To Know One’s Country as a Foreign Land

I have always found informal travel accounts fascinating. By informal, I mean accounts found in personal diaries or letters. Occasionally, they are published posthumously by the writer’s relatives (usually for family consumption) and attract little attention because of their mundane nature. Until recently, such letters and diaries of anonymous folk were avoided by historians who considered their content subjective or inaccurate. After all, why use the private diary of an American expatriate in Greece as a source, when the event (e.g., a local revolution) was described in more detail in the newspapers or other official reports?

I, on the other hand, pay particular attention to these types of publications because they provide valuable information, otherwise undocumented, about the level of local awareness, participation or aloofness within foreign communities. Gilbert K. Chesterton (1874-1936), an English writer and philosopher, once said that “the whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land: it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” It’s the second part of Chesterton’s comment that makes me delve into the travel accounts of foreigners-mostly Americans in my case–who have experienced Greece as a foreign land. Here I am not interested in the tourist but instead the engaged traveler, the expatriate, or, in rare cases, the committed immigrant (that is the foreigner who has almost “gone native”).

My latest source of inspiration for getting “to know my country as a foreign land” is a privately published collection of letters which came to my attention after a visit to the newly established Archives of the American College of Greece. There, Dr. Demetra Papakonstantinou, an accomplished archaeologist who now serves as the College’s Archivist, graciously shared with me a copy of a book titled Odyssey of a Learning Teacher (Greece and the Near East 1924-1925). Published in 2005 by David L. Aronson, the book contains transcriptions of the letters that his mother, Charlotte Eleanor Ferguson, a graduate from Mount Holyoke College and a teacher at the American College for Girls (what is now Pierce College), sent to her family in 1924-25. (The original letters are now part of the American School of Greece Archives.)

Front cover photograph: Charlotte Ferguson and Helen Larrabee departing from New York.

It is unfortunate that the book does not have an index because it is packed with information about people and life in Athens after the Asia Minor Catastrophe. It was the lack of an index that forced me to read Odyssey of a Learning Teacher cover to cover, in order to create my own. Another drawback is the lack of a commentary, but back in 2005, in the early days of Google and Wikipedia, it might have been difficult for Ferguson’s son to construct one. Even without these tools, the book is a delight and I commend the Ferguson-Aronson family for their efforts to make the letters available to the public. Charlotte Ferguson, despite her youth –she was barely 22 years old when she came to Greece to teach at the American College for Girls (ACG)– was a keen observer of her surroundings and the people she met.

Miss Mills’s School

The American College for Girls in Old Phaleron (a suburb of Athens) was the successor of the Collegiate Institute for Girls at Smyrna which was destroyed in 1922, when the Turks burned the city at the end of the Greek-Turkish war (1919-1922). It was also known as “Miss Mills’s School,” after one of its most famous principals, Minnie B. Mills (1872-1965). On September 12, 1922, Mills opened the school’s gates in Smyrna to offer shelter to hundreds of Greeks and Armenians whose houses had been set on fire by Turkish soldiers (I. Friedman, British Miscalculations: The Rise of Muslim Nationalism, 1918-1925, London 2012).  Forced to leave Smyrna, the private school was relocated to Phaleron, a few kilometers to the south of Athens, where it continued to offer secondary education to Greek and Armenian girls.

“Miss Mills’s School” at Hellenikon, where it moved in 1932. ASCSA Archives, Homer A. Thompson Papers

From Charlotte’s comments, it is clear that the College did not fund itself though tuition since very few of its students came from well-to-do families. In fact, many of the girls were orphans who lived in the Near East Relief orphanage at the Old Palace. Among the students Ferguson noted that “seldom do the Armenian girls have older brothers or a father”– alluding to the Armenian genocide of 1915. “And half a dozen of them have been in Turkish harems as brides and the tattoos in their arms are easily seen” (p. 38). She and her friend Helen Larrabee, another Mt. Holyoke graduate, felt young and inexperienced in comparison to some of their younger pupils who had gone through hell and back. I was interested to learn that Eurydice Demetracopoulou was among the faculty of the ACG: “Miss D (first name is Eurydice) is very attractive with light brown curly hair and a very sweet manner” (p. 25). Evro Demetracopoulou would later have a long career (1938-1968) as Assistant Librarian at the Gennadius Library.

Jackie Coogan in Person

Upon her arrival in Athens in October of 1924, Charlotte attended a crowded affair at the Zappeion to welcome Jackie Coogan. I had no idea who Coogan was, why he (or she) had come to Greece, and why hundreds of orphans dressed in national costumes staged an elaborate performance in his honor, attended by the American Minister in Greece, the head of the Greek Church, and many other dignitaries. Imagine my surprise when I searched the name and discovered that John Leslie Coogan (1914-1984) was not only a famous Wunderkind who had played in movies with Charlie Chaplin (“The Kid,” 1921), but that he had also launched a modern “Children’s Crusade,” on behalf of the Near East Relief. This effort supported the orphans of the Armenian Genocide and the Asia Minor Catastrophe, by asking people to buy cans of condensed milk every time they went to the movies.

Front cover of the New Near East (June 1924 issue) depicting Jackie Coogan’s million-dollar campaign

In 1924 he had embarked on a journey across America to collect one million dollars in cash and goods for the Near East orphans (watch a two-minute mute film “Jackie Coogan Visits Detroit”). The campaign was highly successful, and in the fall of the same year Coogan arrived in Piraeus to deliver the proceeds in person to the Near East Relief.

It is this event that Charlotte attended and described in her letters: “He arrived late-due to a strenuous reception in the morning at Piraeus and entered with Father and Mother Coogan between a double row of Greek Boy Scouts, the band meantime playing the Star-Spangled Banner. The program was all in the hands of the orphans and they had some of the nicest stunts…  It was so picturesque… Greetings were given to Jackie in English and Greek, and two little cherubs-a boy and girl from the Syra orphanage did a folk dance and sang at the same time. It was very interesting to have all the children performing for this so-called greatest child actor in the world…” and Ferguson concluded that “these Greek and Armenian children are born actors, and their spontaneity and lack of self-consciousness seem such a contrast with the hot house variety acting, which Jackie does” (pp. 28-29). Notice her comment about “Father and Mother Coogan,” instead of simply saying “his parents”? It presaged a serious problem that Jackie Coogan would have later with his parents, when upon reaching adulthood he discovered that his parents had spent all his earnings. (For this reason, a bill was passed by the State of California in 1939, also known as the Coogan Bill, to protect the earnings of child performers. As a middle-aged man, Coogan played “Uncle Fester” in the famous American TV series The Addams Family.)

“In a Most Illustrious Company”

I have written before about how popular afternoon tea parties were in Athens in the early decades of the 20th century. Charlotte and her colleagues from the College attended an important example on October 23, 1924, given by a Mrs. Sakellariou, whom Charlotte described as “the Columbia graduate who married the Greek university professor” (p. 44). Always fascinated by mixed marriages, I searched the Sakellariou couple on the web to find that George Sakellariou (1888-1964) had done graduate studies at the Teachers College of Columbia University before becoming professor of Psychology at the Teachers Academy in Athens, and later at the University of Thessaloniki. He must have met his wife Anne Kirschner at Columbia. I was not able to find more about her, but she appears to have been an active hostess in the 1920s and 1930s, when the Sakellariou household was a major attraction for American expatriates. And there were many such expats living in Athens in those years: the Y.M.C.A. people, the Near East Relief staff, the teachers from the ACG, the Standard Oil executives, the ULEN engineers about to arrive to start work on the Marathon dam, and, of course, the students and members of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter).

Mrs. Sakellariou figures often in Ida Thallon Hill’s and Elizabeth Blegen’s daily diaries.  The latter were the new brides in the social scene of Athens, having married the ASCSA’s Director Bert Hodge Hill and its Assistant Director Carl W. Blegen in the summer of 1924. But the most famous foreign bride at the time in Athens was Mrs. Sikelianos, née Eva Palmer (1874-1952), who had married one of Greece’s most famous poets, Angelos Sikelianos in 1907. Young Charlotte and her friend Helen (a.k.a. Larry) were fortunate enough to meet Eva Palmer Sikelianos in person that same afternoon. Thanks to Charlotte’s eye, we have a great description of how Eva Palmer was perceived by people when she walked into a room.

“The first person to arrive after us was a startling person, who walked in most naturally arrayed in a brown simple costume-of the old, old type. Her dress was homespun (she makes all her own things), her cloak –a draped mantle fashioned with an old brooch in the back-only queer open sandals with no tops on her feet – her golden coppery hair in two enormous braids – and a scarf bound around her forehead and pinned in the back. Who is she? The wife of a Greek poet… She is the daughter of an American millionaire-Palmer by name-but, but is at heart a Greek- all her interest and energies are spent here. Her ambition is to make Greeks appreciate Greece, and things Greek- and she does all sorts of things to this end from producing some of Aeschylus’s plays to having a special organ of fourteen intervals made on which to play the old music of the country” (pp. 44-45).

Earlier in October of 1924, Mrs. Sikelianos had attended a dinner that Ida Thallon Hill had given at the ASCSA in honor of Mrs. Montgomery Sears (née Sarah Choate), benefactor of the Corinth excavations. On the occasion of that dinner and the attendance of Eva Palmer, I have written an essay titled “Grèce en vogue: A New Wave of American Philhellenism in the 1920s.” (Since then, Artemis Leontis has published the definitive, I dare say, biography of Eva Palmer Sikelianos, based on deep archival research.)

The tea-party at the Sakellariou’s house included another guest from the American community in Greece: the legendary, but now elusive, Alice Leslie Walker Cosmopoulos (1885-1954). “Then along came Mr. and Mrs. Cosmopoulos –she a Vassar graduate of 1902, a famous archaeologist (Miss Walker), very deaf, and with a cherubic face. Last year, she married the man who bossed all her excavations—a man well versed in excavating but without the educational background that she has. They had just returned from the summer spent in Switzerland and France,” scribbled Charlotte, obviously mystified by these unconventional American women.

The Unfortunate “Uncle”

In her letters Charlotte refers many times to an “uncle” (always in quotes) who was associated with the ASCSA. The two girls met “uncle” on board a ship bound for Greece. He is described as “a young PhD from Georgia,” an “intellectual but nice quiet young man” and a “kindred spirit,” whom she and Helen (Larry) immediately adopted as an “uncle” (p. 5).

John Watson Logan (1898-1925), a graduate of Emory University with a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, was on his way to Athens to attend the annual program of the American School.  While in Greece “uncle” would often visit the two girls in Old Phaleron. “He gets out between the archaeological trips which the School takes. He likes our company and sweet chocolate-but he doesn’t furnish us with much except the satisfaction of having someone in trousers drop in to relieve the monotony of skirts,” commented Charlotte in one of her letters (Nov. 24, 1924; p. 66).  In January 1925, at another social gathering, “uncle” was beaming and chattering, and to Charlotte’s surprise he invited them for tea at the ASCSA.  He also offered “to bring Mr. Stillwell, out for an evenings [sic] foursome of bridge sometime soon.”  (Stillwell, B.A. Princeton University 1921 and M.F.A Princeton 1924, was the Special Fellow in Architecture that year at the American School; he would become Director of the ASCSA in 1932-1935.) Was Logan in love with one of the girls? We will never find out because he was killed two months later.

John W. Logan, shortly before his death. ASCSA Archives, Administrative Records.

The last time Charlotte and Helen saw Logan alive was at the American School’s Open Meeting in early March of 1925, where “Mr. Hill and Mr. Blegen reported on new excavations at Nemea and Phlious…  There was a very interesting group of people there –Japanese, German, English, American, Greek and Russian” (p. 184). A few days later during a trip to Epirus, a party of five students from the American and British Schools was ambushed near Arta. One of the students, Logan, was shot through the lungs. Although it initially appeared that he was going to survive, “uncle” died a week later, resulting in diplomatic tension between Greece and Italy, as there was considerable speculation about the identity of the assailants and their real intentions. (In the ASCSA Archives there is a separate folder about Logan’s death and funeral containing correspondence, photos, and press clippings.) In a letter to Logan’s father on March 31, 1925, Hill tried to explain the possible motives behind the crime.

“The first impression, that the assailants were ordinary bandits, does not seem to be confirmed on reflection. They would normally stop a car by means of a barricade… or by a threat of shooting or firing into the tires; and they would then collect what money they could from the passengers or/and carry off one or more of them as prisoners to be ransomed. The actual assailants seem to have intended primarily to injure the occupants of the car… There was in fact no pursuit at all: neither John nor any of the others ever saw the assailants nor heard anything except the shots… The probability is that these fled immediately without going down into the road at all, either having discovered that they had shot at the wrong party… or having accomplished their purpose in committing a notable outrage on foreign travelers…” (ASCSA AdmRec 805/1, folder 1).

The ambush as it was illustrated for an Italian newspaper. ASCSA Archives, Administrative Records.

Both Charlotte and Helen attended their friend’s funeral: “A state affair with a guard of honor, masses of flowers from state organizations and political parties… After five minutes, the Cabinet, and Prime minister arrived… There were silk hats, white gloves, and dignity on the part of the Americans, less formality with the officials of republican Greece. The government paid all expenses of the funeral but assumed no other responsibility. They couldn’t…” hinting at how nervous the Greeks were about the incident and its possible repercussions for their foreign policy.

“I could have eaten tails, heads and bones”

Those of you who read my posts regularly know that I am interested not only in the history of Greek cuisine but also how it was perceived by foreigners. To me, food is predictive: the more one is open to “exotic” tastes, the more one is able to understand and take part in a foreign culture.  After all, don’t they say “tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are”?

Charlotte seriously delved into Greek food. There are long descriptions of meals in her family letters. American travelers were usually amazed by the abundance and taste of the fruits, did not like the unsalted butter made from sheep milk, and had a hard time eating food cooked in oil. “Everything swims in oil, we get unsalted soft butter only for breakfast and on bread at tea… Potatoes are scarce, and rice takes their place most of the time. The fruits delicious –grapes, fresh figs, quinces and once watermelon. Chestnuts, those large, meaty ones are very plentiful and are served as a vegetable, or even for desert,” thus communicated Charlotte to her family as first impressions of the Greek food (p. 31).

On another occasion, during a trip to the country, her party traded with a shepherd a few pieces of chocolate for some bread and goat cheese. “The bread was a fresh brown bread and I could have easily been a shepherd, if I had such fare, with the hard crumbly, white cheese from goat’s milk.” Later that evening they ended up in Oropos for dinner. “The menu was macaroni and cheese, turkey (only a taste for each-but what a taste) potatoes, and a choice little fish with a name that sounds like ‘barbounia’… Although the food was simply cooked, the turkey melted in our mouths, and the little fish browned in butter, were so nice I could have eaten tails, heads and bones,” described an ecstatic Charlotte, reminding me that despite recent efforts to westernize Greek cuisine or introduce the concept of “fusion,’ nothing beats the taste of fried μαρίδα (whitebait), γαύρο (anchovy) or μπαρμπουνάκι (small red mullet).

Getting Around

Charlotte and Helen (Larry) did not miss a chance to go around Athens and explore a wide variety of surroundings and situations. On one occasion they visited the Physical Laboratory of the University of Athens (Charlotte had majored in Biology and Chemistry) where they made their way through hundreds of male students before meeting the professor they had corresponded with. Charlotte was rather surprised to find (and I with her) a state-of-the art lab, “all German” because, after the Great War, Germany paid part of her debt to Greece in apparatus (p. 265). Truly amazed by the sight of the lab, she wondered about the chemistry class she was teaching at the ACG: “Quite a jump from the dishpan and baking powder can experiments which we had this year” she noted.

On another occasion, Charlotte took her senior class to the legendary Fix Factory on Syngrou Avenue, where they witnessed all stages of ice and beer making. At the end of their tour, the group was offered bread, cheese, golden brown fish, and “six foaming mugs” of the “best bier I have ever tasted” (p. 256).

Travelers, Not Tourists…

A recurrent theme in Charlotte’s letters is her low opinion of tourists, especially those who toured the Mediterranean in cruise ships. She took special pleasure in writing that “one insisted on going to see the Acropolis when they had just come down from it” or “tourists are so funny –they know so little and say so much…” [pp. 183, 187].

Reading Charlotte’s comments, I remembered that a few years ago, when I was writing “ ‘All Aboard’: Cruising the Aegean in 1923,” I read an enjoyable description of tourists in Evelyn Waugh’s Labels, published about the same time, in 1929: ‘… baffled, breathless, their heads singing with unfamiliar names, their bodies strained and bruised from scrambling in and out of motor charabancs, up and down staircases, and from trailing disconsolately through miles of gallery and museum at the heels of a facetious and contemptuous guide… Must they go on to the very end? Are there more cathedrals, more beauty spots, more sites of historical events, more works of art? Is there no remission in this pitiless rite?”

Ninety years later, I have to ask myself do I feel more like a tourist or traveler when I board a plane for a three- or five-day European trip?

Charlotte Ferguson was born in 1902 in New Bloomfield (Dauphin County, PA) into a family of farmers and teachers. Later her family moved to near Harrisburg, where Charlotte’s father taught at the Harrisburg School. After graduation from high school, Charlotte received a scholarship to Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA, where she majored in Biology and Chemistry (1923). After a year of teaching at Connecticut College for Women, she and Helen Larrabee approached the American Board of Missions of the Congregational Church looking for a position in China, but they were sent to Greece instead. Following her return to the U.S. Charlotte was hired as a research assistant at the Henry Phipps Institute in Philadelphia (1926-1927). In 1927, she married Joseph David Aronson.

9 Comments on “To Know One’s Country as a Foreign Land”

  1. Glenn Bugh says:

    Natalia, as always, fascinating stuff, so many intertwined threads. Those of us who enjoy the old flicks will remember Jackie Coogan very well. In terms of popularity, a sort of male version of the other famous child star of the era, Shirley Temple. You are so right–the little personal details from correspondence bring the players back to life. Thanks again for sharing.

    • Thank you Glenn. Many younger Americans (in their 30s and 40s) didn’t know who Jackie Coogan was, but once I identified him as “Mr. Fester” from The Addams Family, they understood who he was. But, still, they couldn’t identify “Mr. Fester” with the adorable boy of the Chaplin movies.

  2. Fascinating – as always !

  3. Maria Liston says:

    I read this post sitting in the Atlanta airport, waiting to fly to Athens. I hope to be something better than those tourists! Thank you so much for another wonderful story from the archives.

  4. Tessa Dinsmoor says:

    Thanks, Natalia. Great, as always. I had Sakellariou as a teacher in the University of Athens, only briefly since he was in the States for most of my time as a student; among us he : was famous for a psychology handbook where among his “:ten rules for a happy marriage” he listed”:husband must be tn years older and ten kilos heavier then his wife”! You can imagine the comments…. Mrs. S. I remember chiefly because she did not permit shoes in the house, so we had to leave ours by the door!

  5. debaronson says:

    How fun to read this account of my grandmother’s letters! I confess I read them when they were first published by my father but without the context this post provides, much of my grandmother’s observations were lost on me. This inspires me to return to the letters and re-read them! Thank you for this.

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