“If I had to choose something from Greece, this would not be a specific place, but rather a… thing. It would be the light. I don’t think that Greeks always realize this. There is something particularly special about the light in this country.” Sitting in the garden of a major hotel in Thessaloniki, the United States Ambassador to Greece, Geoffrey R. Pyatt, looks up at the sky, which, although hazy, still shines bright, being one of the things that impress him the most all these years in Greece.
The appointment for this… different – in terms of content – interview of the Athens-Macedonian News Agency with the longest-serving American ambassador to Greece was given on the occasion of a forum recently organized in Thessaloniki by the American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce, with “innovation” as its main theme. But the discussion would eventually evolve around History, which you can ”touch” everywhere in Greece, as he characteristically said, the things that “bond” Greeks and Americans, the Greek “philotimo”, the bicycle as a means of balance in life, the always relevant ancient Greek philosophers, and also the Greeks who… talk a lot!
“I have a very long list of favorite places. It’s like asking who your favorite child is. There is no answer to this… One of the things that are truly special in Greece is the great diversity of the landscape in such a small piece of land, and most of all the light “, he says, answering without a second thought on what is his favorite place in Greece, and he describes a scene that has been indelibly engraved in his memory:
“Recently I was in Sifnos, in Kastro, the time the sun was setting. My wife and I arrived just as the light was “bathing” the chapel of the Seven Martyrs and everything else was in the shade. It was something magical. Now I understand why all these classic Greek myths emerged. Because there is something really magical about the way that light and earth” meet “in this part of the world,” he said.
“In Greece you can “touch” history everywhere”
As a history lover, the American ambassador acknowledges that “one of the marvelous things about this country is that it is a place where you can” touch “history, and this does not happen anywhere else in the world! Walking in the Ancient Agora and standing on the rocks, where Socrates stood while unfolding his vision for philosophy… is a unique feeling” he says, adding that the same feeling overwhelms him when he rides his bike in Marathon, where the Athenians and the Plataeans bravely faced the first Persian invasion of Greece.
Having visited Thessaloniki and Alexandroupoli more times than any other American ambassadors to Greece during his five-year tenure, the answer to the question of what stands out to him as a simple visitor in northern Greece comes out rather effortlessly: “Northern Greece has several things that make it stand out. One of them is its history. The history of Macedonia and Alexander the Great “, he says and turns to the American consul Elizabeth K. Lee who is sitting next to him, urging her to visit Vergina and Pella.
What particularly impresses him, not only in Northern Greece but in the whole country, is the fact that mountains and seas blend harmoniously and from the top of Mount Olympus, for example, you can find yourself on a beach in a short time, or from Thessaloniki, you can go for a quick swim in the wonderful seas of Chalkidiki.
“I always say that the Cyclades are beautiful but they seem like an underwater desert, as there is not much sea life in their seas, while in Chalkidiki there are fish everywhere. I went scuba-diving there and I thought to myself “Oh my God, where do all these fish come from?” It was like the film Finding Nemo” he said with a smile.
Looking back in time, he recalls a visit to the winery of Kir-Yianni. “I owe a debt of gratitude to Yiannis Boutaris, because one of the most magical days I have spent in northern Greece was a spring afternoon at the winery of Kir-Yianni” he said, describing one of the most special moments he has lived in our country.
The always relevant ancient Greek philosophers and 200 years of friendship
On the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the Greek Revolution and the campaign of the US Embassy in Greece to celebrate the important anniversary, entitled “U.S. – Greece: Celebrating 200 Years of Friendship”, the US Ambassador recalls the speech of US President Joe Biden on the occasion of the anniversary, in which he spoke about the common values that shaped our societies “and which are very important for the American administration”, as he pointed out.
Furthermore, he stressed that the exhibition about American philhellenes at the Philhellenism Museum in Athens demonstrates to the general public the crucial contribution of American philhellenes – a part of history not very well known – but also the close ideological relationship between the American and the Greek Revolution, as bearers of modern political values.
Having studied political science, Geoffrey Pyatt has a great knowledge of the ancient Greek philosophers who “built” the principles of Democracy through their words, leaving a great legacy for future generations. How relevant, however, does he find this legacy? “Plato has always been the focal point of our studies at the University, and his teachings continue to influence the world” he says, stressing, nevertheless, that we should draw relevant lessons from history, as well. “We all remember that the Athenian Democracy eventually collapsed, and thus we should not take democracy for granted, but rather strive to protect it,” he added.
Philotimo, People, Landscape… Greece in three words
It is said that “philotimo” is almost impossible to adequately translate into any foreign language, as it describes a complex array of virtues. This is probably the reason why when asked how he would describe Greece in three words, the American ambassador begins with the word “philotimo” in… Greek: “The first word is philotimo. Greek society is particularly generous and hospitable. Everyone realizes this” he says characteristically, completing the “triptych” with the “people” and the “landscape, always in combination with the light”.
“There are also the people, with their wonderful values and family ties”, he notes and completes the “puzzle” with a little… geography. “The land, the landscape combined with the light… The geography of this place is really unique” says Geoffrey Pyatt, who finds quite a few similarities between Greece and his homeland of California, “the best place in the United States”, as he says proudly.
The… 30-second decision to come to Greece
Having served in many difficult positions before being asked to come to Greece, it took Geoffrey Pyatt only a few seconds to make the decision. That is, as long as the talk with his wife lasted. “I knew Greece like any educated American does. I knew about the ancient Greek philosophers and I had come here as a tourist. My children and I came here from India in 2005, right after the Olympics. It was an exceptional visit ” says the American ambassador, and he recalls the moment when his phone rang and on the other end of the line was the current US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who asked him to take the position of the ambassador to Greece. “I told him to give me about thirty seconds to talk to my wife and I was sure the answer would be yes!” He says enthusiastically.
Known in State Department circles as a man who has faced difficult challenges during his career as a diplomat, Geoffrey Pyatt was about to face another difficult start in his new post since, as he noted, shortly before he arrived in Greece “it was a crazy time, just before the referendum, with the queues at the ATMs, when everyone believed that Greece was heading for the rocks.”
Driven by what is considered a basic principle in American diplomatic circles, that is “we all stand on the shoulders of our predecessors,” he made sure to meet several of the ambassadors who had served in our country, such as Tom Miller and Nicholas Burns, who has also been his mentor since the time he served in India.
“Everyone basically told me two things: it’s an amazing position, you will have a great time, the people are fantastic… but the situation is difficult. Good luck!”, he recalls from the discussions of that time.
Since then, of course, a lot has changed and one of the stories from his tenure in our country that he brings to the discussion is “that I saw Greece transform from a crisis-stricken country, into a country that is not only a stable, key member of the European Union but also a country that other EU countries look up to as a model for its good handling of the pandemic”, he notes.
Bicycle for a balanced life
A quick look at the American ambassador’s Twitter account is enough to understand his love for cycling, which, as he emphasizes, “brings balance to my life and is a way for me to be able to enjoy Greek food!”. But it is more than that, since the two wheels of the bicycle allow him to enjoy and discover Greek nature in a better way.
“I will always remember one of my cycling trips to Mani. It was really hot and I had started ascending the mountain early in the morning. Suddenly, I reached a certain altitude, there was night-time moisture that was evaporating very fast and suddenly I got an incredible smell of mountain tea from the plants on the side of the road. It was as if I had gotten into a giant teapot! I always remember this scene,” he accounts.
Being an ardent supporter of the vehicles that support micromobility, during his recent visit to Thessaloniki Geoffrey Pyatt skated and cycled on the city’s seaside promenade and when asked if the country’s major urban centers should look for such solutions, his answer was emphatically positive: “Definitely in Thessaloniki, which is struggling with its excessive traffic,” he marks, emphasizing the pivotal role played by alternative ways of transport during the pandemic in all major capitals of the world.
… and flexibility even in… chatter!
As the interview was coming to an end, he was asked what he considers to be the most distinctive feature of Greeks, and he, using a great deal of humor, answered: “Greeks can talk for hours and hours, longer than any other people I have met!”.
“We were on an island with my wife and we were sitting on the beach, reading, swimming and next to us were groups of Greeks who were talking non-stop from 1 in the afternoon until 7 pm!” he recalls.
He explains, however, that this is a very distinct cultural feature that may explain more easily why lockdown was especially difficult for Greeks, as interaction constitutes an important part of their culture.
As for if there is something about the Greeks that bothers him, he answers… in a diplomatic manner: “There are not many things that bother me. You will not succeed as an American diplomat if you are not flexible enough, because every place is different” he underlines.