At the foot of the Hill of the Muses in Athens, classical music fills the apartment where Cihan Tutluoğlu lives with his husband Alexandros Massavetas.
The couple’s bookshelves are lined with volumes celebrating the history and culture of both Tutluoğlu’s native Turkey and Massavetas’s Greece, and paintings of Athens and İstanbul adorn the walls.
Diplomatic ties between the historic rival nations are once again strained over conflicting eastern Mediterranean border and energy claims.
But couples like 44-year-old Massavetas, who is a writer, and Tutluoğlu, a 38-year-old economics journalist, are used to distancing themselves from their countries’ disputes.
“We define ourselves more as citizens of the world,” says Tutluoğlu.
Conservative mentalities and the pressure of influential religious factions on both sides of the border pushed the two men to live abroad for several years.
“For a long time we wanted to escape our countries,” says Massavetas, “we felt like we were suffocating.”
“I belong to a country that no longer exists,” says Tutluoğlu, referring to Turkey as he left it 15 years ago.
In a mixture of French and English the couple describe interwoven ancestral pasts with forebears first Ottoman subjects then refugees, some to escape the massacres of Muslims in Greece, the others driven out of Turkey.
They say they’ve received only support from relatives since they first met in an İstanbul synagogue in 2003, and throughout their 17 years of courtship before their marriage — even if Tutluoğlu admits to sometimes walking on eggshells.
“Sometimes I have to restrain myself on social or political subjects because I’m still ‘the Turk’ here,” he says.
Ankara and Athens’s tug of war over maritime borders, natural gas deposits and the migrant crisis has intensified in recent weeks with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias travelling to Turkey on Thursday for talks on maritime border disputes.
Merve Kocadal, who is 28 and works in a call center, met her Greek boyfriend 32-year-old Yorgos Taliadorous on a dating app in 2017 when the two were in Cyprus, an island that is still a point of tension between the two countries.
Located at the outer limits of Europe in the Mediterranean, one third of Cyprus has been occupied by Turkey since 1974 after a coup aimed at uniting the island with Greece.
Kocadal says the island is “the main point of friction” between her and her beloved’s family.
“Some conversations are tense and voices can rise,” she says carefully, “but that takes nothing away from the love we have for each other.”
She is Muslim and he is Orthodox Christian and the couple wishes to marry without a religious ceremony since neither of them plans to convert — despite wishes from both their families for any future children to be “Muslim” or “baptized within the church.”
Aeronautics engineers Theodoros Smpiliris and Ayça Kolukısa were married in a civil ceremony in Greece in 2019 before throwing a festive celebration in Turkey.
“For my parents it doesn’t matter that Theo is Greek or Orthodox. What is important is that he is a good person,” says Kolukısa.
Smpiliris, for his part, admits to having come a long way as far as his views on Turkey.
“At school, history books created resentment. We grew up with the idea that Turkey was the enemy,” he says.
‘Listen to each other’
Some political or religious subjects remain sore among family and friends, such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s 2020 decision to convert the Hagia Sophia museum and former basilica to a mosque.
“But all you have to do is talk to each other and listen to each other to bring the tension down,” says Smpiliris.
The couple recently launched an Instagram profile called “Ouzo and Loukoum” in order to “show Greeks the beauty of Turkey and Turks the treasures of Greece,” says Kolukısa.
“Our family is like a bridge between the two countries,” Smpiliris says.
Researcher and Turkish native Şükrü Ilıcak discovered Greece in the 90s through rebetiko — a musical genre created by Greek refugees in exile.
He moved to Greece permanently when he married his partner Olga Antonea, a graphic designer, in 2016.
“We share the same values and the same politics,” says the 49-year-old. “Diplomatic relations aren’t going to influence our relationship.
“If we can have a Greco-Turkish love story, why should it be any different on a larger scale between our countries?”