Greece 1980-83: Paul Cotton recalls his stint as New Zealand ambassador in Athens.

AuthorCotton, Paul
PositionREFLECTIONS - Athens, Greece

We were at home from 1977 to 1979. I was head of the Pacific Division and chief of protocol and moved from roaming the Pacific to escorting newly arrived ambassadors to their calls on the governor-general. Sometimes a new arrival had to wait an extra week to present his credentials because I was attending a meeting in Fiji. No matter. They were all told that the governor-general was a very busy man.

There had been attempts made to move us on. There was an offer of a South-east Asian post. But I wanted a shot at Europe, and Greece was clearly my best bet. There had been a consulate-general in Athens for some time and technically it was a trade post. Now Greece was about to enter the European Common Market and our substantial trade in sheep meat could be at risk. It was time to upgrade our post to an embassy. I told Secretary of Foreign Affairs Frank Comer that this was what I wanted and stayed on in Wellington doing a couple of jobs I enjoyed.

At last the time came. The last consul-general was made ambassador for a few months. We were sent to Cyprus to see if it was possible to learn some Greek, and early in 19801 presented my credentials to President Karamanlis in Athens.

Athens swiftly became our home for the next four years. There were welcoming people and spectacular ruins, and a worthwhile job to do. We had to find somewhere to live and by good luck found the residence newly vacated by the Swedish ambassador. The upper two and a half floors of a modest block one street back from the National Gardens and just a block from the president's palace that was still known to most Greeks as the Royal Palace. The balconies gave us a view of the Acropolis and the Parthenon. We had to furnish it completely down to teaspoons and eggcups and my wife Gill did a wonderful job pulling it all together. The boys were at university in New Zealand and promised to visit us often as did most of the friends we left behind.

I presented my credentials in a splendid ceremony and began to pay my introductory calls on fellow ambassadors, commencing with the American. I had a warm introduction to him from a friend and he was about to take home leave. He gave me a useful piece of advice. Always remember, he said, that no Greek goes to bed at night entirely confident that when he wakes in the morning the Turks will not have come back He was absolutely right. The 131 years since the Turks were expelled had in no way mitigated the antipathy between the two peoples. There had been a suggestion in Wellington that I might also be accredited to Turkey. Of course, this would have been quite impossible and I even had to forgo the pleasures of visiting Turkey while on post in Athens. In my formal calls on colleagues I took the opportunity to spread my net as widely as possible. Perhaps because I had not had the opportunity to do this in Apia where there were no other missions when we arrived. I saw no need, however, to call on the South African ambassador as we did not have diplomatic relations with the apartheid state. I was soon to learn the importance of this when I was asked to establish relations with Tanzania and Kenya from Athens.

I called on the prime minister and his Cabinet and began to get my tongue round the Greek ministers. The bad old days when the colonels ran the country were not far removed and although older people missed the crown and royal family nobody regretted the departure of the harsh regime of the dictatorship. Prime Minister Rallis and his Nea Demokratika party were proudly taking Greece into Europe. But the final throw of the dice came more than a year after we arrived.

Political earthquake

A general election in 1981 threw out the right-wing government and brought in the left-wing PASOK. The new prime minister was Andreas Papandreou and it was his government that I dealt with for the rest of my stay. When a Greek government changes the game of musical chairs is total. Everyone loses his job. Even the conductor of the Greek Symphony Orchestra was replaced. I did my rounds all over again and told another group of ministers how important the trade in sheep meat was to New Zealand.

It was not difficult to win the hearts and minds of the Greeks. To a man and woman (Melina Mercouri was the minister of culture) they admired and respected us. New Zealand had come to their aid when the Germans came down from the north and we had their everlasting gratitude.

I remember seeing those soldiers with pointy hats, a minister told me. They were marching up our street and I said where are you from and what are...

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