September 27, 2014
Athens—This grimy, semi-Levantine, ancient city has its beauty spots, with childhood memories indelibly attached. A turn of the century apartment building, across the street from my house, where in 1942 or ’43 I watched a daughter and wife scream in horror from their balcony as three nondescript assassins executed a man while he bent over to get into his chauffeur-driven car. His name was Kalyvas and he was a minister in the Vichy-like Greek government of the time. He was bald and from my vantage point I saw the three red spots as the bullets entered his skull. His wife and daughter wore black from that day onward, the daughter being a teenager and a pretty blonde one at that. I was six and have never forgotten them or their screams of anguish. Last week I looked up to the third floor and it was all closed up. I wondered what has happened to the daughter. If alive, she’s in her late eighties.
Athens is full of ghosts for me. One is the greasy-haired man who was wearing a raincoat and carrying a rifle when someone killed him from my house as he ran toward us in the black Christmas of 1944. He lay in the street for days. Was it my father, the policeman guarding us, or the red-beret British paratrooper who later crashed through our kitchen skylight, shot dead? He was barely 18, according to my mother. There was the dying-from-hunger man, lying close by, whom we tried to help, my older brother and I, by putting a yogurt underneath his chin, one he never touched. Fraulein wistfully said we wasted a yogurt. Then there was the priest who stole a small loaf of cheap bread at the height of the hunger and was chased down the street by the baker for it. Funny how childhood images remain undimmed.
I had a front row seat when the wartime King George II died in 1947. There were thigh-high boots and even purple Prisoner of Zenda-like uniforms, all adding to the royal mystique. Last week I looked at pictures on a menu of the royal wedding of 50 years ago, that of King Constantine and Queen Anne-Marie, both then in their early 20s and by far the best looking royal couple in the world. They gave a reception and dinner dance at the Royal Yacht Club, overlooking Tourkolimano, where 54 years ago the king returned in triumph after winning a gold medal in the Rome Olympics of 1960. There were European royals galore, two reigning queens, and also the uncle of King Abdullah of Jordan, who had to fly over Israel in order to attend. There was a great orchestra that played haunting old Greek tunes that only added to my nostalgic memories of Athens and the sweetness of the life that was in one of Europe’s most romantic cities.
No longer, and yet there are snatches of that “douceur,” as when dancing under the stars in the yacht club overlooking Phalerum Bay. The Queen gave a wonderful speech in impeccable Greek, noting the extreme happiness of these 50 years, plus the heartbreaks, and her five children recited their father’s speech, as I suspect King Constantine gets emotional when speaking of the country he so loves, one that has treated him as shabbily as it has.
For starters, most Balkan royalty, including that of Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia, have had their properties and palaces returned, and are treated with great respect. In my country, royal properties, paid for with the royals’ own funds, have been expropriated without compensation by the crooks that rule the Olive Republic of Hellas. I know Constantine well, but cannot figure him out. At times his expression shows the imperishable pain that his destiny forced upon him. Losing the throne of Greece is not like losing that of, say, Albania.