsipouro (together with a requisite on-site party) -- continued well into November.  Religious and other holidays are surrounded by name days, concerts, seminars, organizational events (like those hosted by the Pontian or Vlach Associations) and pretty much any excuse for a party. Education may be king, but skiing is now in ascendance after the first big snows at 3-5 Pigadia. Naousa also has admirable programs for the elderly, people with special needs and families who need assistance. And on the weekend of December 7-9, she becomes the "City of Wine" celebrating the renown Xinomavro grape. Opa!

The devastating economic situation, however, has not exactly gone away despite published reports to the contrary.  Unemployment may be down, but that's from 28% to 20.8 %.  And "the brain drain" continues, over half a million people having left the country since 2008. You may not realize that the now extended Russian embargo of EU food products in retaliation for sanctions has taken it serious toll on exports of meat, fish/seafood, vegetables, fruit (especially in Naousa!) and dairy products. 35% of all Greeks live in poverty or close to it...

On August 20th Greece officially exited the bailout program, but at what price? After 3 "Mnimonia" (memoranda of virtual servitude to the European Union) and pursuant demands for privatization, Greece has sold control of the Port of Piraeus (China), 14 airports (Germany), and a railway system (Italy). Greeks -- including me! -- pay the most for electricity in Europe, 42% in taxes and fees. Heating oil is more expensive this year with record snows predicted for year's end, so how will 60K refugees living in "hotspots" fare? Official reports may peg the average monthly income at 1000 euros, but too many people live on about 400 euros due to severely reduced pensions or part-time jobs.  Things are happening, investments are being made, but the reported turnaround has simply not yet trickled down to the average Greek citizen.

Pensions are scheduled to be cut one last time in a few weeks per Greece's contract with the banks. For awhile the Tsipras government said it wasn't going to happen, but the Lenders came back with, "Not so fast, a deal is a deal." May 19th elections are looming on the horizon, so those last bailout bits have become predictable political footballs. The Syriza government -- which has dealt with this mess with a proverbial gun to its head for 4 years -- is down in the polls by double digits to the New Democracy Party which helped create the disaster in the first place. Who should Greeks trust? (And most basically trust no one.)

On the bright side there is a woman running for mayor of Naousa, which has never put a woman in charge. Ilia Iosifidou is a civil engineer and mother, who is smart and energetic in the face of 4 male opponents. For some time I have been asking, "When will Naousa have a woman mayor?" After years of uninspired leadership, Naouseans now have a chance to elect a woman who seems to embody transparency and hard work over grandstanding and unfulfilled promises. 

Will Greece really turns the page in 2019? Greeks have swallowed a lot of very bitter medicine no matter what we think about the historic economic meltdown. They now deserve our very best wishes for a Happy, Healthy, and Prosperous New Year.  Kali hronia, to you and yours, too!

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

What do you really know about Cyprus?

Especially now as the plot surrounding the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi thickens with Turkey and its President Recep Ertogan right in the thick of things. Turkey is always front and center here in Greece.  And certainly no less in the Republic of Cyprus -- an island surrounded by Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt. Cyprus won independence from the British Empire in 1960...only to be partitioned in 1974 when Turkey invaded in response to a coup cultivated by the Greek Junta to overthrow Archbishop/President Markarios and join Cyprus with Greece. The coup failed, 3,000+ Cypriots lost their lives (many more, including children, still unaccounted for), and 200,000 Greek Cypriots became refuges overnight. 

On the plus side, Greece suddenly became a democracy again following the collapse of the Junta and return of Konstantinos Karamanlis -- but not before a rather scary (I lived through it!) General Mobilization of many thousands of military reservists in anticipation of war. Turkey would eventually claim 36.5% of the island and create the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized today only by Turkey. The two parts are separated by a UN buffer zone, the Green Line, and a Turkish flag flashes brightly over Lefkosia every night from the "katehomena"  (occupied  territory) to add insult to injury. Many thousands of Turkish nationals have been repatriated to occupied Cyprus in defiance of the Geneva Convention. And 44 years later, Greek and Turkish Cypriots are in perpetual reunification  talks constantly complicated by the hostile demands/actions of Recep Ertogan.

By now you might have forgotten about that Green Line and focused more on oil/gas drilling confrontations or a financial crisis (now mostly resolved) caused in part by a sudden influx of big Russian money. But did you know that 3 percent of Cypriot territory is still under foreign military control? And did you notice that during her recent confirmation hearings, the new US Ambassador to Cyprus had trouble acknowledging the events of 1974 as an invasion by Turkish troops? Ouch!

It's no wonder that there is not a whole lot of love lost between Cyprus and the UK because of the military bases, Greece for their role in the ill-fated coup, and the USA for supporting the coup and doing nothing to thwart the Turkish invasion. Thank you Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. 
Last month I revisited that Green Line in Lefkosia (aka Nicosia), which bears little resemblance to what I saw in 1976 when barricades were manned by Greek and Turkish soldiers screaming obscenities at each other while UN Peacekeepers patrolled a tiny strip in between them. I had gone then to visit with the families of 17 boys we took as students at the American Farm School after the Agricultural High School of Morfou had been closed by the invaders. The students adjusted incredibly well at the School. But in Cyprus things were super bleak as many lived in refugee camps or over-crowded homes. From certain vantage points we could see untended crops that had simply dried up. At that point in time there was precious little to look forward to.

Today one can cross back-and-forth through checkpoints along the Green Line. In Lefkosia, show your ID at passport control and go right ahead. The Turkish side is sadly dated; I saw a man in a small, dingy shop actually stuffing a comforter with cotton by hand.  No Burger King or Starbucks there. You can buy cigarettes and pharmaceuticals sans EU taxes and then have a leisurely lunch -- just don't be thinking you can get your property back.

My Farm School graduate hosts Spyros and Nikos introduced me to their wonderful/most hospitable families and drove me all around free Cyprus. We visited a raft of towns, villages and other sites, including the front gate of the British airbase along the beautiful southern coastline of Akrotiri.  Then, of course, a pilgrimage to the final resting place of Archbishop Makarios  at Kykkos Monastery in the Troidos mountains -- about 11 km from mountaintops planted with British radar stations. You can read about it, but not fully feel it until you are suddenly told "You cannot be here" by a British soldier on an idyllic Saturday afternoon.

Most memorably, I was able to visit with half of those students who came to the American Farm School in 1974 at a special "mini reunion" dinner. There were stories, laughter, selfies, great food (love that sheftalia and halloumi!) special music. While several grads do work in agriculture, Andreas is a music teacher and Tony Solomou a well-known singer/composer/activist. Tony was especially touched when I showed him a photo of me and his family circa 1976 (see above), as his mom had died about a year ago. His singular compositions about occupied villages like his own Aghia Marina are both wistful and defiant. Have a listen.

Then think about what you really know about Cyprus.

Monday, September 24, 2018

"500 Years of Greeks in America!"

As the 83rd Thessaloniki International Fair comes to an end, it's a good time to stand back and take a deep breath.

Even as the United States was the honored country this year -- last year China and Russia the year before -- there is a not so subtle anti-Americanism that colors almost all political conversations/arguments here in Greece. Everything and anything bad is America's fault, don't you know? Now with the Macedonia question on top of the various financial/refugee issues, the plot (συμφέροντα!), of course, thickens...

The fair's USA Pavillion focusing on technology -- Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, etc -- was indeed impressive and well-attended. But I was super-surprised upon entering the Greek Government Services Pavillion to suddenly be standing in front of a stand-alone display extolling the virtues of Senator Paul Sarbanes. Then one for Olympia Dukakis, Pete Sampras, Maestro Dimitris Mitropolis, Dr. Georgios Papanikolaou, Maria Callas, Constantino Brumidi (Google him!) and many others.  All under the heading "500 Years of Greeks in America." Wow!

Even more amazing was the sponsor of that exhibit: "The General Secretariat for Greeks Abroad" of the Greek Foreign Office ( -- "the government's coordinating body for the implementation of state policy with respect to Diaspora Hellenism," about 5 million people of Greek descent on 5 continents and in 140 agency created to "support the the interests and the expectations of the Greeks abroad." Who knew? 

Three million people of Greek descent live in the US, thus the long list of distinguished accomplishments -- plus a multitude of organizations, schools, churches, restaurants, newspapers, radio/TV stations, etc. The first Greek in the "New World" was Don Theodoros Griego (1528) and the first Greek colony was in St. Augustine, Florida (1768). The first Greek Community was founded in New Orleans (Holy Trinity/1864.) New York, Chicago and San Francisco are all important to the narrative, but who can possibly ignore Tarpon Springs?

More significantly, there was a wave of American Philhellenism that did its part in support of the Greek Revolution of 1821 -- bolstered by Thomas Jefferson,  James Madison, Daniel Webster, Sam Houston, and Henry Clay. Others actually fought in Greece against the Turks, including Samuel Gridley Howe and George Washington's cousin William Townsend Washington. It was a fitting effort to help Greece towards independence while the USA itself was still in its democratic infancy. To this day there is an active, bi-partisan Hellenic Caucus in Congress fighting for Greece!

The USA has contributed much to Greece in the last 200 years and still supports Greece in many ways. Those efforts/policies may not always be perfect or altruistic,  but they are way too often misunderstood or taken for granted. On other hand, it's very clear that Greek-Americans have contributed much to the USA -- 500 years' worth to be exact. 

I am proud to be a Greek-American and part of the Greek Diaspora story still being written, thanks to my immigrant father and 4 grandparents who worked very hard for a better life. It's a rather tricky thing being Greek-American and living part-time in Greece -- which is why I'm standing back and taking a deep breath. Somewhat hard to explain, but I'll keep trying.

Sent from my BlackBerry - the most secure mobile device

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Making Memories with Basketball, Gin Rummy and Refried Beans

So, I was walking up the street in Naousa when someone called my name. Turning around, I saw a man approaching whom I did not recognize...until he showed me a of photo of himself when he was a student at the American Farm School in Thessaloniki when I worked there (1968-1978). John Dourakis -- one of my very best English students! -- has lived in Naousa for 13 years working for an agency that coordinates Greek peach canneries. I had absolutely no idea. But about 10 days ago a mutual friend happened to mention my name to him. Stunned and amazed, he had then been on the lookout for me. Wow!

We, of course, reminisced about our years at the School -- including when he an a few other students took me to see a big, important soccer match between PAOK and Olympiakos. I've been a PAOK fan ever since, but I also swore never to set foot in a large soccer stadium again. Standing on bleachers for all 90 minutes, we were constantly being pushed towards the brink. I was sure we would be trampled to death, but did live to talk about it...45 years later!

More importantly, you'll notice that John is wearing a Delta College basketball uniform -- and no accident that talk then turned to my pal Ernie Marcopoulos. Many years may have passed since he, Josie and their 3 kids -- from my hometown of Stockton, California -- spent their sabbatical year in Thessaloniki  at my urging. But the revered Coach of the San Joaquin Delta College Mustangs has not been forgotten here in Greece.

Ernie volunteered to coach basketball and teach PE at the Farm School for basic "room-and-board."  He brought with him some retired uniforms and worked tirelessly with the boys. John was a left-handed sharpshooter who might have excelled further had he not continued his studies in England.

Everyone at the School got super excited when Ernie was asked to also coach the PAOK professional basketball team for that one season.  We all became PAOK fans.

Behind the scenes, however, the Marcopoulos clan and I did our own thing...religiously. Every Tuesday night -- my day off from my Girls School Dept. dormitory duties -- I headed over to their apartment for our weekly Mexican Food Night and Gin Rummy Marathon. Ole!

Josie -- of Mexican decent, but who NEVER made tortillas in Stockton -- did, in fact, make tortillas from scratch every week thanks to a rolling pin that our friend Harry Theocharides graciously cut down to size. I learned to make them, too, along with refried beans and salsa. There may have been some carne asada and beer involved. The adults played cards until our (self-imposed) 12 o'clock curfew. Who was "World Champ" is still in dispute.

That's what happens when you live in Northern Greece and need a Mexican food fix -- which, in fact, I still often do. But I don't think I'll ever be able to top basketball + gin rummy + refried beans.

Monday, June 25, 2018

"No, I am not an enemy of the people" (a Greek story of reunification and quasi-redemption)

Sticky wicket might well describe the role of communism in Greek history -- as the promises of the Bolshevik Revolution crept into the consciousness of the working man, captivated some, but  fell  down during a crushing Civil War following WWII.  In Naousa, bitterness and mistrust  still  simmer under the cover of normalcy. But little-by-little, lost facts/secrets are being uncovered and confronted...occasionally by people seeking their roots.

So when I heard that a book entitled No, I am not an enemy of the people was going to be presented at the Naousa cultural center a few weeks ago, I immediately assumed that the reference was to the Greek people with some sort of apologia for someone who had simply been castigated as a Communist.  But it was a human story much more complicated than that.

Markos Markovitis was born in Naousa in 1905, the eldest of 9 children in a relatively prosperous family. He was not alone in falling under the spell of the communist promise. But by 1925 and with a messianic fervor, he was one of the movement's hard core evangelists in Thessaloniki, where he was arrested and condemned to death in 1931. Managing to escape, he went to Russia, the Communist "Fatherland." There he studied, married, and tried mightily to become a citizen. But in 1937, it all came apart for Markos. He was arrested in a Stalinist purge and condemned to death as an enemy of the state -- prompting the writing of two poignant letters to Stalin.

"No, I am not an enemy of the people,"  Markovitis wrote to convince Stalin that he was dedicated to the Communist cause. That he had come to Russia full of joy and hope to serve Stalin and the State. That he wanted to stay and live out his dreams. But those letters were never read by Stalin. Markos was executed and buried unceremoniously in a mass grave. Meanwhile, his family in Greece had long lost track of him. 

In Russia he had a new family, with children. After the execution, that family  disappeared  itself in order to survive -- his children going into orphanages under assumed names. It wasn't until 1957 that the KKE (Greek Communist Party) learned of Markovitis's fate, but his family was not informed until 2002. By then his parents had died and other relatives ("down to the last cousin") had also been hounded and stigmatized as Communist sympathizers -- all due to a lost son of Naousa who had died in Russia 80 years ago as a suspected traitor to the Communist cause!
Reunited Markovitis Family
Enter Markovitis's grandson Dimitris, whose search for the real Markos Markovitis led to the discovery of the two letters in Russian archives -- bringing him into contact with his family in Greece and with Marios Markovitis, nephew of Markos and the author of the aforementioned book..a labor of love with a double meaning in terms of political consequence and historical perspective.   

The room for the book reading was full and captivated, especially by the author whose closing comments were so very powerful on several levels: Markos Markovitis,  he  declared, died twice in 1937 when he was executed and, even worse, disappeared as a person -- and now in 2018 the truth comes out and "we can mourn him properly."  He named others who had suffered much the same fate.

Why did it take so long to find and publicly talk about Markos Markovitis? Because "history is written by the victors," as you may have heard before.  But in Greece, victors have been few and far between. 

NOTE: In Greece, as in many parts of Europe, the Communist Party is a legal/viable, if not particularly successful, political party. Indeed  the KKE in Naousa recently staged a public event to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. But a certain kind  of  paranoia/hostility abides due to that Civil War which fully impacted Naousa -- and where a pipeline for Communist abduction of young people literally ran down Andarton, the street where my father grew up so many years before.