Ashore In Greece
( Originally Published 1936 )
One arriving for the first time on the shores of Greece Patras is likely to be disappointing. The town is not in high repute as a tourist center, and many of the through passengers on the Presidente Wilson did not trouble themselves to go ashore. They were encouraged in their indifference by the Italian officers. "There is nothing to see here," was their common response to inquiries.
The surroundings, as I first viewed them from the deck, seemed novel but of no extraordinary beauty. The town lay squat and stark in the sunshine, rising from the sea to the hills. Behind were the masses of Voidhia, and far to the southeast rose Olonos, the Erymanthus of the ancients. It stood in the rough highlands of Arcadia, a country poets and painters have made the symbol of pastoral ease and innocence. It is in fact a wild, harsh region, whose uncouth shepherds are the exact antithes of the dainty figures in a Watteau picture.
Seaward lay Ithaca, the home a id kingdom of Ulysses, a mere dot on the horizon, , nd to the south Zante, larger and more fertile. Across the gulf three conical AEtolian peaks reared their N re, symmetrical forms from the water's edge. In the rice marshes and lagoons at their feet was Missolong the scene of one of the most romantic defenses of the Greek war of independence.
The fame of Missolonghi rests, however, not on military events, but on its association with Byron, who died here on the 19th April, 182 .. One hundred years later I happened to be in London during the celebration of his centenary, and it ratified me to see on every hand recognition of the 1 enius of a man who has always seemed to me one of the greatest British poets. In one of his delightfu books Professor Mahaffy said of him:
" Byron is much out of fashion no v and so much more talked about than read—though even this notice of him is fast disappearing—that I venture to remind my readers of the splendid things he s id of Greece." This was written about the year 1893 and I wished that the great Dublin scholar, who nore than any other man since Byron himself deser ed the title of Philhellene, might have lived to read the eulogies in which the London press abounded. It would have pleased him, I am sure, to have seen this extraordinary man of genius come once more into the recognition that despite his conspicuous faults he so well deserved.
Whatever may have been the course of British opinion, Greece has never faltered in her veneration of his services. I question whether in any other country the memory of a foreigner is so revered. No doubt Byron's burning love of Greece perverted his historical judgments, and he was wrong in attributing the fallen condition of the land to Turkish tyranny alone; but his passion for liberty was so intense and his gift of expression so noble that he merited the tribute that I quote from the same gifted and now too little read writer:
" Byron paints the Greek brigand or pirate as many others have painted ` the noble savage,' with the omission of all his meaner vices. But in spite of all these faults who is there that has felt as he the affecting aspects of this beautiful land—the tomb of ancient glory, the home of ancient wisdom, the mother of science, of art, of philosophy, of statecraft —the champion of liberty, the envy of the Persian and the Roman, the teacher still of modern Europe? It is surely a great loss to our generation that the love of more modern poets has weaned them from the study of one, not less great in many respects, but far greater in one at least—in that burning enthusiasm for a national cause, in that red-hot passion for liberty which, even when misapplied or wasted upon
The detailed story of Byron's connection with Greece and her war of independence is too long to be retold here. It is probable that he was never an entirely normal man, for he was the sot of a licentious father and a mother whom many regarded as mad. He first went out to Greece in 18 to it company with John Cam Hobhouse, the later Lord Broughton. It was during the eighteen months of his residence there that he developed that overmaster of love of the country and its cause that lured him to his death, but has left him forever the idol of a people. In another place I shall have something to say of his association with Athens which inspired so much of his impassioned verse.
When the Greek war of independece broke out in 1821 there was no man in European are profoundly stirred. Societies of Philhellenes were formed in almost every country and the grea committee of liberals organized in London asked Byron to go out to Greece as its representative. He was quick to accept and in January, 1824, he landed at Missolonghi. Three months later he was dead—a victim of the malaria that has always been the curse of the lowlands. His body was returned to England, but his heart remains in Greece. The mounc under which it rests may be seen to this day and a light is always burning in the little chapel that has been erected near his statue. Yet few make the short pilgrimage to the Byron shrine, and I was told in Patras that it is seldom that a traveler so much as mentions it. Yet it is a place rich in memories.
We were met on shipboard by George Zafiropoulos, who informed me that he was the local representative of the Acropolis Travel Bureau, of Athens, to which we had committed our arrangements. He was a thin, sharp-faced young man, so businesslike in his manner that I knew before he told me that he had lived some years in Boston and New York. We landed directly at the little passport office and the three officials in military uniform were idly gossiping and smoking cigarettes. We were fortunate, I thought, in finding the office empty and I expected that our business would be finished in a minute or two. The interpreter presented the pass-port and explained that we were taking the noon train to Athens and that we should be greatly obliged if our passport were stamped at once.
A long and excited colloquy followed, until I finally became alarmed and asked whether there was anything wrong with our papers.
"Oh no," said George in English. "These men merely say that it is impossible to stamp your pass-ports now and that you must return for them at five o'clock this evening."
" Tell them again, please, that it is necessary for us to leave at noon."
"It is no use. They say that the: are very busy to-day and that presently they will have to handle eighty people who are coming ashore from the second class. Of course they could have stamped your passports in one-tenth the t me they spent arguing with me. But I know these ellows and you can't hurry them. The only thing you can do is to go on to Athens. I will get your passports tomorrow and send them on to you by mail."
This we were forced to do and I left the passport office with that sinking feeling one al vays feels when in a distant and unfamiliar land on puts his hand in his pocket and finds his reassu ing credentials missing. I asked George if the attiti de of the pass-port officers was typical of the habit. of the country.
" I am afraid it is," he said. " How many times have I gone to some office on an er and that could be attended to in a minute, only to be told to come back that afternoon. When I return as likely as not I will be informed that the papers are not ready and that I must come back the next day. A lot of time is wasted, but what are you going to do about it? "
The guardians of the customs w re much more responsive. They looked perfunctoriy into our bags, took our word for it and told us to pack them up. A porter loaded them into a cart and we walked to the Hotel Royal in Saint Nicholas Street.
Here at last was Greece. Along the quay was a wide, unpaved road, but the only traffic in sight was a lone Ford truck hauling goods from one of the many heavy sailboats tied up along the wall. Across the way twenty or thirty men were sitting around the small round tables of a sidewalk cafe. They were roughly dressed laborers and a few were smoking the nargileh or drinking Turkish coffee. It was Monday morning and the thought came to me that it was a strange way to be starting the week. I asked the guide about it.
" That is nothing unusual," he answered. " These men hardly ever work more than three or four hours a day. When they have earned enough to keep them going until tomorrow they go to the coffee house and loaf the rest of the day. So far as they are concerned their day's work is finished."
The walks in Saint Nicholas Street were lined with coffee houses of a better class, and of these there were three or four in the short block that led to the hotel. Here we went to a small, overfurnished parlor on the second floor and were met by Mr. A. Karameros, the landlord. He was a stout man of middle age and competent manner, but our later experiences in his house made me question his ability as a hotel-keeper. He gave us tickets to Athens, an order on the restaurant car for lunch and agreed to hold such of our luggage as we did not wish to carry along on our wanderings.
Our financial transactions were a little complicated by the fact that cut money was still in general circulation. The Greek dracl ma was at that time quoted at about one and one-fourth cents and the paper notes in common use rang !d from five to one hundied drachmae. The Ministe of Finance of a previous government had imposed a forced loan upon the country by ordering the corner clipped from every note of fifty drachmae o more, and its value was then reduced to three-fou the of its face. This man later died before a firing squad, but his work lived after him. The existing g )vernment had discontinued the practice of cutting he money and had, a few months previously, resumed the practice of issuing notes of full face value. There were thus two kinds of money in circulation, this the situation was rendered still more complex by he fact that a good many people had hoarded their old notes, instead of cutting them as the law required. These notes were now coming out of thei hiding place and though uncut they were still wo th twenty-five per cent. less than the new issue. It was therefore necessary to examine every uncut bill that came into one's hands to ascertain from its date vhether it was of full value. It is easy to imagine the opportunity this condition created for the Le Levantine money changers and the extent of the impostion practiced on inexperienced visitors.
I do not mean to suggest that Mr. I Parameros was up to any such tricks, for he is an honest man. Nor were the various porters who handled our bags between the ship and the hotel. But they had fully adjusted themselves to the depreciated currency and our four hand bags had run us a bill of three hundred drachmae before we had been in town a half hour.
The condition of the notes was generally very bad. They were engraved on cheap paper and their passage through many grimy hands had left most of them soiled and tattered, often almost beyond recognition. Not long ago it was possible for an American to travel economically in any country whose currency was depreciated, but this condition no longer obtains. Prices have everywhere been advanced in proportion to the decline of the local money and in many instances even more. In Italy I was repeatedly asked twenty lire ($I.20) for twenty English cigarettes and in Greece, which is still supposed to be a 'cheap country, I was informed that the cost of living had increased 1,800 per cent. during the period since the outbreak of the war. The drachmae meantime, has fallen from a parity equal to the gold franc to about one and a quarter cents. So it is apparent that prices have gone up faster than the money has gone down.
There had been some rumors on the ship that we might find the Port of Patras quarantined. It had been closed for six months in the previous year on account of bubonic plague, and IV R. Karameros threw some light on the situation.
" The plague," he said disdainfull: . " There was no plague. That scare was just a piece of petty graft. Some of the doctors here were a little hard up, so they invented the story that they ha t discovered a case of plague. Naturally it caused a big scare, and they got about 100,000 drachmae fro a the Government to stamp it out, though as a matter of fact it never existed at all. The quarantine was as big a fraud as the disease itself. The ships t tat were accustomed to call here simply went on to Vostitza, thirty miles away and the people went in an out of Patras just as freely as before."
I suppose that Greek politics was r Ever free from incidents like this, from the days of Solon to the time of Pangalos, but this was the first direct account I had received of its actual working. The reason that political news fills the daily press and is the usual topic of conversation in every coffee house is not hard to find. A large part of the population is trying to live from the public purse, id Greece has yet to learn that no nation can list itself by its bootstraps.
After I had finished my business with the land-lord and inspected his tin bathtub a Id the roaches that dwelt therein, some time still ri mained before the arrival of the Athens train. Our guide had other business, so he found us seats before the coffee house next door and promised to return in time to see us off. It was a quiet hour, but everything around us was novel and the time passed quickly. The traffic in the street consisted mainly of donkeys and bicycles, but during the hour we tarried here a horse cab and one small British motor car came by.
Only a few tables were taken when we arrived, but business men began to drop in to read their newspapers, sip sweet coffee and play with their finger beads. The priests, too, were starting their day in the orthodox fashion. Their high, round flat-topped hats, the black robes, their beards and the chignon at the back of their heads made them curious figures to western eyes.
The habit of loitering in coffee houses and fingering chaplets of amber beads is the custom of Greece that most impresses the visitor. It is so universal that nothing is thought of it, but the more progressive Greeks in America regard it with shame. Soon after my return I met a Greek acquaintance who has been successful.
"And how did you like the country?" he inquired.
Maybe I hesitated a moment, for without waiting for my answer he continued:
"It's pretty dry and barren, isn't it? And those fellows always sitting around the coffee houses playing with beads? It's awful, isn't it?"
The origin of the bead habit is not established. I believe it is of Turkish inception, for it prevails in Constantinople and Smyrna. The 1 omboloia may once have symbolized the ninety-mile attributes of Allah or the Catholic rosary and by many it is still regarded as a sort of talisman. In Constantinople I have often seen it wrapped around the radiator caps of motor cars, tied to the bridles of cab horses or even to the pack saddles on which the street porters carry such unbelievable loads.
The stranger entering Greece by " back door " does not at once plunge into the associations of ancient days, as is the case on arriva at the Piraeus. Excepting only Olympia the fan ous places of antiquity all lie toward the east. Pat as, it is true, is an ancient town, but it is connected with little of interest except the currant industry and the war of independence.
The old Cathedral is really the Independence Hall of the nation, for here on April, 1821, the Archbishop Germanos raised the flag of revolution and inspired many thousands o the peasantry to sign a covenant to drive out the hated Turk or to perish in the attempt. Some secre meetings had previously been held in Vostitza, be it to the brave churchman is due the honor of be ng the first to publicly defy the power of the Port :. He devised a flag of white on which were inscribed in letters of blue the words " For Liberty," and this was really the first emblem of freedom in modern Greece.
The Turkish governor immediately sent him orders to report at Tripolitza, but instead the stern old priest took refuge in the fastness of Megaspelion, and from this monastic eyrie the Turks were never able to dislodge him. The monastery was besieged by the Egyptian forces of Ibrahim Pasha, but the monks hurled great rocks from the mountain side and held the enemy at bay until relief came.
I suppose that history records no stranger war than that which finally won Greece her freedom and put an end to the enslavement of four hundred years that it still called " The long Turkish night." The backbone of her armies were the bandits from the mountains and her best sailors were nothing more than pirates. For incompetence, disorganization and atrocity the campaigns have no parallel in modern times. Battles no more serious than those of the comic stage were alternated with massacres that rivaled the horrors of ancient AEgospotami. There appeared some years ago in the Pall Mall Gazette a letter written by an old man who in his youth had witnessed some of the fighting. In the course of his narrative he says:
"I lately saw a battle in the Greek war of independence that lasted three days. The expenditure of ammunition was enormous and the net result one man wounded."
The action that really ended the war was quite as extraordinary as any of its incidents. The issue was determined in the Bay of Navarino. I recently at-tended a meeting in Chicago in cel thration of its centenary and the speaker described it as the only battle of history that won freedom for a country without a single one of its nationals having fired a shot or taken any part whatsoever It is further unique in:that it is the only decisive action neither preceded nor followed by a declara; on of war between the belligerents.
Public opinion in Europe was from the first sympathetic with Greece as a Christian nation fighting against her Moslem oppressors. It was finally so inflamed by the barbarities of th) Turkish and Egyptian armies in the Peloponnesu that England, France and Russia sent a combined meet into Greek waters with instructions to bring about an armistice. The commanders were hampered by orders to resort to no force. The hard-pressed Greeks gave ready consent, but the Turks were obdurate . In their naval base at Navarino they had a force of eighty-nine ships. The allied force consisted of wenty-nine vessels when it entered the bay for the urpose of holding a parley with the Turkish ad niral. A hare-brained Captain on one of the Ottoman craft opened fire, whereupon the allied officers forgot their orders and in four hours sank every Turkish ship.
Greeks all over the world celebrated Navarino day last. October, and England and 1 rance sent war-ships to the Piraeus to take part in tl e naval demonstration there. But brave Germanos, who sowed the seed of revolution, is forgotten and few in Patras so much as recall his name.
The currant warehouses are the only evidences of industrial life that I observed in Patras, and the small black fruit that figures so much in English cookery is the foundation of most of the fortunes of the city. It was a bonanza business in its earlier days, but prices have fallen and it now yields no more than ordinary profit.
When we returned to the water front the train had just pulled in from Pyrgos. It was crowded with passengers returning from Olympia who now scattered through the near-by shops in search of food and wine. There was no hurry to get aboard for the stop was thirty minutes. Some cars were added to care for the Athens traffic and with the ringing of bells, the sounding of bugles and the scream of whistles we were off on our first railway journey in Greece.