Thursday, July 21, 2016

it's all greek to me

Before I decided to retire in Mexico, the leading candidate for my new home was going to be Greece.

Or London. Or Paris. Places I had lived and thoroughly enjoyed the complexity of life. But, my favorite was Greece.

Nostalgia is a harsh mistress. Joys always outweigh disappointments when we think about our pasts. It was that way with my Greek memories.

I lived there only one year -- from August of 1973 (when the Watergate was coming to a boil) until August of 1974 (when Richard Nixon made his stage left exit from the White House).

My title was "Technical Advisor to the Hellenic Air Force." A clever little mask that allowed me cover to advise the Greek Air Force in its machinations against the Army dictatorship that was winding down its hold on the government. It was all very heady stuff for a first lieutenant.

But the political doings of the Greeks was not what made me think of retiring there. It was the country.

I lived on the western shores of the Peloponnese (the grape leaf portion of Greece that juts out into the Mediterranean) in an adequate villa in the village of Kato Achaia (or, Κάτω Αχαΐα, as the Greeks would have it). "Cato, Ohio" as it was called by my Air Force colleagues, who never passed up the opportunity to reduce any Greek phrase to something American. I will not titillate you with the bawdier examples.

That portion of Greece was poor, but not extremely poor. Compared with northern Europe, it had not progressed much from its days as an Ottoman outpost.

Telephone connections were difficult. Roads were narrow and pot-holed. And finding any European food imports (let alone American) was a rarity. Greece would not join the EEC for another 5 years, a decision that many Greeks now rue.

The country was (and still is) beautiful -- the type of stark beauty that made Maria Callas a star. Sheer mountains plunging into the blue Mediterranean. And some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

I finally decided not to retire there. Greece bears some rather sad memories for me. The night I left Athens on my way to England, a group of friends held a party for me at the marina in Vouliagmeni. I never saw most of them again due to Philip Agee's treason.

But it was not just politics. I was always surprised how my middle class Greek friends, who lived in Athens, managed to survive. The cost of electricity and gasoline was exorbitant. Even though they always had enough money to go out on the weekend, they always seemed strapped for cash.

When I was ready to retire, the siren call of the beaches nearly called me back to southern Europe. Even in 2009, though, Greece's fiscal problems were evident. It did not look like a country with a future. Thirty years of crony government made the place not much more attractive than Russia as a retirement spot.

It is funny that a lot of my good memories of places circulate around food. I would regularly drive from my assignment on the Peloponnese to Athens. There was a natural break point at the Corinth canal -- the ill-fated narrow channel cut in the limestone to connect the Aegean Sea with the Gulf of Corinth.

There was a souvlaki stand there that served some of the best lamb I have ever tasted. Simple. Grilled. With a bit of lemon, olive oil, and oregano.

I have subsequently attended every Greek  festival and eaten at many Greek restaurants in a vain hope to once again experience that first taste. But, like an opium addict, I am merely chasing the dragon. The experience was a one-shot deal.

On Monday evening, I tried it once again. Alex offered up at Greek night at Magnolia's in La Manzanilla. There were, as always, three entrees offered. When I saw the chicken souvlaki with tzatziki, I knew what my dinner would be.

Alex's dinners are always done well. And this was no exception -- one of the best souvlaki I have had in years.

But I did not catch the dragon. And I never well.

That is one reason I am now retired in Mexico, instead of exploring the archaeological sites of Greece. It has been a fair trade.

After all, the dragon needs to rest, as well.

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