In the sundrenched summer of 1971, Sura Crutch, a recent graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art, headed to Europe for three months.
Sura traveled around Italy, France, Germany and the Netherlands, soaking up the paintings, architecture and sculptures she’d spent years poring over in books.
Sura traveled with a college friend, and the two connected with other travelers along the way, enjoying, as she puts it, “the experience of being just a young hippie hitchhiking through Europe.”
“There were so many of us then,” Sura tells CNN Travel today.
One evening, drinking in a London pub, Sura got talking to a guy from Greece and mentioned Athens was her next stop. In response, the man scribbled down an address on a piece of paper.
“Look up my friend Haris Sevastopoulos when you get there,” he said. “He’ll find you a cheap hotel.”
The address turned out to be a small, family restaurant near what was then Athens’ main airport. The restaurant was across the street from a stretch of sandy beach, bordered by cerulean blue waters.
Haris Sevastopoulous was the son of the restaurant owner. He welcomed Sura and her friend, exuding a friendly, laidback confidence. Haris told Sura he was training to be a naval architect, but all he wanted to do was play music.
As promised, Haris found the two Americans somewhere to stay. The hotel was packed with Greek naval officers, and slightly run down, but seconds from the beach.
Sura spent the next few weeks swimming, sunbathing and exploring Athens. She didn’t cross paths with Haris, who was holed up trying to scrape through his final exams.
Then one day, Haris was heading out of his dad’s restaurant when he spotted Sura, wrapped in her towel and making her way to the beach.
“Hi,” he said, catching up with her. “How do you like Greece so far?”
“I love it,” said Sura.
“You know what, it’s so hot. Let me go across the street and get my bathing suit and come join you,” Haris suggested.
Seconds later, the two were jumping in the sea, splashing the cool water on one another, laughing.
“That was it. The relationship started immediately,” Haris tells CNN Travel today.
Over the next five days, Haris and Sura became inseparable.
“We were just having fun together,” says Sura. “We had the same sense of humor, so we could play in the water and crack jokes and have fun.”
After spending all day on the beach, the two would stay out all night dancing.
“There were dance clubs with blues and underground music, and they were fabulous,” says Sura. “So he and his friends and I used to go to those every night, and dance and go crazy.”
While Haris and Sura were enjoying one another’s company, neither saw the relationship as more than a vacation fling.
This was crystallized the following week when Haris went off to the Greek islands with a friend of his, hoping to flirt with tourists. This was something of a tradition for the two friends, they’d catch the ferry to Mykonos or Kos or Corfu for a few days each summer. Even though he’d met Sura, Haris decided to go anyway.
“When he left, I just kept going out with the friends,” says Sura. “And then I started seeing one of his friends.”
When Haris returned and saw Sura on the back of this friend’s motorbike, he was annoyed.
Sura just rolled her eyes. Haris was the one who’d left her. Besides, she was heading home in a few days.
“I’m just passing through,” she reminded Haris.
Haris and Sura went out together on the final night of Sura’s trip, but something had soured between them.
“It wasn’t what it used to be for the five beautiful days we spent together,” recalls Haris today.
The following day, Sura left.
A year passed. Sura started working as an art therapist in Cleveland. Haris continued pushing back against the expectation that he’d become a naval architect, or take over his father’s restaurant.
Sura had stayed in touch with the guy she’d gotten together with after Haris, and they’d written a few letters back and forth between Ohio and Greece. One day, Haris’ friend mentioned this correspondence to Haris.
“How’s she doing?” asked Haris, who often found himself wondering about the American girl from the summer before.
The friend passed on the address, suggesting Haris write to Sura and find out for himself.
Sura was surprised to hear from Haris, but she wrote back, telling him what she’d been up to over the past year.
These letters kickstarted a pen pal friendship that spanned the next three years.
And as time passed, Sura and Haris’ letters became longer and more intimate.
The result, say Haris, was they became “true friends,” and learned “to respect each other’s needs and ways.”
“We got to know each other well,” agrees Sura.
“I couldn’t wait to read what he was doing, how he was feeling. It was a really close friendship. We would tell each other everything.”
Sura started saving up money to return to Greece. Partly, because she wanted to see Haris again, and partly because she wanted to experience Greece again.
“Of all the places that I had traveled, that was the place I just wanted to be again,” she says. “It was warm, and sunshine, and azure blue skies, and azure, blue, turquoise sea, and just diving off rocks and things like that, and ruins.
“And the people were amazing – and the food was amazing. It was a whole different world for me, which had changed everything in me.”
Return to Greece
In summer 1974, Sura returned to Athens. Haris picked her up from the airport. The two went straight to the beach where they’d first swam together.
“We went – without even communicating – directly in the water with our clothes on,” recalls Haris.
“I couldn’t wait,” says Sura.
“We were so happy to be together,” says Haris.
By then, Haris was living in a cave-like apartment built into the Athenian hillside, with his brother. Sura stayed there for two months, and she and Haris translated their pen pal friendship into a real romance.
They enjoyed exploring Greece together, visiting the islands of Crete, Santorini and Mykonos.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. It was obvious to Sura that Haris drank too much, and at one point she gave him an ultimatum.
“Sura is a very dynamic woman,” recalls Haris. “She said, ‘Either you get better or I’m going to see another boyfriend in Norway.’”
When the time came for Sura to return to the US, she and Haris started wondering if Haris could go with her. A meeting at the US embassy made clear there was only one real way to make this happen. Sura and Haris would have to get married.
At first, Sura wasn’t convinced this was a good idea.
“We really loved each other,” she says. “I just – I was very hesitant about marriage, because I’d seen too many marriages break up, and I wasn’t anxious to move into it.”
But the alternative was leaving Haris behind, indefinitely. After a long evening discussing their options, Sura and Haris decided to give marriage a shot.
The next roadblock was their parents. Haris’ father wanted him to stay in Greece. Haris’ Orthodox Greek mother didn’t like that Sura was American and Jewish. Haris ignored them both.
Meanwhile, Sura’s mother was taken aback at the idea of her daughter returning from her travels with a fiance.
“Is this someone you love and want to spend the rest of your life with?” she asked Sura.
“All I can tell you is that I love him. I cannot tell you about the rest of my life,” replied Sura.
Her mother conceded that was good enough.
“No one else said that,” says Sura today. “Everyone else thought I was totally out of my mind.”
There were bureaucratic complications too. Haris was Greek, but he’d been born in Turkey. He hadn’t claimed Greek or Turkish citizenship, as he didn’t want to do military service in either country.
Eventually, the couple navigated the paperwork. Sura went on ahead, and then Haris moved to the US in September 1974. He arrived with no baggage beyond the clothes on his back. Haris and Sura married two months later, in her home city of Cleveland. Sura wore a flower crown and a long white dress with billowing bell sleeves. Haris wore white too. Sura took Haris’ last name, becoming Sura Sevastopoulos.
It was an interfaith wedding, incorporating both Haris and Sura’s religious backgrounds and cultural traditions. There were sections of the service in English, Hebrew and Greek.
The early months of Sura and Haris’ marriage weren’t always easy, and the couple often argued.
“It’s different to be a tourist and have a girlfriend. And it’s another thing to live together all the time,” says Haris.
“The reality sinks in that there is a lot of hard work, responsibilities. And, you know, you still have that playful feeling. But you also have to get serious about serious things.”
Haris also kept recalling an interaction he’d had on a boat that summer. En route to one of the Greek islands, a fellow passenger had offered to tell Haris’ fortune, and he’d humored her. Then the fortune teller pointed at Sura and said, in Greek, “This woman will destroy you within three months.”
Haris had brushed it off, and hadn’t told Sura. But the words would haunt him late at night, especially when the couple fought.
But even after their bitterest arguments, the two always made up. The date the fortune teller pinpointed came and went, and Sura and Haris remained solid.
Almost two years later, the couple got married again in Greece at the request of Haris’ parents. This ceremony took place in Athens, followed by a reception at Haris’ father’s restaurant on the coast.
Before the Greek Orthodox ceremony, Sura was baptized.
“My Jewish mother had concerns about [the baptism], but did not want to mess anything up for us,” recalls Sura.
“If my daughter is Jewish, and she is getting baptized in a Greek Orthodox Church, what does that make her?” Sura’s mother asked a Cleveland-based Greek Orthodox priest.
“I guess that makes her a Greek Orthodox Jew,” said the priest.
“Oh, good, as long as we are adding into and not taking away, I’m fine with it,” said Sura’s mother.
By then, Haris’ father had come to terms with his son moving to the US and he and Sura had grown close.
But Haris’ mother still hadn’t accepted Sura. Almost two years in, this was less because of religion, and more because of their different personalities.
“She was very subservient with his father. And she just couldn’t understand why I couldn’t do that with Haris,” says Sura.
This relationship remained strained for several years, but eventually the two women connected.
“I wrote a really long letter to her that his brother translated, because she really couldn’t understand who I was all those years. And I wanted her to understand, and I wanted her to understand that we were happy, and this is what her son wanted,” says Sura.
“And she heard everything in that letter. And just incredibly, we became inseparable after. It was the most amazing, loving relationship.”
50 years and counting
In subsequent years, Sura and Haris welcomed two daughters and built a life together in the US. Sura continued working in the art world, while Haris pursued music and also works in construction.
It’s now been over 50 years since Sura and Haris first met in Greece. Over the past five decades, the couple have experienced incredible joys – like the birth of their children and grandchild, and travels together across the globe.
They’re still dreaming of future adventures together.
“If we were able, I think we would spend the time we have left just visiting places we’ve never been,” says Sura.
The couple has also gone through tough times, including dealing with illness and bereavement, and periods where the relationship has been stretched and challenged.
“There are wounds along the way,” says Sura.
Reflecting on their life together now, the couple say they’ve “shared 50 years of evolving together.”
Meeting in 1971, “changed both of us,” says Haris. They both think they would have become very different people had they not crossed paths.
And they roll their eyes when other older couples suggest the secret to a long marriage is never fighting.
“Without arguments you don’t grow very much,” says Sura.
“You’ve got to feel life, through the ups and downs, and make it better, fight for it,” adds Haris.
The key to happiness, says Sura, is “not giving up,” and continuing to “believe that your love is worth something.”