A Cold War March with Greek Communists

The political season, while never far away, is officially upon us here in the U.S. with the opening of the Democratic Party’s national convention last night. The quadrennial event is virtual due to the ongoing covid-19 pandemic, so the usual camera shots and stories about convention floor antics will be missing, as will the sight of cheering partisan crowds, all part of the pageantry of politics in a democracy. This custom we go through every four years always reminds me of another political gathering Kerry and I inadvertently joined more than 35 years ago.

In May of 1985 we traveled to Crete for what was a delayed two-week honeymoon. Our Berlin wedding was in February of that year, but we decided to wait on a honeymoon until the weather in Europe was more conducive to some fun in the sun. I don’t remember exactly why we chose Crete, but I’m glad we did. We had a great time, saw some things we’d never seen before, experienced a culture quite different from our own, and spent a good deal of time swimming in the Mediterranean or lounging on its beaches.

The Author in Agios Nikolaos, Crete, 1985
Agios Nikolaos, Crete, 1985

We spent several of our evenings in downtown Heraklion, about a 20-minute bus ride from our hotel. The bus fare was a mere two drachma, much cheaper and more pleasant than a taxi ride. I still have one of the bus tickets we accumulated during our stay. When we got to Lion’s Square in the heart of the city on one of those evenings, a massive political rally was underway. It was election season in Greece, and every viable political party was gathering in Heraklion for one big rally that night. The featured speaker for one of the parties was the actress Melina Mercouri, Greece’s Minister of Culture at the time. We tried, unsuccessfully, to get closer to the speakers’ podium for a photograph of her. I took a picture that did not turn out well. You’re just going to have to take my word for it that I got a shot of Greece’s famous Minister of Culture pumping up what was already a fired-up crowd.

At some point, Kerry and I were simply wandering around the downtown sidewalks, probably looking for a place to eat that wasn’t already overwhelmed by the crowd. We noticed that we were no longer wandering, but were instead caught up in the lively march of one of the political parties attending the rally and heading for the main square. Many of them had matching red t-shirts on, and they were carrying red banners with slogans on them, all of which were in Greek so we were unable to make out what they said. But, being college-educated and intelligence types to boot, we soon figured out that we were marching with the KKE, Greece’s Communist Party! Given that we were both involved in clandestine monitoring of their Warsaw Pact buddies, and that we both had top secret clearances at stake, we decided to discreetly slip out of the fellow travelers’ parade and join what seemed to be a more non-partisan crowd at an outdoor café that miraculously had space for us.

I realize Greece has had its share of struggles since the end of World War II, but the impression we were left with that night was of a functioning and passionate democracy whose various factions were capable of peacefully asserting their rights to speak and participate in a vibrant democratic process. Even the communists! And the two weeks we spent on Crete eventually became the inspiration for the second Nick Temple File, The Heraklion Gambit. I even threw a small group of Greek communists into the mix, as a nod to our having once marched in unintentional solidarity with them during the Cold War.