Saturday, July 28, 2018

The Bitter and the Sweet


First the Bitter.

All of Greece is in mourning, and I’m purposely not posting photographs of the source of its grief.  The world’s seen enough of those scenes by now. 

The fires this week that claimed so many lives weigh heavy on the nation’s mind. So, too, do the responses of its government officials to criticism of both their preparedness and reaction to a far from unexpected phenomenon—wildfires happen across Greece every summer. It is a developing story, with finger pointing well underway. Indeed, the head of the junior coalition party sharing power in the current government (he serves as Defense Minister), in an interview with the BBC, blamed the victims for building their homes illegally. Here’s a link to that much talked about interview.

As would be expected, much speculation is being bandied about in search of an explanation for how this tragedy came to pass.  Some theories are rational, some clearly not. For a good primer on where things stand at the moment, I suggest reading an article in Wednesday’s New York Times, by Jason Horowitz, titled, “In the Aftermath of Greek Fires, Suspicion Combines with Grief and Recrimination.” 

Barbara and I add our prayers to those of the many from around the world sharing in Greece’s mourning. 

Now for the Sweet.

Not actually sweet, more like bitter-sweet.  It’s an article I wrote for the just published thirteenth-year anniversary issue of Mykonos Confidential, the sleek, annual summer magazine celebrating all things Mykonos that’s come to be known as the “Bible of Mykonos.”

The theme for this year’s issue, as envisioned by its publisher, Petros Bourovilis, was “My Summer of Love,” and so that’s what I wrote about.  Whether or not my tale is what Petros expected I cannot say, but I can assure you it’s all true, and reveals how I came to write my first mystery novel on Mykonos.

PS. In the interest of full disclosure, I also was asked to participate in the fashion shoot section of the magazine (for comic relief, no doubt) and most of the photos in this post are taken from that totally fun experience, as captured by photographer Thanasis Krikis, and styled by Stefanos Zaousis . Thank you, one and all.   Here’s the article:   

“My Summer of Love” is a tricky subject. It can mean decidedly different things to different people. Perhaps that’s why Mykonos Confidential chose it as the topic for the likes of me to write about?  After all, as varied and complicated as love relationships can be, so too, are our respective relationships with the island of the winds.

My Summer of Love experience occurred unexpectedly on a stifling August afternoon in 2005, during my third decade of summers on the island.  I’d not yet given up my New York City law practice, but had returned to Mykonos committed to writing a book about this place I call home.  I had no desire to write a guidebook, or wax on about summer tavernas and island romances.  I planned to write a serious novel, one that told the truth as I saw it about the island’s people, politics, culture, and beauty, but in a way that held my readers’ interest as we explored life together on the island. 

A murder mystery-thriller format seemed the natural way to go, but my plans encountered an unanticipated setback when my closest friend on the island deeply opposed my idea.

We’d been friends since my first day on Mykonos.  I happened to pass by his jewelry shop on my way into town from my hotel, and though I forget how he’d lured me inside, the next thing I knew I was (unsuccessfully) dodging drinks, pastries, and candies.

Unbeknownst to me, I’d stumbled upon the most loved man on Mykonos.  A consummate gentleman and fervent booster of the island, he had an extraordinary circle of local, national and international friends, all of whom made a point of regularly stopping by to say hello to him.

Over the years we developed a deep friendship, sharing our birthday parties (he was seven days younger than I), watching out for each other’s children (I escorted his older son to his first days at Syracuse University), and attending together many a Mykonian panegyri, concert, baptism, wedding, and funeral. Without my realizing it, he’d subtly turned me into a Mykonian—or at least as close to that elevated status as a non-Greek American could hope to achieve.

Me, Tassos, Renate and Thomas McKnight

That’s why, when he expressed his heartfelt concern that placing a murder mystery on Mykonos might harm the island, I put my project on hold. Disappointed as I was, I did not want to write anything that might harm his business, or reflect badly on him in the eyes of Mykonians because of our friendship.

Then came August.

I’d stopped by his shop one evening around eleven, and he asked if I’d like to join him for dinner. He said he was “about to close,” but I’d been down that road many times before.  I knew that as long as a single potential customer lurked nearby, he’d remain open. True to form, we finally made it to the restaurant around one.

He had a lot of things on his mind, and I did a lot of listening.  Then out of the blue he said he’d decided I should write the Mykonos book I wanted to write.  I never asked him what had changed his mind.

We finished dinner, I walked him back to his home, and said goodnight. 

Around daybreak the next morning I received a call that my friend had suffered a massive stroke, and was at the medical clinic waiting to be airlifted to Athens.  I made it to the clinic as he was being wheeled to the ambulance for transport to the airport.

That was the last time I saw my friend alive. He died on August 3rd, with family and friends at his bedside.

I know what you’re thinking. How could this horrific tragedy possibly serve as any sane person’s Summer of Love?

It’s complicated, but real.

His body arrived back on Mykonos by ferry to the old port. Tradition had family and friends meeting the casket there to accompany his remains to church for the funeral service. Fittingly, the procession passed by his shop on its way to Agia Kyriake.

I’m not Greek Orthodox, so I did not think it appropriate to participate as a pallbearer.  I walked close behind the casket, trailed by a crowd of hundreds. As the line of mourners approached Kyriake, Mykonians pushed me forward toward the casket, politely telling me to participate as one of the pallbearers. When I said, “I’m not Orthodox,” one of the pallbearers insisted I take over his position, saying, “You’re his friend, that’s all that matters.”

We carried his casket into the church, and I never felt closer to the people of Mykonos than I did at that moment.  My feelings only grew stronger once we left the church, and wound our way through the town’s narrow streets toward the cemetery.  Locals I barely knew kept stopping me to share hugs and tears over the genuine sadness we all felt at the loss of such an extraordinary soul.

During that brief bit of a summer afternoon, I was immersed in a communal outpouring of pure love, unlike anything I’d ever experienced before—or after.


There is a remarkable postscript to this story, one I credit to the spirit of my dearly departed friend.  During his funeral, as I stood at the foot of his casket struggling to maintain my composure, I stared up at the church’s dome. Spread out before me in what I can only characterize as a vision, I saw the perfect story line for tying together all the many ideas for my book.  It was as if my friend were saying, ‘Okay, Jeffrey here it is, now write it.” 

I think it’s fair to say that my debut novel, Murder in Mykonos, is a product of “My Summer of Love.” Even today, it stands as a tribute to the memory of my friend, Tassos Stamoulis, proprietor extraordinaire of the Ilias Lalaounis Jewelry shop. God rest your kind, sweet soul, my friend. 

You remain deeply missed by all lovers of Mykonos. Perhaps now more than ever.



  1. Amen, brother. Touching. Your article is touching, touching is what keeps us human, and touching uplifts our spirits. Imagine yourself floating on the crystal clear cerlulean Mykonian waters with a forefinger from everyone you've ever touched gently pressing upon you. Such is the fruit of a life well lived. (It also requires that you grow much larger, to make room for all those fingers...)

  2. If anyone had told me that you were writing a comment on this piece, involving "spirits" and "fingers," what you produced is about as far from what I'd have guessed as imaginable. Thank you, bro, for inspiring me to grow larger...

    1. :-) My original reply simply used 'finger,' but then upon rereading what I'd written, I realized that 1) that left open an incorrect interpretation of what I was trying to convey, and 2) it would have been far too easy a straight line for you, which might have encouraged you to drift away from the tone of your original post. So, I had to specify FOREfinger, to avoid all of that. And now I've gone bruised the fruit anyway. Sigh. C'est la vie...

    2. Having been raised the son of a produceman, I appreciate all fruit, bruised or not. Even some nuts. So, thank you again.

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  4. Thanks, Jeff. Mourning becomes Mýkonos.

    1. Yes, as you know, no matter how much it changes, it is an extraordinarily special, electrifying place of indelible memories.

  5. What a beautifully written 'love story' and this one most definitely came from the heart! Your title of bitter and sweet is so very fitting for this week ~ this summer ~ in Greece.

    1. J & J, that means a lot to me, thank you. When I sat down to write the story for the magazine it just flowed, as if it had been trapped within me for a decade waiting to come out. But what really gave me chills, was that only after I'd posted it on MIE, did I realize that this week will be the anniversary of Tassos' death.

  6. Just lovely, my brother. Truly sweet. And about true love. A pean to your muse!

    1. Thanks, sis. I’m so happy you liked it, and thrilled to see you use the word “pean” rather than “pain” in describing my affect on you. :)

  7. This brought tears to my eyes. What a wonderful friend you had.

    But I am very upset about these fires. Spoke to some workers at a nearby store who are from an island near Corfu. They think the cause could be arson. Who would do such a thing?

    My brain immediately switched to Golden Dawn. They would. They don't care about human life. But do you have any further insights on this tragedy?

  8. Thank you, Kathy for your kind thoughts on my tribute to my friend.

    On the fires, your friend's reference to arson is based on precedent. For years fires would be set in protected forest land, so that those interested in building there could claim the forest was now gone and building should proceed. That was sadly not uncommon. HOWEVER, in 2016 a law was passed that required burned land to be reforested...not built upon. As an interesting sidebar, the mayor of Marathon--a town devastated by the fires--is on record as opposed that that law!

    As for Golden Dawn, or for that matter any of the political motivations or conspiracy theories being bandied about as an the cause, who's to say...though I doubt it. Frankly, those who engage in conspiracy theories are giving a free pass to those truly responsible...government officials who did not plan or react responsibly in connection with an expected, typical summer phenomenon...regardless of the cause.

  9. Of course, the government should have taken precautions.

    But with the far-right ascending in Eastern Europe, I get nervous.

    1. Remember that the far left is in power in Greece, which leads me to think about what Sidney Carlton might have said today, “It’s a far, far better thing not to be governed by far, far anything”

  10. I don't agree about the far left being in office in Greece. It's a coalition government with a lot of groupings, including environmentalists, feminists, social democrats, communists and others. If the far left was in office, I don't think the officials would have caved in to the Germany and IMF bankers, but would have good up, not caved in, cutting pensions, laying off workers, etc.

    Also, people are mad at Tsipras for cutting pensions, laying off people, cutting other benefits. I see huge protests by the labor unions against austerity cutbacks.

    I don't think a real leftist government would have done that nor would people be protesting like they are. I think a real left government would have listened to them.

    1. Sorry to tell you this, Kathy, but if there is any farther left party in Greece than SYRIZA, it would be so far over as to have passed into the far right's orbit. In fact, that's precisely what you have, for in order to form a government, SYRIZA need a few more MPs and made a coalition with a tiny far right its leader the plum position of Minister of Defense.

      Respectfully, I think you're confusing philosophies with the behaviors of those who come to power claiming to champion them. There's no question SYRIZA is far left. As for the character and abilities of those who govern under its banners, the Greeks have a lot of questions.

  11. Oh, no, typing late at night. Not good. I mean that the officials would have stood up to the German and IMF bankers and not caved in and cut pensions and welfare benefits or laid off public sector workers.

    Nor would unions be demonstrating nor would so many people be mad at Tsipras for his caving in.

    A large percentage of the loans have gone to pay back banks, not used for the population. That would anger everyone.\

    1. As you may recall, Greece's then SYRIZA Finance Minister put on a big show of doing just that, before caving. Bottom line: From the attitudes I hear expressed here, I'd say Tsipras and his party are regarded as a far left mirror image of Trump and his on the right.

  12. Well, from what I have read, 25 MP's who were in the leftist section of Syrize, left in 2015 and formed the Popular Unity Party. They do not have seats in the legislature, I believe. Also, Varoufakis had to resign and someone more moderate was installed as Finance Minister.

    But descriptions of Syrize explain that it's a coalition government. Its flag is tri-color, representing different movements.

    Again, from my knowledge of left parties in Europe, they are often tied to the big unions and fight against austerity cutbacks. Tsipras has caved in on those cutbacks and the unions are mad at him for doing that as are their members.

    I would have thought that leftists would have stood up and opposed the German bankers and the IMF. They barely did anything.

    I don't compare the left and the right. The left here opposes the Trumpites' tax cuts for the super-rich; his anti-migrant policies, including caging and separating children; attacks on women's rights and health care; the racism, xenophobia, anti-Muslim and even anti-Jewish sentiments espoused, the Charlottesville comments that there are good neo-Nazis, the installing of Gorsuch on SCOTUS, the capitulation to the evangelical right, etc., etc.

    The left isn't homogenous, but generally agrees on these issues, as opposed to the extreme bigotry and anti-people policies of the White House and its cronies.