An Inappropriate Life

Memoir by Stan Gotlieb

Tonight, You Must Not Go Everywhere

In the fall of 1967, we were living in a high-rise apartment building several blocks uphill from downtown Salonika (see Welcome to Sunny Greece). On the fifth floor of a six-story building, it afforded a good view of the town and the harbor. Your could see all the way to the bombing range the military maintained just outside the city limits: never a very pretty sight, but less so just then, because the airforce was preparing to go to war.

Greece and Turkey are neighbors, NATO allies, and intractable enemies. Alexander occupied Turkey a long time ago, and many Greeks believe that western Turkey up to the Bosporus dividing Europe from Asia should be Greek. Turks will tell you that Greece never had it so good as when the Ottoman Empire ruled them for four hundred years until the First Great War to End All Wars. In modern times, the focus of this enmity is the island country of Cyprus.

Cyprus is much closer to Turkey than to Greece. There had always been a significant number of Turks in Cyprus, but the majority were Greek, and the ties to Greece were strong. In the mid-sixties, Cyprus had elected a Greek Orthodox bishop, one Makarios, as president. An ardent advocate of annexation to "the Mother country", his actions vis-a-vis the Cypriots of Turkish origin so alarmed that segment of his fellow countrymen that they appealed to the Turkish government for protection, and Turkish troops invaded Cyprus. Eventually, a "peace line" was drawn down the length of the island, establishing a separate "Turkish state", which Greece -- and the Cypriot government -- has never recognized.

From time to time, one or the other country ratcheted up the level of paranoia over Cyprus. We happened to be there for one such incident.

There were two "evacuation" scenarios played out during our four months in Greece. One was when the King tried unsuccessfully to take the government back from the military junta that ruled it (see Greece in the Time of the Colonels). The other was a day when Greece and Turkey came very close to going to war.

When we got to our classrooms that day, threats and counter-threats had been going back and forth between Athens and Ankara for over a week. The level of hostilities seemed to be changing almost hourly. Every morning, our friend Miltos would drag himself up the five flights of stairs to our apartment to announce "things look very bad", and every evening he would declare that "maybe it will be o.k." About halfway through the first class (we taught mostly in the afternoons and evenings), we were told to go home immediately, and be prepared for an indefinite curfew.

Virtually all business (other than services such as groceries and laundromats) was done in downtown Salonika, which was the part of town closest to the harbor. Several hills made the city into a bowl, with housing above the center. When the evacuation was announced, every street became a one-way street out of downtown, packed with people and automobiles as the populace hurried home. Not knowing how long we might be under curfew, we joined the rest of the commercial locusts and proceeded to grab anything edible we could find. We ended up with a dozen chocolate bars and a salami: the competition was fierce.

Shortly after we got home, Miltos arrived. "Tonight", he announced between gasps for air (the stairs were long and steep), "You must not go everywhere", and with that he was gone.

That afternoon, and all through the night, we watched jet fighter planes bearing NATO insignia as they screamed overhead, seemingly just feet above our apartment. They moved so fast, there was no way to tell whose jets they were. Our friends and fellow expatriate teachers Ian nd Rita lived just a little distance past the bombing range, which was being used a lot. There was no way for them to tell whether the explosions they were hearing were from practice runs, or the real thing. The radio was no help: when they weren't playing martial music, they were broadcasting patriotic propaganda (which we recognized as much by the tone as the content: our Greek was pretty minimal).

Finally, the next morning, after a few hours of relative peace and quiet, Miltos appeared to announce -- as he had several times before -- that everything was settled, and that we would all live happily ever after; and indeed it appeared to be so.

A few months later, we visited Turkey, where we were clued in to the way that Greek / Turkish xenophobia has become ingrained in the average Abdul. We spent a couple of weeks in the "old city" of Istanbul, near the main market and a long narrow park, with the Sultan Achmet ("Blue") Mosque at one end, and the Aghia Sofia church -- the "mother church" of the Greek Orthodox faith -- at the other.

When we got to the entrance to the Mosque, we were refused entrance by the guards. Ellen's skirt, we were told, was too short (it was down to below her knees). Pointing out the mini-skirted German tourist seen entering in a group, I challenged the guard for an explanation. He shrugged his shoulders and remained adamant. Furious, we walked down to the Tourist Police kiosk in the middle of the park, and complained. The woman cop agreed that Ellen's skirt was of a respectful length, and offered her a raincoat that she had on hand that was an inch or two longer. We accepted it and had no problem gaining admittance to the Mosque.

We returned to the kiosk and thanked the cop. "Should I keep the reaincoat to go visit Aghia Sofia?" Ellen enquired. "Oh, no", said the cop. "The Sultan Achmet, that is a Mosque; the Aghia Sofia, that is only a Church."

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