I knew I
was in trouble as soon as I heard the roar of that high-speed marine engine.
Lifting my head up out of the sea, I peered through my face mask and saw
the Greek Coast Guard cutter barreling across St Nicholas Bay at full
Quickly, I swam toward the tiny island where I had anchored my skiff.
Once there, I unhooked the clasps on my dive jacket and clambered aboard
the boat with spear-gun in hand, then began reeling in the float which
held my days catch: a five-pound grouper and a large caravida (spineless
As the cutter bore down on me, I had a sickening realization: it was May,
the one month in the year when spear-fishing was forbidden in these waters.
What to do?
For one irrational moment I thought about tossing my gear overboard.
I havent been spear-fishing, Id tell the Coast
Guard. I just came out here to splash around and look for sea-shells.
youd also like us to believe that youre a man from Mars, right?
Nothing to do but sit tight and wait for the authorities to arrive.
The cutter came to a sudden, wave-churning halt about ten meters from
Pull your anchor up and row over here, the officer in charge
called out. He was wearing a spotless white uniform with a twist of gold
braid on his shoulder. The rest of the crew, a half dozen of them, stood
behind him, clad in grey fatigues and smirking at me.
Moments later, the officer put a foot over the side and jumped down into
my skiff, with a heavy thud. Then he picked up my spear-gun and waved
Look at this, he shouted. You have broken the law. You
have committed a crime!
Im very sorry, sir, I said with all the sincerity I
could muster. I have just returned to Rhodes after a year in the
USA. I simply forgot that it is forbidden to spearfish in the month of
May. I hope you will forgive me. Ill never do it again, you can
be sure of that.
The officer stared at me, then made a face and addressed me in English.
I did my higher studies in your country, he said. While
there I learned this expression: ignorance of the law is no excuse.
* * *
After writing out a summons-Ive just been given a traffic
ticket at sea, is all I could think-the officer gathered up all
of my things: wet suit, spear-gun, weight-belt, line, knives, float, mask
and flippers, and handed them to his crew.
I could also confiscate your boat and outboard engine, he
said. But I have decided to give you a break in that regard.
He did not, though, allow me to retain my catch: the fat grouper and lobster.
Have a nice meal on me, I muttered to myself as the cutter backed up,
made a turn, and raced off.
* * *
That night I went to see my good friends, the Mavrikos brothers, who ran
a family restaurant in Lindos main square. Over coffee, they sat
and helped translate the summons for me.
You are technically under arrest, Michali said. You
will be put on trial and if found guilty could face a sizable fine and
maybe even a jail sentence.
All this fuss over a lousy fish or two. Its hard to believe.
You need to take this seriously, Dimitri said.
Do you think theyll really stick it to me?
Its certainly possible.
What should I do about it?
hard to say, Michali replied. Then he smiled and added, But
as we say in Greece, every house has at least one open window.
The window in this regard was Christos Michaleas, a Captain in the Rhodes
Coast Guard. An Athenian, he had married Michalis cousin Roula and
was now living in Pefkos, a rural village just south of Lindos. I visited
the captain in his small, bright-white villa whose garden walls were carpeted
with purple and red bougainvillea.
I handed him a folder containing photocopies of some of the travel articles
I had written about Greece over the years. Many of them dealt with my
life in Lindos: arriving there in the early 1960s and falling in love
with the village; learning Greek; putting down roots that had held fast
for some thirty years.
Other articles dealt with the joys of diving in Greece, chasing after
fish in the depths of the emerald-like Aegean.
Captain Michaleas read these articles carefully (his English was excellent),
then glanced at me. You have certainly written many positive things
about Greece, he said. Out of respect for that, I will go
and see my boss and ask if he will consent to meet with you. Ill
let you know what his response is. * * *
of Greek justice ground exceedingly slow. Months went by and still no
word. The agony of not knowing my fate was compounded by the frustration
of being unable to go out spear-fishing, put food on the table for my
Finally the summons came from vice-Admiral Aristotelous Anagnos. A small,
plump, grey-haired man in an immaculate white uniform bedecked with medals,
he received me in his office overlooking Rhodes main harbor. He
flicked through my dossier with a stern look on his face. The law
against fishing in May was passed a few years ago for a specific reason,
an important reason: to protect our dwindling stocks of fish when they
are spawning. You are in agreement with that law, are you not?
Yes. Of course. I am fully in favor of it.
Then why did you break the law?
I repeated what I had told the officer at seathat I had been away
from Rhodes for over a year and had simply forgotten that it was illegal
to fish in May. I can assure you that I will never break this law
again, I said earnestly.
But you already have broken it. As a foreigner you should have been
That is correct, sir. Unfortunately, I failed in that regard.
once again flicked through my file, then set it aside. You have
committed a criminal offense, he repeated, but in light of
the fact that your writings have helped bring tourists to Greece, I have
decided on the following punishment. The case against you will be dismissed,
but only after you have written an apologia and submitted it to this office.
* * *
An apologia. I had to break open my Greek history book to fully understand
the ramifications of this command. It went back in time to the year 406
B.C. and the Trial of the Generals after the battle of Arginusae. Socrates,
as president of city council, refused to charge the generals with dereliction
of duty, insisting that it would have been an illegal and un-democratic
thing to do.
Later, after Athens lost its war with Sparta and was forced to surrender
unconditionally, Socrates again found himself in opposition to the authorities.
The junta that had taken power ordered him to issue an arrest warrant
for a prominent resident alien. Socrates refused to do their bidding.
As a result, he was put on trial for treason. His defense-speech, the
apologia, was written for him by Xenophon, one of his disciples. The speech
did not persuade the junta; Socrates was found guilty and sentenced to
death (the philosopher then took his own life by a self-administered dose
So here I
was, having to follow in the footsteps of the immortal Socrates. Although
I was not obliged to deliver a speech to a jury of my peers, I certainly
had to sit down and write it out. This I did, with much trepidation. I
put together a three-thousand-word apology to the Greek Coast Guard, admitting
my guilt and remorse, but also asking for forgiveness and compassion,
emphasizing once again my love for Greece. I also made a list of the many
books and articles I had written about the country which had become my
second home, my patrida.
After Michalis wife translated the apologia into Greek, I sent the
finished copy to the Admiral and awaited his response.
* * *
Another two weeks went by before I heard back from him: the case against
me had been dismissed. I was instructed to come to Rhodes to collect my
things. I obeyed and went to Coast Guard headquarters where a clerk led
me to a back room where my dive equipment lay scattered on the floor.
It was all there, everything that had been taken from me--except, of course,
for my catch of the day.
That night, in the Mavrikos restaurant, I spotted Captain Michaleas sitting
in a corner, over a plate of moussaka.
I went to him, thanked him, and ordered a bottle of Rhodian champagne.
As we sat there sharing it, I asked him about the fate of my apologia.
What will happen to it?
It will stay in the files forever, he replied, with a smile.
It is now a permanent part of Greek history.