By George Capsis
In 1949, when I was 21, I asked my father for money to visit Paris. He said that he would only give it to me if I went to Greece; I reluctantly agreed.
With a German mother and a Greek father, my exposure to Greeks had been limited to events like Greek picnics held on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge when I would, for hours, listen to the wail of clarinets accompanying Greek dances. Then there was the strange food and so much of it. But it was not bad, not bad.
In 1949, air travel was still coming together after the War and I flew to Paris on the Flying Tiger airline in a beat-up cargo plane that started to run out of gas over the Atlantic. We had to make an emergency landing in Iceland.
After Paris, I made my way down through Italy to Rome and finally booked a very cheap flight, which landed me in Athens in the middle of night.
My cousin John, a year or so younger than I, was the son of my father’s older brother, Pantelis, who had been a schoolteacher and, later, a journalist.
Greeks nap in the afternoon heat so they may go out 10:00 p.m. and have dinner at an open-air restaurant. At midnight, they walk home under the stars with the smell of jasmine.
My cousin John had been drinking at a taverna with a few of his buddies, just a bit unsure about having to meet his cousin from New York.
Mainland Greeks self protectively make fun of emigrant Greeks who speak Greek with old-fashioned village dialects. John was, I am sure, exchanging jokes about his arriving New York cousin. He invited all of his drinking buddies to drive out to the airport to meet me in a high-back, 1936 black taxi that had survived the war.
I was surprised by the greeting party and John’s bravado performance for them. I wondered if this was what I had to endure for the rest of my visit when John touched my shoulder and said excitedly, “Look.” There was the Parthenon in the early light of dawn—very real, very near. It was an overwhelming sight—the first visualization of civilization. That visit changed my life.
In 1967, the Greek military staged a coup and took control of Greece. John wrote a satirical piece, and was then tried and imprisoned. I and a few other Greek-Americans joined to protest in the papers and on the air.
Word came at last that John was free and we took our three kids, Athena, Ariadne, and Doric, to Athens to celebrate. We also wanted them to see a little of Greece.
Going home, the kids marched in single file to the plane with mom, Andromache (Maggie), behind and me last. I was stopped by a small man who asked for my passport and offered that I had to return to the office for some formality.
In the office, a sitting clerk demanded my passport and said without looking at me, “You are not going on that plane.” I realized that this was their revenge for my campaigning against them.
I began to shout at my little security policeman and slammed a pad down on his desk. I demanded that he write his name so that, when the colonels were ousted, I would come back and get him. The functionary kept snapping back that I was not going on that plane; the pilot appeared asking me for an explanation. (The plane had been sitting and waiting for half an hour.)
I grabbed up my passport and said to the pilot, “Let’s go.” He demurred, “It is easy for you, but I have to live with them.” I asked him to bring the family off the plane.
I called John at the office but he had left for lunch. I decided to take the family back to Athens to the Tamion Building—the headquarters for the military coup—and confront the head of security. (I was very angry.)
As we walked into his office suite, I was met by a staffer from John’s paper and an officer from the American Consulate who said, “I wondered when you would get here.”
“Let’s go in and see this guy,” I demanded, but he held me back with, “No, you’re too angry. We’ll talk to him.” I waited and fumed.
“You are free to go anytime,” the Consulate officer offered, as he emerged. I had another demand, “Go back and ask him why I was detained,” and back came a classic Greek bit of double talk: “Mr. Capsis knows better than anyone why he was detained.”