Excerpt: Gifted Greek

Monteagle Stearns (1924-2016) was an American diplomat and a U.S. ambassador to Greece. He is the author of Entangled Allies: U.S. Policy toward Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus and Talking to Strangers: American Diplomacy at Home and Abroad. Below is an excerpt from a chapter of his new book Gifted Greek: The Enigma of Andreas Papandreou (Potomac Books, 2021).

Chapter 5: The Years of Our Greek Experience

In 1959 there were no apartment buildings in Psychiko, no lack of parking space on the streets, and the commute to Syntagma (Constitution Square) in downtown Athens was an easy run down the main artery, Kifissia Boulevard. Except for kiosks, packed with newspapers and sundries, and the occasional cries of itinerant tinkers and green grocers hawking their wares, there was little commercial bustle to disturb Psychiko’s countrified air. It was a purely residential suburb, built with old money and solid bourgeois taste. The stone and stucco houses were a mix of Balkan, neoclassical, and Bauhaus architecture, exuding respectability without ostentation. Even the several properties built by the royal family were relatively unpretentious, although long after they were sold, they were still known as “Prince or Princess So- and-So’s house.”

Off Kifissia Boulevard, the main entrance to Psychiko was its broadest and straightest street, Diamandidou. It rose gradually uphill and had two large rotaries (plateias) with narrow streets leading off them toward smaller plateias with more offshoots. It was easy to get lost in Psychiko, and the best way to get a sense of its meandering streets, tidy houses, and little domed churches set like puddings among pines and cypresses was atop a rock quarry bordering the next suburb, Philothei. From there one could also take in Mount Hymettos, the whale-backed mountain that separates Athens and its northern suburbs from the sea.

Toni and I lived just off Diamandidou at 24 Guizi Street, in what must have been Psychiko’s smallest house, a whitewashed cube with a wall in front and a garden behind, scented by two fig trees and a shady grape arbor. Perhaps the first owners were newlyweds like us or an elderly retired couple with no need of extra bedrooms—except, of course, the prerequisite one in the basement for a live- in maid. Ours, whose hardscrabble journey from village peasant to urban domestic covered all the milestones of wartime Greece, rejoiced in the boiler’s warmth and a bed of her own. She stuffed her wages under her mattress and every now and then exchanged the paper currency for a gold sovereign. With vivid memories of the inflation years, when shoppers lugged suitcases of drachmae to buy food for the day, Martha didn’t trust any money she couldn’t break a tooth on.

Nearby, at 58 Guizi Street, stood Andreas’s childhood home. It was a spacious villa, somewhat modernized by a Danish living room set and a stereo console but otherwise much as it must have been when he lived there with his mother. Although Sophia was a household fixture, we came to know her mostly as a shy presence who tended to withdraw when the Papandreous had visitors.

We met Margaret and Andreas at a typically animated bilingual dinner party given by a Liberal Party deputy and his Greek American wife. Then the youngest member of Parliament, John Boutos would go on to serve in a variety of ministerial posts in several Greek governments, crossing and recrossing the indistinct lines that separated the parties of the center and the right. His wife, Mary, was heir to the Evga ice cream company, deservedly the most popular and well- marketed brand of frozen desserts in Greece. It was the first to play musical jingles on its bicycle carts, inspired by the Good Humor trucks her family had known in the United States. In the heat of a Greek summer, they were like the music of the spheres.

The Papandreous were a striking couple who made deceptively different first impressions. Margaret’s slightly guarded manner seemed to imply that she suspended friendship until she could judge the stranger she was talking to. Her son Nick described her as “an impressive brunette born in a working-c lass suburb of Chicago whose father taught her to work hard, live clean, and not complain about the weather.”

Andreas, on the other hand, seemed completely unguarded. He had a warm smile and a manner which implied, or which people inferred, that you were exactly the person he had hoped to meet that evening and that your opinions were exactly those he wanted to hear. He too was tall, though not as tall as his famous father. Nor did he yet have George Papandreou’s craggy features and overpowering vocal cords. At age forty, Andreas’s hairline was beginning to recede, but his eyebrows were thick and black, highlighting deep-set, intelligent eyes that seemed appraising without being critical, observant rather than wary. With his agreeable manner and ever- so- faintly accented English, he presented himself as no less and no more than what he was: a worldly economics professor, totally at ease in his surroundings.

Papandreou and I were seated next to each other, and when I explained who I was and how I had already met his father, Andreas was eager to hear my thoughts on the Greek political scene. He was a newcomer, he said, focused on the economy, and his first impression of Greek parliamentarians was how little interest they took in it. The state’s coffers, he explained, were overly reliant on external sources of income, like emigrant remittances, shipping, and tourism, without thought to developing Greece’s natural resources. Furthermore, the few raw materials that Greece did export were more profitable to importing countries than to Greece because that was where value was added. Greek hides sold to Italy were turned into Gucci shoes; Greek bauxite was processed into aluminum in France; Greek tobacco was blended into expensive cigarette brands in Egypt and the Levant.

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