My life-long love affair with Greece began in September of 1974, shortly after arriving in that country for the first time. The CIA-sponsored seven-year dictatorship by the Greek colonels had ended only months before my coming; Greece and Turkey were waging war over Cyprus; anti-Americanism was rife. As a twenty-five year old speech pathologist, I traveled alone for a job in a center for cerebral palsied children in the northern port city of Thessaloniki. During the following two years, I learned the language, created lasting friendships, fell in love, and experienced hard truths about American foreign policy during the latter part of the twentieth century.
This past September I made my most recent return for several weeks’ stay in my adopted homeland. My cousin Marilynn was visiting for a few days; she had come to see the Thessaloniki pictured in the postcards I’d sent her long ago. We were meeting up with a new friend Sophia, whom I had met by chance on our publisher She Writes Press’s website. Email conversations about our love of her birthplace Thessaloniki led to the happy coincidence that her former schoolmate was one of my best friends. Sophia lives in Seattle but comes back to this city each year. Good fortune had brought us both to Thessaloniki at the same time.
“Come aboard our ship—the price is only one drink!” A bearded man in buccaneer costume, pirate hat festooned with plumes and rings on each finger, urged us onto the Arabella, a tourist ship, for a half hour spin around Salonika Bay.
The air was warm and the city’s bright lights danced upon the waves. American pop music wove around the triple masts of the wooden craft. A skeleton with spyglass and bandana watched from a crow’s nest; another crawled out of a treasure chest. Skull and crossbones flags whipped in the evening breeze.
It was easy to think of this as a corny carnival ride until I read, a few days later, of actual pirate attacks on the city in 904 CE from Saracen raiders from Crete. This northern port city’s layers and layers of history continued to reveal themselves to me and to mesmerize.
We ordered three Mythos beers. Even Greek beer managed to be evocative of their ancient past of gods and goddesses of mythology. Settling onto three empty stools on one side of the vessel, we looked across the water to the city’s iconic cylindrical White Tower, built in the fifteenth century by the Ottomans during their occupation of the city. Once the site of a notorious prison and mass executions, it was now the centerpiece of the promenade where citizens of Thessaloniki strolled and met and talked and spent an inordinate amount of time.
We toasted with the quintessential “steen ygeia mas,” to our health, the English “hygiene” originating from “ygeia.” Our heads bobbed in unison to “Mama Mia.” The Abba song was now omnipresent in Greece.
The man seated next to Sophia was nondescript. A middle-aged Greek with dark hair, short-sleeve shirt, and his own beer in hand. He was alone and apparently eavesdropping on our conversation.
“I have now returned from a visit to America for my work,” he offered in English as he determined we were Americans. “I was very surprised by Las Vegas.” I had no interest in joining in the conversation, so I turned to my cousin to point out sites of the city. I could hear Sophia explaining that we shared an American publisher, and Thessaloniki was the setting for each of our books.
“Tasos Christodoulos,” the man rose to shake hands with each of us. “I now live in Germany, but the two or three times a year I visit, I take this ride to reacquaint with my city, which I love.” There was a quiet seriousness to Tasos. A politeness. An earnestness as he enquired about our writing.
Sophia gave the elevator pitch of her memoir, her odyssey through Greek bureaucracy for the location of her mother’s grave and the hidden reason her parents divorced in the 1950s, a most uncommon event for those times. Still figuring how to package a description of my novel, a political and romantic coming-of-age story, I hesitated. Because of the tendency of Greeks to hold strong political opinions, I was often reluctant to bring up the “c word”—communism—when I described a story of a young American woman who falls in love with a charismatic communist student and is plunged into a dangerous revenge plot.
“My book is set in Thessaloniki in 1974, a few months after the fall of the junta, when, you remember, everything censored and forbidden—movies and books and music—came flooding back in. I got to see democracy rising from the ashes.” I paused. For some reason, perhaps the Mythos, I took a chance. “All of my friends were socialists and communists, something I never would have imagined growing up in Texas.” I leaned around Sophia to connect with Tasos. Something was pulling me in.
He stared at me. “You, an American, write of those politics with a positive eye?”
“I do. My experience here was powerful because of my friends and because of the political situation.”
I thought he said, “Thank you.” I leaned in to make sure I heard him correctly against the pounding beat of the Rolling Stones.
“Are you thanking me?” I stood up to move closer. “Why?”
Tasos pointed to the very top of the city. “Do you see those walls?”
“Yes—the Kastra—the castle. I have the old city in two scenes in my book.”
“Do you know what is ‘Eptapyrgio’ or ‘Yedi Kule’?”
“Sorry, no. The first word, is that ‘Seven Towers’?” Since I was fluent in Greek, I quickly made the translation. “The other words, I don’t know.”
“That is because they are Turkish. Both mean Fortress of Seven Towers. In olden times it was used as a fort, before it became a prison.”
The beer on my empty stomach, the lights of my beloved city , a sense that I was following this man down an uncharted path. I steadied against the movement of the boat and my own internal shakiness.
“My father was a labor organizer. There was a man. He shadowed my father wherever he went for a job, always giving reasons my father should not be hired. When the junta came, my father was, of course, arrested and put into jail. Into Eptapyrgio. That man was one of the ones who tortured him.”
Suddenly, I was thrown back into my earlier Greek life. Into my own gradual uncovering the role my country played in bringing the dictatorship to Greece. In a movie theater watching footage shot clandestinely by a Dutch filmmaker of students being killed at the Polytechnic Institute in Athens. Dining with the Greek artist whose hands were maimed into claws in prison because he was a communist. Listening to voices sing along to the music of composer Mikis Theodorakis in his first concert in Thessaloniki after returning from exile. Marching cautiously with my friends to the American Consulate, with Greek shouts of “Murderer Kissinger” spinning all around.
“I was a boy. I remember standing in front of the very large gate. Waiting. My mother and I brought food for my father. Mostly, I remember crying.”
His recollection stabbed my chest. “Oh, how awful. I am so sorry for you. And your father.” I couldn’t believe this stranger was sharing such intimacy with me. But then, yes I could believe it. The emotional intensity of Greeks was one of the reasons I fell in love with this country. One of the reasons I fell in love with my own communist boyfriend. Although that was many years ago, I felt a fluttering. I forced myself to release the breath I didn’t know I was holding.
Tasos continued. “After the dictatorship ended, the same time you were coming to Greece, we moved to Germany. We could no longer stay in our country. My father. He became a broken man. He never recovered from the torture.”
In the decades I’d been away from Thessaloniki as I would replay my memories of friends and events, the cruelties and transgressions of the city had slipped away. The story of the Seven Towers brought them back.
“I will tell you one more story,” he continued. “Some years ago, my wife and children and I were vacationing in Halkidiki—you know, the three-fingered peninsula further north from here.” I nodded my acknowledgment. “We registered at a small hotel. The clerk was a very old man, whose face and head reminded of a skull. I saw him look at my signature. ‘Oh. I believe I knew your father.’ He turned away and quickly disappeared into a back room. I thought it was strange he did not continue the conversation, as most other Greeks would do, so that we might make a connection. When I returned to Germany, I told my father of the event, giving him a description of the old man with the distinctive face. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I know the man. He was the one who tortured me at Eptapyrgio.’ My meeting him was, perhaps, a final irony.”
The strains of “Dancing Queen” were suddenly replaced by an accented voice wishing the passengers on the Arabella a good evening and hoping that we would come back again soon. Tasos reached for his wallet and pulled out a business card with his company’s name and a Hamburg address, along with his email, asking to be notified when my book was published.
We shook hands in farewell. I was aware I wanted to leave my hand in his just a bit longer. The stories shared by Tasos had reconnected me with a part of myself that had been stored in a far corner of my being. But tonight, under twinkling stars and bright city lights, I had found it again. On a pirate ship. On the Bay of Salonika. In an ancient land of history and ghosts.