*By George Schira — I arrived at the Athens Airport on May 27, 2010, in the year that marked the 25th Anniversary of the TWA hijacking and my first trip to Greece to which I had come as an aide to former President Jimmy Carter.
Back then we began our trip in Corfu (Kerkyra in Greek) meeting Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou. The plan was to restore confidence in Greek tourism and raise money for the Carter Center and Presidential Library being built in Atlanta. The hidden agenda was to meet Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios and leaders of the Turkish government in Istanbul to assist in a decades-old effort to rebuild the Patriarchal headquarters of the world wide Orthodox Church in the old quarter of the Phanar to which the Church had been relegated since that capital of the New Roman Empire fell to the Turks.
My own agenda then was a personal one, to pursue and ratify my remote origins as a Greek.
Papandreou had been dealing with a rather tense modern-day geographical dispute with Turkey. What also emerged from the trip was the drawing up of a commercial agreement between Greece and Turkey, sponsored by our host, George P. Livanos, who was American-born and the largest ship owner in Greece at the time, under the theory that successful commerce equaled peace in the region. Papandreou ultimately decided not to sign the agreement despite the willingness of his Turkish counterparts.
That trip was highly successful. The Carter Presidential Center, as we called it then, got built as did the Patriarchal headquarters, though the latter required a dozen or so more trips on my part working with the Metropolitan who was then sort of Secretary of State to Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios and is today Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and with Turkish leaders. My career as an aide to the former President, however, came to a sorry end, but that is another story. Between that time and now, I learned some Greek, became Greek Orthodox, and came to better understand Ancient and Modern Greek history and the glory that was Byzantium, but my prolonged exposure to Greek Americans was somewhat disappointing as many of them seemed to exhibit the same ambiguity and ambivalence of my own identity crisis.
This time around, I planned a leisurely lunch on my birthday with an old friend, ship owner Nicos Vernicos, President of International Chamber of Commerce-Hellas, not revealing my age but only the occasion of the anniversary of my first trip. However, Nicos had other plans and before I could get a moment’s rest, he arranged a whirlwind of activities, beginning with a speech by a prominent Greek American “Harvard/Oxford scholar” on Greek Foreign Policy in the 21st Century at the glorious old Parliament building and ending with an evening in Kastri, the town north of Athens that is the home of the Greek Prime Minister, George Papandreou. The occasion was a presentation of the leader of the five-man Greek team that successfully reached the summit of Mount Everest in 2004 to little acclaim and with virtually no support from the Greek government. The leader, Panagiotis Kotronaros, was joined by a panel of businessmen and the idea was to tie the methods and strategy of that feat, under the rubric of “leadership”, to modern management and business.
The morning panel consisted of a strange assortment of government leaders, including a representative of the Greek Communist Party. Everything was conducted in Greek, of course, and I could only catch the drift and gist of the speeches, but one thing caught my attention, the main speaker’s proposal that all European debtor countries collectively go to the European Central Bank as the economic crisis was not just Greek, but European, and, indeed, worldwide, and everyone bore responsibility. The comments, an exercise in Athenian democracy, ranged from spontaneous expressions of denial or rationalization to anger and over-analysis, but never to resignation and acceptance.
Prior to the trip, I had followed the American media coverage of the “Greek Debt Crisis” with all the usual clichés from “It’s Greek to me”, “The Greek Tragedy” and “The Trojan Horse” to the pejorative characterization of the debtor countries as “pigs” (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain), with debt-ridden Great Britain being given a pass, as if each country was a place on some vast Monopoly Board and we were playing with fake money to buy and sell properties. In fact, these were cultures and peoples and even great civilizations of the first order without which there would have been no America, no Christianity as we’ve come to know it, no Renaissance, no Enlightenment, no American or French Revolution, no capitalism, and, mostly due to Greece, no democracy.
But I do admit to American impatience at the endless proceedings, exhibited even more dramatically at the evening’s event when the successful expedition leader would not let go of the microphone and guests spoke at length, sometimes spontaneously beginning a dialogue with the speaker, with the panel interspersing their presentations. There had indeed been no support from the Greek government, and the team even providing their own Greek flag to be erected at the summit. But the topic was “leadership” and only my friend Nicos seemed to grasp the moment and engage the audience.
That is what it all came down to – “leadership”, whether of the young and promising Greek Prime Minister or of America’s young and promising President, who held great hope and achieved a great deal, but was being weighed down by the leadership demands of a “jobless recovery” and a devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The trip was a coming of age, or coming to terms with age, my life and experience and with civilization and its discontents, 25 years after that first momentous Odyssey. I had seen seven decades of life, with ups and downs, but here in Greece I was confronted by five millennia of history. Civilizations rise and fall, leaders come and go, but the people, like my immigrant father, American-born mother and her immigrant parents, seem always to find hope amid the ruins and start over, living full lives.
Tomorrow I shall go to the new Acropolis Museum where I will not feel so old or doubtful and remember to prize individual heroism, the true wonder of human culture, and the importance of leadership in our free and vital societies. After all, we are all Greeks.
*George Schira was the first Executive Director of the Carter Presidential Center. He lived in Greece from 1989 to 1991. Since 2000 he has served as a communications consultant to the Archbishop Iakovos Leadership 100 Endowment Fund.