By Fr. Nick Kotsis - As I wrote the other day, before my final year at Holy Cross, we were sent on an extraordinary trip to Greece. Part of the trip included visiting the Patriarchate in Constantinople. We spent a week in Istanbul. We stayed at the Theological School in Halki (Halki is an island in the Bosporus) and took ferries to the city every morning. We visited His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and the Patriarchate several times, visited all the major churches and historical sites in Istanbul (all but the Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazar are from the Roman Empire (Byzantium)), took a trip to Nicea (a former capital of the empire and home to the 1st and 7thEcumenical Councils), and met many wonderful people. I must say, the Turks we encountered along the way were very welcoming, nice, beautiful people; as I’ll explain later, those associated with the government were different. It was a fantastic trip.
When we left for the trip from Boston, I was a little apprehensive. I had never travelled overseas before. The only other country I had been to was Canada, and I don’t think anyone would say Canada is exotic. At least in Canada, they speak Canadian, which is close enough to our language, American, that it is easy to get along there…
Going to Greece was a different story. Yes, I was learning Greek. Yes, three of my four grandparents were born there. Yes, it is a Christian country. Yes, it is a part of NATO. But I love America, I know what to expect here, I know where to go, and I am accustomed to our way of life. It may sound silly, but I was apprehensive. Before we left, I obtained a map of Athens and located the American Embassy – just in case.
We spent about ten days in Greece before we went to Turkey. Each day, I felt more and more comfortable, but only slowly. Even after arriving in Thessaloniki, a much smaller city than Athens, I still felt somehow out-of-place and out-of-sorts. It is hard to describe, but because I was not quite fluent in the language and of the geography, every step I took was with timidity. This was not my home or even my home country.
In mid-July, we headed from Thessaloniki to Istanbul. It was a long trip by bus, and we started very early in the morning. Travelling across Thrace was beautiful. I remember seeing mountains to our north, with a fertile, green valley from the foot of the mountains to the sea. Sometimes the road took us next to the sea, sometimes far enough away that we could no longer see it. We passed by many quaint villages along the way and even stopped at a few small churches. The area was rural, and agriculture must have been the main enterprise. Thrace was beautiful and I would love to drive through it again (the drivers also seemed more attentive to rules there than in Athens).
We eventually came to Alexandroupoli. It is a pretty town situated on the sea. It has a famous lighthouse and the harbor itself was nice. We spent a little time there getting lunch and walking around a bit before getting back on the bus for Turkey.
Eventually, we came to the Turkish border. There is a small and short bridge that spans the Evros River, the border between Greece and Turkey. As we came to the bridge, the Greek side was painted blue and white and the Turkish side red and white. In the middle of the bridge was the boundary line. On each side of the border line were soldiers; two Greek and two Turkish. The Turkish soldiers were at attention as we came by; rifles leaning on their shoulders, one on each side of their section of border. The two Greek soldiers were sitting on folding chairs, talking with each other on the same side of the bridge, smoking cigarettes with their rifles leaning against the side of the bridge. We could see cigarette boxes and chairs on the Turkish side, leading us to believe that when the buses go through or when the officers aren’t around, the Turkish soldiers would do the same as the Greek; probably all four soldiers talking to each other. But the Greek soldiers didn’t seem bothered enough to make an impression as the bus was going through.
Now, I was really nervous. I was no longer in Greece. I was in a Muslim country. I had absolutely no clue of the language. I was far from an American embassy.
We came upon the inspection station. A Turkish soldier climbed on board, dressed in fatigues with an automatic rifle slung over his shoulder. We had all taken out our passports and were told to hold them up. Before he came on board, however, we decided to decorate the aisle of the bus. We had purchased four cartons of Greek cigarettes in Alexandroupoli. Those boxes were slightly drab, so we added a little American green to each box. We thought that Andrew Jackson’s face complimented the cigarette boxes well, hoping the inspector would find this to be a pleasant bus. We placed them symmetrically in the front half of the bus. The bus now looked sophisticated and cosmopolitan.
The inspector came on board and walked all the way to the back. He started coming forward and took all our passports. He left the bus, had them all stamped, then returned a few minutes later. He again went to the back of the bus and handed one of our classmates the all the passports. He must have thought well of our decorations because as he made his way off the bus, he decided to take them home! He picked up each carton with its flash of green. He took each of the four, green Andrew Jackson portraits and placed them in his left upper pocket. He tucked the cigarette cartons under his left arm. He came off the bus, and with a swift move his arm, waved us by. We were happy he enjoyed our decorations but made sure we had all our passports before we headed out.
From there we spent a week in Turkey. The people we met along the way were all genuinely nice. However, I always felt an uneasiness when I was there. Everywhere we went, we were followed by armed policemen or security guards (it was hard to tell the difference sometimes). When we entered one of the Greek Orthodox Churches to worship, one of the guards followed us all the way into the church with his weapon. I have that on video tape.
We wanted to visit the Church of the Savior in Chora, now a museum. That church has the famous icon of the Resurrection of Christ with Christ raising Adam and Eve. The first two days we came to the church, the person in charge immediately closed the church to us so that we could not enter it. He told us, without any warning, and despite the sign of operational hours two feet away from him that clearly showed we were within the proper hours of visitation, the church was closed. Twice in a row this happened, and only to our group. Fortunately, we entered on the third day.
Knowing that our Church is still basically persecuted there certainly added to my anxiety. The presence of soldiers and police was constant. There was a cloud of oppression, and even some fear, that seemed to hover low over my head. I loved the land, the sites, the food, the people, but I was far more anxious there than I had been in Greece.
After a week in Istanbul, we hopped on the bus and headed back to Greece. By the time we arrived at the border, the same spot where we crossed on our way in, it was midnight. There was nearly a two-mile long back-up at the border. We were at a standstill. The driver got off the bus, walked down the road a little ways, and came back a few minutes later. He told us the reason for the back-up was that a couple of Kurds were shot trying to smuggle drugs across the border and that the back-up had been going on for several hours. None of us liked this situation and we knew we weren’t going to get through for a while.
A few minutes later, some government trucks came out of nowhere and started spraying the whole area with some sort of chemical. The air was humid as could be and the lights along the road had a yellow tinge to them. When the chemical was sprayed, it was if a gigantic, yellow quilt was ever so slowly descending upon us. It was an eerie site. To boot, most of the people in the cars in front of us had gotten out and started yelling at the trucks doing the spraying. We hunkered down in our bus and made sure all the windows were closed. The driver said we shouldn’t worry because they were just spraying for mosquitos. That was little comfort to me; I didn’t want to breath in that stuff!
After a couple more moments, the bus driver came on the intercom and told us to stay down, not to look at anyone, and keep quiet. I thought, “WHAT!!!??? What does that mean!? What the heck is going on?!”
Within seconds, he turned the key, put the bus in gear, and jerked us onto the shoulder of the road. He picked up speed as we headed past all the other travelers stuck in the line. We kicked up dust and dirt and rocks, and the people were irate at us. I didn’t follow the driver’s direction and I lifted my head up see what was happening. Everyone was yelling at us, shaking their fists at us and making all sorts of raucous gesticulations.
We were riding on an air-conditioned bus, but I was sweating. In a few minutes, which seemed like years, we were at the guard station. The driver got out to talk to one of the guards. In seconds he was back, never having stopped the engine, and the guards waved us to the little blue, red and white border bridge. The driver told us that he knew the guards who work the night shift here and that he could get us by fast. I don’t know what kind of “decorations” he gave them, but we were able to cross. It’s a good thing to know people…
Now, we were on the bridge. We were on the red and white side and the Turkish soldiers were in their usual position: at attention, rifles over the shoulders and opposite each other on their side. I didn’t see their folding chair or cigarettes like before. I supposed the officers took them away, or more likely, the soldiers threw them into the river when all the commotion started with the smugglers, knowing their superiors we be around shortly. We arrived at the border line and then over to the blue and white side. There were the Greek soldiers, in the same positions we saw them a week earlier. Sitting on folding chairs, smoking, and talking to each other on the same side of the bridge. They waved at us as we passed by and waved at them.
When we arrived completely on the Greek side, for the first time during the whole trip, I thought to myself, “Ah, now I’m home.”
The next seven weeks were all spent in Thessaloniki, and I loved every minute of it. Thessaloniki is small enough in the main area of the city to walk nearly everywhere. It’s not congested and noisy like Athens, and the people seem more at ease there. Classes began at 8am and were finished at noon. Most of my classmates caught the bus back to the village we were staying at (Paleokastro) to relax or play tavli (backgammon). I spent the rest of the day exploring every corner, every nook, every church, every museum, every ancient site (and there are hundreds there) every restaurant, every bakery in the city (they have the best bougatsa in the world there – a pastry with a custard filling in between layers of phyllo dough – and it was CHEAP – 100 drachmas or about $0.33 -for a huge piece); trying to use Greek and enjoying that wonderful city.
Later that summer, a dear friend of mine from the seminary, whose family had moved to Thessaloniki a few years before, came to visit. I and a few others joined up with him one evening and he wanted to take us to a bouzoukia – a small tavern in which a musician would play the bouzouki solo or in a small ensemble. He couldn’t find one when we met up. I told him, “follow me.” I took him this way and that, down a few side streets, and within ten minutes, I took him up a flight of stairs in a non-descript building to nice little bouzoukia. He told me, “Ah, the Amerikanaki (the diminutive form for “American”) knows this city better than I do!” Even my classmates, nearly all of whom had been to Greece before, were surprised I knew of that place. I told them in a snarky way, “While you guys were playing tavli, I fell in love with a woman named Salonika!” (Salonika is a shortened version of Thessaloniki.)
By the time we left Thessaloniki, I felt as if I had lived there for years, and I truly miss that beautiful town.
It’s funny how anxious I was at the beginning of the trip to go even to Greece; and it took a side-trip to Turkey for me to understand that when I returned to Greece, I felt at home.
It’s important for people to feel at home, especially when they come to our church. Our true home is ultimately not America, not Greece, not Ann Arbor. Our true home is in the arms of Christ. Our true home is the Heavenly Kingdom.
When people enter our churches (for the first time ever, or even if they come regularly) it’s our responsibility and duty to welcome them with open arms. It does not matter how they think, how they are dressed, what they look like, who they hang with, where they are from, what language they speak, how much money they have or don’t have, or any other earthly determinate.
It’s our sacred responsibility to make sure when people enter our churches, they know they are safe, welcomed, and loved. We must refrain from putting stumbling blocks in front of others because when they enter our churches, they are entering the doorway to God’s Kingdom.
If we do that, we can leave the transformation of their hearts up to Jesus. And that transformation that Jesus offers will truly bring them home into His Kingdom. Amen.