Last Sunday, Nick and I were in New York when he got word that he was invited to attend the state dinner in President Obama’s honor to be given by the Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos in the Presidential Palace in Athens on Tuesday night.
So we drove back to Massachusetts while Nick scrambled on the phone to find a flight out of Boston that would get him to Greece in time for Tuesday. (There are no direct flights to Athens at this time of year.) He eventually flew on Monday afternoon on Lufthansa to Frankfurt and then to Athens, arriving midday on Tuesday. I really wanted to go too, but the Embassy told him no spouses were coming, not even Michelle Obama.
Nick has sent me photos of the event, which he thoroughly enjoyed. Young women in native costume welcomed the 120 guests entering the grand dining room. They were seated at long tables arranged like three sides of a rectangle, or the Greek letter pi. Obama sat in the center of the head table, at the right of Greek President Pavlopoulos and on Obama’s right was Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
I was amused to see that Tsipras, who as a Marxist and leader of the leftist Syriza party made a point throughout his campaign of never wearing a tie, appeared throughout the state dinner and other events honoring Obama, always tie-less in an open-necked white shirt. I was also amused that the Prime Minister, an avowed atheist, was seated next to the Archbishop of Athens. I wonder what they talked about.
While Prime Minister Tsipras speaks halting English, Greek President Pavlopoulos knows it well, but both made their public remarks in Greek and then paused for an English translation. Watching the event on Greek TV, I heard Obama whisper to President Pavlopoulos, “Is this your house? Do you live here?” and Pavlopoulos answered, “No, I have a home over by the Hilton.”
The menu, printed in two languages, featured “Shrimps with citrus fruits”, “rice with vegetables and herbs”, “baked grouper with greens, garnished with potatoes and cherry tomatoes”, “chestnut dessert”, ”seasonal fruit, two kinds of wines and coffee.
President Obama began his remarks with “kalispera” (good evening) and lauded Greece for the country’s hospitality, humanity and its contributions to the world as the source of democracy. After the Greek president and prime minister spoke, the children’s choir of the Greek National Opera sang four songs, both John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” and two popular Greek songs by Theodorakis and Hadjidakis. Afterward, Obama enthusiastically mixed with the children and thanked them for their performance.
Sadly I have no photo of Nick talking to Obama. At U.S. State dinners, there is usually a photographer who takes your photo as you are introduced to the President in a reception line, but at the Greek state dinner, Obama shook hands with the guests as they filed out of the dining room.
Nick had a brief conversation with Obama which delighted them both—Nick said, paraphrasing a famous statement made by Saint Paul right before his martyrdom: “Mr. President, you have fought the good fight, you have finished the race, you have kept the faith. History will not slight you.” Obama replied, “Thank you. That means a lot to me.” Then he took a few steps, turned back smiling and said, “Letter to Timothy right?” (He was right, it’s from 2nd Timothy 4:7. Proof that our President knows his Bible and was not dozing during Sunday school.)
The next day, Wednesday, Obama visited the Acropolis Museum and saw the Parthenon for the first time. Then he spoke to a large group of invitees at the new Stavros Niarchos Cultural Center. Nick was there.
I asked Nick, when it was all over, if he felt Obama’s visit to Greece had been a success. (It was covered live for three days on Greek TV, which I watched sporadically.) The New York Times said last Tuesday that Trump’s victory had rattled Greece because “Obama had been supportive of Greece’s efforts to get its finances in order, and of Europe’s bid to keep Greece stable. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras hoped that Mr. Obama, who travels to Berlin on Thursday, might even persuade the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to offer Greece some debt relief by the end of the year.”
In answer to my question Nick said, “I think it was important to both the visitor and the visited. Obama, as he finishes his presidency, wanted to go to the fountainhead of the values he pursued as President. And that of course is Greece, where democracy and individual rights and equal justice under law were developed. And the Greeks needed somebody to show compassion for their plight in view of the hard stand their fellow Europeans, especially the Germans, are taking. I think both of those goals were fulfilled very successfully. Obama was really in top form.”