I was opinionated. Tough. And naive as a teenager can be. In retrospect, I think that my mother had decided that she and my father needed a rest. (I was her fourth child, born 25 years after her first.) So my parents suggested that I, at age 17, should travel to Greece, attend Pierce College for freshman year, after which time I would return to university in the US, as a sophomore.
Of course, I was ecstatic. Like most 17-year-olds, the anticipation, the utter thrill of being in what was basically a foreign land for the first time, even without speaking the language, was an adventure that was unparalleled, in my life anyway. I understood that Pierce College (before it was renamed Deree) was fully accredited, probably acceptable, but wouldn’t be an intellectual strain on me. It wouldn’t interrupt my essential freedom.
Freedom! My parents had never lived in Greece. My mother came to America as a small baby and my father as a teenager from then-Constantinople. They hoped that I would discover my roots – those of my ancestors. In those days, in the mid-1960s, there was, of course, no internet, cellphones or free calling systems, hence distance from my parents was easily obtained. I was placed in a private room at XEN, the equivalent of the YWCA, on Amerikis Street in downtown Athens.
School began and life was easy. The class subjects were not very rigorous and afforded me plenty of time to discover “my roots” via Greek friends my age. I went to the occasional museum and gallery, but spent more time in the “boites de nuit” of Plaka. Even learning this expression filled me with delight. The boites were those little clubs on the winding, narrow walkways of Plaka, with marvelous guitar performances and the bohemian aura which I so loved. I drank my first cocktail, fell in and out of love several times, and sang in my sleep. Weekends were spent on Hydra and Paros, and weekdays with friends in Athens. Freedom was exhilarating.
A few months passed. And then there was that beautiful Athenian spring morning, much like today, when the streets are filled with the intoxicating scent of wisteria and bitter orange blossoms. I grabbed my books and headed to the dormitory door to rush to a class at Pierce. There was an unusual commotion at the front hall. Oddly, the door was firmly closed. The date was April 21, 1967.
I was stopped by some random woman. “Go back to your room.”
“But I have a class. I’m going to school.”
“There is no school today.”
“How do you know? Pierce did not inform us that classes were canceled.”
“Return to your room now. Classes are canceled. There is a coup d’etat. A military coup. You know… a junta.”
“What junta?” I shouted. “I am leaving this minute. I am an American citizen and I am going to the American Embassy!”
“You are going nowhere. The doors are locked.” And she marched off.
What in hell? A coup d’etat? At 17, I should have been more alarmed. More aware. But really, American children weren’t educated on the subject. Of course we knew about the World Wars. And about the Civil War in America, a century before. But a “junta”? What was a junta? It couldn’t be so awful.
The next few months were truly an education. My closest friend, Yannis, had a brother who went to jail. Curfews were imposed. People were accused, locked up, tortured. I heard the stories daily. The experience of seeing my friends so afraid of ramifications, of implications, of their very movements, their speech, their music, was entirely new to me. Another friend from the US brought me anti-junta material and Theodorakis albums. I began to give them to my Greek friends, who were shocked that I did this, and I saw them hide the forbidden treasures in their coats. We walked along the streets. Tanks everywhere. Hideous scenery. Striking fear, ever present.
And when, after a year, I returned to my university in the United States, I discussed those days, weeks and months with my new American classmates. My comments were almost always met with expressions of disbelief and often indifference. “Anyway, it could never happen here,” was the usual stance.
It all comes back. Obviously, I was very lucky. But it often returns to me… that fear, that shock. Has America changed since then? Is the country more aware? Do we still take freedom so much for granted? Do we care about the fate of those outside of our malls and our wheat fields? Are we alarmed by anything other than the price of gas? Or of a hostile takeover of Twitter?
Even at 17, it was the indiscretion of inexcusable ignorance. The question still haunts me.
“What junta?” There. For seven long years. That junta.
Tenia Christopoulos is the author of “Lords of the Dance.” She is a Washingtonian who lives in Athens.