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.
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.
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.
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.