Greece / History / Political Unrest / Sudan / Travel Tales

Epic Fail: My First Trip to Greece

First Trip

I fell in love with Greece in Texas!

Strange, but true.

My first exposure to anything Greek was years ago at Little Gus’ Restaurant in Dallas. Its location on not-yet-trendy Lower Greenville guaranteed great food in a perfect hole in the wall cafe.

We’d go there on Friday nights with our best friends to celebrate the end of the work week, sharing steaming plates of moussaka and pastitsio, followed by a slice of baklava or galitoburiko and four forks. I always ordered a glass of piney retsina wine, to James’ exclamations of “Ewww!” I loved it because it tasted so foreign and exotic.

Little Gus’ place wasn’t fancy – simple wooden tables and a few vases of bedraggled carnations. But he had the most enticing posters of Greece plastered on the walls. Windmills on whitewashed houses cascading down hillsides to the sea. I vowed that one day I would see it for myself.

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I never dreamed that six years later we would be living and working in Khartoum, Sudan. We’d been there nearly two years and were due to rotate out soon. During that time the country’s political stability had taken a nosedive. We’d already experienced a military coup d’état that ousted long-term president Nimeiri, and now there were specific threats against James’ company.

Although I was working as a consultant to the American School, James’ corporate headquarters asked me to evacuate. They didn’t want to have to worry about my safety, and hoped this threat would blow over quickly.

The closest “safe” place was determined to be Greece. Although I hated to leave, I was so excited, and could almost feel the sea breeze and taste the ouzo. Finally I was going to get to see my long-awaited Greece.

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The plane touched down in Athens, and I patiently waited my turn in the immigration line, American passport clutched in my hand. When I reached the booth, the Immigration Officer stared long and hard at the navy blue cover, opened to my photo, gave me a stern look, and asked in his Greek-accented English, “Why have you come to Greece?”

Any good traveler knows the answer to that question is always, “I’m on vacation” … then keep your mouth shut.

With a reluctant shrug, he stamped an empty page. Yes! (silent fist bump), I’m in!

I rushed to the taxi queue, jumped into a rattling cab, and off I went toward town. The driver started the conversation by asking where I’d flown from. His broken English was far better than my (nonexistent) Greek. I don’t think he’d had many passengers from Khartoum, but as we continued to talk, he realized that I was an American.

My hotel was close to Syntagma Square and I eagerly anticipated the sight – but what I saw wasn’t what I expected.

The Square was flooded with thousands of people, riot police were lined up around the edges. American flags and effigies of then-President Reagan were burning everywhere.

Syntagma Demonstration

The driver stopped across the street from my hotel. He turned to me with furrowed brows and cautioned in a low voice, “With your accent, you do not want to be here!”

Unknown to me, I had managed to arrive the same day (March 26, 1986) as George Schultz, the US Secretary of State. President Reagan was not a popular person in that part of the world. Schultz’s arrival that morning had spawned riots throughout Athens. He’d come to attend a meeting about avoiding conflict with Moammar Khadafi and Libya (which the US later bombed on April 15, 1986)!

The taxi driver was right. My timing was lousy. I checked into my hotel and called the airlines to book a flight out to Paris. As I stood on my balcony, sipping my very-first-ever ouzo from the mini bar, I gazed out over the city of my dreams, and although this had been a rough beginning, I vowed to return when things had calmed down.

Peace,
Terri

62 thoughts on “Epic Fail: My First Trip to Greece

  1. Oh Terri that is a very rough start. Rotten timing to be sure. I look forward to hearing of the return visits. Love the photos particularly the creative one of the windmill.

    • Thanks Sue. What’s the saying, “You can’t keep a good woman down!” 🙂 I was always so glad we persevered and went back … many times. We took that windmill shot in Oia on Santorini – a beautiful place. ~Terri

      • I recognized some of the others as Santorini and frankly I have photo envy on the windmill one 🙂 Yes ‘can’t keep a good woman down’; a good one to live by.

  2. Good story – Bad timing. Same thing happened to us in 2011, we stayed in Athens for a couple of nights on the way back from the islands and the city was on red alert because of the anti-government demonstrations. I am looking forward to reading more of your Greece stories.

    • Thanks Andrew. You have explored more of Greece that any person I know, so I consider you my go-to expert. Do you have favorite islands that you recommend, and are you going back this summer? !Terri

      • I usually say Amorgos, Sifnos, Thassos, Milos and Paros but if you ask me tomorrow it will be a different list. This year I am going to Corfu with my family to celebrate my 60th Birthday. Next year I will go back to the Cyclades after a four year break but influenced by your posts earlier this year Mexico is high on my possible list. Which part of Greece did you like best?

      • I’m still a sucker for Santorini in the off season, but I have yet to visit the islands you mentioned, so they are now at the top of my list. Corfu sounds like a great place to celebrate your 60th – James recently celebrated his in New Orleans. Are you still considering Cuba? ~T

    • Hi Sima! Living and working in Sudan was one of the best experiences of our lives. The people are fantastic and we learned so much about a fascinating part of the world. We finally did make it back to Greece a few years later and it was wonderful. So glad you stopped by. All the best, Terri

  3. I love that your love affair with Greece started in Texas! 😊. There are some great Greek restaurants in Houston, too. Such beautiful pictures here and a fascinating story. Your expat life sounds like it was infinitely more exciting than mine is. 😉

    • Isn’t it great that we both experienced wonderful Greek food in Texas. My palate was’t too adventurous when I moved to Dallas, but fortunately Little Gus’ cured that! 🙂 Since Khartoum was our first expat experience, we didn’t know what to expect. But we wanted adventure … and we got it! ~Terri

    • Kan, he was a real sweetheart to give me a heads-up. I was just glad I didn’t look like George Schultz! Plus I must admit that the whole experience did me a favor – it heightened my world political awareness and showed me how I need to pay attention to what’s going on it the world. A good lesson that stuck with me. 🙂 ~Terri

  4. Talk about “out of the frying pan and into the fire”. Perhaps the travel gods just wanted you to wait for James to be with you so you could share in the joy of exploring Greece!

    • You totally nailed it Laura! It took us a few years to get back there together, but when we did it was glorious! Seeing the Acropolis lit at night is something I’ll never forget. ~Terri

    • Thanks Laurie, so glad you enjoy it. Like you I have several dream destinations bubbling away on the back burner. Every once in a while the pot boils over and I go! What other places do you have on your back burner? ~Terri

  5. Oh dear doesn’t seem like you were having much luck at the time! Hopefully your trip to Paris didn’t end up like my last visit – I accidentally also wandered into a riot (although luckily they weren’t protesting against my country)!

  6. awwww….we went in 2011 but just missed the riots thankfully. I have family in Crete. We took three weeks to go to some of the islands and spent a week with family on Crete. It was wonderful. I hope you get a chance to go back!

  7. Wow! I was alive at that time, but I had no idea the US was so unpopular anywhere in Europe in the 80’s. I was expecting 2002 and you gave me 1986. Kinda cool that you were part of history, though. 🙂 Now I’m interested in learning the roots of the riots!

    • Hi Marcus, So glad you stopped by. As you know from your years of travel, you get a different view of your home country’s actions when perceived through the eyes of other cultures. We had been working in Africa and Europe for the past years and knew that then-President Reagan was amazingly unpopular – downright polarizing – outside the US. Throwing Libya into the mix really stirred the pot. So the meeting in Athens brought it all to a head. But the modes of communication back then were so poor, that I didn’t learn what had REALLY happened until I arrived in Paris the next day and it was in the newspaper. How times change. 🙂 All the best, Terri

  8. It’s great to hear about your wealth of experiences–though the world is colored by both good and bad experiences. Good for you for not letting it color your entire perception of Greece!

    …Mmm. Now I’m craving Greek food.

    • You make an excellent point Brittany. I guess that the two things that all travelers learn early on is 1.) You will screw up 🙂 and 2.) There will be disappointments. But you’ve got to be prepared to bounce back (even though sometimes it seems incredibly hard). A few years later we were able to go back to Greece and it was marvelous. And don’t even get me started on the food. 🙂 ~Terri

    • So true Kelly. I always think of that great phrase, “Well, I didn’t see that going that way!” How many times have I said that. 🙂 Of course, communication back then was so slow – today I would have known that I was going from the frying pan into the fire … and avoided it. ~Terri

  9. It’s funny how you can become fascinated with a place seeing no more than pictures or eating a national dish or reading a beautifully worded description. I am glad that you got to live out your dream…more than once ;-).

    • You’re so right Dina! I knew I had to go to Petra when I saw it in an Indiana Jones movie … and my first bite of Chicken Kiev sent me to the Ukraine. Of course, I’ll go just about anywhere on a whim. 🙂 ~Terri

  10. So glad you went back and discovered that Greece is not just Athens and/or riots in Syntagma Sq.! Our first time in the US (just spending our 2nd week in NYC) is a total success… I’ll probably be posting about it for the rest of the year!

    • Hi Lia, my timing was just bad, because when I went back a few years later I had a wonderful time. I still want to make it to your home, Thessaloniki. I hear it’s gorgeous! So glad that you’re enjoying your time in the States. Loved your Times Square photos – looking forward to more. ~Terri

      • I hope to go to Thessaloniki sometime in September; if I make it, there’ll definitely be an update. It’s indeed a beautiful place no matter how hard worthless politicians are trying to destroy her – she always fights right back 🙂

    • Tanny, It was the first time I’d seen a demonstration of that scale, so my heart was definitely pumping. And the taxi driver was truly a good soul to give me the heads-up on the situation. Fortunately I was able to go back a few years later and it was a wonderful visit. 🙂 ~Terri

  11. Oh dear, Terri! I’d better follow you to Paris 🙂
    Those dreamy whitewashed posters- so evocative! I have a similar sort of experience with Italy and restaurants long before I ever went there. Happy times to you both!

    • Jo, I remember your post about losing your handbag in Athens – no fun at all. 😦 Fortunately I wasn’t that unlucky. And is’t it amazing how those posters work their magic on us, making us dream of all these beautiful destinations. It sure worked on me! 🙂 ~Terri

    • Yeah Bronwyn, that concept flew out the window when I saw the angry crowd and riot police. Of course those were the days of antique communication (we were using telexes – amazing!). 🙂 Today, I would have been forewarned to avoid the entire situation. ~Terri

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