By George Capsis
The first question a Greek asks another Greek is: “Where are you from?”
As you fly down from the dark green of northern Europe, the gray white bones of the continent emerge when you get to Greece and the remaining strands of rust red earth only support small villages isolated by narrow donkey trails; travel from island to island is cautioned by sudden boat-tossing storms of the Meltemi.
Nature’s isolation has made for village-to-village, island-to-island differences in costume, speech, and even cuisine. So the question “Where does your family come from in Greece?” is, for a Greek, almost like asking “Which country do you come from?”
Now my father (Costas), Constantine (Charles) Capsis, was not born in Greece. He was born—as Greeks will say—in Asia Minor, that is, he was born in Turkey.
Yes, it is very hard for a Greek to say he was born in Turkey because, as I hope you remember, Constantine was the last Roman Emperor who became a Christian on his deathbed and what followed was the Christian Byzantine Empire until the Turks entered Constantinople in 1453. (It is sort of a holiday in Turkey like July 4th but instead of being liberated they conquered.)
So here were the Turks, a nomadic marauding tribe from the steppes of Russia with only the civilization they could carry in their saddle bags and, in a moment of triumph and, yes, contempt, 21-year-old Sultan Mehmet rode his horse, clack, clack, clack, up the steps and into the Church of the Holy Wisdom and turned it into a mosque.
In a pause, after days of looting, the Turks viewed the temples and churches that took a thousand years of civilization to build while they had nothing to assuage their egos with but the conviction that they were the children of the one and, yes, the only, true god.
But this was a Greek land. The Greeks had been here since Homer and Troy is not very far from where my father was born in the small fishing port of Saint Paraskevie near what the Turks call Izmir and the Greek’s called Smyrna which before the First World War was then, and is now again, an elegant Hamptons-like seaside resort (the few Turks in town took out the trash).
My father was the youngest, his older brother was a schoolteacher who became a journalist, and another brother, Tresivilous, sponsored by a French family, became a naval engineer who came to MIT to study. That is how my father got to Boston as a teenager and, to escape the Boston cold, motorcycled to the south, married, had a son, and I hope divorced before returning to New York to marry my German-born mother.
At 21, I asked my father if he would pay for a trip to Paris and he said, “Yes, but you have to go to Greece,” and I stifled my childhood memories of all-day Greek picnics with wailing music and a language that was all Greek and said, “Of course.”
Near dawn, in 1949, John, the son of my father’s older brother Pantelis met me at the old Athens airport with a bunch of his drinking buddies in a square-backed 1930s taxi and drove on a silent carless road to Athens. And there it was, the Parthenon, in the dawn’s first light—the first visual statement of civilization—wow.
John became a very tough journalist and then under Prime Minister Papandreou became the Deputy Foreign Minister who steel-fistedly negotiated the price for the American bases and then conducted the first visit of a Turkish President to Greece. And when the short plump Turkish President Ozal asked as they sailed between islands, “So John, where does your family come from in Greece?” and John said they come from Turkey, Ozal announced he would arrange a visit.
(Much later, as the Consultant to the United States Council for International Business, I entered the office of our new president who pleaded that I was not a relative of John Capsis for he had been the U.S. Ambassador to Greece that endured John’s negotiations.)
“Get on the next plane. We are going home,” demanded John and I obeyed and flew to Athens where I met him at the airport for a flight to the Island of Hios from which you can see the coast of Turkey. “We are going back like our ancestors on a kieki (a traditional Greek fishing boat),” and there was a crowd at the dock of newspaper people and a dignitary or two while John worked the sails; they mistook me for the Foreign Minister.
The ancestral Capsis house had been leveled. Only the open cellar and foundation were left so they took us next door to a similar house so we might see what it might have looked like; there we found a group of young Turkish women gathered sitting on the floor who viewed us with nervous hesitant smiles.
The Turkish mayor took us of course to the very best seaside restaurant where we discovered a very uncomfortable Greek translator who I guess had converted to Islam and knew that we knew.
A young Greek diplomat from the Council Office in Izmir took us for a drive along the coast when we came upon a group of poor boys who had been brought from the interior and were experiencing the first splash in the sea. I was shocked to see none could swim for in Greece the sea is never far and all Greek boys swim (my father used to take us kids on his back and swim way out and back at Rockaway beach).
In a small seaside town stood a statue of a militant soldier with his rifle thrust out towards Europe. Army officer-turned-head of state Enver Pasha tried to save the disintegrating empire by joining Germany in the First World War and it was a young military officer Ataturk who stopped the Greeks from retaking their ancient world after the First World War.
When I returned to New York, I received an invitation to a reception for Turkish President Ozal at the Plaza. As I reached the steps down into the large reception hall, I viewed something very Turkish—there were no women in the room only a mass of men in blue suits. But in the center was a circle of khaki uniforms encrusted with glittering gold and red braids with a sprinkling of blue and white admirals. I made my way down and through the military vortex and discovered in the center a short rotund President Ozal.
“My name is George Capsis and my cousin is John Capsis, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Greece,” I announced and instantly Ozal lit up with a smile and a question, “And did he visit his family’s home in Turkey?” he crackled. “Yes, and I went with him,” I responded. “And what did you think of Turkey?” he asked. “The best Greek food I ever had I had in Turkey,” came my response referring to the century-old debate of whether Greek food is really Turkish.
The recent events in Turkey remind me of what that young diplomat told us in the car as we drove past the statue of a militant soldier, his bayoneted rifle pointed at Europe.
“Every country has an army but Turkey is the only army that has a country.”